I want to tell you about a man who will make you believe God’s grace is real. Some of you may have heard the name Brennan Manning before, others maybe not. He was not as famous as C.S. Lewis although he could write beautiful prose that read as good as fiction much like Lewis. He did not write about 7 ways to grow a church or 10 ways to be happier in your job.
Manning was too busy living with the disease of alcoholism and writing about the relentless nature of God’s grace.
Brennan Manning lived as a man devoted to spiritual living. He was a member of the Catholic community based in France called Little Brothers of Jesus. He was a successful speaker and preacher at various conferences. But much of his life and career became defined to larger audiences by his decision to come back to America in the 1970s after acknowledging his deep dependence on alcohol. For the last 40 or years Manning has served as a speaker and author.
Arguably Brennan Manning’s greatest contribution to the Christian world was his coining of the phrase “Ragamuffin” as a term for what it means to understand yourself as a Christian. The best definition of what it means to be a Ragamuffin is probably described best in this simple yet penetrating sentence written by Manning:
“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.”
I found Brennan Manning at a point in my life long after I had walked away from a call to ministry when I found myself doubting my faith altogether. On the days I actually thought about faith, I wondered what the point of it all was. I was lonely even though I was surrounded by others. I was in a desolate place even though my days were full of activity. I did not yet know how much I needed God. And I didn’t know yet how much Brennan Manning’s words would come to mean to me. A friend gave me his copy of the book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, and I read the first two pages of Manning’s words:
“The Ragamuffin Gospel was written with a specific reading audience in mind.
This book is not for the superspiritual.
It is not for muscular Christians who have made John Wayne, and not Jesus, their hero.
It is not for academics who would imprison Jesus in the ivory tower of exegesis.
It is not for noisy, feel-good folks who manipulate Christianity into a naked appeal to emotion.
It is not for hooded mystics who want magic in their religion.
It is not for Alleluia Christians who live only on the moun- taintop and have never visited the valley of desolation.
It is not for the fearless and tearless.
It is not for red-hot zealots who boast with the rich young ruler of the Gospels, ‘All these commandments I have kept from my youth.’
It is not for the complacent who hoist over their shoulders a tote bag of honors, diplomas, and good works, actually believing they have it made.
It is not for legalists who would rather surrender control of their souls to rules than run the risk of living in union with Jesus. If anyone is still reading along,
The Ragamuffin Gospel was written for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out.
It is for the sorely burdened who are still shifting the heavy suitcase from one hand to the other. It is for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together and are too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace.
It is for inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker.
It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents.
It is for earthen vessels who shuffle along on feet of clay.
It is for the bent and the bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God.
It is for smart people who know they are stupid and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags.
The Ragamuffin Gospel is a book I wrote for myself and any- one who has grown weary and discouraged along the Way.”
…I know, right?!?!
I never had the pleasure of meeting Brennan Manning in person but I felt like I knew him through his writing because he was so very honest and vulnerable. He wrote like a man who had nothing to lose — fearless in admitting his fears. He wrote like a man who knew the seductive and controlling power of sin that exceeds our pithy, human understanding or shallow morality. He wrote like a man who knew the life-changing and priceless cost of grace and what a miracle it is to be encountered by it at our lowest points.
Brennan Manning had the ability to write about God’s grace because who better to describe it than a man who lived everyday knowing how much he needed it.
As a gift of grace, Brennan Manning had the ability to strike at the very heart of how outrageous and scandalous God’s grace is:
“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.”
Manning also had a gift for seeing through the often shallow and self-centered ways we describe what it means to be a Christian. His writing is a prophetic act of imagination — prophetic for telling the truth about our church culture and imaginative in describing the world as God might see it. Read this from his wonderful book, The Furious Longing of God:
“The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that He lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian.”
Manning knew that being a Christian everyday of your life meant more than pithy, self-help advice. And it meant more than being consumers of religion. The demanding and life-changing task of being a Christian is truly living everyday as a new creation, as the person God truly created us to be. And it means living with the knowledge that we get it wrong many days. So we constantly stand in the need of God’s grace to help continue to be who God calls us to be. This grace also forms us into a people of humility and not arrogance.
Just last year I read what would be Brennan Manning’s last book, All Is Grace. It was my fourth written by him but it was the first in a few years. I decided to come back to Manning like you decide to pick up the phone and call an old friend out of the blue one day. You don’t know exactly why you do it, you only know that for whatever reason, it just felt right on that particular day. And let me tell you, it did not disappoint. The most meaningful parts of his memoir were when he addressed his relapses with alcoholism even after his encounters with “Abba” and his writing of books on grace. He simply said, “These things happen.” While I’m sure many pious people would say that’s a cheap answer, I don’t see it as cheap at all. I imagine a man who’s face is worn with years of struggling with faith and falling short. I imagine a man who knows the cost of grace only after profound low points in his life. “These things happen” are an admission, a truth-telling, that we cannot fix or save ourselves no matter how hard we try. Only God can save.
I write this post to join the ranks of those who claim the name of “Ragamuffin” because they read Brennan Manning and heard the voice of God speaking through pages filled with raw honesty about life and the human condition. Brennan Manning helped me understand that one of the first steps in living as a Christian is to not only be honest about our brokenness, but to embrace it. Only then can God truly enter into the mundane and routine parts of our lives. Only when we can see our own brokenness can we truly experience the grace of the One who was broken for our sake, and who continues to live and dwell in the broken places of our world.