Nothing Fair About God's Love

January 14, 2005

Mike Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality: God's Annoying Love for Imperfect People (Zondervan, 2002)

I'm not much of a fan of the Apostle Paul. But I feel closest to him in Romans 7:19, when the stern old warrior howls in frustration: "For I do not do the good that I want, but instead the evil that I do not want is what I do!" I'm all over that sentiment. It seems that I spend a good portion of my day beating myself up over my constant failures.
At a time when I needed it most, I found Mike Yaconelli's last book, Messy Spirituality. Coupled with Frederick Buechner's Telling Secrets, it got me through a very rough patch.
Mike was the co-founder of Youth Specialties Inc., still the world's largest creator of materials for youth workers and host to extraordinarily creative seminars that inspire God's modern saints -- those intrepid young men and women who work with our teenagers. In the early 1970s, Mike also co-founded The Wittenburg Door, still the world's oldest and largest (and pretty much only) religious humor and satire magazine, of which I am senior editor.
Mike was the heart of both organizations -- the wacky, inspired Holy Fool who would do anything, dare anything, say anything to capture reticent teenager and burned-out youth worker alike. His life was a constant, dizzying feast of outrageous pranks followed by profound, sobering reflection. Mike was in great demand as a speaker, from Europe to the Pacific Rim -- a short, balding Santa Claus bounding across the stage with a rubber chicken on his head. His mostly impromptu talks were marked by an extreme intimacy, a painful baring of his heart and outrageous, joyous humor. His motto was, "Jump first. Fear later." He was one of a kind.
When he died on Oct. 30, 2003, in a car wreck probably caused by an undiagnosed heart problem, I'm sure even his friends and family were a little stunned by the depth and volume of the outpouring of grief, the array of tributes in major Christian and mainstream magazines and the thousands who showed up at his memorial services. 
I was one of Mike's many, many friends. We worked closely together for years on The Wittenburg Door. Messy Spirituality, written in the year before his death, was his gift to me and, of course, untold thousands of others.
Messy Spirituality is the scandalous assertion that for virtually all Christians, following Jesus is messy ... chaotic, perplexing and complicated. And Jesus loves us anyway. Jesus loves us so much that there is nothing we can do to separate us from his love. In fact, Jesus will doggedly pursue us and love us even if we don't want him to love us.
Mike disputes those who claim that if we're just good enough Christians, our lives will be perfect. "The word of God in our lives will never be finished," Mike writes, "until we meet Jesus face to face."
The truths of Messy Spirituality are illustrated in large part with stories from Mike's own search and from his riotous tenure as pastor of a tiny nondenominational church in Yreka, Calif., consisting mostly of people with emotional and intellectual disabilities. In Mike's church, the mentally challenged read the Scripture, serve the communion and cry aloud with naked, unbridled anguish at losses in this small family of struggling believers. 
Mike's other crusade is against speed and busyness: "Spiritual growth does not happen by running faster. What keeps many of us from growing is not sin but speed." I was reading along, nodding absently in agreement to his words, until I got to this chilling line: "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."
Then I realized that Mike was writing to me, about me, for me. I had been operating under the assumption that if I just worked harderfaster-smarter, I could do it all. When in truth, I wasn't doing anything. Not for me, not for my family, not for my church and certainly not for God.
It's embarrassing to be written about in a national publication like that.
Here's the good news. It's the last message of this slim volume: God's love isn't fair; Jesus loves me anyway. Like that wonderfully confusing Parable of the Vineyard, God's love is lavishly unfair. Generous? Yes. Fair? No. That great, unfathomable unfairness is the only hope I have.
In the week before he died, Mike told participants at the National Youthworker Convention in Charlotte, N.C. "If I died right this minute, I would be able to say, 'God, what a ride! What a ride!'"

Darden, BSEd '76 (Baylor), MJ '78 (University of North Texas) , is assistant professor of English and now in his 17th year as senior editor of The Wittenburg Door magazine. He is the author of two dozen books, most recently People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music for Continuum Publishing.