Thursday, November 04, 2004

BOOK REVIEW: "Messy Spirituality: God's Annoying Love for Imperfect People" by Michael Yaconelli

The following is the first of what I hope will become a monthly book review. For December: “A New Kind of Christian” by Brian McLaren.

“I’m all for getting the mechanics right, but spiritual growth is more than a procedure; it’s a wild search for God in the tangled jungle of our souls, a search which involves a volatile mix of messy reality, wild freedom, frustrating stuckness, increasing slowness, and a healthy dose of gratitude.” – Mike Yaconelli

Mike Yaconelli is a depreciatingly honest man. “I want desperately to know God better,” he says on the opening page of his book, Messy Spirituality. “I want to be consistent. Right now the only consistency in my life is my inconsistency. Who I want to be and who I am are not very close together.”

Yaconelli and I are soul mates.

With a light conversational style and a prose that evokes both brutal candor and unconditional empathy, Yaconelli spills his demons (and ours) upon the pages of his book. This is not a book for the Christian who thinks they have it all figured out. This is a book for the Christian who, like Yaconelli, has been “trying to follow Christ most of my life, and the best I can do is a stumbling, bumbling, clumsy kind of following. I wake up most days with the humiliating awareness that I have no clue where Jesus is.”

Instead of allowing us to focus on our own inadequacies, Yaconelli dares us to compare our lives against those of the scriptures. “Look at the Bible,” he says. “Its pages overflow with messy people. Sounds like you and I are in good company.”

“Spirituality is not about competency; it is about intimacy. Spirituality is not about perfection; it is about connection. Accepting the reality of our broken, flawed lives is the beginning of spirituality not because the spiritual life will remove our flaws but because we let go of seeking perfection and, instead, seek God, the one who is present in the tangledness of our lives.”

Yaconelli’s call is for Christians to come out of hiding, remove the masks that they’ve worn so long they can no longer remember the look of their own faces, and admit both to themselves and their community that they are still works in progress. Being real, he insists, is admitting you are messy. “Our pursuit of spirituality is not always nice, nor is it sanitized. It often gets messy, landing more outside the lines than we think.”

The church, Yaconelli claims, needs to cease being a place where Christians feel they must walk through the doors already perfected and become a safe place for the fellowship of Christ to admit their faults and weaknesses; a place they can come with ceaseless doubts and troubling questions; a place that, like Jesus, is not repelled by our messiness and flawed humanity but instead doggedly pursues us with outrageous, indiscriminate love.

“There is no room for pretending in the spiritual life. Unfortunately, in many religious circles, there exists an unwritten rule. Pretend. Act like God is in control when you don’t believe he is. Give the impression everything is okay in your life when it’s not. Pretend you believe when you doubt; hide your imperfections; maintain the image of a perfect marriage with healthy and well-adjusted children when your family is like any other normal dysfunctional family. And whatever you do, don’t admit that you sin.”

Yaconelli isn’t scared to admit that he doesn’t have it all together. He isn’t sheepish about confessing that, after forty some years of ministry, there are still places where he falls, things which continue to trip him up, and times during which he is not where he would like to be with God. But, he believes, Jesus cares more about desire than competence.

“Spiritual people admit their unfinishedness. Unfinished means incomplete, imperfect, in process, in progress, under construction. Spiritual describes someone who is incomplete, imperfectly living out their life for God. The construction site of our souls exposes our flaws, the rough-hewn, not-finished faith clearly visible in our hearts.”

For Yaconelli, messiness is simply another name for the place where desperation meets Jesus Christ.

“Desperate is a strong word. That’s why I like it. People who are desperate are rude, fanatic, and reckless. Desperate people are explosive, focused, and uncompromising in their desire top get what they want. Someone who is desperate will crash through the veil of niceness. People who are desperate very seldom worry about the mess they make on the way to be with Jesus.”

One of the greatest myths in Christendom, Yaconelli believes, it the myth of fixing oneself in order to be presentable to Christ. “Some of us actually believe that until we choose the correct way to live, we aren’t choosable; that until we clean up the mess, Jesus won’t have anything to do with us. The opposite is true. Until we admit we are a mess, Jesus won’t have anything to do with us. Once we admit how unlovely we are, how unattractive we are, how lost we are, Jesus shows up unexpectedly. The mess of our lives and our crippledness is what most qualifies us to be chosen by Jesus.”

Jesus is not scared away by losers, Messy Spirituality postulates, he is attracted to them. Jesus’ losers are great candidates for spirituality. Rather than being repulsed and offended by the sin of those around us, Christians need to see their own pasts in the presents of others. The search for love, for meaning, for happiness is often the search for God in disguise. The church needs to recognize not what the unsaved are doing, but what they are looking for.

“What characterizes Christianity in the modern world,” Yaconelli writes, “is its oddness. Christianity is home for people who are out of step, unfashionable, unconventional, and countercultural. As Peter says, ‘strangers and aliens.’” Rarely do you hear someone preaching that we should beware of balance but that is exactly what Yaconelli does. Besides, he claims, “oddness is important because it is the quality that adds color, texture, variety, beauty, to the human condition.”

Yaconelli’s definition of spiritual growth isn’t touted from most pulpits. But perhaps it should be.

Messy Reality: “Spiritual growth thrives in the midst of our problems, not in their absence. Spiritual growth occurs in the trenches of life, not in the classroom. We don’t grow while studying the definition of consistency; we grow when we try to be consistent in an inconsistent world. We can talk about love all we want, but loving those who are unlovely is how we learn to love. So do we encourage people to fail so they can grow? No, we encourage people to grow, which means they will fail.”

Wild Freedom: “Sadly most Christians are frightened of freedom. Freedom in Christ means I am free from everyone else’s definition of freedom for me. Because I am free in Christ, when it comes to my relationship with him, he is the only one I answer to.”

Frustrating Stuckness: “Getting stuck can be the best thing that could happen to us, because it forces us to stop. It halts the momentum of our lives. We have no choice but to notice what is around us, and we end up searching for Jesus. When we’re stuck, we’re much more likely to pay attention to our hunger for God and the longings and yearnings we have stifled.”

Increasing Slowness: “Speeding through life endangers our relationships and our souls. [It] damages our souls because living fast consumes every once of our energy. Speed has a deafening roar that drowns out the whispering voices of our souls and leaves Jesus as a diminishing speck in the rearview mirror. Rest is a decision we make. Rest is the ultimate humiliation because in order to rest, we must admit we are not necessary, that the world can get along without us, that God’s work does not depend on us.”

Yaconelli insists that spiritual growth looks different for each of us. The one thing he insists it is not is a straight, ascending line. “Growth cannot be charted as a steadily climbing line, even though most people in the church believe [it should be so]. True spiritual growth…goes up, down, and sideways, giving it an irregular, jagged, odd shape. Genuine growth follows as many patterns as there are people.”

While hardly ignoring the ultimate heaven-bound destiny of a Christian, Messy Spirituality preaches that this life is far more about the journey to God than the destination with him. “The spiritual life is not a life of success; it is a life of faithfulness.”

To that end, Yaconelli recites Paul’s words in Romans with his own spin: “Neither failure nor poor church attendance, nor inadequate Bible reading and prayer, nor betrayal, denial, doubt, insecurity, guilt, weakness, bad theology, or even losing our temper can separate us from the love of God.”

Christians have succumbed to what Yaconelli describes as a “conspiracy of grace.” That grace is unmerited and unfair. But when God’s “unfairness” includes people like Mike Yaconelli or Brandon Fibbs, who wants to argue.

For those who would challenge his book’s thesis and say that God does not condone unbiblical living, Yaconelli would agree, with one caveat: “Christians do not condone unbiblical living; we redeem it.” Messy Spirituality is not interested in making excuses for our many foibles, spiritual shortcomings and generally messy lives, but in urging us to be honest with others and ourselves and admit that we exist in and contribute to that mess. And most importantly, that in the midst of that unfinishedness, that incompleteness, that incompetence is Christ.

This is a book written for the person who feels he simply can’t do Christianity right; who worries far more about what he has left undone than what he has done; who drowns beneath his own imperfections instead of realizing that God accepts and even has a historical fondness for the radically imperfect.

Michael Yaconelli dares to suggest that imperfection, unfinishedness, and messiness are, in fact, the earmarks of a true, real, vibrant, authentic, and forward-moving Christianity that also happens to be messy, erratic, lopsided and gloriously liberating. Messy Spirituality is a strong antidote for the spiritual perfectionist is us all.

Writer’s Note: Mike Yaconelli died in a car accident this summer while moving to be closer to his ailing mother. He was 61.


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