Church planter and professor A.J. Swoboda has a book out, and it’s worth a read. My review of Swoboda’s book, which aired today in the Episcopal Church’s very helpful, ecumenical publication, Sermons That Work (http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com), is reprinted in full below with the permission of The Episcopal Digital Network:
I once thought that being a Christian meant having all the answers, with all of my proverbial ducks in a row, all neat and orderly-like. Then “life” happened, and it was anything but tidy. Downright “messy” would be a better description. These days I find myself looking for God in the mess, rather than asking God to wave some magic wand and, voila, make it all disappear.
Which is precisely the point, according to Portland, Oregon-based pastor and professor A.J. Swoboda, in Messy: God Likes It That Way. A mix of the free-wheeling conversationalism of a Rob Bell and the endearing candor of an Anne Lamott, Messy is Swoboda’s first book. I hope it is not his last.
Swoboda’s refreshing honesty about the Christian life comes salted with some downright funny anecdotes and a collection of truly clever one-liners. These had me giggling and pausing to think with almost every page. How is this for a one-liner, for example? “Religion is the Botox of resurrection.” Or “being a follower of Jesus and not loving the unlikeable is on par with eating a Big Mac while watching The Biggest Loser.” Or “trust is what God resurrects when our security dies.”
In an unsystematic (messy, really), post-modern way, Swoboda succeeds in hoeing some well-trodden theological territory, from church and prayer to sex and suffering – all with the result of gently and humorously opening up some new contemplative spaces for his reader.
I, in turn, am left wishing to dwell longer in these pockets of freshly tilled earth. Swoboda’s reflections on God’s intentionally unkempt act of creation, and later, on the nature of human sin, leave me asking how the “mess” that God creates differs from the mess we human beings make, and how we are to distinguish these two – or for that matter, if we are in the first place.
Then there are the implications of Swoboda’s understanding of church and community. If you are looking for a self-help manual for how to grow your church or craft a vision statement, you will be disappointed. Swoboda instead is quick to let out the poorly kept yet nonetheless sacred secret that Christians are as much of a mess as anyone else –because they are human beings. I applaud him for it.
If we “idealize” church, Swoboda writes, we also “idolize” it. In this context of “church” as a collection of deeply flawed human beings, the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ is also incredibly hard: insofar as it must be shared and tried on for size within a community of other followers of Jesus, it requires us to assume that we will be wounded by belonging to the church. Forgiveness of those who have hurt us is our witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Swoboda stops short of teasing out the implications of this ecclesiology for how we very imperfect followers of Jesus might approach the challenge of God’s mission, (laid out, for instance, in the book of Acts, when Jesus dispatches his followers into the far corners of the earth with the command to “make disciples” of the nations). The image that comes to mind is an odd mix of Keystone Kops and “Mission Impossible.” This inquiring mind wants to know more.
It would seem, too, that the mess that God blesses and deems good is a function of being in the middle of the gospel story, in the in-betweenness of the “now and not yet” of the in-breaking kingdom of God. In other words, the mess is to a certain degree only provisionally good, because of an ending that we can be assured gives meaning and order to the preceding mess.
This has me wondering about just how much God really does in fact like messiness in the first place.