Sept. 5, 2006
Gifts, grace and gratitude
Frank Alexander, who delivered this year’s Convocation address, is a professor of law and founding director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion.
It is my honor and pleasure to welcome you this day to Emory University and to the beginning of your college education. Emory is one of the finest universities in the world and you are all members of a select group of the most talented and accomplished students in the country. In acknowledging your achievements thus far and the outstanding achievements of Emory University itself, I would like to share with you three brief observations: about gifts, grace and gratitude and how these three lay the foundation for integrity.
During the election primaries here in Georgia a few weeks ago, a pollster from New York was traveling through rural Georgia interviewing voters. This pollster, who had never been in the Deep South before, stopped early one morning for breakfast at a roadside cafe in south Georgia. He ordered bacon, eggs and toast. In a few minutes the waitress brought him his plate of food and as he looked down he saw bacon, eggs, toast—and some white stuff sitting between the eggs and bacon. He looked at the waitress and said, “Excuse me, ma’am, what is this white stuff?” She looked at him a bit oddly and replied, “Why, those are grits.” “Grits,” he said, “but I didn’t order any grits.” The waitress calmly replied, “You don’t order grits; they just come to you.”
Today we celebrate what you have accomplished thus far, how you have used the abilities you have been given, and what you will accomplish in years to come. Your presence here is a tribute to you, but far more than that it is a tribute to the talents and abilities which God has bestowed upon you. As in the case of grits, none of you placed an order before you were born for a specific menu of talents—they just came to you. Academic ability is a great gift, and we are all proud and thankful for it.
A gift is something we do not earn. A gift is something we do not deserve. A gift is an act of grace. A gracious giver and a graceful act lie behind each gift. There is a deep and pervasive tendency in each of us to assume that who we are, what we do, and what we have are the result of our own efforts, our own merits. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a dangerous illusion to think that our accomplishments are solely of our own making. The success which you have achieved, and in which we rejoice, is and must always be attributed first and foremost to the gifts you have been given.
By the grace of God, by the wisdom of YHWH, you have been given abundant talents. By the grace and wisdom of your parents, through the teaching and support of your communities, with the warmth and encouragement of your friends, you have indeed been mightily blessed. Just as you do not earn the gifts you have been given, for they are an act of grace, your presence here at this Convocation is not in the first instance an honor which is earned. It is an honor, a recognition, a way of saying grace, for that which you have been given.
In the words of Deuter-onomy (6:10-12), you “inhabit flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant….” Never confuse achievements with gifts. If you allow achievements or success to be the ultimate goal, it is likely that you will find that you have become a martyr to the illusion of self-seeking.
In western France, not far from the line dividing Brittany from Normandy, lies the small village of Colleville. Just outside of Colleville are beautiful rolling pastures, verdant fields and centuries-old stone farmhouses. At the edge of one of these fields, on a magnificent bluff overlooking the English Channel, is a 176-acre lawn. In the midst of this lawn, in perfect symmetry stretching as far as the eye can see, are marble crosses and Stars of David with the names and ranks of over 9,000 members of the American Armed Forces who died in the World War II invasion of Normandy. At one end of the lawn is a semi-circular wall with the names of 1,500 other soldiers who forever are missing in action. Inscribed in the wall above all these names are the words: “To these we owe the high resolve that the cause for which they died shall live.”
Far too often each of us succumbs to the temptation to define ourselves, and others, solely in terms of our achievements and to do so is to sell our souls to illusions of self-grandeur. Integrity is the acknowledgment that our achievements are not really ours; they are simply and solely a response to that which has graciously been given to us.
I trust that each of you has, at some point in your academic career, encountered failure to achieve at the level you hoped. Because so many of you probably have not encountered much failure in life thus far, I pray that when you do (and you surely will) you will not let your failures blind you to your gifts. To deny our own weaknesses is to distort the gifts we have. To hide our own failures is to undercut the gratitude of responsible action. Claiming failure is possible when we also claim the grace which underlies our gifts. Understanding our individual gifts and weaknesses and appreciating the gifts and weaknesses of each person around us is what distinguishes knowledge from wisdom. Academic excellence is most often equated with knowledge and that, of course, is a great gift. Wisdom, however, is the realization that our knowledge is never complete. In the words of Adlai Stevenson, “Knowledge alone is not enough; it must be leavened with magnanimity before it becomes wisdom.”
The appreciation of gifts is the first element of integrity. Knowing that they are acts of grace is the second. Responding with gratitude to that which has been gracefully given is the third.
Gratitude is one’s response to a gift. A gift, whether from a loved one, a friend, or a stranger lying in a field in Colleville, France, quickly turns to dust if it is not acknowledged. Gratitude is the essence of responsibility.
Responsibility means literally “the response to one’s abilities” or “the ability to respond.” I am sure that each of you has worked very hard to be here today. It has, I’m sure, taken a great deal of grit (perhaps even grits) to achieve your SAT scores, your grade point average, your numerous activities. But make no mistake as to why this is done. Your schools, your families, your friends have pushed you not in order to make you a success but to help you respond to the abilities you have been given. The act of grace which has bestowed these gifts of academic achievement upon you, and your gratitude in responding to these gifts, are at the foundation of your integrity.
If you do not acknowledge the gifts you are given, you are likely not to respond with gratitude. If you do not respond with gratitude to that which you have been given, the gift will be lost. It matters not so much what you have been given; it matters greatly what you do with what you have been given.
In July my 19 year old nephew had brain surgery—his fifth brain surgery to deal with epileptic seizures of unknown origin. During this experimental surgery he spent two weeks with a sizable portion of his skull removed, electrodes running from his brain to a computer. Literally hard-wired to the terminal, he could not sit up much less leave the bed for two solid weeks. On one of these days I spoke with him by telephone and asked him how he was doing. His response was, quite simply, “Oh Uncle Frank, I’m doing fine. I am so blessed.”
Integrity is responding with gratitude to one of the most precious gifts which we all have been given, and that is the person sitting next to you. The gift of your own life is matched by the gift of the other person. Each and every person is a gift to you, to me. Your gifts of academic ability, of student leadership, of athletic success, of an excellent school, never stand alone for they must be understood in terms of the other person. The life of another person is itself a gift to you. If gratitude is action in response to a gift, and the life of another person is one of our most precious gifts, then let your lives be a gracious response to the lives of others.
Integrity is the realization that our abilities are gifts, that our gifts are enriched and multiplied by the gifts of others, that our weaknesses are strengthened by the gifts of others, that our lives are a response to the antecedent grace of God.
Service to others, service for others, service with others—these are not duties. They are opportunities. In the opportunity for service lies the possibility of freedom.
Use your gifts in service and therein discover the greatest gift of all.
Frank Alexander delivered the Convocation address at Glenn Auditorium on Aug. 29.