When I was a college undergrad, Western Heritage, a class that synthesized history, religion, and philosophy, brought me face to face with the fact that Christianity was not just a tradition every Sabbath, but worship. This was so foreign to me that I had to ask questions. I e-mailed Dr. Jeroncic a list of questions that I had about the Bible and asked him to answer each one. In a very anti-climatic response, he wrote to see him at his office. We met, then we met again. I believe it was our third meeting when I asked him to recommend me a book, he recommended Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning. I bought that book on Amazon that day, but it wouldn’t be until my sophomore year that I would actually read it.
To put into words what Brennan Mannings writing is like is asking me to describe a feeling. How can I do that? How can I describe what it’s like to like someone? Or to be hurt? Or to be happy? But Brennan Manning’s words, in a time when I felt like no one understood what it was like to be me, it felt like he did. He wrote to me–someone that felt horribly about themselves, ashamed to even proclaim that God could love someone like me. Yet, he understood. He did. He assured me that I wasn’t alone, and his words did the impossible–they helped me understand that despite everything that I was, God loved me and wanted me.
From Abba’s Child, I picked up The Ragamuffin Gospel, which is his best seller. And when I went to Barnes and Noble two days ago, I picked up his latest book, All is Grace, an autobiography. And I was so, am still…struck by the words on those pages.
Brennan Manning was an alcoholic, like legit, a full-fledged alcoholic. He was a married man, then he was a divorced man. He was sober, then he wasn’t. When you read his books, you know this is a man who has experienced the furious longing of God (which is a title of one of his books), yet his autobiography revealed that throughout the course of his powerful and inspired books, he still relapsed after writing them, he got married, was a terrible husband, and divorced in the midst of it all. He even missed his mother’s funeral because he blacked out in his hotel room. He didn’t even go afterwards.
There was one time when he was in rehab, and in the rehab they had peer evaluations. Here is an example of one of the things that they did:
A. I SEE YOU DOING THE FOLLOWING TO PRESENT BARRIERS TO YOUR RECOVERY (circle which statements apply)
1. I don’t see you participate in group without prodding
2. I hear you try to patch everyone up in the community
3. I see you feeling that you deserve special treatment
4. I hear you talking down to other patients on the unit
5. I see you full of denial (minimizing, explaining, justifying)
6. I see you hiding in anger
7. I see you acting like an “old pro” in treatment
8. I see you playing counselor
9. I see you being self-controlled
10. I see you trying to manage the unit
11. I see you not accepting your addiction
12. I hear your bragging about your addiction (war stories)
13. I hear you talking one way in group and another in community
B. I SEE YOU USING THE FOLLOWING DIVERSIONS TO KEEP FROM DEALING WITH YOUR DISEASE:
1. Watching TV, playing cards or games, etc.
2. Preoccupied with everything but treatment
3. Using self-pity
4. Getting romantically involved, flirting, etc.
5. Preoccupied and talking about physical problems
6. People pleasing
7. Using humor/joking to keep from showing true feelings
8. Staying alone (isolated)
Every one of his peers circled all 21 points for him.
For someone to come out and say that in the midst of everything that I preached and wrote, I still relapsed and was a horrible person, I find it to be unbelievable. I didn’t know how to feel about it after I finished the book. Now that I have had time to process it, these are my thoughts.
First and foremost, DANG. What courage this man had to write what he did. Secondly, it shows the human condition, doesn’t it? In the book, he writes how someone once asked him how he could relapse after all the books that he wrote about Christ and His infinite love for us. His answer: It happens.
I thought that was powerful.
It reminds me of the human condition. I see people who have turned away from the church and from God. People I looked up to that I thought would never do so, people with whom I promised we would never go down that path…Then I see my own story, I story of falling, coming back, then go backwards even more. And yeah, I know what Brennan Manning means when he says, “It happens.” Sometimes, it just does. I guess that’s why it’s all about grace. All of our stories is this rise-and-fall, this plus-then-minus journey. What hope do we have, if not for grace?
With what strength I have left, I want to grab the chains and pull, one last time. My hope, as always, is to point to the God too good to be true, my Abba. I’ve no delusions of heroically bringing down the house of fear that imprisons so many. My desire is to witness, nothing else. My message, unchanged for more than fifty years, is this: God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be. It is the message of grace, the life-shattering gift…
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 til five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck upward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, and, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request–“Please, remember me”–and assures him, “Yes.”
As I’m re-reading my words, I feel like I’m not doing Brennan Manning justice. This man, his words have helped shape my spiritual life. In my life, he along with people like David Asscherick and Soren Kierkegaard and Jonathan Edwards and Jeroncic, are all spiritual figures that have shaped my life in a profound way. To realize and see this man’s sins and struggles have made him not only more respected in my eyes, but more relatable. Also, it makes him a saint.
Please please please read his books, especially Ragamuffin Gospel. And please, if you do, read his autobiography last.
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 I still can hear my Father say–
“all is grace.”
It was easy as a younger man
To squander in the far off land
Where sin was sin, like black is black.
But older brother sin in white,
this doubt that creeps me up at night–
“does Jesus love me still?”
Now I take my meds and hear the game,
still all is grace.
Now old friends drop in and bless my name,
still all is grace.
Now a prodigal I’ll always be
yet still my Father runs to me.
All is grace.