The vast majority of our small Southern town had turned out for the fair that day, the beauty pageant a main attraction. Wiggly five-year-old girls dressed to the nine’s stretched across the stage, which my mom says was probably a flat bed truck. I was among them in the pink floral seersucker dress she had hand-sewn for me.
I probably didn’t entirely understand why I was there, but knew where I would rather be—just behind the stage where a man was blowing glass. His creations caught the light, and he was in smack-dab in the middle of making the next beautiful thing.
Spellbound, I couldn’t tear my eyes away. I had twisted my body around to get a better view of the magic, away from the sixty-some people, including my parents, grandparents, and an aunt and uncle, who had shown up to soak in the cuteness emanating from the stage.
When coaxed to face forward, I obeyed, but only briefly. The temptation proved irresistible.
When the pageant winner was announced, she stepped forward to receive her prize—a sparkly tiara—which someone ceremoniously placed on her head. That part of the pageant was sufficiently interesting to capture my attention. And, I understood now that I hadn’t won.
Then the first runner-up was announced. To my amazement, it was me.
I had been so wrapped up in the glass blowing, the judges couldn’t have caught more than a fleeting glimpse of my face. My mom’s dress must have won this honor.
When I stepped up to receive the award, to my delight, it was much better than the crown the first-place winner was wearing. It was a stack of colorful plastic sandbox toys—a colander, a shovel, and a few other goodies—bound together with twist ties in one neat package.
I held it for a moment, unsure of what exactly to do with it. Then I spotted my grandpa in the crowd, smiling and motioning for me to put it on my head.
Grandpa had never failed me before. I had no reason not to trust him. So I turned the colander-shovel set upside down and set it down on my head, as if it were a tiara.
The crowd erupted in laughter. That event might have launched my career as a comedian, had I meant to be funny. Instead, I sank with embarrassment.
Still, I went home that day, not envious of the first place winner, but with what I thought a better prize. As a five-year-old, I didn’t glean any great spiritual lesson from that experience, but twelve or thirteen years later, when a similar thing happened—this time in academics—I did.
I knew my parents couldn’t help me with college tuition—maybe with occasional book money—so I worked hard to get scholarships.
So far, I had won the Rotary, Wal-Mart, and one other, which, all together, totaled only $3,000, not nearly enough. Without a full-tuition scholarship, the private Christian school I had set my sites on would be out of reach.
I learned if I earned a certain score on the national entrance exam, that school would give me an automatic scholarship.
I took the test and got a good score—I was even offered full rides from two state schools—but had missed the mark for the private school. I prayed, asking God to help me get the score I needed, and took the test a second time.
When the results came in, my heart sank, but I still had time to take the test once more before the cutoff date.
I prayed again before taking the test. This time, my score came up, but to just under the threshold for the automatic scholarship. I had still missed the mark.
But, all was not lost.
The university apprised me of another scholarship, one would require an application. The decision-makers would consider, not just my national college entrance exam score, but my extracurricular, leadership, and scholarly activities. So, I prepared essays and supporting documentation and submitted it with a prayer.
To my delight and amazement, I was awarded this one.
I praised God. He had filled the gap between my ability and what I needed. He had given me my heart’s desire. I would be going to the college of my choice.
That was enough, but what I didn’t yet understand is that He had given me even more.
Two years later, when my university raised tuition rates, I learned my scholarship was better than the automatic one. The automatic full-tuition scholarships awarded by national entrance exam scores alone covered the exact dollar amount of tuition set at the time of the students’ entrance. They would have to pay the difference. Mine covered “tuition,” so I wouldn’t pay a dime more.
I didn’t rejoice at their misfortune, but I did marvel at what God had done for me.
Missing the mark + God was better than hitting the mark on my own. He had provided me with more than what the first prize winners earned by their higher scores.
Perhaps I would have been tempted to take the credit myself had I made the exam’s cut-off score on the first try—or at all. But this way, I couldn’t miss God’s grace, both when I won the scholarship, and then two years later, when I realized what He had done for me.
This was a beautiful, experiential lesson in the grace of God. He had all kinds of creative ways to provide for me.
His grace not only filled the gap between what I was able to win and what I needed (or wanted), but overflowed in its abundance. I could trust God, I learned, even when I didn’t take first place or win what seemed, by other people’s standards to be the “best” prize.
God’s gifts are always good, but are often much more than what they initially seem, layers of goodness embedded in them awaiting our discovery.
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” James 1:17 (NIV)
What gift has God given you that you only fully realized the magnitude of later?