November 26, 2014

Brennan Manning’s Last Words

There is something very haunting about Johnny Cash’s album, Ain’t No Grave. Cash finished recording it just a few days before his death in September, 2003. Listening to tracks on this album, you can hear death in Cash’s voice, making the songs even more poignent than ever.

The same can be said of The Wind, Warren Zevon’s final album. The last song he recorded, just months before his death (five days before Cash’s death) from a rare form of lung cancer, was “Keep Me In Your Heart For A While,” a rich and deep farewell from the manic genius. You can almost hear him forcing the air from his dying lungs through his throat and lips so we could hear such great lines as “There’s a train leaving nightly called When All Is Said And Done.”

I thought of these two albums as I read Brennan Manning’s latest book, All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir. The 77-year-old Manning now needs round-the-clock aid in his New Jersey home and no longer can travel to speak. He worked with co-writer John Blase to record his thoughts about his past, and you can tell he was having to force air from his dying spirit so we could hear his last words to us.

Manning tells us right up front that there is much of his life he no longer remembers, and of that which he does remember there are some things he will not share. He has a “wet brain,” as he calls it, from years of alcoholism. Yet what we are given is a sufficient picture of a life that was filled with pain almost from birth.

My story is a rosary, the beads of which are the people and experiences that have made me what I am. I have tried to move from one bead to the next, but my fingers are feeble and my eyes are tired. So please forgive me; you will experience gaps and breaks in time and will frequently want to know more. But this is not a tell-all. Sometimes I chose not to elaborate any further, and other times I simply cannot remember any more. That’s the way it is.

Manning does not sugarcoat the deficiencies in his parents or siblings, but then neither does he sugarcoat his own failings. What we have is a portrait of a ragamuffin of the truest order. He doesn’t go into detail, but we feel his struggles with alcohol, with marriage, with seeking a vocation.

Warning: Mine has been anything but a straight shot, more like a crooked path filled with thorns and crows and vodka. Prone to wander? You bet. I’ve been a priest, then an ex-priest. Husband, then ex-husband. Amazed crowds one night and lied to friends the next. Drunk for years, sober for a season, then drunk again. I’ve been John the beloved, Peter the coward, and Thomas the doubter all before the waitress brought the check. I’ve shattered every one of the Ten Commandments six times Tuesday. And if you believe that last sentence was for dramatic effect, it wasn’t.

This offering is not packed with a lot of teaching on grace. Rather, it is a look at radical grace—or, as Manning likes to say, quoting Robert Capon, vulgar grace—in action. Manning has not just taught that God’s love reaches beyond the greatest sins we commit, he exemplifies this. All Is Grace is not a book you should read if you haven’t read his other books. Start with Ragamuffin Gospel, then mix in Abba’s Child and Ruthless Trust. Then and only then should you read his memoir. He refers to much of his previous teaching in this book. You won’t really appreciate his open heart here if you haven’t heard him before.

This is not a long book—there is a lot of filler at the beginning and at the end—but it doesn’t feel like a short book either. It is enough of a home movie of his life to give you a very good idea why he calls himself a ragamuffin, but also why he believes the life message he has taught for more than 50 years: “God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be.”

He concludes with what he calls his last sermon, which ends on this note.

John, the disciple Jesus loved, ended his first letter with this line: “Children, be on your guard against false gods.” In other words, steer clear of any god you can comprehend. Abba’s love cannot be comprehended. I’ll say it again: Abba’s love cannot be comprehended.

If those truly are Brennan Manning’s last words, then I would say he has learned well.

Highly, highly recommended.

 

Comments

  1. br. thomas says:

    I had the privilege of hearing Brennan speak on several ocassions over the years and greatly enjoyed most of his books. And, more importantly, his words were used by God to set me free from a performance-oriented way of relating to my Abba. Those words were: “God loves you as you are and not as you should be.”

    Thank you, Brennan Manning, for getting back up, again, and again, and again – and continuing the journey, no matter where the path led.

  2. Jeff, Brennan’s books have helped me to maintain my faith in some difficult circumstances over the years, and made me want to know this God we say we love, to really know Him. I fought back tears as I read your piece tonight. Brennan shoots from the heart, for sure. I’ll be buying this book soon.

  3. I don’t know Brennan Manning (yet) but he sounds like a brother.

  4. Maybe I’ll have to look into a book of his….

  5. the ragamuffin gospel is one of the most worn books on my shelf – an honest to goodness classic of good news gospel grace. “the grace of god is simply unimaginable…’

  6. “All is grace” looks like a reference to the last lines of “Diary of a country priest”, by Georges Bernanos.

    Definitely worth a read…

    • It is indeed a reference to that book. Brennan even says so on the front inside DJ flap for All Is Grace.

  7. I loved Ragamuffin Gospel and I have read another of Manning’s books as well.

    And Jeff, Zevon’s “Keep Me In Your Heart For A While” is a very moving song. I liked Zevon even way back in his “Werewolves of London” phase!

  8. I didn’t realize Brennan Manning was so ill. His books have been a lifeline to me over the years. I refer to him so much by name. But I also refer to him as I express the feelings about grace that have been internalized over time. I feel this message of grace is one that takes a lifetime to experience, but as I’m in the process of “getting it” I am becoming freer and stronger in my relationship with God. May God bless you, Brennan Manning.

  9. I’ve heard him quoted, but have never read him directly. I’ll be ordering Ragamuffin Gospel this afternoon on amazon. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Amazon is my next stop, too!

      Isn’t it a blessing to live in a world where we are free to get our hands on any and all books for a small price? Maybe reading about life in the Soviet bloc has made me appreciate such freedoms!

  10. Randy Thompson says:

    Lord, bless and be with Brennan Manning at this time; fill his heart with expectations of ever-more grace.

  11. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    John, the disciple Jesus loved, ended his first letter with this line: “Children, be on your guard against false gods.” In other words, steer clear of any god you can comprehend.

    Then why do so many try to make God a god they CAN comprehend? And comprehend completely? Such as through Perfectly Parsed Theology? Or attempting to reconcile Everything through Dispensationalism like some sort of Grand Unified Spiritual Theory?

  12. Check out the the “All is Grace” video posted on Manning’s website. You might want to grab a tissue before you watch. http://www.brennanmanning.com/

  13. Brennan has been a spiritual father into my birthing of God’s goodness and grace. I’ve devoured everything he published. He ruined me of religion. And, I can really identify with this;

    I’ve been John the beloved, Peter the coward, and Thomas the doubter all before the waitress brought the check.

    Tom

  14. I cannot express the deep gratitude with which my wife and I have devoured Brother Mannings books. His life and his musings, pain and struggles, as well as the joys of knowing the great love of Papa have allowed us to enter into a place of rest and peace in Christ. His life is a gift to the Body of Christ like no other and we are thankful for the privilege of being able to read about his remarkable journey of discovering the love of the Father, Son and Spirit.

  15. I will always be grateful that someone introduced me to ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel.” Coming from a shame-based, performance based acceptance background, this book was truly a cool drink of water for someone who loves Jesus, but never could measure up. I was thinking the other day, I really need to get to where Brennan is speaking – I want to hear him personally. Sadly, YouTube will have to be it, because the poor soul will not be ministering on the road anymore. What a wonderful legacy he has given those who can truly relate to being a ragamuffin. Some people called him dangerous. It’s true – he is. Very dangerous to the legalistic, earn your own way to heaven mentality that so many of our churches continue to espouse. I’m all for dividing the Word correctly, but it doesn’t mean much if you haven’t truly experienced grace. NONE of our spiritual endeavors mean anything outside of an understanding (as much as one can understand) of grace. This is the knowledge that sets men and women free. It’s what gives us the courage to even try to attempt living a holy life. Knowing that if we fail, WHEN we fail, that grace is ever present – if we’ll only rest in it. Thank you Brennan for teaching me that.

  16. Alison, after having just read Ragamuffin, I was coming back to say the same thing. Through his words, the Lord has done mighaty things for me! I have always been performance driven and perfectionist, and usually VERY sucessful (well, for anyone who didn’t know about the vodka gulped in nighttime terror so that I could sleep.)”

    I not only judged myself harshly, but have first in line to judge many others….”Why did she have another kid she couldn’t afford? What sort of idiot drops out of college in the spring of senior year? Only a moron would have no homeowners insurance and then beg after their house burns down from a cheap space heater. I’ve seen cleaner homes on the tv program “Hoarders” …..you get the picture.

    And I also assumed that not only was everyone else judging ME the same, sad way, but that God was as well. And my terror of failure, especially of financial failure, was a cold, dark shadow over my life.

    AND NOW? I stop almost instantly when a harsh thought passes my brain, about ANYONE, “even” me. I can sleep in peace, knowing Daddy will take care of me, even though I am a mess of a sinner. I get it now…my human father, with all his demands and judgements, was a hurt little boy raised by a mentally ill mother…..and he does not look very much like my real Daddy (Abba and Papa are awkward for me, not part of my vocabulary. Daddy says the same..)

    I have been a lifelong Christian, growing and learning in fits and starts, and ignoring the Lord for long periods of going through the motions.

    But I feel the same “metanoia” that made me, at age 21, stop my whirlwind of dating and sexual exploits and marry the man who had loved me since i was 15…and whom I was ready to love fully (33 happy years now in HOly Matrimony). It seems like the world has changed, but it is ME who has chnaged. Brennan showed me how much my Daddy loves me……and I will never be the same again.

    God bless Brennan on his journey home, and welcome him into Your loving Arms soon, with mutual JOY!