“When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and I get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer. To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life’s story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side, I learn who I am and what God’s grace means. As Thomas Merton put it, ‘A saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God.’” Brennan Manning
Brennan Manning died this past Friday. For those of you who have never heard of him, here is a quick biography of him. He was a popular Christian writer, retreat leader, preacher and speaker, whose most famous book was, perhaps, The Ragamuffin Gospel. He was born in Brooklyn, New York into an Irish Roman Catholic family. His parents had wanted a girl when he was born, and he often talked about being an unwanted child, of feeling like an abandoned child even though he lived in the midst of a family. His father was an alcoholic, a legacy that would later leave its mark on Brennan’s life. After a stint in the army during the Korean War, he went to seminary and became a Franciscan priest, spending time in the United States and Europe, living and ministering among the poor, as well as spending intervals of time as a solitary contemplative. While serving as a priest, he descended into the depths of alcoholism and spent six months in a treatment center, which put him on the road to recovery. His alcoholism would continue to haunt him throughout his life, with periods of sobriety giving way to periods of drinking. After some years in the priesthood, he met and fell in love with a woman whom he eventually married, renouncing his vows. They remained married for a number of years, but eventually, his alcoholism was one of the reasons his marriage fell apart and he and his wife divorced. The results of his alcohol abuse also caused damage to his body and the last few years of his life were spent in physical decline, leading to his death last weekend.
Brennan was a man who knew much about brokenness and sin, about wanting to live as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ and often falling short, about what it means to fail. He had a deep and passionate love for God and Christ, and for the marginalized, poor and broken people of God with whom he spent so much of his ministry. He had deep faith and he also spent a great deal of time wrestling with God. He lived with profound belief interspersed with periods of tremendous doubt. He never really seemed to feel at home in this world. His life was, to borrow a phrase from the songwriter Leonard Cohen, “a broken Hallelujah.” There were many cracks on the surface of Brennan’s life, but to borrow another phrase from Cohen, “Everything has a crack in it; that’s how the light gets in.” You see, it was Brennan’s very brokenness that led to his most powerful witness on behalf of the gospel of Jesus Christ, for it was his brokenness, his sinfulness, that drove him to wonder how God could possibly love one such as him, and in his search, he came to the gospel message he would spend the rest of his life sharing with anyone who would listen through his writings, his speaking, his preaching, his life. He wanted people to know their true identity: he wanted every human being to understand themselves as one of God’s beloved— being God’s beloved is our true identity, he said. His message was of the overwhelming grace of God, God’s relentless mercy toward us, God’s unfathomable love. He wrote and spoke about the love of God for all of us who are “ragamuffins” in the world—the sinful, broken, fearful, timid, unloving and often unfaithful children of God, affirming that God’s love for us is not dependent on our worthiness but on God’s remarkable grace.
Here is a sample of some classic Brennan Manning theology:
“The compassion of Jesus is the compassion of Almighty God, and Jesus says to your heart and mine tonight: ‘Don’t ever be so foolish as to measure my compassion for you in terms of your compassion for one another. Don’t ever be so silly as to compare your thin, pallid, wavering, moody, dependent-on-smooth-circumstances human compassion with mine, for I am God as well as human. When you read in the gospels that Jesus was moved with compassion, it is saying his gut was wrenched, his heart torn open, the most vulnerable part of his being laid bare. The ground of all being shook, the source of all life trembled, the heart of all love burst open, and the unfathomable depths of the relentless tenderness was laid bare. Your Christian life and mine don’t make any sense unless in the depths of our beings we believe that Jesus not only knows what hurts us, but knowing, seeks us out–whatever our poverty, whatever our pain. His plea to His people is: ‘Come now, wounded, frightened, angry, lonely, empty, and I’ll meet you where you live, and I’ll love you as you are, not as you should be, because you’re never going to be as you should be.’ Do you really believe this? That with all the wrong turns you made in your past, the mistakes, the moments of selfishness, the dishonesty and degraded love, do you really believe that Jesus Christ loves you? Not the person next to you, not the Church, not the world, but that he loves you beyond worthiness and unworthiness; beyond fidelity and infidelity; that he loves you in the morning sun and the evening rain, without caution, regret, boundaries, limit; that no matter what’s gone down, he can’t stop loving you? This is the Jesus of the gospels.” (From a sermon by Brennan Manning)
This was the Jesus of Brennan’s experience: the one who loved him and forgave him in spite of all his brokenness and failure and less-than-perfect faith. Brennan looked unflinchingly at his own life—the good and the bad of it, the light and dark places in his own soul, and his conviction was that in spite of all he had been and done, God loved him, Christ forgave him, the Spirit sought him, and he wanted everyone else to have this same conviction—he wanted us to know our nature as the beloved ones of God, to understand that as our true identity, no matter what other identity the world may try to give, no matter what other labels we may put on ourselves; the only label that matters, the only label that is true is this: beloved of God.
Last year, Brennan published his autobiography. It is entitled All Is Grace, for that was the message of Brennan’s life: All is Grace—a grace beyond imagining, beyond hoping, beyond understanding, and certainly beyond deserving. His works have resonated with many of us over the years, especially those of us who understand ourselves to be broken people, sinful and often-unfaithful, full of darkness as well as light, ragged and fearful, those of us who spend time wrestling with the God we love, doubting as well as believing, those of us whose lives are a “broken Hallelujah.” If you are feeling unworthy today, if you are experiencing your own brokenness, if you are wrestling with the God of your life, if you are doubting, if you wonder whether or not God could ever love such a one as you, could ever use such a one as you, if you are painfully aware of your inability to earn your salvation, to earn God’s love and grace, Brennan would want to say to you: “God loves you as you are not as you should be, because none of us will never be as we should be.” Today, this very moment, you are enough. God loves you. Christ died for you. You are loved. You are forgiven. You are God’s beloved. Do you believe that? Do you really believe it? All is Grace.
Here is what I hope: I hope that on Friday, when Brennan closed his eyes on this life and opened his eyes on the next, he came face to face with the God he had loved with passion all of his life, and God looked at Brennan and saw all the cracks on the surface of his life and said to him: “Come now, wounded, frightened, angry, lonely, empty. I love you as you are. And here, in my presence, in this place, you will finally become all you should be. Because here, my grace will heal you, my love will bring you to completion. Here, you will live into your full identity as my Beloved One. Here, All is Grace.” And I hope that even Brennan, with all his writing and preaching about the unfathomable love and grace of God and Christ still managed to be surprised at the depth of that love, at the healing power of that grace. I hope that Brennan took his seat at the Welcome Table in the Kingdom and that this man who never felt fully at home in this world, feels that he is Home at last. I hope he finally knows not just in his head but in the very center of his soul that he is Beloved of God. I hope he knows that All is Grace, and that in that grace, he has found his salvation. I hope it will be so for you one day. I hope it will be so for me. Do you believe it, beloved? Do you believe? I believe…Help my unbelief…