The Workshop of the Spiritual Life
I stake the future on the few humble and hearty lovers who
seek God passionately in the marvelous, messy world of
redeemed and related realities that lie in front of our noses.
I'm doing the best I can.
Children's Letters to God
I go into churches and everyone seems to feel so good about
Everyone calls themselves a Christian nowadays. How
dare we call ourselves Christians? It's only for Jesus to decide
whether we are Christian or not. I don't think He's made a
decision in my case, and I'm afraid that when He does I am
going to be sent straight to hell. I don't feel I can call myself a
Christian. I can't be satisfied with myself. We all seem to be
pre y contented with ourselves in church and that makes me
sick. I think all this contentment makes Jesus nervous.
My life is a mess.
After forty-five years of trying to follow Jesus, I keep losing
him in the crowded busyness 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 to be a good person. I don't want to fail. I want
to learn from my mistakes, rid myself of distractions, and
run into the arms of Jesus. Most of the time, however, I feel
like I am running away from Jesus into the arms of my own
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
I don't want to be St. John of the Cross or Billy Graham.
I just want to be remembered as a person who loved God,
who served others more than he served himself, who was
trying to grow in maturity and stability. I want to have more
victories than defeats, yet here I am, almost sixty, and I fail
on a regular basis.
If I were to die today, I would be nervous about what
people would say at my funeral. I would be happy if they
said things like "He was a nice guy" or "He was occasionally
decent" or "Mike wasn't as bad as a lot of people." Unfortunately,
eulogies are delivered by people who know the
deceased. I know what the consensus would be: "Mike was
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
I am older, a lot older, and the secrets are still secret from
I often dream that I am tagging along behind Jesus, longing
for him to choose me as one of his disciples. Without
warning, he turns around, looks straight into my eyes,
and says, "Follow me!" My heart races, and I begin to run
toward him when he interrupts with, "Oh, not you; the guy
behind you. Sorry."
I have been trying to follow Christ most of my life, and
the best I can do is a stumbling, bumbling, clumsy kind of
following. I wake up most days with the humiliating awareness
that I have no clue where Jesus is. Even though I am
a minister, even though I think about Jesus every day, my
following is . uh . meandering.
So I've decided to write a book about the spiritual life.
I know what you're thinking. Based on what I've just said
about my walk with God, having me write about spirituality
is like having Bozo the Clown explain the meaning of the
universe, like playing Handel's Messiah on the kazoo. How
can someone whose life is obviously unspiritual presume to
talk about spirituality? How can someone unholy presume
to talk about holiness? It makes no sense.
Unless. Unless! Unless spirituality, as most of us understand
it, is not spirituality at all.
Sadly, spiritual 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 otherworldly ring to it, calling to mind eccentric "saints"
who have forsaken the world, taken vows of poverty, and
isolated themselves in cloisters.
Nothing wrong with the spirituality of monks. Monks
certainly experience a kind of spirituality, a way of seeking
and knowing God, but what about the rest of us? What about
those of us who live in the city, have a wife or husband, three
children, two cats, and a washing machine that has stopped
working? What about those of us who are single, work sixty
to seventy hours a week, have parents who wonder why
we're not married, and have friends who make much more
money than we do? What about those of us who are divorced,
still trying to heal from the scars of rejection, trying
to cope with the single-parenting of children who don't
understand why this has happened to them?
Is there a spirituality for the rest of us who are not secluded
in a monastery, who don't have it all together and
probably never will?
Spirituality for the Rest of Us
The answer is yes!
What landed Jesus on the cross was the preposterous idea
that common, ordinary, broken, screwed-up people could be
godly! What drove Jesus' enemies crazy were his criticisms
of the "perfect" religious people and his acceptance of the
imperfect nonreligious people. The shocking implication of
Jesus' ministry is that anyone can be spiritual.
Maybe truth is scandalous. Maybe the scandal is that all
of us are in some condition of not-togetherness, even those
of us who are trying to be godly. Maybe we're all a mess,
not only sinful messy but inconsistent messy, up-and-down
messy, in-and-out messy, now-I-believe-now-I-don't messy,
I-get-it-now-I-don't-get-it messy, I-understand-uh-now-I-don't-understand
I admit, messy spirituality sounds . well . unspiritual.
Surely there are guidelines to follow, principles to live by,
maps to show us where to go, and secrets we can uncover to
find a spirituality that is clean and tidy.
I'm afraid not.
Spirituality is not a formula; it is not a test. It is a relationship.
Spirituality is not about competency; it is about
intimacy. Spirituality is not about perfection; 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 welet 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.
Look at the Bible. Its pages overflow with messy people.
The biblical writers did not edit out the flaws of its heroes.
Like Noah, for example. Everyone thought he was crazy. He
certainly was a little strange, but Noah was also courageous,
a man of great faith and strong will. Against the backdrop
of unrelenting ridicule, Noah built a huge ark in the middle
of the desert because God told him it was going to rain. No
one believed him, but the rains did come and the flood happened,
and after the water receded, Noah triumphantly left
the boat, got drunk, and got naked.
What? Drunk and naked? I don't recall any of my Bible
teachers or pastors talking about Noah's . uh . moment of
indiscretion . er . weakness . um . failure. The Noah
I've always heard about was fiercely faithful, irrepressibly
independent, and relentlessly resolute. Noah was the model
of great faith. Very few ever refer to Noah's losing battle
with wine. Maybe being strong and faithful has its downside.
Maybe for flood survivors life is more complicated than
we would like to think, and maybe even Noah could have
bouts of depression and loneliness.
Why should I be surprised? Turns out all of the biblical
characters were a complex mix of strengths and weaknesses.
David, Abraham, Lot, Saul, Solomon, Rahab, and Sarah
were God-loving, courageous, brilliant, fearless, loyal, passionate,
committed holy men and women who were also
murderers, adulterers, and manic depressives. They were
men and women who could be gentle, holy, defenders of the
faith one minute, and insecure, mentally unstable, unbelieving,
shrewd, lying, grudge-holding tyrants the next.
The New Testament characters weren't much better. Look
who Jesus hung out with: prostitutes, tax collectors, adulterers,
mental cases, penniless riffraff, and losers of all kinds.
His disciples were hardly models of saintliness. They were
committed to Jesus, were ready to follow him anywhere
(with one notable exception), but they were also troubled by
infighting, always jockeying for position, suspicious of each
other, accusatory, impulsive, selfish, lazy, and disloyal. Most
of the time, they did not understand what Jesus was talking
about, and when he died, they had no clue what to do next.
One very clear example of the messiness of the disciples
took place in a tiny Samaritan village. On their way to Jerusalem,
Jesus and the disciples stopped in this village for
the evening. The Samaritans, however, weren't in a mood
to cooperate. Most Jews didn't give Samaritans the time of
day, so the Samaritans decided to return the favor by making
it clear that Jesus and his disciples weren't welcome in
their town. James and John (this would be the beloved disciple
John) were furious, storming up to Jesus with the very
undisciplelike question, "Lord, do you want us to call fire
down from heaven to destroy them?" Not exactly an example
of mature, unmessy discipleship.
You might say Christianity has a tradition of messy spirituality.
Messy prophets, messy kings, messy disciples, messy
apostles. From God's people getting in one mess after another
in the Old Testament to most of the New Testament's
being written to straighten out messes in the church, the
Bible presents a glorious story of a very messy faith.
Sounds like you and I are in good company.
Messy Spirituality unveils the myth of flawlessness and
calls Christians everywhere to come out of hiding and stop
Messy Spirituality has the audacity to suggest that messiness
is the workshop of authentic spirituality, the greenhouse of
faith, the place where the real Jesus meets the real us.
A few years ago, I was introduced to a group of uncouth
Christians who call themselves "the Notorious Sinners."
These are men from all walks of life who meet once a year
to openly share their messy spirituality with each other. The
title Notorious Sinners refers to the scandalous category of
forgiven sinners whose reputations and ongoing flaws didn't
seem to keep Jesus away. In fact, Jesus had a habit of collecting
disreputables; he called them disciples. He still does. I
like people who openly admit their notoriousness-people
who unabashedly confess they are hopelessly flawed and
hopelessly forgiven. Graciously, these men invited me to be
a part of their group.
The Notorious Sinners meet yearly at spiritual-retreat
centers, where from the moment we arrive, we find ourselves
in trouble with the centers' leadership. We don't act
like most contemplatives who come to spiritual-retreat
centers-reserved, quiet, silently seeking the voice of God.
We're a different kind of contemplative-earthy, boisterous,
noisy, and rowdy, tromping around our souls seeking God,
hanging out with a rambunctious Jesus who is looking for a
good time in our hearts. A number of us smoke cigars, about
half are recovering alcoholics, and a couple of the men could
embarrass a sailor with their language. Two of the Notorious
Sinners show up on their Harleys, complete with leather
pants and leather jackets.
I admit I run with a rough crowd-Christians whose
discipleship is blatantly real and carelessly passionate, characterized
by a brazen godliness. Unafraid to admit their flaws,
unintimidated by Christians who deny their own messiness,
these guys sometimes look like pagans and other times look
like Jesus. They are spiritual troublemakers, really, which is
why they look like Jesus (who was always causing trouble
himself). They are full of mischief, laughter, and boisterous
behavior, which is why they look like pagans. Truly messy
disciples. The Notorious Sinners are definitely a bizarre mix
of the good, the bad, and the ugly, living a spirituality which
defies simple definitions. Oh, and they are some of the most
spiritual men I know.
Messy Spirituality is a description of the Christianity most
of us live and that few of us admit. It is an attempt to break
through the religious wall of secrecy and legitimize a faith
which is unfinished, incomplete, and inexperienced. Messy
Spirituality is a celebration of a discipleship which is under
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. In other words,
messy spirituality is the delirious consequence of a life ruined
by a Jesus who will love us right into his arms.
The Scandal of Spirituality
Jesus is not repelled by us, no matter how messy we are, regardless
of how incomplete we are. When we recognize that
Jesus is not discouraged by our humanity, is not turned off
by our messiness, and simply doggedly pursues us in the face
of it all, what else can we do but give in to his outrageous,
Anne Lamott, a fellow messy Christian, describes perfectly
what happens when Jesus pursues us. In her book Traveling
Mercies, Anne recounts her conversion to Jesus. Things
were not going well in her life: addicted to cocaine and
alcohol, involved in an affair that produced a child whom
she aborted, helplessly watching her best friend die of cancer.
During this time, Anne visited a small church periodically.
She would sit in the back to listen to the singing and then
leave before the sermon. During the week of her abortion,
she spiraled downward. Disgusted with herself, she drowned
her sorrows in alcohol and drugs. She had been bleeding
for many hours from the abortion and finally fell into bed,
shaky and sad, smoked a cigarette, and turned off the light.
After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone
with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed
it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years
when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong
that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make
sure no one was there-of course, there wasn't. But after a
while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it
was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby
as I write this.
And I was appalled I thought about what everyone
would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed
an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed
to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, "I would
I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner
of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and
I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn't help because that's
not what I was seeing him with.
Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.
This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was
just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze
and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the
feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to
reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and
let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one
time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever
And one week later, when I went back to church, I was
so hungover that I couldn't stand up for the songs, and this
time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so
ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence
of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and
raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people
were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at
the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was
rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I
opened up to that feeling-and it washed over me.
I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced
home and felt the little cat running along at my heels, and I
walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under
a sky as blue as one of God's own dreams, and I opened the
door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then
I hung my head and said, . "I quit." I took a long deep
breath and said out loud, "All right. You can come in."
So this was my beautiful moment of conversion.
Anne Lamott is the most improbable candidate for spirituality
I could imagine, until I consider my own candidacy.
Anne Lamott seems hopelessly messed up until I remember
the mess of my own life. I recognize "the little cat running
along" at her heels. He's the same "cat" who's been
hounding this messy follower of Christ all his life. No matter
how hard I've tried, I've never been able to shake him. You
won't be able to shake him either. So we might as well give
up, as Anne did, and let "the cat" in. Then we can decide
what we're going to do with the not-so-little Jesus who,
running wild in our hearts, will wreak havoc in our souls,
transforming our messy humanity into a messy spirituality.