EMU-seminary alum reflects on the beauty and joy of life’s messes

A beautiful mess is the title I would give my attempt to make applesauce this year. The only logical explanation for why I would undertake processing two bushels of apples with the help of my infant son and toddler daughter is that I’m optimistic (or that I have caved under the pressure to have Instagram-able moments of motherhood).

However, it is exactly that kind of crazy optimism that led to a truly beautiful mess (at moments near disaster). As I tried to recover from my wrong turn on the way to the orchard, I staved off meltdowns by singing the children’s songs I had rehearsed with my sisters on the many road trips we took growing up.

As the sweet little toddler voice sang strong, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” I was overcome by the beauty of that message and the preciousness of an emerging faith understanding—things I would have missed if I had just turned up the radio to cover the crying.

I had to bite my tongue to keep from yelling as water from her full sink sloshed onto the floor. “I helping with dishes,” Anna declared proudly.

It really was beautiful—the three of us lined up along the counter: her washing the freezer boxes, me working at the colander, the baby giggling from his high chair.

A beautiful moment I would have missed if I had allowed my frustration with mess or the slow pace of the project to take root.

There was mess: in the burnt-on peels of the pot of apples boiling too long as I tried to nurse between tasks, the cut on my thumb from dancing around with the baby in the backpack while coring apples, and the pinch in my right shoulder from the weight of balancing an interested toddler while stirring, pouring, mashing and scooping.

There was also beauty: in the sweet pink sauce, delicious and warm with our supper, the squeal of excitement for Daddy when he came in the door—his proud helper sharing the details of our day—and the satisfaction of a task accomplished.

Does not life often end up being a beautiful mess? We optimistically try to accomplish things on our own or feverishly work, thinking the final product is the prize when really God is calling us to attend to the beauty and joy amid our work.

Young adulthood, in particular, can often feel like a string of beautiful messes—trying to establish yourself in all areas of life, stumbling from one experience into a new opportunity or being stranded in threshold times of possibility in which you hold everything and nothing at once.

As I find my way between being a “young adult” and being “middle aged,” I realize these threshold experiences are universal.

Whether it’s high school graduation, the start of a new career, sending your last child to college, starting a new career midlife or retiring after 40 years of service to an organization, we all face moments (sometimes extended) of liminal time in which we embrace possibility with nothing concrete.

Human nature may urge one to rush through the doorway, to push forward into the “next,” but the way of the Spirit is often not that of hurry or ease.

Instead it is a call to savor liminal time. God invites us to take a moment and patiently stand at the threshold—calling us to be (perhaps crazily) optimistic, dreaming big and trusting in the Spirit’s ability to do more than we could ask or imagine.

It can be exhilarating to stand on the threshold of something new and unknown. It can be equally terrifying. Often it is both, just as our world shows us beauty and mess at every turn.

I sense we are called to attend to these beautiful messes—whether our own or those of others. It may be a small mess in the kitchen, the consequences of our own choices.

Or we may find ourselves in a disaster over which we have little or no control—a bitter career disappointment, a lost relationship or a life-altering diagnosis.

The beauty may be fleeting or hidden, but it is our choice to find the beauty amid a mess of disappointment or taste the sweet rewards of a task completed, even if it’s not to the standard we envision.

I pray that we have the courage to step to the threshold time and again, willing to have crazy optimism despite what the world may say. And may we be gracious with others as they search for the beautiful in their mess.

Sherah-Leigh Gerber, a 2004 EMU and 2009 seminary graduate, is coordinator of volunteers for Ohio Mennonite Conference. She will serve as advancement director for Virginia Mennonite Missions beginning in March 2014. She lives in Apple Creek, Ohio, with her husband and two young children.

Published December 30, 2013, courtesy The Mennonite