Grace in the Messy Middle

The Messy Middle, copyright 2014, Lynn Abbott
The Messy Middle for “Sunshine on My Window Sill,” © Lynn Abbott Studios. Used with Permission.

© 2017 Lynn Abbott

I can’t recall anything but the chorus.

However, upon returning from summer camp, my-ten-year-old self promptly taught my parents the catchy tune, and the refrain became a standing joke: “And she threw it out the window, the window, the second story window…”

Yup. It became my theme song for all things frustrating. And to this day, I frequently consider throwing some projects out the second story window. Well… that’s not exactly true.

Let’s be honest. At some point or another, I actually feel like throwing all of my paintings out that convenient window! The desire to throw a piece overboard generally reaches its peak when I reach what I like to call the “messy middle.”

It’s that point when nothing seems to make sense. Everything about my work appears an amorphous mess. In frustration, I threaten canvas with a second story catapalt. At this halfway point, my paintings don’t fulfill my vision. All seems lost.

Sunshine on My Window Sill-2l, copyright 2014, L. Abbott with watermarkYet, experience has taught me to give it time. Middles are like that… messy. But patience and gracious perseverance pay off. And the creative plan comes together if I refuse to throw the composition out.

Life imitates art sometimes. This is especially so when my life gets messy–when nothing goes as I plan, things fall apart, I lose patience, I make mistakes, I let people down, or I feel utterly discouraged. And I feel hopelessly lost.

Let’s be honest. At some point or another, I actually feel like throwing all of my paintings out that convenient window!

Fortunately for me, no second story window awaits me. Abba is a God of extravagant grace. Even with a cursory reading of the Bible, that becomes perfectly clear.

The stories of David, Moses, Peter and so many others demonstrate God’s patience and continuing kindness despite the chaos that so often characterize His children’s lives.

If these saint’s lives are not enough to illustrate God’s radical grace, Christ further highlights and underlines it through His parables. In the Gospel record, I read of the prodigal son’s lavish reception upon his return home, and the master’s forgiveness of ungrateful servant’s extraordinary debts. In God’s gracious economy, even the late afternoon vineyard laborers receive a full day’s wage for only an hour’s work.

However, one frequently overlooked saint in the New Testament encapsulates God’s incredible grace for me. Of course, not many sermons revolve around John Mark. You may have heard of him. Then, again, maybe you haven’t.

He certainly doesn’t make a huge impression. In fact, we know very little about him except that he was Barnabas’ cousin and that he accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey.

Beyond that, the book of Acts doesn’t tell us much. Apparently, John Mark started well. After all, he willingly joined a dangerous gospel mission. But when Paul and Barnabas arrived in Pamphylia, John ran home to Jerusalem. He bailed out. Or as some might say, his adventure was an “epic fail.”

The Messy Middle, copyright 2014, Lynn AbbottI can certainly relate to John Mark. Sometimes the journey seems absolutely overwhelming. When life gets messy, my carefully constructed confidence crumbles. I become fearful, anxious, discouraged, or just plain weary.

Life imitates art sometimes.

Be it through external circumstances or through my own well-meaning but misguided choices, things just seem to deteriorate.

And I’m ready to throw it all out the second story window.

I suppose Peter must have felt this way after denying Christ. David certainly felt despair after creating his own mess with Bathsheba. The Book of Psalms records his heart cries.

I suspect that Abraham believed he’d gone too far after lying about Sarah to an Egyptian ruler. I can easily imagine that Abraham feared God would change His mind about His promises. And Mary Magdalene must have believed herself to be a “throw away.”

Enter the God of extravagant grace. No mess surprises Him. No mess thwarts His purpose. Things are never so far gone that He is unable to transform them.

Of course, people don’t always respond to one another in grace. When Barnabas wished to give John Mark another chance, Paul objected. John Mark had let them down.

On the other hand, Barnabas, the encourager, understood God’s grace. The debate likely became heated. Nevertheless, the apostle who penned the words, “for by grace we have been saved” ironically parted company with Barnabas over John Mark.

Abba, however, did not give up on John Mark. Paul’s assessment wasn’t the end of the story because God loves to lift us from the mess.

And God’s lavish grace inspires, renews, and shapes beauty in our hearts. Not surprisingly, those who fully understand and experience such grace respond with extravagant love.

Consider Mary Magdalene. Remember how she poured out perfume, that was valued as a year’s wages, in gratitude for God’s grace toward her. And in a similar way, John Mark’s messy middle allowed God’s grace to shine. Abba brought forth beauty from John Mark’s life despite his mid-journey washout.

Enter the God of extravagant grace.

I take comfort in this: in spite of his midstream missteps, John Mark served once more with Paul. We know this because in Colossians 4:10, Paul sends greetings on John Mark’s behalf. Paul asks John Mark to join him in 2 Timothy 4:11. He writes, “Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.”

Sunshine on My Sill © 2014 Lynn Abbott StudiosThat’s right. God has no “second story window.” When all seems lost, His grace envelopes us over and over again.

Indeed, God renews the brokenhearted, restores the “epic failures,” refreshes the downtrodden and vulnerable. He uses the leper, the former prostitute, the blind, the beggar, the fearful, and the poor in spirit.

He accepts the widow’s small jar of insignificant oil and a bit of flour, and multiplies it to feed His prophet. He calls a drop-out to be the apostle Paul’s trusted assistant.

Extravagant Grace perseveres. It carries me through the messy middle to the completed work of art. My current condition isn’t my final destination.

True, my day may be filled with frustration; tempers may fly; chaos may reign; disappointment may cloud faith; trust may run low; I may wipe out. I can guarantee that I will fail again and again.

Living gets messy.

Yet, God’s grace remains steadfast; it stays the course despite how the middle may appear.

And having shaped the once amorphous mass of clay, the Master Potter unveils extraordinary terracotta pots–beautiful and useful in His sight.

Sunshine on My Window Sill-2l, copyright 2014, L. Abbott with watermark

“But Thou, O LORD, art a shield about me, My glory, and the One who lifts my head,” ~Psalm 3:3

“Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers And is bowed down within me. This I recall, Therefore I have hope. The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Thy faithfulness,” ~Lamentations 3:19-23

“For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus,” ~Philippians 1:6