the covenant of grace
When you travel across the country to San Francisco, you have certain expectations about the trip. You’ve paid for travel and lodging and food as well as the experience, and you expect—even demand—that it lives up to your exotic, delicious vision of the place. Pay in, get back.
But no one promises that easy exchange. Sometimes your beloved sprains his foot while hiking the trail you’ve been looking forward to all week. Sometimes the money you wanted to go to a magical dinner at Chez Panisse gets redirected toward a taxi so you don’t have to hike the five miles back. Sometimes the foot gets progressively worse rather than better, and even standing on the bus is painful, so that you two are confined to a small, three-block radius in a funky neighborhood in San Francisco, far from the coffee and bakery and dinner and ice cream destinations of your dreams.
It doesn’t compute. I paid in! you think. You calculate all your expenditures. You set your experiences on the other end of the scale. The scale sags under the weight of the expenditures. You start to get bitter. You mewl, mope, manipulate. You make your husband limp to the places you wanted to go. But you have no fun. Your terrible heart is two sizes too small.
Your own June gloom swoops in. You cross your arms, recount all the bad parts: the delayed flight that lost you your first reservation at Chez Panisse, the standby flight you thought was a perfect fix until it separated you from your bags, the hunt for evening light on a vineyard that got you stuck in the forest until the sun had already set, the pointless bus ride to the far end of the park for a bakery that’s closed on Mondays. A waste, all of it. All horrible. (You are prone to dramatics.)
But slowly, with a little prodding, the sun peeks through: you recall the dark burnt undertones of your salted caramel Bi-Rite ice cream, the free tasting of very fancy wine you charmed out of the sommelier who saw in you his sister at your age, the everlasting loaf from Tartine, Grand Budapest Hotel from seven stories up, a mug of beer under a wool blanket and a canopy of lights at Biergarten, the ancient mossy trees in Muir Woods, the soft swish of long golden grass on a hillside, the fog-snug night waiting for the bus, billows of bougainvillea, a chic shower, two candles lit in prayer, friends over a languorous evening of wine and ceviche, and your first tender bite of B. Patisserie’s famed kouign amman.
At church on Sunday, you sing of life’s assured difficulty: flesh will fail. Bones will break. There are no guarantees, no one promising that if you pay in, you’ll get something wonderful in return. The scales are never balanced. You cry from identification with that truth.
God doesn’t promise unbroken feet. He doesn’t promise that if you pay for your ticket, he’ll take you to the best restaurants. He doesn’t prevent citywide bus strikes just so you can do everything you want on your vacation. God is not particularly concerned with your idea of a a tidy transaction.
And thanks be to God for that. Instead, God, who is faithful and just, abides by a different system. His scales aren’t balanced, but the difference is that his scales generally fall in your favor. Not, of course, in the sense that you’ll win the lottery and get a private tour of San Francisco and its best food and most satisfying hikes and most charming bookshops.
But in this sense: there is the promise, contained in an arc of color, that the waters will never again overcome you. That part of the contract doesn’t hold, either. You look out over the runway to the colorful, hazy band, a strip of pure grace given at the end of a strange and wearying trip, and you swear you are going to take off into it, pass through the curtain right where yellow meets green, and enter into a world you didn’t pay a single penny for, a world a thousand times more brilliant, where everything is grace! grace! grace!
You cry again, this time out of a new kind of recognition and gratitude, out of longing for that world. When will you finally stop hobbling around on useless feet? When will your heart of flesh quit shriveling up like a hard, hollow walnut? Like the rainbow, that new world seems always to hover just beyond your reach; just when you think you’ll pass through its beams of light, it jumps behind the next mountain. Like so much of your trip, no amount of cash will make it yours. Like the bread and bougainvillea, it will come not on your terms but another’s.
The covenant of grace. So simple. Requires none of your tabulating. Doesn’t demand exact change. The covenant of grace, if you keep your window open and your eyes on the horizon, will spring into view and usher you onto the cable car of your dreams, taking you round and round the city, waiting while you taste each ripe peach at the farmers’ market, letting you stand arms outstretched on the bridge and catch fog with your hands, recommending all the best ice cream flavors (which are the only flavors in that world), and kindly extending the night into tomorrow so you don’t have to leave the canopy of sonorous conversation, swollen with contentment, for quite a while yet.