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Healing Our Image of God
On Retreat with Brennan Manning
June 2 - 4, 2000
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
New Orleans, Louisiana
By Trish Patterson
"God's love is based on nothing, and the fact that it is based on nothing makes us secure. Were it based on anything we do, and that "anything" were to collapse, then God's love would crumble as well. But with the God of Jesus no such thing can possibly happen. People who realize this can live freely and to the fullest. Remember Atlas, who carries the whole world? We have Christian Atlases who mistakenly carry the burden of trying to deserve God's love. Even the mere watching of this lifestyle is depressing. I'd like to say to Atlas: 'Put that globe down and dance on it. That's why God made it.' And to the weary Christian Atlases: "Lay down your load and build your life on God's love." We don't have to earn this love; neither do we have to support it. It is a free gift. Jesus calls out: "Come to me, all you Atlases who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you." - Brennan Manning
He lives in the same city where I live (New Orleans), but I'd never seen him in person before. I'd read some of his books--The Ragamuffin Gospel - Embracing the Unconditional Love of God, The Boy Who Cried Abba and Reflections for Ragamuffins: Daily Devotions--but never had the opportunity to attend one of his retreats. I'd heard so much from fellow Christians about this man who was ordained a Franciscan priest years ago and serves as spiritual director to many, and I knew the late Rich Mullins held him in high esteem. As a matter of fact, my interest in Mullins's music was my introduction to the term ragamuffin, which was taken from the title of one of Manning's books. And I'd also seen his interview about Rich Mullins on the Homeless Man video. So when I discovered that St. Paul's Episcopal Church in New Orleans was having him in as a guest speaker, I was thrilled. Finally, I'd get to experience firsthand the wisdom, honesty, sincerity, and humor of Brennan Manning.
I arrived at the church on Friday evening about 6:45 p.m., entered the sanctuary and sat near the back of the room. A praise team was leading retreat attendees in praise & worship songs. As we sang "Awesome God," I saw through my peripheral vision someone enter the sanctuary and sit down on the far left-hand side of the same pew where I was seated. I turned to look and recognized the man to be Brennan Manning. How neat it was for me to first lay eyes on Manning while singing a song written by the man (Rich Mullins) who, without knowing it, was the one that introduced me to Manning and his message of God's grace and unconditional love in the first place. After we finished singing and heard some announcements, Bishop Jenkins led us in prayer, and then Brennan Manning was on.
The first thing Manning asked us to do was to put aside our image of God and to stretch our hearts and minds to hearing the message of His unconditional love for us, perhaps in a way we'd never heard before.
As retreat attendees listened attentively, he posed the question, "Do you think God loves you because of what you do or because of your accomplishments?" No, it's by His grace, Manning said. God loves us unconditionally just as we are, not as we should be, because we'll never be as we should be here on Earth. He then asked if we honestly believed that God loves each of us unconditionally no matter what has gone down or what we've done. If not, then we are living a life of illusion.
Manning told us that by His very nature God loves us, and that love is never based on performance. His love is tender and reliable. It is a celebration of God's faithfulness in good times and bad times. As human beings, God's love transcends our comprehension. No matter what we think, God's love is always greater than we can imagine. The awareness of being loved empowers us to be ourselves. Manning challenged us to be ourselves and not a carbon copy of someone else.
Quoting from his book The Ragamuffin Gospel - Embracing the Unconditional Love of God, Manning describes himself like this: "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." I'd venture to say that most of that description accurately depicts us all.
Manning asked us if we believed God liked us? He said when we believe that God likes us, we can live one day at a time in the wisdom of accepted tenderness. But until each of us accepts the fact that we are accepted, we are not yet believers in the unconditional love and saving grace of Jesus Christ. To further make the point, Manning quoted his favorite Bible verse, which describes the reunion of the prodigal son with his father: "So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him" (Luke 15:20 - NIV). Manning noted that this is the only time the Bible says, "God ran." He ran to the prodigal son when he returned home, embraced him and couldn't stop kissing him. As difficult as that is for the human mind to fathom, that is how our Abba treats each of us when we return home to Him after a period of rebellion. Manning suggested that any other ending to this story would destroy the noblest picture of redeeming grace ever given by Jesus to the human family and would reduce the Abba of Jesus to human virtue. He noted that many of today's preachers and evangelists convey to their parishioners images of an angry Father instead of a loving one, leaving so many Christians living in the House of Fear instead of the House of Love.
In his travels around the world, Manning has found that many Christians possess the "we're in (Christians)" and "they're out (the lost)" mentality. Too often latecomers to the fold are frowned upon because they end up getting the same reward of eternal life as the people who have served God faithfully all of their lives. In human understanding, it doesn't make sense, but from God's perspective, it's justified and does make sense. I believe we should rejoice when others come to know Jesus personally no matter when that occurs in a person's life. Abba beckons us all to come to Him at various stages/ages in each of our lives. More than likely, my testimony will be different from yours. That's one of the beauties of a relationship with Christ-it's personal and unique.
Manning said it is essential for us to understand that the central theme of Jesus' personal life was His own growing intimacy, trust, and love of His Abba. The felt experience of His Abba's presence was handed over in the final foolishness of love (at Calvary). Jesus' voluntary laying down of His life was the greatest single act of unwavering trust in His Abba, which wins us eternal life. It was the first time He felt abandoned by His Abba. Manning said we'd do good to remember that the next time we want to abandon prayer, Scripture reading, meditation, and silent time when our lives become dry and desolate. Even the great saints experienced times when it seemed as if God had abandoned them.
Manning pointed out there's no evidence that Jesus ever lost trust in His Abba while on the Cross. He said Theologian Pierre Benoit, who has been praying over the Gospel of Luke for many years, believes God spoke the following to Jesus while hanging on the Cross: "...Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come! For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the dove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs and the vines, in bloom, giving forth fragrance. Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come! O my dove in the clefts of the rock, in the secret recesses of the cliff. Let me see you, let me hear your voice. For your voice is sweet, and you are lovely" (Song of Songs 2:10-14 - NAB). Then upon hearing the voice of His Abba, Jesus responds, "It is finished. I'm coming home!" Human beings will never be able to understand what Jesus went through hanging on the Cross that Good Friday. Manning reminded us that one day when we least expect it, God will call each one of us home. Until that day comes, we need to be ready and found faithful in serving Him.
Manning said that as Christians our primary identity is not that of mother, father, physician, teacher, writer, evangelist, etc. Our primary identity is we are God's children, and that's how He relates to us. He said that knowledge profoundly affects how he prays, deeply influences how he relates to others, and affects his attitude toward his brokenness and himself.
In Jesus' days here on earth, people never heard anyone pray as He did. Jesus began His prayers addressing God as "Father." Manning suggested that prayers in the form of open, honest conversation with God are the ones that most delight His heart. Manning led us in seasons of prayer throughout the retreat, asking that we allow God to love us just as we are. He led us in a time of forgiving others who have hurt us, just as God has forgiven us for all our sins. And if we were having difficulty forgiving ourselves for past sins, we spent time asking God to help us with that. We prayed for the faith to trust that God would bring to completion the goals and dreams in our lives planted there by Him.
Manning talked openly about his life-not feeling loved as a child by his mother, his fall into alcoholism, and his bout with cancer. When he found out that he had cancer, he was not afraid but felt a sense of Home going. In honestly revealing what has happened in his own life, we saw a real person-a ragamuffin-much like the rest of us. There's no sugar coating here. That's part of the power in his message-he speaks of real life that happens to real people just like you and me.
Manning said the greatest gift of his life was the Abba experience of which he can only stutter and stammer about the encounter. He told us that as he wakes up in the morning and as he lays his head on his pillow at night, he says a seven syllable phrase: "Abba, I belong to You." He said it opens up unheard of and undreamed of intimacy with God. He reminded us that there will only be five-year olds in heaven and posed the question, "Do you approach God with the candor of a child while sitting on your Daddy's lap?" Well, that's what God wants from us. Focus on your Abba, listen to Him, and know that He loves you.
Through the reading of Scripture, Manning reminded us what Paul wrote in the book of Romans regarding God's love: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: 'For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Roman 8:35-39 - NIV)
Jesus is fine-tuned to our hurts as well as our joys, Manning continued. He possesses the kind of compassion for us that is gut wrenching and is identical to the Father's compassion toward us. Manning stated that if there is one thing he's learned on his own ragged and sacred journey, it is if you call Jesus good, He'll be good to you. If you call Him love, He'll love you. But if you call Him compassion, He'll know that you know."
Manning noted that what makes Jesus the greatest lover is He knew then and knows now what hurts us. Healing our image of God heals our image of ourselves. Jesus heals us from fear of the Father and dislike of self. Posing another question for the group to ponder, Manning asked: Do you know Him? Not about Him, but Him? Will you let Jesus come to you on His terms and let Him be your Savior? Jesus expects more failure from us than we expect from ourselves. Manning said that sometimes passion is unreasonable, but that's the God of Israel and Christians. His forgiveness always precedes our repentance.
Manning then talked about what our response should be once we come to know Jesus and His unconditional love. He said the only sign given by Jesus by which He said we'd be recognized as Christians is by showing love for one another. It's a command not a suggestion. Jesus said that when we minister to the "least of these, my brethren"--the poor, those in prison, the unlovely, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked among us--it is the same as ministering to Jesus himself.
Manning spent a good deal of the Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning sessions talking about having the courage to trust God no matter what happens in our lives. When everything seems to be falling apart, trusting that God is in control is an utterly ruthless act and is not always an easy thing to do. However, Manning said that trusting God is the preeminent expression of love, gives Him great pleasure and is our gift back to Him. A trusting heart is also a grateful heart. Manning has written a new book scheduled to hit the stores in September 2000 entitled Ruthless Trust - The Way of the Ragamuffin. Following are a couple of excerpts from the book, which he shared with retreat attendees:
"RUTHLESS trust is the shriveled old man in the convalescent home kneeling down beside his bed, risking again the 'null,' the felt absence of God, the hell of no feeling that overcame him 18 years before when his wife and three children died in a car accident - tears of gratitude for the love of God streaming down his face."
"RUTHLESS trust is the blind, penniless poet who has no dole, no insurance and no security. He doesn't know where his next meal is going to come from or where he will lay his head when night falls. And what is he doing? Composing a song of thanksgiving for the blessings of God which filled his spirit that day - a full measure of hope and love, a clear conscience and a light heart. Freed from the pursuit of material things and gifted with a profound confidence in God's love, he embodies what Brendan Kenneally calls 'an exultant spirituality' that emerged in Ireland in days of yore. He travels light and celebrates the unfolding journey with thanksgiving."
Manning spoke during the 10:00 a.m. worship service at St. Paul's, but I missed it due to obligations at my own church. St. Paul's is planning on having Manning speak again in the future, and I'm looking forward to another power packed weekend with him and the kind people at St. Paul's.
This report only touches the surface of what you will experience at a Brennan Manning retreat. The message he brings is Biblically sound, and the presence of Jesus at the retreat is so real. If you have the opportunity to participate in a Brennan Manning retreat or to hear him speak anywhere, don't miss it. Let me caution you, though. You may find the message he brings to be radical--just like Jesus. As a result, you may just walk away a changed person.
Additional Items of Interest:
Manning told me that an updated edition of The Ragamuffin Gospel - Embracing the Unconditional Love of God would be released this summer. Included in this edition is the foreword by Contemporary Christian music artist Michael W. Smith, a testimony by the late Rich Mullins, and a study guide.
Manning also mentioned that he has written the foreword for the official biography of the late Rich Mullins entitled Rich Mullins: An Arrow Pointing to Heaven, by James Bryan Smith, to hit the shelves in September 2000.
If you would like to write Manning and/or be added to his snail mail list, his address is:
Willie Juan Ministries
Via the Internet, for more information and/or to be added to his announcement-only e-mail list, visit:
Thanks to St. Paul's Episcopal
Church in New Orleans, Louisiana for having Brennan Manning in as a guest
speaker in our community. And special thanks to Martha Little, Director
of Lay Ministry at St. Paul's, for the assistance she afforded me with
everything before, during, and after the retreat.