Thoughts on Grace

Packing BooksWithin the past few weeks, our family moved into a new house. In the shuffle of schedules and division of duties, the job of packing the books fell to me. There are two things you should know about this. First, we have a ton of books. Our friends who helped us in our last move still tease me about all my boxes of “Great Books.” Seriously. It’s a set called the Great Books. Second, perhaps related to the first point, asking me to pack books is like asking an alcoholic to pack a bar full of already-open, half-empty bottles. It’s going to be a slow, tedious process, with lots of furtive, guilty movements when someone unexpectedly walks in the room.

As I was ‘packing’ the books, I ran across several old journals. One, in particular, caught my attention. It was small and green – pretty nondescript, really – and as I flipped it open, I realized it had been my first journal as a wife. It was my Santa Fe journal, from my time at St. John’s College, when Jon and I were newlyweds.

It started off pretty much as you’d expect, but the entries became increasingly sad. There was less poetry and a lot more anguish. Not much dreaming… a lot of crashing down to earth. The final entry was particularly disheartening. I realized, at the age of twenty-two, that I was a failure as a wife, as a scholar, and as a writer. I wasn’t sure there was any hope to be had. We had been married less than two years and we didn’t even have kids yet.

In a way, I was wrong. We were just going through the normal stuff that married people go through when they tie the knot at a young age. When we left Santa Fe, I did so with my husband and my master’s degree – it turns out the two weren’t mutually exclusive. And I did get another degree… though not that phD in Classics. I’m not dead yet, so there’s still hope for the writing, right?

On the other hand, I was on to something important. I’m inherently selfish. So is my husband. So is every other person on the planet. That makes living together in any kind of community tough. And when one sets high standards – like honesty, integrity, and unconditional love – failure will be much more painful than if he were only shooting for mediocrity. And here’s the kicker – if I rely on my own strength in any relationship, that relationship will inevitably crumble under the weight of the sin the people in it bring to it.

What I didn’t know back then – but I’m learning gradually – is that grace is not an abstract idea. Grace is not God waving his magic “I forgive you” wand from a cloud somewhere on high. It’s a real thing. It’s a quality. It’s a gift we give one another if we want to have any meaningful, lasting relationships. And it’s a gift we humbly accept from one another because we know we all need it. Desperately.

So I permanently misplaced my rose-colored glasses in Santa Fe. And for a while I thought that all was lost. But after a few years, I think that the alternative to the fantasy of self-sufficiency is actually grace-filled freedom. When it’s not my job to fix, control, and manage my world, I can enjoy it for what it is, rather than agonize over what I thought it was or I want it to be. And when people hurt and disappoint me, I don’t have to “solve” the problem. I can give them the grace I would want to receive – and have, many times. True, it’s not easy, since it’s not (strictly speaking) natural. But at least I have a starting point. And if nothing else, I know what to pray for.

I wish I could say that I had this all figured out and my relationships – with Jon, the kids, my friends, my church family – were iron-clad. But they’re not. They’re organic. Sometimes they thrive and other times they wilt. All I can do is thank God for grace and ask Him for more. What I didn’t know in Santa Fe is that there’s truly an endless supply and always something new to discover.

Kind of like my books.

Alison Buxton