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This year, I found myself rereading one of my favorite authors, Brennan Manning, a self-described “ragamuffin” whose spiritual journey found him in more shadow-filled valleys than mountain peaks. I typically turn to Brennan when, for whatever reason, I too find myself in the shadowlands, and what I learn from him is nothing short of transformative. I reread his classic, Ragamuffin Gospel, and found solace in his memoir, All is Grace. 

These texts tell his story, in his own words, of the deep darkness he suffered through (a lifelong addiction to alcohol); his despair, shame and fear of dealing with this while also serving as a Franciscan priest, seminary professor, and author of half a dozen Christian books; and the freeing grace of God he came to experience that never gave up on him.  Of all the books I read this year (see 2012 Reading List for the complete list), these two did more for me at a time when I needed it most than all the rest combined.

Before I comment on how Manning’s words spoke to me, I want to give you a brief sampling of the wisdom Manning imparts, that you may see why I love his writings (RG refers to Ragamuffin Gospel and AG refers to All is Grace):

Living a life of faith is not lived in the light, it is discovered in the dark. AG

The cross Jesus asked you to carry is yourself. It’s all the pain inflicted on you in your past and all the pain you’ve inflicted on others (Thomas Keating) AG

We need not hide all that is ugly and repulsive in us. Jesus comes not for the super-spiritual but for the wobbly and the weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together. RG

To be alive is to be broken. RG

Trust clings to the belief that whatever happens in our lives is designed to teach us holiness RG

Jesus says to us, “I expect more failure from you than you expect you expect from yourself” RG

What sticks with me most is a simple story Brennan tells that reflects his entire spiritual journey. It is an allegory told of a man who, upon dying, reaches judgement and, hearing all that is leveled against him, despairs of ever finding rest and peace. Right when it seems like every fault, pain, shame and offense has the last word, a chorus begins, softly at first, that grows into a mighty crescendo: “But he loved, but he loved, but he loved, but he loved….” This goes on and on and on and on, breaking the man until at last he can stand, whole, freed, forgiven, made new.

These words, “But he loved...” are what I want engraved upon my tombstone.

This summer, I had chance to pause and reflect upon the vales of my life; to look into the shadowlands of despair, shame, pain and regret that have filled my life both by choices that I have made and the consequences I have suffered due to the choices of others. As I mentally walked back through those murky crags, I saw them with different eyes, or rather, I heard them with new ears, for, in each dark place, I heard the same words, “It’s all been grace.”

In those moments of failure, struggle, confusion, frustration, anger, self-pity, and doubt, in those destructive places where shalom was broken, I heard those words, “It’s all been grace.” These words remind me that the One who sits on the throne of Revelation 21 never stops saying, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

As I look back over my childhood, my marriage, my career, my relationships, my successes and my failures, I hear again, “It’s all been grace.”

May you hear these words spoken over your life as 2012 comes to a close, and may they guide you into a wiser, more meaningful 2013:

“It’s all been grace.”