The surrounding hills were covered in a white blanket as I gingerly made my way down the hill to school in the cold morning air. Situated in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains, it is rare but not impossible for our campus to receive such a snowfall. Walking on the slippery road past the school laundry I was greeted by the sound of multiple voices as the staff sang gospel songs while waiting for the return of power to start their work. Heavenly voices echoing through the snow-clad valley. Grace notes.

What’s so amazing about grace?

The concept of grace notes is explored in Philip Yancey’s seminal work, ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace’. A view, a song, an unexpected 100 Rand note in your pocket, kindness from a stranger. Often underserved and mostly fleeting, grace notes ‘interrupt the monotonous background growl of ungrace’.

According to Yancey while mercy is the withholding of something negative that we do deserve, grace is the receiving of something good that we don’t deserve.  His book essentially goes onto unpack this idea at the heart of the Gospel and examine the ramifications of what is essentially a radical concept. As a teacher and school counsellor,

this book and the ideas it contains have stayed with me since I first read it. Throughout my career, it has infiltrated my thinking, and hopefully my practice, in my dealings with those around me.

The atrocious mathematics of the gospel

One of my favourite chapters, ‘The New Math of Grace’, examines the ‘atrocious mathematics of the gospel’. What sense does it make for a woman to throw money away, almost literally, by pouring a pint of exotic perfume, worth a year’s wages, over the feet of a carpenter from Nazareth. Wasteful. What shepherd in their right mind would leave a flock of ninety-nine sheep to the mercy of predators and thieves, to go and search for just one? And no, the two tiny coins of an old woman dropped into the temple collection bucket, cannot be more valuable than the large donations of the wealthy.

A grace starved world

And yet this ‘atrocious’ counter cultural approach is refreshing. It’s nourishing food in a grace starved world. In our performance driven society, time is money, favour must be earned and the idea that God helps those who help themselves has been written into many people’s version of the Bible.

From your bank to frequent flyer programmes, to company pay scales, ungrace has polluted our world to the point that we take it for granted.

The message to pupils in this world

Schools, as a microcosm of our harsh and often graceless world, are no different. Young people’s worth is measured and graded throughout their school careers. Be it A symbols or 1st Team selectins performance is recognised and rewarded by certificates, badges, and colours on or of blazers. The race it seems is to the swift and the battle to the strong.

The message to pupils in this world is clear. Earn your place. Like the adults around them children are often exhausted and anxious. Desperate to prove their worth.

A lovesick Heavenly Father

Cutting through this earthly clutter is the message from a lovesick father, ’You matter’. God judges the heart not the outward appearance. This is a message teenagers in particular need to hear regularly and in a variety of ways. Places and spaces where children can be themselves and know that they are accepted for who they are.

Teachers can be a grace note

Sometime a grace note can be another person. Teachers can be a grace note in the lives of their pupils. It’s interesting but when that one child goes off on their own path the other ninety-nine are watching to see perhaps how we will respond when it is there turn to stray. Do we recognise that someday for one child just to pitch up at school is as much of a contribution as the Honours student who cleans up at prizegiving?

Maybe all that wasted time and resources demanded by that needy pupil is no different to the alabaster jar broken at the feet of another individual centuries ago?

Published around a quarter of a century ago this book, dealing as it does with timeless issues, is still relevant today. It’s paradigm shifting prose can be applied in all areas of life and is a very real guide to being salt and light in this world. For educators though it is particularly pertinent. The more we take on this message at the very heart of the gospel the more we can be notes of grace in the lives of those who need our song most.