The Common Good

Unravelling Grace

Autumn in Berkeley is not what lovers of changing seasons might recognize as autumn, but it is upon us no less. Days are are shorter. Television programming has changed. The air is a little crisper. The currents in the Pacific have shifted and that great body of water tinkers with our meteorological hopes somewhat differently every day. The leaves don't change so much as drop. And, as usual, there are flowers in bloom. 

robodread / Shutterstock
"I am entangled and grace comes and unravels all of that — whatever 'that' is — and sets me free." robodread / Shutterstock

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As someone who loves the northeast coast change of seasons, I find it challenging to unravel my expectations from reality. I find the two so intertwined that I may be tempted to try to change my environment to suit my expectations rather than paying attention to what is actually going on in the world around me.

I am reminded of my neighbors who will be spraying fauxsnow on their windows to celebrate the winter holidays. "It's just not Christmas without snow," some will proclaim. This is an obvious example of what it may look like to insist on our expectations being met all the while our world around us is trying to show us something different. We literally paint the windows to the world around us so we see what we want to see. 

We push our environment around and in the process run the risk of missing the grace being offered up in new and rich ways.

Saturday evening I was at an event celebrating a colleague's ordination anniversary and a new book he has had published. It was a beautiful evening of celebration, of love, and of gratitude (also, get the book). In the midst of all the celebrations one spoken phrase caught my attention: "unraveling grace."

It was offered in the context of my colleague sharing what it has been like to leave evangelicalism and enter the Episcopal Church, to leave one definition of grace behind, of God's divine love, and to try to pick up another. One has to unravel grace from your usual assumptions and expectations about "Godtheworldandeverything" in order to experience it anew, to find God's love anew.

So many of my friends and colleagues have shared this kind of unravelling grace, unraveling it from prejudice, from affluence, from one form of politics over another, from one form of marriage over another.

Grace is entangled with so much that is deeply personal as well, such as the relationships we have with our parents. What if grace, for example, is somehow entangled with pleasing an impossible-to-please parent or an abusive parent? 

The Abusive God will never love you and yet that is precisely the love you call "grace." Grace is the experience of disappointing the Divine, of being bullied, of being found always wanting and never being met half-way. Thus, the life of faith is nothing but a life of shame and heartbreak.

We spoke and sang of the Song of Songs; we prayed old pietistic prayers. We let Tommy Dorsey lead us in "Precious Lord." We tried to unravel grace from one life and graft it on to a new one. This is, of course, when I discovered again the unraveling that comes when grace abounds.

I am entangled and grace comes and unravels all of that — whatever "that" is — and sets me free. Grace unravels me, my sense of self that has been shaped by all the other expectations I carry so tightly, that I may even privilege above God's own love.

I am learning ever so slowly to be honest about what I love more than I love God or what I desire more than I desire God's grace. God's grace is having its way with me at present, unraveling me and my expectations, scraping the faux snow off my living room windows and asking me to take note of autumn flowers, of winter warmth, of all the ways grace subverts my expectations, my people pleasing, my prejudices, my greed, my irreconcilable fears.

Some day I hope to be in a place with seasons again. I do miss them. But when I return, if I return, I hope to be able to do so unravelled, enchanted again with what God actually offers and not what I expect God to offer.

Unravelling grace, indeed.

Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at AngloBaptist.orgFollow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.

Photo: jurgajurga / Shutterstock

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