Tuesday, May 31, 2005

MAY BOOK REVIEW: Brennan Manning's "The Ragamuffin Gospel"

When I was in boot camp, our Drill Instructors would play demonic, breathing smoke and belching fire. They would belittle and demean us, extolling our worthlessness and ineptitude. Unable to do even the simplest task well enough for them, they would punish us by pushing our bodies and our emotions to the brink of unraveling. The concept is well-tested and time-honored. Before being able to mold a recruit into something even remotely resembling the elegance, crispness and precision of a military fighting man or woman, the recruit must first be stripped of those things in his or her life that weigh down their momentum. The future finely-tuned soldier, sailor, or Marine must be broken down in order to then be rebuilt according to the specifications of the new culture in which they are about to join.

Brennan Manning is well acquainted with being broken down. His now-classic meditation on grace, "The Ragamuffin Gospel" suspects you and I are as well. He is not interested in breaking his reader down in order to show them their need for Christ's redemptive dynamism in their life. He works from the premise that life, Satan, and our own idiotic choices have done that for us already. The inception point for his conversation with his readers is one of common brokenness.

Brennan Manning has lived a kaleidoscopic life. He's been a U.S. Marine, a seminary instructor, a Franciscan priest, a monk who lived in nearly total isolation for two years, a minster to the poor and destitute, a prolific author, a prodigious lecturer...and an alcoholic. Coming face to face with his own need and depravity forced Manning to abandon himself to God's grace. The ex-priest's life is a living example of St. Paul's words in Romans, "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God." And it is his own brokenness and cracked humanity that led him to write a book about others like him...about the ragamuffins...about you and I.

"The Ragamuffin Gospel" is a thing of staggering and stark beauty in a world of putrid "God-wants-you-wealthy" and "seven-guaranteed-ways-to-be-more-like-God" books. Its pages release air so fresh and invigorating that one's literary lungs shock at the sudden change. Manning is unquestionably one of the most eloquent writers in Christendom and one of its most vigorous on the subject of grace. His words carry disproportionate weight not only because of their beauty but because he openly shares his own pain and struggles in order to help us deal with our failures and inadequacies.

"The Ragamuffin Gospel" is not written for the Christians who feel that they have everything together; who see Jesus as a sort of spiritualized John Wayne; who think a true believer never doubts or questions their faith. It is not for the legalist or the complacent or the zealot; not for the fearless or the tearless; not for those who pretend each day is a mountaintop experience and deny the existence of a valley of despair all-together. It is written for those who feel bedraggled, bruised, beat-up and burned out; who feel burdened beyond that which they can bear; who feel they cannot take another step; who are inconsistent, unsteady disciples; who fail more than they succeed; who feel their faults far outweigh their meager talents; who just don't seem get it; who can look in a mirror and honestly see a cretin looking back at them; who feel their lives are disappointments to themselves, those around them, and especially to God.

"Sooner or later," Manning writes, "we are confronted with the painful truth of our inadequacy and insufficiency. Our security is shattered and our bootstraps are cut. Once the fervor has passed, weakness and infidelity appear. We discover our inability to add even a single inch to our spiritual stature."

Manning adores truth. Not the kind with a capital "T" that so many like to use as a means of conversion by concussion, but the kind that cares more about one's own personal authenticity. For Manning, the ability to take stock of our own lives and honestly give the soot and grime and detritus a name--sin--is one of the most important things we'll ever do in our lives. Far from arguing for humanity's innate or basic goodness, Manning knows that honest introspection always leads to revulsion. He knows this because he has looked into his own abyss and found a monster staring back at him. But, instead of this realization leading to anguish, Manning saw it as a means to freedom.

"Jesus spent a disproportionate amount of time with people described in the gospels as: the poor, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the hungry, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, the persecuted, the downtrodden, the captives, those possessed by unclean spirits, all who labor and are heavy burdened, the rabble who know nothing of the law, the crowds, the little ones, the least, the last, and the lost... In short, Jesus hung out with ragamuffins."

It is in our darkest hours that the light is the brightest, illuminates the best, and warms the most. When we are at our lowest, we can truly, without pretense, posturing or pride (unintentional alliteration) reach for the only hand that can save us from drowning. There is only so long that we can resist the God Who loves us with magnificent monotony and Who has laid waste to our hearts with His passion.

"Getting honest with ourselves does not make us unacceptable to God. It does not distance us from God, but draws us to Him--as nothing else can--and opens us anew to the flow of grace. While Jesus calls each of us to a more perfect life, we cannot achieve it on our own. To be alive is to be broken; to be broken is to stand in need of grace. It is only through grace that any of us could dare to hope that we could become more like Christ. Are you afraid that your weakness could separate you from the love of Christ? It can't. Are you afraid that your inadequacies could separate you from the love of Christ? They can't. Are you afraid that your inner poverty could separate you from the love of Christ? It can't. Nothing can ever separate you from the love of God."

The staggering truth is that God not only adores us in spite of our most heinous sin but even in the midst of it. God does not want us to clean up our lives before coming to Him. Such inner remodeling is impossible. A ragamuffin is aware of their lack of wholeness, their brokenness, the simple fact that they don't have it all together. While in no way excusing their sin or using God's bountiful grace as an excuse to sin further, they realize that sin is precisely the thing that caused them to throw themselves at God's feet in the first place. Their darkness is the very thing that drove them to God. They do not try to pretend that God's redemption was because of anything other than God's love and grace for them. Nothing they did warranted such a gift.

One of the keys to living like Christ is to never forget where we came from. Having made peace with our ragamuffin identity and our own flawed humanity, we are then able to tolerate in others what was once unacceptable in ourselves. The danger is that we might draw pride and self-righteousness from our newfound forgiveness and empowerment. Manning argues that we must always keep that past in our present conciseness; to never forget who we once were and where we were rescued from. Once this connection is made, we must show the same sort of respect, love, grace and mercy to our neighbor.

"Compassionate love is the axis of the Christian moral revolution and the only sign ever given by Jesus by which a disciple would be recognized," Manning writes. "The way we are with each other is the truest test of our faith. How I treat a brother or sister from day to day, how I react to the sin-scarred wino on the street, how I respond to interruptions from people I dislike, how I deal with normal people in their normal confusion on a normal day may be a better indication of my reverence for life than the anti-abortion sticker on the bumper of my car. We are not pro-life simply because we are warding off death. We are pro-life to the extent that we are men and woman for others, all others; to the extent that no human flesh is a stranger to us; to the extent that we can touch the hand of another in love; to the extent that for us there are no 'others.'"

These concepts are hardly new, but in Manning's pen the old becomes fresh, the simple becomes profound and the cliche becomes a treasure trove of riches.

But Manning goes beyond the point where many writers would have long since stopped. He does not rest with salvation but presses on toward sanctification. Aware that the Scriptures discuss regeneration as a process and not an event, Manning, using his own failings and demons as examples, shows us how we must always keep that same sense of humility and brokenness before God.

"The Christian with depth," Manning writes, "is the person who has failed and who has learned to live with it. Do you live each day in the blessed assurance that you have been saved by the unique grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? After falling flat on your face, are you still firmly convinced that the fundamental structure of reality is not works but grace? Are you moody and melancholy because you are still striving for the perfection that comes from your own efforts and not from faith in Jesus Christ? Are you really aware that you don't have to change, grow, or be good to be loved?"

Manning is not suggesting that a Christian's life should not be a changed life, but simply that we all are in the midst of transformation, at various stages and speeds of becoming more like Christ. Temptations do not end. Sin does not end. Christ-like-ness is not instantaneous. It is imperative that we are patient with ourselves and with others in the midst of the process. Just as we were granted salvation through no action of our own, we must also recognize that we cannot dazzle God with our post-conversion accomplishments and spirituality. "Grace means that God is on our side," Manning encourages, "and thus we are victors regardless of how well we have played the game." The church must never, ever forget that it is composed of sinners and exists for sinners. We are all equally, privileged but unentitled beggars at the door of God's mercy.

"Any church that will not accept that it consists of sinful men and women, and exists for them, implicitly rejects the gospel of grace. As Hans Kung says, 'The church must constantly be aware that its faith is weak, its knowledge dim, its profession of faith halting, that there is not a single sin or failing which it has not in one way or another been guilty of. And though it is true that the church must always dissociate itself from sin, it can never have any excuse for keeping any sinners at a distance. If the church remains self-righteously aloof from failures, irreligious and immoral people, it cannot enter justified into God's kingdom. But if it is constantly aware of its guilt and sin, it can live in joyous awareness of forgiveness.'"

Manning points out that many in the modern church have "twisted the gospel of grace into religious bondage and distorted the image of God into an eternal, small-minded bookkeeper." Reality, he argues, is that God offers us utterly immeasurable grace, and He gently encourages us to embrace that grace in the face of our greatest needs and trauma. Church-goers tend to swear unyielding allegiance to a rigid position, confusing such actions with an authentic connection to God. What they miss is the gospel itself--that although the utterly holy and all-powerful God knows we are dust, He still stoops down to breathe into us the breath of life, to bind our wounds, and bring us to a place of such acceptance and love that we cannot help but pass it on to others. "We have the power to believe where others deny, to hope where others despair, to love where others hurt."

Brennan Manning's watershed book is a life changing reminder that God loves us for what we are, not what we do. It can be shocking when we discover how very little we have to do in order to deserve and receive the love of God. Even more shocking when we truly begin to comprehend just how much of that love there is. You are loved. God wants you just as you are. Suddenly instead of fearing and denying all of our real or imagined shortcomings, we can embrace our humanness and see God pursuing us in spite of it. No book I know, outside of the Bible itself, has more simply or beautifully articulated this, the purest picture of God's relentless pursuit of His gnarled creation.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The message of this book, when internalized, will change your life. I was convinced of this upon meeting Manning in 1998. When I shook his hand I was struck by two simultaneous things: This man looked at me with a tenderness and acceptance I had rarely if ever experienced from another human being. But his look also revealed to me that he wasn't the least bit concerned about my opinion of him. Oh, the liberation that comes from accepting that your are accepted--just as you are. When you really believe in that kind of grace, you lose the pathetic addiction for affirmation most of us have.

11:12 PM  
Blogger Tanya said...

"The Christian with depth," Manning writes, "is the person who has failed and who has learned to live with it."
That has to be my favorite sentence in the entire entry.

1:33 PM  

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