Brennan Manning: The ragamuffin who taught me Jesus’ heart

On this day in 2013 Brennan Manning passed. This was the message on Facebook:

“It is with mixed emotions that we must tell you that on Friday April 12, 2013, our Brother Brennan passed away.  While he will be greatly missed we should all take comfort in the fact that he is resting in the loving arms of his Abba.”

That’s how I learned that one of the most significant and impactful mentors in my spiritual journey had died. (His obituary has been posted on his website.)

I never met Brennan, at least not face to face, but over more than twenty years his words have shaped me like gentle water shapes stone.

My church-of-origin was safe and warm most of the time, but it was also often perfectionistic, legalistic and focused entirely too much on right doctrine.  I learned that it was my ability to recite Bible verses in support of our theology that demonstrated my spiritual growth. It was my good behavior as the Pastor’s Son that secured my status in the community.  I was taught that it was our tribe alone who had the full truth, and that our highest calling was showing others the error of their ways.

It wasn’t as dark as all of that most of the time.  Often it was church socials, hikes with friends on Saturday afternoon, and a deep, deep sense of belonging.  But the theology embedded in my heart was fearful.  Never was I entirely sure if I was OK with God.  God loved me, I’d heard.  But I’d also seen the community make it clear in so many ways that this love flowed more easily to people who looked the right way, said the right things, behaved appropriately.  I was left uncertain, desperate for God’s love but afraid of God’s judgement.

Then came The Ragamuffin Gospel.

Could it be so?

Brennan Manning

Written by a priest, actually a former priest who didn’t quite fit in, this book crossed my narrow boundaries and cracked open the sky.  Grace rained down on my fearful heart and something new bloomed.  Could I be beloved just as I was?  Could I really be so confident and sure of God’s love for me?

I got my hands on every book from this wandering priest that I could find.  The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus, The Signature of Jesus, Abba’s Child.  Over and over he pounded into me a different picture of God’s heart.  I am loved with the love that the Father loves Jesus.  I am His beloved.

Brennan became for me a sort of spiritual director, stripping away my hardened theology and introducing me to the profound love of Jesus. Here was a picture of God that was neither stern judge nor sappy push-over.  In Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God, Manning wrote:

“I want neither a terrorist spirituality that keeps me in a perpetual state of fright about being in right relationship with my heavenly Father nor a sappy spirituality that portrays God as such a benign teddy bear that there is no aberrant behavior or desire of mine that he will not condone. I want a relationship with the Abba of Jesus, who is infinitely compassionate with my brokenness and at the same time an awesome, incomprehensible, and unwieldy Mystery.”

This felt right.  Raised in a church that was saturated in the Old Testament, I had always struggled between the stark power and righteousness of the Father and the love of Jesus.  Here for the first time these things came together in a powerful, transforming love.

As my theology changed, so to did my image of the church.  In The Furious Longing of God, Brennan cast a vision for a different kind of church community:

“The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that He lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian.”

Extravagant, Furious Love

Extravagant, furious love.  That’s what I saw in the writings of this man who so painfully sought God.

When I read that Brennan had died, I started crying.  It seems strange to cry for someone I’ve never met.  Yet this man’s been inside my head for years.

On a whim I did a spotlight search on my Macbook Pro for his name.  This is a universal search function that searches not only the title but the content of every file on my computer.  More than a hundred files came back.  Sermons I’d written over eighteen years, emails I’d sent to people offering quotes and resources for their spiritual growth, quotes I’d gathered.  He’s all over, and I’m glad for it.  There is no doubt in my mind that God used this vulnerable, honest man to introduce me to grace.

Brennan Manning shook my picture of God and subverted the expectations I grew up with of what it looked like to be loved by God. I want you to rush out an buy all his books.  I want you to search for the interviews he gave on the internet.  I want you to wrestle with the possibility that you are loved beyond your comprehension, and that nothing you have ever done and nothing you will ever do will shake that love or staunch the flow of Grace.

I’ll let Brennan close this post with a passage from The Ragamuffin Gospel.  It’s underlined in my original copy twice, with three stars in the margins.  The page is bent over.  I remember reading these words the first time, and feeling like I’d discovered a new world:

“Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last ‘trick’, whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school.

‘But how?’ we ask.

Then the voice says, ‘They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’

There they are. There *we* are – the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to faith.

My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.”

Thank you, Brennan.  See you on the other side.

Question: Have you ever read any of Manning’s books?  Share a favorite quote or how his words impacted you.

18 thoughts on “Brennan Manning: The ragamuffin who taught me Jesus’ heart

  1. Beautiful tribute Marc. I have to admit I have never read any of his books. I’ll have to download the Ragamuffin Gospel to my iPad. The passage you ended with was an amazing picture of God’s grace. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Debra, thanks so much. I do encourage you to pick up his books. If you have appreciated my preaching throughout the years, I know you will love Brennan. I am not nearly as articulate as he is, and have been so deeply impacted by his writing.

  2. A nice tribute to a man whom I do not know but a “man” who made a difference in your life and with that you have my condolences.

    I couldn’t help but think as I was reading your tribute that people from all walks of life come to know God through other means but not coming to the Cross at Calvary, I did not see the name Jesus in your writings or in Mr. Manning’s and please forgive me I have not read any of Mr. Manning’s books.

    It brought me back 14 years ago when I heard the voice of God speak in my heart, and before then I only believed in a God whom I did not know. I needed to hear the Word of God from somebody who knew God, I joined a church. After searching several churches, I joined one! To make a long story short each Sunday the Pastor would ask, “who’s going to heaven,” and everyone would raise their hands including me in fear that I would be the only one with my hand down. There was this great doubt in my heart, I would go home and cry out to God, what is this doubt Lord? it is you and only you that I want to know and let no man lead me away from you.
    After several months, the Lord answered my prayer, and said, “go to this church!” No Lord I answered, not only are they family but they are Jesus freaks! There was no way I was going and after several months by the hand of God and a miracle I went. I was taught word for word from the Bible and today I stand on the mountain of God. We all want things NOW, it does not happen this way with God, it is called a relationship and I have been through the valleys. People give up to easy, when I was “born again” I told Jesus that my hands will stay around your ankles and whatever mess I go through I will refuse to let go.
    Thank you Lord Jesus for your grace and your mercies endureth forever.

    1. I’m glad that you’ve had such a compelling experience with God, Thomas. Rest assured that Jesus is the center of my faith, and it the fiery center of Brennan’s writing.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. Your experience and mine were very similar — I’m a fellow SDA whose life was flipped upside down (in the most positive way) by the Ragamuffin Gospel. I’ve given that book away and recommended it more than any other. I’m sad to hear of Manning’s passing and look forward to getting to know him better on the other side.

    1. Hey Robert, I’m the same way. It’s very nearly the first book I recommend, especially to any recovering legalist I encounter. I hope you stick around my blog. You’ll see that same spirit continue here. Blessings.

  4. Have never heard of this author, but am very intrigued! I will be whooshing away to Amazon to check him out. Sounds like something I need to read!!

  5. You quoted him so many time in your sermons, that we had to buy The Ragamuffin Gospel. Since then we have read nearly all of his books. I too cried to know he had passed on, that his voice would yield no more books. Thank you for introducing us to him, I am forever grateful.

  6. Your post is a fabulous tribute to a man through whom God poured out His love. How awesome it is that God used the writings of a man you didn’t get to meet on earth to bring you closer to Him. Years ago a friend was reading several of Andrew Murray’s books and described him as her spiritual mentor at that season of her life. Of course, as a fellow writer, this notion that God might pour His love through us via written words causes my heart to sing. Anyway, I read Ragamuffin Gospel years ago; you’ve enticed me to read it again. “Lord, thank you for wrapping Brennan Manning in your love and for using him to pen words to draw others, like Marc, deeper into your arms.”

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