I just learned tonight that Brennan Manning passed away in April. Many of you may have no idea who Brennan Manning is. That’s okay. He was a speaker, author, and exceptional human being. He was a Franciscan priest. In my mind, what defines Brennan the most is his almost childlike love for the person of Jesus and his honesty about his own failures. He was an invariably truthful man, and he didn’t define himself by success because he viewed himself largely as a failure. He left his order to marry, and that marriage ended in divorce. He was also a recovering alcoholic. Yet he experienced the relentless love of God at every turn–compassion and acceptance when he least deserved it. Forgiveness when he couldn’t offer it or even take hold of it for himself. In one of his most beloved books, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan wrote, “My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.”
It was these words that I heard twenty years ago in a little Lutheran church on a cold, snowy night. My grandmother called me while I was studying for an exam. She pleaded with me to go to an evening service at her church: “You must come to church. There is a man speaking. I heard him last night. The way he talks about God…I have never heard anything like it. You must come.” Something in me understood her urgency. She rarely ever begged me to come to evening services during the week. I always took her to church on Sundays. It was our tradition. I remember that I had reached a cold and lonely place in my journey with God. I felt abandoned. Maybe I even felt used somehow. I did not understand the point of believing in God if God was so impotent. I had loved Him since my earliest memories. What had that love ever accomplished? I had prayed, begged even, as a little girl that He would come to me. “Please protect me.” My father and his wife continued to hurt me. My mother was never stopped. I was still abducted. Where was God? What was the point? Where was the God of my ancestors? Where was the God who parted the Red Sea? Where was the God who raised Lazarus from the dead? Where had He gone? Where was the God that people died for? What was I missing?
I went to church with my grandmother that night. I listened to the man speak, and I was astonished at his words. He talked of a God of immense love and goodness. He talked of grace. In all my years, I had never heard of grace. I had only heard of duty, obligation, and the Law. I had been told that I would need to count the cost. I had been told that I needed to deny myself. Who was this God? I found myself weeping. Grace. The immense love of God. As I sat listening to this man speak, I let myself feel again. I felt angry. I felt betrayed. I felt…so hurt. I had been told my entire life that I had to be perfect to sit in a pew. This man told a different story.
“Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last ‘trick’, whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school.
‘But how?’ we ask.
Then the voice says, ‘They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’
There they are. There *we* are – the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to faith.
My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.” Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out
This was the first time I met Brennan Manning. I shook his hand after he finished speaking, snot and tears running down my face. He blessed me as a Franciscan priest is wont to do. I went home that night feeling that his name sounded familiar, and, sure enough, his book The Ragamuffin Gospel was sitting on my shelf! I read the entire book that night, and I marveled at my own ignorance. How could such a thing have been so near to me and I had not known it? That night was a turning point for me. I was never the same again. Brennan reintroduced me to God and the person of Jesus. It was then that I began to learn that God is indeed kind and good. He was nothing like I thought He was.
I met Brennan again about eight years later. I had the immense privilege of attending a retreat that he led. Once again, I was at a crossroads in my journey, and I was refreshed and directed to a better path.
Brennan’s wisdom came at a price. He suffered. His road was hard. I relate to that. Many people adored him, and many people scorned him. It seems there is no middle ground for such souls who say things like this:
“When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.
To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God’s grace means. As Thomas Merton put it, “A saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God.”
The gospel of grace nullifies our adulation of televangelists, charismatic superstars, and local church heroes. It obliterates the two-class citizenship theory operative in many American churches. For grace proclaims the awesome truth that all is gift. All that is good is ours not by right but by the sheer bounty of a gracious God. While there is much we may have earned–our degree and our salary, our home and garden, a Miller Lite and a good night’s sleep–all this is possible only because we have been given so much: life itself, eyes to see and hands to touch, a mind to shape ideas, and a heart to beat with love. We have been given God in our souls and Christ in our flesh. We have the power to believe where others deny, to hope where others despair, to love where others hurt. This and so much more is sheer gift; it is not reward for our faithfulness, our generous disposition, or our heroic life of prayer. Even our fidelity is a gift, “If we but turn to God,” said St. Augustine, “that itself is a gift of God.”
My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.”
― Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out
“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
― Brennan Manning
“When we wallow in guilt, remorse, and shame over real or imagined sins of the past, we are disdaining God’s gift of grace.”
― Brennan Manning
“Do you believe that the God of Jesus loves you beyond worthiness and unworthiness, beyond fidelity and infidelity—that he loves you in the morning sun and in the evening rain—that he loves you when your intellect denies it, your emotions refuse it, your whole being rejects it. Do you believe that God loves without condition or reservation and loves you this moment as you are and not as you should be.”
― Brennan Manning, All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir
Brennan Manning’s books, words, and the time I spent with him have left an indelible mark on me. The world is a better place today because he lived, and I’m better for having known him. Thank you, Brennan.