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.

Losing My Daughter

kyra-losing my daughter

And so it begins again — the feeling that I am losing my daughter. That somehow, despite the glass being half full, and something about girls always loving and needing their daddies, and something about how I will always be the first man who mattered in her life, I am, once again, losing my daughter.

I have already lost one, and I was right. Though I love her as much as I always have, and I’m sure she feels the same, things have never been the same. Though she still sleeps here sometimes, it feels like she visits — even when it’s for months on end.

And so it was that I was sitting here last night watching television while my current senior in high school was sitting and doing her homework, I looked over at the table where she was sitting and that thing happened, where all the breath feels like it is suddenly sucked out of my lungs, and my eyes well up, and I instinctively look the opposite direction, which after 25 years of marriage and raising girls together, is a dead giveaway to my wife that I’m doing it again — looking at one of my girls, and loving her, and marveling over her, and mourning deeply that I am losing my daughter.

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God’s Love, prt. 4

No wonder we suffer from the spiritual schizophrenia we do in the church. No wonder the history of the church is full of outright atrocities, committed in the name of Jesus, prince of peace and Lord of Love. These spring directly from human beings who ultimately don’t know whether they are loved or hated, and from the difficulty of living in love. When we come to know the depth of God’s love for us, and that we are secure in that love not just for this life but for all eternity (a la Paul in Romans 8, and all through Philippians), we then have something to stand on other than threat of punishment. We then can find ourselves loving others for the right reasons — not out of fear for them, or for ourselves, but because we have finally found what we have always searched for — love that is truly unconditional, that never changes, in which there is truly no shadow of turning.

Good parents know there is nothing more important to our children’s development than their knowing beyond all question, suspicion, and doubt, that their parents always will what is best for them, that mom and dad will never under any possible circumstance, inflict suffering upon them that is unredemptive. People can say all they want about God’s sovereignty and mystery, and the importance of trusting in God, but whether you are in relationship with God or with a human being, you do not cease being human. Humans, in order to function healthily, need to know they can trust those who say they love them, and this includes every single personal being in relationship to them, whether other human beings, Martians, God, or hobbits. If God is going to harm you beyond any hope of redemption, you cannot trust him, and you cannot help that. God made you to shy away from people and situations you cannot trust. As long as you believe God is willing to punish you beyond all hope of redemption, you will ultimately struggle to trust him, and that is not lack of faith on your part.

The gospel I preach at Wildwind Church starts not in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but in Psalm 139. That plants our minds and hearts in fertile soil in which we can begin to imagine that we are truly loved, beyond any and all ability for us to screw up. Then we read the rest of the Biblical text and God’s love is apparent to us. In places in scripture where God is loveless, we realize the writers, too, are struggling to imagine this love (some of the verses toward the end of Psalm 139 are a perfect example of this). We have to make a choice here and that’s why I wrote http://davidkflowers.com/2012/07/right-and-wrong/. We’re scared to death to make that choice. Yet we must.

In this series of posts on God’s love, I have not dealt with any of the implications of what I believe about the love of God. What does this mean about salvation? Where is the need for Jesus? What is the purpose/point of evangelism? Am I a universalist? I will take on those questions in a future series, but I am going to give theology a rest for a while. It has been a long series, and fairly heavy, at least for people who are not accustomed to digging into theology.

Question: What does God’s love mean to you? How far will God’s love ultimately reach?

God’s Love, prt. 3

 

God's Love w/ Pencils

Image courtesy of Stephen Cuyos, licensed under Creative Commons

Remember, Jesus himself invited the comparison of God’s love to the love of human parents for our children. If you extend your love to your children constantly, every second, for a specified number of years, are you then justified in killing or torturing them for having not responded? Could you even desire to? If you were capable of doing that , wouldn’t that mean — by obvious definition — that you never really loved them to begin with? Wasn’t Jesus example on the cross saying that love transcends death — that it pays the ultimate price, that it goes to hell and back again, that there is nothing that can come between us and God? Wasn’t Paul saying that in Romans 8? If so, doesn’t that sound to you very much like the love we human parents know for our own children, even though our love is so imperfect?

It’s hard enough that our humanity prevents us from loving fully. It does not help  matters that we don’t allow ourselves theologically to integrate what we already know about love as parents with what we believe about God’s love for us. If God’s love for me ultimately will allow him to do something horrible to me, then as far as I’m concerned God doesn’t love me at all. As a parent, I will love my girls forever and ever, no matter what they do, whether they ever respond or not. No matter how badly they would ever treat me, my dying breath would be a wish for their well-being. Don’t you love your kids that way? If you do, it is heroic or kindly of you? Of course not. Good parents just can’t help loving our kids that way. There’s nothing we can do about it. They are ours, and we are forever in their corner no matter what. Every decent parent on earth knows that. Are we supposed to deny this natural knowledge of love in order to lower the standard for God? Jesus seemed to be saying God’s love is superior to, greater than, ours. I believe it.

Let’s face it. As parents the only reason many of us can tolerate those terrible doctor trips to get vaccinations is because we keep reminding ourselves it’s for a greater good. We innately understand this to be the only possible justification for allowing or inflicting suffering, except where God’s love is concerned, in which case we seem okay holding God to that lower standard I referred to. In our teaching, the God who was enfleshed, lived, and died specifically to redeem us somehow transforms into a God whose redemption was limited to the briefest span of our lives — that being our lives on this planet in these bodies. (Sidebar: One of the best contributions of the idea of purgatory is that human suffering in the next life at least has redemptive purposes. In fact if one believes God consigns humans to hell, it is perhaps only the idea of purgatory that makes it rational in any sense.) If I have to believe God will dish out wanton and unredemptive suffering to me or anyone I love, then God would be my enemy. That is a realistic thing to consider. Perhaps God is an enemy of his creation. Perhaps there is no God at all. I do not believe either of these two ideas and, along with rejecting them, I also reject the notion that God’s love does or ever will inflict or allow the infliction of non-redemptive suffering. If I am wrong, then in the final analysis, God either does not desire my well-being, or does not ultimately have the power to secure it. If either is the case, I cannot trust him.

However, if I believe God is love, and all that must be true in order for that to be the case, I am quite secure. So are you. You wanna know the really awesome thing? If I’m right, you are secure whether this is the God you believe in or not.

 

 

God’s Love, prt. 2

love is eternal

Public Domain on Pixabay.com

[Start at the beginning of this series]

Jesus invited us to understand God’s love by thinking of our love for our own children. He did this mainly in two places. One is the parable of the prodigal son. The other is when he said, “If you, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.” (Luke 11:9-13). In this passage, Jesus is saying that God’s love as a heavenly Father far exceeds our love as the parents of our children. This means God must love in a far different way than how the church often teaches it. The church tends to teach God’s love as a contingency.

God loves you if…
God loves you, but because of his justice he will still…
God loves you infinitely, but that doesn’t mean he won’t…
God loves you, but you better…

Vast parts of the church simply will not face the fact of contingency. It amounts to teaching love without actually teaching love at all. If we assume that Jesus modeled love on the cross, and if we assume that Paul wrote accurately about love in 1st Cor. 13, then God cannot love in any of the ways above and still have it be the love Jesus modeled and the love Paul wrote about. It is because the church teaches love as a contingency that so many basically good and loving Christians could have prioritized politics over love in last week’s Chick-Fil-A event, saying, “This isn’t about love, it’s about politics.” Only when we have learned about a world where some things are about love and others aren’t (e.g., God’s behavior toward us and love for us before our deaths versus after our deaths) could we even think this distinction makes sense.  

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