Probably like many of you, I first learned about these words, “amazing grace,” from the old hymn by that title. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound” goes the first phrase and that one I know by heart. One of the things about me and music of any sort---hymns or popular music---is that the melody somehow takes my mind to a different place and I can seem to pay attention to words. I can even begin a song with the intended purpose to listen to the words, to pay close attention…and that melody does it again. At some point, I realize the song or hymn is nearly finished and I have not paid attention!
This happens to me even when I “know” the hymn and have sung it countless times. But I also confess, this is not always bad. It actually does enable me to sing and enjoy some hymns that I might not really like or feel comfortable with the theology. And in some cases, the theology of the hymn, Amazing Grace, is not to my liking.
For example, the phrase after the opening one which I just quoted, goes like this: “That saved a wretch like me!” In my head I understand this theology. And I understand the fact that too many times, I am not a good person and can easily do something which is clearly not good. But I still don’t think of myself as a wretch. Some could well tell me that I still live with the illusion that I am not wretched when, in fact, I am. And I am willing to grant they may be correct. Maybe I am wretched.
My own theology holds that I, nor you, need to be wretches to experience grace. And I do need grace…from God and others! So I like to sing the hymn, Amazing Grace, and often be glad that I don’t register the words. The melody does its own gracious thing with my soul. But the hymn is not my only encounter with Amazing Grace.
A few years ago Kathleen Norris, one of my favorite poet-theologians, wrote a book by that same title, Amazing Grace. Kathleen is about my age and so represents what so many of us in our contemporary culture go through with respect to religion. In college in the 1960s she abandoned religion. And then in her mid-life found her way back into religion, but knew she needed it in a way that was different than her childhood version. And she needed religious language in a new way.
Delightfully, she calls human beings “essentially storytelling bipeds” and that to tell our stories we need “potent religious words.” But in the best sense these potent religious words do not come from the dictionary as much as from “the lived experience of them.” (AG 3) Interestingly, the little two-page section she does on grace begins with the story of the rascal, Jacob.
Norris narrates her story. “Here’s a man who has just deceived his father and cheated hiss brother out of an inheritance…But God’s response…is not to strike him down but to give him a blessing.” (150) Grace is nothing more than God blessing us when we do not deserve it. It is a gift. Grace is a story of God ‘s desire for us when we are not yet desirable.
I do like that line from the old hymn: “How precious did that grace appear.”
May God be gracious unto thee…