Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti
Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti

By Britt Carlson ’09

When I graduated from Seattle Pacific University in June 2009, I didn’t actually graduate. Unbeknownst to my parents, due to one very late, very important term paper, I had gotten the one and only “D” of my entire academic career on the “Book of Revelation.” And unfortunately, “Revelation” was a requirement for my theology major.

While I made up the class and graduated in December 2009, it felt like a door swung heavily shut. I had wanted to go to seminary, and what seminary would accept someone who had basically failed an entire book of the Bible?

With no plans for the rest of my life, I moved back home with my parents, worked odd jobs, sent off two Hail Mary seminary applications, and began enjoying daytime television’s frequent reruns of House. I didn’t know what God had in store, but I doubted it would be divinity school.

But then something happened: I was caught off guard by grace. We often talk flippantly of grace. But grace is God doing what we cannot. And the next summer, things happened I could never have made happen without a heaping dose of divine assistance.

In short, I got into seminary.

A whole host of factors completely outside of my power had sent me (unadmitted and unhopeful) out to visit Duke Divinity three weeks before classes were to start. My visit was squeezed in between 48 hours off work, and lost luggage. It turned out that when my budget motel said “walkable to campus,” it meant that the two-and-a-half miles to campus in August humidity were merely physically possible.

But as I sat there in the admissions office, the director had some unexpected news for me. The day before, a future student had rejected his acceptance. And the director of admissions wanted to offer that spot to me. What was once a dream was about to become my joyful reality.

God did what only God could do. The whirlwind of going out to Duke was a “grace note” of my life. An unexpected trill in life’s steady cadence.

But here’s the thing about grace. It’s not just limited to life’s trills.

I couldn’t see it at the time, but when I was living at my parents’ home that year in between SPU and Duke, my life was no less graced than it was the year before or the year after. It was just a quieter grace.

Theologian and professor of piano Jeremy Begbie says, “Music teaches us that just because there is silence, it doesn’t have to mean the silence is empty or void.” Music, in fact, requires pauses. And those moments of pause are filled with meaning and purpose.

It was the grace of silence I received that year at my parents’ house. I needed that year to pause and reflect on all of the changes I went through at SPU. That quiet interlude allowed me to go to seminary ready for new notes to be played.

I wonder whether the multiplicity of grace is what the Gospel of John means when it says, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Grace upon grace. The grace of my year at my parents led to the grace of going to seminary, which eventually led to the grace of my very unexpected call to ministry. Grace as varied, layered, and mysterious as music.

Grace layered upon grace. Note building upon silence. Silence revealing the meaning of the note. Failures and successes and the grace that brings all things to completion. The unmerited divine assistance that gave us life and continues to sustain us line by line.

Grace upon grace is how our lives go. So, from Britt Carlson, class of December 2009, may the grace of the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ be with you now and always.

Britt Carlson
Britt Carlson is the pastor of community life at Portland Mennonite Church and one of the 125 Ones to Watch. She earned a bachelor’s degree in theology and Spanish from SPU.