As I think back on my (few) years of adult life thus far, I'm able to recall a couple of seasons in which I was absolutely sure that God was trying to get my attention about something. Although I'm guessing that this actually happens far more than I realize... there have been a few instances in which I was tuned in enough (or perhaps God was sufficiently loud enough) to turn my attention definitively towards Him and what He wanted me to learn. In the last couple of weeks, it has become clear to me that I once again find myself in such a season. God seems to be coming at me from all sides and in all manner of ways with this one request... learn that you are a ragamuffin. Know that I love you anyway.
I think that probably sounds dramatic, but stay with me! It seems as though every book I read, every sermon I listen to, every song that plays through my Pandora is speaking to me on this theme. And what great timing too - as my ongoing adjustment to being the "new girl" in full-time ministry, wedding planning, wife-preparedness, etc leaves me often feeling that I am far from perfect and prone to come up short. As a recovering perfectionist, this sense of personal/professional "failure" is familiar territory; however, God is showing me that my response to it must be learned anew.
My small group has been reading Brennan Manning's best-selling The Ragamuffin Gospel for the past two months. I had been familiar with the book for several years but had never actually ventured to read it until just now. Having loved one of Manning's other classics Abba's Child, I felt confident that this book would probably rock my world and/or give me a good old punch to the gut. The truth is, I was right. Manning speaks about God's love and grace in a way that we just don't hear much now-a-days. He begs his readers to ponder the question, "do you truly believe the Gospel is good news?"
Here's one story from the book that really spoke to me. Manning, a recovering alcoholic, relays an astounding demonstration of grace that he was witness to one evening:
"On a sweltering summer night in New Orleans, sixteen recovering drug addicts and alcoholics gather for their weekly AA meeting... They have been meeting on Tuesday nights for several years and they know each other well. Some talk to each other daily on the telephone, others socialize outside the meetings. The personal investment in one another's sobriety is sizable... That night, Jack was the appointed leader. 'The theme I would like to talk about tonight is gratitude' he began, 'but if anyone wants to talk about something else, let's hear it.'
Immediately Phil's hand shot up.
'As you all know, last week I went up to Pennsylvania to visit family and missed the meeting. You know I have been sober for seven years. Last Monday I got drunk and stayed drunk for five days.'
The only sound in the room was the drip of Mr. Coffee in the corner.
'You all know the buzzword H.A.L.T in this program,' he continued. 'Don't let yourself get hungry, angry, lonely, or tired or you will be very vulnerable for the first drink. The last three got to me. I unplugged the jug and...'
Phil's voice choked and he lowered his head. I glanced around the table - moist eyes, tears of compassion, soft sobbing the only sound in the room.
'The same thing happened to me, Phil, but I stayed drunk for a year.'
'Thank God you're back.'
'Boy, that took a lot of guts.'
'Relapse spells relief, Phil,' said a substance abuse counselor. 'Let's get together tomorrow and figure out what you needed relief from and why.'
'I'm so proud of you.'
'Hell, I never made it even close to seven years.'
As the meeting ended, Phil stood up. He felt a hand on his shoulder, another on his face. Then kisses on his eyes, forehead, neck, and cheek. 'You old ragamuffin,' said Denise. 'Let's go. I'm treating you to a banana split at the Tastee Freeze."
-Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel pages 66-68
As I read this story the first time around, I caught myself holding my breath as this man revealed his sin to his peers. I anticipated them to react in anger and betrayal... "how could you?" "How could you do this to us?" I expected Phil to likely be kicked out of the group and invited back only when he got his life a little more together. Instead, the reactions of his fellow members floored me. I couldn't believe how quickly they were to not only forgive Phil, not only to show him mercy, but to show him such beautiful grace and love. It makes me really question why the Church does not very often act similarly to the mistakes and sins of her members?
On top of that, however, is the question of "do I really believe that that is how God reacts to me in my sin?" Manning argues (with hefty scriptural support throughout the book) that the tenderness and love exemplified by those recovering alcoholics is just a small slice of the grace, mercy, and love that God has for us. Do I really believe that?
Most of the time, I feel like I don't. I know in my brain that God loves me and that I need his grace to be saved through my faith in His son Jesus. But do I live and breathe as though God desperately desires to lavish his love on me and be just like that dad that kisses his daughter's "boo-boos"? Especially those wounds, those mistakes, those sins, those let-downs, etc that I bring upon myself? I am learning that I will never be more or less in His eyes than that small child with the skinned knee who makes messes, who runs away, and who does all sorts of things because she just doesn't know better. And yet, He is not waiting for me to "grow up." He's not waiting for me to get it together, or reach perfection, or just cut it out. Instead, He says "Come here. Let me comfort you. I love you... it's okay."
...and even if that conversation happens 100 times a day, every day for my whole life, He just desires that I keep coming back. He is the Comforter, the Redeemer, the Forgiver, and more... That is good news! And now I am in the process of learning how to rest in it.