Listening in with Michael Card & Brennan Manning
- CCM Magazine
- 2004 8 Aug
We hardly felt the need to “introduce” these thinkers/teachers to you. Considering their exhaustive work in the Christian community — from Brennan’s regular speaking engagements and 14 books, including the famed "Ragamuffin Gospel" and "Abba’s Child," to Michael’s 27 albums, recent writing on lament literature and “In the Studio with Michael Card” radio program, there are hardly words to describe the impact these two have made on those who’ve encountered them or their work throughout their decades of ministry. Now we’re honored these two friends of 20 years set aside time to converse exclusively for CCM readers.
Michael: A long time ago we first met through your book, "Lion and Lamb: the Tenderness of Jesus." And the key theme, for me, was healing our image of God and God our Abba. What does it mean that God is our Father?
Brennan: American child psychologists tell us that children learn to speak between the ages of 14 and 18 months. Regardless of the sex of the child, the first word normally spoken at that age level is “Da Da Daddy.” A little Jewish child, speaking Aramaic in first century Palestine at the time of the historic Jesus, at the same age would say “Ab Ab Abba.” I really think we caught the revolutionary revelation of Jesus’ teaching on God the Father because He’s daring us to address the infinite, transcendent, almighty God in the same colloquial form of address our own children used that morning, which is Abba, literally meaning “Daddy.”
Without hesitation, the greatest gift I’ve ever received in my life in Jesus is the Abba experience. I could only stutter and stammer about the life-changing power of the Abba encounter; and, by that, I mean freedom from the fear of life, freedom from the fear that I’m going to betray Jesus with my own malice and freedom from the fear of death.
In the years of the Abba desert, which began in the Zaragoza Desert in Spain in the late 1960s, things I’ve come to see about Abba is, one: His love is intimate. If you’ve got skeletons in the closet from your past life, something so shameful, so embarrassing, so utterly self-centered that your palms start sweating when you start thinking about it, the intimate love of Abba reaches into that dark experience. Reconciliation in the Scriptures is not primarily making peace with someone else; it’s first of all making peace with that part of yourself where peace couldn’t be found before — such is the intimate love of Abba.
Second, His love is unique, meaning Abba loves me not as you think I am, not as I am supposed be, but as I really am. And the real Brennan Manning is a bundle of contradictions. I believe in Abba with all my heart; but on a given day when I see a 9-year-old girl raped and murdered by a sex maniac or a 4-year-old boy slaughtered by a drunken driver, I wonder to believe a loving Father exists.
The God of my experience is: I love, and I hate. I feel bad about feeling good. I feel guilty if I don’t feel guilty. I’m wide open and locked in. I’m trusting and suspicious. I’m honest and still play games.
The fourth thing I’ve learned is Abba’s love is reliable. He loves me if I’m in a state of grace or disgrace. And I’m sure, Mike, if you and I had the chance to share our lives’ stories, we’d discover a striking similarity that both of our lives have been a celebration of God’s faithfulness in good times and in bad.
Ironically, it was April Fool’s Day 1965 that I woke up at 6:30 in the morning in a doorway on a commercial boulevard in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I woke up in an alcoholic fog, smelling vomit all over my sweater, staring down at my bare feet. And coming along a sidewalk was a woman, maybe 25, blonde hair, attractive lady. She had a 4-year-old son on her hand. The boy broke loose from his mother’s grip right at the doorway and stared at me. The mother came up quickly behind him, cupped her hand to cover his eyes and said, “Don’t look at that filth. All that is, is pure filth.” And 29 years ago, that filth was Brennan Manning. The Abba I’ve come to know through experience, the Abba I’ve come to know by faith loves me as much if I’m born in the state of grace as He does this “born again” state of grace. For His love is never, never, never based on our performance, never conditioned by our moods of manipulation or oppression. It knows no shadow of alteration or change. The love of Abba in Christ Jesus is reliable.
The love of Abba is tender. Tenderness is what happens when you discover you’re liked by somebody. If you communicate to me that you like me — not just love me as a brother in Christ, but really like me, then you open up to me the possibility of liking myself, accepting myself, loving myself. The look in your eyes banishes my fears and my defense mechanisms like sarcasm, ridicule, name dropping, giving you the appearance I’ve got it all together.
My friend Ed Farrel up in Detroit goes on his two-week summer vacation to Ireland. The reason is his favorite uncle is celebrating his 80th birthday. On the morning of the great day, Ed and his uncle get up before dawn, get dressed in silence and go for a walk around the shores of Lake Kilarney. Just as the sun is about to rise, his uncle turns to the rising sun. Ed didn’t know what to do. So he’s standing beside his uncle, shoulder to shoulder for 20 full minutes, not a word exchanged. Then his 80-year-old uncle goes running, skipping down the road; and he’s radiating, beaming with joy. Ed catches up to him and says, “Uncle Seamus, you look really happy.” He says, “I am, lad.” Then Ed says, “You want to tell me why?” And the old man says, “Yes, you see, “ and then the tears wash down his face, “my Abba is very fond of me.”
If I asked the reader right now: Do you believe Abba likes you — not loves you because, theologically, Abba has to love you. Abba loves you by the necessity of His nature. If I asked if you really believe He likes you and with gut-level honestly, you could reply, “Oh yes, Abba is very fond of me,” there would come a relaxedness, a serenity, a compassionate attitude toward yourself and your brokenness.
Michael: You have that prayer as a “breathing in, breathing out” exercise. Could you describe that to us?
Brennan: Yes, it’s a prayer I had asked an old nun to pray, who had been sexually abused by her father when she was 5 years old. Then at 9 years old, her virginity was taken. At 12 she knew of every kind of sexual perversion she had read about in a dirty book. She said to me: “Do you have any idea of how filthy I feel? I’m filled with so much hatred of my father, hatred of myself.”
I prayed with her for several minutes for healing. Then I asked her, “Sister, would you be willing, for the next month, to go to a quiet place every morning, sit down in a chair, close your eyes and pray this prayer over and over: ‘Abba, I belong to you’? At the outset, you say it with your lips; but then your mind becomes conscious of the meaning and then, most importantly, in a figurative sense, you push your head down into your heart so that now, “Abba, I belong to you,” becomes what the French call a crie de couer, a heartfelt cry to the depth of your being, establishing at the beginning of each day who you are, why you’re here, where you’re going. It’s a prayer you can pray walking across the street, driving your car, watching television, eating a meal, sitting in church. When you do this, literally dozens and dozens of times a day, you can, as Jesus says in Luke 18, “Pray all day long and never lose heart.”
Well, I asked the nun if she would try, and she said, “Yes.” And two weeks later, I received the most moving and poetic letter I’ve ever gotten in ministry. This old woman described the inner healing of her heart, the complete forgiveness of her father and inner peace she had never known before. And she ended her letter this way: “A year ago, I would have signed this letter with my real name in religious life, Sister Mary Genevieve. But from now on, I’m just Daddy’s little girl.”
Michael: Her image of God as her father had been healed. We all come into this, trying to relate to God bound up with the relationships we had with our earthly fathers. That’s got to involve healing. Obviously, this woman is an extreme example, but my father was a doctor — a wonderful Christian man, a gentle man but very busy and very performance-oriented. Like so many others, when I tried to relate to God, I thought, “Well, God is a person who’s probably too busy for me. God is a person who probably would only accept a straight-A report card from me.” I think that’s why, when I read "Lion and Lamb," that business of healing the image of my father completely changed my life. That’s the process that happened to this nun. And that’s a process that most powerfully happened to you.
Brennan: Yes, I can really relate to what you’re saying, Michael. My own father, God bless him — with an eighth-grade education because he had to go out and support his own family because his father was alcoholic — was only available to speak an abusive word or tell me to go to my room and drop my pants and beat me over the back and buttocks with his leather belt. My image of God the Father, my image of any father, was one who was abusive, demanding, correcting, scolding, criticizing and a constant monologue to me of impatience and chastisement with my behavior.
There was a fascinating study done in 1976 that said those who have had a negative experience with their human father and those who’ve had a very positive experience can have the same, intimate Abba experience because let’s not underestimate the power and wisdom of Jesus Christ crucified, who leads us into the Abba experience.
Michael: Didn’t you just have a birthday?
Brennan: I just had my 70th birthday, and one of the things you notice about your 70th birthday that you don’t notice at your 50th or 60th or 65th is how difficult it is getting out of a car [laughs]! There are certain parts of your body you’re aware of that you used to take for granted.
What I did [for my birthday] was go to a restaurant in the French Quarter [in New Orleans] owned by two friends. I invited 10 friends from around the country who’ve stood with me in the bad weather of life. It wasn’t so much to celebrate my birthday as to celebrate their friendship. So I hosted the dinner, and I gave them all a couple of nice presents; and I wanted to thank them all for being so good to me. But before we began the dinner, I wanted to have a little prayer service. Since we were having a dinner party, I went to this passage in chapter 14 of John. After the reading, I gave a little homily. The homily was actually a poem from one of my heroes in my life [Daniel Berrigan], who is one of our great American poets and also a peace activist.
The question has come: How does one sustain one’s life in Christ after one has had the saved experience? One, a disciplined life of prayer is absolutely indispensable. By that, I mean showing up and shutting up 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening, with a notable exception for young parents, who certainly are so preoccupied by their children (but who can do spontaneous prayers during the day).
The second way to grow in faith is in the inspired words of Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov. An elderly woman comes to him, this renowned spiritual guru; and she says, “I’m losing my faith.” He says, “Why do you say that?” She says, “I’ve lost any sense of the presence of God.” He says, “Go out and love three people every day.” Because of the inextricable connection between faith, hope and love, every act of love increases our faith. There is so much going on in the Christian world about growing in faith, and it means memorizing Scripture; it means going to concerts; it means going to lectures; it means hearing all these gifted speakers. I wonder when I see 50,000 people at a Christian rock concert, if anyone had gone that day to visit a shut-in to get their own spiritual inspiration.
When Jesus was asked by the lawyer, “You’ve been teaching for three years. You’ve told all kinds of parables; you’ve given all kinds of sermons. Your sermon on the mount was unforgettable. Could you just condense, boil down into a simple sentence the essence of your message?” Jesus says, “Yes, it’s all about loving God. That means by giving Him time every day and loving your neighbor.” That’s the real Jesus of the Gospels. That’s the Christ we’re called to follow. Let’s set aside a lot of this “hoorah” and pay attention. Christianity is all about loving, and you can take it or leave it. It’s not about worship or morality. Those are expressions of the love that causes them both. So let’s get back to the heart of Jesus, who said, “Love God with all your heart.” It can be the elderly. It can be your own family. It can be your children. It can be a colleague down the street. There is no substitute for growing in faith by spending time with God and loving your brothers and sisters.
Michael: I’ve been going through the literature and trying to understand what this defining characteristic of God is in the Old Testament. The more I boil it down, it’s enemy love. Jesus defines loving, ultimately, in terms of the ability to love your enemy. Most people call it covenantal love. God loved us when we were still enemies. When you talk about going to find people to love — and this is where God is taking me right now eventually, that means we’ve got to love our enemies, identify who they are, admit we have enemies in the first place because most of us (myself included) are in denial that we have enemies. The fulfillment of the commandment to love, if you push it to extreme in Jesus’ teaching, is this idea of loving our enemies. But He did that for us. We’re the ones who nailed him to the cross.
Brennan: I’m just wondering if those who saw "The Passion of The Christ" really identified themselves as the enemy — that it was our sins who put Christ on the cross. In my own room I have a very jagged crucifix made by a man in Kingston, Jamaica. When I look at that crucifix [I know that] I am the forgiven enemy of God, that Jesus knows my whole life story, every skeleton in my closet, every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty. Right now, He knows my shallow faith, my feeble prayer life, my inconsistent discipleship. He loves me and accepts me just as I am. When I’m in touch with my own heart as a forgiven enemy of God, that has to become the source, the basis for reaching out and accepting the brokenness, the weaknesses of others.
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