Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Initial Reflections on Brennan Manning’s “All is Grace”

I’ve been thinking about a comprehensive-type review for a while, but I’m such a perfectionist that if I don’t get something written the fire will die out and likely nothing will be written, so I decided to get a start on the thing with this initial blog. Hopefully more will follow (spoiler alert: if you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to be tipped off by some of what it’s about, then stop reading and go check Facebook or something).

My soul has been tossed to an fro as I read Manning’s memoirs. At one moment I’ve been greatly encouraged as I hear about Abba Father meeting him at various points of pain throughout his life; at other moments I’ve felt exasperated and disappointed to hear that alcoholism still claimed much of Brennan’s heart and mind. Almost like experiencing the heartbreak of watching one of your heroes lapse into moral failure (the Scriptures are pretty clear about drunkenness being a level of sinfulness not to be allowed in the life of the believer – Lk 21:34; Rom 13:13; Gal 5:21; 1 Tim 3:3; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 4:3, to name a few)

Though I’d like to go into more detail about my theories about why Brennan’s life may have turned out this way, I want to focus on something more basic here, something more autobiographical. Why does this book cause so much turmoil for me?

Initially I thought the revelation that Manning has always been given to drink (and not episodes from which he recovered, which his books led me to believe) didn’t compromise his “ragamuffin message,” but actually accentuated it. His life is a standing testimony of God’s grace to great sinners. Part of me still thinks this. Maybe what is offended most in me (and others) is our own perfectionistic selves, our religious versions of our false/old self that puts conditions on everything like the older brother of the prodigal. I find modern evangelicalism almost sickeningly perfectionistic and works focused (one of the reasons we need the ragamuffin gospel).

Another part of me, though, is terrified that this actually discredits the ragamuffin gospel in some way. Not in terms of “brokenness that is beyond the grace of God,” for there is no such thing. But I’ve always assumed (from biblical study) that the more one is exposed to the radical and free love of God, the more one is transformed. If one is not transformed, it causes me to question the reality of what is being taught & experienced. But how much “change” is enough to validate a teaching, a life? What if the love Brennan preached about doesn’t exist?

This is what I fear - that the lack of significant, deep healing in Brennan’s life (as evidenced by his continuing addiction) is somehow indicative that the love of God is not so unconditional, not so free as Manning led me to believe through lectures & books. But who am I to decide how much change in Brennan’s life is “enough” to validate his message? All I can do is turn to the Scriptures here (maybe more on this later too).

Manning is one of the few authors/speakers that I count one of my choice heroes. I’ve read almost everything he’s written, and have found that he talks about aspects of the gospel that modern evangelicals desperately need to hear (I think he actually brings in a “Lutheran” type spirituality, but that is another blog). During my own dark night of the soul, I would not have made it without the likes of Brennan Manning, Larry Crabb, John Eldredge and Eugene Peterson. When my misery was due in part to my lack of categories for what I was experiencing, these brothers came alongside me and introduced me to another world where you can embrace mystery, brokenness and confusion and not have to compromise what is true. This Christianity thing is more about a relationship than a set of beliefs or “things to do.”

I know a bit about addiction; enough to know that you don’t mess around with it, because it destroys human lives in ways that few things can. You have to get radical with it, go after it with all the resources you can get your hands on, and you can’t do it alone. It’s very difficult for me to imagine a deeply spiritual man and a man still giving in to addiction at the same time, but that is what Brennan appears to be. Maybe I need more new categories. That’s likely. I think what is most likely is that I need a fresh encounter with Abba Father, who is not so obsessed with making sense of these things for me. I can’t answer for Brennan’s life, only for my own. Brennan’s failure does not negate the objective truth of what he taught (as far as it lines up with Scripture). I have to hold on to that.

As Brennan has taught me over the last 10 years (a frequent practice to the point that it is intrinsic to my own breathing), “Abba, I belong to You.” The Abba of Jesus is real. Brennan’s life (and mine) has to find its wholeness in his great vast heart for sinners. There are plenty of things in my life that bring shame and not glory to God; do these things make him “not good,” or “not true”? Fortunately not. The Scriptures verify what Brennan has said about God’s heart, what he is like, and that is what I have to fall back on now.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Divine Pre-Work

I have been blessed this week by this quote from Henri Nouwen:

“The spiritual life is a long and often arduous search for what you have already found. You can only seek God when you have already found God. The desire for God’s unconditional love is the fruit of having been touched by that love.” (The Inner Voice of Love, 111).

I would even take this a further step back, and say that I only seek God when I have already been found by God (Gal 4:9). I only desire God’s unconditional love when he has already immersed me in that love. This is the heart of the gospel – God loves us and redeems us when we are still sinners, he rescues us before we even know we need rescuing! (Rom 5:6-10)

As Eugene Peterson is fond of saying, “God is first.” God’s pre-work underlies all my spiritual activity, even (especially) my choices to repent, trust and obey him and his word. This is made clear in Philippians 2:12-13.

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (ESV)

I rest today in the fact that my inconsistent discipleship finds a home in the infinitely consistent pre-work of God through Christ. Underneath all my false starts, my attempts to prove myself, to obey and trust, my shipwrecks and idolatries is the love of God. The pressure’s off!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Need to Feed

I was in John 6 this morning and came across this familiar section:

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.” (John 6:53-57 ESV; cf. John 15 for more on “abiding”)

I tried to imagine how odd it would have been for Jesus’ audience to hear these words for the first time. For many it was too odd, too weird, and they stopped following Jesus. Here Jesus is using physical, material imagery to demonstrate spiritual truth (one of his favorite hobbies – wake up, imagination!!). Everyone knows what it is like to eat and drink and how necessary it is. Abiding in relationship with Jesus is to be seen the same way.

The more I thought about this text, I remembered the Passover Lamb in Exodus 12:7-10. The blood of the lamb provided a “covering” for those inside the door where it was painted. But the people inside were then to eat the lamb and not leave any until morning (reminiscent of the manna that God gave the Israelites later on, also a tie-in to the John 6 text).

We stand under the covering of Jesus’ blood as we continue to put our faith in him and his sacrifice. But too few of us actually know what it is like to feast on him, know how to draw upon his life, his resources, his strength and vitality in the midst of our daily lives (esp. in the midst of suffering).

I am currently in a very dark place, in desperate need of the life that Jesus gives. My upbringing and faith development have made it very difficult for me to receive this life from Jesus on a regular basis. I have many obstacles to overcome, most of which have to do with my view of God and my view of myself. Receiving this life comes in spurts, often after an episode of dramatic surrender and trust that follows a deep crisis. I’ve got the deep crisis; now, how to find my way to ruthless trust? As Larry Crabb has wisely said, the Christian life is often a series of cycles of misery then relief.

Jesus, have mercy on me. If this is how you treat your beloved friends, then I fear for your enemies. If I don’t learn to find my life in you, in this particular dark moment of distress, doubt and despair, then I fear I never will. Please help me!

Friday, January 06, 2012

Everything Sad is Coming Untrue

My wife and I have been listening to some songs by Jason Gray that have captured my imagination. The title of two of his songs comes from a passage of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King (the context: Sam believes that Gandalf has died. At the very end, Sam having slept for quite a while and then coming to consciousness, Gandalf stands before Sam, robed in white, his face glistening in the sunlight, and says):

“Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?”

But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

“A great shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from bed… “How do I feel?” he cried.” Well, I don’t know how to say it. I feel, I feel” –he waved his arms in the air– “I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!

All the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”

This is such a beautiful description of what Jesus is up to in my story and in the story of the world around me – everything sad is coming untrue! Listen to what Jason Gray has to say about the reasoning behind his lyrics (see link below):

The beauty of those words rang so many bells inside of me: the idea not that everything sad is untrue (which would be a cruel invalidation of our present sorrows) – nor that everything will come untrue someday (which reduces the hope of redemption to mere wishful thinking) – but that somehow, even right now in the face of the saddest that we see, the seeds of its undoing are sown.  In fact, they were sown the day the body of Jesus, like a seed himself, was laid in the ground.  What took root on Easter is the undoing of the curse, and it is flowering all around us if we have eyes to see it.

I take hope in the fact that today contains the seeds of the “undoing of all sadness,” and that God invites me to participate.

Click here for more and for a listen!