I’ve been helping prepare for this year’s Annual Meeting at Seattle First Baptist, and I confess that several times I’ve muttered to myself, “What a mess.” Along with the usual business, we have some complicated questions to answer this year regarding our church finances. And while our financial position remains quite strong, it is easy to get hung up on messy questions.
Perhaps as divine preparation for our meeting, I got some upfront experience dealing with messes over the holidays. Christmas Eve 2015 found my husband Jim Ginn and I far from where we’d planned to spend the holidays, listening to a sermon in a church we’d never planned to attend. The pastor’s topic, appropriately enough for our situation, was messes.
Our original plans for Christmas Eve included driving to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where our itinerary included a baroque music concert and lots of Southwestern cuisine, but the weather had other ideas. We left Seattle early on a Monday morning with three days to get to Santa Fe, but we drove through snow and rain all that morning. We managed to get as far as Pendleton, Oregon before we encountered a big problem – the freeway was closed in three places between where we were and where we planned to spend the night. Alternate routes around the closures looked grim, and weather forecasts promised us that we’d be driving in snowstorms all the way to New Mexico. Suddenly our vacation plans were a mess. We gave up on the long drive and instead headed to Bend, Oregon, hoping to salvage our holiday by visiting a favorite spot of ours.
Trinity Episcopal Church in Bend may not have been our first choice for a church to visit on Christmas Eve, but it seemed like the best option for us this year. In years past we’ve visited various cathedrals with huge pipe organs and brass quintets and professional choirs. Trinity’s music was more homespun than awe-inspiring, but this year the sermon took our breath away.
Rev. Jedediah Holdorph began by talking about the church’s new nativity set. Their old set was among the church property that was destroyed in an arson fire in 2013. This was the first year they used the new set. Children from the congregation helped to set it up by bringing in straw for the stable setting, but in the process they made a mess of the carpet. Rev. Holdorph drew a parallel between this mess and the first Christmas, the foundation of our shared Christian faith. With an unwed mother, a stable for a maternity ward, a feed trough for a cradle, and smelly shepherds as uninvited witnesses, it was quite simply a mess. He continued the story line when the time came for Communion, and all were invited to participate in the open celebration. With a religion such as ours, founded on a mess like that, how can Christians presume to push people out, the pastor asked? We visitors felt truly welcome at the table that night.
I thought often of that service during the rest of our winter vacation. Despite the messy beginning we went with the flow, made adjustment after adjustment, and ended up having a wonderful time. Things continued to be messy, and even our newly revised plans had to be constantly tweaked, but we enjoyed ourselves immensely. A highlight was visiting Crater Lake National Park in the winter, and snowshoeing along the rim through huge piles of white. It was windy and bitterly cold. I forgot my gloves. We couldn’t find the path we were supposed to follow. It was a mess, and as beautiful an experience as I can remember.
Anyone who has been paying attention over the years knows that we occasionally have messes to deal with here at Seattle First Baptist. Things don’t always go as we plan. We’ve certainly had some holy messes in my two decades here. Between earthquakes and inter-personal conflicts and leaky roofs and budget constraints and denominational feuds and departures of dear members and higher-than-planned building expenses and all the rest our course together has been a bit chaotic at times.
But past messes haven’t stopped us from fulfilling our mission. Through it all, we have remained a community of faith united in exploring what it means to follow the way of Jesus Christ. We don’t claim to have it all found and figured out. Some times we might even make things up as we go along. And to that, I say “Thank God.”
I hope and pray that our lives, both individually and together as a church, keep getting messed up now and then. It’s in the messes that we rely on each other the most, when we all need to work together, and when we often grow stronger together. Let’s remember the roots of our faith – those chaotic, smelly, dirty, sometimes ridiculous-sounding roots. And let’s give thanks that through it all, perhaps because of it all, we still manage to find ways to be a community of God, and to love and care for our neighbors and each other.