With a Theater major among us, our family has been tuned in to all things entertainment for years. Our conversations are laced with one-liners from cinema, Broadway, and TV, and we have by now a not-so-short list of all-time favorite movies, one of which is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
It’s impossible for me to name just one favorite scene from that movie, but in my top ten is the Christmas Eve dinner scene where Clark asks Aunt Bethany to offer grace before the meal. She doesn’t understand. Clark’s mother tries to help, turning to face Aunt Bethany and shouting “GRACE!”
“Grace?” Aunt Bethany asks. “She passed away thirty years ago.”
I’ve been in a similar place this week; I didn’t fully comprehend grace either.
In my faith tradition, grace is understood as “the free, unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.” Which is fine, as far as it goes, but after reading pastor, writer, and artist Jan Richardson’s reflection on grace in her online retreat Illuminated this week, I don’t think it goes far enough. (For more about Jan, work, and her online Advent retreat, her website can be accessed here).
According to Jan, “Grace enters also into the painful gaps that open up when [things] do not go as we’d hoped.” When I read those words, it dawned on me that what I name as grace is things that are overwhelmingly positive, not the “painful gaps”. But grace is present and available in all times, places and incarnations, not all of them warm and fuzzy.
The most painful period in my life has been the time since Bill’s illness and death. Especially early on, I wasn’t thinking about or looking for grace there. I was too busy looking for the exit. I was overwhelmed by how difficult and complicated things were without him, how sad and lonely I was. My heart wasn’t just broken; it was shattered. All I wanted to do was find a way out of the misery as quickly as possible. (Spoiler alert: there isn’t one. There’s no express lane or timetable for grieving).
Look backing over my journey through the “valley of the shadow” today, through the lens of Jan’s words, it’s clear that grace was there all the time, woven into and around and through that experience, sustaining me when I didn’t even recognize it was there, in ways I can’t even articulate.
Grace - the “free, unmerited favor of God”– is a gift of the Holy. I can’t do anything to earn it or conjure it up on my own; it is completely independent of me, just as many of the circumstances of my life are out of my direct control. The part that is up to me is the decision to trust (or not) that grace is there whether I can perceive and name it as such or not.
Trusting where I cannot see is a growing edge for me. I prefer lists, road maps that clearly delineate the path from point A to point B, and large doses of Holy Certainty. But that’s not what I have. The Holy One’s “thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are our ways God’s ways”, as the prophet Isaiah so aptly put it, and often the only part of the path in front of me I can see with any clarity at all is the next step.
It’s scary, but I’m leaning into the mystery this Advent, taking that next baby step, trusting that grace is there, in all things, regardless of whether I can see evidence of it in the moment or not.
How about you? Have you had any moments lately when you realized your understanding of something needed to shift?
If that’s been part of your experience, what was it like for you? Invigorating? Frightening? Did it make you feel angry? Relieved? Excited? Anxious?
Where are you now? Leaning in? Taking baby steps? Still pondering? Starting over? Well on your way?
Wherever you are, wherever you are going, grace is there, and the Holy One is with you.