The song “Amazing Grace” has become much more than a religious hymn. It is sung by folk singers and opera stars, in concert halls and in village churches. It may be spontaneously sung by public crowds in response to disaster or to liberation. It is hauntingly played by a lone piper to mark the death of a loved one. “Amazing Grace” may be a lament or a prayer or a song of thanksgiving. This celebrated hymn can be recognized by the melody alone, which comes from a collection of tunes almost two hundred years old.
The author of the words, John Newton (1725-1807), tells his remarkable story of repentance and renewal. Newton was the captain of a slave ship. He made regular trips to Africa to capture men, women, and children and to cram them into his ship in horrible conditions. He cared little for their suffering or for the reality that many would die on his ship. Then on one voyage, his ship was in danger of sinking in a terrible storm. He cried out to God for deliverance, and when the ship was saved, he began his journey toward repentance.
He attended revival meetings in London and heard sermons of John and Charles Wesley. For seven years, he studied to become a minister of the Church of England. He turned to God for forgiveness, became a leading spokesman for the anti-slavery movement, and started to write hymns. “Amazing Grace” is the story of God’s grace that turned his life away from the greed and inhumanity of slavery toward the long fight to eradicate that cruel practice. Newton expresses his amazement that someone like him could be worthy of God’s grace. God was willing to accept Newton’s repentance and support his struggle to change his life. God’s grace was active in Newton’s life as forgiveness for his past and as guidance and strength for his future.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come;
‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far; and grace will lead me home.
In this month of March, we mark two years from the time we became aware that a new, deadly virus was threatening us all and spreading from nation to nation. Many people, young and old, have died. Many people have been ill; some have overcome the disease but others are suffering debilitating after-effects. We have lived in a state of anxiety for our loved ones, friends, and ourselves, as well as for the peace and stability of our communities. We need faith in God’s grace in these overwhelming times.
It is challenging to define the grace of God because it includes so many blessings. In Scripture, God is described as merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exod. 34:6). With Moses, God rescued the Hebrew people from slavery, provided food and water in the desert and forgave their grumbling as they struggled to go forward.
The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.
It is through steadfast love and faithfulness that God brings us hope. In this season of Lenten discipline, we may focus on regret and repentance as we feel oppressed by fear and sadness, but the determination to change our desires and direction can strengthen our resolve to live through these worrisome days and overcome our despair. Healing can be a relief from physical illness, but healing of the mind and spirit is also life-giving.
Lent is also a season of renewal. We are helped in our desire for a renewed life by God’s creation around us. Minute by minute the daylight increases. Little by little the earth warms and birds and blossoms reappear. What has seemed to us a never-ending struggle to overcome dark and fearful days gradually gives way to a new hope. What can make the difference is whether we ask God for help. May God’s amazing grace be with us all.