"Grace cannot be weakened by anything a human being does or disbelieves. It runs on, a pure thing, in spite of, as well as because of, us." . . . Brennan has never stopped doggedly reminding us of our deepest longing—that grace, God’s unconditional love for us, runs on, pure, in spite of, as well as because of, us. . . (All is Grace, afterword by John Blase (quoting Kent Meyers), 202-203)
For years, writer, speaker, and self-proclaimed ragamuffin Brennan Manning has been one of my favorite authors. He is eloquent and poetic, weaving story and verse together in a way that cuts to the quick while still soothing the soul. But I think what draws me back to his books over and over again is that in his writing—in his life—I see something that, most of the time, feels so completely lacking in my own: humility.
When I was 22, and again when I was 24, I picked up this little book on humility. I determined to read it because then, quite logically, I would “get it.” This tells you how much I, ahem, “get” humility. But there are two things I have learned about humility in the years since—two things I knoware true. People that bear its marks have usually experienced much pain and sorrow . . . and people that bear its marks are usually unmistakable. Each time I encounter one, they cannot help but humble me. And it’s usually when I encounter them that I most encounter Christ.
Manning is one such witness. He’s been a priest and he’s been a prodigal—over and over and over again. Throughout his many books, Manning has shared bits and pieces of his life story that have caused him to abide deep in God’s grace. But it is in his latest book and personal memoir, All is Grace, that he shares the full story.
This book is by the one who thought he’d be farther along by now, but he’s not . . . the dim-eyed who showed the path to others but kept losing his way . . . the disciple whose cheese slid off his cracker so many times he said "to hell with cheese ‘n’ crackers" . . .
But, this book is for the gentle ones . . . who’ve been mourning most of their lives, yet they hang on to shall be comforted . . . the younger and elder prodigals who’ve come to their senses again, and again, and again, and again . . . because they’ve been swallowed by Mercy itself . . . [and] dare to whisper the ragamuffin’s rumor—all is grace. (All is Grace, 27)
Manning is both tender and frank in his appraisal of his life. The pains and sorrows that shaped him were the repercussions of his own choices as often as they were the results of others’ ill treatment of him; his decades are marked with as much regret as grace. But still—it is grace that overwhelms. It is grace that has been the defining word of Manning’s ministry and the defining mark upon his life.
He rolls in it like a child watching the heavy rain of a happy summer storm, suddenly told he can go outside and stomp in all the mud puddles. He runs back and forth, in and out of it, like a sopping wet toddler discovering the rolling tide at the beach for the first time. The wind blowing his hair, he laughs in wild delight. Then, as it crashes down all around, he’s stricken with wide-eyed awe at the realization of its power—the power of all that grace.
But mostly, he clings to it. Tenaciously, desperately, almost embarrassingly to us cleaner, tidier, more proper Christian folk. The rest of us might show up in Sunday best and say, “God, thank you that I don’t struggle so with sin, that I’m able to serve and sacrifice as I should, that I can give exactly what you require.” But not Brennan. Brennan runs to the throne of grace, stumbling, crawling, silencing the rest of us. In patched pants, tears streaming down his face, he struggles to his feet again and runs on, shouting, “God! Have mercy on me! A sinner! In need of a Savior! In need of your grace!”
In need of grace . . .
Graceis another thing I don’t claim to really understand. Of course I know I need it and that God gives it—abundantly and endlessly through Jesus. But perhaps, like humility, we only understand grace to the extent we know we’ve experienced it . . . and perhaps we don’t realize what grace truly is until we realize how much God loves us as weare. As Brennan says, “God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be.” (192)
One of the avenues by which Brennan has encountered the most grace and mercy from the Lord has been through a long and painful relationship with alcohol. Brennan shared why he faced continual relapses with alcoholism in his book The Ragamuffin Gospel:
It [relapse] is possible because I got battered and bruised by loneliness and failure; because I got discouraged, uncertain, guilt-ridden, and took my eyes off Jesus. Because the Christ encounter did not transfigure me into an angel. Because justification by grace through faith means I have been set in a right relationship with God, not made the equivalent of a patient etherized on a table. (31-32)
Twenty-one years later, he still holds fast to his answer, although now he speaks the same words with what he calls his “2011 ragamuffin’s preference for brevity.”
Question: "Brennan, how could you relapse into alcoholism after your Abba encounters?"
Answer: "These things happen." (178)
These things happen. We get battered and bruised. We forget—or just refuse—to turn to Jesus. We screw up and beat ourselves up, forgetting we were not transformed into angels but are broken people still living in a fallen world, and it is from glory to glory we go. We misunderstand that we have been set in right relationship with God not because of anything we’ve done, but only because of God’s abounding, audacious, ludicrous grace. These things happen. So let us read it again . . .
God loves us unconditionally, as we are and not as we should be, because nobody is as they should be.
I try to remember that we are strangers in a strange land, simply passing through. (Heb. 11: 13-14) It is our greatest comfort in the face of mortality; for those of us who follow Jesus, even death is a “light and momentary trouble.” (2 Cor. 4:17) But I must admit, Manning’s confessions—first of the weight of his personal struggles, and secondly that, like it or not, he is aging—weighed heavy on my heart. At times he seemed so . . . sad.
While I still heard the same lyrical wit and frank honesty I’ve come to love, the encouragement I have so often felt upon finishing his other books was absent. The reality that he is growing old and breaking down struck me more than the power and impact of God’s grace throughout his life. I couldn’t help it: Mortality outweighed eternity.
But I think this, too, is part of the process of changing, living, and yes, even dying as we grow from one glory into the next. Perhaps it is like Paul who, with every passing year and struggle, became more in touch with his mortality, his weakness, his utter dependency on Christ. (2 Cor. 11:30, 12:9-10; Gal. 6:14; Phil. 3:7-11) With each new letter he wrote, he identified himself not just for who he was, but for how he saw himself in relation to Christ: first an apostle, then a slave, and finally a prisoner. (1 Cor. 1:1; Rom. 1:1; Philem. 1:1)
Or, like John the Baptist who said, “He must become greater; I must become less.” (Jn. 3:30) The greater Christ within us, the less we esteem ourselves and the more we enter into the understanding that to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Phil. 1:21)
So, perhaps as Manning approaches his first (and only momentary) passing, it’s not sad that he more clearly sees his weakness and frailty, more dearly holds his all-encompassing need for Jesus. Rather, it’s a testimony. A testimony bearing witness to a life lived clothed in humility and governed by grace.
For, as Brennan said (on p. 204):
Now there’s no more crowds and no more lights, still all is grace. Now my eyes are wrapped in endless night, still all is grace. Now I pace the dark and sleep the day yet still I can hear my Father say— “all is grace.” . . . Now a prodigal I’ll always be yet still my Father runs to me. All is grace.
Annie Provencher is a writer in northern Virginia.
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