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.