When I was asked to officiate at the funeral of my father’s cousin, there was only one instruction about the service: “Don’t sing Amazing Grace”.
My father’s cousin was a trailblazer. She worked at the State Department advancing as high as a woman was allowed in the 1940s. She returned to graduate school to work on a PhD in history in the 1950’s. When her advisor suggested that she sit in on a couple of lectures that were being offered at Yale’s law school, special arrangements were made for her to enter the lecture hall by a side door to sit behind a screen so she would not be a distraction to the male students who were taking the class for a grade. She had fought her entire life to live her life rooted in God’s grace. There were more than enough people who had told her that she was not worthy because she was a woman. She chose not to sing the beloved hymn because, as she said, “I was not a wretch in life.” So, we shouldn’t sing about that in her death.
I confess that I struggle with the popular love and familiarity of this hymn—there are many more that are more important to my spiritual journey. And I share the perspective of my cousin. I have never once thought of myself as a wretch.
The Story Behind Amazing Grace
I wonder if people really know the link between this popular hymn and the story of its author, John Newton’s, conversion to Christianity in the late 1700’s. He was very involved in the slave trade working on the trans-Atlantic ships and later as an investor in the system. Several years later, he converted to Christianity and spent the rest of his life in support of the abolition of slavery. So, yes, “wretch” might be one way for him to describe his own reckoning of his participation in a system that led to the death and enslavement of millions of people.
The current popularity of this hymn I suspect, has to do with the emphasis on Newton’s conversion “the hour I first believed”. For so many who identify as Christian in this country today, being able to identify that conversion experience is a litmus test to authentic belief. And for people like me and my cousin who were raised in “church”--daughters and granddaughters of pastors and teachers who were faithful men and women--we cannot pinpoint a moment.
Instead of a moment, I can identify the many ways I was stretched to grow in breadth and depth of understanding new aspects of faith in my life. I continually am amazed how God works in the world and opens for me new awareness of love and grace, day in and day out. I can see the connections with God’s grace as I recall the dangers, toils and snares through which I have come. I know that grace will lead me into each tomorrow. And I have no problem belting out that God secures my hope and shields me my whole life through.
The Experiences of Grace
I can identify some of those experiences that have opened my eyes to peel away the blinders that keep me from fully understanding the consequences of my behavior and actions in the systems that continue to prevent people from living equitably.
- The childhood ritual of watching the evening news with my parents and their willingness to talk about what was happening in events around the world during the 1960s and 1970s.
- Conversations with black and brown colleagues and friends who have shared about the daily reminders that the color of their skin impacts how others treat them.
- Sermons of theologians over the years from very different life experiences and their interpretation of a biblical word. Rev. Lavon Delk. Rev. Benjamin Chavis. Rev. Reuben Sheers to name some of those earlier experiences.
- The exposure to the experience of enslaved individuals through a visit at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana which is owned and curated by descendants of enslaved people.
- A tour with a multicultural group of UCC leaders attending a conference at the Laverne Hotel in Memphis where Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.
- The conversations with my own children and learning from their interpretations and experience with the diversity of their peers with whom they live and work.
Grace is All Around Us to Notice
As much as grace is amazing, I resonate more with the adjective “abundant”. God’s grace is not only reserved for rare moments in order to convert individuals from evil ways. Grace is offered to us as freely and as generously as is our ability to notice.
Yes, I contribute to systems that need reformed. Yes, I miss the mark in living a life of love and service as fully as I might. Yes, I need to receive God’s grace, but the sound of grace is not always sweet or easy to see. Nor is it necessarily amazing as in an extra-ordinary or a limited experience. Frequently grace appears in ordinary gestures, everyday words, familiar melodies or a brief touch. What is amazing is how abundant and available grace is every day.
Grace is all around us for us to notice. It is freely offered, calling us again and again to receive the gift from our Creator. Like a field of wildflowers, species blooming in succession one after the other, so too is grace abundantly bringing delight into our lives.
This is the first blog in our series, “Abundant Grace”. As we move through Lent, may you reflect on the abundance of grace in all dimensions of your life.
Questions For Reflection (either individually or with a group)
Read the blog. Read it a second time, maybe reading it aloud or asking someone else to read it aloud so you can hear it with different intonation and emphases. Then spend some time with the questions with anything that helps you reflect more deeply. Take these questions for a walk in the woods or in your neighborhood, for a swim or a run or for a hot soak in the tub. Invite the questions to join you for tea or coffee.
- How do you define grace?
- How have you experienced God’s grace?
- Read the lyrics of Amazing Grace. Is there any particular phrase that resonates with you? What is it and why?
- What can you do in your life to be more aware of God’s abundant grace?
Download a pdf of this blog including the Reflection Questions to share and discuss with friends, family, or members of your faith community small group.
Blog: Copyright 2023, Rev. Beth Long-Higgins, All Rights Reserved. Photo by Kerstin Riemer from Pixabay