Looking for God in Messy Places: A Book About Hope

Jake Owensby
Abingdon Press, 191 pages

I had to reflect for a couple of days after finishing Jake Owensby’s “Looking for God in Messy Places.” First, I needed to savor it and then, honestly, I had to take time to absorb the depth its message: “You are God’s beloved.” Oh, sure, we’ve all heard those words before, but Jake puts it in a way that makes you feel as though God has taken your head in her hands, looked you straight in the eye, and said slowly and firmly: “I love you. I’m with you. Even now.”

The book focuses on the “even now.” God does not leave us in the pit — whether the pit of joblessness, depression, broken relationships or the acedia that a years-long pandemic might bring on. As the subtitle promises, this book is about hope: finding it, practicing it and growing in it.

But this is not a simple “how to.” It is a beautifully woven, extended theological essay that includes strands of humor, philosophy, personal stories and biblical themes. The recipe for finding and practicing hope turns out to be about grit and grace, perseverance and, at the bottom of it all, living in the way of love. Jake invites us to see God in the companionship of others, in the bond of relationships, in the affirmation of our own unique calls and in the details of our ordinary lives – especially the messy parts – where the love of God is unfailingly present. When we are in the pit, we must sit long enough and look into the shadowy corners of our pain. For it is in those corners that God draws us close and loves into us the strength we need to bear it all.

Loving gives birth to hope. When we open ourselves to see God, we feel and experience God’s love. This loving invites us, in turn, to pour out love and become “midwives of God’s own love on our planet.” I couldn’t help but think of the self-generating love of the Trinity as I considered the theological logarithm that this book offers. We are transformed by God’s love, the love overflows, and the holy dance continues, of its own momentum. This is so ebullient that through this process, we have “agency to change the world.”

Two incredible narratives wend their way through this book — the story of Jake’s mother who was brutalized in the Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp and the story of Jake’s infant daughter, born with a hole in her heart that required invasive, delicate surgery. The vulnerability of each of those tender souls held in God’s care, with Jake in the middle, creates a literary triptych of icons that allows us to gaze through their stories to see God. In the camp, Jake’s mother recognized her value and found the strength to endure because she could locate a loving presence; in the loving worry of new parents, we catch a glimpse of a God who offers hope in the middle of fear and anxiety.

This book offers an enduring message of hope that, as we near the end of another year of seeming mess, is a welcome gift.

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Audrey Scanlan is the Episcopal bishop of Central Pennsylvania.