The Sweet Side of Messy

One of my favorite pictures of my grandmother shows her sleeves rolled up and her hands covered in cookie dough. Making rum balls was one of her favorite Christmas traditions. A couple years before she died I made a date with her to make rum balls together. I learned why she loved these so dearly. There I was, ever the rule-follower, measuring out the ingredients with a precision that I’m sure amused her greatly. Until it came time to add the rum. (Which, by the way, doesn’t cook out because these are no-bake cookies.) I held the measuring cup over the bowl and began to slowly pour the rum, wanting to make sure I measured the exact amount called for…when suddenly, she was standing behind me, tipping my elbow higher and higher as I watched the rum overflow the measuring cup and cover the sugary dough. Then she scooped her hands into the bowl and mixed it together (completely ignoring the spoon I laid out for this very purpose), laughing the whole time, until finally all was mixed according to her expert preference.

And then she winked at me as she scooped up a handful of dough and tasted it, just to make sure all was as it should be. Her hands were covered in rum-doused sugary dough, and she had a twinkle in her eye that reminded me why I loved her fiercely. Because she taught me that the sweetest parts of life are often the messiest.

No wonder she loved making rum balls so much.

I made cookies with my girls the other day. Not rum balls, obviously. Sugar cookies – the kind you roll out and press with cookie-cutters. Of course, we had to lick the spoons and bowl. If you’re not covered in gooey sugar at the end of baking, then you’re not doing it right. Dough ended up everywhere in the kitchen. But that’s okay. They are only young once.

Then it came time to decorate the cookies. And it went just as you expect with two children under four. Frosting was everywhere: on the tabletop, on clothing, and especially on the girls’ cheeks after they licked their sugary fingers clean.

The Wee One somehow got a hold of the sprinkles, and of course the cap was loose, so she upended the jar and red sprinkles scattered everywhere.

It was a beautiful mess. Chaotic and noisy (you should’ve heard the wails when Kevin told the Wee One she couldn’t eat handfuls of frosting.) It was wholly unmanageable and heart-warmingly sweet. It was just as it should be. It was a snapshot of life at its best.

Too often we feel this immense pressure to put our best selves forward – even if we are making it all up. We parents, we Christians, we professionals, we humans fear that to be valued we need to prove that we have our stuff together. No mess allowed. And the pressure can be overwhelming during the holiday season. With Christmas cards and parties and gift-giving and family pictures – everything has to be in place, everything has to be expertly executed, everything has to be straight out of Southern Living.

We forfeit the sweetness of life for the sterility of clean.

That’s why I love the Christmas story so much. No matter how much our nativity scenes romanticize it, there was nothing picture-perfect about Jesus’ birth. Really. Nothing. Mary had to deliver far from her home and the safety of a midwife. Jesus was born in a stinky stable, and snoozed his first night away on some donkey’s unfinished dinner. For all we know, his bed could’ve been slobber-soaked. Then, mangy shepherds who were complete strangers intruded on their intimate family time to tell a puzzling story about angelic announcements and heavenly songs. Nothing about this was clean or sterile or on Mary’s birth plan.

But it was sweet – not in spite of the messiness – but because of it. The messiness of Jesus’ birth tells us that being human is to be a mess. Jesus came to transform our mess from ugly to holy. From broken to whole. From sour to sweet. Jesus was born for that purpose: to shape us into a holy mess.

It’s a dangerous thing when we believe that following Jesus means we can’t be messy. Life will always be messy, because…well, life. But it doesn’t have to be a disaster. Because when we accept the mess of life and offer even our messiness for God’s great purposes, that’s when we discover that God flavors the mess with the sweetness of redemption. He tips our elbows and fills our bowls with a generous helping of joy, so that we can lick our fingers and know that eventually, miraculously even, God’s loving, dough-covered hands will mix our pains and disappointments and successes and embarrassments into something so sweet it tastes like heaven. Sweeter and stronger than even my grandmother’s rum balls.

So as I savor the taste of Christmas cookies this year, and ponder the mystery of God-in-the-flesh, I’m going to cherish the image of my grandmother, winking at me as she licked her rum ball covered fingers. That’s how I want to live my life. Messy. Generous. Soaked by grace. With a twinkle in my eye and a chuckle in my heart. Because life is too short to let its intoxicating sweetness go untasted.

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