A Holy Mess

A Holy Mess

Just before Advent, I finished a sermon series on King David. It wasn’t long, just eight sermons, but for those two months I lived and breathed David. After I finished the final sermon, a friend asked “So, what did you take away from the David story for yourself, your own life?”  My unfiltered answer was “Life is messy.”

It just is. David may have been the man after God’s own heart, but he was also a murderous adulterer. David may have been a glorious songwriter and musician, but he was also a conniving schemer. David may have started his life in a Cinderella, shepherd-boy-makes-good fashion, but he ended it terribly, instructing Solomon to murder off his remaining opponents. Much of the time, you wouldn’t want your kids or grandkids to emulate David. Too messy.

I remember being new to pastoral ministry, and for a year or two deluded enough (or arrogant enough) to think that I was supposed to clean-up messes and fix things. Especially people. Or at least, be able to fix whatever hard situation they shared with me in my office. And those situations were hard. Over the years, I’ve listened to tales of abuse, domestic violence, marriages falling apart, financial ruin, mental health breakdowns, addictions and racial injustice, just to name a few.  It didn’t take me long to realize that not only did I not have the ability to fix these things, but it actually wasn’t my job. Life is messy.

I once tended toward a certain naivety that initially thinks the world, and most situations, are black and white. If we can just clean ourselves up and help others do the same, then we’ll see God more clearly and everything will be better. Things are right or they’re wrong, and we just need to eliminate the wrong. With the benefit of a few decades, I strongly disagree with my former self. It’s exactly IN the mess that Jesus seems to show up.

Long ago while pastoring in Seattle, I attended a pastoral training class in Spokane at Whitworth University. At the end of the class, our professor invited everyone over for a dinner party. We were all relaxing and eating when my cellphone rang. It was my good friend and college roommate telling me his dad, a lifelong alcoholic, was in the hospital and not going to make it. Could I come back to Seattle and go to the hospital with him that night?  Of course. I shared the situation with my classmates and hustled out to my car for the long drive home. The professor walked me out. Before he prayed for me, he looked at me, his eyes alive with excitement and said “This is where it all gets real, right?!  If the gospel doesn’t matter here, it doesn’t matter!” He knew better than I that my presence in Seattle wouldn’t change the circumstances. They were a mess. But he also knew that God would be found exactly there.

I don’t know if you can see the detail on the famous Bruegel the Elder painting above, but you can find a more searchable version Here. The Census at Bethlehem is possibly the first painting of a white Christmas. There are nearly 200 people in the picture, an intimate look at everyday village life in the 16th century. The main characters–Joseph and Mary, arriving in town for the census–are practically hidden. No halos, no bright clothes. They are inconspicuous amongst beer drinkers, the setting sun, children playing and people working. A pig is being slaughtered, chickens wander the street, a leper avoids people, a castle is falling down, people seek warmth, a man relieves himself near a building. The colors are drab and ordinary.

You could spend several worthwhile hours looking at all of the details of this painting, but I’m pointing it out because it shows real life, which is…messy. And in the midst of the mess, nearly incognito, appears Joseph with Mary, pregnant with the Savior of the World. This is what God does, everywhere, all the time. Shows up in real life, not always fixing but eternally accompanying his people.

And so my encouragement for you in this season of Advent. Be watchful. Look hard.

Pay attention.  God will show up, for you and other people. Likely it will not be in picture-perfect Christmas pageants or minutely-planned Christmas Eve services.  Rather, I suspect it may be in the person who needs to talk at the busiest time of your year, or your agnostic next-door neighbor or some badly busted travel plans. Messes seem to attract God like mountains draw clouds. Before you start trying to fix things, look around for God’s presence. Christmas is, after all, about incarnation.

Peace of Christ,

Dan Baumgartner

Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as Secretary on The Fellowship Community Board.