I was not a particularly neat child. I am, by nature, a little messy: piles of things tend to accumulate around me. Stacks of papers on a desk; a jumble of clothes on a chair, waiting to be put away. Putting things away seemed counterintuitive. I knew where everything was when it was out – I could see it! Or rather, sometimes I could see it, until a second layer began to accrue. “Get your things off the floor!” was not an infrequent response when my bedroom door opened. It was a reasonable request. Eventually, after enough grumbling, I’d get down to it.
And parts of tidying up were fun! I still find organizing and arranging different pieces of my life very satisfying. It brings a little order to the chaos; there is something deeply creative about the process. But without fail, after a few minutes cleaning up one spot, I would be distracted by another area that needed tending to. Part way through the floor in front of the closet, the lost stuffed animals partially under my bed would call out to me.
So it is today. I’ll be part way through one task when I notice something else that needs doing and begin bouncing back and forth between them. Finishing one thing completely would be a much more efficient use of time, and perhaps a better marshalling of mental energy. It’s true of the papers and sermons I write, it’s true of events that I plan. But there are just so many ideas that could be explored, and they’re all in conversation with one another! The downside is that going back and forth between them can feel like a constant rush for time, mirroring the pull of contemporary life on our time and attention. We live in world that constantly seeks our attention: in addition to click-bait headlines and algorithms privileging posts that invite strong reactions, there are the very real crises of our time. There is so much clamoring for space in our minds that it can feel like we are always being pulled back and forth, rushed and stretched because there is so much to consume and process. More often than not, I think, we are the ones being consumed.
God calls us to live in the reality of our messy, chaotic world. It’s what we are baptized into. We’re not called to be overwhelmed by it, though, or consumed by it. We are called to live in the world and to transform it into God’s kingdom through our living. We are called to recognize the moments of space and grace that interrupt our usually scheduled programming. God is there, in the mess and chaos with us, making those spaces and filling them with grace. And when we can recognize God in it, and step into God’s invitation for us and our lives, we experience the already of God’s kingdom, and help live out its not yet.
As Christians we see our lives through the lens of Christ, and we look to his life, death, and resurrection to make meaning of the world. Jesus didn’t ever seem interested in efficiency, but he certainly knew what it was like to navigate a messy and chaotic world. Think of all the times the crowds are mentioned in the Gospels! There were people around constantly, trying to touch him, pressing closer to hear his words. When it got to be too much, he stepped away and he prayed.
In Mark, Jesus says to his apostles, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (Mark 6:31) He had noticed that in their work “many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat.” So they go. And after feeding the 5,000 people who follow them out of town, Jesus demands his disciples get in a boat and cross the sea of Galilee, leaving him behind, so he can go up the mountain to pray.
We are not Jesus. But like Jesus we need to live into those moments of space and grace. Taking time to breathe and pray and reflect doesn’t mean we are shirking our responsibilities: they are part of our responsibility. They can help us hear God more clearly, and they give us new perspective when we return to the mess that may surround us. Sometimes we notice them as they occur. Other times we have to ask for help seeing them. And just like we might need the invitation to come a way to a deserted place and rest awhile, we need to invite the people around us to do the same.
Maybe it’s a friend, or partner, or child who you notice is spinning a little too fast from one thing to another and needs to take a pause. Maybe it’s a colleague, who could use a little help on a project or the reminder that their work isn’t going unnoticed. Maybe it’s someone bagging your groceries, who looks like they’ve had a long week and could use a friendly conversation. Maybe it’s someone asking for money at an intersection, with whom you can share your generosity and compassion. Whoever it is – whatever messy room surrounds them, metaphorically or in reality – invite them to find some space in the middle of it and take a few breaths. Listen to God’s invitation to you. The mess will still be there, but you may be changed.