Some years ago, I was in a messy traffic accident. As I approached the scene of an earlier accident, I slowed to about 30 MPH. When the man directing traffic motioned for me to keep moving through the intersection, I started to speed back up. That’s when an elderly lady, thinking the man was motioning for her to proceed, pulled directly into my path. I hit the brakes and then I hit her car.
The first thing I recall was the sight of blood dripping from my head onto a new baseball cap that I had placed in the passenger seat. In the fogginess of the moment, I thought, “Oh, I don’t want to ruin my hat,” so I tried to sit upright. I also recall wanting to drive home and lay down. I felt so tired. But I wasn’t tired; I was knocked out. A nap was not going to help me recover from the mess I was in. I needed medical attention, including two-dozen stitches to close the wound in the top of my head.
Messes have a way of multiplying. The earlier traffic accident was just a fender bender, but the mess of emergency response vehicles had confused the other driver, leading her to pull out into oncoming traffic. She and I did more than bend fenders. Both cars were totaled. My head was split open, my kneecaps were bruised from being slammed into the car, and my hat was ruined. To add insult to injury, a state trooper later gave me $100 ticket because I had not been wearing my seatbelt. But my messes paled in comparison to what occurred for the other driver. She was hospitalized for weeks, and while recovering from her injuries, she developed pneumonia. She died a couple of months later. Yes, messes do have a way of multiplying.
You’ve probably been in similar or worse messes in your life. Some of our messes are physical: bloody wounds, broken bones, or pneumonia. Others are financial, such as being underwater on a debt or unable to cover life’s necessities for ourselves and family. Many of our messes have to do with relationships: we hurt someone or someone hurts us. I think those relational messes are the ones most likely to multiply. Those are the messes that seem to get worse whether we ignore them or make our best effort to clean them up. Those messes seem to have a way of keeping us messy and influencing us to create more messes.
I recently heard social researcher Brené Brown share about her daughter’s interaction during a craft project at school. The teacher saw the mess of glitter and glue and paper pieces everywhere and said something to the girl about being messy. Brown’s daughter, having been taught to resist labels of shame, responded, “I may have made a mess, but I am not messy.”
I like that story because I think the sentiment counters one of the biggest mess multipliers around: the lies that are fostered for those who make messes and for those who get messy as a result. When we find ourselves in a mess, especially the big messes we make, it’s so tempting to take on a polluted identity, to develop a script about how worthless we are, to make subtle agreements with an enemy who whispers to us that we are unlovable messes, when the truth is that we are loved mess makers.
The church enters the season of Advent in a few weeks, which is the time each year we acknowledge the longing we have for things to be made right, for an intervention, for someone who can rescue us from our mess.
The person and work of Jesus makes right our messiness. Jesus’ birth tells us that God willingly entered his creation and joined us in all the world’s messiness. His birth confirms that God does not reject us because of our messiness, but goes to great lengths to restore us into his family. The teachings of Jesus paint a picture of how life can be lived from the abundance generated by love and forgiveness, rather than the scarcity generated by shame and despair. The cross of Jesus will not let us ignore the truth of our sin, our corroboration with the enemy in making a mess of ourselves and the world, and our inability to clean things up. At the same time, the cross re-grounds our identity on God’s love and Christ’s purity. The cross short-circuits the multiplying effects of our messes and settles once and for all that we are loved for who we are, not for what we have done or have not done. The resurrection of Jesus gives the final word that no mess, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:39).