Never meet your heroes, they say. There’s the inevitable letdown when the persona you’ve created in your mind – some sort of ubermensch whose one or two known traits dwarf a darker, hidden identity– comes into conflict with the reality of this one-pant-leg-at-a-time flesh and blood human. The result – those same people say – is a cognitive dissonance supernova ripping a hole in the fabric of your own personal space-time continuum.
Well, I’m not sure Brennan Manning was actually a Hero of mine. And I never met him. Technically. As in handshake-lengthy-introductory-conversation. But the experience of hearing the man speak in a small, ceramic-tiled room in the company of a few dozen strangers, then exchanging pleasantries at a hamburger joint at a chance encounter immediately afterward, did nothing to break down my admiration for the – what’s the proper title here – Author? Speaker? Former priest? Those are all so limited. Even “hero” is. He was a fellow traveler. Or, to use a word one of his protégés, Rich Mullins, favored, he was a sojourner. That’s what I appreciate most about Brennan, whose passing last week made me pause and write these words. He didn’t save my life, but he reminded me why it had already happened.
He was small, elf-like. I’ve heard that description repeated elsewhere, thanks to his narrowed shoulders – slumped with age and the weight of his mortality – his twinkly eyes, his faint, pointy beard. Or is any of that real? Again, I’m probably filling in the gaps in my memory, as we are wont to do.
But physical appearance is a shell. What I remember is humility. Brennan was “hunted by the hounds of addiction,” which bayed at his heels from an early age up to his dying day, I am sure of that. And it wrought in him a raw, poignant humility that showed in every line of his writing.
When I went to hear Brennan speak six or eight years ago in Manassas, Virginia, I had already been intimately familiar with his work. His book The Ragamuffin Gospel blasted a crater in my spiritual formation and lodged deep. My childhood and adolescence had been spent in the Protestant church, a mixture of fire-and-brimstone Southern Baptist and speaking-in-tongues Pentacostal. College had taken me to the “evangelical Harvard,” where, amidst fellow fundamentalists, I dabbled in liturgy and embraced the passionate reformed theology of John Piper.
Through all of this, legalism clung to me like the stubborn, pungent scent of gasoline. I remained committed doggedly to the faith of my fathers, but I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that somewhere God was deeply, deeply disappointed in me. He had a master plan for my life, and with every lie I told, every promise I broke, every image on a computer screen I viewed, I was wandering farther and farther from the One True Path he had for me. I believed in grace, but it was a concept, an intellectual construct. Never mind the story of the Prodigal Son. I thought that didn’t apply to me. Some people are too far gone. Or, perhaps more appropriately, some people aren’t high enough in God’s cosmic pecking order to rate the whole kill-the-fat-calf celebration.
But Brennan, through his life and writings, fashioned a different message. Carefully, humbly, he picked apart the massive American Christian lie that we must earn our relationship with God. That God is Out There, in a Galaxy Far Far Away.
Yes, God is Yahweh, the unspeakable name, the consuming fire on Mount Sinai. But he is also Abba, Daddy. The name we call in the night when the bad dream wraps its cold claws around our heart and whispers lies in our ear. He’s not disappointed in us. He expected this. He knew when he made us we would fall. But in the garden, when the serpent celebrated victory, he was already preparing the way to Calvary, the Way of Sorrows that would redeem us. And He did. It’s only fear that gets in the way of receiving love. As Annie Dillard puts it in “God in the Doorway:”
Even now I wonder: if I meet God, will he take and hold my bare hand in his, and focus his eye on my palm, and kindle that spot and let me burn?
But no. It is I who misunderstood everything and let everybody down. Miss White, God, I am sorry I ran from you. I am still running, running from that knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge. For you meant only love, and love, and I felt only fear, and pain. So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.
No, Brennan reminded me and my legalistic soul. God’s not keeping score. Grace won. It always wins. Two thousand years ago. Today. Tomorrow. All is grace. Or, in the words of Jason Gray, “nothing is wasted.” He took Henri Nouwen’s notion of a “wounded healer” and wrapped it in flesh, embodying it. A man who struggled his entire life with the demon of alcoholism, he gave his life to intimate ministry to the least of these. He fashioned a life lived, as Pope Francis recently put it, as a “shepherd living with the smell of the sheep.” This example drove Rich Mullins far from the Christian music ghetto in Nashville to an American Indian reservation in the southwestern desert. And it has prompted countless others to do the same, if Father Thomas McKenzie’s recent Rabbit Room post is any indication.
It’s all connected. I realize that now, Brennan. Took me and my hard head nearly 20 years to wrap around this truth, but I get it now, and I want you to know that. Once you accept that Abba has been watching and loving you from the moment your little heart started pumping, through the moment you cried your first breath outside the womb, through the first step, first crush, first heartbreak, first betrayal, second betrayal, third betrayal, bankruptcy of the soul, cry for help, acceptance of forgiveness and mercy, the cycle repeating; once the awareness of unconditional love sinks down deep like an anchor in the faithless shifting sand of our souls, then the natural reaction, my only proper reaction, is to turn and give that precious, priceless gift to someone else.
I think maybe that’s why I’m a teacher. Just this week, I was talking to a colleague and friend. “If we don’t love the broken, then who will?” I asked. It’s a very Brennan question. It’s one I’m trying to remember every day of my life these days. So maybe someday someone can feel about me the way I feel about you, Brennan.
I know you can’t take it with you. But I imagine shoeless Rich and you in your patchwork pants strutting the golden streets, stretching your real legs, the ones unbent by age, staring around at the celestial city, and saying nothing, just thinking, like a child, that it’s so much more amazing than you ever imagined.
And I can’t wait to throw my arms around those narrow shoulders and say thank you.