Sunday, April 14, 2013

My Friend Brennan

I was fortunate to have Brennan Manning a friend over the past 25 years.  With his passing a few days ago at age 78, I've been searching for the right words to help deal with this loss.  I went looking in my library for all my favorite books by him, and realized that I have loaned nearly all of them out to others, who, like me, needed to read “good news for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out;” fresh cups of grace to many who were tired of fellow Christians’ legalism and judgment. This piece written by Philip Yancey several years ago at the release of Brennan's final book, sums up well my thoughts on this humble, broken, and forgiven man who was much more interested in being a pioneer than a settler.

Brennan Manning has written a memoir titled All Is Grace that will be published this year by David C. Cook Publishing.  I wrote the Foreword, and include excerpts here about my friend.

I first met Brennan Manning at an event called Greenbelt Festival in England, a sort of Christian Woodstock of artists, musicians and speakers that had attracted twenty thousand fans to tents and impromptu venues set up in the muddy infield of a horse-racing track.  Brennan seemed dazzled by the spectacle, and like a color commentator kept trying to explain the subtleties of evangelicalism to his wife Roslyn, a cradle Catholic who lacked Brennan’s experience with the subculture.

We did not see each other often over the years, but each time our paths crossed we went deeper, rather than tilling the same ground of friendship.  When he visited a monastery in Colorado for spiritual retreats, he would sometimes get a temporary dispensation from the rule of silence and meet my wife and me at an ice cream parlor (one addiction he doesn’t disclose in these pages).  Our backgrounds could hardly have been more different— Southern fundamentalism vs. Northeastern Catholic—and yet by different routes we had both stumbled upon an Artesian well of grace and have been gulping it ever since.  One glorious fall afternoon we hiked on a carpet of golden Aspen leaves along a mountain stream and I heard the details of Brennan’s life: his loveless childhood, his marathon search for God, his marriage and divorce, his lies and coverups, his continuing struggles with alcohol addiction.

As you read this memoir you may be tempted, as I am, to think “Oh, what might have been…if Brennan hadn’t given into drink.”  I urge you to reframe the thought to, “Oh, what might have been…if Brennan hadn’t discovered grace.”  More than once I have watched this leprechaun of an Irish Catholic hold spellbound an audience of thousands by telling in a new and personal way the story that all of us want to hear: that the Maker of all things loves and forgives us.  Brennan knows well that love and especially the forgiveness.  Like “Christian,” the everyman character in The Pilgrim’s Progress, he progressed not by always making right decisions but by responding appropriately to wrong ones.  (John Bunyan, after all, titled his own spiritual biography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners).

At one point Brennan likens himself to Samson, that flawed superman whom God somehow found a way to use right up to the day of his death.  Reading such stories in the Old Testament, I’ve come up with a simple principle to explain how God can use the likes of such imperfect men and women: “God uses the talent pool available.”  Again and again, Brennan made himself available.  In the last few years, nearly blind, subject to illness and falls, at an age when he should have been enjoying retirement on a beach in Florida, he kept getting on airplanes and flying places to proclaim a Gospel he believed with all his heart but could not always live.

“All is grace,” Brennan concludes, looking back on a rich but stained life.  He has placed his trust in that foundational truth of the universe, which he has proclaimed faithfully and eloquently.

As a writer, I live in daily awareness of how much easier it is to edit a book than edit a life.  When I write about what I believe and how I should live, it sounds neat and orderly.  When I try to live it out, all hell breaks loose.  Reading Brennan’s memoir, I see something of the reverse pattern.  By focusing on the flaws, he leaves out many of the triumphs.  I keep wanting him to tell the stories that put him in a good light, and there are many.  Choosing full disclosure over a narrative that might burnish his reputation, Brennan presents himself as the Apostle Paul once did, as a “clay jar,” a disposable container made of baked dirt.  We must look to his other books for a full picture of the treasure that lay inside.

A poem by Leonard Cohen says it well:

Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

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