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Mail Pouch tobacco barns once covered the landscape in Kentucky and West Virginia.  There were many in other states as well.  An interesting history is online at http://mailpouchbarnstormers.org.

Lanesville, IN

Photo Used by permission of Boaz Robinzon Photography

As I write this journal page it is mid-February.  Outdoors, a 2 foot blanket of snow.  Under the blanket slumbers newly planted bulbs of narcissus, crocus, and daffodils.  Like Rip Van Winkle, even now they are beginning to stretch arms upward for the first sign of a spring thaw....Majesty memory takes me back these days to Arbreux where the seasons were more intense with rhythm.  Brooks Atkinson in an essay titled Smoke from a Country Cabin articulated my sentiments:  “The seasons!  If we could understand them, not scientifically but spiritually, if we knew why they come so silently and why they are so forceful, might we not analyze the essence of immortal life?  Although we hastily regard them as a thing apart from ourselves, we are really united to them closely.  Not merely because they bring the harvest upon which we depend, or because they fertilize the soil with falling leaves and store the mountains with the water we need in spring and summer; but because as natural beings we are drawn into their movement, emotionally and physically.  Winter, spring, summer and autumn regulate our lives; willy-nilly, they govern our daily and yearly progress....And when I was happiest, I was feeling the touch of the season most keenly.

Chalet Arbreux

How do I know, looking at Jesus, that life has a meaning, and God a purpose?  I know it from His character.  Into this tumbled, chaotic world there has appeared at one point of time that quality of life –absolute chivalry, consistency unwavering, love triumphant over every evil, compassion as wide as the sea, purity as steady as a rock.  And when I gaze at that, immediately there is a voice in my own heart that begins to cry—“The meaning of life is there!  God’s purpose for me, and for all humanity, is there.  Soul of mine, follow the gleam!”

     How do I know, looking at Jesus, that life has a meaning, and God a purpose?  I know it from His cross.  When a flag is flying in the wind, you cannot always make out its design and pattern; but then perhaps there comes a sudden stormy gust and blows the flag out taut, and for a moment the pattern stands out clear.  Was it not something like that which happened nineteen hundred [2000] years ago?  The flag of life and of man’s long campaign had been flying for ages, and none could read its meaning; but suddenly came a storm-blast, the fiercest gust of all, and straightened out the flag: and men looked, and lo its pattern was a cross.  Does it not help you, in your own sufferings, to know that that cross is the ground plan of the universe, that life is built like that; that the  trials and troubles and sacrifices which often seem so meaningless, the very negation of all purpose, are really the means by which the most glorious purpose  imaginable is being wrought out; and that therefore every pain you have to bear can be a holy sacrament in which the God who suffered on Calvary comes to meet you, and your contribution to the building of the kingdom of heaven and the redeeming of the world?  Christ died to tell us that.

     How do I know, looking at Jesus, that life has meaning and God a purpose?  I know it from His resurrection....What was the resurrection of Jesus?  What were the appearances to the disciples?  They were the lightning flash of God, the bursting of the unseen world into the seen, the breakthrough of God’s new creation, the spiritual world order, into the order that now is....And you who have been where Paul and these disciples were, you who on some high road of the spirit have met the risen Christ again and felt the thrill and glory of His power, you to whom He is now the companion of the way in a blessed intimacy of friendship whose wonders never cease – you need no further proof.  Life does have meaning and a purpose and a goal.  And we poor struggling creatures are not the doomed playthings of chance and accident and futility....We are moving onwards to a day when this suffering tormented creation shall see at last of the travail of its soul, and this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality, and God shall be all in all.               James S. Stewart, The Gates of New Life

Geese in Flight

The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning....Reviewed by A. C. Gray

Fifteen years after this book was first published [1990], Brennan Manning added an Afterword which he titled The Scandal of Grace.  He wrote that he had “been denounced publicly and privately as a heretic, schismatic, universalist, and cockeyed optimist.  A Roman Catholic scholar had critically informed him that he had “out-Luthered Luther” in his thesis that Grace is the great message of the gospel.  “The legalists, puritans, prophets of doom, and moral crusaders are having a hissy fit over the Pauline teaching of justification by grace through faith’, he wrote.  Reading this book with a mindset of finding truth and food for my soul, I became aware that I could cast my lot with all those for whom Jesus came:  “I came to call not the upright, but sinners”, He told the Pharisees.  I concluded that I was myself a ragamuffin and latched on to Brennan’s thesis with thanksgiving for his candor.


Brennan:  “The Good News means we can stop lying to ourselves.  The sweet sound of amazing grace saves us from the necessity of self-deception.  It keeps us from denying that though Christ was victorious, the battle with lust, greed, and pride still rages within us.  As a sinner who has been redeemed, I can acknowledge that I am often unloving, irritable, angry, and resentful with those closest to me.  When I go to church I can leave my white hat at home and admit I have failed.  God not only loves me as I am, but also knows me as I am.  Because of this I don’t need to apply spiritual cosmetics to make myself presentable to Him.  I can accept ownership of my poverty and powerlessness and neediness.”


Manning’s Chapter 3 of the book highlights the title The Ragamuffin Gospel, by stating that “Jesus spent a disproportionate amount of time with people described in the Gospels as the poor, the blind, the lame, the lepers, the hungry, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, the persecuted, the downtrodden, the captives, those possessed by unclean spirits, all who labor and are heavy burdened, the rabble who know nothing of the law, the crowds, the little ones, the least, the last, and the lost sheep of the house of Israel. In short, Jesus hung out with ragamuffins.”


When I think of the term “ragamuffins”, my mindset goes to Dickens’ 18th century children characters described in his novels about the sometimes homeless grungy disheveled and bedraggled kids of London who were conscripted to work in factories.  In fact, it might have been Dickens who first used the term.  Brennan, devoting much space to Jesus’ compassion for little people, remarks “Heaven will be filled with five year olds.”  I ponder that statement and pray that I, having at the end of life the same mindset of innocence and humility, be among them.


In a chapter entitled Tilted Halos, Manning expounds on his understanding of grace:  The tilted halo of the saved sinner is worn loosely and with easy grace....The blood of the Lamb points to the truth of grace: what we cannot do for ourselves, God has done for us. The saved sinner is prostrate in adoration, lost in wonder and praise.  He knows repentance is not what we do in order to earn forgiveness; it is what we do because we have been forgiven.  It serves as an expression of gratitude rather than an effort to earn forgiveness.  Thus the sequence of forgiveness and then repentance, rather than repentance and then forgiveness, is crucial for our understanding the gospel of grace.


In another chapter entitled Cormorants and Kittiwakes, Manning correlates our loss of wonder with the grace of God evident in His creation.  “We no longer catch our breath at the sight of a rainbow or the scent of a rose....We get blasť and worldly-wise and sophisticated.  We no longer run our fingers through water, no longer shout at the stars or make faces at the moon....Our world is saturated with grace, and the lurking presence of God is revealed not only in spirit but in matter – in a deer leaping across a meadow, in the flight of an eagle, in fire and water in a rainbow after a summer storm, in a gentle doe streaking through a forest, in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in a child licking a chocolate ice cream cone, in a woman with windblown hair.  God intended for us to discover His loving presence in the world around us.”


Urgency of our need to fully grasp the grace offered us in the life story of Jesus is the theme of another chapter Brennan explores with the title Grazie Signore taken from a prayer by Antonio Salieri—“Thank you, Lord”. “Jesus has journeyed to the far reaches of loneliness.  In His broken body He has carried your sins and mine, every separation and loss, every heart broken, every wound of the spirit that refuses to close, all the riven experiences of men, women and children across the bands of time.  Jesus is God.  You and I were fashioned from the clay of earth and the kiss of His mouth.  What shall we say to such an outpouring of love?  How shall we respond?....To respond is to acknowledge that the other has taken the initiative and issued the invitation...the other is not some itinerant salesperson at the door peddling bric-a-brac.  It is Christ offering the opportunity of a lifetime: “I have come into the world as light, to prevent anyone who believes in me from staying in the dark anymore.” [John 12:46]

Jesus says, “A tidal wave is approaching and you are lollygagging on the patio having a party. Or as Joachim Jeremias puts it, “You are feasting and dancing –on the volcano which may erupt at any moment.”  The impending crisis precludes procrastination: “Stay awake, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming...”  “Rome is burning, Jesus says, Drop your fiddle, change your life, and come to Me....Don’t cling to cheap, painted fragments of glass when the pearl of great price is being offered.”


Manning quotes John R. Claypool as a definition of grace in the face of failures:  “Grace tells us that we are accepted just as we are.  We may not be the kind of people we want to be, we may be a long way from our goals, we may have more failures than achievements, we may not be wealthy or powerful or spiritual, we may not even be happy, but we are nonetheless accepted by God, held in His hands.  Such is His promise to us in Jesus Christ, a promise we can trust.”


Perhaps the heart of this book is best expressed when Manning quotes Salieri’s prayer-song:  Grazie, Signore, for Your lips twisted in love to accommodate my sinful self; for judging me not by my shabby good deeds but by Your love that is Your gift to me; for your unbearable forgiveness and infinite patience with me; for other people who have greater gifts than mine; and for the honesty to acknowledge that I am a ragamuffin.  When the final curtain falls and You summon me home, may my last whispered word on earth be the wholehearted cry, “Grazie, Signore.”