The five books that changed my spiritual life are:
5) The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris
4) Stranger Music by Leonard Cohen
3) Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
2) Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
1) The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning
If you are like me and you are the kind of person who secretly, deep down, feels like you are sleepwalking through a life in which everyone knows more than you and understands better than you and all you’re doing is just treading water and hoping for a bolt of lightning to smack you on the head and make everything clear to you but in the meantime you’re just fervently hoping no one notices you’re lost and tangled up and a mess and that they don’t point their finger at you and accuse you of being a fraud . . . then I think you will love all these books like I did. If I used these books to create a curriculum for a class, that class would be called Christianity For Ordinary People. (I would love for someone to actually let me do this.)
Brennan Manning’s words struck a particular chord with me because of his bluntness. I think it was this line that hooked me for good: “Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.” Manning, a recovering alcoholic and former Catholic priest, is like your crazy-awesome uncle that makes you feel half-superior (because you’ve never done anything THAT bad in comparison!) and half cripplingly inferior (because this person who has picked himself up out of an alcoholic stupor is braver and better able to own their own crap than you). I re-read this book whenever I need to be reminded that I’m a better Christian when I own my screwups and imperfections and flaws than when I try to be better than everyone else.
So, in the true Good Friday spirit – human frailty, sin, pain, brokenness, and the messy complexity of our human world – here is a selection of some of my favorite excerpts from Manning’s amazing book, loosely organized into an “Examination of Conscience” which I use with my Confirmation kids on their retreat. (If I haven’t posted my patented “Lectio Divina With Leonard Cohen” yet, I’ll do that next.)
“A Ragamuffin Examination of Conscience”
From The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning
* * * * *
1. To Be Alive Is To Be Broken.
At Sunday worship, as in every dimension of our existence, many of us pretend to believe we are sinners. Consequently, all we can do is pretend to believe we have been forgiven.
Without personal honesty I can easily construct an image of myself that is rather impressive . . . Many of us do not want the truth about ourselves; we prefer to be reassured of our virtue . . . [but] the Christian with depth is the person who has failed and who has learned to live with it.
The way we are with each other is the truest test of our faith. How I treat a brother or sister from day to day, how I react to the sin-scarred wino on the street, how I respond to interruptions from people I dislike, how I deal with normal people in their normal confusion on a normal day may be a better indicator of my reverence for life than the antiabortion sticker on the bumper of my car.
When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer. To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side, I learn who I am and what God’s grace means.
Relief comes from rigorous honesty with ourselves . . . It is always unpleasant, and usually painful, and that is why I am not very good at it. But to stand in the truth before God and one another has a unique reward. It is the reward which a sense of reality always brings: I know something extremely precious. I am in touch with myself as I am.
Honesty requires the truthfulness to admit the attachments and addictions that control our attention, dominate our consciousness, and function as false gods. I can be addicted to . . . cocaine or being right, to gambling or relationships, to golf or gossiping. Perhaps my addiction is food, performance, money, popularity, power, revenge, reading, television, tobacco, weight, or winning. When we give anything more priority than we give to God, we commit idolatry. Thus we all commit idolatry countless times every day.
To be alive is to be broken. And to be broken is to stand in need of grace. Honesty keeps us in touch with our neediness and the truth that we are saved sinners.
Lord Jesus, we are silly sheep who have dared to stand before You and try to bribe you with our preposterous portfolios. Suddenly we have come to our senses. We are sorry and ask you to forgive us. Give us the grace to admit we are ragamuffins, to embrace our brokenness, to celebrate your mercy when we are at our weakest, to rely on Your mercy no matter what we do.
* * * * *
2. We Come Before Jesus With Open Hands.
Jesus comes for sinners, for those as outcast as tax collectors and for those caught up in squalid choices and failed dreams. He comes for corporate executives, street people, superstars, farmers, hookers, addicts, IRS agents, AIDS victims, and even used-car salesmen. Jesus not only talks with those people but dines with them – fully aware that his table fellowship with sinners will raise the eyebrows of religious bureaucrats . . . Every parable of mercy in the gospel was addressed by Jesus to His opponents: murmuring scribes, grumbling Pharisees, critical theologians, members of the Sanhedrin . . . What does He tell them? These sinners, these people you despise are nearer to God than you. It is not the hookers and thieves who find it most difficult to repent. It is you who are so secure in your piety and pretense that you have no need of conversion. They may have disobeyed God’s call, their professions have debased them, but they have shown sorrow and repentance. But more than any of that, these are the people who appreciate His goodness: They are parading into the kingdom before you for they have what you lack – a deep gratitude for God’s love and deep wonder at His mercy.
The gentleness of Jesus with sinners flowed from his ability to read their hearts. Behind people’s grumpiest poses and most puzzling defense mechanisms, behind their arrogance and airs, behind their silence, sneers and causes, Jesus saw little children who hadn’t been loved enough and who had ceased growing because someone had ceased believing in them. His extraordinary sensitivity caused Jesus to speak of the faithful as children, no matter how tall, rich, clever and successful they might be.
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). I am moved that the [prodigal son’s] father didn’t cross-examine the boy, bully him, lecture him on ingratitude, or insist on any high motivation. He was so overjoyed at the sight of his son that he ignored all the canons of prudence and parental discretion and simply welcomed him home. The father took him back just as he was . . . We don’t have to sift our hearts and analyze our intentions before returning home. Abba just wants us to show up . . . we don’t have to be perfect or even very good before God will accept us . . . Even if we come back because we couldn’t make it on our own, God will welcome us. He will seek no explanations about our sudden appearance. He is glad we are there . . . [He will say, like the prodigal’s father,] “Hush, child. I don’t need to know where you’ve been or what you’ve been up to.”
The creative power of Jesus’ love called Mary Magdalene to regard herself as He did, to see in herself the possibilities which he saw in her. Mary’s life stands for the central truth that through love it is possible to be delivered from the lowest depths to the shining heights where God dwells . . . “Her tears fell on his feet,” Luke records, “and she wiped them with her hair; then she covered his feet with kisses and anointed them with the ointment.” What drew Mary forward to perform her lovely act of adoration? I think she was simply overcome by the beauty and compassion of this magnetic man, Jesus. And I imagine that his eyes called out to her: Mary, come to me. Come now. Don’t wait until you get your act cleaned up and your head on straight. Don’t delay until you rescue your reputation, until you’re free of pride and lust, of jealousy and self-hatred. Come to me now in your brokenness and sinfulness. Come now, with all your fears and insecurities. I will love you just the way you are – just the way you are, not the way you think you should be. . . Not clinging to anything, not even our sinfulness, we come before Jesus with open hands.
* * * * *
3. A God Who Loves Sinners.
The nature of God’s love for us is outrageous. Why doesn’t this God of ours display some taste and discretion in dealing with us? . . . He is the only God man has ever heard of who loves sinners. False gods – the gods of human manufacturing – despise sinners, but the Father of Jesus loves all, no matter what they do . . . Grace is the active expression of his love. The Christian lives by grace as Abba’s child, utterly rejecting the God who catches people by surprise in a moment of weakness – the God incapable of smiling at our awkward mistakes, the God who does not accept a seat at our human festivities, the God who says “You will pay for that,” the God incapable of understanding that children will always get dirty and be forgetful, the God always snooping around after sinners.
When I was a little boy I had a naïve idea that when I went to confession, God was frowning on me because I had been bad. As soon as I confessed my sins, God would begin to smile again. Somehow my confession implied a change in God. How absurd! My confession only implies a change in me. Now I understand things differently. More like this: You and I are standing in the middle of a spotlight on the platform of a church; the rest of the church is in darkness, but we are in bright light. To me this scene is a good image of ragamuffins living in a state of grace. Now, suppose that you or I commit grave, deliberate sin. What happens? We step aside into shadows, but the light remains shining. God’s love never changes – we have simply chosen to step away from it. When we repent, we come back into the light of God’s love, which has always been there.
If Jesus appeared at your dining room table tonight with knowledge of everything you are and are not, total comprehension of your life story and every skeleton hidden in your closet; if He laid out the real state of your present discipleship with the hidden agenda, the mixed motives, and the dark desires buried in your psyche, you would feel his acceptance and forgiveness.
Whatever our failings may be, we need not lower our eyes in the presence of Jesus . . . we need not hide all that is ugly and repulsive in us. Jesus comes not for the super-spiritual but for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together, and who are not too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace . . . 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 the faith.
My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.