After three years working in a bakery, I’ve come to believe that the best things in life always get a bit messy.
Buttercream icing is my specialty. On a good day, I’ll make over two hundred pounds of icing, just enough to get my bakery through a week of cupcakes and birthday cakes and four-tiered wedding marvels. Everything starts out looking so pristine—mixers gleaming, tables spotless. But after eight hours of buttercream-making, a hurricane might as well have come through. Bits of butter and shortening and half-beaten icing are everywhere, smeared on the tables, speckling the walls. My whole corner of the bakery is dusted in a layer of powdered sugar like an indoor flurry of snow.
I’m equally part of the mess. My glasses get so thickly coated that the world looks foggy. (“You need windshield wipers!” my coworkers tell me.) My clothes change color, and my skin gets stiff and crinkly from the sugar. But I’m not complaining. Of all the jobs that leave you covered in some powder or liquid at the end of the day, a bakery job that covers you in powdered sugar is about as good as it gets.
Besides, if it weren’t for the mess, we’d never get anything baked.
In this sense, the church is a bit like a bakery. Not because church leaves you covered in powdered sugar—at least, not most of the time—but because, if church does what it’s intended to do, things are bound to get messy.
People, after all, are messy creatures. We love each other, irritate each other, differ from each other. We feel disappointment and fear and heartbreak and loneliness. We wrestle with selfishness, greed, lust, and pride. And following Jesus doesn’t get us off the hook from all of this. Quite the opposite. Jesus came because of the mess, because our broken human story is made beautiful by the power of the cross. The longer we follow Jesus, the more deeply we realize our need for him.
Jesus takes delight in working with messy people. During his time on earth, when a group of Pharisees confronted him about his habit of spending time with sinners, Jesus responded, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Mark 2:17). Another time, among a group of people “who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else,” Jesus told a parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector praying at the temple. While the Pharisee was convinced of his own excellence, thanking God that he wasn’t like other people, the tax collector acknowledged his mess and cried out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It was the second man, Jesus explains, not the first, who “went home justified before God” (Luke 18:9-14).
It’s not that Jesus wants his followers to stop pursuing holiness, or that he expects us to conjure up a mess where none exists. He simply knows that we’re human—that as long as we live on this side of heaven, we’ll never be totally free of the effects of the Fall. We’ll always keep needing the gospel. And he calls us to acknowledge that need, to acknowledge our mess, both to ourselves and to one another.
“Carry each other’s burdens,” Paul writes to the church in Galatia, “and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). If we’re going to obey Paul by carrying each other’s burdens, we need to know what those burdens are. We need to be honest with other about our messiness. (Not that we all need to announce our problems to every single person in our church bodies, or print them in the weekly church bulletin: “Everyone take note, Mr. Jones is struggling with gluttony and can’t stay away from the donuts.”) The church is designed to be a community where messy people, aware of one another’s messes, usher each other into the presence of a perfect God.
A church can’t be mess-free and still function as the body of Christ. After all, if a group of messy people gets together to do church, to be the church, without ever acknowledging our messes, the only possible explanation is that we’re meeting with masks on. We hide away our struggles like Pharisees, trying to pretend we’re good enough for God instead of celebrating God’s undeserved grace to us.
Tidy churches encourage the people already within them to be dishonest, to keep pretending they’re not desperately in need of Jesus. And they discourage anyone on the outside from coming in. A mess-free church, like a mess-free kitchen, has stopped doing the work it was designed for.
Messy churches throw their arms open wide and welcome in messy people to become part of God’s creative work. There may be some spills, spatters, and powdered sugar hurricanes along the way, but God is a baker worth trusting. You and I, messy as we are, are invited to be part of the masterpiece.
Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/leolintang