Grace in My Inbox

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is.

This month, I decided it was time. I’d been putting it off and putting it off, year after year. But finally, I’d had enough: it was time to sort through my Gmail inbox. Despite what I thought was adequate inbox upkeep, by this summer I had over 10,000 emails. At first, daunted by the sheer amount of Amazon order confirmations, newsletter subscriptions, and emails about sales at Kohl’s, I contemplated hitting “delete all;” but by God’s grace — and I mean that sincerely — I didn’t. It took hours to go through my inbox and delete the emails manually, but that time ended up being some of the holiest hours of my whole summer.

It’s pretty on-brand that I would be a digital correspondence hoarder; I save voicemails and text messages and buy the extra storage on iCloud. I’ve saved every card and letter I’ve received since my 10th birthday, storing them in Keds shoeboxes that I kept under my childhood bed and now keep in my apartment attic. About once a year, I pull out those shoeboxes and look through the contents: birthday cards from middle school signed by my grandparents, mail my niece scribbled on tucked into an envelope with my college mailbox address, notes from my college mentor, Christmas cards from my year in Nashville. The reason I keep all those cards is the same reason I keep old emails: they tell the story of my life. They tell the story of Grace the person, but they also tell the story of grace the gift.

Scrolling through the years of emails, I was reminded of a Frederick Buechner passage where he invites the reader to engage with the physicality of life and see the miraculous spirituality of the ordinary. Buechner writes:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

An email inbox is most certainly a place where boredom, pain, excitement, and gladness coexist.

I got my Gmail account when I turned 20 years old in preparation for Life After College, a fathomless mystery in which I would lose access to my beloved .edu email address and with it, the discounted rate on my Spotify account. Starting from my oldest emails, my sorting began with emails about final papers, post-grad plans, revised post-grad plans, and health insurance coverage. Then I found emails from that first year after college: messages to friends about our new jobs and big moves and book lists, wedding save-the-dates, and incredibly earnest and sort-of-cringy cover letters. There were emails about big dreams I’d had, design projects I did, savings accounts I opened, rental cars I drove, Airbnb reservations I made, and concert tickets I bought.

A lot of the emails conjured up happy memories, but not all. In my archives were emails I probably never should have sent — messages with hurtful words and harmful assertions. One thread of correspondence reminded me of a terribly lonely string of months my first fall out of college, months when I realized the vision I had for life-after-college was not reality at all. I had invoices to the physical therapist where I spent thousands of dollars from my savings for a broken ankle, and a few years later, invoices to a different sort of therapist, this time for a broken heart. The dark side of my inbox could not to be ignored; my archives contained reminders of past sins and shortcomings, failures and flops. But before I could delete these emails and never have to remind myself again of those difficult memories, I heard the truth that Buechner suggested once more: “Life itself is grace.

I am not the same person I was when I started sending emails from that inbox, and thanks be to God. In my inbox analysis, I found what Buechner wrote to be true: all moments are key moments. As I sorted through all these messages, I began to see the pages of the story of my twenties stacked together, chapter after chapter, into something of real weight. Boring, painful, exciting, and glad: my inbox contained it all. It stored stories of forged friendships, trips taken, memories made, and heartache that healed.  There was most definitely hurt in my inbox, but there was and is also hope.

While the difficult emails were not easy to revisit, they no longer sting as much as when I first received them. While I can’t change the past, unsend those emails, or get a do-over on decisions, I can and have been able to ask for forgiveness, seek reconciliation, and let go of shame. I’m not sure time heals all wounds, but perspective has begun to color my perception of the past quite differently. In every story that my emails allude to, I can now see that a compassionate and caring Christ was with me all along. That clarity feels like a kindness from God — a gift and a grace.

Those first post-grad years were truly a fathomless mystery, but my emails reminded me how God provided a place and people and a really great area rug for an affordable price. My middle school years were painfully awkward, years I  wanted to be over as quickly as possible, but the birthday cards signed by loving family members remind me of how caring and kind the characters in my life story have been. These last few years have had their intense disappointments, but my phone rings with good news from a friend whose tumultuous twenties are a testimony to the generous grace of God.

Ironically, it is often the old things that help me believe that Jesus meant it when he said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” My creased cards and archived emails help me see holiness in humble things. A bit of analysis reveals hidden and holy grace throughout every line and letter of the stories that make up my life. Though my future still feels like a fathomless mystery, looking to my past assures me that I can go forward in faith, confident that God will continue to do a good work in me. I found God’s grace in my Gmail inbox.

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One response to “Grace in My Inbox”

  1. Janell Downing says:

    I loved this so much Grace! As someone who also shares the 10,000+ emails in her inbox, you’ve helped me find grace in my own dilemma

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