I have to say that Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel displays one of the oddest assortment of chapter titles I’ve ever seen! That’s Brennan’s method of alerting the reader that what lies within is not the same old hand-me-down, tired out sentiments one would expect to find in most Christian books on spirituality. Chapter 2’s title is no exception: “Magnificent Monotony”. That curious title certainly bears some unpacking, doesn’t it?
Brennan pulls the chapter title from Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament‘s peculiar way of characterizing the way John, the author of the book of Revelation, writes about the love of Jesus Christ. Kittel labels John’s description of this love as magnificent monotony. I never thought to characterize John’s writing that way before, or even to think of the love of Jesus Christ that way, but it makes sense. On the one hand, I affirm that the love of God like the constant, repetitive sound of steam engine, and yet it’s as majestic and untamable as the sound of the Niagara Falls. To add a musical metaphor, God’s love has both the consistent, patterned structure and the boundless passion of a Bach “Brandenburg Concerto”.
Chapter 2 then points out two persistent pitfalls when trying to grasp the the love of God. The first is what Brennan calls a “pastel-colored patsy God who promises never to rain on our parade.” He then tells this story:
A pastor I know recalls a Sunday morning Bible study at his church when the text under consideration was Genesis 22. God commands Abraham to take his son Isaac and offer him in sacrifice on Mount Moriah.
After the group read the passage, the pastor offered some historical background on this period in salvation-history, including the prevalence of child sacrifice among the Caananites. The group listened in awkward silence.
Then the pastor asked, “But what does this story mean to us?”
A middle-aged man spoke up, “I’ll tell you the meaning the story has for me. I’ve decided that me and my family are looking for another church.”
The pastor was astonished, “What? Why?”
“Because,” the man said, “when I look at that God, the God of Abraham, I feel I’m near a real God, not the sort of dignified, businesslike, Rotary Club God we chatter about here on Sunday mornings. Abraham’s God could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything form a person, and then want more. I want to know that God.”
The child of God knows that the graced life calls him or her to live on a cold and windy mountain, not on the flattened plain of reasonable, middle-of-the-road religion.
This is the God of the gospel of grace. A God, who out of love for us, sent His only Son He ever had wrapped in our skin. He learned to walk, stumbled and fell, cried for His milk, sweated blood in the night, was lashed with a whip and showered with spit, was fixed to a cross and died whispering forgiveness on us all.
This is a pretty fierce description of grace, isn’t it? It’s not the popular perception of a doting, lacy, delicate, unobtrusive God. Or many people envision God as a cosmic Santa Claus whose only purpose is to fulfill our personal visions of happiness. There’s no room at all for this nonsense when we take an honest look at God through biblical lenses. Instead we see a relentless Passion for us that knows no bounds. That Passion will never give up and will empty himself completely for the sake of each of us, his beloved. In response to this Passion, we pour out our own love and devotion to him– even if it costs us everything we’ve got!– because we know that the fierce mercy of God will never fail us.
On the other hand, the pitfall image many people have of God is a distant, capricious, exacting taskmaster who is quick to expose our faults and whose approval we must always earn. Brennan describes this image with another story:
A married woman in Atlanta with two small children told me recently she was certain that God was disappointed with her because she wasn’t “doing anything” for Him. She told me she felt called to a soup kitchen ministry but struggled with leaving her children in someone else’s care. She was shocked when I told her the call was not from God but from her ingrained legalism. Being a good mother wasn’t enough for her. In her mind, neither was it good enough for God.
In similar fashion, a person who thinks of God as a loose cannon firing back random broadsides to let us know who’s in charge will become a fearful, slavish, and probably unbending in his or her expectations of others. If your God is an impersonal, cosmic force, your religion will be noncommittal and vague. The image of God as an omnipotent thug who brooks no human intervention creates a rigid lifestyle ruled by puritanical laws and dominated by fear.
But trust in the God who loves consistently and faithfully nurtures confident, free disciples. A loving God fosters a loving people. “The fact that our view of God shapes our lives to a great extent may be one of the reasons Scripture ascribes such importance to know him.”
Indeed, a God of absolute grace who loves his creation with a sacrificial, fierce tenderness is a knowable God. A god who stands behind laws and rules while doling out gifts for good little boys and girls while inflicting punishment on the bad is not knowable. And honestly, I’d much rather know the former and thumb my nose at the later!
As a ragamuffin who has my strengths but has also felt the guilt and shame of my many faults, I can tell you that my faithfulness is at best short-lived when motivated by fear and obligation. That’s true in my relationships with both God and people. Eventually, I come face to face with my own failure to meet the expectation put before me and then find myself having to scratch and claw my way out of a dark pit of guilt and shame. That’s not life– not by a long shot!
But, I am always motivated to give my all and even more when nurtured in the promise of unconditional love. That freedom of grace uplifts me to become my very best for God and for the people I’m blessed to serve. Knowing the boundlessness of God’s grace and the magnificent monotony of his love, I feel like there is no sacrifice, great or small, I wouldn’t make, and I’d give even more, for the sheer joy of knowing him who never gives up on a ragamuffin like me!