The Universe Arcs Towards Grace

Through my recent posts on this blog, others who are suffering, some more deeply than I, have connected and sent me questions, looking for encouragement in their own struggles. The post below is a response I gave today to a woman with stage four cancer who wrote to ask, “how do you NOT give up?”  I hope you, like her, can find something here to encourage you on your unique journey through suffering.

I am humbled that you would ask me your questions. I’ll take a crack at an answer but of course I can’t promise anything. I have observed that the universe arcs towards grace. There is a kind of redemption built into everything, it seems. This doesn’t mean that all wounds and diseases are healed individually, but rather that you are living in a universe that washes, starts again, heals and renews. This is plainly observable by watching seasons come and go,  and many other cycles of nature.

With that in mind, ask yourself this question. In general, have you grown in wisdom, insight, grace, and love as you have gotten older? Most people do. This opening up to love and presence and grace is also, I believe, just built in to who we are as people. So the universe is a redemptive place, and you are created to grow more and more at home in it as you increasingly find that you yourself are becoming more loving, gracious, etc.

Often we think we grow because of huge efforts we are making, but I don’t think that’s true at all. In fact, when we get really honest we see how often good things end up happening accidentally after we have made really crappy choices! Though we certainly suffer consequences of our actions regularly, we also find ourselves carried along on this arc of grace, so that we often learn and grow in love even as a result of very foolish things we do.

This is where my hope springs from — the realization that I have been placed in a universe that arcs toward love and redemption, and I see that very same arc in myself. Just as I have grown towards greater love and joy almost in spite of myself, I trust that will continue to happen because that’s the kind of world God made. My hope springs not from the certainty that I will get better, or that the end of my suffering is necessarily near, but from my sense that the place where God put me to live is a deeply good place, despite many very bad things that happen in it. It seems often even most of those things end up becoming opportunities for redemption, where people get second and third chances to start again. Indeed I have many times been the grateful recipient of one of these chances to start again.

If I really believe that the universe is a benevolent place to be, I then easily believe it is because of the benevolence of the one who created it (however he/she/it did so). I believe this being – God – loves us intently, at the core of his person, and that you are already so deeply one with him that there are already ways in which you and God are indistinguishable, just like you share indistinguishable features with your own children. This is to say, your life ALREADY bears evidence of who, and whose, you really are.

I have found that the more I suffer in life, the more it peels away pretense. I become more real, more vulnerable, and I better project to others this immense love I came from and where I will one day head back to! People see it and are drawn to it because it is the source of their lives also.

This is love God showed in Jesus – love that suffers but doesn’t make victims out of others, that is able to rejoice and hold up under suffering not because every individual wound is healed, but because one knows that no matter what happens in this life, we are actually perfectly safe. As my hero, Dallas Willard, writes: you are a divinely created spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe!” You are immortal! I have told my girls all their lives, “you are never going to die. One day you will close your eyes, and you will awake the very next moment in the Kingdom of your Father. On that day, your story BEGINS.”

I hope this doesn’t just seem like gobbledygook. God, to me, must either be believed in this deeply,  or not at all.
I encourage you to spend some time reading my blog posts over the last few weeks. I write about when giving up is okay and not okay, about holding on through the really tough stuff, about dips into depression, and why ultimately despair just never makes any sense.

I encourage you to read Psalm 139 as well. This is where you came from. You were created in that love and intention, and not the slightest bit of your suffering is wasted. It is all being worked into this grand scheme of redemption, the broken pieces of our lives and of the world that God is making whole (one) again. Every person faces trials and tests in life, and those moments of our greatest tests become the moments of our greatest triumphs as, in the end, whenever it comes, we stand fast, bravely, even with joy, believing so deeply that the greatest things lie not behind but ahead of us.

So do not judge yourself as you suffer. Love yourself, for you are so deeply loved. Grant yourself the compassion you would grant your best girlfriend if she were in your shoes. As you struggle through your days, continue to see small graces. You’ll see they never disappear. Allow yourself to be afraid, to grieve, to be angry. But also get quiet sometimes and allow deep peace to come. You don’t need to fix or control this. So far, every single day you have been able to do what was needed for that day. There is no reason to suspect any day will come, ever, when you cannot do that, no matter what the day’s agenda brings.

With those thoughts, I am spent. I hope somewhere in there is something useful for you. Of course I am not in your position and can’t pretend to understand all you are going through. My goal has simply been to give you my reason for hope, and the reason I do not plan to give up.

Oh, last thing. Let people love you.

Always.

Home

Came home last evening. Extremely intense experience. Finally got to my place on the couch and was just overwhelmed with emotion. It took me a few minutes to finally say to Christy, “Here I am, back here, after all these days and all this work, and I feel exactly the same as when I left.” That is sobering to say the least. Then had an okay evening and jumped out of bed this morning at 6, (yes, jumped — in a frail, limpy, gimpy, not-really-jumping-but-kind-of-clawing way) made my own breakfast, got myself ready for the day, then went back to sleep for two hours. It’s truly second by second right now, with a lot of very low lows punctuated by small victories that I have to allow myself to celebrate even when they seem stupid.

Often I feel like an invalid – someone who is not valid. I keep having habitual flashes of my life two weeks ago and how far I have fallen. I can do nothing to stem this tide, but I must choose constantly not to dwell there. Wherever we are on the journey is okay at any given time, part of our experience of blessedness and suffering, but we don’t want to get too bogged down, lest we miss whatever is ahead for us along the way. Ever forward, whether into more difficulty, trial, ecstasy, etc. All is grace.

You’re Still Here

Words to a song I wrote when home sick with MS for a few weeks in the late 90’s. A much more “Christian”  song than the next one I wrote about the disease a few years later. Still, some good thoughts perhaps.

YOU’RE STILL HERE
Seems those worship songs of yesterday
Rarely moved my heart or eyes your way
Too busy with things and making plans
Never made the time to care

Now days roll by where it’s all I got
Just to make my coffee and pour a cup
Before I stumble to bed, turn out the light
Pray for strength for what comes next

(chorus)
But times like these when I can’t do much,  that’s when you come around and fill my cup
It’s then I find these simple songs mean somethin’ after all
Cuz you’re still here
My all in all in all in all in all

In those foolish days of health it seems
That I locked you out of all my dreams
My highest regards, deepest respect
Never felt to me like love

So I thank you now that my worst fears have left my mind and joined me here
Where they’re starting to look a little bit like blessings from your hand

(chorus)

(bridge)
And I’ve seen you now like never before and you’re lovely
I’ve seen you now and I want some more, so just show me
Take my arms, and feet, and legs – and lips, and heart, and bones, and everything else

They’re yours anyway

Though you slay me, yet will I trust you
Though you slay me, yet will I trust you
Though you slay me, yet will I trust you
Though you slay me, yet will I trust you

Responses to a young buck

When I first entered the hospital I received an email from a young “buck” who loves God and is trying to decide the particular context in which he wants to serve God with his life. He has given me permission to print that exchange, and then I include some reflections.

Young Buck

Hey Mr Flowers,

I have a question for you that you might choose to turn into a blog post and keep your mind busy. Obviously you’re a pastor and have Christ at the center of your life. Because of this, you have helped establish a community of friends that support and love. Have you ever thought of what would have happened if you had not decided to go down that path? What if you had just stayed a counselor and possibly found some other job to make ends meet, never bringing the Wildwind community together? Would that have changed the support from friends you have now, would that affect how Christ worked in your life through a profession?
Prayers,
Buck

Me

Dear Buck:

I can’t think that way. I did what I did! I really believe whatever I had done I’d have made a big impact on others. Most of my impact comes not from sermons but from a personal impact I have built through investing in people over the long haul, and I do this with clients, students, whoever I am fortunate enough to serve. So I don’t think about that much. Sure I’d have a smaller impact in some way, but probably not much. I hope this helps. By the way, the question is interesting but falls into the category of philosophical. I loved that stuff when I was a young buck like you, but as you get older time gets more and more precious, so that gradually philosophical things matter less and less, and only the actual contributions you have made (both for good and for ill) matter at all. I hope that somehow makes sense.

Young Buck

Mr. Flowers:

I understand, and appreciate your time to answer. It’s just something that you hear about a lot these days- “you don’t have to be a preacher to have God be at the center of your life and make an impact on others”. I was just curious as to what your perspective would be on it.

Thanks. Buck.

Me

Heavens yes, I totally agree that you don’t have to be a preacher to have God at center of your life! Far from it! I often think my teaching at SAU and private counseling are far better vehicles for really communicating God than sermons, burdened as sermons are by the need for clear theology which, in the end, is always just more abstraction and philosophy.

—Lessons herein—

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The Roller Coaster

Quite the roller coaster it has been here. I am going home on Tuesday, and so far have experienced only very minor recovery. My left foot is still completely numb up to the knee. My right foot is less numb and it’s just to the ankle. The left lateral side of my left leg is severely weakened as well, as well as the left quadriceps. All of this weakness and numbness obviously makes walking exceptionally difficult.

When I entered the hospital, I could barely walk with a walker. I have learned a lot and am now able to do that fairly well. I can still almost not walk at all without my walker, except very slowly and for short distances. Both balance and endurance on the left leg are quite bad. I have come a very long way in rehab, learning to live my life, avoid falling, and how to be as productive as possible given my substantial disabilities at this time.

None of this, of course, says anything about what is to come. I may yet recover fully. Or almost fully. Or slightly. Or not at all. There is no telling. Some recovery is perhaps more likely than none. Roller coaster.

The last few days have been hard.  

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