I believe that God’s grace, offered through Jesus to each and every one of us, is always available. Even if we “cheapen” it (to paraphrase Bonhoeffer) by persistent sin, even if we wait until the last possible moment to receive it. And yet I also believe that grace changes us, that the knowledge of God’s forgiveness and the experience of God’s love transform us in a permanent way. Sometimes I meet older Christians, and their wise presence—both strong and gentle—challenges me and blesses me. I want to be like them, which is to say I want to be more like Jesus, when I grow up in grace.
And so I was both riveted and puzzled by Brennan Manning’s memoir, All is Grace, which is being discussed at the moment on the Patheos Book Club. I haven’t read Manning’s other books, although I had a sketchy knowledge of his days as an evangelistic speaker proclaiming the gospel to “ragamuffins” (a word that I suspect held more weight decades ago). And I know many people who have been transformed by his message of God’s total acceptance of sinners like us. Still, reading his own accounts of trips away from his family where he spent a few days preaching the gospel followed by a few days drinking himself into an alcoholic stupor confused me. I thought grace was supposed to change things.
And yet at the same time, of course grace changed things. The tone of the book shifts audibly when Manning encounters Jesus and for the first time understands that even though his mother didn’t welcome him into their family, Jesus’ arms stretched wide to receive him. Manning’s exultation in being embraced in the midst of his brokenness rings clear and true. I just wish he hadn’t needed to endure so much pain. He becomes a Catholic priest but then renounces his vows in order to get married. Year later, largely due to the effects of his alcoholism, he and his wife divorce. His body bears the brunt of those choices as well, and he now lives with around the clock care.
This is a sobering book (no pun intended) because it demonstrates the power of pain and sin even in the life of a committed, gifted, passionate believer. And yet this is also, ultimately, a hopeful book. Because Brennan Manning tells his story with the knowledge that his life will soon end, and he will experience the fullness of the reality of God’s loving embrace. It is a hopeful book because, ultimately, all is grace.