I don't know him extremely personally, but I do know Swoboda, as he is a contributor to a book that I am the editor of. His humility and honesty are impressive, in how he weaves the audience through the nuances of Christianity, and his bittersweet travels within it. It helps that he comes across as very personable with a life that is offered as an open book. This is one of those rare texts rooted in scripture and theology in a way that is still accessible to a broad readership. Even so, Messy isn't for everyone. Swoboda writes with a unique sense of humor, so you probably need to appreciate it, rather than just tolerate it, in order to grasp his full intentions. For example, he wrote:
I think maybe, when people come forward to the altar, we should look them in the face and say, "Do you want to follow Jesus?" And if they say yes, we look at them with a sense of genuine compassion, and then with all of our strength, we should punch them square in the face. Then we should say, "Welcome to the kingdom of pain. This thing sucks. Hope you're ready." And we should do that because following Jesus is hard. Really hard. And that bruise on the face is the mark of discipleship, the pain, the gore, the strain, and toil.I found myself laughing out-loud at certain points in each chapter and offering a sobering, "Yes, Lord" in other moments. Admittedly, some of his thoughts may be a bit unorthodox, but they make a lot of biblical sense. Contrary to today's commercialized interpretation, the life of those who follow God as told in the Bible is not one of dominance, popularity, or ease. It is one of other-worldliness, peculiarity, and suffering that is riddled with starts and stops, turns and twists that are more organic than systematized.
Swoboda takes God's word seriously and is clearly passionate about Jesus. He is as balanced and sane of a colleague, especially a younger one, as I have come across, which I wish were not such a rare occurrence. Fortunately, still, he doesn't take himself too seriously; hence the humor. A biblical scholar, professor (George Fox Evangelical Seminary), and pastor, his insight reminds me of the late pastoral counseling clinician and professor, Wayne E. Oates. In his books (see Behind the Masks: Personality Disorders in Religious Behavior) he spoke often about the ills of cosmetic, empty leadership in Christianity. Anyone who knows me well knows how passionate I am about the need for a reformation amongst pastoral leaders, and thereby within churches also, in becoming better grounded in a solidly biblical understanding of their "call", instead of the current state that has essentially turned Christianity (in America) into a factory where cheap religion is manufactured. You can imagine, then, that I was pleasantly surprised by Swoboda's assertion that, "America has done to sex what the Israelites did to the golden calf. We've worshiped it. It seems to me that American Christianity, carrying its own burden of guilt has done to the church what pornography has done to our culture. It has made everything about size." I couldn't have said it better myself.
Part of what scares me about God possibly calling me to the ultimate leadership of a congregation one day is that I don't see pastoral leadership the same way that some people do. I am not necessarily alone in this dilemma, but definitely it is a minority perspective. For me, this call must be about something profoundly deeper than the moderation of arguments over Sunday School curriculum and what time the Easter Egg hunt will commence. It must be about something different than the production of "high-capacity" ministry (this is the term that I hear thrown around a lot) that programs people to an early grave. I don't have the patience or interest to endlessly recruit volunteers, campaign for power, manage building projects, and beg people to tithe.
My hat goes off to Swoboda. If there were extra money in my wallet, I would send copies of Messy to a bunch of colleagues and friends who might likewise be challenged and inspired by it.