In my last post I mentioned that yet another car had been totaled just before the holidays. A friend of mine heard of the plight and offered the car he was looking to unload—a generous and wonderful gift. With a catch. The car was a stick shift.
I’ve tried to learn to drive stick once before, with a professor of mine during a slow summer in college. He was a very good and patient teacher, but I was so fearful of damaging his car that I was a poor student. It’s actually quite amazing how my desire not to fail often makes me fail harder than I would have if I’d just accepted that probability.
This time I was determined to learn even though it was daunting and nerve-wracking. My friend and I went out and spent several hours with me lurching around a stadium parking lot, and then I practiced going in circles in my church lot the next day, and the next. A month later, I can say that I can indeed drive a stick—can even parallel park it, if I absolutely must. I’m set to go for the zombie apocalypse as well as every punk who tells me that no girl/millennial/urbanite can drive manual.
And I hate it.
The thing of it is, I only dislike the actual driving, not least because I have hearing issues that prevent me from really being able to discern when the engine needs to shift and therefore have to rely totally on the tachometer and speedometer. What I hate, absolutely hate, dread with every fiber of my being, is driving around the other people in the world.
It may not surprise you, Reader, to learn that driving in the Wicket Gate stresses me out on the best of days—after all, I’ve lost two cars to this city and its poor drivers. But in a manual, as I’m just learning, with seemingly thousands of stoplights at the crest of hills that feel like mountains? It’s a slice of hell. Folks here have a habit of creeping right up behind me (please don’t do this; manuals need some room to rock backward while shifting into gear, especially older models) or of impatiently hounding me while I’m trying to navigate a left without an arrow or of hurrying me along past street parking things that take way more time now that reverse is a whole production. There is no grace in the driving here.
As a preacher, it’s an occupational hazard that part of my brain is always looking for illustrations in daily life, but this one has surprised me. I’m looking for a new car again, an automatic transmission, accepting the strain and stress that is on top of my last semester of school and my denomination getting ready to set itself on fire because the toll this kind of driving is taking on me is too much to maintain. That’s what a lack of grace looks like—in driving, yes, and we’re always ready for some kindness and understanding on the road. But in general: how tired we become when there is no grace given us! How tired we make others when we extend no grace to them!
Grace isn’t a blank check (nor is it free); I don’t expect other drivers to be okay with me, say, driving at 30 on the highway. I need to stretch, and learn, and grow into this new way of commanding a car. Grace isn’t about letting someone walk all over me, or about never registering things that bother me (like folks who ride on-ramps until the land ends instead of properly merging as soon as there is an opportunity—there are not clean words for how much that annoys me). But grace is about understanding that there are folks who are just learning how to drive, who are working with a car that may be unreliable, who need a little extra space and time to get going. Grace is not expecting everyone to have the same skill set that I do.
That is a hard, hard idea. There are some things that I’ve been doing long enough that they seem second nature. This re-learning how to drive (legit, it is like being in a car for the first time again) has been a serious blow to my pride, I who have driven hundreds of thousands of miles in this country. So part of this not only asking for the grace of others but for grace from myself. I keep having to give myself permission to skip that parking space because I can’t manage that maneuvering; to breathe and try again when I stall in an intersection; to accept that I may roll backward into the car that is too close to me on a hill and that isn’t on me. Giving myself grace is hard, hard work, because I have to accept that failure happens and is not the end of the adventure.
I think it was pretty sly of God to become human before the invention of automobiles so that Jesus never had to learn to drive stick, but it’s not like grace came along with the combustion engine. This idea of patience, of space, of forgiveness that someone—that I—have to try again is part and parcel of the Christian faith. We don’t get it right, we humans. Sometimes it’s sin, a purposeful turning away from the road we’re called to drive. Sometimes it’s us just not paying attention, letting up on the clutch too soon and stalling the engine. Each time God calls us to breathe, restart, and try again. It’s grace. And it’s hard, hard work to give it and to receive it.
The tricky thing is remembering that I still need the grace when I’m driving an automatic.