My faith heroes (part 5)

Mike Yaconelli

If you do not know who this man was, I’ll try to explain why you should care 🙂

Mike Yaconelli was born on July 24, 1942. 

In 1969 he co-founded Youth Specialties with Wayne Rice.  It is a Christian ministry that trains and provides resources to youth church workers.  They train about 100,000 youth workers a year through seminars, conferences, resources and a website.

In 1971, he and Wayne Rice took over a publication called The Wittenburg Door, which originated in Los Angeles, and turned it into a bimonthly religious magazine.  Mike said they used the magazine speak about the stupid things the church does and generally made fun of the church because they loved the church.  Mike was editor for twenty-five years.  In 1987, he gave up his editing position and in1996 he donated the magazine to Trinity Foundation in Dallas.

He also pastored a small church in Yreka, California.  He called it the slowest growing church in America.

He wrote two books called “Dangerous Wonder,” published in 1998, and “Messy Spirituality,” published in 2002.

While moving Mike’s father, Mike made an accident while driving his father’s pickup.  He died the following morning on October 30, 2003.

He left behind his wife Karla, five children and four grandchildren.

What Mike did for me.
Let me begin to say that if you have not yet read his books; “GO AND BUY THEM NOW!!!”

The day I heard that Mike had died, was probably one of the strangest days in my life.  I remember reading about his death.  I remember telling my wife.  I remember that she held me in her arms while I was crying like a baby.  I remember that I was thinking “What the hell is happening to me?  I’ve lost it, whatever “it” was.”  I was in mourning for about three days and sad for about a week.  This for a guy that did not even knew I existed!  I think I mourned “for” the church.  I remember thinking that the church were so much poorer for losing a guy like Mike.  I mourned for the fact that a lot of people did not even know that we were poorer.  I mourned for his wife Karla and their children.  I mourned for myself. 

But why did he have this effect on me?  He was a great storyteller.  Mike gave words to my heart.  He lived a life of wonder and amazement at God’s grace.  He had a child-like wonder, was full of surprises and expectant that he just might find God everywhere.

He showed me the upside-down kingdom of God.  He saw God in the undervalued, the overlooked and the underdog.  He fought hard for the unknowns and tried to give the invisibles a human face.

He never claimed to be perfect and he was brutually honest about who he was.  He never covered up his cracks and believed that brokenness, difficulty and loneliness were the places where we could meet God. 

He challenged me to look at the people in the Bible we call saints.  Their lives were muddled, disordered, disorganized and messy.  The Bible presents a wonderful story of a very messy faith.

He understood grace.  He was the first person to use words “terrifying”, “love” and “God” in one centence.  The subtitle of Messy Spiritually nearly was “God’s Annoying Love for Imperfect People. “

He was a wild man.  A joker.  He belonged to a group called the “notorious sinners”  He loved to create situations that kept those around him off balance.  And he loved to play. 

I could add a lot more, but I am going to leave you with his words.

After 45 years of trying to follow Jesus, I keep losing him in the crowded busy-ness of my life. I know Jesus is there, somewhere, but it’s difficult to make him out in the haze of everyday life.

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a godly person. Yet when I look at the yesterdays of my life, what I see, mostly, is a broken, irregular path littered with mistakes and failure. I have had temporary successes and isolated moments of closeness to God, but I long for the continuing presence of Jesus. Most of the moments of my life seem hopelessly tangled in a web of obligations and distractions.”

I want desperately to know God better. 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. I am not doing well at the living-a-consistent-life thing.’

When I was younger, I believed my inconsistency was due to my youth. I believed that age would teach me all I needed to know and that when I was older, I would have learned the lessons of life and discovered the secrets of true spirituality.  “I am older, a lot older, and the secrets are still secret to me.”

Here’s the reality—we do not believe in grace. We are scared to death of grace. We are worried that it is going to be abused or misused. And of course, we only worry about that after we are in. And then we decide to help God by becoming grace monitors and grace police and by sort of saying, “God’s really busy and he has got a lot to do, so we will make sure that nobody else gets in.” We make all of these rules, just like the Pharisees did, that determine whether or not you are functioning in grace.

That’s all about a worship of power, when the church should be the place where we evidence our powerlessness. And in my church, which is the slowest growing church in America—we started with ninety, sixteen years ago and now we have thirty. Because we have thirty people, everybody matters. Everybody knows everything about each other. They care for each other. They read about each other in the paper and send each other notes and encourage one another. We are all accessible and knowable. Numbers are not neutral. Size is not neutral. When we are big, we give up a lot.

Messy spirituality describes our godly incompetence. No one does holy living very well. Spirituality is the humiliating recognition that I don’t know how to pray well. I don’t understand or know how to navigate God’s word properly, and I don’t know how to competently live out my commitment to Christ. Messy spirituality affirms our spiritual clumsiness.

Jesus is saying, “Abandon yourself to the One who will never abandon you.”
Truth is, most of us have lost touch with the childlike experience of abandon. We believe in Jesus, we love the idea of Jesus, we try to do what we believe He wants us to do, but abandon everything? Abandon our job, our security, our nice home, our parents’ expectations for us, our future? Sounds scary. To be quite honest, abandon sounds irresponsible and crazy.

Abandon is definitely unpredictable, a loose cannon that could go off at any time. We can’t have people running around discarding responsible behavior in the name of Jesus. After all, every society has rules. Rules are the structures that protect us from anarchy. They tell us how we are to behave and what we are supposed to do and when we are supposed to do it. Rules and laws protect society from chaos and confusion. We can’t have people breaking the rules in the name of Jesus, can we?

Our world is tired of people whose God is tame. It is longing to see people whose God is big and holy and frightening and gentle and tender…and ours; a God whose love frightens us into His strong and powerful arms where He longs to whisper those terrifying words, “I love you.”

When it comes to the spiritual life, I am amazed how many of us don’t know how to dance. We stand before God, the music starts playing, and we are embarrassed by our incompetence. The Church has communicated that competence is one of the fruits of the Spirit, and therefore spiritual people are supposed to live faith competently.

Lost in my thoughts, I was sitting in a hotel ballroom with fifteen hundred college students participating in a college weekend faith conference. On the last day of the conference, with classes starting the following Monday, the students made it clear they wanted to prolong the conference as long as possible. They wanted to party, to dance the afternoon away, to celebrate the Lord of the dance – to resist going back into the busyness and demands of college life. The morning general session turned into a spontaneous celebration. Young men and women raised their hands, stood on chairs, shouted, cried and laughed, and suddenly a conga line broke out. Within seconds hundreds of students were weaving in and out of the room in long, raucous lines, praising their God.

An older man with cerebral palsy sat in a motorised wheelchair, watching while everyone else partied. (He wasn’t a student. Technically he wasn’t even supposed to be at the conference.) I was seated next to him, watching the students celebrate, when suddenly the wheelchair lunged forward into the celebration. The man’s arms were waving, his chair was careening around the room with a jerky, captivating motion, his mouth was struggling to open and shut, making incomprehensible sounds. Somehow a man who couldn’t dance had become part of the graceful dancing of the crowd.

Without warning, the man’s motorised wheelchair lurched forward to the base of the stage, racing back and forth through a series of figure eights, twirls and circles. He was laughing, lost in the joy of the Lord. His joy had taken a cold, ugly piece of motorised machinery and transformed it into an extension of his unconfined worship. He and his wheelchair had become one, a dancing, living thing. This man with a crippled body found a way to break free from the rigid, cold, restrictive wheelchair, and was dancing the undance-able.

I envy the man in the wheelchair. I want my crippled soul to escape the cold and sterile spirituality of a religion where only the perfect, non-disabled get in. I want to lurch forward to Jesus, where the unwelcome receive welcome and the unqualified get qualified. I want to hear Jesus tell me I can dance when everyone else says that I can’t. I want to hear Jesus walk over to me and whisper to this handicapped, messy Christian, ‘Do you want to dance?’


5 thoughts on “My faith heroes (part 5)

  1. What a beautiful post. I read Mike’s first book years ago, but just started Messy Spirituality last night and I cried like a baby at some of the sentences I came across. They’ll be showing up on my blog soon, for sure. I don’t usually print out blog posts, but this one needs to be preserved and be read and re-read by me time and again. Thank you!

  2. Hi Tracy,

    I think I’ve read his books about 5-6 years ago. I regularly go back to them and “yes”, I still cry. I miss his writing.

    This from Dangerous wonder. “The grace of God is dangerous. It’s lavish, excessive, outrageous, and scandalous. God’s grace is ridiculously inclusive. Apparently God doesn’t care who He loves.”

  3. Wow, I had no idea about his writing.
    Just reading the quotes you put in…touched me alot.
    I will obtain these books, as they sound like great encouragement..

  4. Messy spirituality describes our godly incompetence. No one does holy living very well. Spirituality is the humiliating recognition that I don’t know how to pray well. I don’t understand or know how to navigate God’s word properly, and I don’t know how to competently live out my commitment to Christ. Messy spirituality affirms our spiritual clumsiness.

    I love this! I read Mike’s book Dangerous Wonder and I will be getting Messy Spirituality!
    I too love his honesty, it is so freeing. As a person that can put on airs Mike has a way of showing me through his writting just how rediculous that is. It frees me to be real.

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