Friday, September 7, 2012

'Grace will lead me home'

John 9:18-27 (NIV)

They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”

“We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”
My deep love for classic hymns is well noted. So when the lectionary brought my attention to one of the scriptural allusions for arguably the best-known hymn in the English language, the pull to write about the song was irresistible.

The story of Jesus restoring the blind man’s sight in John is actually much longer and more intricate than I recalled (the lectionary has broken it up over several days), and the story of the person who wrote the words to “Amazing Grace” doesn’t involve actual physical blindness. Likewise, it’s easy to draw a connection from the “I once was lost, but now am found” metaphor to some of Jesus’ parables, notably the story of the prodigal son. That said, when you are reading a gospel story and get to the words, “I was blind, but now I see,” the connection to the hymn is unmistakable.

An 1847 publication of Southern Harmony, showing the
title "New Britain" and shape note music. (Thanks Wikipedia!)
This is neither the time nor the place for a full breakdown of the poet John Newton and his conversion story (overly simplified version: slave trader to clergyman). Such a popular hymn — some estimates say it is performed 10 million times annually — written by a man of faith with a compelling life story understandably inspired a great deal of research and academic writing. To try to condense all that here would be unfair to everyone who has put so much effort into studying the poem, the song and its influence.

One of my fondest memories of church as a child is watching my mother sing hymns. Many longtime choir members know the words to the most popular tunes, as do several folks in any traditional congregation. But my mom didn’t just know the first verse, she knew every line. And not just the melody, but also the alto and tenor harmonies (she’s been a tenor in the church choir for decades). And not just the well-known hymns, but even many of the semi-obscure ones — at least it seemed that way to me at the time. It was like the ability to sing hymns from memory was one of my mom’s many superpowers.

So when the bulletin calls for us to sing a hymn I happen to know from memory — even a verse or two — I feel a certain sense of pride in being able to close my hymnal, hold it to my side and sing out strongly. Maybe pride isn’t the right word, because it’s not as if I feel I’m showing off for those around me. But I feel like maybe my mom is proud of me in those moments, because those few wonderful seconds certainly make me proud to be her son.

“Amazing Grace,” naturally, is one of the first hymns I was able to memorize. Everyone knows the first verse or two, but when we roll around to verse four or five and other folks are thumbing through their hymnal, I’m standing up straight and cranking with “When we’ve been there ten-thousand years…” Of course, this being that well known of a song, my recall ability probably is not all that special. I should get more excited knowing the last lines of “Immortal, Invisible” or something similar. Still, I love me some “Amazing Grace.”

I love it so much, in fact, it’s one of those songs I can no longer sing all the way through. In my short life I have attached so much emotional and spiritual significance to the song, whether from singing it at a certain funeral or hearing it played during a particularly moving presentation or simply the weight it carries when deeply reflecting on the lyrics, it does not take too long into the hymn for me to be overcome by all the sentiment and I more or less stand there trying to keep my composure. I cannot possibly state how much I love this sensation, and I wish I could simply invite someone else to feel the same way. Logically I understand it’s a place I came to organically, and so it must be for anyone. I’m sure other folks arrive at that emotional epicenter through vastly different experiences. To me the point is being there, and how you get there is of little consequence because you can only get to such a place with God.

Who knows what that roadmap will look like for my children? I couldn’t begin to guess; I can only pray some day they’ll find a path, any path, that leads them to a place where they feel similarly close to God. I can’t imagine living without that connection, and I hope my sons are never absent a similar bond.

For the record, here is Newton’s original poem from 1779:
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d 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 reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believ’d!

Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.
Grace will lead me home. It really is amazing.

A prayer for September 7:

Lord, I thank you for the gift of music. I sometimes feel as if you place a certain song in my life at a precise moment just to speak directly to me, and the joy I feel at those times is indescribable. God, your grace truly is amazing. I am so undeserving, and yet you are so loving. You keep me close, no matter how strongly I might push away. I can’t quite fathom how you don’t give up on me, but I am forever grateful to know I am always welcome at your feet. Thank you for this life of boundless joy and incomprehensible peace. Amen.

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