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Saturday, April 13, 2013
All is Grace…Saying Goodbye to Brennan Manning
I learned this morning that Brennan Manning passed away last night. He had been very ill and suffering for a while now and it’s best that he moves on ahead of us to Heaven. But his passing leaves a hole…in the lives of those who knew him, either personally or through his preaching and writing.
The greater hole is in this world…a world lacking in Grace and seemingly moving further from that Grace with each passing day. I wonder who will be the voice of loving Grace now that the greatest proclaimer of that message is silent.
I loved Brennan. Loved him. I loved him for a number of reasons. First and foremost because Brennan saved my life. In 1993, my friend Ed Young gave me a copy of Rich Mullins’ landmark album “A Liturgy, A Legacy, and A Ragamuffin Band”. I was already a Mullins fan but this record was simply breathtaking, in the way that those once-in-a-lifetime works of art always are. In the liner notes, Rich mentioned Brennan and his book “The Ragamuffin Gospel”. I bought the book on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 1993. I got home at 6pm and began reading. I sobbed through each chapter, oftentimes stopping to fall to my knees and cry out the pain of a lifetime of legalistic enslavement. The words cut through my heart and set me free… “God loves you! Not in a way that will ever fail, or fade. Not like your parents faulty attempts, not like your friends and their human limits. God loves you the way you dream of but could not bring yourself to believe could ever be.” It was like medicine to a dying man. And I was dying. The death of legalism and Pharisaical regulation had squeezed God out of my life in almost any meaningful way. For the first time in my life, I was seeing God as a Father…as Abba. Daddy. I slowly began to understand that the endless treadmill of performance I was shackled to by the belief system I had embraced since 9 years old, was a house of cards and a lie. I didn’t have to do a thing to get Him to love me. Loving me was what He did…it’s who He is. It was obscene of me to try to earn it or keep it or perform in order to warrant it. God loves me as I am, not as I ought to be…because I will never be as I ought to be. Not ever.
I read until midnight and finally fell asleep. The kind of exhausted but satisfying sleep that comes after an emotional and spiritual breakthrough. I awoke at 6am and finished reading by 10am. I was sore from crying and palpably lighter from the grace I’d experienced. From that day until this I was a fan of Brennan’s writing and a devotee to his teachings. And I just plain loved the man.
I read every book he published and each one was a new insight into a word so abused that it begins to lose any meaning at all. The Queen is “Your Grace”. We say “Grace” before dinner. Wayne Gretzky moved with grace. It seems as if every third church has the word “Grace” in it’s name.
Brennan’s life work was to constantly return us to the root meaning of that word. Brennan Manning is the epitome of the word. His life is an example of how Grace can redeem the most scandalous of us scalawags. Brennan would probably laugh at the overuse of the word…or he’d get very angry. I imagine Brennan happily spray painting graffiti over the word as it appears on the signage of some churches. And renaming some others to include the term.
Brennan wrote us his final love letter last year. His health was in decline and he was beaten up by the world in which he lived and by the grasp of the human that he was. His autobiography was released in March 2011 and I bought it immediately. I wept my way through that book even more so than when I read “The Ragamuffin Gospel” for the first time. I wept because Brennan had front-loaded this final book with some very wonderful goodbye gifts for those who loved him.
First of all…it was honest. Brennan had been hiding his alcoholism from the public for most of the Evangelical years of his ministry. Brennan was a Catholic priest and left the Priesthood in 1980 because he had fallen in love and gotten married. The Church would not permit a married, non-celibate priest and so he resigned. The door that closed to Catholic conferences and retreats became a door to the Evangelical world and it was our gain. Brennan had written openly in “The Ragamuffin Gospel” about how he wrestled with alcoholism and had gone to the famed Hazelden Clinic in the mid-70’s for treatment. We all celebrated Brennan as an alcoholic in recovery and that was what made him so vulnerable and honest. But the truth was that he had lost the battle many times and had, in fact returned to the bottle by the late 90’s or thereabouts. It finally cost him his marriage and his health. Still, Brennan flew under the radar unless he had a book out and few people knew what had really befallen him. Until he wrote his memoirs and bared his soul. Alcohol was his constant nemesis…his thorn in the flesh breaking his heart, grinding his pride, keeping him in a necessarily constant state of repentance and forgiveness. I thought, as I read this confessional, that perhaps…probably…the very thing that fueled the passion with which Brennan spoke of grace and the love of God, (He would frequently become wild-eyed and bellowing when talking of God’s furious love) was the fact that even as he spoke, the guilt and images of the drunken fog he had awoken in that very morning was battling his soul, trying to gain ground and ruin the glorious message of grace he was proclaiming to a roomful of broken ragamuffins just like him. Somewhere in his heart, as he was pronouncing the blessings of a loving God and his limitless grace, there was Brennan’s own voice screaming; “Dear God…let it be true again today for me!”
And for Brennan it always was. There is simply no way Brennan could have had the effect he had on people and no way the message he delivered time after time could have been so effectual had it not been delivered in utter sincerity. And because Brennan never stopped being a Ragamuffin…his voice resonated with the Ragamuffins among us.
The other gift he gave us was a clear indication that this sad and glorious day was coming, and that right soon.
Brennan opens the book with “This will be my final book”. I had only just opened it’s pages, had just read Philip Yancey’s wonderful Foreword, and that sentence hit me between my eyes. Brennan was warning me; “Kid…this is it. This is all I’ll have to say on the matter so start accepting it” I could hear it in his thick Brooklyn accent. I stopped reading and was weeping already and I was only one sentence in. Brennan is done. His voice has fallen silent and soon, his eyes will grow dim and the great sleep will come. I couldn’t imagine a world without Brennan Manning that day and I still can’t, even as that day is now here.
I love this man…this broken, tortured, difficult, scandalous man. This man who could stand before a crowd of desperate, thirsting pilgrims and proclaim the truth of love and grace while his own heart burned to accept the message he spoke to a deeper degree. At least to a degree that would have allowed him to beat the bottle forever. But that was not to be his path. Brennan wrote once of the “Victorious Limp” where he makes the case that the things that hinder us, and the difficult hardships we walk through are what Paul was talking about in Colossians 1:24 when he says he is “Filling up what is lacking in Christ’s affliction.”
Jesus paid the entire penalty for sin. But he did not suffer all the various ills of humanity. Jesus had never married so he had never gone through the pain of divorce. But as I limped through mine…as my heart broke over and over and I missed my wife and I prayed for God to change her heart and He didn’t…reminiscent of Jesus in the Garden begging for a different cup…and when I missed my daughter so much I would cry myself to sleep, Jesus went through that with me and in doing so I filled up the lacking in his affliction. When I lost my career in the economic disaster of 2008, and when I was sleeping in my car, and when my father refused to accept me as his son and continued his life-long rejection of me, Jesus endured it with me and I filled up what was lacking in His affliction.
When Brennan Manning would check himself into a cheap airport hotel and drink himself blind the night before leading a spiritual retreat…Jesus was in that room with him. Jesus never had an alcohol problem, never had an addiction. But when Brennan awoke in another alcoholic fog and cried out once again in repentance for yet another dose of forgiving grace…he was filling up what was lacking in Christ’s affliction. In Brennan’s life, I see Jesus calling to me in a gentle voice; “Craig…in all this I never left Brennan’s side. In all this I loved him and I used him to proclaim my loving grace to a broken world. You have no need to fear me when you fall.” Had Jesus been a slave to alcoholism it would have looked like Brennan Manning.
Brennan’s greatest gift to us was his openness and his brokenness.
As a writer, I long to create the world Brennan did with his mastery of words. I cannot be Brennan. But I have tasted the same healing waters and it’s my job to pass the message of grace to the next band of weary travelers in my own voice.
But in a way that tips my hat to the man who taught it to me.
One more thought on my way out the door…
This morning I thought about Brennan’s wondrous entrance into Heaven. Of course the first person we want to imagine greeting him is Rich Mullins, who was so intertwined in his life. Maybe Flannery O’Connor would be next or a few Popes. But my image was special and it felt so real to me that I instantly broke into tears. In my mind I saw Brennan moving slowly through the crowd of greeters and well wisher and looking intently for the face of our Lord. After time with Him Brennan looks up to see the sweet, tender, lovely face of my grandmother, Dorothea Wray Shanko, a woman who loved Jesus with every possible bit of her being but who never quite rested in the knowledge of His love for her. She could not quite forgive herself for her failures and faults and lived the life of a desperate believer. Believing in Jesus, accepting his love for her, but never grasping why.
In my mind I saw her reach for Brennan’s hand and squeeze it softly. Brennan knows who she is without an introduction. She kisses his cheek and says; “My grandson was a desperate, broken young man of 29 years old the year I came here to Heaven. I watched him from this cloud of witnesses and worried and prayed that he would find Grace and break the chains that gripped our family. I saw his hurting heart and I wanted so desperately to get to him somehow and proclaim the love I only found after coming here. Brennan…you did that for me. Thank you for saving my Craig.” Brennan would only answer with tears.
That image is burned into my heart this morning. I never met Brennan in life but I feel like my grandmother is filling him in on the details.
Godspeed Brennan Manning. My life was saved, reshaped, torn down and remade because your life was as well, and you were brave enough to tell the tale.
I love you dearly, I will see you soon.