Dear Brother Brennan,
This is the letter I’ve meant to write to you a dozen times, but it always seemed too ridiculous, too fan-mail-ish to write. Like it would be another in a fat stack on your desk, and this one coming from some overly sentimental farm wife in Iowa.
I know that I would have been too presumptuous. I mean, I would have treated us like old friends, and you would have had no idea who this melodramatic woman was.
But you’re like an old friend, OK? Did you know all the places you went with me? On airplanes, and car rides, and late-night journeys into the soul. All those summer vacations in Minnesota, where I highlighted passage after passage while the loons cried. And I cried, while the sun beat down on the back of my neck.
You were a companion when I encountered the wretched end of myself. You went with me to church, and also stayed home with me when I was too whiny to go.
Your words lingered in my brain when I peered into the ruby ripple of the communion cup, when I gazed upon the wooden cross, when I tried too hard in this life to make a good impression, and when I uttered a hoarse confession for the umpteenth time over some old sin I vowed never to return to.
You kept telling me to stop trying to pull myself into heaven by own bootstraps, and just take the handout of amazing grace, for-heaven’s-sake.
That was so like Jesus of you.
See how I gush? You probably would have been horrified. I can’t say for sure, of course, but maybe you’re rolling your eyes right now. The Good Lord knows, I don’t mean to make you into a god. I just mean to thank you. I never put your words above Scriptures, but your words were like a saucer under the cup, helping me hold the Gospel without making a mess of things on the kitchen table. I was just trying to figure out how to drink in the story, and you helped me turn the pages.
You let a whole lot of us know we are loved no matter what, and that God can’t stop loving us, and that He loves us through every detour, wrong turn, ugly choice — even the dumb stuff we are yet to do.
“He’s 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.”
~ Brennan Manning
You had these bushy eyebrows, and you raised a few eyebrows, didn’t you? You’d stand at a podium, telling stories with a graveling voice, always boiling Gospel down to its essence, in a way that would have gotten you in all sorts of hot water with the Pharisees.
I want to be that brave someday.
You didn’t seem to care much about offending the “super-spiritual,” but always kept an eye out for the weak. You wanted to let us know we mattered.
I want to be that other-referenced someday.
You told us when you screwed up.
I want to be that honest someday.
I read something the other day about what it really means to “be free” in Christ, and I got to looking around at my own life, and how I’ve still got so much junk to deal with. I knew, right then and there, where to go looking in the Scriptures to remind me that I’m loved as-is. But sometimes you need a friend to put a hand on your shoulder and let you know that you’re not alone. To let you know that mere mortals might fight some of our battles until the bitter end, until we take our last shallow breath.
Maybe we could all remind each other a little more often, that we are “Simul iustus et peccator.” Those were the words Martin Luther wrote to identify human beings who are, at once, both saint and sinner. Every believer is a paradoxical mix of light and dark.
Both wretched and loved.
Both ruined and re-created.
Both wrecked and received.
Broken, and bought back.
I’m still a mess, but the light is gaining ground, inch by glorious inch. I try to stay close to the cross, because I don’t ever want to forget Who put the light on the inside of her. Good sir, your words drag me back to the cross from time to time. I confess: I frequently need a holy dragging.
I found out about your death last week, when the power was out here on our farm. I found out right here in the dark, in the storm, when our county had been declared a “state of emergency.”
Seemed fitting, I’d say.
I read what you wrote in, “All is Grace,” about your trademark phrase: “God loves you, just as you are, not as you should be.”
You said this: “If asked whether I am finally letting God love me, just as I am, I would answer, ‘No, but I’m trying.'”
The trying is over now, good man. Thank you for leaving us with thousands of words to keep us close to grace, until that day when our trying is over.
And when that day comes for me, I’d like to shake your hand. Have fun up there.
Jennifer Dukes Lee
Brennan Manning, on grace:
“A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request — ‘Please, remember me’ — and assures him, ‘You bet!’ A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left His Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine. This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.”