The news of Brennan Manning's death last Friday left me reminiscing about the first time I heard him speak 20 years ago in a college chapel. He bounced around the stage with a shock of white hair, the most God-awful Scotch-plaid sport coat ever blended in a mill, all paired with polyester green pants that didn't even come close to matching. I recalled his illustration of an old preacher who delivered a defining moment in his journey by telling him, "Be who you IS, because if you ain't who you IS, then you IS who you ain't."
Manning appeared to be a guy who was OK with being who he was.
I have never forgotten his call to honesty and transparency in the powerful moments of that sermon. Manning's message assaulted the foundations of my young religious worldview. I was schooled in a world of piousness and religiosity that often left me working to appear, to talk and to act a certain way in an effort to feel "accepted" by God. He spoke to the many of us who were taught that a relationship with God was something we earned. His message was the dynamite that cracked the religious veneer of works-based faith that had separated us from the truth of the Gospel message. His thesis was clear, simple and explosive: "God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be."
I opened the pages of Manning's final book, "All is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir," when I received a review copy several falls ago. I read it again this past weekend with a new sense of sadness and nostalgia.
My proclivity for Manning grew in the years after college when I began to understand that he had a talent for shaping words that most authors simply do not possess. Many of his books affected the same "damage" on my misguided approach to earning God's love. But in retrospect, his final book did what the rest of his writing was never really equipped to do: it asserted Manning's message of God's grace with more power and certainty than anything he had ever penned.
In a religious culture that demands we put our best foot forward, a popular culture where our self-righteous egos have grown digital skin and taken on a life of their own: Manning reminded us in his last writings that grace can only come through the dirt and mire of transparency and confession. Through his own candid admissions in "All is Grace," he pointed to the truth that if we are to grasp the depths of God's love, we must first "Be who we IS" before Him and our community. Manning's memoir is a must read for anyone who has ever enjoyed his writing or preaching; it is an honest portrait and an enthralling story. He writes of his lifelong battle with alcoholism, the pain of the strained relationship with his mother, his time in the military and the Little Brothers of Jesus, the disapproval of his family and the Catholic Church, and his short-comings as a husband. But he also shares, in a way that he had not before, his personal moments of transformation before God.
There was sadness as I read his familiar voice and beautifully crafted words this weekend and realized that he would never write again. I mourned, not for the author, but for those who have spent their lives scoffing at his ministry, dismissing his ideas about God as "cheap grace." If there was anything "cheap" about his message, I question why we can never quite get our minds around it. I am left with the feeling that this grace that is the central theme of Manning's life's work is too vulgar, too ridiculous not to be true.
Manning ended "All is Grace" by explaining that he was living out his days in hospice with a full-time caregiver. But he communicated a profound sense of peace in those final words that somehow, through his transparency and confession, he had fallen deeper into the arms of the One who truly loves him as he is, not as he should be, because he was never who he should've been.
On Saturday, when I heard the news of his passing, I was left feeling that he was now completely submerged in the scandalous love that he has enabled so many of us to discover through the years.
God bless you, Brennan Manning. The candid story of your life will prove more lasting and deeply affecting than all of your best-selling books and successful preaching. Your confessions have given us strength and provided undeniable witness to God's unfailing love. Your mission has been accomplished.