Tag Archives: Brennan Manning

Thank You and Goodbye, Brennan Manning

Brennan ManningI just learned that yesterday, April 12, 2013, Christian author, speaker and evangelist Brennan Manning died. He was 78-years-old. He had been in severely declining health these past few years, so in one sense, his death isn’t a shock. But on the other hand, I’ve been in state of saddened joy today, pained at his parting but so thankful for Brennan’s life, his witness, and the huge impact he has had on me.

I first encountered Brennan Manning’s writing when a dear, sweet lady from the church I was serving gave me a copy of The Ragamuffin Gospel. She enthusiastically told me that this book had changed her life, and as a part of her ministry, she gave away copies to people she knew would appreciate it. Well, when someone gives a book with the preface this changed my life, I’m going to read it. And read it I did. I consumed it. It was a tremendously healing, landscape-opening book for me that invited me into the depth and power of God’s grace, the gospel of Jesus Christ, in a way I had never seen before. It was rugged and gentle, uplifting and earthy, orthodox and un-orthodox all at the same time. The essential message is simple: Jesus came for ragamuffins, and we are all ragamuffins, tenderly and furiously loved by God, no matter the degree of our fallenness, self-loathing, doubt, or the damage done to us by the Pharisees from without and within.

But the most compelling aspect of Brennan Manning’s message was the reality that he, himself was the poster boy par excellence for the gospel of grace he preached. Of all the authors I have read and respected, Brennan’s life is one of the most enigmatic and scandalous. As a young man, he became a Franciscan priest and scholar. Then he succumbed to alcoholism. After entering into treatment, he left his ordination and got married. 25 years later he divorced, his life riddled before, during, and after by alcohol, depression, and deception. He was always a Roman Catholic, and yet preached an evangelical gospel of grace by faith. He was a priest with and without the cloth, a vagabond preacher, saintly, a desperate sinner, an outcast, yet loved and admired, a failure, and still an astounding picture of a life saved and kept by grace. That’s why I will always love and admire Brennan Manning.

Through all of this, Brennan struggled to affirm and preach that yes, God loves and embraces us ragamuffins just as we are, not as we should be. If anyone’s life was a testimony of radically clinging to this grace of God in the midst of pain, shame, victory and defeat it was Brennan Manning.
Brennan and meWell, the story continues for me. In March of 2004, just a few months after reading The Ragamuffin Gospel, I had the chance to hear and meet Brennan Manning. I took a group of youth from my church to a youth conference in Ocean City, MD. Brennan just happened to be the keynote speaker for the adult leaders. I soaked in every word he spoke, surprised at the sheer intensity of his demeanor. He spoke of God’s tenderness with such forceful resolve, hoping to crack through our calloused fortresses of an intellectualized version God’s love to the near total exclusion of truly knowing this awesome love for ourselves. He spoke of the tender, furious love of God. As he spoke, his voice captured the very essence of it, too.

Still, Brennan was a quiet, shy, yet open man. He took time to talk to me, sign my books, and even posed for a picture with me. I was so very grateful that God had led our paths together at that time, little knowing what was to come just days later.

Three days after getting home from that retreat, my wife Rebekah left me, taking our daughter Grace with her. That precipitated two of the darkest, most uncertain years of my life. If you’ve been through a divorce, you know the personal damage: a shattered self-esteem, self-loathing, guilt, anger, loneliness, regret, fear, and for me, depression. Through that hellish ordeal, I learned in the barest of terms that indeed I am also a ragamuffin loved and embraced by my Father God, whom I learned to trust as Abba.

Years later, I still turn to Brennan’s words. It’s funny. All of his books preach the same basic message, and yet he fills page after page trying to express it. If you’ve read one Brennan Manning book, you’ve read them all. Still, my bookshelf holds almost all of them.

In closing, I’d like to share some words found near the end of Brennan Manning’s last book All Is Grace: a Ragamuffin Memoir. These are some of the last words he penned:

     My life is a witness to vulgar grace– a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifsands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request– “Please, remember me”– and assures him, “You bet!” A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.

Amen, Brennan. May you rest in the arms of our Abba, enjoying for all times the embrace you shared with the world and with me, a fellow ragamuffin.


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The Ragamuffin Journal- Part 2

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!

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The Ragamuffin Journal- Part 1

Following up on my last post which lays out what this Ragamuffin Journal is all about, I’ll be pulling some ideas from Chapter 1 of Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel. Chapter 1, serving as an introduction, is appropriately titled “Something Is Radically Wrong.” It instantly grabbed my attention of by addressing the need I had to pick up a book like this.
Something really is radically wrong. Many times, the ways we have gone about seeking a life with God and our basic understandings of God are simply not adequate. Somehow I know that the grace and the love of God through Jesus Christ runs deeper, wider, and more powerfully than I’ve allowed myself to experience. The Church (and I as a pastor in it) haven’t done a very good job communicating and demonstrating what this love and grace of God looks like.  Nor have we fully appreciated how very substance of the gospel is not intended for super-religious know-it-all’s but rather for the down-and-out, broken, doubting ragamuffins whom good religious people tend to impetuously overlook.

In short, we’ve got it all wrong on grace.

I wish I could share the entire opening chapter with you, but here is my favorite part from pg. 32-3 of The Ragamuffin Gospel:

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 (Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me 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 the guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with the grueling alternatives; the business-man besieged by 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; the deathbed convert who for decades had his cake and ate it, broke every law of God and man, wallowed in lust and raped the earth.

“But how?” we ask. Then the voice says, “They have washed their robes and 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.

Does that sound scandalous to you? If so, then good! By worldly standards, which good religious people tend to idolatrously co-opt , grace is scandalous because of God’s radical acceptance– unmerited, unearned, and not at all tainted by the most grievous of our sins. When we open ourselves to the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ for all us ragamuffins, nothing can stand in the way of his love that saves us.

So what about holiness and righteousness? As we’ll discover in later chapters, holiness grows out of the fierce acceptance of God’s grace, and not the other way around! That is an enormous distinction Christians miss time and time again, as evidenced in our behavior and attitudes which suggest that God loves the good and that church is for good people. If that’s ever the case, then this  “false church” would have one less pastor!

The real Church is for those who fail, the rejected, for those who doubt and question, who make the same destructive mistakes time and time again, for those who wouldn’t otherwise make it in a graceless, success-driven world, as well as those lifelong saints saved by grace– ragamuffins all. Now that’s the Church I’ll always be proud to pastor…

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The Ragamuffin Gospel– An Online Journaling Project

Well friends, it’s been far too long since I’ve posted on my blog, but part of that could be explained by the contents of this post. Basically, I’ve allowed layer upon layer of stress, obligation, and conflict to shroud my soul. Of course, that leads to a withered self-esteem and the frightening realization that I find myself distant from God, even though nothing about God’s proximity to me or his love has changed one bit. Keep in mind, I’m not crumbling apart or in the funk of depression; thank God for that, at least.

Much of what I’ve been enduring lately is seasonal in nature, and like all things, it will pass. But, the difference is that I want to come out stronger on the other side of this nasty season. In other words, I don’t want to simply survive this season. I desperately desire to thrive because of it. There’s a world of difference between the two– the numb complacency of mere survival or the joyful triumph of thriving in abundant life. You take your pick!

In times like these, I find myself coming back to the words of a man who has been my soul’s companion during times of darkness. The writings of Brennan Manning have been a blessing to me in every sense of the word. His writing is far more than just comfort or encouragement. (One can always turn to Hallmark or the latest 2-dollar “Words of Daily Encouragement” book for that.) Brennan’s writing launches a radical readjustment of my life back to the unconditional love and grace of God.
I first encountered Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel when a church member, a dear, dear lady who had an uncanny love for God, gave it to me. She said, “You will love this book. It changed my life.” Well, whenever someone hands me a book she claims changed her life, I’m hard pressed not to read it. From the first words of the book’s introduction to the final chapter, I could not put this book down. Never before had I read someone so passionately articulate the love and grace of God for me in such an honest, often gritty, earthy way. I mean, at times, Brennan Manning’s pronouncement of grace got close to scandalous, challenging me to ask, “Does God’s grace really go that far?”

And just as I asked, he would provide a Scripture and a story to answer my question with a resounding YES.

Brennan Manning is an interesting guy. He’s a former Franciscan priest whose work took him all over the world, often to the poorest of places. In the 1970’s he left the priesthood to confront his raging alcoholism. That began a season of writing and teaching which lasts to this day, although he’s slowed down quite a bit in recent years. What most captivates me about Brennan is that he is the botched, highly flawed, at times unlovable ragamuffin he writes about. There’s an honesty and sincerity about his own brokenness that makes his description of God’s grace that much more compelling. In other words, he’s not sharing theory, but reality— both his reality and our reality, if we choose to trust the message of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

But my story with Brennan Manning didn’t stop there. Several months later in March of 2004 , I went with my church’s youth group to Ocean City, MD for a youth conference. This conference also provides a speaker for adults. It so happened that the adult speaker for that year was none other than Brennan Manning. Talk about perfect timing! His public teaching was just as mesmerizing as his writing. I clung to every word he spoke to us. Clutched in my arm was my copy of Ragamuffin Gospel, and I had hoped meet Brennan to share my appreciation and to have him sign my book.

Chris and Brennan- March 2004

Brennan is a very quiet, humble, non-assuming person when he’s not on stage. I approached him, spoke with him, and he graciously signed my book. He then told me that if I liked Ragamuffin Gospel I ought to also purchase his Abba’s Child, which I did. He signed both of these books to me, and posed with me for a picture.

The night I got home from that youth conference, the storm of my life began. My former wife informed me of her intent to separate. Three days later when I came home from the office for lunch, I discovered that she had left me, taking Grace with her, which began the long, excruciating season of separation and divorce. For anyone who’s ever been through this, you know that the first thing to get flushed down the toilet is your self-esteem. Depression, self-loathing, anger, sorrow, desperation, and fear come right along with it.

To this day, I thank my Lord for the safety net of family and friends he placed around me during those perilous years. And also, right there in those quiet, lonely times were the writings of Brennan Manning, particularly his Ragamuffin Gospel and Abba’s Child, both beautiful pieces of writing that poured grace and love into my emaciated soul. Today, I find myself coming back to Brennan when I need a lift. Recently, it began when Blairlee bought me a copy of Brennan’s latest book Patched Together: A Story of My Story.

If you’re looking for tightly constructed, even-keeled writing, you won’t find any of that in Brennan’s work. Reading Brennan Manning is like walking along a thick garden path that takes you into unexpected landscapes of wild colors and contours. You have no idea what to anticipate next, some of the sights more beautiful and desirable than others, but nonetheless a sincere work of art. Brennan weaves his own reflections, stories, and Scripture together to immerse the reader into a world of God’s grace. Sometimes he whispers followed by a shout. At times I find myself laughing, crying, cringing, and soothed. It’s funny… All this describes the nature of a life in Christ, doesn’t it?

So, every few days, I’ll journal on a portion of each chapter from Ragamuffin Gospel, finding something that speaks to me while briefly reflecting on it. I’m doing this for my own sake, but I also truly hope that it would be a blessing to you, too, especially since you’re kind enough to read these ramblings of mine! I look forward to some conversation together.

These posts may not be as earth-shattering as others I’ve done, but I think they may prove to be some of the most important ones I write, at least for the time being. If for nothing else, we’ll learn more about each other and how we each experience the love and grace of God.


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