Rev. Kim Olson has been blessed to serve in many different places among a wonderful variety of faithful people during almost 20 years of ministry. She served as the Associate Pastor of Seven Oaks Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC, Pastor of the Batesburg-Leesville Presbyterian Church in B-L, SC, Chaplain of the Presbyterian Home retirement community in Clinton, SC, Campus Pastor of the Thornwell Home for Children in Clinton, SC, and Interim Pastor of 3 congregations in the Indianapolis area. She and her husband, Dr. Richard Baker, have three children (20, 16, and almost 10), one dog, one cat, and several fish. Kim, therefore, encounters (and makes) messes regularly and has finally given up the delusion that one day her house or her life will be mess-free.
Willy Wonka isn’t the only person to quote poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s words “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” Yet between Gene Wilder’s shape-shifting hair and Varuca Salt’s insistence that no one has ever heard of a snozzberry, Wonka owns those lines and really communicates their power. Or not. Depends how you feel about Oompa Loompas. Either way, my point is that while I WANT to nod in knowing agreement whenever I hear those words, they aren’t true. Or they are true only after something else is true (to borrow Frederick Buechner’s notion that the Gospel is bad news before it is good news, tragedy before comedy).1 The “before” truth (and often the more obvious truth) is that, instead of music-makers or dream-weavers, we are, alas, mess-makers.
Making messes comes more easily than we’d care to admit. Meanwhile music and dreams often elude us. Case in point: In order to appreciate Wonka’s words, we would have to ignore the fact that he’s squeezing young Varuca’s cheeks while he says them—unintended evidence that his words aren’t true (and that I’m right!). We’re messy creatures who can’t even wax poetic without demeaning someone else (yes I KNOW she’s a bad egg, but that’s beside the point. Or that is the point). We (all of us) are the mess-makers. It’s not who we’re created to be. But it’s the reality we live in most often.
Another case in point: My college-age daughter’s boyfriend accidentally ran into her car with his car. It requires a diagram to fully explain but basically there was a u-turn involved and an assumption that if you were following me before you must be following me now. It was several minutes into the post-accident phone call before I understood that BOTH cars were damaged. I didn’t know it until then, but apparently I’m a firm believer that no matter how many cars are on the side of the road waiting to be towed, “I’m just glad you’re both okay” is still the right response. You may bang your head against the refrigerator as you imagine the bill from the body shop, but the words that you speak should be words of gratitude. If you’ve ever prayed for God to comfort the family of a student who couldn’t make that phone call or watched teenagers place flowers and stuffed animals near an uprooted tree on a rural road, then you know that hearing her voice say “BOTH cars are messed up” is a gift.
But when the boyfriend called home, there was no “I’m just glad . . .” Instead, his mother assured him that he would pay for both cars out of his own pocket. She made sure he understood that it was HIS mess to clean up. And he heard her, loud and clear.
We are the mess-makers. We really are.
I’d like to give myself points for doing better than she did following the “his and hers” car accident. Except this morning I yelled at my 9 year old son for getting peanut butter on his jacket and having terrible aim in the bathroom. At least her son will have something substantive to talk about in therapy. Mine will be there because he peed wrong.
Which brings me to another case in point: Last spring, on my son’s last day of 3rd grade (which included a class party with snacks and plenty of Capri Sun), he wet his pants on the bus ride home. He’d never done that before so he was as surprised as anyone that it happened. It was bad enough that some mean 4th grader said he was going home to tweet about how “that kid just peed his pants on the bus” (#oompaloompashatemeanchildren) but the bus driver’s lack of compassion made a difficult, embarrassing situation even worse. The bus driver simply couldn’t wrap his brain around the fact that a 3rd grader would lose control of his bladder and make that kind of mess on HIS bus that HE HAD ALREADY CLEANED and would now have to clean again. So the bus driver told my son that if he was going to do that kind of thing, he shouldn’t ride the bus anymore. Yep. He tried to ban him and his little 3rd grade bladder from the bus. To their credit, the bus supervisor folks handled the incident incredibly well. But the damage was done. My son refuses to ride the bus ever again.
Why is it that in the face of someone else’s mess, grace often eludes us? I think most of the time it’s because we can barely handle our own messes let alone the ones he or she or they made that WE’LL be expected to clean up. YOU need to keep your house in order and YOUR stuff together so MY life won’t get any harder or messier than it already is (otherwise people might find out I’m a mess or, worse, I might have to admit it to myself).
On Christmas Eve I worshiped at a beautiful church where great care had been taken to ensure everything was in its place. The red and white poinsettias were arranged in perfect symmetry. The two trees, decorated only with lights, created a warm glow on both sides of the chancel. The service was carefully scripted. The sermon was well-practiced. The hymns were just right and the chancel choir’s anthems—all in Latin—or was it German?—were flawless.
Yet my heart longed for something else. I wanted slightly tattered chrismons hung on a tree by little kids so there would be more around the bottom than near the top. I wanted the flowers to break out of formation and refuse to stay with their own kind. In my mind, I begged for a change in the preacher’s cadence and for the liturgists to say something unexpected. I even hoped the choir would struggle with just one anthem (maybe because the sopranos all had colds or the best alto left for Florida early this year). But none of that happened. The service went exactly as planned.
It’s possible I have control issues. Or maybe beauty is wasted on me. Or I’m threatened by perfection. But while I’ve been a little miffed at Henri Nouwen lately for his insistence that God is the answer to our loneliness NOT other people (#extrovertsagainstnouwen), I know he’s right that we have to acknowledge the desert of our loneliness before it can become a garden of solitude with God, that we can’t move toward wholeness without examining our brokenness, that we have to name our hostility if we ever hope to offer healing hospitality, that we must admit our delusion that we are in control before we can turn our lives over to God through prayer.2 In other words, we have to know and admit we are mess-makers if we are ever to be open to God’s dreams for us and to the music of the Holy Spirit working in our lives. God, in Christ, came to dwell with us in the reality of our very messy lives and world. So is it so wrong for me to want Christmas Eve worship to provide just a hint, just a small sign that we get that? That we know God doesn’t expect us to get all cleaned up and perfect on our own before he would dare hang out with us or allow us to ride his bus?
It’s Lent now. What with the ashes at the beginning and Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion at the end, worship is bound to be more “mess-friendly or “mess-honest.” There’s no pressure to make the sanctuary pretty or festive during Lent or to sing Easter songs before Easter actually arrives. It’s all minor keys and penitence. It’s the mess-maker’s time of year. And yet I find myself a little worried about Easter Sunday. I’m all about Christus Victor and Thine is the Glory and trumpets and banners and lilies and the Hallelujah Chorus. I am. Yet I find myself hoping for a Sunday that might include the organist risking unemployment by moving the lilies FAR from the organ (darn allergies!), at least one little girl with grass stains all over her new white tights, and perhaps even tears in the eyes of those who know too well the painful reality of “he is not here” and pause there to grieve awhile.
Because even on our most triumphant, holy day, church should be a place where we can bring the mess of our lives and, instead of hiding it, present it honestly to the One who formed us and knows us and cleans us up and makes us whole. Only then can we look upon someone else’s mess and respond with careful, creative grace, like the music-makers and dreamers of dreams we are created and called and raised (with him!) to be.
1 Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale
2 Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life