I used to love lists when I was a kid. I am not sure why. I like their order. I also like to put chairs into straight lines and a lack of symmetry in our living room can keep me up at night. As far as pathologies go, it’s pretty harmless. So, when it came to planning what we might bring to Tanzania on our wild family adventure out in east Africa, not only did I make one list, I made several. My wife is also a list-maker, but of another variety. Whereas I prefer to type them, making sure that the list designed to organize us is organized itself, Monica prefers to write on a torn half piece of scratch paper in several directions at once with handwriting whose scale would make an atomic physicist squint.
Somehow we made our lists work and began this week a two and a half month sabbatical summer. Bags packed/stuffed and one of two 11-hour plane rides later, we landed in a country that I suspect also has a soft spot for keeping things organized: Switzerland. If Zürich airport is anything to go by then the country must be a delight. It has escalators that only move when you step on them, a lounge just for families with young kids where we enjoyed a game of table football (that’s soccer to you folks stateside), and every flight is on time because in Switzerland being late is illegal. That last bit may not be entirely true but it is fair to say that the Swiss are people who like order. A list maker’s dream you might say.
The first port of call in Tanzania following another 11-hour flight is here in Dar es Salaam, which can be translated as the ‘abode of peace’. It is a very different ‘peace’ to the green rolling meadows surrounding Zürich airport. Stop signs, for instance, (much as in our own Pacific Beach back at home) are entirely optional. In fact, it is better to assume that nobody is ever going to stop or see you when you are crossing the road as we discovered on our exploration of the city today. The condition of the roads is fairly good although the sidewalks are a little more prone to uncovered manholes, deep trenches between them and the road, and the tendency to attract rubble in small and large quantities.
However, I would not say that my impression is of disrepair and chaos. The hotel where I am writing this right now has kept us cool (winter here is hot and humid) and well-fed. The power has not failed us, either via the grid or via the hotel’s generator. People are friendly but not overbearing. Things – much like in Switzerland – work. It is just that they take longer at working here, much like the five of us who after three straight days of traveling and 11 time zones later are taking longer to work, more or less functioning as human beings but at a painfully slow pace.
All of this, is of course, very biblical. Order and chaos. They are the pivot points of the first creation story in Genesis. The Babylonian creation myth that is the derivative of the Genesis story portrays the capacity to defeat chaos as the hallmark of a divine being, in this case of Marduk in his victory over Tiamat. The deep was a potent enemy of humankind in antiquity, and so it is not surprising that early theological examinations of the establishment of order in creation saw it necessary for the power of God to have dominion over it. But what about us?
Part of my own motivation for taking this sabbatical summer in east Africa is to let go of the controls a little bit and allow the slow birth of God’s ordering of my own chaos find a deeper home in me. It is easy, I find, to mistake our failed attempts to make order in the world for what is authentically creative. For the truth about us is that we are beings in need of ordering by the one who ordered us in the first place. We cannot sustain ourselves, no matter how many proverbial lists we write. The divine love offers itself to us beyond our ordering, enabling us to live amongst the chaos of life in this world and recalling for us – as this beautiful art work did that we saw today at the National Museum of Tanzania – that we have belonged to another from the very primeval beginning. Here’s to a summer of remembering that!