Like most folks in the Christian tradition, I grew up with a pretty tight canon of hymns that I "knew" outright. This canon of knowledge is established through exposure, repetition and also the awareness that some things (songs, poems, stories, prayers) have more weight for the simple reason that they are nearly ubiquitous. For citizens of the United States, things like the preamble to the Constitution, the Pledge of Allegiance of the National Anthem have that weight and merit-of course, I grew up like most kids thinking that the last two words of the National Anthem were, in fact, "Play Ball." But, that is another entry in this blog I have yet to write.
This entry is about Grace. "Amazing Grace," the hymn almost all faithful Christians from almost every denomination know by heart. It was a poem penned by John Newton and in the Episcopal Church's Hymnal 1982 it is #671 and we sing it set to the tune New Britain. It is one of those hymns that most people can sing without text, and it is one of those tunes that most people can sing from memory. Many even know the harmony.
So, why does this one hymn, amongst a few others, hold such sway over us in our sense of spiritual identity?
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.
The story of the poem is summed up in its first line. My thoughts on its import tie in to the way Grace figures at the forefront of my idea of a ministry of stewardship. Grace is the one true gift of God after life that we receive. For the author of the hymn/poem, Grace is that motivation/action of God that takes the person into salvation from wretchedness. That Grace of God is the action that brings sight to blinded eyes. It is the action of God that transforms us from being lost to being found.
Grace is the action of God opening God to us. I remember a time when I was a child and found myself standing at the doorway as my peers worked on a project. The mentor of the group looked up at me and said, "What, do you need an invitation to come help? Okay, then, please...come!" I remember that in that moment I was not only welcomed to the group and to the task, I was also given an identity. I was the invited, I was wanted and appreciated. My presence and contributions were important to the group. Was I needed? Who can say...but I know that I was wanted, and that had a great meaning for me in a period of my life when I felt most unwanted. I understand, on a small scale, what Newton meant when he said, "I was lost, but now am found." If you can feel that so intensely over a classroom project, then how much more so when the one doing the inviting is God in Christ himself!
That is the grace of God, and in the life of faith, that the gift of God loving us is worked out from the cosmic scale to the finest minutiae of our lives. God's grace is something that suffuses all of creation...it is the gift of life itself. God's grace is manifest in the journeys of Israel, from bondage in Egypt along the rocky roads of the time of judges, kings and prophets, into exile and home again. It is demonstrated over and over again in Jesus' being radically available to people as they come to him with their pain, grief, weakness and sin. It is manifest in Paul's testimony that what he does, what he teaches, what he accomplishes comes only and completely from God's grace made manifest in him while he was yet bound in sin and committed to the persecution of the newborn fellowship of the Church.
Grace is God loving us, not yet as God would have us be, but rather as we are. God loving that wretch that John Newton was opened the doors of his heart so that he could see Grace manifest. He fell, struck by the power of the Spirit, only to rise in the light of the truth of God's love for all of humanity. When Grace strikes us, when we experience God loving us, and when we choose to embrace that light and healing power-then we are changed, transformed.
Without Grace, we simply aren't anything at all. And yet, here is the twist...because God both loves us and gives us free will, we can choose to reject Grace. We can, and do, reject God loving us.
Coming to ourselves, again and again as God's grace strikes out hearts and opens our eyes is the one thing we are called on to do again and again in this life. One of the questions I love in the Episcopal Church's Baptismal Covenant is, "Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?"
I will, with God's help. I can't, without God's help.
God's grace reminds us that we can't do this thing called life without God in the mix. Any first step in any adventure in faith has to begin with recognizing, invoking and relying on God's grace to guide us and govern our thoughts.
Every morning, as I sit down to a day's work at my desk in the parish office, the first thing I do is pray. I pray the Daily Office, and at least four times out of five I use a particular Collect, a prayer, that calls on God's grace to be with us now and in the coming hours of the day:
Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity: and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose: through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
That prayer means, to me, a willingness to be reliant on the grace of God to lead me and guide me through both what the world will present to me as challenge...and to be willing to live with gratitude the life and ministry I have been given the honor of bearing in service to God.
So, for the first step of calling a community to a renewal of commitment to a holy and spiritual practice of being good stewards....well, that is accepting the gift of Grace from our loving God.