“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” -Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Back in Alabama, it looked like this.
We get chicken and dumplings, yeast rolls, good black-eyed peas from the Mennonite bakery in town. A girl in Mennonite plain dress and a head covering rings our order up. “Y’all want sweet tea?” she asks. While I tell her yes, I look over, and Charles has already paid for our food. Just like Gillian did yesterday. I protest. He just grins: “Your money doesn’t work here.”
The night before we leave, he starts kneading dough for English muffins, and at 6:30, he rises and makes them. Along with homemade Hollandaise. Before we leave, we sit and eat the best Eggs Benedict we’ve ever had.
In Houston, it looks like this.
We pull into the parking lot of the apartment complex, and our brother-in-law carries our bags upstairs. There is a bed made with fresh sheets, blankets, pillows. I open the cabinet, and there is a box of Earl Grey and Twinings English Breakfast. “I remembered you like tea,” Jeremiah says.
Later on, we drive to the vet clinic where Josh’s sister Ashley is working the overnight shift to drop some things off and say hi. When she accepted an internship at an animal hospital here, the next step to teaching veterinary medicine, he drove a U-Haul truck fifteen hours to Houston. He didn’t know a soul. He wouldn’t do anything different.
In Smithville, it looks like this.
We are road weary, trip weary. I had hoped to walk around, look at antique shops, drive into Austin to see what the fuss was all about. But I am bone tired. Lizzie meets us at the house, shows us the house and the guest room. “This is the Best Exotic Marigold Guest Room,” she says. There is a poster bed with clean paisley sheets, a peacock sculpture over the bed, candles and windows with an afternoon breeze blowing through. It’s about an hour until I fall into that bed and sleep soundly for about two hours.
The next day, she drives the hour to Austin with us to meet some more seminary friends. They drive us around the town: to the University of Texas campus, to Amy’s ice cream, to EZ’s Diner, where part of Friday Night Lights was taped. “Get in a booth,” they tell me. “We’ll take your picture!” I imagine Eric and Tami Taylor sitting in the booth next to me. They grin at my happiness.
The movie The Tree of Life was filmed in Smithville, where Lizzie lives. Lizzie drives us around town, pointing out the house they used in the movie, along with all the local highlights. It’s a sprawling, abstract movie that people either love or hate. Brad Pitt plays a hard man who teaches his boys to be hard. “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world,” he says through narrowed eyes. “If you’re good, people take advantage of you.” He works hard, harder. He takes handouts from no one. He grows brittle until you can almost see him breaking.
We’ve slept in ten, fifteen beds since we moved out of the little Durham apartment. Friends and family, mostly. We’ve eaten people’s eggs and used people’s towels and watched people’s TVs. About ten, fifteen people have welcomed our crazy kitty cat, who bites plants and strews cat litter everywhere. About ten, fifteen people have hugged us when we came and when we left, driven us to their favorite restaurants, driven us around their towns.
It is hard to give grace, and it is hard to receive it. There is no repayment, no IOUs, no quid pro quo. There is only receiving, only open hands, only “thank you.” You are an apprentice, learning the trade of love, so that someday, you can teach someone else.
Somewhere along the way, in Houston or Smithville or New Orleans, I don’t remember where, grace looks like this: the man next to me in bed, who worked an office job that he hated, who is along for the ride on a road trip I planned, even though he would rather be home. “Thank you,” I say, and he opens his eyes and asks me, “For what?”
“For being such a good sport about the trip. For everything.” For putting me through school, for following me from church to church, for what he will do in the future.
“Of course,” he says and gives me a kiss. In his voice, I hear, It’s only natural. It’s what anyone would do.
He is wrong. It is not natural.
There are two ways, the way of nature and the way of grace. But I would add this: only one way that’s worth it.
I am watching. I am learning.