Embracing the Mess

Today’s post is from my friend and fellow pastor AJ Swoboda who grew up in the same town as me. We spent several years together at the same church and youth group, though neither of us want to share about our time doing a high school church musical together 🙂 I’m really excited for him to share with us today. If you’re interested in writing a guest post, head here for more information about that.

A.J. Swoboda (Ph.D.) is a pastor, professor and writer in Portland, Oregon. His new book, Messy: God Likes it that Way (Kregel), is a manifesto for those whose faith is messier than they’d like to advertise. You can find out more about A.J. at his website, www.ajswoboda.com.

We all deal with the mess of Christianity somehow.

In ancient Greek and Latin theatre, there would often be a character representing the gods. This character’s name was the Deus ex Machina. It means “God of the machine.” It was a character who had an exceptionally important role in the plot of the story. At the moment in the play when everything seemed at its worst, when all problems seemed beyond control or resolve, when the main character is about to be killed by the villain and everything is beyond fixability, this character would come out on stage. This was Deus ex Machina: the machine-god. And at just the right moment, the machine-god would swoop on stage, wave his magic wand over the whole messy thing, and the mess would be fixed. Kazam. Whammo. Finis. Curtain. Play over. Happy ending. Pay the babysitter.

We could use one of those gods right about now, couldn’t we? It sounds like the very thing we need to fix this whole mess we seem have gotten ourselves into. But we may be in for a long wait. And we probably shouldn’t quit the day job.

Because that god only does theatre.

Christianity is surprisingly messier than what I signed up for. I’m sure many of us would admit that. A famous pastor’s kid once said near the end of his life that he’d have become a Christian if he’d ever actually met one. His problem was, the only one he’d ever heard of apparently died on a cross. He saw the mess. And ran. Few of us admittingly accept it, but it’s true. This whole thing is just one big mess, isn’t it? Preaching a beautiful message of grace, we so rarely if ever practice it on each other. Let alone ourselves. Christians not acting like Christians. Churches not being the thing we think church should be. People renouncing God because of the hypocrisy of the people who follow him. Churches splitting like multicell amoeba. So on and so forth. You have to admit—most of the time—it all feels like one big fat mess.

Look, I get it. Really. And of course not helping is the minor detail that God sometimes seems oddly quiet about the whole thing. We all secretly wish God would fix it all up with one fell swoop by some magical moment with divine lightning. Kazam. Whammo. It’s understandable to me why some continue to predict this soon-coming apocalyptic catastrophe that’ll apparently magically fix everything. They describe a really angry God who descends in all his divine cruelness to fix it all by judging nonbelievers and pagans and liberals with storms and earthquakes and gnats. And then, just then, it will all return to the way it’s supposed to be. Problem fixed. But for those who watch the news there has yet to be such a resolve, for we’re still here. And so are the nonbelievers, the pagans, and the liberals.

And me too.

This is somewhat problematic. For a God of order that the Bible appears to describe, there seems to be a lot of messiness in the world. So either God is hopelessly out of control. Or God, in all God’s God-ness, fancies himself content with letting us, the human race, run around invariably being human, making fools of ourselves. And this because the point isn’t about everything here on earth being fixed. It’s about something else. Something that we don’t want to hear.

About how important the mess is to being authentically human.

Mind you, it’s not just Christianity that’s got a mess on its religious hands. No doubt, Christianity from page one has been surprisingly messy. But you have been too. So have the Muslims, and the Green Party, and Toys “R” Us. It’s all messy. Christian or not. Religious or not. It’s not like Christianity is all screwed up but we’re walking around with halos on our head. We as humans are the messed up ones. Sometimes I sit up late at night and wonder why I’m so messed up. Why I can’t change myself. Why there’s not some Rosetta Stone CD set that can fix me and teach me how to be better in four easy installments.

Sometimes we lose hope. We feel so alone. And in our weaker moments, we secretly judge those who appear on the outside to have it all together. This isn’t something written for them. Because their story has never been my story. Nor has it been yours. Your story is messy like mine. There are lots of books that sell by falsely encouraging you, the reader, to flee church, community, and God altogether. They say to flee the faith. Flee Christianity. Flee it all. Flee the mess. Become your own person. You don’t need those crutches anymore. And those books are right about one thing. The mess. But what’s so surprising is how those who have left God, left the faith, left community, are still screwed up. They’re just screwed up without God, without faith, without community. What they’re disgustingly wrong about is how central the mess is to being a human. And how the mess is necessary.

And how it is what it is.

I wonder if this the hardest thing for a Christian to do? To accept the ambiguity, the messiness, the weirdness of their life. To accept and be cool with the scariest reality that their life isn’t all put together in the perfect way they want. And that God is somehow in there.

If Christianity is all about that then I’m right at home.