Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Apollo 11 lunar module onto the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969. I was eleven years old. My mother and I watched Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” on a black and white TV in a cheap motel room.
Mom had spent most of her remaining cash to give us at least one night sleeping in a bed and a chance to see the moon landing. We were homeless, having fled my physically and emotionally abusive father just a few weeks before.
When we left, my mother had no job prospects, no savings, and no reliable support network. We carried with us two flimsy suitcases stuffed with our belongings. This is the sort of desperate gamble a mother will take when her husband points a gun at her and then puts that same pistol in her son’s face.
So you see, I know firsthand that life is messy. And it’s my experience that God comes to meet us right in this messy place we call planet Earth. That’s why I call this blog—and why the title of my upcoming book (Fall 2021 from Abingdon) will be—Looking for God in Messy Places.
To be honest, for the longest time I assumed that the messiness of my life was the exception to the human rule. No way was I going to tell anybody about my abusive dad, or my homelessness, or that by the time I had reached high school I had lived at seventeen different, often shabby addresses.
Years of pastoral ministry have taught me that, at one time or another, most people find themselves in some pretty messy places. Your mess and my mess are probably different. But mess is. Period. And most of us yearn for something to make sense of what—on the face of things—makes no sense at all. For me, that something is a someone: Christ.
Some people look beyond this world to a supernatural realm to find a source of hope and meaning. I do not criticize them. I believe in life eternal. In the resurrection to be precise. And, as I explained at length in my last book A Resurrection Shaped Life, resurrection begins on planet Earth and extends into eternity. Through our relationship with Christ we begin participating in his eternal life here and now.
There is more to our earthly existence than meets the eye. From the depths of our messy places something—or better, someone—is reaching out to us. Seeking to connect to us, to transform us, and to guide us in healing the whole creation.
That someone is Christ, or, as Richard Rohr says, the Universal Christ. The challenge for us is “to recognize and recover the divine image in everything.” (The Universal Christ, p. 59) Or, to put it a different way, our challenge is to see with eyes illumined by what Jesus calls the Spirit of Truth.
Before his trial, torture, and execution, Jesus taught his friends about the Holy Spirit: the living presence of God within them. He tells them, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16:12-13a).
The Spirit of truth does not download a library of correct answers into our brains. Believing in Jesus does not make us know-it-alls. Instead, think of the Spirit of truth on analogy with light. After all, Jesus called himself the Light of the World. (John 8:12) Light makes it possible for us to see. The Spirit of Truth helps us see our messy lives—our messy world—with compassionate justice. With the light of love.
Love is by no means the same thing as tranquil acceptance. Really seeing the messiness of this world will leave a mark and propel us to action.
We begin to see the people that we’ve made invisible, shoved to the margins, and exploited. We begin to see how the world has erased or debased tender, precious dimensions of our own souls. And we begin to see that—even though doing something about all of this will be hard and costly—doing nothing is not an option. That’s what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Understandably, we may feel some resistance to this divinely illumined seeing. In her powerful new book Native, Kaitlin Curtice asks her readers, “How much do we want to see? Because once we see, we cannot un-see. Once we know, we cannot un-know.” (p. 105)
What Kaitlin understands, and what we all really know in our gut, is that what you refuse to see really can and does hurt you. The truth may be painful. But only the truth will set you free.