Yesterday, I was driving through the Target parking lot in a semi-hurry. As I went by a row of parked cars, one put on its reverse lights and pulled out, more or less in front of me. I winced and hit the brakes, then waited. They backed up, but almost straight, so that they came to a stop perpendicular with me and with no immediate options but to return to their spot…or commence a multi-point turn, which is what they did. I had that moment of decision: let my impatience loose or…
The driver, whom I can now see is a woman, requires three more forward and back points for her turn before she gets her car into the proper position, which is to pass by me. Decision time. I raise my hand and wave at her. She smiles and waves back, then slowly rolls toward me and lowers her window. So I lower mine.
“Thank you! I’m new driver!” she says, with a huge smile and a big wave and without the article. She has an elderly woman in the front passenger seat, also waving at me.
“You’re doing great!” I yell back.
I’m thinking a lot about justice recently. I’ve also taken a break from writing this blog because I’m working hard to complete a book on grief which, it turns out, is both consuming and exhausting. Who could have foreseen that? I have a community in which I’m constantly discussing and debating how we live more justly, how we speak up for the oppressed and persecuted, how we follow Jesus in a startlingly divided and hostile culture. I’m also (still) running perpetually late for…life.
And into those big paint strokes. these important–nay, momentous–happenings, a middle-aged novice woman whose first language is not English drives. She doesn’t drive into my car, but she does drive into my awareness.
She’s not a great driver yet. But I didn’t lie. She is doing great at having the courage to learn to drive. It’s hard. People are mean. I’m mean. A moment before, I was controlling my temper not to indicate my displeasure with her clumsy attempt to back out of her parking spot. No, don’t say “Well, she should learn to drive better before she drives to Target.” She is learning to drive, she has a licence, and she got turned around about how to pull out so she was facing the correct way. You know why I hate parallel parking? Because I don’t want anyone to see me screw up. You know what makes driving (a relatively simple physical activity) harder? Strangers judging, criticizing, berating, maybe flipping you off.
Yes, I was in a hurry. I needed to get home and make dinner. But no one was starving in my home. Her extra 90 seconds of my time, or whatever it was, didn’t cost me heavily. In fact, it benefited me, because I got to choose to use my encouragement instead of my criticism. I got to step outside my “I’m for justice in the big picture but everyone had better get out of my way in this damned parking lot” mindset.
“Justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love feels like in private,” said Dr. Cornel West. Great quote. I believe it. National budgets and laws on voting, immigrant care, healthcare, taxes, and legal consequences for sexual assault, these are justice issues–to name only a few–and how we love our neighbor in the big picture. Loving our neighbor, loving God, learning to love ourselves, in my view these are the things that matter in life.
But sometimes we–and by this I mean I–get so passionate and overwrought about how to speak up and advocate for these big issues and we (you know, I) forget simple acts of grace. She wasn’t driving great. She wasn’t following the unwritten social code that we all drive in such a way that no one causes anyone else the slightest inconvenience. Yes, I’ll wait my turn when the rule requires me to, but only for the exact three seconds I should need to pause while you take your turn. I don’t know if my wave and smile and word of encouragement had any impact on her day, but I hope so. I hope it gave her a small lift, a little buffering against the seemingly inevitable rudeness she’ll also receive.
No, contrary to what my impatience would suggest, it isn’t her job to drive perfectly so that she stays out of my damned way and I’m not another 90 seconds late; it’s my job to recognize that she’s a new driver and I get this one opportunity with her–with my neighbor–to offer grace and kindness, a smile and a wave, when we cross paths. Why did she tell me she’s new at driving? Let’s be honest, that’s a vulnerable statement. As it turns out, I’m currently doing something I’m new at and I hate how vulnerable that feels, I who champion honesty and transparancy and vulnerability. Hate it like poison, hate it with a passion. Because I’m freaking terrified I’ll fail. But trying and failing and trying again is literally the only way we ever learn anything, isn’t it? So that means our choices are “try, be vulnerable, fail, try again” or “don’t try.” When our neighbor is trying the scary thing and doing it imperfectly, what better moment to offer some grace and encouragement?
I’m not sharing this anecdote because “Hooray for me, I did it right this time!” I’m sharing it because Jesus used it to remind me that the big actions in my life only matter if I remain rooted in grace. Otherwise, I’m a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. We’re in a time in which the people who think differently and want to see different choices made for our country have become the enemy. I really hate that. But honestly, these decisions about justice–about love in public–are beyond important. They are life or death for many. We must stand for justice, stand against racism, side with the oppressed and the persecuted, call out systemic injustice.
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Exactly. You and I have some part, small or large, in driving that spoke into the wheel…with the added challenge of having others shouting at us, “What are you talking about? There’s no wheel!”
It’s hard to do this and live by grace. It’s easy to let my “passion for justice” get the upperhand over my patience and grace–meaning I get to be a grouchy, snarky old curmudgeon and justify it under the umbrella of “righteous outrage.” But that’s not whom I want to be, and not whom I’m called to be, in the world. I want to shout for justice and speak kindness. I want to be loving both in the public sphere and in the public parking lot. I want to offer others the grace I’ve received.
Keep our anger from becoming meanness. Keep our sorrow from collapsing into self-pity. Keep our hearts soft enough to keep breaking. Keep our outrage turned towards justice, not cruelty. Remind us that all of this, every bit of it, is for love.