- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
By following the dramatic story of the "Amazing Grace" hymn writer John Newton, and the Apostle Paul's own encounter with the God of grace, the author helps readers understand the freeing power of permanent forgiveness and mercy. (Practical Life)
Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound
It's autumn in New York. November 2004.
Freezing rain, weary drivers.
One carload of delinquents on a joyride.
Got the picture?
Their spree begins at the local cineplex. Bored with action flicks, the teenagers decide to act one out. They break into a car, grab a credit card, and proceed to a video store. There they charge four hundred dollars' worth of DVDs and video games.
Why not pick up a few groceries while they're at it? A surveillance tape catches the kids selecting a twenty-pound turkey.
Remember the turkey.
Pedal to the metal in a silver Nissan, the kids move along an irregular line intersecting with a Hyundai containing one Victoria Ruvolo. The two cars cross paths at approximately 12:30 a.m.
Victoria Ruvolo, forty-four, is heading for her Long Island home. Having attended her fourteen-year-old niece's vocal recital, she looks forward to home and hearth-particularly hearth. She's ready to unravel the overcoat and scarves, burrow under an electric blanket, and rest her weary self.
Maybe the silver Nissan, approaching from the east, catches Victoria'seye-maybe not. Later, she won't be sure. She certainly won't recall the image of a teenage boy leaning out the window of the Nissan as the car approaches. Nor will she retain any memory of the bulky projectile taking flight from his hands.
This is the part about the turkey.
The twenty-pound bird crashes through Victoria's windshield. It bends the steering wheel inward, smashes into her face, and breaks every bone it encounters.
Victoria will remember none of this-frankly, a stroke of mercy. Eight hours of surgery and three weeks of recovery later, however, friends and family fill in the blanks. Victoria lies impassively in a bed in Stony Brook University Hospital and listens to every detail. Yet her emotions are difficult to discern, given the mask her face has become: shattered like pottery, now stapled together by titanium plates; an eye affixed by synthetic film; a wired jaw; a tracheotomy.
The public reaction is much more vigorous. The media has run with this story; weblogs follow every new detail of arrest and arraignment. Over Thanksgiving, New Yorkers whisper prayers of gratitude that they were not Victoria Ruvolo. Over Christmas, they cherish their health and their fortunes a little bit more than usual. Over the New Year, they cry out for justice.
Internet bloggers and TV pundits suggest what they'd do if they could be in a room for five minutes with those punks in the Nissan. They'd especially love to lay hands on Ryan Cushing, the eighteen-year-old who heaved the turkey. His face should be shattered. His life should lie in ruins. That's how the man in the street sees it.
But it's all in the hands of the justice system. On Monday, August 15, 2005, Ryan and Victoria meet face-to-restructured-face in the courtroom. Nine agonizing, titanium-bolted months have passed since the attack. Victoria manages to walk into the courtroom unaided, a victory in itself.
A trembling Ryan Cushing pleads guilty-to a lesser charge. Sentence: a trifling six months behind bars, five years probation, a bit of counseling, a dash of public service. People shake their heads in righteous indignation. Is that all the punishment we can dish out? When did this country become so soft on crime? Let's lock up all these criminals and throw away the key.
Who is responsible for this plea bargain anyway?
The victim. That's who. The victim requests leniency.
Ryan makes his plea and then turns to Victoria Ruvolo, all the essence of tough guy long since drained away. He is weeping with abandon. The attorney leads the assailant to the victim, and Victoria holds him tight, comforts him, strokes his hair, and offers reassuring words. "I forgive you," she whispers. "I want your life to be the best it can be." Tears mingle from mask of reconstruction and mask of remorse.
It takes quite an event to bring tears to the eyes of New York attorneys and magistrates. This is such an event. TV and radio reporters file their stories in voices that for once are hushed and respectful. The New York Times dubs it "a moment of grace."
What do we do with such a story? It's beautiful, moving, inspiring-sure, all of those things. It's also outrageous. Why, it undermines every impulse of human nature, doesn't it? Let us be very honest. Would you have responded like Victoria Ruvolo? Surely you and I have been driven to a self-righteous frenzy over items far less dramatic. Some of us-some of the best of us-need one good incident on the expressway to bring out a snarl, a prolonged honking, a torrent of shouted invectives.
For that matter, remember when that fellow at work tried that little maneuver that really got your goat? You know the one-that petty little power play. How long did you seethe over that one? Or that woman at church who said that thing. Remember what she said and how you bristled? The look you gave her, and all that time you spent imagining what you'd like to say and do?
As for courtrooms, we've seen the opposite script play out. We've heard aggrieved families shouting at thugs as they stood to hear the verdict. And we've agreed with them, haven't we? It's just part of our constitution. Aren't we supposed to support justice and jeer at evil? Isn't it natural to affirm the process of punishing crime?
We're born that way. The smallest toddler retaliates to losing a toy to another child. She doesn't reclaim her toy calmly or dispassionately. She reacts in outrage. She seizes the plaything and shouts recriminations at its thief. It's all part of the human wiring. Work, church, playground-we're only human. We get mad and we get even.
Why, then, do we catch our breath upon observing behavior that precisely overturns these expectations?
Grace is shocking-something like the heavenly converse of a traffic accident. When love is returned for evil, we can't help stopping to rubberneck. Grace is the delivery of a jewel that nobody ordered, a burst of light in a room where everyone forgot it was dark.
Grace turns human politics on its head, right before our eyes. It renounces the entire conventional wisdom of social behavior. Grace suggests that human beings may be something more than honor graduates of the animal kingdom after all, that the rumors may be true that purity and goodness are real and alive.
Stories like that of Victoria Ruvolo transfix us for a moment. We find a smile, perhaps even shed a tear. It's like warming the soul at a hearth on a chilly night. Then it's right back to the struggle of the moment. We now resume our normal programming.
At least most of us do. Yet there are a rare few who find they cannot resume. The discovery of grace for them is like finding a knot-hole in the high gates of heaven. They cannot tear themselves away from peering into it. The light intoxicates their being. They wonder why, if this thing called grace is so magnificent-and if it is a standard option of every moment-why is it so rare and isolated? And urgently, pleadingly, the grace visionaries begin calling others to the knothole.
Such a man was the apostle Paul. He was once one of the seizers-the recriminators. These people, these Christians, had stolen his toy, and he was taking it back with a vengeance. They had laid hands on the faith of his fathers and polluted it. He would repay them with interest, galloping to far-flung regions just to torment them. That's when grace-or some Agent thereof-knocked him right out of the saddle, toppled his most precious assumptions, and took away his eyesight until he was ready to look hard at the thing he had refused to behold. And once his vision returned, that item was the only one he wished to see.
Paul changed his name and his person. He would write letter after letter to friends, to churches, to people he had never met-some who wouldn't be born for centuries. He spoke of many things in these letters, but he always came back around to the same theme: that moment of blinding grace on the Damascus Road, when sight came wrapped in blindness.
Our New Testament contains 155 references to grace; 130 of them come from the pen of Paul. The word opens, closes, and dominates every letter he wrote. It defines his teaching and his dearest hopes. Grace is the magnificent ideal by which he would measure his life and yours. The scourge of the martyrs has become the apostle of grace.
That's the startling power of one simple idea-the same power that transformed a ruthless slave trader to a timeless troubadour of liberation. John Newton shared Paul's obsession. In his elder years, he would sit by the fireplace in his former vicarage study at Olney. His once raging soul was now at peace. Just the same, he never wanted to forget the other John Newton-the one who traded in human cargo. Like Paul, his earthly eyesight was failing in latter years, but he could read the large letters he had painted on the wall over his fireplace:
Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou has been honorable (Isaiah 43:4) BUT Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee (Deuteronomy 15:15).
It was John Newton's special joy as a pastor to craft sermons and hymns together. The Word and music were equally beloved to him, and he gave himself to both. For New Year's 1773, he turned his attention to 1 Chronicles 17:16-17: "Then King David went in and sat before the LORD; and he said: 'Who am I, O LORD God? And what is my house, that You have brought me this far? And yet this was a small thing in Your sight, O God; and You have also spoken of Your servant's house for a great while to come, and have regarded me according to the rank of a man of high degree, O LORD God.'"
The verses seemed to leap from the page before Newton's eye: Who am I, Lord? Why should King David, murderer and adulterer, receive the magnificent grace of God? Why should John Newton, trader of slaves? Such grace could only be described as amazing.
Yet the hymn that first emerged from Newton's pen might surprise the modern ear. For one thing, the melody was not the familiar one that has come down to the present day. It would be more than half a century before a man named William Walker would find just the right tune-a melody known as "New Britain." In Newton's time, as many as twenty different melodies might be used interchangeably. Even that immortal title had yet to assert itself. The hymn's original title? "Faith's Review and Expectation"-not exactly catchy enough for the pop charts, then or now.
There were more verses than we often recognize too. Many people claim to know all the verses of "Amazing Grace" by heart, but can they sing the lines below? These originally followed the present third verse:
The Lord has promised good to me, His word my hope secures; He will my shield and portion be, As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, The sun forbear to shine; But God, who call'd me here below, Will be forever mine.
But a verse is missing, isn't it? The one that may be your favorite. What about "When we've been there ten thousand years"? The closing stanza you and I know and love first appeared in 1909. Edwin Othello Excell, himself a prolific composer, inserted the final piece in the puzzle, completing the standard version of the hymn. Excell replaced verses four, five, and six with four lines that John Newton never wrote. How did it happen?
In the year 1852, antislavery sentiment had come to a boil in America. Newton would have heartily approved. Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared that year, including a version of "Amazing Grace" that added these lines:
When we've been there ten thousand years Bright shining as the sun, We've no less days to sing God's praise, Than when we first begun.
Excell admired this version excerpt with its vision set in eternal glory. He grafted these new lines to the existing ones, and we've sung it that way ever since.
The English used the song on occasion. Across the sea in South Carolina, the hymn was first published with a melody. That hymnal, The Southern Harmony, sold an amazing six hundred thousand copies in 1850-two years before Excell added his "ten thousand."
Years came and passed, and so did new hymnals and musical fashions. "Amazing Grace" was one nice hymn among many until, of all things, the age of acid rock.
In 1970, when electric guitars and angry lyrics ruled the charts, folk singer Judy Collins released an audacious track: an a capella rendition of the old hymn "Amazing Grace." Without the drums, without the backbeat, the result was a revelation to young ears. By early 1971, the song was a hit in England and America. Finally, three recorded minutes that the elderly and their flower-child grandkids could listen to together.
Then in 2004, Bill Moyers produced an entire documentary about the song for public television. He paid tribute to the mysterious power of a simple hymn that had traveled so far with so many adventures. Judy Collins, reprising her hit, told of its support during her bout with alcoholism. Opera singer Jessye Norman rendered a concert version. Country singer Johnny Cash used it to connect with imprisoned criminals. The song cast its spell in many worlds, whether sung by the Boys Choir of Harlem, shaped-note choruses in the Appalachian foothills, or among Japanese worshipers.
The hymn is heard at Olympic ceremonies and presidential inaugurations. It is considered essential in a time of disaster; a crisis such as the one of September 11, 2001; or at any moment of somber mood. It has become a de facto national anthem for events of magnitude.
Shoppers at Amazon.com may choose from among 3,832 separate recordings of John Newton's old hymn. It comes in every style, crosses every line, and reaches any and every ear. And when it is announced in a church service, people stand a little taller to sing it. They lift their voices a bit higher. Some of them feel that, just for a moment, they are catching a glimpse through the gates of heaven.
St. Augustine wrapped a powerful thought in vivid imagery when he said, "God always pours His grace into empty hands." The hands of John Newton could not have been emptier.
His father commanded a merchant ship and was always at sea. His mother raised him the best she could, schooling him in Scripture and sacred song. Mother and son attended a chapel near the Tower of London. In a nation in which 99 percent of the people were affiliated with the Church of England, Elizabeth Newton insisted upon an independent congregation.
Just before his seventh birthday, John Newton lost his mother. It didn't take the old captain long to remarry and dispatch the boy to a boarding school. His was a childhood out of a Dickens novel. Unwanted children were often abandoned and abused at such schools. John left school and returned home. The elder Newton shrugged, put his young son on a ship, and began taking him along on his travels.
By the age of seventeen, John Newton's world was the open sea. The world of the Spirit, as lovingly taught by his mother, had vanished over his horizon. For seven years he declined into rebellion. Like some today, he mixed and matched convenient ideas to create his own religion, making "a shipwreck of faith, hope and conscience." In his own words, his "delight and habitual practice was wickedness," and he "neither feared God nor regarded men." In short, he was "a slave to doing wickedness and delighted in sinfulness."
Excerpted from CAPTURED by GRACE by DAVID JEREMIAH Copyright © 2006 by David Jeremiah. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.