We’re a mess. Jesus loves us.
That, in essence, was the entire message of Middle School Retreat last weekend. If I am confident of anything, it’s that everyone reading this blog, everyone I’ve ever met, everyone I follow on Instagram, is convinced at least once a week that they are the only person who doesn’t have their life together. Every person you see on your Facebook feed feels like their life is a total mess sometimes. They snap at their family, and zone out when they pray, and have trash in their car. I know I do, and I’m an adult (technically).
If we, as adults, are aware and troubled by our own feelings of being a mess, how much more are our middle school youth aware of it? Eleven to fourteen-year-olds are self-conscious by nature and as a consequence of developmental stage. If you factor in ever-increasing academic expectations, the rose-colored distortion of social media (not just on their friends’ accounts, but on their parents’ friends’ accounts), and the belief that they are expected to be at least as successful, if not more so, than their often very successful parents, feelings of inadequacy, falling short, and being a mess are essentially inevitable.
And that’s OK. Telling youth that having unblemished self-esteem and never feeling messy is what’s expected is just giving them one more thing they feel like a failure at, and giving them no space to deal with the very real anxieties in their lives. While at Middle School Retreat, when we split youth into small groups, we did some exercises focused on naming that messy feeling, including having kids hold up a number between 1 and 10 about how messy they felt like they were (at first on the outside — i.e., do you keep your room neat — and then on the inside).
There is an incredible power in a girl who doesn’t feel like she fits in holding up nine fingers, looking across the circle, and seeing an older cheerleader at her school holding up nine fingers too.
The small groups spent that time naming and opening up about that anxiety, assuring each other that none of them are alone in it, and then talking through examples of people in the Bible who were even more of a mess than they are (Peter cut someone’s ear off) and how God loved them and used them, even when they were still a mess. They finger painted messy messages of things that hit home for them, and talked about how it really is OK to not have it all together.
As we closed in worship that night, I read from Romans 8, a passage that I had no idea Dr. Bruster would use the next day in the Sanctuary service:
Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.
We talked about how, in Jesus, God has stepped right into the middle of our messy lives and our messy world, and how there is no amount of mess in our lives that can exclude us from the love of Christ, or disqualify us from the call to be God’s people in the world.
We talked, finally, about how God doesn’t clean up our lives and then send us out. God doesn’t straighten everything out and then get to work; God calls us, while we are still a mess (while we are yet sinners, as Paul would say) to go about following Jesus and bringing those things of the kingdom of God closer to earth. In that service, following, and acceptance of God’s grace we are forever being made clean (sanctified) but the process is never finished and we are never too much of a mess to begin it.
Like the finger paintings we all made as children that we offered to our parents, and like the stack of finger paintings on my desk, the lives we live may be messy and imperfect, but God is just delighted in our offering and hangs them up on the fridge with pride. So I offer to y’all what I offered to those middle school youth this weekend: we really are a mess, and Jesus really does love us.