Monday, April 22, 2013

Grace for Ragamuffins

Another Story of a Mess-up
All Is Grace

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I had never heard of Brennan Manning till the day after he died. On that day I read a facebook post by a seminary student I know to be solidly Reformed. He said that when he was a new Christian, Brennan taught him about grace. (In subsequent days I saw facebook posts by one or two of my “Sonship” friends, and two lengthier appreciations, one at Christianity Today by Agnieszka Tennant and the other at The Christian Post by Tullian Tchividjian.)

That was enough for me to go online and order Brennan’s last book,  A Ragamuffin Memoir: All Is Grace. I am a slow reader, but the book is short, and I have now put at its end “04/22/13” and “whs.” Why I mark the completion of books in that way I do not know. Perhaps I hope one day one of my children will pick up a book I have read and think to himself, “That’s neat. There are Dad’s initials and the date he finished this book.” Such is the stuff of ego - which makes me, like Brennan, in need of grace greater than all my sin.

I was a little disappointed with the book. It is highly self-revealing and self-critical but very concise. It may be that this was made necessary by his failing health, including mental decline, which required him, though an author of many books, to have the help of a co-author. Others who have read other books by him can say whether he wrote at greater length and in greater depth. On the the other hand, the book has a virtue many sermons lack. It leaves you wanting more. Perhaps that's the genius of the book.

The most disappointing thing to me is what looks like his acceptance of universalism by an approving quotation of  Episcopal priest, Robert Farrar Capon, who coined the interesting term “vulgar grace”: “In Jesus, God has put up a ‘Gone Fishing’ sign on the religion shop. He has done the whole job in Jesus once and for all and simply invited us to believe it - to trust the bizarre, unprovable proposition that in him every last person on earth is already home free without a single religious exertion...” But, he is quoted in a Christianity Today article, denying the charge of being a universalist: "Obviously, the people who would raise that question have never been to my seminars or to my retreats. Write this down: I am not a universalist. Universalism is a heresy that makes the death and resurrection of Christ irrelevant."

He was a Roman Catholic but not the sort I would be, if ever I swam the Tiber. Though he was born, lived, and died as Roman Catholic, he seems to have had an American Protestant gene. He was a fan of Vatican II, wanted more openness, toleration, and reform for the church, sat lightly with tradition and authority, and was an independent, sometimes rebellious individualist. And, like so many Protestants, it appears his most formative and fundamental convictions were based on experiences (in his case of a mystical sort).

Brennan Manning had a painful childhood with difficult parents (an especially harsh mother), enlisted in the  Marines, became a Franciscan and a Little Brother, married and divorced, and was an intinerant  preacher of radical grace. He was also a lifelong alcoholic, to use the modern term term (coined by Magnus Huss in 1849) for a person who chronically abuses alcohol. He went to “treatment” several times but “relapsed” repeatedly till old age and infirmity put alcohol beyond his reach.

It is an understatement to say he was a complicated man whose life was full of contradictions. For instance, as his friend Philip Yancey says in the Introduction, he was a man who could preach the love and forgiveness of God to a rapt audience and yet get drunk in his hotel room that very night.

Brennan tells who wrote the memoir:

This book is by the one who thought he'd 
be farther along by now, but he’s not.
It is by the inmate who promised the parole
board he’d be good, but he wasn’t. 
It is by the dim-eyed who showed the path
to others but kept losing his way...

He describes those for whom he wrote: 

It is for the younger and older prodigals
who’ve come to their senses
again, and again, and again, and again.

In other words it is a book by a sinner for sinners. A sinner in need of grace for sinners in need of grace. The question that haunts is whether it is a book by a sinner who found and kept finding grace written for sinners who have found and need to keep finding grace.

There seems to have been little doubt on Brennan’s part. He preached to others about himself, “The Father is very, very fond of me.”  He preached to others about themselves, “God loves you unconditionally, as you are, not as you should be, because nobody is as he should be.” 

No doubt some will dismiss his confidence of God’s love as a false assurance. No doubt some will dismiss his message a false Gospel. I understand. At one time I would have done so. Now, I can say only that I cannot so easily dismiss what he believed about himself and preached to others as I once did. 

What I do believe is that, if God is not the Father who comes running down the pathway to embrace the prodigal before the prodigal utters a word, if God does not love us as we are not as what we should be, there is no hope for ragamuffins among whom I count myself. If God does not love us apart from who we are, or were, or will be, or what he will make of us, we can never be sure of the love of God. If God’s acceptance is based on what happens in us, even by grace, and not on what happens outside of us in, to, and by Christ, there is no hope for any of us ragamuffins.

One of the remarkable legacies of Brennan’s life was the formation of a group of men, including several evangelicals, known as The Notorious Sinners. They met, and continued to meet after Brennan no longer could, once a year. In this group men found freedom to be honest and open. This freedom was not at the expense of confrontation - confrontation, for example of Brennan about his drinking and lying. But, it was a safe place to speak the truth about yourself without fear of rejection.

I frankly do not know what to make of such groups. I know if I were invited to one I would likely sit there with arms folded and lips locked. Or maybe I would try to talk and start to blubber, which I am loathe to do. I am too scared and too defensive to risk such openness. 

Moreover, and importantly, I do not think Christianity is therapy. I am convinced we are way too self-absorbed, too prone to “wanna talk about me, wanna talk about I, wanna talk about number one, O my, me, my.” A lot of this therapeutic Christianity would go away if we did not have the leisure to focus on ourselve and our feelings - for instance, if we were persecuted.

At the same time, I know that in the circles in which I have lived and do live, we do a whole lot of keeping up appearances. We play a whole lot of defense. What they don't know can't hurt you.

Nor can we risk brutal truthfulness about ourselves without fear of condemnation and rejection. Nor can we speak honest words of criticism with one another without our coming across as saying in effect, “Except for the grace of God I could be like you, but thank God I’m not.” 

I am not sure there is a solution for men who are sinners, and especially not for ministers.  One thing I know for certain: for the latter of the Presbyterian sort it cannot happen in the context of Presbyterian church courts or their committees, which are never far from being judicial. Yet, there seems to be a need...

Brennan's last years were beset by physical maladies, including "wet brain", requiring him to have a caregiver. He describes his condition: “It is true that when you are old, you often are led where you would rather not go...God has ordained the latter years of our lives to look shockingly similar to that of our earliest: as dependent children.”

Yet, even at the end, he was celebrating grace:

Now I pace the dark and sleep the day
yet I can still hear my Father say --
“all is grace”...

Now I take my meds and hear the game,
still all is grace.
Now old friends drop in and bless my name
still all is grace. 
Now a prodigal I’ll always be
yet still my Father runs to me.
All is grace.

It’s first, last, and always all of grace. Or it's nothing.

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