Sunday, October 9, 2011

All is Grace

Brennan Manning has been singing Amazing Grace for a long time. He is 77 years old and his last book is just out. All is Grace is the title and the theme of his life. Manning led a fascinating life. He was a soldier, a Catholic priest and a much sought after speaker and retreat leader who spoke at many Evangelical conferences and institutions. He wrote many best selling books on grace and popularized the phrase, ragamuffin gospel, which meant God loves us -and even likes us- the way we are. His books and sermons are filled with great stories of how God's grace was made real to him. As a priest, Manning lived in France with the Little Brothers of the Poor and was part of an experimental Little Brothers group in Alabama. For Evangelical audiences he was a unique blend of classic spiritual disciplines, and a passionate relationship with God that led him to get involved with the kinds of people that were on the fringes of society. One year he might go live as a contemplative in a cave in Spain and the next year might find him ministering among the urban poor. What endeared him to many people was his honesty. He was a fallen, broken human being who was loved by God, and many of us fallen, broken human beings were deeply touched by what he said and did.

Yet, according to this last book, he was never completely honest in his speaking or writing. There was always too much of himself and it was slanted in a way that would make him look good even when he was trying to look bad. His life was a search for human friendship and approval. Like most of us. In this book, he tells about his relationship with his parents and family. His mother wanted a girl and instead she got him, he writes, and never was he allowed to forget that. He took his first drink at 16 and alcohol took over and controlled great chunks of his life. Even though he was in rehab several times, he would always relapse. Even on his cross country speaking trips, he managed to fit in week long drunken binges. On the night before his mother's funeral he got so drunk he blacked out in a lonely hotel room and missed it the next day. When he was about 40, he renounced his priestly vows so he could marry a woman who had two children from a previous marriage and who he met at one of his spiritual retreats. He did not do this lightly but took a year of discernment to seek God's will. It took him seven years to make sure he was doing the right thing. Marriage and becoming a father to her two children were the happiest experiences of his life. But, he says, he did not do marriage well, his alcoholism wreaked havoc on his marriage. Yet, it lasted 17 years and he gives most of the credit to his wife for making it that long.

When he left the priesthood, his Catholic conference and retreat speaking dried up. Two full years of speaking commitments canceled overnight. His Irish Catholic family who had been proud of him when he was a priest, disowned him for awhile. His Catholic friends ignored him. Yet, out of this crisis, came an inquiry or two from Evangelical organizations asking him if he was available to speak. One was Young Life and that began a relationship of speaking and leading staff conferences that lasted for years. Another was with Mike Yaconelli who was associated with Youth Specialties and organized a national Pastors Conference every year. Manning was a regular speaker and retreat leader for these meetings.

In later years, as Manning struggled with his highs and lows, his sobriety and drunkenness, his imperfections, he pulled a group of men together which became known as the Notorious Sinners. Yaconelli, who wrote a book called, Messy Spirituality, was part of that group. They met every year. They were a support and accountability group for Manning and for each other. They strove to be as honest with each other as they could. Manning did not always appreciate their honesty. Yet, they loved God and loved each other.

Today, Manning, suffering from the ravages of alcoholism, needs almost constant care. This last book was written with the help of John Blase. Manning could not have done it alone. Like most of his life, Manning was deeply aware that he could not do it alone. In this book, it is as if, before he died, he wanted to make sure that was perfectly clear. He was a failed, flawed human being who depended totally (even when he tried to fake it) on the grace of God. And God was there, as Manning, often said, He is very fond of me. He trusted that the light of God would shine through the cracks in his life. And it did. All is Grace.