Anne Tyler is one of the foremost American writers of our day. In many people’s eyes she manages to convey the lives of ordinary people in a way that makes them seem extraordinary. Family life is a place where there is conflict, tension, suffering but also a place where people find the resources and the dignity to overcome. In the simplest of language personalities are brought to life in all their variety and complexity. Her latest book sees a family seeking to plan the funeral of their mother who was killed in a road accident. They wonder if she has left any instructions and speculate what they might be:
““My only fear is, she’s requested ‘Amazing Grace,’” said Amanda.
“I like ‘Amazing Grace,’” Stem said mildly.
“So did I, till it got to be a cliche”
‘It’s not a cliche to me.”
Amanda raised her eyes to the ceiling.”
I know what Amanda means. Ever since Judy Collins made it a hit in 1970, followed by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in 1972, ‘Amazing Grace’ has been sung and played on various occasions with people of all faiths and none feeling able to join in. It is, of course, essentially a Christian hymn, written by John Newton, praising God for the undeserved love that has flowed into his life despite his own shortcomings. Newton’s progress towards faith was anything but straightforward and he stood amazed at how firmly God had held him in the face of ‘many dangers, toils and snares’. Strangely, the name of Jesus is not mentioned which perhaps may account for its wide appeal, even to the extent that it was played on the bagpipes at the funeral of Mr Spock in one of the Star Trek movies!
Yes I know what Amanda means. ‘Amazing Grace’ is one of those songs which can be sung without any meaningful connection to its heart and soul. Which is why it meant a lot to me recently to lead a Bible Study with a group of people recovering from a range of addictions and to begin with the singing of ‘Amazing Grace’. I am tempted to say it took on a whole new meaning but actually this was men and women connecting with the only meaning Newton intended. From the brokenness of his own life along with a deep sense of shame and unworthiness, Newton marvels at the love of his God who thought him worthy of the death of His Son and brought him to that place where he could say:
‘The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.‘
Not that this is a hymn merely for those with what might be described as a dark and difficult past. Anyone with any insight into themselves can find reasons why they don’t deserve anything from God and so the assurance of His grace, covering this life and the next, is something we can all celebrate.