Into the Mess

Lofty Aspirations

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of giving a talk on a part of my journey in faith over the past few years.  After the talk was complete, I took a few questions from the members of the group.  I enjoyed all the questions, but one in particular stands out in my memory:

“Can you give us 4 or 5 ways that we can act like Jesus in our own lives?”

No pressure. 

With time I am sure I could have come up with many examples.  On the spot, it was much tougher.  I only came up with two and then cut off the response saying I had done enough (50% of 4) to pass the question.

As I listened to the question, one thing came to mind very strongly.  Jesus washed feet. 

Before sitting down for the Last Supper, Jesus lowered himself to a position normally occupied by a servant, and washed the dirty feet of his friends.  As their leader and master, this was a shocking act, but in it Christ sets one of the clearest examples of what leadership is. 

In the business world, the idea of servant leadership is often discussed.  Less frequently it is seen in action.  Many people do not know that the model for this approach is more than 2,000 years old.

Misplaced Ambitions

Early in my professional life, I aspired to make enough money to outsource all the jobs I did not want to do.  Things like fixing my car or doing handy work around the house were tasks that I thought I would eventually pay someone else to do.  With a decade and half of perspective, I can look back at this attitude and see how stupid it is for three reasons:

First, paying someone else to do something that I can do is a waste of money. There are times when I will need specific expertise – electrical work or plumbing, for example.  But there are a lot of things I could do myself and save some money in the process.

The second reason is that even when the tasks seem intimidating (like building a shed, for example), there are opportunities for growth and initiation.

The third reason, and perhaps the most important one, is that each time a job comes up that I may not want to do, but completing it improves life for my family, it is an opportunity to serve.  I did not understand the meaning of this until quite recently.  Sometimes the best way for me to show my love for my family is by cleaning up food scraps with a dishcloth under the table.

Cleaning Crew and the Pursuit of Next

With four young children, getting through the bedtime routine can often feel like a marathon.  Thinking of relaxing on the couch once they are all asleep is sometimes the only thing that gets me through the process.   

Coming downstairs only to remember that the kitchen, dinner table, and floor still need to be cleaned up is not a good feeling.  Especially after a long day.

In our house, responsibility for after dinner clean up is mine.  I used to hate doing it, particularly the moment when I think I am finished and walk past the table and notice the other half of our one-year-old’s dinner in pieces on the floor. 

We have been cleaning food off the floor for more than 8 years now.  For many years, I would do it begrudgingly.  I would take care of it, but not without being in a bad mood or highlighting to Katie how much I disliked the act of doing it. 

Other than the unpleasantness of being on all fours under a table, I think part of my dislike for these types of tasks is born out of a desire to get to the next thing. 

Sometimes the next thing is the comfort found on the couch.  Sometimes it is another task or activity, but one I prefer.  Time catching up with my wife.  A TV show or a book.  Often the next thing is a good thing, meaning getting through the mess as fast as possible is important.

It occurred to me recently that maybe I was seeing things wrong. 

Instead of getting through the mess to get to the next thing, I realized that, sometimes, the mess is the next thing.

In rushing through those moments and moving past them, I risk missing opportunities to show up for my family and to love and serve them.  When I become focused on a destination, I miss a lot of the life that happens on the way.   

Rushing through bedtime in anticipation of the comfort awaiting me on the couch, I can get irritated and annoyed at my kids when they do not instantly go to sleep.  On the nights that I approach those moments with a desire to show my kids how much I love them, magic happens.  I experience moments of closeness or an expression of some thought or fear they are holding onto as it comes to the surface. 

In the same way, by approaching the bits of food stuck to the floor from a place of loving service rather than obligation, the difference when I get to the end is noticeable.  When I think of the work Katie puts in with our kids all day when I am at work, cleaning dried rice off the floor becomes a small opportunity to thank her and express my love and gratitude. 

I know the place we are right now as a family will evolve and my kids will stop dropping their food on the floor (hopefully).  When that happens, the mess will be something else, but it will still be there.  I am learning that the mess is not something to be skipped over or ignored.  It is the place of authentic encounter. 

Jesus met countless people right in the middle of their messes and walked them out.  In family life, working through the mess is the path to closeness and connection.  It is the same for all human relationships. 

Sweeping Under the Rug

In my experience, men are good at hiding their messes, especially from each other.  Rarely am I approached by a male friend or acquaintance who shares a struggle they are experiencing, work being the one exception. 

Yet there is no doubt we all struggle – we all have messes where we could use some support.  Part of it is a desire not to be seen as weak.  There is a brutal lie that exists that holds up the self-made man as the ideal.  Successful men have it all together and can figure it out on their own when they do not, we are told. 

The opposite is true.  In my own journey, I have found a great source of strength from walking alongside other men who are willing to accept me and all my messes, as I am for them. 

To be clear, this is not an arrangement where we sit around and talk about our feelings.  It is getting into the foxhole with an acknowledgement that there is real shit happening in each of our lives.  Working to find the courage to battle through it together.  There is no façade or pretending that things are always all good and it is in vulnerability that we encounter strength. 

The strength I get from these relationships helps me to be a better husband, father, and friend. 

Embrace the Mess

The two answers I came up with in response to the question I spoke of above about how we can act as Christ would in the lives of others were as follows:

Wash feet. 

Do not be afraid to get into the mess.

Rushing to get past the dirty jobs and the undesirable places might actually prevent us from being exactly where we are meant to be. Life might be more comfortable if could avoid the dirty and uncomfortable places.  But when we embrace that which is most uncomfortable, first in ourselves and then in others, we find opportunities to grow in new ways. Opportunities to walk through our struggles with support.  To gain strength to support others on their own journeys.

The process might not be the cleanest, but the path to true growth rarely is.

– Sean

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