Mike Yaconelli is owner and co-founder of Youth Specialties, former editor of the religious humor magazine The Door, and the author several books, including Messy Spirituality: God's Annoying Love for Imperfect People (Zondervan, 2002).
You start the book by saying that after 45 years of following Jesus, your life is a mess.
The subtitle of the book was going to be "Christianity for the rest of us." And the reason I put that there is because I was so tired of hearing religious speakers tell me how perfect they were. After hearing a sermon or reading a book or going to some religious meeting, I felt worse than when I got there because they had it all together. They had it all figured out. You know what? I'm almost 60. I've had five children. And let me tell you, I don't have life figured out yet.
What was your early life in faith like?
My folks were converted when I was 11 years old. [They] had this incredible conversion and just turned around. And I did then, too. I can remember the night I became a Christian. And man, this weight came off of me and all that kind of stuff. What I didn't realize was, that was just the beginning—of a huge journey.
What happened when I went to church was they edited out all the stuff in the Bible so that when I heard the story of Noah I was always just thrilled to hear about this man who believed in God—the only guy who believed in God. They didn't mention that when he got off the boat he got drunk and got naked. They never told that. Thank God they didn't put that on a flannelgraph, but I'm here to tell you that I never heard that story.
So the theology that you were raised in was not messy. It was the idea that now you've met Jesus, things are going to be straight.
They're going to be great, you're going to get fixed, you're going to be perfect.
What was the point at which you realized that this was not going to work for Mike Yaconelli?
Well, the beginnings of it happened when my daughter got cancer. She was 18 months old. And at that point, I had all these Christian people who were wonderful people come to me and tell me why God was doing it and that even if she died she'd be with God and "isn't that better?" And I'm thinking, no, not really.
That was the beginning of the sort of crack in my faith where I realized there's more to God than just fixing people.
Now here you are at this ripe old age telling us that there is a messy spirituality for the rest of us.
What that means is that it's incomplete. You and I are incomplete. I'm unfinished. I'm unfixed. And the reality is that's where God meets me is in the mess of my life, in the unfixedness, in the brokenness. I thought he did the opposite, he got rid of all that stuff. But if you read the Bible, if you look at it at all, constantly he was showing up in people's lives at the worst possible time of their life. That's where he kind of broke through, where he connected to people, where they learned so much about it, where they met him, where they understood what he was talking about.
Sometimes I think that the church is in the business of editing all of the mistakes and the flaws and the messiness out of our life.
Pretending is the grease of non-relationships. Pretending is how you and I get through the day without ever having to know each other. When I walk in the room, you say to me, "How are you?" Well, you don't want to know. And, frankly, I don't want to tell you. So I just say "fine," and you go "fine." And off we go.
The church ought to be the one place where I'm so anxious to get there because I can stop the pretending. When you ask, "Mike, how are you?" I don't go "Praise the Lord," I say, "I'm in bad shape." And you go, "Okay, great. Tell me about it."
You have some dramatic statements in this book including, "I don't believe in spiritual growth."
Well, that's because we've made spiritual growth measurable. We've actually communicated to people that there are steps to spiritual growth and that you can know how you're growing. And so I try to write a chapter about the whole fact that spiritual growth takes time. It's tiny little steps. It's lots of decisions, not just one decision. And I think that's helpful to people. Frankly, I used to think, oh well, gosh, I'm not praying everyday.
And the reality is that every tiny step I take towards God is a huge, huge thing. And the other part that bothers me is that when the church talks about spirituality and spiritual growth, it has all these rules.
The church is not about pointing the finger at people and tell them what they're doing wrong. Our goal is to show them this incredible lavish love of God and the result will be, "Yeah, I'll be a mess, but I'm so attracted to this God."
And I'll be honest with you, there have been times when I haven't been attracted to Jesus. And it's kind of like when my grandson sees me. He grabs onto my shirt and he won't let go. I go around and he's just hanging on and I go, you know, Noah, let go. And he goes, okay. And he doesn't let go. To be honest with you, that's the way Jesus has been in my life. There have been times where I've said, Jesus, I don't believe in you anymore, get out of here. I don't know. I don't even trust you. And it's like, okay. And he's still hanging on.
That's why I'm a Christian today.
Why do you call it God's "annoying" love?
There have been times when things happened where I go, "God where were you?" I just was at World Vision today and I watched this film on AIDS where there are so many millions of kids dying of AIDS in Africa. I couldn't stand it. I fell apart. And these people are praying every day. And not only are they dying, but their children are dying, and everyone around them is dying. And there are moments like that where I go, "God, where are you?"
I get no answer except he just won't let me go. He just annoyingly keeps on loving me anyway.
I travel a lot and I came to San Francisco one night and missed my connection back home. I was so angry and upset and I called my son on the phone. I wanted him to encourage me. I said, "Man, I'm stuck in the airport, it's been a horrible day. I've been traveling too much."
My son said, "You know Dad, if you didn't travel so much you wouldn't have things like this happen." Well, I didn't appreciate that. I was ticked off. I said, let me talk to your son. Well, I forgot that when you're 2 you can't talk and when you're 60 you can't hear. This is not a good combination. He's mumbling on the phone. I'm hoping that this is going to make me feel better. It's making me feel worse. Finally, I've had it. I hear the phone drop onto the floor. Now, I hear the kids playing. I'm stuck in the airport. I have this miserable experience. I'm furious and angry when all of a sudden I hear crystal clear come over the phone, "I love you, Grampa."
And you know what? All my anxiety, everything went out the window. Do you know why I wrote this book? Because there's a whole lot of people who are so freaking busy, they're so cluttered that they're at their wits' end. And if they'd only just stop for a minute, they could hear the God of the universe whisper to them, "I love you."
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The Youth Specialties website has a collection of Mike Yaconelli's best writings.
Earlier Dick Staub Interviews include:
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Kathleen Norris | The author of The Virgin of Bennington talks about being found by God in the midst of sex, drugs, and poetry. (July 16, 2002)
Thomas Moore | "To really live a secular life and enjoy it is part of being a religious person," says the author of Care of the Soul and The Soul's Religion (July 9, 2002)
Os Guinness | Whether we're seeking or have already been found, we're all on a journey. (July 2, 2002)
Oliver Sacks | The physician author of Awakenings talks about his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, order in the universe, and testing God. (June 25, 2002)
David Myers | People say they know money can't buy happiness, says the Hope College psychology professor. But they don't truly believe it. (June 18, 2002)
Richard Lewis | The comedian, actor, and author talks about his humor, addiction, and spiritual journey. (June 11, 2002)