[Note: This is the second of five keynotes given at the Montreat Youth Conference Week Five, July 27-July 31. Below is a transcript and the photos/videos used in keynote that aren’t on the SoundCloud audio track]
Tuesday July 28, Keynote 2 – “Our Stories Are Messy”
We can be assured that God enters into our lives and meets us where we are–even when our stories can get messy sometimes.
Genesis 25: 19-34 and Genesis 32:22-32 “The Saga of Jacob” (God works through the messiest of family systems. And in our struggles, we see God face to face.)
Within certain Christian circles, it’s often said: “The current generations are corrupt and messed up; our country and world is doomed! And the only way to fix it all is to get back to the good ole family values in the Bible!”
That viewpoint always makes me wonder if those particular Christians have actually read the Bible that closely—have they delved deeper into the context of the scriptures they present as examples of perfect families, relationships and living?
Because when you step into the stories of an ancient people in an ancient time and begin walking around, you soon find yourself ankle deep in the muck of their lives.
There’s so much dysfunction, pain, suffering, weirdness and plain ole crap within the pages of the Bible that TV reality shows and Shonda Rhimes primetime dramas look tame in comparison! Take the story of Jacob and Esau for example… (as told from The Brick Testament here and here.)
The Bible is not a collection of tales about perfect people always getting things right. Nor is it a guidebook that offer step-by-step instructions on how live a flawless life. And it’s certainly not a rule book that if followed perfectly will guarantee you a first class ticket on Heaven Airlines.
The Bible is full of messy stories about messy people doing messed up things and finding themselves in a whole heap of mess, right there in front of God and neighbor.
And we explore this scrappy book again and again, but not because the stories give us examples of how to live a perfect existence, but for the exact opposite reason.
We return to these scriptures about messy, flawed people to be reminded that—regardless of how messy our life gets and how broken our world becomes—God is with us in the muck just as God has been with human beings throughout time.
We return to the Biblical stories to be reminded that—no matter how much we muddle things up—God meets us in our mess and loves us unconditionally.
The Bible is messy because life is messy and thus, our stories are messy.
And yet despite it all…
God keeps calling us to show love and mercy to the most messed up among us.
God keeps calling us imperfect people to heal a broken and chaotic world.
God keeps calling us to work with and through the imperfections instead of asking us to be perfect all the time.
While I had a mostly stable and grounded childhood, a loving family and church home, it wasn’t without its messes. I morphed from being a cute baby with chubby cheeks to becoming a dorky kid to a an awkward, skinny, zit-faced, nerdy, big-eared teen.
I wore large thick rimmed glasses for a few years, had a nice cow-lick in the back of my head and wore my pants near my armpits. I loved sports but I was uncoordinated and not very good at playing them.
I also was too naïve and nice for my own good, which meant I often didn’t get the locker room jokes & classroom sarcasm, and I was occasionally picked on my classmates.
The teasing left me feeling grossly inadequate and unsure of myself.
Home was a refuge from all of this but only part of the time.
My father was prone to losing his temper and yelling at me, my younger brother and mom over the tiniest of things. He would get mad about my lack of coordination and not doing my chores exactly right—accusing of me of not listening, being lazy and purposely trying to undermine him.
And if he wasn’t raging, then he was critical of me about the movies I liked, the music I listened to or the pictures of cartoon characters that I would draw. I continued to try my best to please him and stay out of trouble but usually without much success.
One evening (when I was 16-years old and in the 10th grade) I decided that I was tired of the mess. And I began wondering if it would be better for me to not exist at all.
Just to see what it might look like if I were to end it all, I took off my belt, wrapped it around my neck and looked into the mirror.
It scared the crap out of me!
And I instantly flung the belt on the other side of the room, shuddering at the image of God that I saw staring back at me.
I was so shocked to think I could destroy what God created.
But even though I decided my life was worth living, I still chose to become a master at bottling all of my feelings, all of the mess—the insecurities and fears—down inside.
Over time, I became more anxious, more depressed and less self-confident about my gifts and capabilities.
I relied on a lot of affirmation, assurance, guidance and attention from others to get from one day to the next.
Although there were friends, mentors and pastors who helped me discard a bit of the mess away at a time, it wasn’t until I was 25 and met Elizabeth in seminary that I began to eliminate a lot of the mess I had collected over the years.
Elizabeth, who was experienced with counseling and depression, encouraged and loved me into getting help from both a counselor and psychiatrist.
I’ve been seeing professional therapists and taking medicine for depression and anxiety for a decade now, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.
The therapy and medicine is not a cure-all, of course: I still have to make a conscious effort through prayer and meditation to step back, take deep breaths and decide not to let the messiness of life—the inner voices which tell me I’m unworthy or inadequate—consume me.
I continually carve away or eliminate the mess to become whom God calls me to be in this life.
In his film and book Drops Like Stars, (author and pastor) Rob Bell says:
Jacob causes quite a mess when he steals Esau’s birthright and then manipulates his father Isaac into giving him his brother’s blessing.
Many years later as Jacob is passing through a territory belonging to Esau, he realizes that he no longer likes the man he has become, and he struggles to make amends.
It took an all-night wrestling match of the soul and the cracking of a hip for God to get Jacob unstuck.
The struggle made him wiser and more tuned in to God’s presence in his life.
It’s always the messy struggles of life that leaves us with a scar or a limp and shapes us forever:
But from the mess, we can emerge as stronger, open-minded and more aware individuals like 23-year-old Dezzie who ran away from an abusive situation at home to live on the streets of L.A…
Although Dezzie has suffered and is homeless (as the result of choices she and others made), she still aspires to greatness: to be a musician and to make better choices in her life.
Dezzie even gives money to others whom are in worse shape than her.
Dezzie’s mess has affected her, and she has chosen to
become better instead of bitter, open instead of closed and more aware than ignorant.
She has become tuned in to the thousands of gifts we are surrounded with every single moment of every singe day.
Dezzie has wrestled with God, and she has seen God face to face.
God knows the messy parts of Dezzie’s story, and God meets her in the mess.
From the mess (whether it’s created by human choice or something beyond our control), we can emerge as stronger, open-minded and more aware individuals like the three Jeremiah Project youth (Nicole, Virginia and Jeff) who will share their messy stories with you now…(Listen to the Soundtrack Audio above to hear their courageous stories)
Thank you Nicole, Virginia and Jeff for sharing your messy stories…
God knows the messy parts of our stories, and God meets us in the mess.
There’s a great line in one of the most beautiful messiest books written in the last five years called The Fault In Our Stars about three teenagers who are struggling with their cancer diagnosis. And the line is:
“Pain demands to be felt.”
Pain demands to be felt.
Pain demands to be expressed.
Pain demands to be wrestled with in the long dark night of the soul…
In healthy, constructive ways.
Cutting, drinking, doing drugs, etc., may seem like a great idea at the time, but self-harm only masks the pain and keep the feelings inside.
They don’t bring healing or wholeness. They only make things messier.
A healthier way to express pain is by
breaking some plastic sports trophies,
making art out of junk
going to the Spirituality Center at Montreat, or
turning up the music really loud and dancing like a wild person!
But honestly, the absolute best way to deal with your mess is to tell someone about what you are going through—someone you trust and who loves you unconditionally, i.e. a friend, a parent, a teacher, a youth leader, or a pastor.
Don’t keep the mess bottled up.
Don’t try to deal with it on your own.
Share it with someone. Get it out.
And for those of us who aren’t dealing with a mess in a particular moment, it’s our calling and responsibility to tell those who are in pain and in the muck that
they are worthy of a whole mess of God’s love and grace.
It’s up to each of us to say to the mistreated and outcasts: “You are not a mess.”
Even when we’re in the middle of chaos—whether it’s our own doing or another’s or something we can’t control—the mess can never completely define us.
We are much more than our messes because we are beloved, unique children of God.
We are beloved creations who have a unique story to tell, including all the messy parts.
But the messiness is never where the story ends.
There are still surprise twists to come and one of them is that
God will show, will clean us off and make us whole…
Co-music leader Jerry Chapman plays “You Are More” by 10th Avenue North while the three Jeremiah Project youth from earlier, Nicole, Virginia and Jeff paint on a white canvas and then peel back a middle portion to reveal a message for the conferees: