Ruth Woodliff-Stanley

Year A

Palm Sunday


April 5, 2020

Revised Common Lectionary

Hi Everyone,

Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.

This week, I’ve been absorbing the turmoil unfolding in our world and wondering how we are being asked to grow in the face of our new reality.



Science & Nature

Chaos Theory and Fractals

Jonathan Mendelson and Elana Blumenthal

Mendelson Productions

A summary of chaos and complexity theory.

Pay particular attention to the authors’ explanation of complexity.

Open in a new tab


What do the stories of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and his Passion reveal to us about how God works in the midst of chaos?


When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?” Matthew 21:10

In a lifetime of hearing the stories of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and of his passion on Palm Sunday, I have never until now felt the depth of complexity embedded in them.

The turmoil in the city when Jesus entered Jerusalem permeates every aspect of today's narrative. Consider these elements of the story:

  • Jesus’ entry into the city on a donkey, creating a mockery of the pomp and circumstance of the empire’s show of power, and the people’s hailing him even as they expressed their discomfort of his provocative means of entering the city with their question, “Who is this?”
  • Peter’s desire to be faithful, his subsequent denial and then his bitter weeping;
  • Judas’ betrayal–his greeting Jesus with a kiss and Jesus’ use of the word ‘friend’–in a moment that was at once intimate (in the sense of each knowing the other deeply) and hostile;
  • The other disciples’ (those we consider ‘the faithful ones’) betrayal of Jesus by fleeing from him when he needed them most, then Judas’ repentance while the scriptures are silent about whether the others repented of their fleeing from Jesus (excepting the story of Peter’s repentance which comes later);
  • Pilate’s abdication of his authority to the crowds even in the face of his own belief in Jesus’ innocence–asking ‘Why? What evil has he done?’ when the crowds demand his death, and then, moments later, having him flogged and giving him over to be crucified;
  • The mixed responses in the crowd: the reality that inches apart from one another stood those who mocked, those who pondered, and one who got a sponge with sour wine to put to his lips.

Complex stories are like portals into worlds we cannot see as long as we stay in the clear-cut, right-wrong, good-evil dichotomies we construct to make sense of things. Underneath complexity lie hidden truths.

Chaos theory has taught us that what seems to have no discernible pattern has an order, a meaning, that we see only if we look more deeply than at what the surface reveals.

In the past few weeks, we have seen the devastating effects of a novel virus change the world before our eyes. We are aware of–and some of us are experiencing directly–extreme suffering, fear, loss, grief, isolation, hunger, abuse, and other violent impacts on our lives, individually and collectively. We have a stealth enemy who is invisible and who cuts across all our proud divisions.

At the same time, we are getting first glimpses of an emerging awareness of hope, rooted in the possibilities embedded in this crisis: possibilities to change our own lives and how we exist collectively on this planet. We sense that there is an opportunity for a hard reset. We wonder if it might be possible for our proud divisions to cease, or at least to diminish their grip on us, and for us to embrace a new way of being together.

Neither of these clusters of experiences–the one that reflects suffering and the one that reflects hope– cancels the other. They exist together, in an intertwined, complex reality, just as the seemingly contradictory moments in the passion narrative coexist.

The complexity of life has been brought into sharp relief. We cannot cling to the world of linear experience in these days. A novel virus, unforeseeable impacts of stay-at-home orders on our planet and our economy, new ways of doing our work and balancing our lives, new ways of being in relationship, new methods of learning and teaching. All of these reflect the truths we see in nonlinear physics, truths revealing to us that fundamental reality is both unpredictable and laden with deep, patterned meaning. The future is neither completely determined nor completely random. This statement is consistent with the Christian gospel, insofar as we believe God has gifted us with radical freedom while imbuing reality with patterns of meaning and a deep connectedness we call love.

Holding complexity requires a certain maturing on our part. Beholding the depth of meaning that lies beneath surface chaos is work that beckons us to relinquish simplistic answers, reductionistic dichotomies, and distorted categorizations devised to preference our comfort over our understanding.

God’s work of redemption bears the marks of complexity. Jesus did not abandon Judas even in his moment of betrayal, but called him friend. And, lest we forget, Judas did not ultimately abandon Jesus, either, but repented of his action, just as Peter did, and I suspect, just as the rest of the disciples did, though we do not get to hear their stories of penitence.

I imagine in the crowd at the foot of the cross, those who decried Jesus and those who hoped he was true and the one who went to get the sponge all influenced each other in ways that changed moment by moment as those agonizing hours passed. Each beheld a terrible mystery and tried to make sense of it, knowing all the while it was far too big to reduce to simplistic explanations.

As Mendelson and Blumenthal note in today’s science and nature lesson,there is a term in complexity theory called “the edge of chaos” where a complex system, stressed to a point of instability, undergoes a bifurcation point (think of coming to a crossroads or the splitting off of a stream into two tributaries). It is at this point that the system, they note, can undertake the most complex computations.

We are, dear friends, at a turning. One that places us at the edge of chaos. From a certain acceptance of business as usual–our waving of the palms, wishing desperately for order even as we sense what we are witnessing defies known order– toward Gethsemane, toward the questions of meaning leading us to places we have never before dared to go. Toward complex computations of heart and mind that only become possible in us when we face existential threat.

The whole world is in turmoil.

These are not days for surface answers. Not times to put people, or even events, into boxes labeled “good” and “evil.” These are times to behold the fractal patterns of our present chaos and to look more deeply, honing our capacity to bear the complexity. These are times when, bidden or not, God is here with us, in our despair and in our hopefulness, beckoning us to grow.