The Messy Middle

One of the hardest things for me during our years in family ministry was unfinished stories. More often than not, we watched our students blossom and their families flourish, but there were times we could do very little to help move a struggling family towards healing. It’s a special kind of hard to see a train wreck coming for people you love, and having to let go and leave them in their mess.

Occasionally we hear updates about former students that remind us that it can take years for the waves of sin and trauma to crest, and we ache for them all over again. We couldn’t stop their pain then, and we can’t stop it now. The reality of ministry – the reality of life – is that there will always be unfinished stories, where the hopeless mess seems to be winning.

I was talking with a friend about this recently, and she pointed out something I’ve missed every time I’ve read Luke’s account of Jesus’ compassion for a widow who had lost her only son. My attention has always been so much on the fact that He raised the boy from the dead that I’ve skimmed over the first part of this verse:

“Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, ‘Young man, I say to you, get up!” (Luke 7:14, NIV)

Jesus touched the bier. He walked right into the middle of a mother’s grief, into her hopelessness, and He put His hands on her dead son. No fear of imposing. No hesitation to touch something ritually unclean. Just Jesus, hands-on in the mess.

When I thought about it, I realized that Jesus had a habit of getting His hands dirty. There was the time He drew with His finger in the dust, surrounded by a crowd demanding an adulterous woman’s death. We don’t know what He wrote, but whatever it was, it stole the anger from her accusers, and she walked away with a second chance (John 8:1-11).

And then there was the man born blind. Jesus could have healed him with just words, like He had done before for others, but this time He made mud with His own spit, smeared it over the man’s eyes, and sent him to wash away his blindness in the pool of Siloam (John 9:6-7).

There’s dirt under the fingernails of the hands that made the stars.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the God who made us out of dust wouldn’t let our grime keep Him from remaking us. But the image of Jesus with dirty hands is cradling me still, here in the middle of unfinished grief over people I love, in the middle of my own messy stories. He wades unafraid into our deepest muck, dives straight into the places where we’re most undone, rolls up his sleeves and gets to work.

It’s true that stories can stretch out so long that their resolution seems like an impossible dream. But we don’t have to wait until the end to see Jesus at work. Here in the messy middle is where He’s washing our sight clear, writing redemption into our dust, and touching dead hearts to life.

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6, NLT).

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