Glamping with God
I am a guy that you could undeniably label "indoorsy." However, I have a lot of friends that love to fish and camp in the woods. When they ask me why I prefer the temperature-controlled indoors to the outdoors' unpredictability, my answer is simple: "I don't want to get dirty." If forced to go camping, I prefer "glamping." Google it.
I was recently reflecting on my 16 years in ministry and some of the recent shifts in theology, ministry success, and posture and realized there was a direct parallel between my aversion for getting dirty in the outdoors and the tidy and tame Jesus I had slowly managed to believe in.
"My tidy theology didn't align with the Scriptures I was studying and questions I was considering throughout the Reclaim Journey. To further complicate matters, my neat idea of Jesus and ministry wasn't aligning with what I was experiencing in relationships with the people who sat at our tables."
As I worked my way through Table Network's Reclaim Training in early 2019, it not only challenged my beliefs about God himself (his heart) but where and how God works and among whom he works. At first, I was overwhelmed by the vision of Jesus and ministry laid out in Reclaim. My tidy theology didn't align with the Scriptures I was studying and questions I was considering throughout that journey. To further complicate matters, my neat idea of Jesus and ministry wasn't aligning with what I was experiencing in relationships with the people who sat at our tables.
Messing Up My Life
When you first set a table, everything is orderly. However, as the meal progresses, things get messy in a hurry. In 2018 we left a conventional church context to start a church family around our table. Let me give you a vision for who made up our first table. One couple adopted a child who was —no lie— caught plotting to do physical harm to the family that just adopted her. One couple was cheating on each other. Another couple was planning their divorce, and we had a former church staff member struggling with thoughts of suicide. My tidy table turned out to be a dysfunctional family food fight on Thanksgiving.
As these issues began to surface, I found myself longing for the days when I believed sermons were the magic bullet and relationships were confined to the church lobby on Sunday mornings. Nothing about what I was doing seemed manageable, and I was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed. What started as a cool missional idea quickly felt like a daunting task, and I found myself desperately running to the Lord and asking for help. I quickly came across John chapter 9.
"I found myself longing for the days when I believed sermons were the magic bullet and relationships were confined to the church lobby on Sunday mornings. Nothing about what I was doing seemed manageable, and I was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed."
The God Who Works In The Mud
The scene in chapter nine centers around a man born blind. The disciple's tit-for-tat, conditional theology led them to ask Jesus if his affliction was due to his sin or his parent's sin (v.2). Jesus shockingly responds to explain that his blindness wasn't God's judgment due to one's action, but an occasion to experience the "works of God" (v.3). After explaining to the disciples that he is the Light of the World, "...he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man's eyes with the mud and said to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing" (v.6-7).
Without wading too deep into the choppy philosophical waters of God's relationship to sin and suffering in the world, we must affirm — sin and suffering is where we meet Jesus. Why is this the case? Frustratingly I answer: I don't know. However, I cannot deny it.
This poor and disabled man's life is messy and complicated — much like those at my table. And his life is about to get ever more complicated as the story goes on. After Jesus heals the beggar, his neighbors start talking about him and questioning him (v.8-12). The religious leaders drag him into a tribunal to interrogate him (v13-17, 24-34). These same leaders mock him and hurl insults at him (v.28), and then excommunicate him (v.34). To make matters worse, Jesus is seemingly nowhere to be found in the aftermath of the healing. This man is left to deal with the haters all by himself.
"Sin and suffering is where we meet Jesus."
My theology defined holiness as separating from the filth and dirt of the world. My idea of salvation was redemption out of muddy bits of our lives. Jesus, to me, seemed as though he stood on the happily-ever-after end of our stories ready to receive the fixed-up version of ourselves and put us to good use in his kingdom. But notice how Jesus not only makes sense of this man’s difficult life (by framing it inside of “the works of God”), he meets him in the middle of his mess.
In John 9, God is getting his hands dirty. Both literally and in the true essence of the expression. Jesus steps into the mud of this guy’s life.
If the incarnation of Jesus teaches us anything, it's that God has gotten himself messy and irrevocably married himself to this world. God has entangled himself in our mess for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in blindness and sight.
God loves messy people (the only kind of people there are), and he saved them in the mess of the cross. And while it is true that he has opened our eyes to his grace as the Light of the World and cleaned us right up by washing us spotless in the blood of his Son — John 9 hardly provides that happily-ever-after ending you’d expect.
After the beggar loses everything on account of gaining his sight, Jesus again seeks him out and finds him (v.35). When the story abruptly ends, he's left with nothing but Jesus.
For us, we can be reassured that there is no tidy domesticated Better Homes and Garden Jesus — only Jesus in the midst of our mess, loving us faithfully and at work in us to trust wholly in him.
"If the incarnation of Jesus teaches us anything, it's that God has gotten himself messy and irrevocably married himself to this world. God has entangled himself in our mess for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in blindness and sight."
Joining Jesus In The Mess
A significant shift for me was coming to see that God doesn't just have a relationship with our idealized selves, but with our actual selves — both the gorgeous and grisly. Rather than seeing holiness as separating from the filth and dirt of the world, Jesus was sent to bring the holiness of his life, love, and loving relationships (trinity) to our messy world.
In the midst of our disasters, not necessarily the deliverance out of them, God fulfills the promise of his love. He entered our darkness to shine his light and the darkness has not overcome it (Jn. 1:4-5). This realization was the Good News I needed to press into my table and not retreat.
"A significant shift for me was coming to see that God doesn't just have a relationship with our idealized selves, but with our actual selves — both the gorgeous and grisly."
Following Jesus's lead, we see that it's okay to get dirty. No, it's imperative that we get dirty alongside others. Instead of longing to get to the other side of my community's stories, I've learned to rejoice in the God of light that is present with us in the darkness of our mess. To wait on him. To sit in it and trust Him.
I'm learning that when the messiness of our lives begins to show and all hell is breaking forth, the Light of the World is at work "doing the works of God" by producing in us faith (Eph. 2:8-9). We don't need to get discouraged or walk away, thinking that God is the god of manicured lawns, ideal people, and divine makeovers. Jesus invites us to press into the muck, the mire, and the brokenness with him. And we must always remember: God’s work is always a dirty job.
John Pappas is a musician, small business owner, author, church planter, and Table Network leader from Northwest Indiana.
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