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Love, not Law

January 10, 2013

After months and months of reading, including setting it aside for at least 3 months, I finished The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning.

When I first started reading the book, I was a bit turned off by it.  The writing was too “down home,” or vernacular.  I felt like Manning wrote too familiarly with me, like he was emphasizing how he was a Southern good old boy.  Too me, there is nothing more likely to make me close a book and never pick it up again than the “good ole’ boy” schtick.   However, as I said a few posts, ago, I picked the book up for my Advent readingIMG_0666–to be reminded that I needed Jesus to come.

Once I started reading the book again for Advent, I was hooked.  Maybe the voice in the book changed, maybe just my tolerance changed (probably the latter).  Regardless, I felt my self being overwhelmed by the need for grace and the escape of the “Law.”

I am a rule follower.   Mostly. I am a rule follower as long as I think the rules are good, valid rules.  If I am supposed to circle swim at the YMCA, I will circle swim–and be annoyed with those who won’t.  If dogs are supposed to stay on the leash everywhere in the neighborhood, I will harass Curtis for letting Maggie go off leash in the greenbelt during their 5 am runs. I struggled with our stewardship campaign this fall because part of the message included that you shouldn’t give because you were supposed to, but because you loved God and wanted to be extravagantly generous.   Rules are made to be followed.  Following rules make you good.  Following rules make society run well and people like you.

Now before you worry that I am constantly judging you for whatever rule you’ve broken, don’t worry, I’m not.  Mostly, I’m hard on myself about it.  I struggle with the concept of grace and not needing to earn God’s love.  I wonder what it says about how much I love God when I don’t give more to the church, when I cling a bit too hard to what we have so we keep our current lifestyles intact.  If the rules, say I am supposed to love God and do everything out of love, I feel guilty because I am not keeping that rule.  There’s no way I can keep that rule.  By doing away with the Old Testament law, the rules became totally unattainable.  How in the world can I keep just two rules?  Love the Lord your God, with all your strength, all your soul, and all your mind and Love your neighbor as yourself.  I can’t do that, I am guaranteed to fail.

I made my way through Advent, reading Ragamuffin Gospel, knowing I couldn’t do it.  I can’t love enough.  I am too self-centered and proud.  I want to get my way.  Manning says:

We fluctuate between castigating ourselves and congratulating ourselves because we are deluded into thinking we save ourselves.  We develop a false sense of security from our good works and scrupulous observance of the law.  Our halo gets too tight and a carefully-disguised attitude of moral superiority results.  Or, we are appalled by our inconsistency, devastated that we haven’t lived up to our loft expectations of ourselves.  The roller coaster of elation and depression continues.

Yep.  That about sums it up.  While it is a little dramatic for me, I may not be to such extremes as stated, there is great amount of truth here.  It makes me realize how spiritual gifts aren’t just those described by Paul–prophesizing, preaching, teaching, etc.  Spiritual gifts also include those like not being a rule follower/being open to grace; hope that God will be present all the time, no matter what; faith to take risks in order to love others more deeply; gratitude in all situations; and a gentle spirit.  Some of those things come easily to me, others don’t. I struggle with letting go of the Law, not as perfectionist (because I’m so not a details person or perfectionist), but as one who likes to know exactly what is expected of me and to have that made into a nice little list.

Throughout the book, my view of Manning changed.  I was wary at the beginning because Manning seemed quite evangelistic and that generally makes me nervous.  I know someone’s theological background shouldn’t matter to me, that truth can be found many places, but I wonder what tradition authors come from. As I read, I started wondered if Manning had a Catholic background, which is a background I am very familiar and comfortable with (despite being raised an Anabaptist in the Protestant tradition).  I found echoes of Richard Rohr in his writing, as Manning described the second journey, which wasn’t that different than Rohr’s book, Falling Upward.  By the end of the book, when Manning led me in a guided mediation, I knew there was some contemplative tradition in his past.  I warmed even more to him.

I wondered most of the book what I could do with what I was reading…how do I experience God’s grace and have a continually transforming life?  I’ll leave you with this quote from Manning which answers it quite well:

The first step toward rejuvenation begins with accepting where you are and exposing your poverty, frailty, and emptiness to the love that is everything.  Don’t try to feel anything, think anything, or do anything.  With all the goodwill in the world you cannot make anything happen.  Don’t force prayer.  Simply relax in the presence of God you half believe in and ask for a touch of folly.

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