Last Thursday I was at a cabinet meeting in the Iowa Annual Conference Center in Des Moines and went out for a walk at lunch. This has become a common practice of mine as the weather moderates. A month before, walking in a nearby industrial park, I noticed that there were little plastic bottles strewn randomly in the grass beside the sidewalk.
My curiosity aroused, I picked up one of the empty bottles and read the label, Fireball Red Hot Cinnamon Whisky. Hmm, I said to myself. That’s strange. Over the course of my forty-minute walk, I counted 273 empty Cinnamon Whisky 50 ml bottles (3.38 tablespoons). What a mess!!! Although they were quite small, the sheer number of bottles that were obviously thrown out of cars by drinking drivers was scary.
I need to offer a disclaimer up front that I have never had a drink of alcohol in my life, except for a few tiny sips of communion wine in the Lutheran chapel at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio when I was a college student. Choosing to refrain from alcohol is one way in which I can witness to my faith, and it has occasioned many fruitful conversations over the years.
Curious, amazed, and innocent, I went on the Fireball website and discovered their slogan: Tastes like Heaven, Burns like Hell. I also found Fireball swag for sale, such as a men’s Fireball blazer, a Fireball Counter Freezer, a baby’s Fireball Onesie, Fireball rain jackets and sweaters, and a Fireball bottle-shaped string of lights.
Since my first discovery of the Fireball Cinnamon Whisky bottles, I have made similar forays in the area of the Conference Center to pick up and recycle whisky bottles, including last Thursday, which was Earth Day. Ever since the birth of the environmental protection movement in 1970, we have observed Earth Day on April 22 as a way of raising public awareness and inspiring people to protect and save our environment. The theme for this year’s Earth Day was “Restore Our Earth” and was focused on emerging green technologies that can restore the world’s ecosystems.
I am continually reminded of Frank Lloyd Wright’s counsel to prospective clients before he made a final contract with them. “One – the project will take longer than you planned. Two – it will cost more than you figured. Three – it will be messier than you ever imagined. And Four – it will take more patience, perseverance, and determination to get through it than you ever dreamed.” Any kind of building project is, by definition, messy. But those of us who are not familiar with construction usually learn that the hard way.
Our earth is a mess in a lot of ways, too, with way too much violence, a lack of regard for the environment, and great disparities between the haves and the have nots. COVID-19 has turned our world upside down as we struggle to reinvent how to live faithfully and fully in the midst of the Pandemic. As of April 23, 93.1million people in the US have been fully vaccinated (28.4% of the population), but many others are choosing not to receive the vaccine. Meanwhile, there is continuing debate around when churches can safely go back to in-house worship and how long we need to wear masks and socially distance.
This past week has provided a grim reminder that we are not done with racism, either. Last Tuesday Derek Chauvin was convicted on charges of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd. The verdicts were read a day after jurors began their deliberations. It was messy. Countless lives have been affected as we have tried to come to grips with a police officer pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds as he lay face down, hands cuffed behind his back, and pleading, “I can’t breathe.” Philonese Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, told a news conference after the verdict that he had hoped and prayed for a guilty verdict. “I am fighting for everybody around this world… Today we are able to breathe again… Justice for George means freedom for all.” It was messy, yet justice was served. And God expects us to continue to confront racism in whatever form it presents itself.
The United Methodist Church has had our share of difficulties, too, as we have struggled around human sexuality since 1972. General Conference 2020 had to be postponed until September 2021 because of COVID, and just last month we learned that General Conference has been postponed again until August 29-September 6, 2022. Meanwhile, some congregations can no longer wait and seek to disaffiliate with The United Methodist Church and go their own way. It’s messy.
What I have learned over the years is that if I build my life on the solid foundation of faith in Jesus Christ, I am much better equipped to deal with the inevitable messes. I am reminded of Matthew 7:24-27 (CEB) where Jesus says, “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock. But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house. It fell and was completely destroyed.”
In the midst of the messes of life, God calls you and me to build our hope on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and his righteousness. We dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock we stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand. The solid foundation of our Wesleyan faith is based on this premise, “Do not harm. Do Good. Stay in love with God.”
Yet, the reality of our lives is that, at times, it’s gonna be messier than we think. Even if the messiness in the church isn’t always as dramatic as we anticipate at times, the world out there is as messy as ever! The plethora of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky bottles, along with the tragedy of addiction is just one small example. All of us want to live in a perfect world, just as we wish we could engage in construction without any inconvenience. We don’t want any problems. We want a world where there is no oppression, no hunger, no war, no COVID, no racism, and no taxes. We want to live in a country where there is no unemployment, no poverty, no crime, and no cancer. We want to be part of a family where there is no divorce, no violence, and no sexual abuse. And we want to belong to a church where there is no interpersonal conflict, disagreement, or financial distress.
But the reality of life is that it does get messy! And people in the church do not have any fewer messes than people outside the church. In the midst of our struggles, the words of Jesus remind us of the foundation that we must build in order to really live – a foundation that will not crumble in a crisis as if we had built on sand.
I am going to keep picking up and recycling Fireball Cinnamon Whisky bottles. It’s the least I can do to help our environment. At the same time, I know that even doing the right thing can be messy. Making difficult decisions, choosing grace in the midst of conflict, and attempting to lead an anti-racist life is not always easy. Yet I am convinced that God will empower us to build our houses on rock by making a solid commitment to doing no harm, doing good, and staying in love with God. Only then can we live out the words of Ben Cramp, head of the team of lawyers representing George Floyd’s family, “Painfully earned justice has arrived for George Floyd’s family and the community here in Minneapolis, but today’s verdict goes beyond this city and has significant implications for the country and even the world. Justice for Black America is Justice for All America.”
Yes, living our lives with a solid foundation in Jesus Christ is gonna be messier than we think. But it’s also gonna be more beautiful and more hopeful as we reimagine God’s call in our life and respond by saying, “Here I am Lord. Send me.”