By Maureen Diffley
What is messy? For some people, it might be a towel lying on the counter when everything else has been put away. For others, it might be called an “explosion of toys” or what the living room looks like as their children’s day comes to an end (before they put things away?). Literal messiness – or things being out of their place, has much to do with our sense of where things belong and where they are actually now found. Creative people will often suggest that things have to get out of their “proper” place for a while to come up with something new. Messiness is an invitation to change.
“It’s almost impossible to reconcile creativity with cleanliness. The sculptor gets metal dust all over his studio. The writer must wade through a clutter of notes, books, and crumpled drafts to get to her desk. The rock musician must weave through a tangle of cables, black boxes, guitar stands, and song notes to sit down and create. The business strategist must navigate a thicket of scribbles, arrows, and boxes on his whiteboard while avoiding the distractions of multi-colored sticky notes on stacks of must-read articles.” (Marty Neumer)
When messiness serves change and creativity, something new emerges.
The messiness of notes, crumpled drafts, metal dust, cables and the like eventually gets transformed into something. It serves a purpose. Even if, at times, it seems to get in the way, take too long to resolve or aggravate the creator and, perhaps, the creator’s spouse or co-workers. Messiness is not the end. This is just as true in our domestic spheres.
Children with several toys out learn to connect their Legos with dolls and dinosaurs and create spaces where they act out ideas. Their play and their imagination would look different if they always played with one toy at a time.
Cooks may clean as they go or after they’re done, but there are few foods that can be prepared without requiring that something be cleaned.
When messiness seems perpetual and suffocating, it might be because we do not know how to get things in their “right” place, we do not know what the “right” place is or that we haven’t realized that the messiness is part of doing things right at this time.
If parents of small children bemoan that their house doesn’t look like something out of a decorating magazine most of the time, then they might be failing to realize that if they did have a house like that – it might be suffocating for their children. On the other hand, if they let the children dictate what the house should look like, somebody will probably get hurt on a regular basis! Children do not have the experience to run a home and need adults to be grown-ups. Until the adults reach a decision about what “our home that we actually use looks like in real life order”, caring for the home may feel like an ongoing battle. Undoubtedly, the decision needs to be practical/attainable, to meet the needs of everyone who lives in the home – and most especially, to be open for reconsideration and adjustment.
Life is just not going to be smooth and how we’d prefer all the time. It gets messy, and in a lot of different ways. Sometimes we’re walking on a dirt road in the heat, and we feel like a hot mess. Nothing is out of place. It’s just what happens in that situation. Jesus wasn’t afraid of the dirt that requires daily attendance, and His washing of the disciples’ feet is perhaps the best example (John 13:1-17). We may prefer to create an image of perfection or “having it all together”. But what do we miss if we don’t let our feet get dirty from walking? Or tend to the cleaning of each other’s feet? Why miss that opportunity?
How often “messy” and “beauty” are intermingled in our day-to-day living! A good friend of mine shared about her most recent birthday, which really exemplified that truth:
The birthday started abruptly when Stephanie and her husband accidentally hit heads hard. But he followed that with coffee and a card in bed. After the usual scramble out the door with the kids, distinguished by the kids’ awe at seeing seven police cars barricading most of the street, she got to go to yoga and lunch with a great friend, while all their children played and broke into their conversation frequently. Hurrying as she returned with the kids to put them down for naps, the sight of flooding in various spots around the house….meant putting the kids to bed and mopping for hours. The youngest woke up early, distressed, so Stephanie wound up calming a screaming child, letting him sleep again, mopping some more, and repeating the process a few more times while wondering if they’d have hot water later and what the repair bills would be. Then Stephanie learned from a neighbor that the police cars had been there that morning to retrieve the body of man who had been staying in an abandoned apartment across the street. He had no hot water, no bed or friend by his side at the end. It was harrowing and humbling. That evening, her husband brought pizza home for dinner and it was a sweet blessing to not have to cook dinner after devoting the afternoon to mopping, comforting her son and contemplating the way a man she hadn’t known was a neighbor died. Stephanie shared: “Life is real and messy. There usually aren’t perfect occasions, but perfect opportunities to be thankful in the midst of chaos.”
Making messes and cleaning them up again at home is part of the creative work of being a family or household. Figurative messiness is less easily seen as a part of the process of creating something. Perhaps because when life gets messy, we cannot always tell what we are making. We may only sense what we are on the verge of losing. We may not consider that God might be making something new.
If we have important relationships that feel messy, then it may be an invitation to realize we do not get to control them. Going through times that feel messy can bring those relationships to a stronger and more intimate place. Or teach us to love in a way that is wiser from our end. Or bring us out of them, sometimes wounded, but maybe stronger and wiser.
It’s true that some messiness is really hard. It could look like a relationship that is neither totally toxic nor totally healthy. Or a weakness that unhealed could result in social isolation. If we ignore the messiness or hide it in the closet, under a bed or behind good manners, we may look good, but increasingly rot inside (see Matthew 23:37). Looking like a Pinterest Queen doesn’t mean that our soul isn’t starving to death.
In those hard things, are we really inviting Jesus into the messiness?
Jesus didn’t flee messiness – big or small. His incarnation and crucifixion tell us this. His engagement with ritually unclean people, including their healing, reminds us of His power to redeem and to restore people who were isolated. Jesus plunged into the messiness of human relationships in His engagement with disciples across the whole of the gospels and even sibling rivalry with sisters Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42, John 11: 1-44). The way Christ did this brought them to a new kind of relationship that they would not have had if things had just remained in their designated places.
Jesus is still fearless in the face of our messes.
Why ignore our messes, if they are signs of change and creativity? Why face our messes alone and be overwhelmed? Why not invite Jesus into the big and small messes of our lives?
As we sit with Jesus each day, He may show us that this is temporary and leading to change; He may show us that our understanding of order is off; He may show up and just sit with us in it.
Messiness is more bearable when we embrace it with the God who desires the best for us.
Captain Maureen Diffley is the Women’s Ministries Program Specialist for the USA Southern Territory. Her desk may or may not resemble the concepts shared in this article.