Which brings me to Messy Spirituality: Mike Yaconelli was a tremendous man whose untimely death plunged many Christians, but especially those with ties to youth ministry, into a prolonged period of mourning. Good for us that he produced this book before he left. It begins like this: "I am a mess." How many professional christians out there have the stones to admit that? In my experience, limited though it may be, not many. Yaconelli's book is about how he was mostly a failure as a Christian and how his relationship with God was halting and fitful. Almost every chapter in the book reassured me that I was okay (and superior to Mike Yaconelli). But then, my friend and pastor Will brought me up short.
Here's a quote from my unpublished (maybe someday published?) book that describes what happened after I shared a devotional reading from Messy Spirituality with Will:
I told Will how sometimes I can be sitting with my wife on the sofa, inches away from her, and not feel close to her; and how people can live in the same space, sometimes for years, yet be on different planets in an emotional sense. In these kinds of situations, despite whatever sort of distance separates us, we are still influenced by and react to the presence of the other person. I compared this to how, even when we aren’t feeling particularly spiritual or close to God, God is still near and this nearness effects how we live, maybe without our even knowing it. I thought it was a pretty cool insight I had.
Will listened to me patiently and then asked, “Do you feel that sense of nearness to God most of the time?”
I froze. I think my mouth was hanging open. After a beat, my eyes turned involuntarily ceilingward. This always happens. Someone will be in the middle of a heartbreaking personal revelation, sobbing off and on, trying to choke out their story in fits and starts, and I’ll look up at the ceiling. To the other person, it seems as if I’m looking for an escape hatch that may have appeared there in the roof, though I’m actually thinking about what they’re saying.
After about thirty seconds and a couple of false starts, I settled on an answer. “Well. No,” I said. “Most of the time…I feel…like I just missed it.”
I’d been immersed in the Christian ministry culture for a long time and it had spoiled me. I actually thought, up until that moment, that most Christian people walked around feeling at least some connection to God most of the time. According to my insight, during the odd moments when a Christ-follower sensed some distance from God, she could take comfort in the fact that God wasn’t far away even if she couldn’t ‘feel’ God’s presence.
The real story is different, though. I had to admit that most of the time I feel that if life is a series of rooms or places you go, that I’m always arriving in the next space just after God leaves. Once I realize God isn’t there, I hurry on to the next room and find maybe a trace or two of God, but not God himself. Of course I know that God is still there, that I’m not really just missing God, but this is how I feel most of the time.
Will asked his question because he thought maybe I had found some secret to the spiritual life that he had missed. I think he was relieved to see that I was more like him, and most of the people from our church, than I had previously realized.
Not long after that conversation I was sitting at breakfast with a group of people from our congregation when one woman bravely admitted that the just-missing-it feeling was the more common experience for her too. Everyone around the table shook their head in agreement. That’s no scientific survey by any stretch, but the fact that her confession prompted unanimous agreement makes me think that a constant sense of God’s presence may not be normal for most people, even for Christians.
If you’re just missing God much of the time, if a sense of God’s nearness is the exception and not the rule, then it becomes difficult to take comfort from the knowledge that God is present even if hidden. It’s like each new room has a message spray painted on the wall. “God was here,” where “was” is the operative word.
I feel a little ashamed that it took me thirty-nine years of living, twenty of them as a self-proclaimed follower of Christ, to realize this; to admit that a sense of God’s presence is unusual for me and for many of the believers in the world. I wonder how smug it made me seem to all those people who made themselves vulnerable to me, pouring out their sense of missing God while I looked up at the ceiling.
Because of these things, I try to approach people, especially Christians without the wagonload of assumptions I carted around for the past couple of decades. I'm okay with the mess that is my spiruality. You could say I'm jazzed about it.
In part 3 I'll share with you my favorite quote from Blue Like Jazz.