Blessed are the Untidy

March 01, 2010

While parents have preached and kids have groaned, the message has not changed much through the decades: Cleanliness is next to godliness. With that mantra, parents have thrown down the gauntlet, hoping guilt will somehow motivate little hands to pick up dirty socks, clean behind ears and brush teeth.

Thankfully my parents tolerated a balanced approach. In a large backyard with an endless supply of dirt, I built roads and cities, crawled through mud, climbed trees and captured bugs until evening. When mother called, I brought the outside inside. Dusty feet padded across the floor, grass and leaves sifted down, and bugs in the pocket were provided safe keeping for the night — in my dresser drawer. Then came bath time. Clean toes feel ever so much better under the covers.

Conscientious parents dream of little boys and girls with shining faces, unscuffed shoes, pressed clothes and combed hair representing self-confidence, good breeding and unrestrained potential. Wise parents know there is much, much more to developing character that shines from deep beneath the surface. I'm grateful for parents who let me explore in between bath time scrubbings.

I still struggle to keep a semblance of order. Things I file in good faith often end up in the mythical realm populated by missing socks, long lost receipts and Jimmy Hoffa. So I have formed a truce between the extremes.

A Monk-ish obsession with tidiness can become a barrier to better things. Some would like our church to be more tidy — everyone spiffed up, looking the same, marching in lockstep. But that runs counter to the creative energy of the Spirit to whom we have been entrusted until the end. The tidiness our Lord longs for is not just an external appearance of order. It's paramount in Jesus' admonition: "You Pharisees make the outside of the cup and dish clean, but your inward part is full of greed and wickedness," (Luke 11:39). It's echoed in David's heartfelt request: "Create in me a clean heart, O God. And renew a steadfast spirit within me," (Psalm 51:10).

The church militant is unified, but not uniform. It is all about others and not about self. Those who spend their time down in the dirt among the trenches are incalculably more beautiful than those obsessed with the magnifying glass or mirror.

The mother who, putting housework, business or self aside, sits down and really listens to her children, has got it right. The father who foregoes 15 minutes of sports talk on his drive to work, to lift his kids in prayer, has figured it out.

The One in whom there was "no form or comeliness," who was "despised and rejected by men," sees and understands. He knows our tendencies to notice outward things, and instead looks beyond the untidy, past the appearance and places His fondest attentions upon the heart.

Some would like our church to be more tidy — everyone spiffed up, looking the same, marching in lockstep.