Every Friday of our married life, or just about every Friday of our married life, my husband and I have taken ourselves to a bargain matinee. A twilight showing of some film or another. At least 40 times a year over going-on a quarter century, nearly 1,000 by my calculations, some meriting Oscars and other awards. Others so bad as to warrant our slipping out the back door.
What once was a really, really cheap date — four or five dollars apiece and a split box of chocolate covered raisins — is now double the price. In fact, you have to get there before noon in some theaters to get any kind of a discount at all.
This is the slow season for movie openings — just before the Oscars — so we have actually skipped a few Fridays. But not this one.
This is the Friday when Amazing Grace opens, a film being billed as the first hit of the year, the first epic, the big screen retelling of the story of 18th century British abolitionist William Wilberforce and his role in overturning slave trading and then legal slavery in England, with no need for bloodshed, many years before we battled this out during the Civil War. The movie is being timed to the 200th anniversary of the end of slave trading.
It is also, at least parenthetically, the story of John Newton, a former slave trader himself, who had what he called his experience of amazing grace, of turning away from sin, that led to the writing of the words of the most popular hymn in the world now, unveiling it at a New Year’s Day Anglican church service in 1773.
I once was lost and now I’m found, he wrote, was blind and now I see.
As someone who did not grow up in the Christian tradition, I don’t recall hearing or singing Amazing Grace or even hearing or considering the word “grace,” except as it related to words spoken over spaghetti at Girl Scout camp, until I attended a Judy Collins concert in 1971.
She sang it a capella, she sang it in that vibrato-less soprano, she sang it in a way that pierced my soul, even if I did not know what soul meant. She sang it at a time when we were just coming out of the civil rights movement era and were smack in the middle of the war in Vietnam. There was blindness all around us, and wretches and leaders, it seemed to me, so lost as to never find their way back to righteousness.
I did not know then that the final breathtaking stanza “when we’ve been here ten thousand years” had been a modern-day addition and taken from another hymn altogether.
I didn’t know that Amazing Grace is considered to have been the anthem of the Cherokee Nation during the Trail of Tears in 1838 and 1839.
That most of the recordings — the most covered song in history — 3,200 or more — had been made in the years following Judy Collins’ crossover version.
That a survey of British teenagers in the mid- 1970s found that the majority thought that Amazing Grace was a love song about a girl named Grace.
That Amazing Grace was sung at the funerals of Richard Nixon, Sonny Bono, and John Kennedy, Jr.
There was a time in our Unitarian communities when it was not very OK to include Amazing Grace in our worship services. Like the joke goes about how we don’t sing very well because we are always looking ahead to see if we agree with the words there were a lot of trouble spots in that hymn.
We had — and still have — trouble with the word “wretch,” since we are inclined to believe the inherent worth and dignity means that we are all and always good.
We had — and still have — trouble with the phrase “the hour I first believed,” because we are not inclined to conversionary moments, or born again phraseology.
Many of us either don’t “believe” in grace — which some might define as an otherwise unearned and unexpected gift or boost from a supernatural source — or don’t have a clue as to what this might look like at all. We tend to believe that we make our own lives and create our own salvation, our own wholeness, our own peace.
Charlene Spretnek, a writer on women’s and eco-theology, defines grace in a way that makes spiritual sense to me anyway. When we experience consciousness of the unity in which we are embedded, the sacred whole that is in and around us, we exist in a state of grace. Experiencing grace for her involves the expansion of consciousness of self to all one’s surroundings as an unbroken whole, from which negative mind states are absent, from which healing and groundedness result.
Sometimes the consciousness of grace come on suddenly she tells us, and so intensely that the moment is never forgotten.
More frequently our experiences are less spectacular but still amazing— when we are singing together, creating art, poetry, dance — being in conversation that blurs all boundaries of separation.
Seeing the humanness in the person who is hungry or sick or naked, as Howard Thurman has described.
Seeing the humanness, the connection between the slave in a boat’s hold and the trader who holds him in bondage. The grace that leads us home to a place of justice and compassion.
Last Sunday there was a coordinated worldwide hymn sing of Amazing Grace, on a commercial level marking the premiere of the movie by the same name, on a spiritual and moral level a chorus of grace praising God for the abolition of the slave trade 200 years ago, praying for the remaining work of racial healing and equality, and pledges to bear witness to and free the 27 million some slaves that live across the globe today.
Slaves like a young woman named Abak, who was just a baby when her parents were killed during a raid by a militia group in Sudan’s decades-old civil war. Who survived this horror only to be abducted herself, taken away to the North of Sudan and held as a slave for ten years, never paid, never allowed to go outside, forced to clean the house and serve every member of her captor’s family.
This hymn sing and the movement it hopes to inspire is nothing less than an attempt at amazing change.
It is not too late for us to lift our voices as well.