“Amazing Grace how sweet the sound...”
I was recently asked to lead the singing of the classic "Amazing Grace" at a friend’s wedding. It was an incredible experience. What a gift! It is the first time I have done so at a wedding. I have sung it in the past to end spiritual gatherings I have a part of. I also sang it at my grandma’s funeral and I was asked to sing it at the side of Ethan’s grave. God only knows how I found the strength that day. That was pure grace, as his short life was perhaps the ultimate grace; the greatest free gift of my life.
I took a few days off last week. I spent quite a bit of it with family. On the morning before I set off over to Yorkshire I was awoken very early, at the crack of dawn, by the most beautiful singing. It seemed to be a new song that I’ve not heard before and I wasn’t sure exactly where it was coming from. I discovered the answer on my return a few days later. As I was getting out of my car I once again heard this same song and began to look around to find out exactly where it was coming from. I eventually looked upwards and found the vocalist, perched on the roof of my cottage. It was a magnificent blackbird. I paid homage to him and even sang back at him. As I did he seemed to change his tune ever so slightly. At which point I bowed as his was the superior tune and went inside. He carried on singing, as he keeps on singing.
I digress. That morning I took my usual route on the M62 and as I drove up the Pennines and past the White Rose sign and towards Stott Hall Farm I began to think of grace of the free gifts that have been given me in my life; life itself being one of them. “Amazing Grace” was on my mind too and the times I have sung it. I was, as I often am on this journey, filling with tears. Not with sadness, but with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for life, for the gift of life and the gift of love despite all the troubles in our world. Over the next couple of days I enjoyed the gift of family and loved ones as I simply listened to them and remembered and reconnected.
Amazing Grace is a classic hymn that has grown in popularity over the years. Some of the words can be challenging. That said it is one of those pieces that can send a shiver down my spine. The hymn itself may well be a grace.
It has been described as a classic. David Tracy claimed that classics are "those texts, events, images, persons, rituals and symbols which are assumed to disclose permanent possibilities of meaning and truth”. Amazing Grace certainly fulfills this requirement. It has been doing so for over two hundred years. It is quoted in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" It was adapted by Cherokee Native Americans during their forced migration, known as the trail of tears. It became and remains a favourite amongst the civil rights movement.
Amazing Grace is usually sung to the hymn tune "New Britain". It has been recorded by a rich diversity of artists including Rev J.M Gates, Judy Collins, The Royal Scottish Dragoon guards, Aretha Franklin, Kylie Minogue and Joan Baez. It was even played by Mr. Scott at Mr. Spock's funeral in the film Stark Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It has surfaced and resurfaced in a variety of forms, both religious and secular and across the generations and there seems little doubt that it will continue to do so.
But what exactly is “Grace”? Well the word itself has both secular and religious connotations. We can be given a period of grace with regard to payment of goods procured. We can be in someone else “good grace”, meaning we are in someone’s good books, we have gained their favour. We might compliment a person by saying they are graceful in the way they hold themselves or gracious in the way they act with others. In music a composer may add “grace notes”. These are added extras that are not essential but may add an artistic flourish to the piece.
At the recent ministers conference the ministerial fellowship’s president suddenly asked me to offer a grace. I was flummoxed at the time but somehow found something to utter. Many people offer a “grace” before mealtime. Something I am unfamiliar with, but am becoming more use to it. It is certainly something that is part of my duty as a minister. Bizarrely it is something I had no experience of until I became a Unitarian. A grace at mealtime is basically a prayer of thanks giving for the food we are about to eat and the company we are about to share in. By saying the grace before the mealtime we are of course acknowledging the sacredness of breaking bread together, the sacredness of life and of course the sacredness of one another.
Now of course classically speaking the “Grace of God” is a freely given gift of spirit that is unearned and undeserved; something that comes to us, from beyond ourselves. You can’t touch it, but you can know it. You could say that grace is a favour or perhaps a fortune that comes to us unbidden. It does not come because we have done anything to deserve it or not deserve it, it just comes. The part we can play is in recognizing it when it comes and making the most of what it offers. Life itself is probably the ultimate of graces. Think about it we did absolutely nothing to deserve the gift of life itself, in all its joy and suffering.
As is my way I had a look at the etymology of Grace. It is related to thankfulness, certainly in the Latin languages. Think of the Spanish “gracias”, the Italian “grazie and Latin “gratia”. Both grace and gratitude are clearly linked. One step beyond is the Latin word “gratus” which means pleasing and from which words like gratifying and gratuity are formed. On the other side of the coin comes the phrase “persona non grata” which means an unwelcome person. Likewise a person who has fallen from grace may be known as a disgrace. These though are often deserved states, they are the result of actions, therefore they do seem somewhat removed from the original meaning of grace.
Does any of this help us? Does any of this tell us what Grace actually is? No not really. Why? You may well ask. Well because Grace is an experience. It is something that you have either known and therefore recognised or you haven’t.
So what is Grace?
Paul Tillich in “Shaking the Foundations” stated that
"Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when year, after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsion reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness. If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience, we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed."
"Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness.” This speaks to me of my experiences although it’s usually my ears that attune to it more than my eyes, it often speaks to me in birds and song…”a melody of love”. It first came to me at my darkest hour a few years ago and it has kept on coming to me ever since. It stirs something inside of me that enables me to connect to life, to live with purpose and meaning and to know love. That moment changed me forever. You can’t really describe Grace, only the impact it has upon you.
It is the impact that Grace has had upon me that I was thinking of during that drive through the Pennines. Of that first little bird that spoke to me and then flew away and of all the other times they have spoken to me and continue to speak to me. They truly are a Grace that saves and inspires and keeps on moving me forward.
“Amazing Grace how sweet the sound”
“Amazing Grace how sweet the sound”
Grace is all around us. Life itself is the ultimate Grace; the ultimate free gift. Let’s give thanks for it.
I continue to be amazed by "Grace" it is the sweetest of sounds...