Editor's note:

When I began reading Glandion Carney’s book, The Way of Grace, I was immediately drawn into his story of how profoundly God’s love, compassion and grace had impacted his life. At the time of his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, Glandion had already committed his life to God’s work. Yet, in the days and years following this life-altering diagnosis, he has experienced God’s grace on this journey at an even deeper level than before.

In The Way of Grace, Glandion uses his experience to reassure us that even when we find ourselves in the midst of fear, pain and despair, God’s grace is already at work in us, accomplishing far more than we could alone. We learn that with God’s help, we, too, can live in ‘the way of grace.’

As someone who struggles daily with pain and a chronic illness, I was inspired, encouraged and motivated by Glandion’s testimony. This is a must-read for anyone who yearns for hope and desires a fullness of God’s grace, most especially those who also live with a debilitating disease.

—Linda Christians

Excerpt from The Way of Grace

It was 2008, and I was leading a pastors conference in the city of Kigali, Rwanda. Men from many countries were being encouraged as I took them through steps of meditation, reflection, and communion with God. During my trip to Africa, I had become increasingly tired, more so than I had ever been in the past. The work was grueling and the hours were long, but I had done this before and it had never bothered me. It felt as if my thoughts were being stolen from my mind. I would begin a sentence and then, midway, I wouldn’t know where the thought was going.

My good friend, William Wilson, had gone along to minister with me. A former Trappist monk, he was now an Anglican priest like me. William noticed how sluggish and stiff my movements were becoming. At his encouragement, I decided to go to the doctor for a physical when we got home. It seemed logical that I had picked up a virus or other illness while traveling.

My physician did his usual examination, but then asked me to do simple movements like walk a few steps and bend at the waist. He inspected my arms, knees, and legs and tested my reflexes. He shined a light in my eyes and then said simply, “You have Parkinson’s disease.”

Stunned, I questioned him. “How do you know? How can you say ‘You have Parkinson’s’ when you’ve done no test or blood work to determine this diagnosis?” He looked me straight in the eyes and responded, “You are not smiling like you used to and your face looks frozen in a frown. Your movements are difficult. Your joints are in pain. All of these point to Parkinson’s. You can get a second opinion from a neurologist, but he will tell you the same thing.”

Words escaped me. I felt nothing. I was empty. Numb.

There was no brilliant logic to apply. There were no prayers to pray. There was no believing or trusting in God for the future of my life in general or my ministry. All was blank, as if erased. I walked out of his office in a fog. When I got to my car, I wept like a baby, leaning on the steering wheel for support. I called my wife and told her, “ The doctor says I have Parkinson’s.”

Marion dropped what she was doing at work and came home to sit with me in silence. That’s when the process of feeling nothing moved to darkness and hopelessness. Like Job and his friends from Scripture, we sat in the ash heap of despair.

At that point, I couldn’t see any applications of grace. No Bible verses immediately came to mind to soothe my dark and foreboding spirit. The words “you have Parkinson’s disease” played over and over in my mind like a record that was stuck on a track. I felt sabotaged. Tears of hurt, grief, and fear fell unceasingly. I couldn’t stop them if I tried.

Many saints through the centuries have referred to tears as a gift. 

The “gift of tears” written about by the desert elders and several centuries later by St. Ignatius of Loyola are not about finding meaning in our pain and suffering. They do not give answers but instead call us to a deep attentiveness to the longings of our heart. They continue to flow until we drop our masks and self-deception and return to the source of our lives and longing. They are a sign that we have crossed a threshold into a profound sense of humility.1

I couldn’t come up with any longing in my heart, except for this new diagnosis to be recalled. It was easier to deceive myself with the drug of denial than to begin the hard work of acceptance.

A Different Direction

The physician recommended I seek physical therapy. He reminded me that this disease would take its toll over time and to slow the process, I needed to change my lifestyle. Get more rest. Exercise more. Start medication. Eat well. It was all so overwhelming.

When I got up the courage, I made an appointment with the physical therapist. I walked into the rehab hospital not knowing what to expect. I was blown away. Hunch-backed patients, shaking violently, were straining to remain balanced while they walked. Most were suffering with the visible effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, or Parkinson’s. So many diseases and disabilities were represented—you name it, they had it. I saw myself in them and I was scared.

When the therapist called my name, I jerked to attention. Instead of following him into the therapy session, I ran out of the waiting room in tears. I left and did not go back for a year. I have never confessed this to anyone before now.

This was not supposed to be my journey. How could I face it?

I had no direction or sense of destination. I didn’t even have a compass. The nothingness I had felt earlier turned into a dark shadow of gray with shades of anger. I was on a journey with no end in sight, not one I wanted anyway. Severe difficulties had suddenly been thrust upon me, and they hovered over my head like darkening clouds in a storm. Questions tormented me: Will I die? Where was God in the midst of this? Where was my courage?

I went to see a neurologist who was also a member of our church. After he confirmed the diagnosis, he explained that Parkinson’s is a disorder of the brain that leads to shaking and difficulty with walking, movement, and coordination, and it continues to get worse. Seeing the immediate tears in my eyes, he came to my side, took me by the hand, and said, “Just pray, Glandion. God will show you the way.”

Even after two doctors confirmed the diagnosis, it took me 12 months to accept it. During that year, I concealed my difficulties. Even though my wife studied to learn more about the disease, I refused to do so. I hid out like a fugitive. I denied everything. I foolishly thought if I didn’t acknowledge the symptoms, they would just go away.

One Sunday morning, I was shaving in preparation for church when I heard these words in my heart: “Glandion, you don’t trust me. You say you do, but you don’t. You masquerade and cover up your weaknesses. You hide because you will not accept what I have allowed.”

It was Jesus speaking to my heart at the deepest level. It wasn’t a harsh rebuke; it was a gentle voice asking me to admit my weakness and come to the truth.

That morning I stood before my congregation as associate pastor and spoke these words: “As your priest, today I need to make a confession. I have Parkinson’s disease. I have been covering up my weakness and I need to share it openly. I’m trying to accept it as a grace. I hope you will pray for me.”

Many came up afterward to speak to me. “My weakness is drug addiction.” “My weakness is pornography.” “My weakness is controlling others.” “My weakness is alcoholism.” We wept together, held by a powerful cord of acceptance and confession.

The spiritual director side in me wanted to sit down with each of them over a cup of coffee to validate their experiences of integrity, honesty, and true confession. You see, my conviction is that we don’t walk alone on the path of faith. We explore it together, learning about grace, trials, and new beginnings. We may have different paths on the journey, but we all end at the same destination — the discovery of God’s faithfulness in whatever we face.

But how could I express this truth to them when I had not experienced it myself?

I admitted my weakness and began to accept it. Now I had to act on it. It was the first step to healing and freedom. There would be many others.

A year after I initially visited that rehab hospital, I returned for physical therapy. This time I knew what to expect, but I was ready to do the work. Now what I noticed in the other tormented bodies was not their dysfunction, but their eyes. Their eyes conveyed hope, courage, and a will to overcome. The grace of acceptance allowed me to see them in a different light. Instead of running away from these fellow sufferers, I was motivated to join them. And, I was moved to offer up deep prayer for them as a sign of accepting our common experience.

Another turning point in this journey of acceptance was the night my wife and I ate dinner at our close friends’ home, Ricky and Marjean Brooks. After dinner, they shared a video with us, saying it reminded them of Marion and me. In the video, a man was sleeping on the couch. His wife talked excitedly about a new home improvement tool as she walked up to the camera, drawing us in. She guaranteed results and encouraged all viewers to use one like she was about to demonstrate. Marion was getting interested. She needed some things done around the house and had been trying to motivate me to do them. As the woman on the video spoke, she rolled up a catalog in her hands. When she finished with her spiel, she walked over to her reclining husband, whacked his backside with the catalog, and yelled, “Get yo’ BUTT up!”

Marion and I laughed hard at that unexpected ending. In fact, that line has been a standing joke with us ever since. Afterwards I felt as if I had been prompted: “Okay, Glandion, when are you going to ‘get yo’ butt up’ and work on your life?”

Like the main character Much Afraid in the classic allegory, Hinds’ Feet on High Places, by Hannah Hurnard, I glimpsed the journey with all its peaks, valleys, and shadows. Just as Much Afraid took the hands of her companions, Sorrow and Suffering, I took the first step of acceptance. Without realizing it, I had been blocking grace by refusing to be humbled. Now I made the choice to embrace a different way to live and a fresh power to love through God’s empowering grace. I had no idea what lay ahead. But I was ready.

Beginning the Journey

In the course of Much Afraid’s journey to the High Places, she faced tremendous difficulties. After each mountain was scaled or each terror was over, she would put a stone in the pouch around her waist. They became trophies of grace, remembrances of all that the Shepherd had brought her through. In the end, they were turned into beautiful jewels, placed in a crown for her to wear.

I haven’t picked up stones along my journey. Instead, God has shown me many different graces that have spurred me on my way. I have carried them until I am used to their weight in my backpack. They once seemed heavy, but now they are weightless. They are so much a part of me that I could not live without them. God’s grace has been manifested to me in beautiful yet challenging ways. He gives these kinds of graces to all of us — if we learn to recognize, accept, and embrace them to live victoriously in this world.

Teresa Avila, a 16th century Spanish mystic philosopher and Catholic saint, described the journey through different graces in her book, The Interior Castle:

Let us imagine … that there are many rooms in this castle, of which some are above, some below, others at the side; in the centre, in the very midst of them all is the principal chamber in which God and the soul hold their most secret intercourse. Think over this comparison very carefully; God grant it may enlighten you about the different kinds of graces He is pleased to bestow upon the soul. No one can know all about them, much less a person so ignorant as I am. The knowledge that such things are possible will console you greatly should our Lord ever grant you any of these favours.

As I began to look differently at my circumstances, I wanted God to show me all the rooms in my castle. I especially wanted to see the principal chamber where he and I could hold the most secret intercourse.

Jesus, Full of Grace and Truth

On this journey into grace, I was led to see Jesus as one who both gave and modeled grace in his earthly life. It started with his acceptance to come to this world. Philippians 2:6-8 speaks of his willingness to be humbled and to empty himself of the rights of heaven in order to take his assignment on earth. Jesus went from heavenly riches to earthly rags; from exaltation to humiliation; from authority to obedience; from ultimate significance to ultimate rejection; from comfort to hardship; from safety to danger; from glory to sacrifice; and from life to death. And he calls us to go into the world in exactly the same way!

Jesus’s acceptance and obedience brought about the saving grace of God. Grace is simply God’s unmerited favor. In other words, He gives us what we don’t deserve (grace) and doesn’t give us what we do deserve ( judgment) through Jesus’s death on the cross. But it’s more intimate than that: Grace is God’s blessing overflowing into our lives. To experience God’s grace is to open gift upon gift of comfort, companionship, and empowerment. In his grace, God saves us, strengthens us, and sanctifies us. He freely offers us the gift of grace, but we must accept it.

We celebrate grace and thank God for the liberating power that comes to us through it. But it doesn’t stop there — there are other graces God longs to show us. The foreword to Max Lucado’s book, Grace, reads: “We know grace as a noun but Max tells us to think of it as a verb. It is an action. It’s not enough to read about grace; we must experience it.”

When he came, John 1:14 tells us Jesus was “full of grace and truth.” And if we, as believers, have accepted him into our lives, then verse 16 tells us “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” If Jesus is full of grace and truth and he is in us, then we too can experience lives full of grace and truth. What a privilege!

The way of grace is the phrase I have used to describe my journey. It is optional whether we embark on this road. It can be the chosen path or a rejected course. God offers it freely and openly. He will not force it upon us.

God issues an invitation to venture to a new land. It is much like the children of Israel journeying to the Promised Land. There are dangers and giants in this foreign country, but there are also mysteries to be revealed and provisions along the way that only God can give. The invitation is to cross over into the land of grace. Will you go?

The Grace of Acceptance

This book is simply a recounting of the graces God has worked in my life. Each chapter will highlight a different grace. We start with the grace of acceptance, for it was the first step of many in letting go of the control I thought I had. For me, it became a three-step process of acceptance, submission, and relinquishment. It is not a new concept, but one that must be experienced before moving on. God’s coming alongside me to extend grace, not just once, but every day, humbles me as he pours out grace upon grace. Acceptance is simply this: I receive God’s invitation or offer, and willingly embrace what He gives. I come to terms with the fact that I don’t have all the answers. I accept his gift of grace even when it comes alongside illness, weakness, or death. I move from a place of depression, self-pity, and denial into the grace of acceptance.

This is what I might have become had I not experienced this grace:

  • An alcoholic, abusing a substance in order to find peace.
  • A bad husband, seeking mental and emotional health from others while neglecting my wife.
  • A disbelieving priest, all the while acting out the role of a life lived in faith.

Acceptance changed everything.

  • Instead of thinking about death, I began to embrace life.
  • Instead of ignoring people who were handicapped, I prayed for them.
  • When I needed help, I asked for it, even from strangers.
  • Instead of hiding, I tried to live openly and honestly about my condition.
  • Even though I still had tears, I welcomed laughter.
  • Instead of being afraid to open up to others, I relished in deep, honest relationships.

It was revolutionary.

Grace enlarges the capacity of our heart. It allows us to be guided into truth. It gives us courage to accept, a reason to celebrate, and opens our eyes to glimpse wonders from God. The foundation for experiencing this unique call is the knowledge that we are saved by grace, live by grace, and are filled with grace if we are in relationship with God through Jesus.

At a conference one year, I talked with Christian philosopher and friend Dallas Willard about my struggle to understand grace. He leaned his tall frame toward me, gazed at me with his deep blue eyes and said, “Grace, you know, doesn’t have to do with forgiveness of sins alone. Grace is for all of life.”

Another friend, Richard Foster, told me: “What happens after grace? Is there anything after grace? The answer is no; there is just grace.” The greatest thing I want to experience and pass on to others is the reality and totality of God’s grace — how to apply it to any situation, and to be nurtured and empowered by it. It is greater than we could ever imagine.

Reflection

What about you? What is the circumstance or difficulty that is hard for you to embrace? It may look completely different than mine, but no one gets through life without a cross to bear, a thorn to embrace, or a difficulty to overcome.

I heard a unique story while traveling in Africa with a Bedouin tribe. It goes back hundreds of years. Two Bedouin men were traveling in the desert and came across a man who had died at an oasis. One man asked, “How could he have died — he’s right at the oasis? There is shade to cover his body and plenty of water to drink.” The other man replied, “He died out of fear. What he thought was a mirage was, in fact, reality.”

Let us not miss the waters of grace, or faint beside them. They are not a mirage, but true waters of refreshment and life. As the prophet Jeremiah stated, 

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

Application

Take five minutes to sit quietly and reflect. To begin, meditate on John 1:14 and 16. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”

Meditate on the phrases “Jesus, full of grace and truth” and “grace upon grace.” Say them over and over in your mind. Think of them throughout the day when life becomes demanding. Let the words become waters of refreshment overflowing into your life.

Pray a simple prayer:

Jesus, I thank you for your grace. May you impart your gifts to me. Help me to recognize them and to apply your grace in every situation. Grant me the grace of acceptance for what I’m struggling with today. Amen.

Excerpted from The Way of Grace by Glandion Carney and Marjean Brooks (Formatio, 2014). We gratefully acknowledge InterVarsity Press for their permission to use this excerpt.

[1] Hausherr, Irene. Penthos: The Doctrine of Compunction in the Christian East. Cistercian Publications, 1982.

Originally published October 2014.