Virtue and the Ragamuffin Man
The “Ragamuffin Gospel”
I’ve just started reading Brennan Manning’s book, “The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out”. I had been intending to read it for a while, and kept getting distracted and buying other books. There is something terribly attractive to me about the notion of the Ragamuffin—the person who is battered by life, and who is entirely dependent on God’s amazing grace, because they have no other stores to draw upon. THAT person is living exactly where I want to be—squarely in God’s will—but I am usually afraid to go there. Afraid because I don’t want to give up my comforts. This is why so many of us stand in awe of missionaries. We understand what motivates a person or family to uproot their entire life, give it entirely to Jesus, and leave all the comforts of home to go preach the good news of the gospel to people who need it desperately……but we lack the courage to do the same ourselves.
I think the only way someone like me—an older person with various physical ailments, living in relative comfort in a nice community—can get to a place where I’m willing to surrender ALL of it, is by embracing my inner ragamuffin.
The reason I finally ponied up and bought this book is that a friend of mine from church had posted a link on Facebook a couple of days ago, pointing to the website for a movie called, “Ragamuffin: The True Story of Rich Mullins”. For those who don’t know Mullins, he was a great songwriter of Christian worship music, who was a member of the Ragamuffin Band, along with Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. Mullins wrote a number of songs, but one of them, “Our God is an Awesome God” is sung in Christian churches all over the world. Mullins did not originate the idea of the Ragamuffin Gospel, but he embodied it in his personal life, and he preached it to others. There was a quote from one of the characters in the movie’s trailer which said “A ragamuffin knows he’s only a beggar at the door of God’s mercy.” It so profoundly moved me, that it launched me on this quest…..to become that ragamuffin who has no more pretensions, living only by and in God’s grace and mercy.
Here is how Brennan Manning’s book opens in Chapter 1:
On a blustery October night in a church outside Minneapolis, several hundred believers had gathered for a three-day seminar. I began with a one-hour presentation on the gospel of grace and the reality of salvation. Using Scripture, story, symbolism, and personal experience, I focused on the total sufficiency of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ on Calvary. The service ended with a song and a prayer.
Leaving the church by a side door, the pastor turned to his associate and fumed, “Humph, that airhead didn’t say one thing about what we have to do to earn our salvation!”
Something is radically wrong.
The bending of the mind by the powers of this world has twisted the gospel of grace into religious bondage and distorted the image of God into an eternal, small-minded bookkeeper. The Christian community resembles a Wall Street exchange of works wherein the elite are honored and the ordinary ignored. Love is stifled, freedom shackled, and self-righteousness fastened. The institutional church has become a wounder of the healers rather than a healer of the wounded.
Put bluntly, the American church today accepts grace in theory but denies it in practice. We say we believe that the fundamental structure of reality is grace, not works—but our lives refute our faith. By and large, the gospel of grace is neither proclaimed, understood, nor lived. Too many Christians are living in the house of fear and not in the house of love.
Our culture has made the word grace impossible to understand. We resonate to slogans such as:
“There’s no free lunch.”
“You get what you deserve.”
“You want money? Work for it.”
“You want love? Earn it.”
“You want mercy? Show you deserve it.”
“Do unto others before they do unto you.”
“Watch out for welfare lines, the shiftless street people, free hot dogs at school, affluent students with federal loans—it’s a con game.”
“By all means, give others what they deserve but not one penny more.”
A friend told me she overheard a pastor say to a child, “God loves good little boys.” As I listen to sermons with their pointed emphasis on personal effort—no pain, no gain—I get the impression that a do-it-yourself spirituality is the American fashion.
Though the Scriptures insist on God’s initiative in the work of salvation—that by grace we are saved, that the Tremendous Lover has taken to the chase—our spirituality often starts with self, not God. Personal responsibility has replaced personal response. We talk about acquiring virtue as if it were a skill that can be attained, like good handwriting or a well-grooved golf swing. In the penitential seasons we focus on overcoming our weaknesses, getting rid of our hang-ups, and reaching Christian maturity. We sweat through various spiritual exercises as if they were designed to produce a Christian Charles Atlas. Though lip service is paid to the gospel of grace, many Christians live as if only personal discipline and self-denial will mold the perfect me. The emphasis is on what I do rather than on what God is doing. In this curious process God is a benign old spectator in the bleachers who cheers when I show up for morning quiet time. We transfer the Horatio Alger legend of the self-made man into our relationship with God. As we read Psalm 123, “Just as the eyes of slave are on their masters’ hand, or the eyes of a slave-girl on the hand of her mistress,” we experience a vague sense of existential guilt. Our eyes are not on God. At heart we are practicing Pelagians. We believe that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps—indeed, we can do it ourselves.
Sooner or later we are confronted with the painful truth of our inadequacy and insufficiency. Our security is shattered and our bootstraps are cut. Once the fervor has passed, weakness and infidelity appear. We discover our inability to add even a single inch to our spiritual stature. There begins a long winter of discontent that eventually flowers into gloom, pessimism, and a subtle despair—subtle because it goes unrecognized, unnoticed, and therefore unchallenged. It takes the form of boredom, drudgery. We are overcome by the ordinariness of life, by daily duties done over and over again. We secretly admit that the call of Jesus is too demanding, that surrender to the Spirit is beyond our reach. We start acting like everyone else. Life takes on a joyless, empty quality. We begin to resemble the leading character in Eugene O’Neill’s play The Great God Brown: “Why am I afraid to dance, I who love music and rhythm and grace and song and laughter? Why am I afraid to live, I who love life and the beauty of flesh and the living colors of the earth and sky and sea? Why am I afraid to love, I who love love?”1
Something is radically wrong.
Our approach to the Christian life is as absurd as the enthusiastic young man who had just received his plumber’s license and was taken to see Niagara Falls. He studied it for a minute and then said, “I think I can fix this.”
(Manning, Brennan (2008-08-19). The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out (Chapter 1). The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)
That last paragraph perfectly illustrates my “can do” attitude. Left to my own devices, I believe that I can fix my natural tendency to do the wrong thing because sin living in me (Romans 7:13-24) has dominion over my flesh, but the Spirit living in me knows that the only way to be free of that deception is to become a ragamuffin who begs at the door of God’s mercy. The archetypes are well described in Jesus’s parable of the pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The part of me that tries to practice all the virtues without understanding the heart of God is the pharisee. The ragamuffin is like the Tax Collector.
I want to be the ragamuffin.
It occurs to me that there may be a parallel here in secular life, although I don't know yet if that is where Manning is going with all this. There is a kind of person I call "The Thrill Seeker", and we all know somebody like that. They have to ride the scariest roller-coasters. They have to skydive, roadrace motorcycles, base-jump, bag the highest mountain peaks, and ride the biggest waves. There was a time in my life when I was one of them. Now that I am older and much more acquainted with my own mortality......not so much. My observation is that there are two common denominators with people like this:
There is the need to be near the presence of death to be able to feel the presence of life; that life is not sweet enough, unless one is faced quite eminently with the risk of losing it.
There is a need to be the one in control of deciding how close death approaches.....pinning the throttle until after the last brake-marker, waiting to pull the ripcord at 500 ft., spending vast sums on equipment in the name of safety or control.....but always being the one in control of the outcome, and not giving that outcome to God.
Well I don't want to risk losing my life. I want to risk gaining it. My sense is that this book is going to challenge me. I am trapped between wanting to give up everything and follow the Lord 100%, and, like the Rich Young Ruler, not wanting to give up my creature comforts because I am afraid of what I might not be able to do..........which is silly if you believe that I am not the one doing it—God is.