Amazing Grace

Probably the most famous hymn – if not the most famous song – of all time is Amazing Grace. It’s a Christian hymn about the transformative power of grace but strangely enough, people of all faiths (and those with none at all) find themselves able to sing, at the very least, the first verse:

Amazing grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found,
Was blind but now I see.

A little aside because I’m non-linear: today there are many arrangements of this song and some of the best involve bagpipes. Nearly anything with a bagpipe in it gets me going. So imagine my joy when I discovered a cover of Amazing Grace by a band with the delightful name of the Dropkick Murphys. This performance is so unlike what I imagine John Newton had in mind when he wrote the hymn that it represents, to me, the very core of the concept of grace. These guys can’t sing but once your head gets banging, you just don’t care.

Today, grace usually means elegance or beauty. It can also mean mercy, but the word is rarely used for that. Pardon or clemency are better legal terms than grace, which is too pretty a word and not academic enough. Theologically, the meaning of grace is very specific: it is the freely given, unmerited favor and love of God to the full breadth of the sliding scale of humanity, from selfless saints to sadistic sinners. The key word here is “unmerited.” It’s about not getting what we do deserve and getting what we don’t deserve. I don’t know about you, but I’m fine with that when it benefits me. Where the theology breaks down is when I’m asked to give it. More on that in future posts.

Back to Amazing Grace. In 2009, I am known, in various circles, for my dislike of the overuse of the word “amazing.” When a word is used too much, it loses its meaning and power. One such word begins with the letter f. Another such word is amazing. It is overused. The literal meaning of the word amaze is “to surprise greatly or to fill with astonishment.” Most things in life don’t really do that. And so I have instituted a moratorium (to which no one adheres, but I can still make speeches on it): you can only use the word if the thing you are describing truly is amazing. And guess what? Grace, the kind that transforms a poison heart, really is amazing. Ask anyone who has ever been forgiven or witnessed someone else forgiving the unforgivable. It happens. Not that much in our culture but grace happens. That’s amazing.

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