God of the Mess
Updated: May 25, 2021
Written by Dina Newman
I lost Will, after dark, at Duke Manor, for 2 hours. Will is my gregarious, winsome, and impulsive 7-year-old. It was the first warm Saturday of spring, and he had been playing outside most of the day and dutifully checking in about every 30 min. At 7:30 p.m., he popped in to say he was still having fun and ran out the door before I could stop him. Brian and the older boys were at a movie. I hurried through my online airfare purchase and went out to retrieve him but could not find him. After searching on my own for an hour, I called security to help me knock on doors. They were extremely helpful and knew that Will was wearing green boots and holding a Coke, even before I described him. They helped me search for another hour and finally found him calmly sitting on the porch of building 45, a far distance from our building 8.
Losing your child is not a shining parenting moment, but it is worth an honorable mention. As I was searching, I met neighbors I had never met before, some who offered to help search and others who I simply asked to pray for Will’s return. I discovered a whole community of Saturday night church goers, carrying sleeping toddlers out of their cars. Will made some deep friendships that night that remain to this day. I am grateful to God for bringing Will back safe and unaware of any danger. And I had the opportunity to commend the security staff to Duke Manor management, an often thankless and stressful job.
I wish I could say that my life is otherwise calm with compliant children and rewarding jobs and “normal” extended family. But these “messes” occur on an almost daily basis. This weekend we traveled to Michigan for the Final Four to be with extended family. After a long reminiscent walk around campus, Ella (age 9) was physically exhausted and exploded, yelling hateful things at her dad in front of the whole extended family. Even Will was stunned. I wanted to strong-arm her into a public apology, but I didn’t know what to do with this mess. I decided that Ella and I needed to get away and stay in the mess for a while. As soon as the two of us got in the car, she broke down in sobs and despair at the depths of her sin. “How can daddy ever forgive me?!” It was a redeeming 30 minutes as we talked about how sinful we are. She wanted to punish herself by not eating dinner or having dessert for a long time. We discussed how Jesus already took the punishment. Holding on to our guilt, keeping it a secret, and punishing ourselves is rejecting what He already did and keeps us from being free to love God and others. God taking our punishment is a gift we must accept. She got it! I offered to take her out somewhere special, and she replied, “I just want to get back and tell daddy I’m sorry.” As we returned to the MSU cafeteria, Ella exclaimed, “You know how you always ask me what I want to be when I grow up; I think I know now! I want to be a Sunday School teacher or a pastor.” I’m so grateful God prompted me to stay in the mess instead of save face in front of our family.
I’m starting to notice a pattern of how God works in my life. It’s mostly through messes that I wish to avoid but find myself in. When I read the Bible, I find that messes are the norm, not the exception. Some of those biblical messes are so unsavory that I have a hard time explaining them to my kids. Jesus says “Let the children come to me” not when they are sitting calmly in a circle but when they are exhausted and throwing a tantrum or interrupting or misbehaving. His invitation is to toddler children and adult children. I’m starting to think that God embraces the mess of our lives. Admitting that He is IN the mess is step 1, but giving Glory to God is also an important step. And maybe the whole point of our messy lives.
What does giving Glory to God mean? I think it means telling the truth to ourselves and each other. If we don’t talk about our messes, they become skeletons we try to hide and weigh us down with guilt or hurt. But retelling alone is not the whole truth; noticing and telling how God revealed Himself in the mess is likely the most important part of the truth. Even if it’s to say, “I know He promises to redeem, but I don’t see it yet.” I love Naomi’s example in Ruth 1:20-21 and 4:14-15.
This faith journey is not faith without the mess and fear and hurt and failure and uncertainty. In the words of Andrew Peterson, “Maybe it’s a better thing to be more than merely innocent, but to be broken then redeemed by love.” Let’s talk about the broken and redeemed as we live it.