Manning was not the first to speak or write in great depth about knowing God as our "Abba" (an colloquial and familiar term for "father" in Aramaic, roughly translated to English as "PaPa" or "Daddy") nor was he the first to write about the wonder of God's grace or the relentless pursuit of God. However, he was my first teacher each of these concepts that have shaped my life even as they have since been distilled and refined through Holy Scripture, more steady theologians in history, and the invaluable gift of experiencing each of them through the Holy Spirit.
Early on as new Christian, I searched for books to learn and know more in the first place I knew I could find them - the small bookshelf next to my parents' bed. It was there just a year before my university years that I stumbled upon The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. In his various literary works and through his speaking, Manning openly shares of his vast array of life experiences - his reluctance in entering priesthood to serving in the military, leaving the priesthood for the love of his life - Rosalyn, to the trauma of his alcohol addiction which later ruined his marriage to the same woman, spending six months in a cave in the Zaragoza desert to living among the poor with his Franciscan brothers. A summary of his zig-zag life can be found here on his official website.
As I reflected last night on his life, three impressions linger on my life:
1. You can learn and grow from someone you don't wish to imitate. The apostle Paul encourages the church of Corinth to "imitate me as I imitate Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1). There are and should be such actual persons that the Lord places in our lives whom we desire to largely (though not completely) imitate. Brennan Manning was not such a person. By all accounts his alcoholism - and specifically frequent omissions of its current toll on his life and lack of transparency toward those close with him regarding its pernicious stronghold on him - took his life. He drifted from the accountability structures and care he so needed from the local church - under the cloak of past hurts from Christendom's largest denomination. He brought significant hurt to his family. He often bordered on radical inclusivism that was far more broad than trust in Jesus alone for salvation and made many missteps when taking ethical stances on issues like homosexuality. BUT Manning was stubborn about grace (God's love made active through an undeserved gift) - both in his writings and his life. He fell a lot but kept getting back up off the mat. I learned that God not only loved me but liked me, that God had a deep and very personal love for sinners he liked to call ragamuffins (people who don't have it all together and are bumbling through life), I learned about a vast witness of various persons throughout history who had within them a testimony to the grace of God - Old English and modern fictional writers only found in history classes, obscure theologians and mystics from the middle ages, political leaders, modern teenagers who spoke better than they knew. A cast so wide-ranging and strange that I wondered if he made half of them up and then assigned to them wise quotes and awe-inspiring stories.
This is a strange consolation to someone in my line of work. While I hope to someday be a person whose life is worth imitating, I don't think I'm there yet. However, I am confident my family, those closest to me, even the dear people of Sunrise whom I get to serve can even still learn and grow from me.
2. Manning was a flesh & blood reminder that the world is not my home. In 2000, I received the surprise gift of getting to go on a retreat weekend with Brennan Manning and a few other persons in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It was a wonderful weekend! Each person had opportunity to sit down with Brennan for a kind of appointment. I made use of this opportunity as well as a late night in the den speaking with a few others present to pepper him with various questions about his writings, advice/counsel, more information on certain topics he discusses elsewhere only briefly. With each, Manning's answers were relatively pat and unusually resigned - all the while being as polite as possible. He had this look about him during that time (and others who have spent time with him on occasion confirm likewise) of wanting to be done with it. I am quite confident by this point he was wholly beset by his battle with alcoholism. Since then, every time I read these words I think of Manning:
For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened...we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord (II Corinthians 5: 2-4, 8)Manning's closest spiritual kin was singer/songwriter Rich Mullins, who named his band The Ragamuffin Band after Manning's bestselling work. The two were very close. Manning, was so devastated by Mullins' young and untimely death that he couldn't bear up to show up and give the eulogy at his funeral. Rich Mullins was a bit of a human "misfit" -- socially awkward, ready even at the height of his fame to humbly ask to sleep on someone's sofa (he actually asked this of a friend of mine). He, thus, similarly at times seemed to be done with this life.
I worry sometimes that this life and my lifestyle fits me too well, when my true home & citizenship lie elsewhere. These are two men remind me of a far greater future hope and reward that tends to motivate Christians less and less in an age whose average lifespan continues to trend upward. But more importantly it just makes Katie and I especially happy (and she said this to me last night) that Brennan in particular is with Jesus now. He looked forward to this day more than most.
3. The relentless pursuit of God through the grace of Jesus Christ. Manning wrote encouraged, exhorted and discipled me on this all-important, life-transforming, soul-satisfying subject during the formative years of my Christian life.
My favorite Manning quote which I can still recite from memory: "The deeper we grow in the spirit of Jesus Christ the poorer we become - the more we recognize that everything in life is a gift and then the tenor of our lives becomes one of humble and joyful thanksgiving."
Thank you Brennan Manning for starting me down the road of recognizing both my true poverty and the great wealth I possess in Jesus Christ. And thank You, Abba, for Brennan Manning.