Sunday, December 16, 2012

Finding Grace in the Wilderness - Amazing!

Three years ago, when I turned fifty, I decided to journey into the wilderness to meet a prophet.  The wilderness turned out to be the football stadium in Charlottesville and the prophet was Bono and the rock band U2 performing during their 360 Tour.  The huge staging, which was taller that the stadium itself, was a technological marvel that enabled every one of the 75,000 people in attendance to be intimately connected with the band as it performed.  The show was part rock concert, part visual spectacle, and part revival.  U2’s lyrics are boldly religious; calling and prodding and inviting listeners to live in a human community marked by love, respect, hope, and caring.  Toward the end of the concert Bono sang the song One and, as with every other song that night, the audience sang right along with him, word for word:

One love
One blood
One life
You got to do what you should
One life
With each other
One life
But we’re not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other
One... life

And then, as the music faded, Bono did something I will never forget.  Standing at the microphone, his image broadcast on a huge screen hovering above the band, he sang a cappella:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
      that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found;
      was blind, but now I see.

And as he sang, every person present sang with him.  What does it say that, in a society which is becoming more and more unchurched, 75,000 people know the words of this hymn by heart?  At the very least it hints at how deeply infused it is in our personal and national spirit.

Most people know something of the story of John Newton, the hymn’s writer.  He was born in London in 1725.  His father was a sea captain.  His mother was deeply spiritual, but she died when John was only six years old.  By the time he was eleven Newton was sailing with his father.  As he grew in years he rose in rank.  The rough and rowdy life of a sailor suited Newton well.  He renounced whatever faith remained in him from his mother’s influence and embraced wine, women, and the sea.  

Eventually John Newton came to captain The Greyhound, a merchant ship used in slave trading.  It was a lucrative enterprise that came at the cost of horrible human degradation.  Newton oversaw how the captives he crowded on board got imprisoned in the decks below; each trip taking the lives of countless people.  Imagine what it takes to be indifferent to the stench of human excrement and death; to the ongoing cries of suffering, physical agony, and unimaginable anguish.  That is John Newton did day in a day out.  He simply tuned it out.

During this period Newton himself almost died twice: once when he contracted a deadly fever and another time when a severe storm almost sank his ship.  It was the second experience that changed Newton’s life.  The Greyhound was taking on water so badly that he cried out to God for help.  I wonder how many times on that ship prayed that it would sink and end their suffering.  But on this trip it was returning from America with a cargo of beeswax and wood.  As water poured into the hull and the vessel rocked on the waves, the cargo shifted and blocked the holes where water was leaking in, enabling the ship to drift to safe harbor in West Africa.   

Repairs where made and as they sailed home to England Newton began to read the bible and other religious literature.  On March 10, 1748 he embraced the Christian faith.  From that point on, he avoided profanity, gambling, and drinking.  He continued in the slave trade, captaining three more voyages before renouncing it all together and becoming a strong abolitionist.  Newton eventually pursued a call to the ministry and was ordained in the Church of England.  During this time he became a prolific hymn writer and we still sing several of his works – Glorious things of Thee are spoken being one of them – but Amazing Grace is far and away the best known. 

As one commentator puts it,

“Newton’s disgraceful past never left his memory and he was completely dumbfounded over the privilege of living joyously free under the divine grace of God.  In an intense moment of inspiration, when he was thinking of the wonder of the grace of God which had saved even a wretch like him, he wrote the hymn.”

It is a hymn rooted so deeply in the human experience of life and of God that 75,000 people crowed into a college stadium could sing in unison led by the most influential rock performer in the world today. 

Amazing Grace is a hymn about how God pursues us throughout life no matter where we are and no matter how far away from God we go.  It is a hymn about God’s unflagging love for us.  And it is a hymn about the personal transformation we undergo every time welcome God to be with us. 

Had it been around back in the day, I am confident John the Baptist would have led its singing with those crowds who came to see him in the wilderness.  He preached that God’s Anointed One was coming soon.  It was a message of God’s profound love for humanity.  And he preached that it is time for each and every one of us to live in this world in a manner in keeping with God’s love and God’s dream for us: a sentiment expressed so beautifully in our Gospel Hymn:

Then cleansed be ever heart from sin;
   make straight the way for God within,
and let each heart prepare a home
   where such a mighty guest may come.

Soldiers, tax-collectors, and people overflowing with material abundance all wanted to know the same thing that John Newton began to explore at his conversion… how am I to live my life here and now and from this moment forward? 

The amazing thing about grace is how it proclaims the past is past.  What matters most is now and what is ahead and what you do with it.  John the Baptist called on his listeners to repent.  Today I fear that many of us associate the word ‘repentance’ with the word ‘shame’; as if it is a call to feel really, really, really bad about yourself and all the things you have done.  But the biblical notion of repentance focuses not on feelings, but on actions.  To repent means to change; change your behavior, your attitudes, your actions, your life.

I’ll give you an example.  Do you remember how in the comic strip Peanuts Lucy held the football for Charlie Brown to kick, but always pulled it away at the last second?  Charles Schultz drew up one strip where the two are arguing about this until Lucy breaks down in tears and admits, “Charlie Brown I have been so terrible to you over the years, picking up the football like I have.  I have played so many cruel tricks on you, but I’ve seen the error of my ways!  I’ve seen the hurt look in your eyes when I’ve deceived you.  I’ve been wrong, so wrong.  Won’t you give a poor penitent girl another chance?”  Charlie Brown is so moved by her remorse that he says, “Of course, I’ll give you another chance.”  He then steps back and runs as Lucy holds the ball.  But at the last moment, she pulls it away and Charlie Brown once again falls flat on his back.  Lucy’s last words are these: “Recognizing your faults and actually changing your ways are two different things, Charlie Brown!”  In the bible, repentance is not about recognition, it is about change – change empowered by grace.

And in the bible, judgment is always wrapped in tones of grace.  How else can we explain the final verse in today’s Gospel reading: “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”  What is the good news in John’s long list of exhortations?  It is the same good news that stirred John Newton so long ago: “Your life is way off course [that is the judgment part], but you can choose now to live a new and better way [that is the good news].  The Methodist worker and hymn writer Fanny Crosby, perhaps best known for writing Blessed Assurance, once said, “Don’t tell a man he’s a sinner; he knows that already.  Tell him there is pardon and love waiting for him… and never give him up!  People want and need love.”

That is the message John the Baptist preached in the wilderness and it is the message Bono delivers at every performance.  It is the message that changed John Newton’s life.  And it is God’s message to you and me this Advent season: God is coming in the fullness of love.  Get ready to receive it and live now in a way befitting of it.  The world always, always needs to hear this Advent message of hope and light and new beginnings and better days to come. 

Friday night I sat weeping after reading a single headline: “20 Children, 6 Teachers Dead in CT School Shooting.”  I’ve read nothing more about the incident than what the headlines tell me.  I’ve avoided the TV because I know I can’t bear the images and stories on it.  I have followed people’s reactions on facebook and have had several conversations with friends and colleagues.  What I have done most is pray.

I have prayed for families who lost a child or parent, for school children who have been through hell at such a tender age, for parents and teachers everywhere whose experience of this horror from afar brings into focus a sense of helplessness and vulnerability.    I’ve prayed for all of us who are shocked and saddened and confused as to how horrors like this seemingly have become commonplace in our society.

And I have found myself going back to the wilderness to hear again the Advent voice of John the Baptist.  What comfort I have found rises out of the poetic language of Advent – a language that often seems obscure and harsh and typically does little more than tisk-tisk-tisk the faithful who dare to express Christmas cheer before the liturgically appointed date.  Advent has always felt more like a countdown and less like a message. 

But now its images of light in the darkness, hope in the midst of gloom, and joy in the midst of sadness resonate as never before.  Oh, how I long for the rough places where people live in loneliness, alienation, confusion, hurt, pain to be made smooth.  Oh, how I yearn for the crocked places of anger and violence to be made straight.  Oh, how I ache for those of live in the valley of sorrow and grief to be raised up.  Oh, how I thirst for the lofty places where the high and haughty reside to be brought down to the level where we all live.   Oh, how I look for the appearing of the One who comes with healing in his wings.

Earlier I told you that John Newton wrote many hymns.  Had Bono sung this one doubtless only a few in the crowd even would have recognized it, but on this day it seems just as powerful and appropriate as the one we all know by heart:

How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.
It makes the wounded spirit whole,
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary, rest.
Dear Name, the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never failing treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!
By Thee my prayers acceptance gain,
Although with sin defiled;
Satan accuses me in vain,
And I am owned a child.
Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
O Prophet, Priest and King,
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.
Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.
Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath,
And may the music of Thy Name
Refresh my soul in death!

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