Meg and I watched “Tender Mercies” this week, the film about a down-and-out singer who is tenderly, mercifully redeemed by the love of a good woman and her God. Under the direction of Bruce Beresford and with the screenplay of Horton Foote, starring Robert Duvall and Tess Harper, the story is set in central Texas, a place of big skies and big hearts, where Texas swing is the dance of the day. Duvall won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Mac Sledge, a amazingly gifted singer/songwriter who lost his way into the bottle, spending years as a drunk before he finds his way out.
We saw the film 30 years ago when it first came out, and I wanted to see it again. For some reason, this week seemed right to me. Maybe it’s that I have been to Texas four times over the last four months, and I just can’t get the Lone Star State out of my mind. But I think it’s more than that.
I love stories, good stories that tell the truth about the human condition; it’s rare to find a story that is so true to who we are in both our glory and our shame. Every honest person knows that small distance between happiness and heartache, between choices that lead to flourishing and choices that bring destruction. Sometimes it seems we tiptoe along the days of our lives, hoping and hoping that we will not fall. But then we all know the wonders of simple grace too. Meeting a good person who lives a good life is its own great gift, especially when we are drawn in for love’s sake, knowing that there is nothing in us that deserves to be treated so well, apart from the reality of tender mercy.
And that’s the story, a pilgrim in the ruins of his life and world.
I suppose that is why I was so struck with Mac’s words, “I don’t trust happiness. Never did, never will.” I understand that. There are honest joys in this life, and for each one I am grateful, day by day. But there are also heart-rending pains too, and mostly there are no easy answers for them. There is nothing in me that believes in fate, and I am neither a pessimist nor a cynic. But I have lived long enough to feel the sorrows of life, and sometimes live as if I am waiting for the proverbial next shoe to drop. What horrible thing will happen next, in my life, in my home, in my world?
For all of us who were paying attention the last couple of days, we have been grieved by the horror of the massacre of Christian students in Kenya, and we don’t know what to do except cry out to heaven, groaning for relief for what seems unbearable. As my friend Eliud Wabukala of Kenya said yesterday in his Good Friday statement as Archbishop of the Anglican Province of Kenya, “We must not rush onto Easter Day too quickly. Today we stand at the cross with Mary and the other women, heartbroken by loss and suffering and despite the horror before their eyes, not running away. Horror is fresh in our minds too and let us not run away or deny it, but stay by the cross.”
Perhaps the question at the beginning and the end of the day is this: what do we trust, if not happiness? Duvall’s character offers a rare answer for people living in a world without windows, the pluralizing, secularizing world that seems everywhere in everything. In the most simple, graceful way, he chooses to trust the tender mercy of God. I do too, not sure what else there is.