From the time I wrote my first term paper on Dolly Madison in middle school, I’ve enjoyed reading and writing about people in the public eye. As a kid, the lives of famous people seemed glamorous and exciting, with wonderful perks and lots of toadies to do their bidding. What’s not to like?
Now, as an adult I read biographies and memoirs for different reasons. I assume the famous person’s experience and influence may have given them more insight into how to live well or how to handle setbacks. Sometimes I’m just curious. Ironically, once you get past all the window dressing that goes with a public life, they look strangely like the rest of us. They struggle with doubt, insecurity, failure, feeling misunderstood, relationship issues, physical and emotional heartaches. Life, it turns out, is a great leveler.
Recently, I read a spate of personal memoirs by well-known Christians. Billy Graham, accustomed to speaking to millions of people around the world, talks in his book Nearing Home, Life, Faith and Finishing Well about his struggle to make peace with his now-marginalized life dealing with Parkinson’s disease and other ravages of aging.
Eugene Petersen, in his memoir The Pastor, writes about his frustration when, as a young pastor, he had to deal with denominational leaders who required him to produce voluminous monthly reports he was sure nobody read. He confirmed his suspicions with some subversive mischief. He included horrific fictitious things allegedly going on in his life in the reports–things that should have evoked an immediate crisis response! None ever came.
Mother Teresa, before her death, wrote not only about her battle with depression but ethical dilemmas like whether she should accept large donations from organizations like casinos, if it meant being able to save the lives of thousands more people who were dying on the streets of Calcutta. Her conclusion? She took the money as long as there were no strings attached that would compromise her work. She left the judging of the organization up to God.
The memoir that most wrecked me, though, was Brennan Manning’s new memoir All is Grace. I’ve always admired Manning’s shameless honesty about his failures–like his lifelong battle with alcoholism and how he left the priesthood to marry and then botched his marriage. No glossing over the hard parts for him.
However, in this final book Manning takes honesty to a whole new level. In fact, I found myself wishing he had saved himself a little face. After all, the man has impacted hundreds of thousands of people and is now a mere shell of his former self, battling “wet brain” syndrome and near blindness. I kept thinking, “Brennan, you don’t need to tell us all this. Spare yourself the humiliation! You’ve done so much good with your writing and speaking. Don’t do this!”
But again he insists on waving the banner of God’s outrageous grace, at his own expense—not as an excuse for his failings, but because his spiritual poverty drives him to God. And what he finds in God’s embrace is worth whatever humiliation his sins have cost him.
Manning knows there was nothing cheap about God’s grace. It was obscenely expensive. It took the death of God’s only Son to cover our tab. But he’s positively giddy about the fact that because the sacrifice was so enormous, the amount of grace available to us in God’s bank account is equally enormous–big enough to cover our most destructive behaviors, all our falling downs and getting ups. Our part is simply to offer a repentant heart and make a humble request, “More grace, please.”
It makes me uncomfortable—this wild God with stockpiles of grace, enough for us all, followed around by a broken old man with a checkered history who tells anyone who will listen, “He’s crazy about me, you know.” It’s not normal.
On the other hand, normal is overrated. I hope whatever he has is contagious.