Monday, March 12, 2012

Amazing! Grace

These are the explorations offered during worship at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia this past Sunday.

Amazing! Grace: Was Blind But Now I See  ~  Wendy Repass     I was listening to a friend describe grace. She’s an alcoholic but she’s been sober for several decades now. She said, “how is it that I have remained sober, whereas others have gone back to drinking? But for the grace of god go I.”
And this struck a chord with me deeply. I thought about Mary who over the years would get angry more and more often during times of trouble. When she had a baby, Mary’s fits of rage became frequent- blaming, yelling, screaming and hitting in anger at loved ones.
I could see her spiraling into this recurring behavior, completely blind to the effect she had on other people. Lashing out at loved ones at the moment when she needed support the most.
How is it that she cannot stop herself and snap out of it? Why does she seem blind to her own behavior?
Perhaps grace is like when you’re working on a math problem, and you work at it and try to do it, but you just can’t get it. Then you put it down. A day later, or a week and all of a sudden you’re like “Ah-Ha!”
Or maybe it’s like when you see someone else mired in the same kind of addiction you have and you wonder, wow, how did I ever break free of that? People tell you it’s because you worked hard, but you know deep down inside that there was a time you couldn’t even see, that you were absolutely blind. And you wonder in amazement at how you got here.
Or maybe it’s like what happened to John Newton. John was a slave ship captain who enjoyed “an easy and creditable way of life” (1) until he was forced to resign because of health problems. He got an administrative position, but he eventually got involved with a church and became a minister. Years later, Newton would write, "I think I should have quitted [the slave trade] sooner
had I considered it as I now do to be unlawful and wrong. But I never had a scruple upon this head at the time; nor was such a thought ever suggested to me by any friend." (1)
He wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”. Eventually public opinion started to turn away from slavery. 30 years later he would write a popular pamphlet talking about his days as a slave trader, apologizing for it and campaigning against slavery.

30 years is a long time. But grace was seeping like water onto a desert in Newton’s world. The culminating effect of changing attitudes in society, the fact that he had to stop working at that job and his entry into the ministry all culminated in him gradually being able to see what he had done.
May we see even though today we are blind. May we recognize our own blindness so that we might have compassion for the blindness of others.
“Let the desert rejoice.... For waters shall break forth in the thirsty ground....The wasteland will be turned into an Eden.... You will become like a watered garden.”(2)

(1)   “Africans in America”, PBS.

(2)   Excerpts from Isaiah, Bible as arranged in “Addiction & Grace”, Gerald G. May, 1991.

Amazing!  Grace.  ~  Erik Walker Wikstrom     Amazing Grace.  Perhaps one of the most popular hymns of all time that nobody every really sings.  At least, not the way it was meant to be sung.  That first line?  “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me”?  It’s been recast as:
·         That saved a soul like me . . .

·         That saved and strengthened me . . .

·         That saved and set me free . . .
The great Protestant writer Kathleen Norris has lamented that these alterations are “laughably bland.”  The whole point is that the narrator of the song has known a wretched life . . . absolutely wretched, horrible . . . and not just the outer circumstances of his life, but his inner life as well . . . he’s been a wretch.
And John Newton certainly knew both things.  He was, as is now well known, involved in the English slave trade – first as a sailor on slave ships and then, eventually, as a captain.  He was involved with the buying and selling of people.  Or, to look at it another way, he was involved with the debasing and dehumanizing of people to such an extent that they could be seen as commodities.  From the abolitionist perspective he developed later in his life, and from our perspective today, that earlier time was certainly most wretched.
And personally he knew a wretched existence as well.  In his days as a sailor he was continually getting in trouble on ship.  He wrote obscene songs about his captain, songs that were so popular with the crew that they even started singing along.  (Not so popular with his captain, I’d imagine.)  His language was so profane, in fact, that in a profession rather well known for its salty talk, he was (and I love this line) “admonished several times for not only using the worst words the captain had ever heard, but creating new ones to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery.”   On one occasion he got himself into so much trouble – and I truly wish I knew what he’d done – that he was chained up below decks like the slaves they were carrying and was then himself sold off the ship into slavery in Sierra Leon.  (I’m thinking he knew a thing or two about wretchedness.)
He was saved from his enslavement by another ship’s crew, the crew of the Greyhound, in whose company he then set sail.  It was while aboard the Greyhound that he experienced another kind of wretchedness – a severe storm that challenged the ship to its core.  Newton watched as a crewmate was washed overboard from a spot where he’d been standing only a moment earlier.   When he and another shipmate were set to operating the pumps, they had to lash themselves to them so as not to be washed away.  And Newton himself spent eleven hours on deck steering the boat – and this, after hours and hours of battling the storm in other positions.
At one point, after speaking with the captain about a possible plan of action, Newton said, “If this will not do, then Lord have mercy on us.”  They made it through, and surviving this storm provided an opportunity for Newton to reconsider his life.  He saw their survival as nothing but God’s mercy, yet he knew that he had not only neglected his own faith but had actively opposed it . . . in himself and others.  He was want to ridicule people who spoke of religious things and even reveled in declaring that their God was nothing but a myth.  And now he felt as though he’d just been saved by this God he ridiculed.  He felt as though he, a wretch of a man who’d known a wretched life, had just been saved and suddenly it seemed as if he’d been blind his whole life before and now could see.
Powerful stuff, right?
Of course, we’re not wretches, right?  I mean, none of us could say that we’ve lived the kind of wretched life John Newton had, right?  That’s why we sing all sorts of things other than “saved a wretch like me.”  Right?
When the Worship Weavers were discussing this service in our meeting last month one of the members said that they resonated with the song as someone who was thirty-five years sober.  Looking back at their life of active alcoholism was without question or doubt looking back at a wretched life, a life of blindness.  Looking at their life’s trajectory, the gift of sobriety, the grace of sobriety, was a “sweet sound” indeed.
This got me to thinking about one of my teachers, Gerald May.  Gerry was a psychiatrist who was interested in spiritual direction – he was also the younger brother of the more famous Rollo May.  In his fantastic book Addiction and Grace, Gerry makes the point that there are all kinds of addictions – the obvious ones like alcohol, drugs, food, and gambling are just the tip of the iceberg.  He suggests that anything we can’t give up, anything that we find ourselves locked into and unable to let go of, can be understood as an addiction.  So, some people are addicted to the accumulation of wealth, others to “being nice,” and others to “being right.”  Does any of this ring a bell?
And one of the things about addiction is that not only are we caught up in it, virtually powerless to let go of it, but that this is true to our own detriment.  It’s not just that you think that making money is a really good thing, it’s that you think so to such an extent that you spend all of your time involved in its acquisition even to the point of being unable to actually enjoy any of it.  Or you think that “being nice” and keeping everybody happy is so important that you aren’t nice to yourself and you, in your own life, are anything but happy.  Addictions warp our minds and our hearts, twist our souls so that the good we seek becomes a harm – and we end up becoming trapped, enslaved.
Some say that that’s what happened with Thomas Jefferson and slavery – he was intellectually opposed to the inhuman practice, but he was so caught up in the lifestyle and the ways of life of his day that he could not let go of it.  Enslaved persons were necessary in his kind of life, and despite the dissonance between the institution of slavery and his values about freedom he couldn’t let it go.
That was certainly true of John Newton.  Even after his conversion experience he continued to run slave ships for several years, although each trip became increasingly more difficult for him until he finally collapsed from the strain, never to sail again.
The truth is, my friends, that each of us . . . (I was tempted to write “some of us” in order to give you an out and increase the chance that you’d feel positively toward me, something I’ve been known to struggle with) . . . but the truth is that each of us knows our own kind of wretchedness.  Each of us has our own blindness.  Each of us knows that place – oh, probably not to John Newton’s extent but don’t let’s let that stand in the way of our acknowledging that we do, in fact, know it – and if we don’t also know the sweet sound of grace then we know what it feels like to yearn for it.
And when we feel it – like the calming of the seas that have been throwing us about; like the breaking of the storm clouds, the cessation of the rain, and the coming out of the sun – we may well be surprised.  Amazing!  Grace!  And that’s part of the truth about grace, too.
Last week I said that there is no limit to grace, that it abounds, that it exists all around us and that we just have to be open to it.  But it’s not as easy as that, is it?  It’s not as simple.  There’s something fundamentally mysterious about grace; it’s beyond our control.  I don’t even know for sure whether we should say that grace is that moment, that event, in which our lives are opened up or if it’s that ineffable “energy” (for want of a better word) that’s moving in, and around, and through our lives making those moments, those events, possible.  And that’s probably okay.  It’s okay for us to front some mysteries and allow them to remain mysterious.
What I do know is that there are “many dangers, toils, and snares” in this life.  I know that all of us have our moments of wretchedness.  And I know that I wish grace on us all.
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1 comment:

Cathy L said...

Very thought provoking. I wonder about the wretchedness that I have experienced in my life. I think the temptation has been to blame others or circumstance rather than my choices for landing me in those situations. Then Grace can set me free...from blame and self- recrimination. I'm sorry not to be participating in services so far this month. I miss church.