I knew I was in trouble as soon as I walked into the church. It had been a huge struggle for me to even get there, but my desire to hear the amazing Brenda Salter-McNeil preach overcame my desire to hide away from the world, and so I went. When I walked in, I could see all sorts of “trash” strewn around the sanctuary, and I immediately knew where she was going with this. The title of the sermon, “Pick it up”, hinted at the same thing.
I was immediately angry. Hadn’t my therapist, a ton of self-help books, and far too many of my friends told me that my problem was that I already pick up TOO MUCH of other people’s stuff? And when Pastor Brenda started singing “If You can use anything, Lord, You can use me”, all I could think about was that other sense of the word “use”–and how I far too often allow myself to be “used” by people who then manipulate me, and take advantage of my codependent ways. Somehow, the words twisted in my mind. I know that God is not a “user” in the way that people are, but this was just not the time for me to hear those words. I couldn’t possibly pray that prayer, while my own heart and mind were screaming, “GET ME OUT OF ALL OF THIS! I WANT YOU TO STOP USING ME!” And surely God doesn’t mean for us to be manipulated, lied to, screamed at . . . surely He doesn’t want me spending money I don’t have to try to fix people who don’t want to be fixed in the first place?
I knew I didn’t want to hear this sermon. I knew that she surely could not be talking to me. I knew that my problem was exactly the opposite–I needed to do LESS for people. I needed to find some balance. Clearly, my irrational anger that had been coming out at random times was a signal that my boundaries were being violated. Clearly, I needed to take care of ME, as people were always telling me to.
As she began to talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the fact that people’s lives are “messy”, I sighed, feeling a combination of world-weariness and self-righteous contempt for the people sitting around me, some of whom, I was sure, had no idea what “messy” even was. My argument with God continued: “I’ve had so much of ‘messy’. I’m just too tired to do it anymore!” In spite of myself, I felt a few tears fall, and hid my face, as I always do.
I knew what she was going to do with those scraps of fake garbage. I knew she was going to challenge us to take up this mess and carry it to the altar. I had a mental picture of myself grabbing more of the garbage than I could carry, of screaming at the top of my lungs, “I’VE BEEN TRYING TO TAKE IT ALL! I CAN’T CARRY IT ANYMORE!” I told myself that there was no way that I was going to take this symbolic action, because all of the garbage in that sanctuary couldn’t even begin to be an accurate mental picture of the messes I’ve picked up. Because the whole point of my life is that I need to learn to NOT pick up these messes in the first place. Because that morning, we’d heard about the four friends who brought the paralytic to Jesus, and that whole time I was angry that my own paralyzed friend was being carried, and not very well, by 2 1/2 of us, and that we continue to stumble under the weight of it all.
I could not take that step. I could not pick up anything else.
But then she said something that caught me off guard . . . “Because you can’t keep the mess after you pick it up. You have to bring it to Jesus. So take these pieces of garbage, and bring them to the Cross.” I barely believed that I would be able to let any of it go, but I was propelled forward by her words. Almost frenetically, I began to pick up a scrap of paper, some packing tape, a piece of cardboard. Not just for Mona, but for every person whose mess I had picked up. Pastor Brenda had mentioned praying for a drug-addicted sibling, so I picked up one for Michael, and then one for my terminally ill father, and one for Mona, for Lena, for Lisa, for Cynthia, for David, Daniel, Matthew, Michael, for Jennifer, for Jasmine . . . even for LoserMan, because as much as I don’t want to, I find myself involved in the mess that he’s created. I picked up one for Elijah, and wept at that, because I know that my problem is that I need to let Elijah go . . . I need to accept that he is going to have a life that is not what I would choose for him if he was mine, and more importantly, I need to accept that he is NOT mine.
I followed the crowd streaming up to the altar, with the pastor’s words ringing in my ears. I knew, however, that I could not simply drop my burdens casually into the trash can, as most people were doing. Instead, I lingered there, putting them in one at a time, silently naming each person, and fighting back tears as I did so. I then left church right away, retreating to the safety of my car, where I could cry without anybody seeing or hearing me.
I don’t know what to make of all of this. I took the physical action and made the symbolic gesture of releasing all of these people to God . . . but I am still left with the question of how much I am really meant to pick up in the first place, and what to do when my arms get too full or too tired, or when I just don’t have anything else to give. And I let go of that little guy that I love so much, but far too reluctantly. I don’t know what to do with this fierce love I have for him, this desire to protect him, when I know that HE IS NOT MINE . . . that the truth is that I don’t have anybody who truly IS mine. Can I really give all of that to God too? Can I really trust that He will fill that huge, gaping hole that remains in a way that I will be able to live with?
I’m just so tired of “messy”. And I don’t know where to go with it all. But more than one person has reminded me that tomorrow is a new day, and so I can only try to get through the rest of today, which certainly has enough trouble of its own, and try to trust that God will show me what is next and how I can live.
I just pray that I don’t make more of a mess of things along the way.