You can imagine my surprise when I came home one day to the sound of rushing water. Did a pipe burst? Had there been a break-in? Was the toilet overflowing? No. The cats had discovered how to turn on the kitchen sink.
Everything from the Christmas tree to the plant dangling from the shelf is fair game when you have cats – and perhaps especially so with new kittens. If there’s one thing they’ve taught me, it’s that life can be messy. My fellow pet parents – not to mention the parents of small human children – know exactly what I’m talking about.
Life is unpredictable and messy. So much is unknown from one day, even one hour, to the next, and rarely can life’s surprises – kittens included – be controlled.
Life is messy … so why would we expect the life of faith to be any different? Faith is messy and far from perfect.
Abraham, later exalted by Paul as the pinnacle of faith, was far from perfect. From the beginning of his call, when he was still Abram, a severe famine forced him and his wife Sarai to Egypt for survival. Almost as soon as God calls him, Abram distrusts God’s promises and lies to Pharaoh, saying that Sarai is his sister in order to spare his own life.
Later, after God reiterates the divine promise to Abram and Sarai that they will indeed have children, still they distrust God. At that point, Sarai takes matters into her own hands and tells her husband to sleep with her slave Hagar to give them a son.
Centuries later, Abraham and Sarah would find good company with the disciple Peter, who always seems to be putting his foot in his mouth in the most cringeworthy ways possible. Almost in the same breath as Peter boldly and bravely declares Jesus to be the Messiah, he tries to get in the way of the work of that Messiah. And the seemingly harsh response leveled at him: “Get behind me, Satan!”
Later, on the mount of transfiguration, it’s Peter who will suggest building three tents so they can all camp out and stay … only to be met with another divine rebuke. It’s like poor Peter, noble as his intentions are, can’t catch a break. And surely we can’t forget his triple denial of ever knowing Jesus.
And yet, even in spite of their shortcomings and failures: God is faithful. Abraham goes on to be the father of many nations and the first patriarch of what would become the nation of Israel. And Peter, witness to the resurrection, is the rock on which Christ builds his church.
Did God screw up by calling such imperfect people as Abraham and Peter? Or maybe, did God know exactly what they were doing? Maybe, God is trying to say something about the messy life of faith. Maybe, God is showing us that God can use messy and messed up people because God, who is faithful, calls them.
One of my favorite spiritual writers Anne Lamott has famously written, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” Faith doesn’t mean having all the answers or having a perfect track record. Faith is full of doubts and questions and uncertainty. And in many ways, that’s a lot more faithful than total and unflinching assent to a set of beliefs or doctrine.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus’s call to discipleship is not a call to blindly follow and to ignore suffering. “Taking up our cross” is also certainly not a justification for enduring suffering or abuse, as it has so often been misused.
Taking up our cross, as Jesus calls us, is to embark on a life of faith that is going to be challenging and uncertain and full of questions and missteps. Taking up our cross calls us into a messy faith. A faith that stands, where Jesus did, at the very center of the world’s pain. A faith that looks at the image of God in those who suffer and cry out under the oppression of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, depression, addiction, or abuse. A faith that is not afraid to get its hands messy, to dig into the muck and mire and reach out in love.
The life of faith is messy. It will probably leave us with more questions than answers. But it’s a life that is no less faithful to the one who calls us, who sustains us, who washes us in the waters of baptism, who nourishes us with bread and cup.
We yearn for life to be easy. We yearn for a faith with a perfect track record. But that’s not what faith is about … and there’s some grace in that too. There’s a lot of grace in that, actually. Because it is in our doubts and questions and missteps that God calls us anyway, flaws and all.
The God of Abraham, the patriarch of Israel, who doubted and lied. The God of Sarah who laughed in the face of God’s promises that seemed too good to be true. The God of Peter who didn’t – or couldn’t – understand what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. The God of us, imperfect and flawed as we are, but no less beloved members of God’s family. We are in good company with our fellow messed-up ancestors in faith. We are in good, messy company with each other.
If we wait until we have it all together to do the work of the gospel, until circumstances are just right, until ____ (what?) … then we’re going to be waiting for a very long time.
Jesus calls us to start now. As we are. With the gifts we bring. The experiences we have. The lives we live. Let us now and ever walk with Jesus because it is God who calls us, God who equips us, God who sustains us. Let us ever walk with Jesus now for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of a hurting world in need of God’s redemption.
It’s going to be messy. Such is faith.