And then I read The Ragamuffin Gospel and wondered why it took me so long to read these words - words that could free a person from the bondage of performance and fear. Manning wrote about grace in a way that I had never heard or read about it before, though he sent me scrambling to my Bible to encounter that this was the very message Christ taught and lived. How had I missed it for so long? How had so many pastors gotten it so wrong? Why was there so much legalism and so little of the unconditional love of our Abba?
"My deepest awareness," Manning writes, "is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to deserve or earn it."
That's not what I had been taught. Where was the wrathful judgmental God who kept lists and checked off every mistake, every sin and every failure?
I longed to read the words of truth that I encountered in The Ragamuffin Gospel. "The deeper we grow in the Spirit of Jesus Christ," he writes, "the poorer we become - the more we realize that everything in life is a gift. The tenor of our lives becomes one of humble and joyful thanksgiving." Gone was the drudgery and being begrudgingly obedient out of fear of hell, but of willingly following Christ not our of fear but out of love and a desire to know and experience more of him day by day. To realize that I was, indeed, a "beloved" son of God.
After I first read this book, I bought extra copies and began to give it out to everyone I could think of and thrust it into their hands with, "You must read this book. It will revolutionize and change your life."
I gave it to every broken and hurting sinner and saint I knew. And it did change lives. They, like me, saw God afresh and anew. We see our Creator not through the restrictive eyes of pharisaical law, but through the loving eyes of Christ.
"For those who feel their lives are a grave disappointment to to God," Manning says, "it requires enormous trust and reckless, raging confidence to accept that the love of Christ knows no shadow of alteration or change. When Jesus said, 'Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened,' He assumed we would grow weary, discouraged, and disheartened along the way."
Christ knew that we would and he lovingly chose us anyway. "I know you will doubt. I know you will fail and stumble. I know you will be hard-headed and hard-hearted sometimes. I know you will feel lonely and rejected and hurting. I know you will despair and question. But know that I love you. I call you mine even when you cannot believe it, even when you cannot feel it, even when you abandon me, I will not abandon you." This is the Jesus of the gospels. This is the Jesus that Brennan Manning served and loved and wrote about. This is Jesus.
It was many years after reading The Ragamuffin Gospel that I was fortunate enough to get to attend a weekend retreat he held. I think it was around the time that his book A Glimpse of Jesus: The Stranger to Self-Hatred was published. Just as I had been when I first encountered his books, I needed to hear the words Manning spoke. Many of those gathered for the retreat, found themselves in tears from his message. They were words that provided deep healing and profound wisdom and grace.
At one point, towards the end of the retreat, he told the story of Don Quixote who saw the prostitute, Aldonza, whom he renamed Dulcinea, not as a whore but referred to her as "My lady." While she could not see herself as anything but worthless and cheap, Don Quixote chivalrously saw her as moa lady and someone whom he offered his honor and service to. Isn't that how Christ sees all of us? It's exactly the point that Manning made. Christ saw past our sins and called us "My beloved."I can still hear "Dream the Impossible Dream" playing on his cassette recorder as he had us all close our eyes and listen to the lyrics of this Broadway song from Man of La Mancha. Grace was more than a dream. It is a daily reality that so many miss out on because they so seldom encounter it in the Church or much of Christian writing.
Manning writes from sheer honesty and rawness about his own flaws and failures, especially in regards to his alcoholism. But from the depths of his pain, he understands the beauty and great gift that grace truly is. We are, all of us, broken and in need of a healer, in need of mercy and forgiveness. We are, all of us, ragamuffins.
If you haven't read this book, I highly recommend that you do. Just as I thrust it into the hands of people I knew, I will tell you, "You must read this book. It will revolutionize and change your life."
It surely did mine.
Brennan Manning on God's love: