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The Wisdom of Tenderness
by Brennan Manning
Harper San Francisco; ISBN: 0060000708
Brennan Manning is one of those authors whose books should be required reading by every Christian. Now that I've laid my biases right there on the table for all to see, let me explain. As Christians we live in a very insular sub-culture that has a really long list of unwritten rules. Christians always smile. Christians are happy. Christians don't complain (except to other Christians about "that chorus" or "that new carpet in the sanctuary"). In sum, Christians don't have problems.
Now we all know that this isn't the case, but within the church we live our lives as if it were true. Our words say one thing, while our actions say another. If someone isn't happy, then they must not be "right with God" or they aren't letting God into all areas of their lives. And even if you DO have a legitimate problem, all you have to do is run off to the local Christian bookstore and scan the aisles to find the latest trendy 12-step manual or "how-to" book from one of any number of superstar Christian authors. The biggest problem you'll have after that is deciding which of these books to purchase. But once you get it home you'll find a cut and dried formula, complete with quaintly and succinctly titled chapters, that guarantee you a happy and productive Christian life.
Get the picture?
The beauty of Brennan Manning is that he is capable of breaking down all the barriers. He is not afraid to admit that the Christian lifestyle isn't merely a perpetual series of "ups". He's had more than his share of "downs" and uses these as a stepping off point for all of his books. None of his books have been written as sure-fire "how to" books with the answers. Manning has experienced first hand all that he talks about and merely relates to the reader what he has learned. From his classic Ragamuffin Gospel to his latest book, The Wisdom of Tenderness, Manning consistently paints a picture of what it looks like to truly live the Christian life with all its peaks and valleys.
In The Wisdom of Tenderness, Manning questions why there is so much "unfreedom" in Christian circles these days, and answers his own question by saying that many Christians are afraid to be free, choosing instead to be slaves to others. It's much easier to take your cues from others and not have to think about everything. Let someone else do your thinking for you. As a result, there is a lot of bad thinking and bad theology saturating much of Christendom. To counter this, Manning states in his introduction that:
Wisdom teaches that the goal of our lives is to live with God forever...When I accept in the depth of my being that the ultimate accomplishment of my life is me...then living in the wisdom of accepted tenderness is not a technique, not a craft, not the Carnegian ploy of how to win friends and influence people, but a way of life, a distinctive and engaged presence to God, other ragamuffins, and myself.
Therein lies the thesis of this book: living in the wisdom of accepted tenderness. For Manning, this means first of all, that God our Father (Abba) not only loves us (for God wouldn't be God if He didn't love us), but that he also likes us. Even though we can be difficult children, God likes and accepts us, and truly enjoys being with us. Once we get to that point, we can work on liking ourselves. In this day and age there are many people, Christians included, who are saddled with a poor self-image. In many cases this comes from dysfunctional family situations, or not being accepted by others because we differ from the culturally accepted norms, and even, unfortunately, from within the church, because we fail to fit the mold of how a "good Christian" is supposed to look and act. But if God, our creator and Father can love AND like us, then we can begin to like ourselves. God is tender with us and we should be tender with ourselves. Rather than beat ourselves up over our shortcomings, we need to accept God's "fierce mercy."
Manning then moves to the logical next step in the progression, which is, in effect, to "go now and do likewise." Recognizing that God likes us, and then liking ourselves is not enough. We need to reach out to others and show them tenderness. For Manning this is somewhat a restatement of the message of the Ragamuffin Gospel, but a message we need to hear repeated often. As Christians we need to show others the tenderness that God has shown us.
One way that this works itself out in real life is our tendency of 21st century American Christians to demonize those who aren't like us. We seem to constantly need to find enemies, or someone that we can brand as "evil." As I write this, the laundry list of "evil entities" includes Iraq, Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and Islam, as well as the standard list of "enemies" to the Church including pro-abortion advocates, homosexuals, etc. If we disagree with someone or feel threatened by them, we view them as the embodiment of Satan. It allows us to objectify and put a face on evil. Manning illustrates the problem with this thinking when he correctly points out:
When one person, nation, or institution is declared to be Satan, logic rules: eliminate this source of all evil, and everything will be all right; when Satan is localized in a finite reality, the end of evildoing is just around the corner...one lesson we've learned from the history of civilized humanity is that when we kill our particular "Satan," evil doesn't disappear from the face of the earth. In fact it may reappear in the place where we least suspect: ourselves.
But as always, Manning is very careful not to slip into some easy touchy-feely "I'm OK, You're OK" school of thought. He carefully points out that he's not promoting an attitude where sin is glossed over. Sin is real and has real consequences, but he works through the Biblical mandate to "hate the sin but love the sinner."
The Christian Booksellers Association would do us all a big favor if they would clear the shelves of all the wishy-washy, smug, "I have all the answers" self-help books that seem that are a staple of the church these days, and replace them with thoughtful and instructive books like _The Wisdom of Tenderness_. Brennan Manning is human. He is real. And he is willing to share his humanity, and all the baggage that goes along with it, with us, the readers, and by so doing he quietly instructs in how to live a lifestyle that is quite possibly more Christian than what the church expects of us.
As a side note, singer Crystal Lewis has released a song called "The Wisdom of Tenderness" on her current album Holy, Holy, Holy, in conjunction with the release of Manning's book.
Ken Mueller 10/27/2002