Grades vs. Grace
James C. Denison
Thanksgiving was the first American holiday. A harvest feast was celebrated by Indians for centuries before Europeans first landed on these shores. In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast which may have been the first Thanksgiving in the colonies. They had no forks, eating with spoons and knives and their hands.
Their first menu was somewhat different from yours last Thursday, I would presume. It included mostly meat: wild turkey, crane, duck, eagle, goose, seals and swans. Their seafood included clams, cod, eel, and lobster.
Their vegetables included beans, carrots, lettuce, onions, peas, pumpkins, and radishes. They had no ham, no sweet potatoes or potatoes of any kind, no corn on the cob, and no cranberry sauce. Worst of all, pumpkin pie had not yet been invented.
From then to now, we have much for which to be thankful. Consider the prosperity of just our generation. Per capita income in America since 1950, adjusted for inflation, has tripled. Global gross domestic product has increased seven-fold. I’m 49 years old; if you’re anywhere my age, think about the home in which you lived as a child. Now compare it to your home today.
My first car was a 1966 Dodge Dart, the most misleading name in automotive history. My second car was a 1967 Mercury Cougar–it had no air conditioning (in Houston!) or radio. My car today is not a Lamborghini (I wish), but at least it has air and a radio, and a six-CD changer to boot.
I remember our amazement when Dad brought home a color television. Of course, we had to get up to change the channels. Not that this was such a problem, since there were only three
My first dictionary was given to me by my parents in the sixth grade. I’ve kept it for the simple reason that the word “computer” does not appear in it. I did my masters degree on my father’s World War II manual typewriter; several years ago our sons got it out of the closet, looked at it, and asked me what it was. Now I work on my laptop when I’m not using my BlackBerry.
Yet with all our prosperity, are we happier people?
“Unipolar” depression, the condition in which a person always feels blue, is ten times as prevalent as it was 50 years ago. Suicide among young people has tripled since 1950. Every year in America, more people kill themselves than kill each other. Alcohol consumption has doubled in the last 50 years; 43 alcohol-related deaths occur every hour in our country.
Why, when we have so much for which to be thankful, are we not more happy? It’s because we need to learn a simple formula: Grace – Grades = Gratitude. This formula will lead us to Thanksgiving all year long and the joy of Jesus every day.
The good news of grace
Tradition attributes Psalm 139 to David, written probably near the end of his life as he is looking back over all he has seen and done: Saul, Goliath, Bathsheba, and all the rest of one of the most checkered figures in history. Here is his testimony of the grace of God.
God knows all about us: “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me” (v. 1).
“Searched” is a Hebrew word for boring or digging, exploring every part of us; “know” means to know someone intimately and personally. These words are active–God has searched you and me and knows us right now, this moment.
He knows our actions: “when I sit and when I rise.” He knows the good and bad things we’ve done, our personal Goliaths and Bathshebas and everything in between.
He knows our thoughts: “you perceive my thoughts from afar.” He knows what you’re thinking at this very moment.
He knows our activities: “You discern my going out and my lying down,” what I do in public and in private. “You are familiar with all my ways,” literally “all the paths I take, everywhere I have been and am going.”
He knows our words, so that before we speak our next word “you know it completely” (v. 4). He knows what we say and what we mean by what we say.
And yet, despite all that he knows about us, he loves us and cares for us. “You hem me in–behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me” (v. 5). The phrase was used of troops surrounding us to protect us. His hand is upon us so that he will never lose us. As Jesus said of his followers, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).
He will not abandon us, even when we abandon him (vs. 7-12). “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (v. 8). These are the vertical extremes of the world, from the highest to the lowest. “If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (vs. 9-10). The “dawn” was to the east, of course; the “far side of the sea” was the Mediterranean Sea to the west. These are the horizontal extremes of the world, from the east to the west.
“If I say, ‘Surely darkness will hide me,'” “even the darkness will not be dark to you” because “darkness is as light to you” (vs. 11-12). “Darkness” in the Hebrew is usually associated with chaos and death, while “light” signifies holiness, purity, and hope. These are the moral extremes of the world, from worst to best. Even then God will not abandon us.
He will not forsake us, because he made us. We are the children of the Father of the universe. “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (v. 13). “Knit me together” translates Hebrew which means to weave all the strands of cloth. Later he will say “I was woven together in the depths of the earth” (v. 15); the words mean to use all the various colors to make a beautiful tapestry.
Not only did God make us–he made all that surrounds us: “your works are wonderful; I know that full well” (v. 14). You are the greatest miracle you know. Of all the billions and billions of living species which have existed since the dawn of time, 99.99 percent are no longer around. But you are. You are made of protons, things so small that a dot on an “i” can hold 500 billion of them (the number of seconds contained the last half million years). And yet you live in a visible universe which is a million million million million miles across. Our Milky Way is one of 140 billion or so other galaxies. Our universe is so large that the chances you would end up on this tiny planet by random coincidence are one in a billion trillion trillion (one followed by 33 zeroes). Your God made all of that and all of you. Now, what’s your problem?
“All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (v. 16). All 650,000 hours or so. He has made us, and he knows everything that will come to pass in our lives, and loves us anyway.
In fact, he is thinking of us right now: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand” (vs. 17-18a). A better translation from the Hebrew is, “How precious concerning me are your thoughts, O God.”
God thinks of us more than the grains of sand in the world. How many is this? The latest guess is 75 followed by 18 zeroes. That’s how many times God thinks about you. Do the math: if you live to be 70 years of age, you will have 2.2 billion seconds in your lifespan. To think about you in that lifespan as often as the grains of sand, God must think of you three billion times a second.
When we awake, he is still with us. He never sleeps: “he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4). He thinks of us all day, every day, every moment. This is the grace of God.
The bad news of grades
When I was in high school, my student minister gave me the best single piece of advice I’ve ever received: “Remember the source of your personal worth.” Your worth, your reason for Thanksgiving, can be the grace of God. It can be the fact that you are beloved by the Lord of the universe, that the Creator of all that exists is on your side, that you are the child of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
You can choose to celebrate the good news of grace. Or you can choose to accept the bad news of grades.
You can decide that you are what you have, what you drive or wear or where you live. This year’s Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog will sell you a submarine for $1.44 million or a $75,000 talking robot. You can buy 10 acres in Montana for $2.3 million, or a $73,000 cell phone studded with 7.2 carats of white and pink diamonds.
Your Christmas can be all about what you get and give, because the one who dies with the most toys wins. You are what you have, except that it’s never enough. They’ll make new cars next year, and bigger homes down the block. Grades are never enough.
You can decide that you are where you’re from. For $119.00 you can buy a kit which will trace your ancestry through your DNA. You can be the product of your family, your home, your education, your college. Except that someone else is from a wealthier family, a better education. Grades are never enough.
You can decide that you are what you do. You are the friends you have or the points you score or the grades you make. Except that you’re never done. There are always more people to impress, more games to win, more tests to take. Always. When I’m finished this week, I have to plan for next week. And the week after. Grades are never enough.
John Claypool, the Baptist pastor turned Episcopal rector, was one of my very favorite preachers. In his classic book The Preaching Event, he speaks for most of us: “People used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I was shrewd enough to fashion my answer according to what I thought they wanted to hear. For some it was a policeman, for others a fireman or a preacher. However, in my own heart of hearts, I had my own private fantasy that I never dared to share with anyone. Do you know what it was? I am telling you the gospel truth: I wanted to be president of the world! I envisioned the whole human race as a giant pyramid with one piece of preeminence at the top. I dreamed of climbing over everybody’s back until at last I got there. Then I knew exactly what I would do. I would look down and say, ‘Now! Now, do I amount to something? Have I at last become a somebody out of my nobodiness?'” (p. 64).
Grades are never enough.
Why did you need to hear about grace today? How was your Thanksgiving? Did it last past the meal and the football games? Where have grades stolen your soul? What troubles or stress or guilt or fears have enslaved your spirit?
The good news of grace is that when I don’t want to be with God, he wants to be with me. When I am too shamed to seek his presence, he seeks mine. When I am too busy for him, he is never too busy for me. When I want only what is best for me, he still wants what is best for me. When I refuse to follow him, he still follows me. And you.
Worship Jesus because he loves you, not so he will. Pray and read God’s word because he accepts you, not so he will. Serve your Lord and share your faith because God has rewarded you, not so he will. Grace – grades = gratitude.
Henri Nouwen heard God whisper these words to his soul and ours:
I have called you by name from the very beginning.
You are mine and I am yours. You are my beloved; on you my favor rests.
I have molded you in the depths of the earth, and knitted you together in your mother’s womb.
I have carved you in the palm of my hand and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace.
I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child.
I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step.
Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch.
I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst.
I will not hide my face from you. You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased.
This is the grace of God. Are you grateful?