The Man in the Bright Yellow Shirt
Brennan won’t live forever. I recently read his autobiography. He’s in a very crippled and helpless last season of life. I fear that day I will read of his passing. Stunningly, I’ve only spent a weekend with him, but I’m not sure I will know how to live this life without him on this planet. He was the first one I believed actually believed the sanctifying grace of God enough to fully risk it. The moment I read the Ragamuffin Gospel back in 1990 I knew I must abandon my cheap attempts of making myself enough for God to be pleased.
Brennan Manning is a self-admitted scoundrel. He claims to be a narcissistically selfish and petty alcoholic. I imagine him to be a lot of work. But I had never, and have never met anyone with a lot to lose, who ripped so violently past the safe confessions. He admitted to exaggerating some of his stories. He admitted to wanting to be cherished by adoring fans. More than admit, he vomited out his failures, for us all to see.
At the same time, no one, anywhere has more convinced me to trust my new identity; no one has convinced me to enjoy my new identity more than him. Its like he’s this phony, who in telling on himself with such boldness, becomes the most genuine person I’ve ever known. He’s savvy enough to fool everyone and trusting of God enough to publish his game plan.
We met each other in South Carolina back in 2001. We were both speaking at a pastors’ conference, along with Bruce McNicol and Larry Crabb. Brennan was already my hero. We walked the beach one morning and sat together at dinner. He asked me to join him in skipping out on the session of a speaker whose name I can’t remember. I was a rookie and didn’t want to offend our host. I so wish I had gone with him. I went up later to his room. He’d been drinking heavily. He looked dark and haunted. It broke my heart to see this man who was so incredibly used of God to free others, so deeply trapped in his own darkness. I excused myself as soon as I could. I later read that was a season of great hiding.
The next morning it was my turn to speak. I searched the audience to see if he was in it. There, in the back, wearing his trademark bright yellow dress shirt and jeans, he was leaning against the back wall of the auditorium. I gave my message, “What if you really knew who I was?”
I could not have been more nervous if Cockburn, Bono, Dylan, Emmy Lou Harris and Jack Nicklaus were in the front row, taking notes. I have no memory of the message. I have no memory of an audience. They probably have no memory of me. But I do remember what happened as soon as I finished. He started working his way through the audience to me; this tiny man in the bright yellow shirt. I stood there transfixed, trying not to stare at him.
He walked all the way up to me, put his hands on my shoulders and looked me directly in the eyes. He said these words that I have never forgotten: “John, that was the most important message on grace I’ve ever heard a Protestant give. Thank you.” He was crying…Then he turned and walked away.
I thought, in that moment, I might not ever wash that shirt again.
Brennan has understood something few of us have. He’s known he desperately is without ability to hold it together. He leans fiercely into the grace, provision, power and deep affection of Jesus. Everyone is screwed up. None of us is together. Those are not just theoretical words. It’s just that bad religious bluffing or sincere generational gentility can make us pretend we are not as needy as Brennan. That is where we play the fool. The Original Good News does not envision a group of super-spiritual people with better will power and less obsessions. None of us does love even close to perfectly just because we are fused with perfect love. Needy, failed, maturing, beautiful and clumsy ones are the sacred norm. Everyone’s still weak, compromised and seditious, even on our best day. Its just better to know you are.
So, I’m living on borrowed time. My high water mark has been met. My hero, Brennan, was used of our God to tell me that what I was teaching mattered. At least one beautiful drunk thought I was making sense.