Thursday, 26 May 2016

Amazing Grace.

Anne Tyler is one of the foremost American writers of our day.  In many people’s eyes she manages to convey the lives of ordinary people in a way that makes them seem extraordinary.  Family life is a place where there is conflict, tension, suffering but also a place where people find the resources and the dignity to overcome.  In the simplest of language personalities are brought to life in all their variety and complexity.   Her latest book sees a family seeking to plan the funeral of their mother who was killed in a road accident.  They wonder if she has left any instructions and speculate what they might be: 

““My only fear is, she’s requested ‘Amazing Grace,’” said Amanda.

“I like ‘Amazing Grace,’” Stem said mildly.

“So did I, till it got to be a cliche”

‘It’s not a cliche to me.”

Amanda raised her eyes to the ceiling.”

I know what Amanda means.  Ever since Judy Collins made it a hit in 1970, followed by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in 1972, ‘Amazing Grace’ has been sung and played on various occasions with people of all faiths and none feeling able to join in.  It is, of course, essentially a Christian hymn, written by John Newton, praising God for the undeserved love that has flowed into his life despite his own shortcomings.  Newton’s progress towards faith was anything but straightforward and he stood amazed at how firmly God had held him in the face of ‘many dangers, toils and snares’.   Strangely, the name of Jesus is not mentioned which perhaps may account for its wide appeal, even to the extent that it was played on the bagpipes at the funeral of Mr Spock in one of the Star Trek movies!

Yes I know what Amanda means.  ‘Amazing Grace’ is one of those songs which can be sung without any meaningful connection to its heart and soul.  Which is why it meant a lot to me recently to lead a Bible Study with a group of people recovering from a range of addictions and to begin with the singing of ‘Amazing Grace’.  I am tempted to say it took on a whole new meaning but actually this was men and women connecting with the only meaning Newton intended.  From the brokenness of his own life along with a deep sense of shame and unworthiness, Newton marvels at the love of his God who thought him worthy of the death of His Son and brought him to that place where he could say:

‘The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.‘      

Not that this is a hymn merely for those with what might be described as a dark and difficult past.  Anyone with any insight into themselves can find reasons why they don’t deserve anything from God and so the assurance of His grace, covering this life and the next,  is something we can all celebrate.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Pierced Ears.

They say that with regard to your general health and well-being you should choose your parents carefully.   It seems that so much ill-health, particularly heart disease, has a genetic base.  So with that in mind I suppose I should be grateful with  my parents lived well into their eighties.  I can’t say that their quality of life was the best as they became more and more dependent on others and there was a particular problem with deafness.   That was very frustrating for them and for everyone around them.  I have to confess to a degree of impatience having to repeat things over and over again.  
Someone has suggested to me that part of that was not being able to accept what they had become, that I was reacting against this inevitable deterioration in people I loved.   That may well be.  The thing is, I am now getting a taste of what it must have been like for them.  Last week, at a function I couldn’t make out what people were saying at my table unless they were sitting next to me.  I found myself frequently nodding to someone as  she was speaking to me and I don’t know what I was agreeing with.   I put this down to a lot of background noise but then I was always good at denial.  When I go to the movies I am missing chunks of dialogue.  The subtitles go on when watching certain TV programs. Just yesterday, being served in Starbucks, I had to ask the girl to repeat herself three times.  (She was asking my name so that she could write it on my cup!)

I know that many people who have good hearing have a problem with modern acting.  Was it the BBC’s ‘Jamaica Inn‘ that received complaints about the cast’s mumbling?   And Christian Bale in the recent Batman trilogy.  Why did he have to whisper all the time?  So there is an  issue here but I can’t escape it.  I am definitely getting deaf.

Spiritual deafness is a huge problem in the Bible.  Paul Simon sang of ‘people hearing without listening’.  That sums up much of the experience of the people of Israel in the Hebrew Bible.  They hear God’s Word but they either ignore it or screen it out so that it is never put into practice.  The prophets continually roared out the command ‘Hear, O Israel’.  If the nation was to realize the vision of being God’s people on earth then first of all she had to focus on and embrace His Truth.  

Jesus faced the same challenge.  People had spiritually bunged up the channels through which God could speak to them and turn their lives around.  He said: ‘He who has ears to hear let him hear.’  

It has been good to have a moan about my diminishing hearing but of greater importance is my willingness to hear in a deeper sense.  The Psalmist once wrote: 

‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but my ears you have pierced;
burnt offerings and sin offerings
you did not require.’  (Psalm 40: 6)

This is a familiar theme.  God is not impressed by the externals of religion unless they flow from a heart devoted to Him.  They way to that is to have ‘pierced’ ears.  No not in a decorative sense but in the sense in having ears that have been penetrated by God’s Word, ears that have been a channel of His truth,  ears that have been the medium for that truth to be established in our hearts.