November 15, 2003

Mark Yaconelli

mark yaconelliFour years ago my dad and I were leading a Sabbath retreat outside of San Francisco. It was the morning of the second day and I was leading the group in silent prayer. My dad, having just finished meeting with his spiritual director, suddenly rushed into the chapel his face bursting with news. Startled, we all opened our eyes and looked at him. Dad turned red, remembering we were in prayer, he quickly moved to a chair, closed his eyes and pretended to be spiritual. I could tell he was faking. I waited, discreetly watching for a signal. After a few moments the group settled down and as expected Dad looked over at me and pointed towards the exit. I followed. Two steps from the door hands waving wildly in some sort of sign-language for the ADD he began to replay his conversation with the spiritual director, "So then, out of the blue, she asks me 'Can you think of an image or symbol that represents how you see yourself?' Bam! It came to me immediately. You know that story I've told for 15 years about the overweight, unattractive, lame girl that no one wants to dance with…that's me. That's how I see myself! That's why I like that story so much! I'm the unattractive lame girl!"

He stood there beaming with insight like a five year old proudly presenting his first self-portrait. I, on the other hand was stunned and confused. My dad, published author, successful businessman, pastor, speaker-in-demand was an undesirable, disabled, homely, heavy-set junior high girl?

Although this may sound like a cute insight within a man who continually played with his own sense of identity and relationship with God, in the past two weeks I've realized it's one of the keys to understanding my dad's love for Jesus and the way in which he lived his life. For the past 35 years it was rare to listen to Dad speak and not hear the person who felt rejected, isolated and incompetent. How many times did he tell people: "I was kicked out of two Bible Colleges!" "I never went to seminary." "I'm a K-mart pastor." It was if he was saying, "I'm overweight!" "I'm unattractive!" "No one ever picks me at the dances!"

It was why he spent 27 years living in the average, inconveniently located town of Yreka California, 1200 miles north of his business and hours (often through snow and ice) from a decent airport. I was raised in Yreka and I can tell you that Yreka is not a romantic little villa. It's not a resort town. Nor is it some sort of mystical/spiritual hotbed. Yreka is a town (my apologies to my fellow Yrekans) of lame junior high girls. And for almost 27 years my dad spent most of his time ministering and caring for people in this town without ever asking for any compensation or recognition. Why? Because he knew the pain of being an outcast, because he himself felt unwanted, because in a strange way it was the one place he felt accepted and at home—because it was the place where the Gospel came to life, where his gifts were drawn out, the place where he could hear Jesus most clearly.

I used to wonder why my dad took so many speaking gigs? Why he was so excited when people he'd never met wanted to talk to him. Why he answered e-mail from strangers or traveled oversees at his own expense just to speak at some small Christian festival. It was because when you feel ugly and unattractive what a joy it is to be wanted! What a thrill when people want to talk with you, or read your words, or spend time with you. Despite how others saw him, the truth was it was easy for him to appreciate the uneducated youth worker in a dying church with only had two kids in the youth program—because in a very real way, he too felt like a struggling failure.

And yet the power of his ministry wasn't the fact that he felt unattractive or needed. It was that he had encountered a Power in Jesus Christ that revealed something exceedingly beautiful and eternal in the midst of his brokenness. Despite all the voices around and within him that named him ugly, he had heard the One voice who called him by his true name, "Beloved." Because he had felt Jesus single him out despite all that was rough and unfinished in him.

It was this friendship of Jesus that empowered my Dad to stick his tongue out at the religious scorekeepers and Christian insiders who preached a Gospel of perfection. It was the acceptance of Jesus that freed my father to serve root-beer floats on the Jones memorial carpet, present green-weenies to the spiritually stuck-up and ride roller coasters within the stifling institutions of Christian Culture. Like the woman at well who runs through the streets shouting the name of Jesus, Dad felt compelled to share the good news of redemption.

In the past three years I noticed my Dad tiring. Last Spring I asked him how he wanted to spend his remaining years. He took a deep breath and then said "I just want to spend time with family, write and do a little speaking on the side." I encouraged him to make this happen—to reduce his speaking schedule, step down from administrative and creative responsibilities at Youth Specialties, limit his correspondence and participation in various projects. He listened to what I said. Took a long pause. And then he said, "I would love to do that...but I'm just afraid that if I don't stay involved, there is a side of Jesus that will be ignored."

It's only now that I'm beginning to understand what he meant and now I too wonder who will proclaim God's boundless love for imperfect people. Who will speak for the incompetent, undesirable disabled girl who wants to live something beautiful for God? Who will tell her she's precious? Who will protect her from the shaming condemnation of the morality police or the Church's smothering addiction to competency and results? Who will lampoon the pompous and proud to relieve her self-hatred or remind her that when she fails the spirituality tests that she's still a source of joy in the kingdom of God? Who will help the homely and unwanted girl within each of us see that Jesus wants to take her to the dance?

It's been seven weeks since I last saw my dad. He came to my house for a couple of days to greet his newborn granddaughter. Before he left I took a picture of him holding her. The photo is close-up. Dad is relaxed, un-hurried, our delicate baby cradled gently in his arms. He holds her close to his face and gazes, fully present, into her eyes, his mouth slightly rising with delight.

I've looked at this image often in the past two weeks. It's become an icon of my dad's life and ministry. An image of the healing that was taking place within him. This simple image of him holding and delighting in his precious, vulnerable granddaughter, my daughter. Her name? Her name is Grace.