Granola Grace

The jar came with a note that read: “I am praying for you in this tender season. You are seen, known, and loved.”

The article is by Anna B.:

God will always smell a little bit like Browned Butter Granola to me. In Fall of 2021, I wasn’t doing so well. My relationship with my parents had always been challenging, but things had come to a head that summer. Years of emotional abuse reached a boiling point. My dad blocked my number and my mother threatened to change their will. I lay in bed each morning, numb and agonized at the same time, struggling to get up and go about my day. In bed for hours, I would sleep or scroll, unable to do simple tasks like get dressed or eat. I lost twenty pounds in four months from the stress. On the surface, to the outside observer, things were fine, even if I did look skinnier. I was in a PhD program I loved, working a job that was a great fit. My partner and I were a good team and we had community and friends. Despite all of this, however, there was a lurking ghost, a soaking wet blanket, a dark presence that lingered in the background of all these good things: family estrangement.

But someone else showed up, too.

My partner and I attend our local Episcopal Church and we had recently agreed to be Small Group Leaders. I’m a very outgoing person but tend to avoid vulnerability, especially about the most painful things. I didn’t know how to talk about the way my life had become haunted, certainly not to a bunch of new people who I barely knew. That Fall, we read Tish Harrison Warren’s Prayer in the Night together. And at the very first meeting, to my surprise, one of the couples in our group shared about the pain of miscarriage. Warren’s book begins with the story of her own miscarriage, and I suppose this couple felt like the book gave them permission to share with this group of relative strangers the details of their own pain.

Slowly, others began to do the same. Week after week, we’d meet in the church library, uncork a bottle of wine, make up plates of homemade bread, cookies, hummus and veggies, and charcuterie boards fit for Joanna Gaines herself, as we started to share our lives with each other. Strangers became acquaintances. Acquaintances became, dare I say it, friends.

One Sunday, I woke up to a really mean text from my dad. After crying myself dry over breakfast, I went to church and sat through the service, numb. The emotions were too big. My partner and I spent four hours that afternoon trying to draft a response. We finally sent our reply, turned off our phones, and realized we had to go to Small Group. I had nothing left in me and really didn’t want to lead a discussion for two hours. But we were in charge of the group, so we girded up our emotional loins, prepared to put on brave faces, and make it through the evening. We discussed our chapter, and, as we had been doing for weeks at this point, asked the group if there was anything we could pray for before closing.

Before I knew it, I was spilling out our own story. The acute pain of the last six months and the chronic pain of the past two decades came tumbling out of my mouth. And our Small Group caught us.

The next morning, I woke up again — late — and was lying in bed, trying to summon the willpower to start my day. Eventually, I made it from the bedroom to the den, and spent a few hours watching something mind-numbing on the television. When I finally got dressed and left the house to head to a meeting I couldn’t get out of, there was something new sitting on my porch. A little glass jar with a note on the lid. It was from Ellen.

Ellen was one of the members of our Small Group. She was tall and elegant and fierce, but not in an overbearing way. She was an artist. She spoke her mind. I liked her a lot. She had two kids and lived up the street and over a few blocks.

I picked up the jar. The lid had a note that read:

I am praying for you in this tender season. You are seen, known, and loved. -Ellen

My eyes began to sting. Taking the jar inside, I stood at my kitchen island. I unscrewed the lid and inhaled. A delicious, comforting smell wafted up to my nose. It was gently spiced, unctuous, and warm. Browned-butter granola.

In her 2015 book, Wearing God, Lauren Winner examined lesser-used metaphors for God that are found throughout scripture. Though we haven’t been an agrarian society or lived under a monarchy for a long while, we still use images like shepherd and king to describe Jesus. While these metaphors can still be meaningful in their way, the Bible is replete with other metaphors for God that are by and large neglected. Winner assesses some of these to see if she can find metaphors that can meet readers today. One of those metaphors is smell. “Senses and sensory perception pervade the Bible,” she writes. “To describe God as one who smells — as one who enjoyed the smell of all that incense — is to imply something about God’s emotional life” (p. 65, 70). Scripture talks about offering sweet-smelling sacrifices to God and about Christians emitting the sweet scent of Christ to others. But what does this really mean?

Winner continues:

Scents can help calm people when they are separated. Psychologists call this ‘olfactory comfort.’ This is why women sometimes sleep in their beloved’s clothing when the beloved is away. Smelling someone’s scent can infuse you, the smeller, with a sense of security … Mothers whose children have left for college report going into their old bedrooms, closing the door, and inhaling the smell as a way of feeling close to their absent kids (p. 71-72).

I’ve always had a strong scent memory. Certain smells can take me out of whatever moment I’m in and transport me to the past. The smell of Boxwood bushes is one of these smells. When I was very young, we went to visit Mount Vernon in Virginia. The first time I smelled Boxwood as a teenager, I had a déjà vu moment and saw, in my mind’s eye, the massive front steps of a colonial mansion, looking out over a broad lawn. It wasn’t until years later that I finally figured out where that memory came from.

Scents can carry powerful emotions. I used to keep my partner’s sweatshirt in college and smell it when we were parted in the summers. Now that we’ve been married almost ten years, his scent is on everything and I don’t notice it as much until he’s been away on a trip and comes back. My friends with children treasure up the smell of their kids when they were babies. I have friends who have created signature candles and keep their home smelling of vanilla, sandalwood, and gardenia, and those scents become enmeshed with their remembrances of home and place. Bad smells, too, leave their mark. The smell of vomit brings me to the lowest depths of my humanity. Rancid garbage on a hot day in Texas is no joke. Diapers.

But for all the olfactory language around divinity in the Bible, we aren’t told exactly what God smells like. The epistles describe Christ on the cross as a sweet sacrifice to God, calling Christ’s followers to be the same. For some who grew up with high liturgies, God might smell like incense. For others, God might smell like the Welch’s grape juice and Hawaiian rolls used for communion in their childhood Baptist church. These smells are nostalgic and comforting most of the time. But God can also smell like judgment. Like betrayal. Like abuse. Bad experiences with the church can leave the smell of God like burnt hair in our nostrils. I’ve known the scents of both.

Anne F. Elvey writes in her book Matter of the Text: Material Engagements between Luke and the Five Senses, “Smell — as the matter emitted from a thing, its being sensed, and the sensory communion of smelling — links self and other, in such a way that the fragrant or odorous other gives of its essence and is taken into the body of the self” (p. 110). We talk a lot about being the hands and feet of Christ to one another, but what about being the smell of Christ, too? That Monday morning in my kitchen, God showed up as Browned Butter Granola. Not earthy-crunchy health granola, but as Ellen’s excessive, indulgent, fattening granola. And God smelled wonderful. I poured out a handful and swallowed it. Decadent. Turns out God tasted wonderful, too. I had to stop myself from eating it all then and there and being late to my meeting. And so, I grabbed another handful to complete my sacramental snack, screwed the lid back on, and headed out.

For the next several months, I made that granola every week. It got me through beginning therapy, getting on Lexapro, going through a mediation with my parents, going through the failure of that mediation, and figuring out what life looked like in the aftermath. Things still aren’t great with my family. I don’t get mean texts anymore, but I also don’t have nice phone calls with my parents; the healing I’d hoped for in that relationship hasn’t been realized. Most days I still struggle to find the grace in that situation. What I have found, however, is a more grace-filled and expansive understanding of family. The people who reached into our darkness and held our hands were not the people I expected; they had no biological connection to us. What they did have was the blood connection of Christ’s redeeming grace. “You can’t choose your family,” the adage goes. That’s true. The family that chooses you, though, at your lowest moment, who doesn’t run away, but instead bakes you granola? There’s a depth to that definition of family that I will spend the rest of my life marveling at.

A month ago, another family in our Small Group told us that they too were going through family estrangement. So, I went home and cooked up another batch of granola and left it on their doorstep with a note, just like Ellen. Grace shows up in unexpected ways. It can be brutal, like the grace of hitting rock bottom, or it can be loud, like the sound of children playing. Sometimes it is quiet, like the clink of a glass jar on your front porch and the smell of oats, cinnamon, and browning butter in your kitchen.

Works Cited:

  • Basis for Granola Recipe (Ellen recommends this as a starting point, but just use whatever you have in your cupboard):
  • Elvey, Anne F. Matter of the Text: Material Engagements between Luke and the Five Senses (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011).
  • Warren, Tish Harrison. Prayer in the Night (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021).


Winner, Lauren F. Wearing God (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015).

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


7 responses to “Granola Grace”

  1. Small groups, self-help books and mediation are all important,BUT GOD has His mediator in Jesus Christ. He has given His Word to be obeyed. It reveals the root of our sin and which can only be healed by confession and repentance leading to forgiveness followed by obedience. When God’s light shines upon our darkness the darkness must flee. This is His truth that has prevailed in my life over 69 years. The process doesn’t change. A warm blanket, or tasty granola won’t satisfy. A big toe will always be sticking out of the covers to be stepped on.

  2. John Asirvatham says:

    This is beautiful, thanks for writing it!

  3. Julie Engebretson says:

    I really enjoyed this meditation on what family means, and the many and surprising ways we may sense grace.

  4. David Zahl says:

    Anna, you have me in tears! (And also a little hungry for some super non-healthy granola yum). Thank you so much for putting this down on paper. When i think of happy childhood memories, so many are linked to specific smells: the water from the sink in my grandparents house, the plastic-in-the-sun odor at my school playground, the fresh blacktop when our driveway got paved, it’s uncanny.

  5. Isaac Kimball says:

    I love this piece about how God becomes granola in our lives… or whatever it takes. He meets us where we are.

  6. Fran Turner says:

    This was a wonderful article. The redeeming grace of Christ is a wonderful gift. This article made me think of the delicious granola my daughter makes and the delicious chocolate chip cookies my friend makes —both of which are made with browned butter and delivered with love and compassion.

  7. Ken Wilson says:

    This is one of the most moving things I’ve ever read on Mockingbird, and that’s saying a lot. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *