Every Fall homecoming, Peoria Notre Dame High School honors a distinguished alumnus. One year the award went to a generous and faithful man whose lucrative local company sourced a part to Caterpillar, Inc more cheaply and effectively than any of his competitors. This wealthy man was a great benefactor to the local civic and Catholic community.
As we chatted during the reception, I asked him the secret to his success. Because after all, I said, these kids would surely like to know.
His answer surprised me.
Chuckling, he said: “You may not believe it, but here it is. My secret is, I was a ‘C’ student.”
Seeing my perplexity, he explained.
“You see, back in school, I couldn’t compete with all those straight A whiz kids with their scholarships to Northwestern and their 35 ACT scores. I knew I was smart - my mother drilled that into me - but it was a different kind of smart. I was street smart. I could look around, see the needs, notice the problems, figure out how to add value. I knew that was the only way for someone like me to succeed.”
“Don’t think it came easy,” he added. “I started several businesses that failed, till I stumbled into this thing I built that now has 500 employees.”
Finally, he squeezed my arm and looked me in the eye. “Tell these kids to pay attention, open their eyes, look around. Tell them to look for ways to serve. They learn that, they’ll always have a job. Success will find them.”
This successful businessman taught me an important lesson that day - not just about business, but about discipleship.
There are “report card” students, and then there are the entrepreneurs.
I have come to loathe “report card Christianity.” I have known many Christians - including myself - whose approach to discipleship is like school. The goal is to get good grades on our moral report card, so we can “pass” the exam and go to heaven.
While this may make us compliant, and even give the appearance of holiness, it does not make us creative adders of Kingdom value.
In fact, pursuing those A’s can often end up, somewhat ironically, making us self-centered (it’s about “MY holiness, MY spiritual success”). We forget that grades, a modest means for charting progress, serve ends which transcend the classroom. Jesus does not so much demand straight A’s on our moral report card, or a 36 spiritual ACT. What he does demand is that we love our neighbor, serve the poor, proclaim the Good News, and bear fruit.
Now, just in case you now want write me off as some liberal who is soft on morality, please listen.
This is not about some either/or proposition, like law vs. love, as if striving for moral rectitude precludes Kingdom-building service. Without the ‘habits’ acquired and yes, to a degree, even ‘measured’ through moral and devotional ‘grades,’ we can scarcely hope to be effective disciples.
It’s just that, like school, we can easily mistake the means for the ends. Just look at the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day. These amazing students of the Law, so proud of their straight A report cards, missed out on - and even tried destroying - the greatest entrepreneurial enterprise the world has ever seen: the Kingdom of God.
How many kids in our schools today flounder in the classroom, while secretly possessing gifts of staggering potential to make the world better? And yet, the “report card” mentality ends up convincing them that, alas, they have little or nothing of value to contribute. It’s Northwestern or bust, so to speak. C students need not apply.
How many Christians in our churches today flounder with this or that sin, this or that problem, this or that doubt, while secretly possessing gifts of staggering potential to make the world better - and advance the Kingdom? And yet, the “report card” mentality of some churches ends up convincing them that, alas, they have little or nothing of value to contribute. It’s Sanctity or bust, so to speak. C students need not apply.
Report Card Christianity crushes many would-be disciples, discouraging them to a pulp and finally sending them packing for friendlier climates. Somewhere along the way, all those C’s and D’s finally convince them this game is not theirs for the winning. “You don’t belong. This church is not for you.” This is the message, seldom explicit but clear nonetheless, that too many take away.
“Report cards” of prominent piety and measurable morality somehow, insidiously, are given power to set the whole stinking narrative, because “that’s how we measure Christianity around here.” All the richness and subtlety of learning, reduced to seven little letters. All the mystery and magic of a person, reduced to a few favorite sins. It makes me want to cry. This is not the gospel; yet, it has somehow, too much, become our gospel.
Peter, James, John, Matthew, Philip, Mary Magdalene, - these were not exactly straight A students. And yet, Jesus saw something in them. He awakened their hearts and ignited their dreams, convincing them that they, yes THEY, had something of value to contribute to this new thing called the Kingdom.
Jesus loved them first. He loved them, welcomed them, called them, when their report cards were nothing to post on a refrigerator. Yes, he most assuredly called them to repent. But He also gradually, patiently discipled them. He gave them a mission, a destiny, a purpose.
Their moral inconsistencies were ironed out through the process of following, over time - and within a specific context of friendship and community with their Master and one another. After long battles, fueled by the energy that only hope can bring, then came - slowly but inexorably - a deep-seated moral coherence that today we recognize as sanctity. It wasn’t their morality that prepared them for mission; it was the mission that prepared them for morality. Indeed, more than morality: Jesus’ mission birthed a new humanity.
How many people in our churches (and out) are waiting, perhaps unawares, for this new humanity? Longing for someone to offer this hope? This hope that maybe I, too, with all my sins and failures, have something to offer; maybe I, too, have some value to add, have some service to provide, have some love to give Jesus and my neighbor.
Maybe I have such a heart for the C and D Christians because I so often am one. And yet, because Jesus has never given up on me, nor I on him, I actually can see some Kingdom value I have contributed through the years, and I can see with hope the progress I have made under His care and in service of His mission and in union with His people. This brings a hope and happiness I want to share with others.
Maybe I have such a disdain and impatience for Report Card Christians because I so often am one. My inner Pharisee can strut with the proudest of the proud, and at times would utterly exterminate charity through the righteous precision of those few occasional A’s. This always robs me of hope and happiness, extinguishes compassion, and imprisons me in myself. It’s a spiritual dead end that I have taken way too often.
Enough! Enough report card Christianity. This is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let's call it what it is: Moralism. Empty, idolatrous moralism. The spirit of Religion. Works righteousness. Whatever. I’m so sick of seeing it break people’s spirits and repel them from the church. I’m sick of it impersonating, representing, displacing, reducing the real Gospel.
The exhilarating, breathtaking, subversive beauty of the Gospel is precisely its very un-report-card-ness. It’s the last becoming first, and the first becoming last. It’s Jesus surprising sinners like you and me with his unmerited, gratuitous, improbable gaze of love. It’s the way he points and says, “You...follow me.” And we're like, “What? Me? The C student? You don’t want me, you can’t possibly be interested in the likes of me...” And he just points again, gazing beyond the laziness and the mediocre marks, to some hidden potential we don't see, saying, “You...follow me.”
Ah, the power of Jesus. What joy, what grace! C students, yet... chosen. Wanted. Called.
Maybe faith really begins by seeing HE believes in US.
What the World Needs
“Tell these kids to pay attention, open their eyes, look around. Tell them to look for ways to serve. They learn that, they’ll always have a job, success will find them.” A decade later, that advice still stirs me deeply. I think that successful entrepreneur was saying, in effect: Teach them to go beyond the report card.
Today’s world needs Christians who can go beyond the report card.
The world today does not need Christians shut up inside their rooms studying for the big test, striving to make their ‘A,’ as the world bleeds out.
Today's world needs entrepreneurial disciples of Jesus and the Kingdom who can look around, see the needs, notice the problems, hear the cries, and set out to add value... in spite of many C's. It needs disciples who can set out, unafraid, after the Master, even when it’s risky and messy and uncomfortable and does not receive the neat reward of a printed A on an official piece of paper.
Maybe this is the kind of “distinguished alumni” the Lord longs to recognize at the Great Homecoming.
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