What Is Grace? Two Memoirs from Thornbush Press

Two new memoirs from Thornbush Press address the perennial question: What is grace?

A year ago, in early February 2020, I hadn’t yet heard of the coronavirus, and therefore could not under any circumstances have dreamed of how the year would unfold unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Nor would I have imagined that my response to lockdowns, border closures, and economic disaster would be to… start a publishing house.

And then came a further surprise on top of that one: that my publishing house would actually be the ideal home for any author but myself! Not long after Thornbush Press launched, the wonderful, brilliant Katie Langston put the manuscript of her book Sealed: An Unexpected Journey into the Heart of Grace into my digital hands for a beta read, and I’m not quite sure anymore which of the two of us asked first if Thornbush could be its publisher. I think I tried to talk her into at least trying for a deal with more prestige. She insisted that she preferred the authorial freedom, drastically better profit-sharing, and (I daresay) good fun of working with me instead. I couldn’t bring myself to argue. When you find a pearl of great price lying in a field… run out and buy the field! Which we both managed to do at the exact same time.

The upshot is that Thornbush Press is now officially a two-author outfit. Look out, Random House, here we come!

There is a deeper connection here, though, than convenience and Covid. As it turns out, Katie and I have both produced, at roughly mid-life (me a little more mid- than she), memoirs that try to sort out how we ended up where we are right now; both of these memoirs will be published in the next couple of months; and both of them—without knowing anything about the other at the time of writing—are a narrative attempt to answer the question: What is grace?

Our inquiries into grace arose from drastically different circumstances. Katie grew up in Utah, and if that instantly makes you suspect she grew up Mormon—you’re right. She did. Sealed (an allusion to a key theme of Mormon practice) recounts her childhood in the bosom of the Latter-day Saints, infused through and through with both intense longing for eternal family and the requirements of perfect worthiness to win you that prize. A sensitive soul, Katie felt with acute pain the fragility of family, the impossibility of worthiness, and the cost it exacted of everyone. But it wasn’t until the first time she heard a Christian speak about grace—grace that sufficed precisely where this person’s own personal worthiness didn’t—that she even suspected another way. A more excellent way. A way in which the love that counted was God’s love for the imperfect.

Non-Mormon readers will, like me, gulp the book down at one go in sheer lurid fascination at the strange world that is Mormonism. But I assure you, you’ll want to read it a second time, and a third, as I have done, because the real driving force of Katie’s story is the drama, the grandeur, the humility, and the sheer relentless of divine grace.

“Grace” is one of those theological words that says too much and too little at once. The more you conceptualize it, the less real it becomes. Katie’s book has shown me again why grace is always narrative and always in action, as God is always in action. Grace is not a law of divine behavior, something you can calculate and therefore manipulate. Grace is the holy Trinity on the hunt for the lost, killing in order to make alive, raising the dead to new life.

For my part, I didn’t realize that my I Am a Brave Bridge: An American Girl’s Hilarious and Heartbreaking Year in the Fledgling Republic of Slovakia was a book about grace at all, not until after I was done with it. One reason is that mine is not an account of a radical break—there is no shattering in my tale of the kind that Katie’s relates so well. Grace was something I had always heard about, always known about, always felt enacted in home, family, and church. It was so familiar, in fact, that the word was almost empty. It lacked the quality of surprise.

It’s funny that it took me so long to cotton on to grace as the underlying question of my book, because I Am a Brave Bridge actually relates a little episode of my working through the rotation of theological terms in the Slovak liturgy—sin (hriech), joy (radost’), and so on—until I hit milost’, grace. It was the first time I even noticed the word as such, and with the noticing came the realization that I had no real idea what it meant.

Since then, and through a lot of theological education, writing, and preaching, I’ve filled in and fleshed out “grace” in the dimensions of redemption and creation, the cross and resurrection of Christ, the sacraments and music and the mutual consolation of the faithful. But as a storyteller and a storyreader—including as a Bible-storyreader—I’ve come to realize that the task always remains for each of us, in our irreducibly unique and unrepeatable lives, to trace out the historical, specific actions of grace, of God, in our own timelines. Grace is only universal because it is particular to each of us.

For Katie, grace was a calling-forth from the darkness into the light. For me, it was more like a subtle, distant, haunting harmony always playing in the background, waiting for me to tune in. By the end of the story recounted in my memoir, grace has destroyed my illusions, set me in unexpected and uncomfortable places, and then restored almost everything I’d thought I’d lost. And what grace withheld, it withheld for good reason. Recognizing that is itself an outworking of grace.

So all in all, I couldn’t be more pleased that Thornbush Press’s second year is starting off with such an exuberant trumpet fanfare in praise of the grace of God. Publication is approaching soon, so watch this space for updates, and then, I hope, you’ll dive into these two memoirs. The water’s fine!