I've heard it said that you don't really become an adult until both of your parents have died. Assuming the natural order of things, that day is coming for all of us. It's not one to which most of us look forward. It feels like the baton of life is passed to the next generation. That's right and normal, but still can feel like a loss when your generation is growing closer to becoming the senior generation. In the last month or so, I feel in a way like some parents have died. Let me explain.
In these last weeks, three men who have been spiritual shepherds to me have died: Brennan Manning, Beverly Shea, and Dallas Willard. As can often happen, it's easy to not be as aware of the significance of something in our lives, until that something, or someone, is no longer in our lives. Now it feels like three lights have gone out.
These men were very much in my life though I'd never met any of them. Their thoughts, their insights, and their voices started in my head then sank roots into my soul's soil. Now that they're gone, the world feels a slightly darker place - like the big rheostat has been slightly dimmed. Like the baton of the faith has been passed a little more clearly to the next generation. While I know about becoming an adult and running your leg of the race, it's still comforting to have in the world, older people of whom you think highly and who have influenced you toward a deeper, richer relationship with Jesus Christ.
Brennan Manning wrote a number of books that meant a lot to me. However, his perhaps best known book, The Ragamuffin Gospel wasn't the one that did the most. The ones that were most significant for me are "The Lion and the Lamb" and "Ruthless Trust." There are sentences, phrases, and paragraphs from those books that changed the way I understand God and shaped my perspective on Christianity. Said another way, as the ideas went from my head to my soul's root system, they changed my relationship with God. The chapter on Pioneer and Settler theology in "The Lion and the Lamb" thrilled me. That's the best way I know how to say it. It thrilled me. It made me feel that my Christian life could be a lively adventure rather than a soporific waltz of legalism. "Ruthless Trust" impressed upon me the deep love of God and how He might rather hear us say we trust Him than we love Him. I'd write more to explain that, but better is to recommend the book. And I will never forget the walk on the beach with the priest who said, "I'm just thinking about how fond of me is my father in heaven." Brennan wrote about the scandal of grace. He did it unashamedly which is really the only way to do it. If it doesn't feel scandalous, it's probably not grace. That's the tension of it. Grace merited isn't grace, it's legalism, it's payment for a job done. Grace stands in the solidarity of its scandalously undeserved self.
Beverly Shea sang worship songs at Billy Graham crusades for decades. He died at the age of 104. While Bev Shea's style of singing was not necessarily one that appeals to me, the style wasn't what mattered. It was the integrity and commitment of the faith with which he sang, that made those songs soar. They were towers of hope ringing out in the stadiums of the world as Billy Graham prepared to speak God's clarion invitation to life through Jesus Christ. "Great is Thy Faithfulness" and "How Great Thou Art" were not just the words he sang, they were the conviction of his heart, of his life, of all that he believed. That steadfastness of faith, that consistency through the decades, that integrity through a lifetime, that pure heart for God - all speak loudly to me. For those who are Christians, may we all aspire to it.
Dallas Willard wrote a lot of books that took biblical Christianity away from the formulaic and quasi legalistic pattern of the puritan evangelical tradition. I'm grateful for that. When Dallas Willard said things like, "Christianity is a daily and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, where I am giving my life to Him and He is giving His life to me," he broke out of the evangelical ruts in a way that was not strident like some younger writers of the last decade. His voice was not protest but invitation, not criticism but elegant relationship with God. "I'm learning to live my life as Jesus would live it if He were me." Who says that? Who's mind comes up with that? I carried Dallas' book "The Divine Conspiracy" around with me for 18 months. I'd often re-read paragraphs six or eight times to try to absorb the full depth of it. I have more notes, highlights and dog-eared pages in that book than any I own.
So these three men are gone now - gone home. They of course are happier than they've ever been. They are where their hearts most longed to be - in the presence of God, unobstructed by anything. I'm really happy for them. And perhaps we should note that they ran faithfully but not perfectly. We know too much about life to expect a person to be perfect. But faithful and with integrity - that's different than perfect - and it shows the marks of the work of Christ more fully.
Now in a sense these men are part of the great cloud of witnesses, who I imagine in my mind's eye may cheer us on - those of us who continue in faith. The apostle Paul spoke about running the race and fighting the fight. If you've done it for a while, you get what he's talking about. And Hebrews 12:1 says Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us fixing our eyes on Jesus...