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In my youth, I used to feel soooooooo guilty whenever, on a rare opportunity, I would get to listen to or, dare I say, hum the hymn “Amazing Grace.” It made me feel like a bad Christian, like I was betraying god. Strange, you might say, or puzzling, that “Amazing Grace” would evoke such emotions.
Let me explain. Though I grew up in an extremely religious home setting, Amazing Grace was not a song I was familiar with. I was well into my late teens the first time I heard it. I can’t recall where I was. But, I can promise you that it could not had been at a place of worship. I’m sure of this because it is not a hymn that I would have heard at a Kingdom Hall – what Jehovah’s Witnesses call church- and I would’ve been terrified to step foot in a church of another denomination for fear of damnation. My mother almost didn’t attend her own father’s funeral because it was held in a catholic church.
Jehovah’s Witness teaches that there are 2 religions: the true and the false. JW is “truth” while every other religion is false and based on deception. Anything that happens within the walls of other churches was off limits to me, including their songs.
But somewhere along the way, I came across “amazing grace.” I felt it right away. Something in it moved me in a way that I can’t explain even now. I had favorite hymns at Kingdom Hall that I looked forward to whenever they came up in the rotation. But Amazing Grace was something else. Looking back now, I think it felt… holy.
As I got better acquainted with the hymn, I realized that I wasn’t alone in my love affair with it; that it was indeed quite beloved by both Christians and non Christians alike; by “the saved” and the unsaved. It is apparently one of the most recognizable songs in the English-speaking world. Author Gilbert Chase notes that it is “without a doubt the most famous of all the folk hymns.”
Because I’m in awe of it, I have made it a practice over the years to ask people what they thought of it. And sometimes I’m offered opinions simply by bringing it up in conversations. Granted not every I’ve talked to necessarily cared for it. buuuuttttt… they had all heard it. Some heard it too much and, consequently, grew tired of. There is concern among scholars that the song might become a “cliche” due to overuse.
Though it is used in other settings, it is highly associated with funeral and memorial services. “It has become a song that inspires hope in the wake of tragedy, becoming a sort of “spiritual national anthem” says authors Mary Rourke and Emily Gwathmey.
What is it about this song that moves so many? (I was moved enough to risk my salvation by humming it. I was fearful of actually saying the words out loud.) Would you believe that it is estimated that Amazing Grace is performed about 10 million times a year (that’s over 27,000 times a day)? Is that even possible. That’s what biographer, Jonathan Aitken, says. The hymn has been on over 11,000 albums – recorded by many famous singers for a secular audience. It’s been on the music charts – even made it all the way to number 5 once. There’s been movie and, more recently, a broadway musical about it.
Amazing Grace’s popularity is credited in part to its “message that forgiveness and redemption are possible regardless of sins committed, and that the soul can be delivered from despair through the mercy of God.” (Aitken) The hymn’s author, English poet and minister John Newton, wrote the lyrics as part of his New Year’s Day sermon in 1773 and used his own life experience as inspiration.
Newton, himself, did not grow up with religion or any religious conviction. He found God late in life. A good portion of his adult life was spent working as a sea captain in the Atlantic Slave Trade. In short, he was a slave trader. It is believed that in 1748, his ship almost wrecked in a coastal area in Ireland during a severe storm. In that moment of dire need, he cried out to God and felt that he was shown mercy. He viewed it as a miracle that his ship did not crash. This was the start of his spiritual conversion, though he didn’t leave the slave trade business until about 7 years later. But leave it, he did. It takes some a us a little time to allow grace in.
Newton went on to become an Anglican minister. It was during that time that he wrote Amazing Grace. Much later in life, he actively fought to end slave trading and even wrote against slavery. He came to be well known throughout England for those views.
Newton was a huge influence on William Wilberforce, the English politician who fought the good fight in parliament to end the slave trade and succeeded in getting it abolish in England. Newton was a sort adviser to the young Wilberforce and brought him to the understanding that enslaving another human being was wrong and that the slave trade needed to end. Newton was also influential in Wilberforce actually remaining in politics, as he seriously considered leaving the profession. Newton discouraged him from doing this suggesting that God put him there for a reason. Wilberforce made the choice not to separate his politics from his faith. He, in fact, used his Christian faith to make his arguments at parliament for abolishing the slave trade.
It’s interesting that this person, John Newton, who made his living trading humans, then grew to understand how wrong that was, and became instrumental in dismantling that industry in England! His life was indeed an example of grace manifested, which makes sense that it would be the inspiration for “Amazing Grace.”
Now, taking “God” out of Amazing Grace if that’s possible, and I suppose it has to be since Amazing Grace has such a broad reach, there is something universal about the sentiments expressed in the lyrics. The “wretch” language… sure… is problematic, and some of the simplicity of being “lost and now found” is a bit too risky and, therefore, uncomfortable for some of us. However, it is quite human to feel lost or powerless to stop horrible things from happening to us and those we love; to feel unworthy or undeserving of love and compassion; to face what feels like insurmountable dangers, trials, and tribulations. At the same time, how many of us have had moments where things suddenly turn in our favor not due to any effort of our own; or life or a fellow traveler on our planet earth shows us kindness when it could not had been any less deserved or expected; or we are simply shown mercy, better yet, grace. For those reasons, Amazing Grace speaks to many of us.
There is a company called Philospohy that makes and sells beauty products such as body wash, lotions, perfumes, etc. They generally put sayings on their packages about grace and it was there that I found one of my favorite quotes about the subject.
“Grace is genuine compassion. a smile, a laugh, a tear. it comes from the most honest place in the heart where real emotion lies. the most beautiful expression of grace is compassion presented in the purest light.”
I like this definition because of its simplicity and how “grace” seems like something we can all do.
- There is grace in holding back from saying, “I told so” given that the person is already suffering the consequences of their action.
- There is grace in Dr. Ford testifying bravely before the senate.
- There is grace in the millions of women who have been touched by these events.
- There is grace in bearing witness and being present for one another.
- There is grace in giving without having to be asked or thanked, in just doing our part
I heard this story on the news a little while ago. It was a human interest story. You might have heard it too. It was about a car accident where a young woman was trapped in her car and the firefighters were failing in their efforts to pry her out.
A man approached the scene and asked if he could speak with her. He was wearing what gave those who were present the impression that he was a member of the clergy. He sat with her, held her hand and told her that everything would be okay. She became calm as did everybody else on the scene. Right about that time, another fire truck, with the correct equipment, arrived and they were successful and freeing the woman from the car.
Now the reason for the reporting of this story was that the woman’s family and others were looking for this man and were now referring to him as some mystical being, perhaps an “angel.”
As I see it, he was someone who saw a need, saw the panic in everyone and decided to step in and do his part, to show compassion, not requiring recognition or thanks.
- There is also grace, as seen in the Cracked Pot story, in helping others see their own unique purpose and destiny. It is within our control to uplift another. Sometimes, it just takes a simple reminder from us to help someone see their cracks or imperfections as gifts that can lead to the creation of beautiful and wondrous things.
I view grace as a process by which we grow spiritually into deeper truth and oneness with the sacred, not necessarily by which we are “saved” in a traditional sense. I have long since lost the religion of my childhood for it rendered me lost for quite a long time. So, my spiritual journey has not been an easy one. It has instead been rocky and turbulent. Amazing Grace, though, has remained with me. It has been a familiar friend that has been both comforting and distressing depending on circumstances. I sing it now openly without feeling the slightest hint of guilt or fear.