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Greg Garrett Greg Garrett

Greg Garrett is a novelist, a professor of English at Baylor University, writer-in-residence at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.

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Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, TX


Greg Garrett: Brennan Manning: The Prodigal Goes Home

April 25, 2013

Brennan Manning--author, speaker, and lifelong lover of God--died Friday, April 12, after years of slow decline. In pictures and videos taken in the past few years, he seemed feeble, his body broken, and I think all of us feared he was not long for this world.

But I was hoping he would last long enough for me to finish the novel we were writing together, The Prodigal, the story he had wanted to tell as a last project.

For decades, readers were drawn to the powerful message of grace and forgiveness found in Brennan's works, from his recent memoir of a long, challenging, and beautiful life, All Is Grace, to his million-sellingThe Ragamuffin Gospel. In the face of a contemporary American Christianity that argues that human beings have to earn their way to God, Brennan offered the necessary correctives that we are pursued irresistibly by the One who created us, that fail as we might (and do), we are offered forgiveness, that no one can ever sin so badly as to remove him- or herself from the love of God.

Brennan told us that we spoke of grace, but we didn't really believe in it; we spoke of forgiveness, but we didn't really believe in it; we spoke of love, but we didn't really believe in it. The failure of individual Christians to embrace the radical love of God, the failure of the Church to embody that love, broke his heart, over and over again. God loves us as we are, not as we should be, Brennan taught. Because of that, he wrote, "Any church that will not accept that it consists of sinful men and women, and exists for them, implicitly rejects the gospel of grace."

Brennan knew about grace first-hand, and he showed us that grace by telling his own story of his life as a Roman Catholic priest who left the priesthood to marry, of his struggles with alcohol and his first-hand knowledge of suffering, sin, and redemption. My friend Jana Riess, herself the author of a great memoir, Flunking Sainthoodwrote of Brennan's honesty, extolled his willingness to share the shame we all share of spiritual failure, and she said of his memoir:

But there is true repentance in these pages, genuine sorrow for the ways he has damaged the people he loves. It is a beautiful book, its intensity all the more vivid because Manning is now ill and probably dying. As such, the beginning and end of the book offer a kind of festschrift to frame his story. Numerous friends and mentees share memories of how they met Manning or how he helped to turn their lives around. In the end, these loving voices do much to quiet Manning's own articulated fears that his sins have outweighed the good he has done with his life. And throughout, always, is the underlying rhythm of a loving and forgiving God-a God Manning will meet sooner rather than later.

Grace, in the end, is everything.

While millions read and were moved by that memoir and his nonfiction works, Brennan argued in The Ragamuffin Gospel that stories, poems, and music may actually be the most powerful ways we understand and experience love, grace, and forgiveness: "If God is not in the whirlwind, He may be in a Woody Allen film or a Bruce Springsteen concert. Most people understand imagery and symbol better than doctrines and dogma." As someone who has written about the spiritual gifts of U2the movies, and Harry Potter, this has been one of the central themes of my writing life-that the Spirit moves in mysterious ways, and may be moving in music, or movies, or great stories.

The other side of my writing life of course, has been trying to write great stories, and that's where I come into Brennan's story in a small way here toward the end. As he looked back on his career, on his life, Brennan realized that he wanted to leave behind a story that dramatically illustrated his great theological themes, to a novel that might reach people who encounter God best through story. Our agents brought us together, Greg the novelist and spiritual writer, Brennan the preacher and spiritual teacher, and it wasn't hard to decide what we would do; we would retell one of his favorite stories, the Parable of the Prodigal Son and of his loving Abba, or Father.

I finished the book in the early morning of March 11, and last week our agents sent the novel out to publishers. I could not be more pleased with it, because I think it does what both of us wanted to do: tell an important and life-giving story well. Jack Chisholm, the hero of The Prodigal, is, like all of us, a person hoping to do right and falling short. He is a Christian who believes that God is more judging than loving, a Father who follows to accuse, not to rescue. But as Brennan discovered through his life, as I have discovered through mine, and as I hope you have discovered in yours, Jack comes to understand that the Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a figure of radical love, radical grace, and radical forgiveness who comes to meet the son and welcome him home.

Speaking a few years ago, Brennan summed up this message. He said that Jesus comes to each of us and says,

I have a word for you. I know your whole life story. I know every skeleton in your closet. I know every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty, and degraded love that has darkened your past. Right now, I know your shallow faith, your feeble prayer life, your inconsistent discipleship, and my word is this: I dare you to trust that I love you just as you are and not as you should be, because you're never going to be as you should be.

That truth doesn't mean we don't strive to do better. But, as Jack learns in The Prodigal, as Brennan learned in life, we don't seek to do better so that we can earn God's love.

God already loves us, seeks us, knows us, and his judgment is always tempered by mercy and grace.

Brennan wrote in The Ragamuffin Gospel that he thanked God for a God that didn't treat him as his sins deserved. "On the last day when Jesus calls me by name, 'Come Brennan, blessed of my Father,' it will not be because Abba is just, but because His name is mercy."

Now, Brennan knows the truth of this firsthand. He has heard Jesus call his name, and this Prodigal has gone home to the Father who loves him.

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your Servant, Brennan.
Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of
your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your
own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy,
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the
glorious company of the saints in light. 
Amen.

May his soul and the souls of all the departed, through the
mercy of God, rest in peace. 
Amen.  (From The Book of Common Prayer)

Taken with permission from Patheos.com

Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published every Thursday on the Progressive Christian portal. Subscribe via email or RSS.

 


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