Refreshing the Irritation – The Life and Legacy of Mike Yaconelli

Theological band aids are fast becoming the bane of my life, I loath them with a passion. What am I ranting about? Well, the kind of nonsense that for too long now I have heard from the archaic halls of Christendom; that if you come to Jesus everything in life will be alright. Nothing I believe could be further from the truth. Last year my spiritual mentor and dear friend Mike Yaconelli was killed in a car wreck. Mike was one of those people who filled other people’s lives with big moments. If you were ever in his life once, even only for a short moment, you were always in it. He had this incredible gift of making even a fleeting moment of connection feel like a life time of friendship. I lost count how many cigars we smoked together. I lost count of how many bottles of his favourite chardonnay we drank together. But I never lost count of how many times we cried together, and I say that with good reason.

Mike never believed in covering up cracks. Rather he believed in redeeming those landscapes of brokenness and terrifying loneliness and difficulty that we often find ourselves traversing. He fought hard to give back to the little people of this world that which this world had taken so remorselessly from them. Mike said of himself, ‘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 clutteredness. 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.’

Thank God (and I mean that literally) for a heavyweight of faith to be so engagingly honest. To actually come out and verbalise what most of us think every day of the week and twice on Sunday’s. Mike often used to say that, ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.’ This empathetic take on the Christian faith allowed anyone who felt odd or slightly misplaced, to feel very much at home. He had a gift for making the way of faith seem possible for amateurs. I remember him saying that 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.’ When I asked him what he thought that meant for the likes of you and me, he replied, with a wealth of mischief and wonder in his eyes: ‘Sounds like you and I are in good company.’

Mike persistently refused to accept the intolerable and continued to the last to dream that the impossible was actually in some mystical way possible. He invited us all to dwell in the house of freedom, and to throw open all the doors and windows, and in doing so his life embodied how it is possible to be free, to be fully human and fully alive. Always a big believer that no matter how messy our lives seemed, regardless of how incomplete we were, Jesus was not discouraged by our humanity; in fact it was the very thing that drew us closer still to his indiscriminate love.

I meet too many people who find church more a prisoner of rather than a liberator of culture. Greenbelt Trustee and dear friend of Mike, Martin Wroe, prudently observed that Yac was ‘a cultural rather than political radical.’ For me he offered much more than a cultural/theological soundbite. With Mike Yaconelli theory became practice, and truth took on a life of its own. I have a feeling that’s all God really asks of us. I remember the last time we saw each other, he told me to ‘refresh the irritation.’ I asked what he meant. He told me to go ‘figure it out.’ I didn’t understand at the time…I think now I do. Why do I write this? Well, I miss my friend. I suspect many of us do. I miss so many things, but what I miss more than I can explain is that he was one of the few people in my life, who just by his presence convinced me more than ever that Jesus was alive and well in this world. As Steve Stockman said in similar circumstances 6 years ago when we lost Rich, ‘Our hearts are feebly attempting to temper it. We lost so much more than skin and bone…you are the world as I best remember it.’ Mike Yaconelli, a man who filled my life with big moments…and who, even now, causes me to refresh the irritation.

Paul Chambers