The scene generally looks the same: after my older son and I pick up his brother at preschool, I have a choice to make. Do I take the shorter route, the one that winds down MacArthur and through the center of town, complete with stoplights and traffic and grit galore? Or do I take the back roads that take a few minutes longer but guarantees a glimpse of the magical view?
Lately, I’ve opted for the more scenic route, the one Frost would likely say has made all the difference. I’ve needed the long road down the winding hill, the one whose blinking marigold school lights beg me to drive slowly, to savor the moment and take it all in.
“Boys!” I said a couple of weeks ago. “Look! It’s the magical view!” My left hand pointed out the car window to the pink and purple skies on the horizon, to the gray waters of the San Francisco Bay and to the Marin Hills beyond. Just as we drove past the Latter Day Saints temple and the Greek Orthodox cathedral, the nearby pines of Oakland almost seemed to greet the city’s skyscrapers with a kiss.
As soon as we rounded the next corner, though, the view started to fade.
“Mama, it’s not a magical view unless you can see all the way to China or to South America,” my oldest replied, his knowledge of place on display like the collection of kitschy Christmas decorations adorning every square inch of our house.
“Or the North Pole!” His brother added.
“Or Santa Claus!”
“Or the bottom of the earth!”
“Or England, or a faraway land!”
Clearly, the charm of the moment was lost on them – but that didn’t keep me from sneaking one last look at the swirl of colors dancing across the sky.
But a week later, the smoke came.
Now hear me out: I do not make light of the recent wildfires, of the Camp Fire in Northern California that at last count burned more than 153,000 acres, destroyed more than 17,000 homes and commercial structures, and claimed the lives of 88 people. Although the fires missed us by a long shot, the effects of the fires were real and raw, obvious and felt.
We couldn’t leave the house without donning our N95 masks. Local school districts cancelled school because the air quality was so hazardous. A privileged few left town, buying last minute plane tickets or hopping in the family car for a road trip four hours south. My husband and I noted our own privilege even if his work didn’t allow us to leave town – after all, we still had a house to call our own, a house that hadn’t burned to the ground, a house not built of discarded REI tents and cardboard boxes and shopping carts like we see in the local encampment down the street.
But when that same scene – of preschool pickups and circuitous drives down the long hill and little boys who argue against magical views – repeated itself in a swirl of smoke and haze, I wondered where God was when I couldn’t point my fingers toward the obvious beauty of the week before.
Is beauty still present, even if it’s not so easy to see? And if beauty is one the ways God showers God’s people with grace, is this beauty and grace somehow less than it was the week before when my squinting eyes still saw all the way to the hills of Marin?
Although I sometimes doubt it in the moment, when I take a moment to stop and pause, I am reminded that the breathtaking holiness of beauty is still found, even in swirling mists of smoke and fog and haze.
“Beauty and grace are still performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try and be there,” writes Annie Dillard. Likewise, I think about the book of Colossians, a letter known for its confetti-like sprinklings of grace and peace – until you get to certain sections [like Colossians 2:16-23] when grace doesn’t blatantly rebound off the page, but is instead hidden behind reminders of freedom from food and drink and new moon festivals.
It wasn’t until I preached on such a passage a couple of week ago (and wrestled with how I was supposed to preach on grace when grace wasn’t so obvious, let alone happy-go-lucky and joy-filled to my twenty-first century eyes) that the gob-smacking nature of grace hit me over the side of the head.
Of course freedom from the old rules and regulations is grace.
Of course the invitation to lean into the one who gave all and forgave all is grace – for grace is still present even if we don’t see it in the moment, even if our hearts don’t receive it at the time.
But sometimes it takes driving down a hill in thick fog of smoke and haze to realize the gravity of grace. And if this is part of what it means to find holy in the little slice of the world I call home, then sign me up.
I can’t wait.