Brennan Manning's "All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir"
If you were to read Brennan Manning's "All Is Grace" without having read some of his other books, I wonder if you would be has moved as I was. I believe the answer is, "Yes." However, if you're reading this and have not yet read one of his books, it would be my desire to have you start first with "Abba's Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging." Then in true Wizard of Oz fashion, you could move on to this memoir and see the man behind the curtain.
Subtitled "A Ragamuffin Memoir," Manning's "All Is Grace" was just recently released on October 4, 2011. It is impossible to express with words just what Manning means to me. For those that know me, I can try by using an analogy to music. His teachings have affected me like Bruce Springsteen's music has, only more. I can try by using a film smile: Brennan Manning is like Cameron Crowe to me.
I was never under any delusion that Manning was the Great Oz, so, upon reading this very candid memoir, I was in no way disappointed to find "just a man" standing in a booth. In fact, why would one be shocked? After all, Manning is most famous for being a self-proclaimed "ragamuffin" and, his most famous book, "The Ragamuffin Gospel" is a de facto confession that this spreader of good news is indeed "bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt out." I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, one of his funny tag lines when speaking is: "Aristotle said, 'I am a rational animal;' I say, "I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer." Yet, this book is so candid, that truthful, I found myself crying, not teary-eyed, but crying. Why? It wasn't because my "hero" Manning had sunk so low. No, rather it was because in reading this book, I received a clear reminder that's God's love and grace are scandalous enough as to even cover a "non-hero" with this many chinks in his armor!
I don't want to reveal any of the real "meat" of his memoir in this post. Thus, in order to give you an idea of how "real" Manning gets, I will share one of my favorite sections. In said section, the author addresses the burning question often presented to him: "Brennan, how could you relapse into alcoholism after your Abba encounters?" I will not tell you his answer, but I will share a quote that Manning himself felt was important enough to print in full. I had never read the author he quoted before, as such, I found this quotation deeply effective. These words are pulled from Fil Anderson's book, "Breaking the Rules":
My highest hope is for all of us to stop trying to fool others by appearing to have our act together. As people living in intimate union with God, we need to become better known for what and who we actually are. Perhaps a good place to begin would be telling the world--before the world does its own investigation-that we're not as bad as they think. We're worse. At least I know that I'm worse.
Let's get real. For every mean-spirited, judgmental thing some preacher has said, I've thought something nastier, more hateful and more cutting about one of my neighbors. For every alleged act of homophobia by my fellow Christians, I've done something stupid to demonstrate my manliness. For every brother or sister whose moral failure has been exposed, I've failed privately. No matter how boring followers of Jesus may appear to be to the outsiders, they don't know the half of it; trust me.... If we really believe the gospel we proclaim, we'll be honest about or own beauty and brokenness, and the beautiful broken One will make himself know to our neighbors through the chinks in our armor--and in theirs. (pages 178-179 of "All Is Grace")
That is the end of the Anderson quote. The reason I was so deeply moved by it is that it raises the bar for me. It reminds me that I don't need to be anybody other than who I am. It should be noted that that Manning lives up to this quote, admitting, among other things that he has Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, or what us alcoholics commonly refer to as "wet brain." So, in true Manning fashion, I don't want to use this post here to make myself look better; thus, I must also admit that this entire section of the book reminded me of my own horrible shortcomings. And, that is a good thing because it, once again, throws me at the feet and mercy of my Abba! Take just one sentence: "For every brother or sister whose moral failure has been exposed, I've failed privately." Wow! How true is that!?! Just one thing this book did for me is it reminded me that I have no right to be "holier than thou" or judgmental because it's a very level playing field, and, as the title says, "All Is Grace." Fine, I will admit it here and now: I am so full of myself that if I had to write a memoir I'd probably title it "All Is Doah." Well, actually, I'm so bad that I would probably only think that, but I wouldn't have the guts to actually do it because I would be too busy worrying about what you might think if you actually knew how self-centered I truly am.
Yes, I am a recovering narcissist. Indeed, I bet there are not even truly altruistic reasons for me even confessing that truth! That said, this topic brings me to another favorite section of Manning's memoir. This part of the book appears much earlier than the aforementioned Fil Anderson quote. In this section, Manning tells of his stint in the Little Brothers of Jesus which is a fraternity founded by a priest named Charles de Foucauld. In 1967 while he was in his "candidacy" to become Little Brother, Manning spent six months in a small village in France. After becoming a Little Brother he moved onto a small village in the desert of Spain. During this time of his life Manning did such non-glamerous things as shoveling manure, washing dishes, befriending the poor, carrying water, and building chicken coops. What's amazing is the realization Manning comes to. He writes:
Even though I had done well in my desert classroom, my motives were peeled away to reveal complete self-centered yuck. Can you be a self-centered chicken-coop builder? Can a water carrier be stuck on himself? The answer I heard was a resounding and humbling "Yes!" That old desire to be liked reared its ugly head. I thought maybe I had grown beyond it or out of it, but I hadn't. I was devastated; everything felt Brennan-centered instead of Christ-focused. (page102)
While I, Doah, would love to put that last sentence on you, I won't. Oh, how I would like to write something like, "Who among us hasn't felt like that?" But, that would be my own insecurities not really owning how Doah-centered I am. You see, the reason I love this book is that it makes me look into the mirror-waters of the pool and see not my face, but the face of Jesus. In reading this book, I see the reflection of Jesus look back at me and he lovingly says, "Doah, it's not about you." You see, in the same way that one could be a self-centered chicken-coop builder, I often walk around my house kidding myself that I am a loving servant, but, in reality I am a self-centered toilet cleaner, a cook who is full of himself, a husband and a father who far too often doesn't love the way Jesus has loved me. This memoir by Brennan Manning makes me want to not "try harder" which would be a shame. Rather, it reminds me of the lavish grace I have received; thus, making me want to give more grace and love better!
Back to Manning's time in the Little Brothers. This part of his story leads me to a portion of the book that really made me think. He writes:
One of my realizations in such an earthy atmosphere was that many of the burning theological issues in the church were neither burning nor theological. It was not more rhetoric that Jesus demanded but personal renewal, fidelity to the gospel, and creative conduct. (p. 101)
You might want to read that above quote one more time. I love it! The burning theological issues in the church were neither burning nor theological. What this means to me is that we, as Christians, need not get bogged down in debates about side issues such as pretribulation, midtribulation, or posttribulation. (Ironically, some, no doubt will be bothered that I didn't write those three terms with hyphens and capital letters.) Instead, we should focus on what Manning here calls "creative conduct" and what I call simply loving well.
I could go on and on about this latest book by my all-time favorite author. I could fill this blog with so many quotations that you wouldn't even need to read the book. I could get into the real sad stuff that made me cry. For example, I could reveal the one act that led the author to fell the most profound shame of his life and ask the questions: "My God, what kind of a man am I? How could that have happened?" But, I won't reveal it. What I will tell you is that Manning answers the question, "What is the telltale sign of a trusting heart?" The answer is: "A trusting heart is forgiven and, in turn, forgives." And, even though this book was written by "the liar, tramp, and thief" who was "otherwise known as the priest, speaker, and author," it was equally written by a man with a trusting heart, a trusting heart that has truly, deeply, and profoundly affected the ragamuffin who wrote this blog post.
In closing, I must touch upon the final part of the book, a short section by John Blase called "A Word After." I must close with this because there is nothing I could write that could possibly summarize what Brennan Manning means to me better than this small quotation by Blase. He writes that Manning's:
consistent banging on the drums of God's unconditional love sounded at a time when many of us had about "had it up to here" with religion and church and, probably most importantly, ourselves. We were the tired, poor, self-hating huddled masses yearning to be free, and along came a patchwork preacher who grinned and said, "You already are. Abba loves you. Let's go get some chocolate ice cream." (p. 200-201)
Yes, I can admit that Blase describes me there. I used to be self-hating and I certainly have, numerous times, had it up to here with myself! Mr. Brennan Manning's teachings helped me reframe my identity. As I closed the back cover against the final page of "All Is Grace," I closed it really, truly, absolutely believing that Abba loves me. I will return the book to my friend, Lorie Taylor, a fellow ragamuffin, with the absolute faith, a vision really of some "time" in the "future" my wife and I, along with Lorie and her husband, will be sitting around a table on the other side of eternity sharing a chocolate ice cream cone with one Richard Manning. We'll be laughing about how wonderfully messed up and beautiful we all really are!