Messy Can Be Good

The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary & Joseph


Family life can be extremely messy simply because people’s lives are messy, and not just celebrities with all their flamboyant dysfunctions and pretentious drama and juicy tabloid scandals, but ordinary people like ourselves, with our inconspicuous dysfunctions and restrained drama and mediocre scandals not spicy and convoluted enough for the tabloids. We can probably identify the people in our own family who these describe without any trouble—but not out loud. So it’s just part of life that some individuals are going to be messier than others. I have memories of people in my family growing up, as I’m sure you do, of grandparents and parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, and even childhood neighbor friends. We might remember who were the most popular and the most fashionable dressers, and who wore best the shirt stains and the most interesting stories of meals past; who easily got straight A’s, and who spent chunks of their childhood in Saturday detention; who was most mature, reliable, and responsible, and who had to be constantly reminded to pick up their shoes and socks in the hallway; who was highly motivated, ambitious, and determined, and who was forever playing catch-up and struggling to stay afloat.

Of course “messy” doesn’t just describe our surroundings and how presentable we keep it. It can also describe our adventures in interpersonal relationships, how we make friends and how we make enemies, blunders we repeat and valuable lessons we pick up for future reference, how tangled we get in other people’s messy lives, and they in ours. So when we get the opportunity to reflect on our journey, which we should do as the year comes to a close, we might begin to recognize patterns of behavior that may help us make better choices in the months and years ahead. Whatever is in our DNA we can do little to change. But how we approach life’s twists and turns, and mountains and valleys, and blessings and challenges, is very much still up to us, especially if we know exactly what’s coming up around the bend. And in most cases, we most certainly do.

Most families have a strict unwritten rule, an honor code that separates behavior you can get away with behind closed doors, and behavior that is acceptable, rather—tolerable in public. You know because you’ve heard the words, “You are not leaving the house looking like that” spoken in your house, and “Shh … the neighbors might be listening,” and “Oh, you don’t have to leave; you’re family now.” I’m not saying we shouldn’t do this, especially when children are younger and haven’t yet developed the filters to know what is appropriate when and where. But dirty laundry will be sorted differently by different people. Some distinctions are usually clear—like dry clean and machine wash, whites and coloreds—still talking laundry, mud and no mud. While some distinctions can be fuzzy—like regular cycle and gentle cycle. I wouldn’t know.

So when we began seeing families depicted more realistically in the movies and on TV—except our lives don’t have commercial breaks, dramatic music, and a laugh track—minor details, it gave us the chance to laugh at ourselves a little bit more, and to reflect and face our shared challenges and issues together better.

Jesus was born into a human family, in many ways just like ours, but in many other ways so unlike ours. I sometimes picture their family dynamics. “Go clean your room, and this time, no divine intervention.” “Do what your mother tells you, and quit raising everything back from the dead.” “My friend Tommy called me a name, but he won’t be doing that again, ever.” “Honey, it’s creeping me out. Tell your son to use the broom like everyone else.” “Okay, okay, I’m putting it back. I can’t wait to make my own wine.” “Honey, if you can’t figure out how it works, read the manual. Better yet, what would Jesus do?” I’m sure you’ve thought it. But kidding aside, there was likely nothing extraordinary about their home life. They may have tried each other’s patience now and again, but we would like to think, not on purpose. They may have said things they didn’t mean, again, probably not as bad as we may have on occasion. And they may have their regrets, things they would have done differently, just as we would.

But the scriptures offer some wisdom to guide us today, as it has guided families across many different cultures and generations. The wisdom of Sirach encourages parents to treat their children with kindness and compassion, and children their elders likewise. In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul raises the bar and extends the reach of our words and actions to everyone. “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. … And let the peace of Christ control your hearts. … And be thankful. … And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”[1] We will always find cause to justify our choice to be unkind, or to withhold care and respect. But in the end, how we treat others, whether family or not, comes from who we truly are deep within. I am convinced our every word and action results from our free choice, whether we’ve thought it through or not, and whether we are able to defend it or not. It doesn’t matter who our words and actions are directed at, or who may be watching from the sidelines. It is still our responsibility above all to know ourselves, to acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses, and to work constantly at improving and changing what about us is not who we claim to be. It helps to listen to the wisdom and experience of those who cared for and nurtured us in our youth. And it helps to be mindful of the impact we will have on those who come after us, starting with immediate family, our church family, the wider civic community, and the whole human family. On that note, when you quote me, please remember to include context.

Mary and Joseph had every intention to raise Jesus in the practice of their faith. Whatever their own relationship with God was like, they sincerely desired much more and better for their child. In raising our young people in the faith we treasure, we desire for them as much and even better joy and trust and wonder as we have come to know in our own practice of our Christian faith. At some point, young people will have to take responsibility for their own relationship with God. In the meantime, we can teach them what we know, and show them what we believe—with conviction. And despite how messy our lives may be, and how messy our practice of faith probably is, God is accomplishing wonderful things with our help. Jesus wasn’t afraid to jump in and get his hands dirty. And neither should we. Even God knows it’s worth all the trouble.

Rolo B Castillo © 2017


[1] Colossians 3: 12—17