The Ragamuffin Gospel

By Brennan Manning
Book Review by Gary Amirault on behalf of Tentmaker

I cannot think of a better way to speak praises of this book than to quote a large portion to allow the reader to glean for themselves some of the precious truths Mr. Manning so clearly expresses in his book. The following chapter reveals a condition which has saturated much of Christianity. It is entitled "Paste Jewelry And Sawdust Hotdogs." Read it and grow. Then go out a buy a couple of these books. Surely, there is someone sitting in your row in church that might be "saved" by reading this book.--Gary Amirault

"When a man who is honestly mistaken hears the truth, he will either quit being mistaken, or cease to be honest."


Chapter 7: Paste Jewelry And Sawdust Hotdogs

Counterfeit grace is as commonplace as fake furs, phony antiques, paste jewelry, and sawdust hot dogs.

The temptation of the age is to look good without being good. If 'white lies' were criminal offenses, we would all be in jail by nightfall. It took a lot of cooperation to create the atmosphere wherein the Charlotte and Baton Rouge televangelist scandals finally blossomed. The dichotomy between what we say and what we do is so pervasive in the church and in society that we actually come to believe our illusions and rationalizations and clutch them to our hearts like favorite teddy bears.

The HUD disgrace that rocked the nation's capital last year caused Meg Greenfield to write in Newsweek:

"The particularly cynical feature of this case is that people who have made a career, and a pretty successful career at that, of inveighing against corruption, mismanagement and near-criminal incompetence that in fact do afflict some big government enterprises, have joined the opposition. The HUD scandal was particularly gross because it was an inside job and because it was so eminently a betrayal of the very values to which their administration claimed a unique loyalty."'

Impostors in the Spirit always prefer appearances to reality. Rationalization begins with a look in the mirror. We don't like the sight of ourselves as we really are, so we try cosmetics, makeup, the right light, and the proper accessories to develop an acceptable image of ourselves. We rely on the stylish disguise that has made us look good or at least look away from our true self. Self-deception mortgages our sinfulness and prevents us from seeing ourselves as we really are-ragamuffins.

One of my indelible memories goes back to April 1975 when I was a patient at an alcoholic rehabilitation center in a small town north of Minneapolis . The setting was a large, split-level recreation room on the brow of a hill overlooking an artificial lake. Twentyfive chemically dependent men were assembled. Our leader was a trained counselor, skilled therapist, and senior member of the staff. His name was Sean Murphy-O'Connor, though he normally announced his arrival with the statement: "It's himself. Let's get to work."

Sean directed a patient named Max to sit on "the hot seat" in the center of the U-shaped group. A small, diminutive man, Max was a nominal Christian, married with five children, owner and president of his company, wealthy, affable, and gifted with remarkable poise.

"How long have you been drinking like a pig, Max?" Murphy-O'Connor had begun the interrogation.

Max winced. "That's quite unfair."

"We shall see. I want to get into your drinking history. How much booze per day?"

Max relit his corncob pipe. "I have two Marys with the men before lunch and twin Martins after the office closes at five. Then . . ."

"What are Marys and Martins?" Murphy-O'Connor interrupts.

"Bloody Marys--Vodka, tomato juice, a dash of lemon and Worcestershire, a splash of Tabasco; and Martinis, Beefeaters gin, extra dry, straight up, ice cold with an olive and lemon twist."

"Thank you, Mary Martin. Continue."

"The wife likes a drink before dinner. I got her hooked on Martins several years ago. Of course she calls them 'pre-prandials.' " Max smiled. "Of course you understand the euphemism. Isn't that right, gentlemen?"

No one responded.

"As I was saying, we have two martinis before dinner and two more before going to bed."

"A total of eight drinks a day, Max?" Murphy O'Connor inquired.

"Absolutely right. Not a drop more, not a drop less."

"You're a liar"'

Unruffled, Max replied: "I'll pretend I didn't hear that. I have been in business for twenty-odd years and built my reputation on veracity not mendacity. People know my word is my bond."

"Ever hide a bottle in your house?" asked Benjamin, a Navajo Indian from New Mexico .

"Don't be ridiculous. I've got a bar in my living room as big as a horse's ass. Nothing personal, Mr. Murphy-O'Connor." Max felt he had regained control. He was smiling again.

"Do you keep any booze in the garage, Max?"

"Naturally. I have to replenish the stock. A man in my profession does a lot of entertaining at home." The executive swagger had returned.

"How many bottles in the garage?"

"I really don't know the actual count. Offhand, I would say two cases of Smirnoff Vodka, a case of Beefeater gin, a few bottles of bourbon and scotch, and a bevy of liquors."

The interrogation continued for another twenty minutes. Max fudged and hedged, minimized, rationalized, and justified his drinking pattern. Finally, hemmed in by relentless cross-examination, he admitted he kept a bottle of vodka in the night stand, a bottle of gin in the suitcase for travel purpose, another in his bathroom cabinet for medicinal purposes, and three more at the office for entertaining clients. He squirmed occasionally but never lost his veneer of confidence.

Max grinned. "Gentlemen, I guess we have all gilded the lily once or twice in our lives," was the way he put it, implying that only men of large mien can afford the luxury of self-deprecating humor.

"You're a liar!" another voice boomed.

"No need to get vindictive, Charlie," Max shot back. "Remember the image in John's gospel about the speck in your brother's eye and the two-by-four in your own. And the other one in Matthew about the pot calling the kettle black."

(I felt constrained to inform Max that the speck and plank comparison were not found in John but in Matthew and the pot and the kettle was a secular proverb found in none of the gospels. But I sensed a spirit of smugness and an air of spiritual superiority had suddenly enveloped me like a thick fog. I decided to forego the opportunity for fraternal correction. After all, I was not at Hazelden doing research on a book. I was just another broken-down drunk like Max.)

"Get me a phone," said Murphy-O'Connor.

A telephone was wheeled into the room. Murphy-O'Connor consulted a memo pad and dialed a number in a distant city. It was Max's hometown. Our receiver was rigged electronically so that the party dialed could be heard loud and clear throughout the living room on the lake.

"Hank Shea?"

"Yeah, who's this?"

"My name is Sean Murphy-O'Connor. I am a counselor at an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center in the Midwest . Do you remember a customer named Max? (Pause) Good. With his family's permission I am researching his drinking history. You tend bar in that tavern every afternoon, so I am wondering if you could tell me approximately how much Max drinks each day?"

"I know Max well, but are you sure you have his permission to question me?"

"I have a signed affidavit. Shoot."

"He's a helluva guy. I really like him. He drops thirty bucks in here every afternoon. Max has his standard six martinis, buys a few drinks, and always leaves me a fin. Good man."

Max leapt to his feet. Raising his right hand defiantly, he unleashed a stream of profanity worthy of a stevedore. He attacked Murphy-O'Connor's ancestry, impugned Charlie's legitimacy and the whole unit's integrity. He clawed at the sofa and spat on the rug.

Then, in an incredible coup de main he immediately regained his composure. Max reseated himself and remarked matter-of-factly that even Jesus lost his temper in the temple when he saw the Sadducees hawking pigeons and pastries. After an extemporaneous homily to the group on justifiable anger, he stoved his pipe and presumed that the interrogation was over.

"Have you ever been unkind to one of your kids?" Fred asked.

"Glad you brought that up, Fred. I have a fantastic rapport with my four boys. Last Thanksgiving I took them on a fishing expedition to the Rockies . Four days of roughing it in the wilderness. A great time! Two of my sons graduated from Harvard, you know, and Max Jr. is in his third year at . . . "

"I didn't ask you that. At least once in his life every father has been unkind to one of his kids. I'm sixty-two years old and I can vouch for it. Now give us one specific example."

A long pause ensued. Finally, "Well, I was a little thoughtless with my nine-year-old daughter last Christmas Eve."

"What happened?"

"I don't remember. I just get this heavy feeling whenever I think about it."

"Where did it happen? What were the circumstances?"

"Wait one minute!" Max's voice rose in anger. "I told you I don't remember. Just can't shake this bad feeling."

Unobtrusively, Murphy-O'Connor dialed Max's hometown once more and spoke with his wife.

"Sean Murphy-O'Connor calling, ma'am. We are in the middle of a group therapy session, and your husband just told us that he was unkind to your daughter last Christmas Eve. Can you give me the details, please?"

A soft voice filled the room. "Yes, I can tell you the whole thing. It seems like it just happened yesterday. Our daughter Debbie wanted a pair of earth shoes for her Christmas present. On the afternoon of December 24, my husband drove her downtown, gave her sixty dollars, and told her to buy the best pair of shoes in the store. That is exactly what she did. When she climbed back into the pickup truck her father was driving, she kissed him on the cheek and told him he was the best daddy in the whole world. Max was preening himself like a peacock and decided to celebrate on the way home. He stopped at the Cork 'n' Bottle--that's a tavern a few miles from our house and told Debbie he would be right out. It was a clear and extremely cold day, about twelve degrees above zero, so Max left the motor running and locked both doors from the outside so no one could get in. It was a little after three in the afternoon and . . .



The sound of heavy breathing crossed the recreation room. Her voice grew faint. She was crying. "My husband met some old Army buddies in the tavern. Swept up in euphoria over the reunion, he lost track of time, purpose, and everything else. He came out of the Cork 'n' Bottle at midnight . He was drunk. The motor had stopped running and the car windows were frozen shut. Debbie was badly frostbitten on both ears and on her fingers. When we got her to the hospital, the doctors had to operate. They amputated the thumb and forefinger on her right hand. She will be deaf for the rest of her life."

Max appeared to be having a coronary. He struggled to his feet making jerky, uncoordinated movements. His glasses flew to the right and his pipe to the left. He collapsed on all fours and sobbed hysterically.

Murphy-O'Connor stood up and said softly, "Let's split."

Twenty-four recovering alcoholics and addicts climbed the eight-step stairwell. We turned left, gathered along the railing on the upper split level and looked down. No man will ever forget what he saw that day, the twenty-fourth of April at exactly high noon. Max was still in the doggie position. His sobs had soared to shrieks. Murphy-O'Connor approached him, pressed his foot against Max's rib cage and pushed. Max rolled over on his back.

"You unspeakable slime," Murphy-O'Connor roared. "There's the door on your right and the window on your left. Take whichever is fastest. Get out of here before I throw up. I am not running a rehab for liars!"

The philosophy of tough love is based on the conviction that no effective recovery can be initiated until a man admits that he is powerless over alcohol and that his life has become unmanageable. The alternative to confronting the truth is always some form of self-destruction. For Max there were three options: eventual insanity, premature death, or sobriety. In order to free the captive, one must name the captivity. Max's denial had to be identified through merciless interaction with his peers. His self-deception had to be unmasked in its absurdity.

Later that same day Max pleaded for and obtained permission to continue treatment. He proceeded to undergo the most striking personality change I have ever witnessed. He got honest and became more open, sincere, vulnerable, and affectionate than any man in the group. Tough love had made him real and the truth had set him free.

The denouement to his story: The night before Max completed treatment, Fred passed by his room. The door was ajar. Max was sitting at his desk reading a novel entitled Watersbip Down. Fred knocked and entered. For several moments Max sat staring at the book. When he looked up, his cheeks were streaked with tears. "Fred," he said hoarsely, "I just prayed for the first time in my life." Max was on the road to knowing God.

An intimate connection exists between the quest for honesty and a transparent personality. Max could not encounter the truth of the living God until he faced his alcoholism. From a biblical perspective, Max was a liar. In philosophy, the opposite of truth is error: in Scripture, the opposite of truth is a lie. Max's lie consisted in appearing to be something he wasn't--a social drinker. Truth for him meant acknowledging reality--his alcoholic drinking.

The Evil One is the great illusionist. He varnishes the truth and encourages dishonesty. "If we say we have no sin in us, we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth" (1 John 1:8). Satan prompts us to give importance to what has no importance. He clothes trivia with glitter and seduces us away from what is real. He causes us to live in a world of delusion, unreality, and shadows.

Jean Danielou wrote: "Truth consists in the mind giving to things the importance they have in reality." The really Real is God. When Max confronted and accepted the truth of his alcoholism, he stepped through a doorway into the acknowledgment of God's sovereign reality and claimed, "I just prayed for the first time in my life."

The noonday devil of the Christian life is the temptation to lose the inner self while preserving the shell of edifying behavior. Suddenly I discover that I am ministering to AIDS victims to enhance my resume. I find I renounced ice cream for Lent to lose five excess pounds. I drop hints about the absolute priority of meditation and contemplation to create the impression that I am a man of prayer. At some unremembered moment I have lost the connection between internal purity of heart and external works of piety. In the most humiliating sense of the word, I have become a legalist. I have fallen victim to what T.S. Eliot calls the greatest sin: to do the right thing for the wrong reason.

"Beware of the scribes ... these are the men who swallow the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers" (Mark 12:38 , 40). Jesus did not have a naive outlook on prayer. He knew it could be counterfeited by spiritual narcissism, hypocrisy, wordiness, and sensationalism. The noonday devil is not intimidated by the boundaries of time.

The letter of James counsels: Confess your sins to one another (James 5:16 ). This salutary practice aims to guide us in accepting ownership of our ragamuffin status, but as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted, "He who is alone with his sins is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, not withstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final breakthrough to fellowship does not occur because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everyone must conceal his sin from himself and from their fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!

At Sunday worship, as in every dimension of our existence, many of us pretend to believe we are sinners. Consequently, all we can do is pretend to believe we have been forgiven. As a result, our whole spiritual life is pseudo-repentance and pseudo-bliss.

The appeal of paste jewelry and sawdust hot dogs is powerful. A small investment in apparent propriety and good deeds yields the rewards of the faith community--adulation and praise. Coupled with a charismatic personality and an attractive appearance, hypocrisy can earn a $640,000 apartment at Trump Towers , a $90,000 diamond ring from Tiffany's, and frequent flights on the Concordes to Europe .

The spiritual future of ragamuffins consists not in disavowing that we are sinners but in accepting that truth with growing clarity, rejoicing in God's incredible longing to rescue us in spite of everything. C.S. Lewis wrote: "It may be that salvation consists not in the canceling of these eternal moments but in the perfected humility that bears the shame forever, rejoicing in the occasion which is furnished to God's compassion and glad that it should be common knowledge to the universe. Perhaps in that eternal moment St. Peter--he will forgive me if I am wrong--forever denies his Master. If so, it would indeed be true that the joys of heaven are for most of us, in our present condition, an acquired taste--and certain ways of life may render the taste impossible of acquisition. Perhaps the lost are those who dare not go to such a public place."'

Biblically, there is nothing more detestable than a self-righteous disciple. He is so swollen with conceit that his mere presence is unbearable. However, a nagging question arises. Have I so insulated myself in a fortified city of rationalizations that I cannot see that I may not be as different from the self-righteous as I would like to think?

The following scenario plays in my imagination:

A humble woman seeks me out because of my vaunted reputation as a spiritual guide. She is simple and direct:

"Please teach me how to pray."

Tersely, I inquire, "Tell me about your prayer life."

She lowers her eyes and says contritely, "There's not much to tell. I say grace before meals."

Haughtily, I reply, "You say grace before meals! Isn't that nice, Madam. I say grace upon waking and before retiring, and grace again before reading the newspaper and turning on the television. I say grace before ambulating and meditating, before the theater and the opera, before jogging, swimming, biking, dining, lecturing, and writing. I even say grace before I say grace."

That night, soggy with self-approval, I go before the Lord. And he whispers, "You ungrateful turd. Even the desire to say grace is itself my gift."

There is an ancient Christian legend that goes this way: "When the son of God was nailed to the cross and gave up his spirit, he went straight down to hell from the cross and set free all the sinners who were there in torment. And the Devil wept and mourned for he thought he would get no more sinners for hell.

"Then God said to him, 'Do not weep, for I shall send you all those holy people who have become self-complacent in the consciousness of their goodness and self-righteous in their condemnation of sinners. And hell shall be filled up once more for generations until I come again.'"

How long will it be before we discover we cannot dazzle God with our accomplishments?

When will we acknowledge that we need not and cannot buy God's favor?

When will we acknowledge that we don't have it all together and happily accept the gift of grace? When will we grasp the thrilling truth of Paul: "We acknowledge that what makes a man righteous is not obedience to the Law, but faith in Jesus Christ" (Galatians 2:16 )?

Authentic faith leads us to treating others with unconditional seriousness and to a loving reverence for the mystery of the human personality. Authentic Christianity should lead to maturity, personality, and reality. It should fashion whole men and women living lives of love and communion.

False, manhandled religion produces the opposite effect. Whenever religion shows contempt or disregards the rights of persons, even under the noblest pretexts, it draws us away from reality and God. We can put 'reverse English' on religion and make religion an escape from religion.

John's gospel shows the religious leaders of Israel worried about Jesus.

"The chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting. 'Here is this man working all these signs,' they said, 'and what action are we taking? If we let him go on in this way everybody will believe in him and the Romans will come and destroy the Holy Place and our nation.' One of them, Caiaphas, the high priest that year, said, 'You don't seem to have grasped the situation at all; you fail to see that it is better for one man to die for the people, than for the whole nation to be destroyed' " (John 11:47-50).

A terrible thing has happened to Caiaphas. Religion has left the realm of respect for person. For Caiaphas sacredness has become institutions, structures, and abstractions. He is dedicated to the people, so individual flesh and blood men are expendable. Caiaphas is dedicated to the nation. But the nation does not bleed like Jesus. Caiaphas is dedicated to the Temple--impersonal brick and mortar. Caiaphas became impersonal himself, no longer a warm human being but a robot, as fixed and rigid as his unchanging world.

The choice usually presented to Christians is not between Jesus and Barabbas. No one wants to appear an obvious murderer. The choice to be careful about is between Jesus and Caiaphas. And Caiaphas can fool us. He is a very 'religious' man.

The spirit of Caiaphas lives on in every century of religious bureaucrats who confidently condemn good people who have broken bad religious laws. Always for a good reason of course: for the good of the temple, for the good of the church. How many sincere people have been banished from the Christian community by religious power brokers as numb in spirit as Caiaphas!

The deadening spirit of hypocrisy lives on in prelates and politicians who want to look good but not be good; it lives on in people who prefer to surrender control of their souls to rules than run the risk of living in union with Jesus.

Eugene Kennedy writes: "The devil dwells in the urge to control rather than liberate the human soul. One can hardly live in these closing years of the twentieth century without realizing how the forces of control have gathered. . . . We stand by a dark forest through which fearful religious and political leaders would force us to pass in single file through their exclusive pathway of righteousness. They want to intimidate us, make us afraid and hand over our souls to them once more. Jesus saw such shadowed forces as the corrupters of the essential nature of religion in his time. They are no less so all these centuries later."'

The way we are with each other is the truest test of our faith. How I treat a brother or sister from day to day, how I react to the sin-scarred wino on the street, how I respond to interruptions from people I dislike, how I deal with normal people in their normal confusion on a normal day may be a better indication of my reverence for life than the anti-abortion sticker on the bumper of my car.

We are not pro-life simply because we are warding off death. We are pro-life to the extent that we are men and women for others, all others; to the extent that no human flesh is a stranger to us; to the extent that we can touch the hand of another in love; to the extent that for us there are no "others."

Today the danger of the pro-life position which I vigorously support is that it can be frighteningly selective. The rights of the unborn and the dignity of the age-worn are pieces of the same pro-life fabric. We weep at the unjustified destruction of the unborn. Did we also weep when the evening news reported from Arkansas that a black family had been shot-gunned out of a white neighborhood?

One morning I experienced a horrifying hour. I tried to remember how often between 1941 and 1988 1 wept for a German or Japanese, a North Korean or North Vietnamese, a Sandinista or Cuban. I could not remember one. Then I wept, not for them, but for myself.

When we laud life and blast abortionists, our credibility as Christians is questionable. On one hand we proclaim the love and anguish, the pain and joy that goes into fashioning a single child. We proclaim how precious each life is to God and should be to us. On the other hand, when it is the enemy that shrieks to heaven with his flesh in flames, we do not weep, we are not shamed: we call for more.

The sensitive Jew remembers the Middle Ages: every ghetto structured by Christians; every forced baptism, every Good Friday program, every portrait of Shylock exacting his pound of flesh, every identifying dress or hat or badge, every death for conscience's sake, every back turned or shoulder shrugged, every sneer or slap or curse.

With their tragic history as background, it is not surprising that many Jews are unimpressed with our anti-abortion stance and our arguments for the sacredness of human life. For they still hear cries of Christkiller; the survivors of Auschwitz and Dachau still feel lashes on their backs; they still see images of human soap, still taste hunger, still smell gas. The history of Judaism is a story of caring: they are not sure we care for them. 

The pro-life position is a seamless garment of reverence for the unborn and the age-worn, for the enemy, the Jew, and the quality of life of all people. Otherwise it is paste jewelry and sawdust hot dogs.

Relief comes from rigorous honesty with ourselves. It is interesting that whenever the evangelists Mark, Luke, or John mention the apostles, they call the author of the first gospel either Levi or Matthew. But in his own Gospel, he always refers to himself as 'Matthew the publican', never wanting to forget who he was and always wanting to remember how low Jesus stooped to pick him up.

We are publicans just like Matthew.

Honesty simply asks if we are open, willing, and able to acknowledge this truth. Honesty brings an end to pretense through a candid acknowledgment of our fragile humanity. It is always unpleasant, and usually painful, and that is why I am not very good at it. But to stand in the truth before God and one another has a unique reward. It is the reward which a sense of reality always brings. I know something extremely precious. I am in touch with myself as I am. My tendency to play the pseudo-messiah is torpedoed.

To the extent that I reject my ragamuffin identity, I turn away from God, the community, and myself. I become a man obsessed by illusion, a man of false power and fearful weakness, unable to think, act, or love.

Gerald May, a Christian psychiatrist in Washington D.C. writes: "Honesty before God requires the most fundamental risk of faith we can take: the risk that God is good, that God does love us unconditionally. It is in taking this risk that we rediscover our dignity. To bring the truth of ourselves, just as we are, to God, just as God is, is the most dignified thing we can do in this life."

Lord Jesus, we are silly sheep who have dared to stand before you and try to bribe you with our preposterous portfolios. Suddenly we have come to our senses. We are sorry and ask you to forgive us. Give us the grace to admit we are ragamuffins, to embrace our brokenness, to celebrate your mercy when we are at our weakest, to rely on your mercy no matter what we may do. Dear Jesus, gift us to stop grandstanding and trying to get attention, to do the truth quietly without display, to let the dishonesties in our lives fade away, to accept our limitations, to cling to the gospel of grace, and to delight in your love. Amen.

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