“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, “ ‘From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?” — Matthew 21:16
Sometimes we long for perfection. We appreciate organized, clean, spaces. We celebrate orderly events. But
really — none of these are truly normal. Nature is not tidy. Life will spring forth unbidden. Weeds will push through concrete to blossom.
Life, like birth, is messy business. Messiness is where passion meets living. Messiness is when accidents add juice
I celebrate what I call a Theology of Messiness. A messiness theology is supported biblically:
- Jesus and the disciples host a big picnic supper of fish and bread. They serve so much that they have to clean up baskets of leftovers. (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15)
- Jesus loses his cool. He turns over tables in the temple, scattering money and animals all over the floor. (Matthew 21:12-18; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-16)
- A woman breaks open an expensive jar of perfume and pours it all over Jesus’ feet. She wipes up the spill with her hair. (Matthew 26:7-10; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-39)
- Peter doesn’t waste any time leaping into the water. He takes off his clothes and jumps in to swim to the beach for Jesus’ fish fry on the shore. (John 21:1-14)
- On Pentecost, the Spirit blows open doors and windows, sweeps things off the table, and dances flames over every one’s heads. (Acts 2:1-13)
These are just a few of the Bible stories where we see the truth of life: it is not tidy. It is not meant to be a quiet, orderly process.
Lived fully, life stretches us, spills our expectations, bubbles over with laughter, and often swamps us with tears. We are most alive when we are giggling, weeping and aching with compassion.
So why do we seek orderly experiences?
Order can be calming. It can give us needed space to breathe deep and listen for God. There is nothing wrong with wanting and seeking order. But when we seek order as a way to be in control, we are kidding ourselves. We can make decisions about our behavior and the behavior we will tolerate, but that is not the same as being in control of our environment or of the people around us — much less of the Spirit itself.
As the bumper sticker says, “Life happens!” And some of the sweetest moments are not ones we would have planned or even expected.
Often enough, messiness breaks into our plans and ends up making things sweeter. In my past work, some of my favorite examples have involved children in worship. See what you think:
Little 6-year-old Melanie always sits with her folks in the balcony. They are often late — there are three children in the family under the age of 12. Melanie is learning to say the Lord’s Prayer. After prayer time, when the whole church begins to recite the Lord’s Prayer, Melanie stands up and shouts out the words. Her sweet, high, little girl voice carries amazingly well. She is a few seconds behind the rest of the church. As she finishes, we all hold our breath, creating a sacred silence. Eyes tear up. We did not plan it — but the Spirit shows up in the words of a 6-year-old.
Here’s another example:
David has a hard time sitting in church. He also has a hard time paying attention in school. His grandmother often feels frustrated by his distracted attitude. The year David turned nine, the woman planning our Christmas pageant wrote a special part for David. He was to be the narrator. He would have his own place — a raised “bed” — up front. He could keep his script with him and no one would know. He could also have other things in the box that was his “bed” to help him stay focused.
None of us had seen the rehearsal, so we were worried. When the pageant began, we all held our breath. David did not miss a cue. And, as a wonderful surprise, he and his grandmother sang a solo together — the first verse of a Christmas carol. She beamed at him through the whole song.
Hearing him and her, knowing how hard things sometimes were, we wept to see them so connected and loving. David was our unexpected Christmas angel that year. Their connection connected us to the Spirit.
These are just two moments when the Spirit broke through. I know you have such memories of your own: times when you got more than you expected because things did not go as you planned. These messy moments are where the life is in our church. We can’t plan for them, we can only be ready to embrace them. Not all involve children, but many do.
Having a theology of messiness, I am always listening and hoping for sudden in-breaking of the Spirit. Maybe that’s why the sound of our children doesn’t bother me during worship. I know that the Spirit often uses them to “call forth praise.”
— Blessings, Rev. Pam