The Ragamuffin Gospel

The Ragamuffin Gospel, by Brennan Manning, published by Multnomah Publishers, 1990, 2000, 2005, 267 pages, paperback

Many books I read give me exactly what I need at the exact time I need it. It’s as if I struggle with a problem or situation just long enough to welcome the book with open arms. It seems God-orchestrated. The Ragamuffin Gospel is just such a book.

These books are difficult to “review” because I have become emotionally attached to them, highlighting, underlining, dog-earring, bookmarking all the bestest parts for later, writing notes to my future self, hugging the book like a true friend.

This book came to me a year after I was hurt by a church. There was a situation. It was emotionally charged with lots and lots of drama. I had fear and anger cursing through me 24/7 until I could barely see. I tried to control as much of it as I could. Finally, I gave up. It was what it was. The events became unchangeable, etched in stone forever. We were kicked out. My reputation was ruined. My heart was broken. Friends disappeared. My personal life was in chaos. My brain ceased to function.

But my faith in God was strengthened. I knew without any doubt in my mind that the bizarre events were allowed by God for God’s divine purpose. At the time I had no idea what would come or if I would survive in one piece. Now I see that I was broken so God could fix me.

And He has been healing me, little by little, as I walk with Him as closely as I can, and as I listen to Him as hard as I can.

God has brought people to heal me, challenge me, encourage me. God knows I learn well from books and has dropped them in my path as I need them.

I didn’t want to open this book at first. “Ragamuffin” is such an ugly word to me. My mom would call me a ragamuffin when I hadn’t brushed my hair and washed my face like a good little girl should and we needed to go somewhere right away – some place where we would be judged (It was the 60s. Apparently, everyone was judged every time they walked out of the house).

But “ragamuffin” also has an endearing quality to it (like a lost, dirty puppy), as if accepting the name humbles me. Or perhaps I must drop my pride to accept the name, admit it, and finally embrace it. A ragamuffin has nothing to bring to the table, needy, poverty-stricken.

Brennan says the church has turned its back on ragamuffins.

He argues that the church has stepped away from the original Good News and created clubs complete with keeping up appearances, rituals, rules, discipline and shunning – unrealistic expectations that no one can live up to, creating plastic people who wear masks just to fit in. But in the beginning, the Good News church was nothing like the church that we see today.

“The Good News means we can stop lying to ourselves. The sweet sound of amazing grace saves us from the necessity of self-deception. It keeps us from denying that though Christ was victorious, the battle with lust, greed, and pride still rages within us. As a sinner who has been redeemed, I can acknowledge that I am often unloving, irritable, angry, and resentful with hose closest to me. When I go to church I can leave my white hat at home and admit I have failed. God not only loves me as I am, but also knows me as I am. Because of this I don’t need to apply spiritual cosmetics to make myself presentable to Him. I can accept ownership of my poverty and powerlessness and neediness.”

The Ragamuffin Gospel is honest.

“When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.”

I’m not the only one within my sphere of friends and acquaintances who have wondered in pain (and sometimes horror) at how our local church works. Jesus does not judge us and look down on us with disappointment. This is something created by well-meaning ministers to keep the congregation in line. Who remembers the well-worn phrase, “Shame on you. What would Jesus say?”

I found Brennan’s honesty and raw feeling to be refreshing:

“Something is radically wrong when the local church rejects a person accepted by Jesus – when a harsh, judgmental, and unforgiving sentence is passed on homosexuals; when a divorcee is denied communion; when the child of a prostitute is refused baptism; when an unlaicized priest is forbidden the sacraments. Jesus comes to the ungodly, even on Sunday morning. His coming ends ungodliness and makes us worthy. Otherwise, we are establishing at the heart of Christianity an utterly ungodly and unworthy preoccupation with works.”

Perhaps Lutherans, as well as all those who follow his teaching born from effort of reforming, should take another look at his zeal:

“In his famous 1522 Christmas sermon, Martin Luther cried out: ‘O that God should desire that my interpretation and that of all teachers should disappear, and each Christian should come straight to the Scripture alone and to the pure word of God! You see from this babbling of mine the immeasurable difference between the word of God and all human words, and how no man can adequately reach and explain a single word of God with all his words. It is an eternal word and must be understood and contemplated with a quiet mind. No one else can understand except a mind that contemplates in silence. For anyone who could achieve this without commentary or interpretation, my commentaries and those of everyone else could not only be of no use, but merely a hindrance. Go to the Bible itself, dear Christians, and let my expositions and those of all scholars be no more than a tool with which to build aright, so that we can understand, taste, and abide in the simple and pure word ofGod; for God dwells alone in Zion.’” (Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 45-46)

And finally: “The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous offers a lovely piece of homespun wisdom for those times when we are confronted with the wrongdoing of those who deliberately tried (and perhaps succeeded at) harming us: ‘This was our course. We realized that the people who wronged us were perhaps spiritually sick. Though we did not like their symptoms and the way these disturbed us, they, like ourselves, were sick too. We asked God to help us show them the same tolerance, pity, and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend. When a person offended, we said to ourselves, “This is a sick man. How can I be helpful to him? God, save me from being angry. Thy will be done.”’ When you have made a slobbering mess of your life, as many of us recovering alcoholics have, compassion becomes a tad easier if you are conscientious in taking your own inventory rather than someone else’s.”

If for no other reason, pick up the book to spend time in the “19 Mercies: A Spiritual Retreat” found in the final portion of Ragamuffin. These are comforting, quiet, thought-stirring contemplations of who God is and His incredible plan for us.

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