“Receive Mercy and Find Grace”
June 25, 2017 – 3rd Sunday after Pentecost – Year A
After Easter, I spent 2 weeks in beautiful Costa Rica enjoying a fabulous biological and environmental tourism holiday. I then came home and had a week of study where I explored and dipped into the theology and history behind the hymn “Amazing Grace.” My reason for delving into this popular hymn was as a result of attending a United Church colleagues group gathering held in the week immediately following Easter. We took about an hour to discuss the familiar opening line: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”
Hold on – I am not a “wretch” and I have not sung the word “wretch” in relation to that hymn for over 30 years. Yet many of my colleagues spoke eloquently about the importance of acknowledging that we humans are wretched. I had neither the words, nor the emotional strength to speak against this position. I knew I needed to do some research and some spiritual work. I set up a session with my Spiritual Director and told her I wanted to take the hour time to talk about my feelings and where my spirit was at concerning this troubling first line.
First, I needed to research the story behind the hymn. I was introduced to the writer John Newton, born in 1725 in London England. He was raised by a stern sea captain father, due to his mother’s death when he was nearly 7 years old. Newton sailed to West Africa and became a slave trader. During a horrendous storm off the coast of Ireland the ship nearly sank and Newton prayed to God and the cargo miraculously shifted to fill the hole in the ship’s hull and the vessel drifted to safety. Newton took this as a sign from God and marked it as his conversion to Christianity. His behaviours changed slowly and after some time he began to view his captives with more sympathy. In 1764, he was ordained as an Anglican priest and wrote 280 hymns to accompany his services. He wrote the words for “Amazing Grace” in 1772 and in 1835 William Walker put the words to the popular tune “New Britain.”
It is interesting to note that the abolition of slavery did not occur until 1788, 34 years after Newton left the profession. He declared that the subject of the slave trade was a humiliating one for him.
The hymn “Amazing Grace” is a biography of Newton’s life. He wrote with tremendous clarity his life story. It was grace that saved a slave-trading, womanizing, drunkard. He was lost in the ways of rowdy, vulgar behaviors and blind to the impact his behaviours had on others.
During the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, this hymn became a message of social redemption. Reformers like Joan Baez offered this song as a prayer of reformation.
Why have I chosen to take time to reflect on this hymn and particularly the first line? It goes back to my early awareness of issues of abuse and the devastation to self esteem that goes with abuse. I hear survivor after survivor saying that they are “sinners,” are to blame for the abuse, are the cause of the abuse – in short are a wretch. And that is simply a lie. It is not true. Abuse survivors hear “that sav’d a wretch like me” and internalize it. And that is just plain wrong.
Couple this with the number of folk who sing this hymn who struggle with low self esteem and we are setting them up to not hear the whole hymn in context. It is too easy to miss the “grace” and only hear the “wretch.” To hear “lost” and not hear “found.” To hear “blind” and not hear I “see.”
When I sing the hymn Amazing Grace, I substitute the word “soul” for “wretch” or as our hymn book suggests “that saved and strengthened” me. Perhaps you might want to consider such a change. Possibly there is no reason to make any change. But in knowing the back story, grace takes on new loveliness.
I reported to my United Church Colleagues group the process and results of my research, soul searching and conversations with my Spiritual Director. I was able to thank them for the rich conversation of the previous month, and affirm my commitment to not perpetrate the understanding of oneself as a wretch. A glorious child of God – yes! A person of grace – Yes!
Rick Warren, an American writer, states; “What gives me the most hope every day is God’s grace; knowing that his grace is going to give me the strength for whatever I face, knowing that nothing is a surprise to God. Amen.