Sermon: Fractals and Murmurations

This sermon is the first in our Advent Series, “Embracing Our Chaotic, Fertile Reality,” which is based in prophecies from Isaiah as well as the wisdom of a modern-day prophet, adrienne maree brown, author of Emergent Strategy. We used this wonderful children’s book, which describes fractals so both children and adults can understand them.

Isaiah 2:1-5

I was walking my dog about two weeks ago at night, and I noticed that someone already had a fully decorated fake Christmas tree in their picture window, and a couple of houses were already lit up with multi-colored strings of lights. I live on Christmas Tree Lane in Alameda, where we take Christmas seriously, but even I was “too much, too soon.” Promotions for stocking stuffers have been appearing on Amazon since Halloween. And the catalogs — even the ones I thought I had opted out of via the Catalog Choice website — have been arriving for weeks, the ones showing families wearing matching flannel PJs sipping hot cocoa in front of their Christmas tree.

It’s really easy to hate on the way our mainstream culture does Christmas. The consumerism. The superficiality. The unrealistic expectations of mirth and cheer. The Christian hegemony. Not everyone celebrate Christmas!

And… while I agree with these critiques, maybe it’s also too easy to hate on the way we do Christmas. Because I believe there’s legitimate longings peeking out from behind Christmas hype. I believe our hearts yearn for the more beautiful world we know is possible, and this hype contains distant but real echoes of deeper yearnings like safety — (in a world where gun violence is so common), belonging (in a world where we speak of loneliness as an epidemic), rituals of generous giving (in a world where there is so much greed) and being connected to seasonal cycles of celebration (in world where we are so separate from nature).

The prophet Isaiah in our passage for today points us to the place from which the echo originates; he “takes us to the mountain and shows us what our hearts are actually tuned for.” (From Stacey Simpson Duke’s commentary in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary.) In this passage, humankind is one — all races, all languages, all cultures. Together, this rainbow coalition streams to the holy mountain to learn how to live in the ways of the Creator. They want to be re-educated, taught how to live in right relationship with each themselves, each other, Creator and creation. On this holy mountain, God will judge the nations, Isaiah says, but don’t hear this as condemnation. Judgement means that  God will instruct the nations about what is just and what is not just, what’s right relationship and what is not, what will lead us to our heart’s deepest desires and what will not.  The culmination of this instructing and judging is peace, disarmament. It is hammers striking metal, turning swords and spears into farming implements, into things that provide for life, not destroy it.

What a vision. Don’t you long for it? And I wonder if there’s also a part of you that’s saying, “Yeah. We’ve heard this before. Kind of naive, right? That’s not the way the world works.”

And so those of us planning Advent this year turned to the words of a modern-day prophet, adrienne maree brown, as Katherine mentioned. Like Isaiah, she believes that a world based in right relationship is possible and her life’s work has focussed on bringing about sustainable transformative justice. Many of us find her wisdom hopeful and helpful in rethinking “the way the world works.” For she literally looks to the way the world works — the natural world, that is. She draws on biomimicry, that is the study of nature for the purposes of imitating it and solving complex human problems. 

I became familiar with biomimicry and this mindset of looking to nature for solutions when I studied permaculture, which is a system for designing food and social systems based on the patterns and wisdom of natural ecosystems. (Brown also draws on permaculture wisdom)  One example: In a forest, leaves fall from a tree, which then decompose underneath the tree, feeding nutrients back into the soil that feed the tree and keep it growing and producing its seeds. But what do we do in our “domesticated” yards? We rake up all the leaves, put them in plastic trash bags and send them to the landfill, where they won’t decompose, of course, because they are in plastic trash bags!  And then we buy compost and fertilizer at the nursery and spread that underneath, say, our apple tree to feed it.  We make so much more work for ourselves and create so much more expense and pollution this way. Even here in the progressive Bay Area, we rake up the leaves, put them into our green bins, so a big diesel-powered recycling truck can pick them up and drive them to a commercial composting facility. Then we go to the nursery to buy back that commercially made compost. Or, we could just observe nature and mimic the way it works and leave the leaves under the tree in the first place. Permaculture teaches that when we observe nature and mimic how it operates, we actually create less work and more ease for ourselves. (Less profit.)

Brown also observes nature and then applies the wisdom of nature to the practice of sustainable personal and social change. So, I want to bring into our awareness two images from nature that she lifts up in her work.

#1: Fractals. Fractals are the way that nature organizes itself. While a coastline or a river system or the branches of a tree or lightning may look chaotic and irregular, they’re not. They all display the same repeating mathematical pattern, a pattern that stays the same no matter how big or small the object or system is. Russian nesting dolls are a good example of what I’m talking about. So are the objects in our Advent wreath! Pine cones are made of fractals — regular, repeating patterns. “Romanesco broccoli (on the cover of your order of worship), perhaps one of the most well-known fractal patterns in nature, grows in branches or buds; each large bud has several smaller buds, which themselves have smaller buds, and so on.” (Quote from this video on fractals.)  As one writer on fractals said: “While everything in the universe is constantly changing, there is actually an order to this change. Fractals are the pattern left behind in the wake of chaotic activity.”

What can fractals teach us? One thought: What is apparently chaotic might actually have an underlying pattern to it. No matter how chaotic our personal or collective lives may seem, perhaps there’s a deeper shaping going on.  That’s what the Isaiah is saying in his prophecy. He wrote this passage during a really very politically chaotic time in the history of his people, where war is either imminent or happening, and he’s suggesting that there’s a larger divine pattern and wisdom behind the chaos. 

What else can we learn from fractals? Brown says: Fractals show us the relationship between the large and the small and they show us that “what we practice at a small scale can reverberate at a large scale.”  Brown first became aware of fractals in 2004 when she was doing election organizing. She saw that at a local level, Americans didn’t know how to do democracy. They didn’t know how to make decisions together, how to compromise,  how to advance policies that centered justice. She also saw that the social justice organizations for which she worked weren’t living out the change for which they were advocating — they had top-down structures, destructive ways of doing conflict, unsustainable work cultures. And, she saw how individuals, including herself, were not living out the change for which they were advocating. She was working all the time, multitasking, driven by urgency and obligation, and her relationships suffered as a result, as well as her own mental and physical health. She began realizing that the way she and others were living their life mattered to the whole. The pattern they were creating at that small level set the pattern for the whole. 

She began to change her own life — the way she used technology, how much she slept, how she showed up in relationships, how she interacted with her own body and emotions. She started collaborating with others to change the culture of the organizations for which she worked so that they were the change they wanted in the world. She writes: “In a fractal conception, I am a cell-sized unit of the human organism, and I have to use my life to leverage a shift in the system by how I am, as much as with the things I do. During this Advent season, how can you practice at a small scale what you hope to see at a large scale?

#2: Murmurations. We are living in a time of constant change, and we know that — thanks to climate change, ecological degradation, political and economic instability — that change is just gonna keep a coming.  My Dad died at 92, and he said he had never lived through a time like our own when things seem so unstable, and my Dad lived through the Depression and World War II. As Pat said in her email earlier this week, how do we stay awake and engaged in such times without being frantic or without collapsing from stress?

Brown introduces the idea of the murmuration. This photo is a beautiful picture of a murmuration, but the only way to truly understand how amazing a murmuration of starlings is to watch a video. I remember once seeing a starling murmuration in Ireland around dusk, and it was the highlight of my trip there. Hundreds of birds fly in one large mass across the sky, twisting and turning, diving and billowing, spinning, dancing while in flight and forming different shapes. Schools of fish in the ocean move in similar ways. And here’s the thing: There’s no leader leading this amazingly complex movement. Instead, a murmuration begins when”one starling copies the behavior of its seven neighbors, and then those nearby starlings copy each of their seven neighbors, and so on until the entire group moves as one.” (From this article.) Spacing is important in a murmuration — if the individual birds are too close to each other, they will crash; if they are too far away from each other, they can’t feel the micro-adaptions of the other bodies.

Brown writes that there is deep trust in this: “to lift because the birds around you are lifting, to lift based on your collective real-time adaptations. In this way thousands of birds or fish or bees can move together, each empowered with basic rules and a vision to live.” This kind of adaptation to change reduces exhaustion, she says. “No one bears the burden alone of figuring out the next move and muscling towards it.” It’s sustainable because it’s easy. In fact, it can look like play.

It wasn’t hard for me to imagine how a murmuration might work with a group of people. I believe this is how we work together as a community. So many times, I’ve gone into a committee or a congregational business meeting, knowing that we had a difficult problem to think through and make decisions around. As a leader in this church, I’ve never felt like I’ve had to know the answer because I have always deeply trusted the movement of this group. In that meeting, I know that we will attune to each other, allowing each person space, adjusting our own opinion as we listen to the wisdom of others, making micro-adaptations. In fact, this trust in our collective movement kept me from being anxious during the last several months during a difficult budget cycle. This trust in our collective murmurations kept us moving together during the last difficult three years. Talk about change — if you had told me five years ago, we’d go a year and a half without meeting in person, I might have told you we couldn’t withstand such changes. But we did. So what might it mean this Advent season for you to trust more fully the murmurations in which you move?

I don’t think we are getting to the place where nations are going to be beating their swords into plowshares anytime soon, even as I hold that up as a vision by which to be guided, as God’s dream for the earth. But I do believe there can be new birthings of God’s spirit here on this earth, within our own hearts and bodies, with this community and other communities of which we may be a part. And may we be humble and wise enough to learn from romanescu broccoli and starling murmurations how to be that change. Amen.