Twelve Hymns Project: Amazing Grace
Texts: Exodus 34:5-9; Acts 9:1-9
Joel and Abbie Miller
Anne Lamott wrote: “I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”
Maybe this helps explain the popularity of “Amazing grace.” The song has been so widely embraced, it spans all kinds of communities that otherwise have little in common, religious and secular. We are at so many different places – in our life experience, in our ideas about the world. Grace meets us where we’re at, and so, it seems, does this song that features grace as its protagonist.
A case in point for this breadth of appeal is that these lyrics, written by an English former slave ship captain, John Newton, have also become adopted among the African American spirituals. Descendants of the enslaved and the enslavers need not understand all the mysteries of grace in order to know we need it.
The hymn “Amazing Grace” as we know it, has a grace filled history as well. It was originally written as a reading or poem that may have been chanted instead of sung. It was not even seen as one of John Newton’s finest works in Britain. One biographer calls Newton , in reference to this song, an “unashamedly middle brow lyricist for a low brow congregation.” Out of the 150 words, only 21 are more than one syllable.
Despite this, the song took hold in the United States during the Second Great Awakening and the development of shape note singing. Amazing Grace was used during tent revival meetings to punctuate fervent sermons, with added repetitive verses. It was sung to around 20 different melodies before it became widely known and published with a melody named “New Britain”.
The hymn was printed in hymnbooks passed out to soldiers and used for services and funerals during the civil war. It is considered a “paradigmatic Negro spiritual” because it expresses the joy felt at being delivered from slavery and worldly misery. Harriet Beecher Stowe first recorded the last verse in her book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. “When we’ve been there 10,000 years…” Amazing Grace was translated into other languages as well. While on the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee sang Christian hymns as a way of coping with ongoing tragedy, and a version of Amazing Grace translated into the Cherokee language became very popular.
Amazing Grace continued to give soul to the Civil Rights movement and was recorded by Mahalia Jackson as well as used as a marching song by Fannie Lou Hamer. It has been recorded 7,000 times by a diverse group of singers, secular as well as religious. Amazing Grace has been sung everywhere from Carnegie hall to Woodstock. Johnny Cash often sang it during his prison concerts, he said, “For the three minutes that song is going on, everybody is free. It just frees the spirit and frees the person.”
Anne Lamott has written openly about her struggles with addiction, the challenges of motherhood, and the general difficulty and wonder of being human. Grace was a strong enough thread through it all that she included it in the book title: Grace (Eventually).
It would be a good title for the life of John Newton as well. The song says, “how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.” It sounds like a sudden conversion experience. But his story is much more one of grace eventually than grace suddenly.
His initial conversion experience, as he later told it, was aboard a ship, during his slave trading years. He was in his early 20’s. His ship, The Greyhound, was in the North Atlantic and ran into a massive storm. Newton feared for his life and did what lots of people do when they fear for their life. He prayed, and begged God for mercy. He survived the storm and landed his ship two weeks later in Ireland.
It was a wake up call for Newton, and he started giving more attention to prayer and the Bible. He began treating his crew, and his African cargo, with more kindness. But if that was the hour he first believed, it didn’t equate to a radically transformed life, yet. He continued to make his living off of the buying and selling and subsequent torture of human beings. He was a slave ship captain for the rest of his 20’s. He would later write about that time: “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”
After his sailing days Newton began to teach himself Latin and Greek and his friends were so impressed with his passion they encouraged him to become a priest, which he did. As a priest, he became more and more ashamed of his former life as a slave trader. He wrote over 280 hymns, one of them being Amazing Grace. Sixteen years later after writing that, in 1788, when he was 63, he wrote a pamphlet called “Thoughts upon the African slave trade.” It included detailed descriptions of the horrors that Africans experienced in the Middle Passage, aboard his ships. It helped shift public attitudes toward slavery in England and became key to the abolitionist movement. On the front cover of the pamphlet were the words of Jesus from Matthew 7:12, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
I grew up in a church that sang only acapella hymns. And everyone “had their place in the choir”. My memory of these hymns also contains the memory of where certain voices sat each Sunday and increased in volume as they sang their favorite line of the song. I was surrounded by grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, great and great great aunts and uncles. Throughout my childhood I sat with all of them and learned to know their voices. When we sing some of the old hymns, memories awaken so deep that I am transported back to that time, when the people in that church were my whole world.
It seems like most of my early memories of singing are connected with a strong sense of community, familiarity and learning about music making rather than specifically connecting to the words. I knew most of the hymns by heart, singing felt like a freedom during a service that was sermon centered. I did have a special connection to Amazing Grace though. The extravagant grace spoken of in the song was in stark contrast to some of the theology I heard from the pulpit and experienced in my life. How far could this grace go? Could grace, rather than guilt be the driving force behind a relationship with God? I didn’t have the words to form these questions at the time, but I could feel myself being pulled in its direction. I wasn’t comfortable with the strict way I was taught to separate myself from the “world”, was grace only for our group?
But I did see grace winding its way through my life, people helping us when we were struggling through my father’s depression, through conversations I had with my grandmother, through the open beauty of the kansas landscape and it’s sunsets. Grace wasn’t something I expected or even looked for at the time, but when it appeared, I knew that grace was where I would eventually find my resting place.
One of the most dramatic conversions in the Bible is the story of Paul. Paul was initially what we might today call a religious extremist, a hardcore fundamentalist. As if to underline its importance, the book of Acts tells his conversion story three different times.
Paul, or Saul, was on his way to the city of Damascus, on the trail of fellow Jews, men and women who belonged to “the Way” as the early Jesus movement was called. On his way, a light flashes around him, he falls to the ground, and has a mystical encounter with Christ. The whole thing leaves him in pretty bad shape. He’s blind and doesn’t eat or drink for three days.
His companions lead him into Damascus where Saul has another encounter, this time with a living and breathing human being – Ananias – one of those people of the Way Saul was hunting. Ananias enters the house where this religious extremist is staying, and reaches out his hands and rests them on Saul’s shoulders – Saul’s thirsty and hungry and blind body. Ananias’s first words to him are “Brother Saul.” This greeting corresponds with Saul being able to see again, something like scales falling from his eyes. An enemy becomes a brother. And Saul starts humming, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
“I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”
Paul would go on to write much of what we have as the New Testament. Grace is a sweet, sweet sound, and it fills the letters Paul addresses to those little communities of the Way, churches, scattered throughout the Roman Empire.
But grace wasn’t a new idea. Grace, by definition, is a divine gift. It preceeds human action. It is that which makes human action, and life itself possible in the first place. Grace was there from the very beginning.
When the Creator called the cosmos into being, it was an act of grace. When the God of Genesis 1 declares that creation to be good, it is a sign of grace. When Abraham and Sarah become the father and mother of a people meant to bless all nations, it is an act of grace. When the Hebrew people are brought out of slavery, and Moses receives the Ten Commandmants on Mount Sinai, those words, etched in stone, begin not with a human action, but with a Divine action, with grace. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery: Therefore …” Christians are accustomed to thinking of that as the introduction to the Ten Commandments, but in the Jewish counting, that counts as the first, and what follows is 2-10. First comes grace, then comes our response.
The Psalmist repeatedly banks on grace in crying out to God. The prophets are not always graceful in their delivery, but their imaginations were charged with the grace that called them to speak on behalf of the vulnerable.
Grace is a thick unbroken thread that runs from creation, through Christ, through Paul and Newton and Lamott, to us.
I believe music itself is an act of grace within the story of human existence, a universal language that can include words, elevate them and transcend them into a realm of memory and lived experience. In the last 20-30 years, scientific study of how our brains perceive and create music has come to suggest that it is a “biologically deeply ingrained function.” The brain has neural circuitry that is dedicated to music. Music is more than “icing on the cake of human evolution after basic biological needs and developments were satisfied.” Our brains were formed by and for music and music making.
Music can be processed bilaterally, using both sides of the brain at the same time. Rhythm, melody, emotions, memory, lyric analysis; all of these things can be processed during one song. There is also the full body experience of producing sound and receiving the reverberations of sound. Our brain can process music when we are not aware of it. Even infants express preference for certain types of music and can discriminate tempo and process pitch.
My training and background is in music therapy, which is the therapeutic use of music to attain non-musical goals. I have worked in a variety of settings with the elderly and with children. One of the things that always amazed me was the speed with which music can build relationships. Something as simple as accomplishing a note in unison or playing a steady beat together can create a connection. The connection created through music makes a pathway for healing, motivation and order. Sometimes the connection only lasts for the duration of the song and sometimes it continues. The ability to connect through music has always seemed like an act of grace to me. A surrender to the creation of something bigger than ourselves.
Karma says what goes around comes around. You reap what you sew. Everything you put out will come back to you, good or bad.
Grace plays a different game. In the words of U2, singing about grace, “She travels outside of karma.”
Grace messes with the equation, breaks the formula, presents itself to us unsummoned.
Grace is what makes the person who thinks they can see realize they’re blind. Grace is what helps the blind see. Grace is the energy to do something about what we see.
Grace is the thick thread that keeps us tethered to God, despite ourselves. Grace keeps us tethered to each other, despite ourselves.
It meets us where we are, but doesn’t leave us where it found us. Grace is the beautiful mystery meant to be experienced rather than understood. Sung, rather than explained.