It’s hard to imagine a year of reflections on our favourite hymns without Amazing Grace making an appearance. A hymn that is not only common in most Christian churches, it also makes regular appearances in popular culture and political contexts. It is not simply a familiar hymn, some have argued that it is the most well known song in the English speaking world.
The story of this hymn is quite famous. Movies have been made about it, books and articles written and there is even a newly opened Broadway show telling the tale. The words were written by John Newton following his conversion experience. This spiritual event took place during a violent storm while at sea as a slave trader in 1748. Following the experience, he continued in the slave trade until around 1755 when he began studying theology and eventually became an ordained minister in the Church of England. The words have been associated with more than 20 melodies over the years, but the one we are familiar with emerged in 1835.
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.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed!
Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come;
’tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
bright shining as the sun,
we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
than when we’d first begun.
Few of us will have the experience of receiving grace for something as horrific as being a slave trader. But grace need not be applied only to the grandest of transgressions. Grace is about mercy, kindness, pardon, forgiveness and acceptance. Grace is a treasured gift we can receive, be it Divine or otherwise. But as I ponder this hymn, I wonder if its power lies more in our ability to provide it to those in our lives; to ourselves. We are easily hurt and disappointed by a whole variety of acts, comments and failures. We are critical of others and ourselves. We live in a world where the ability to comment on almost anything anybody says or does is extremely easy. We have moments of compassion and encouragement, but I’m not sure we really know how to extend grace. Because it doesn’t really require the offender to change or be better. It just forgives and it is unmerited. This is a huge challenge. Would we forgive a slave trader who carried on for seven more years? I doubt it.
I will struggle with this concept for a while yet, but I can see the potential. When I receive grace, I am so much closer to where I should be – whether I choose to change or not. Giving this kind of forgiveness and care is a selfless act that may never see any return. And yet, using one’s life to open this kind of door for others is valuable. Open doors offer so much more than those that are closed – even if no one ever walks through them, they can see the view.