Monday, April 01, 2013

BookPastor >> "Messy Spirituality" (Mike Yaconelli)

This commentary and review was first published in March 16th, 2009. At the heart of the book is a plea for brothers and sisters in Christ, not to let the perfect ideal discourage us in our walk with God and one another. Life is messy. People are messy. In fact, anyone who desires to live a life in Christ will bound to experience a kind of spirituality that is downright messy. That is why we need grace from above and to extend the same to others.


TITLE: Messy Spirituality
AUTHOR: Mike Yaconelli
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007, (187 pages).

When One Feels Messy
  • “My life is in a mess. There are so many things to do, and I simply do not have enough time.”
  • “I try hard to be a good Christian, but I feel like I do not pray enough. Each time I sit down to pray, but things always distract me.”
  • “I know Bible Study is important. So I sign up for classes in the Bible Study Fellowship. However, the timing clashes with important household chores. Now, I want to study the Bible more, but I can’t.”
  • “I guess I am not as spiritual as I wanted to be.”
  • “It is hard for me to share my faith, unlike some who had training before. Don’t depend on me to share the gospel. Let the pastor do it.”
  • “I suppose you can simply call me an ordinary Christian. Anyway, how is it really possible to live a balanced life of prayer, worship, fellowship and Word?”

Not a Good Christian?
If you feel that some or all of them reflects how you feel, welcome to the club of struggling silent majority of the Christian world. Many of us live hectic lives. If one is not actively doing something, one feels unfulfilled, exacerbated by the sight of a world filled with people whose life personifies B.U.S.Y. Michael Yaconelli, the author of “Messy Spirituality” feels that people tend to have a wrong sense of what ‘spirituality’ means. It is plain unhelpful to expect people to live as if they can only be saved if they lived ‘rightly’ or giving their time to prayer, Bible and all other common spiritual disciplines taught. The first step is to recognize that Jesus came to save us as we are: sinners. Every other step stems from this very acceptance of our brokenness.
Sadly, spirituality is most commonly used by Christians to describe people who pray all day long, read their Bibles constantly, never get angry or rattled, possess special powers, and have the inside track to God. Spirituality for most, has an outerworldly ring to it, calling to mind eccentric saints who have forsaken the world, taken vows of poverty, and isolated themselves in cloisters.” (Michael Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002, p12)
‘Good’ People in the Bible
Is there any spirituality not reserved for monks or spiritual super-people, but for ordinary folks like you and I trying to eke out an honest living? Yaconelli replies in the affirmative.
Spirituality is not a formula; it is not a test. It is a relationship. Spirituality is not about competency; it is about connection. The way of the spiritual life begins where we are now in the mess of our lives. 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. Spirituality is not about being fixed; it is about God’s being present in the mess of our unfixedness.” (13)
If we were to recall the Scriptures, many biblical characters were not simply not perfect people. They do not have a clean-shaven spirituality. They come as they are, flaws and all.
  • Noah, after a triumphant building of the Ark, after surviving the great flood, went on later to become‘drunk and naked.’ (Gen 9:20-21)
  • Jacob was a cheat, (his name means ‘he deceives), but was still considered a biblical patriach. (Gen 25:26)
  • Joseph, though he was a favoured son, foolishly boasted about his interpretation of the dream without considering how it would affect his other brothers. (Gen 37:9)
  • King David committed adultery. (2 Sam 11)
  • Peter the apostle, denied Christ not once but thrice!

Unfortunately, sometimes when we do character study of biblical persons, we tend to overemphasize their ‘rightness’ and make them so ‘perfect’ that we revere them. What is most left out is not what they did, but how God has been merciful and faithful to them DESPITE their weaknesses. Likewise, when we go to church, sometimes we over-exalt those people in our churches to an uncomfortable altar of ‘spiritual’ rightness.
- “The pastor must be correct. After all, he has years of theological training.”
- “I can never understand the Bible myself, unlike the theologians who are so skillful.”
- “How do you expect me to pray like how the elders prayed? That’s why I’m not an elder.”

Now, I am not saying that those in pastoral positions or areas of leadership influence are never right. Neither am I saying that it is ok for layperson to be always wrong. What I am saying is that we should not put people on an unrealistic high pedestal which can turn them into hyped up professional spiritualists. In fact, the main point is that for people who find it a struggle to live a Christian life, it is ok. God accepts you as you are. That does not preclude the need to live the life demonstrated by Christian disciplines. Messy spirituality is basically to encourage these tired, discouraged individuals who loved God. They want to make a difference for God in their lives, but felt weak and uninspired. They are what we call, honest to God people.

Messiness as Workshop of Authentic Spirituality
Yaconelli argues that ‘messy spirituality’ is actually the ‘workshop of authentic spirituality, the greenhouse of faith, the place where the real Jesus meets the real us.’ (15) He continues:
Messy Spirituality is the scandalous assertion that following Christ is anything but tidy and neat, balanced and orderly. Far from it. Spirituality is complex, complicated and perplexing – the disorderly, sloppy, chaotic look of authentic faith in the real world. Spirituality is anything but a straight line; it is a mixed-up, topsy-turvy, helter-skelter godliness that turns our lives into an upside-down toboggan ride full of unexpected turns, surprise bumps, and bone-shattering crashes.” (17)

Some advantages of recognizing ‘messy spirituality:’
  • It stops our pretense
  • It reflects our imperfectness and lots of projects that will eventually remain ‘unfinished
  • It reminds us that we are often not as competent as we had wanted.
  • It tells us that all of us, can be driven to a point of desperation

One of the most profound things in ‘Messy Spirituality’ is the dispelling of the myth that God can only meet us when we have gotten everything right and worked out correctly. Like living correctly, living cleanly and staying righteous in all we do. Unfortunately, imperfect people cannot do that. Instead, until we confess we cannot save ourselves, to acknowledge we are already in a mess no matter how hard we try, God will not be pleased with us. We have to stop on our tracks upon seeking our own salvation through obedience to the law, but submitting ourselves to God’s grace even as we faithfully discharge our responsibilities and good works. In the New Testament, Jesus is constantly attracted to the outcasts, the undesired and the detested in society.

My Comments
I think it is important not to misinterpret Yaconelli’s ideas. As much as the book is to encourage people that it is ok, it is alright when we fail to do what we ought to be doing, it is necessary to point out the audience he is writing for. He is writing for people who are discouraged when they could not live a balanced life as a Christian. He writes to comfort people struggling endlessly with practicing Christianity while interacting with the world at large. He is NOT writing to tell people to continue doing mediocre jobs. He is NOT saying that it is always ok to give less than our best. He is above all, NOT saying that it is ok to continue living a life of sin. Such a book can be easily misinterpreted, and this point is the single most glaring weakness in the book. While it is true that all people struggle, some more than others, it is also true that people find strength to persevere in spite of their struggles. Paul the Apostle, while recognizing his weaknesses, chose to boast in the Lord’s strength. He is purposeful in what he does, making three great missionary trips. He tries his best, and practiced forgiveness and grace in his ministry. While Yaconelli may not be trying to promote mediocre spirituality, he is trying to console wounded believers trying honestly to live a honourable life for God. That put, it is an honourable task.

Is ‘Messy Spirituality’ then for us? My answer is simple: "Do we really have a choice?” The key to life is not whether one makes it through messily or squeaky clean. Avoid extreme nonchalant messiness which tend to shame rather than glorify God. Similarly, detest any tendency toward self-righteousness that puts people off, and bring dishonour to God. It is simply to recognize that at whatever state we are in, we live for the Lord. Live truthfully to oneself, to neighbour and to God. There is no other way.

There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. ” (Romans 3:22b-24)


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