I'm Thankful for Messiness!
If you hang around me for more than an hour, you will hear me say, "Life is messy, God is good. That's because an hour is about the limit of how long I can pull off pretending that I have it all together!
After that, I just have to admit that I'm a hot mess and I'm clinging to the hope that God is doing something in my life! ;-)
In all honesty, and a little seriousness, "Life is messy, God is good" sums up my deep theological beliefs formed over the past 30 years of trying to follow Jesus:
There are several key events in my life that shaped this philosophy. The first group of events comes from my own "messiness" as I try to follow Jesus while simultaneously having a "wild streak two counties wide". I'm easily bored, I'm incredibly sarcastic, I love edgy people and I am not very good at fitting in at church.
The messiness that this has caused in my life is enough to fill a couple of novels. And since this is a blog and my kids already pick on me for writing too much...let's just suffice it to say that I have wrestled with a lot of judgment from church people and it really bothered me. I'm even currently being shunned by a church which is pretty funny, I'm not sure how cutting off contact is supposed to help me see the grievous error of my ways, but OK...
In the middle of trying to fit in with church expectations, I sought God a lot. I prayed a lot. I cried, journaled, begged, whined and occasionally listened. In those moments when I listened, I learned that God is very good. He loves me and he is at work in my life even though it is sometimes (often) super messy.
A second group of events centered around my work with migrant workers in NC. I was completely shaken by the situations that people were living in right here in America. I was overwhelmed with the problems. I was disgusted by the lack of response from church people and I was mad at God for not fixing everything. It came to a head when I sat in a meeting about a teenage girl that was being severely abused. Because the girl was here illegally and we weren't even sure what her real name or age was, we decided that the best approach was to let her know that when she decided she wanted help, she could come to us and we'd help her. Otherwise, if we went in and started investigating, they would disappear and we'd have no way to find her.
It actually made me physically ill to face this situation. I could not reconcile her situation with what I was being taught in mainstream Christianity. There was nothing "positive and encouraging" in her story. It felt sad and hopeless. I could not see God anywhere in this situation. I prayed. I read Good News About Injustice1 and I pored through the Psalms. But all of the encouraging stories were about people doing big things and changing the world. I couldn't change one girl's story.
I did not yet understand the beauty of God working in the messiness of life. I thought he was going to step in and clean EVERYTHING up. I wanted everything in my students' lives to be fixed and to look like mine. Because I was so focused on everything needing to be fixed, I failed to celebrate all of the things that were getting better.
In the story of the one girl, I can look back now and see that it was incredibly awesome that she had hope for the first time in her life. She had a group of people that cared about her problems and would do anything in their power to help her when she developed the confidence to let them help. She is an adult now and I have lost touch with her. But I know that she got an education and I know that she is still surrounded by some amazing Christian people that are loving her the best they can.
The third set of events that shaped my "Life is messy. God is good" philosophy came from going directly from working with migrant workers in the mountains of NC to working in a private school in RI. Talk about culture shock!
In my work in NC, I had been working with students who were so poor that they showed up for school with flip flops on in the middle of December with snow on the ground because those were the only shoes they had. It was hard for me to switch gears and work up sympathy for moms who were struggling with paying the thousands of dollars for private school tuition (which I couldn't afford even with the employee discount!).
During my time at this school, I started using the term "the prep gospel" to describe what many of us in the American church culture actually want for our children. I use this term to describe the desire for our kids to be upper middle-class Americans with good morals and great social skills.
I was super judgmental and impatient with parents that I felt were too caught up in the "prep gospel". And I didn't know how to see God at work in wealthy people's messiness!
A lot of the parents that I counseled with during my brief stint in private school, were blind-sided when their children had problems. They felt like they had done everything right and sacrificed to put them in a school where they were learning all of the right things. I often struggled to work up sympathy because I felt like, "uhmmm welcome to reality, you aren't perfect and your children, trust me they are far from perfect!"
But deep down, they were struggling with the same problem that had me bedridden a few years earlier and I was too self-righteous to recognize it. They also needed to see God at work in the messiness of their lives.
And the fourth set of events centered around my family adjusting to life in Rhode Island. I quite crazily believed that because our insane path to Rhode Island began with us trying to be missionaries in Kenya, that God had these wonderful plans for us (that part was true) and life was going to get much easier! (that part was not so true...)
After a few months in RI, my husband and son were depressed, I was overwhelmed with my job and none of us had any friends. I also learned the surprising lesson that a lot of church people only have patience for about 3 months worth of your problems.
During month 4, I shared a prayer request and was told that I complained too much during a Bible study. The funny thing is that I had just been testing the waters with that prayer request to see if I could trust these ladies with my real problems. OOOPs, I guess not!
There have been many times in life that well-meaning (probably) church people have told me that if I was really following God, I wouldn't have whatever problem I was currently dealing with. I always kind of accepted their statements as true until this time, this time I knew better. I was following God. I made the biggest sacrifice of my life to follow God to RI (trust me, there is nothing bolder for a Southerner to do than move up North!) I was praying, I was reading the Bible. I depended on God, I asked him for strength and I was still struggling.... I knew it was OK for other people and I was Ok with certain struggles for myself: money, health, annoying people, etc, but I was not OK with intense relationship struggles in my family.
I look back on that time in our lives and I can see that God was at work. He was shaping all of us. He led my son (who was a pain in the butt!) into a ministry that he loves here in RI. He made my marriage stronger. He taught our family to step way outside of our comfort zone and we all grew. But it was a horrendous, difficult pile of messy messiness for a while and I didn't see God. Because, in my slightly better version of the prep gospel, we didn't have to have everything perfect, but our relationships were supposed to be untouchable.
In all of this, I have truly learned to love God more than ever. He was with me in all of these messes. He was working. He cares about every one of our messes. Our church culture often teaches us that when we follow Jesus, there won't be any more mess. The sad thing is: when we believe that, we walk around with blinders on and we miss the beauty in the mess. We miss seeing God at work.
And God has this really annoying yet amazing habit of making us deal with the truth and the truth that I'm learning is that life really is messy and God really is very good!
And yes, I'm thankful for all of the messes, because I see God the most clearly in them!
1 I didn't mean to sound negative about Good News About Injustice it's a great book that encouraged me to stand for justice. click here for more info