Mahalia Jackson singing the song Amazing Grace (post continued below video):
Her performance doesn’t really require comment. But I have been reflecting a bit on the song today.
The Gospel reading in many Christian churches this morning would have been from John, chapter 9, about a man, a beggar, blind from birth, who is given sight for the first time by Jesus. Some of the local Pharisees are both skeptical and critical of the event, as they are skeptical and critical of Jesus. They interrogate the man, who can claim to know very little about the person who healed him. They call on the man’s parents, to ensure that he really was blind from birth as he claims. Then they call the formerly blind man back again for more questions. As the ESV has it:
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
I was blind, but now I see. I’m certain I’m not the first person to pick up on this line of Scripture as being perhaps the origin of the similar line in the song Amazing Grace, and indeed a look at the (rather amazing) story of that song’s arrival in this world confirms the idea. But it was a fresh thought for Yours Truly, because it occurred to me only today for the first time while hearing that reading.
It also struck me harder because it seems to me like that little paragraph not only provides a useful image for the song, but also sums up the very concept of grace. The formerly blind man is told, effectively, “This man Jesus is a sinner, therefore he cannot be the one who healed you.” The man’s response, effectively, is, “Be that as it may, I only know that I was blind before, and yet now I see.”
Grace, or becoming conscious of grace, seems to go like that. The writer of the lyric, John Newton (1725–1807), expressed it so exquisitely because he knew it so well. He was someone who had many troubles, apparently; he worked for years in the slave trade, and was known for mocking the very concept of belief in God. The amazing thing to him was his realization that God seemed to keep pursuing him. It made no sense. He didn’t deserve it — he didn’t deserve to have his eyes opened. Why him? Why not someone much more deserving? Be that as it may, God implicitly said to him, here is this gift. Nothing is required of the one receiving the grace but to accept it. If it made sense — if it was expected, warranted, earned and appropriate — then it would not be grace.
So it is, perhaps, that grace may be offered, received, and — things being what they are — often set aside again, till once more it may be offered, and then even again, to the ever more incredulous soul. Like the man said: that’s pretty amazing.
I also like this live recording from 1970, from Jerry Lee Lewis (someone who knows a little about having the right string, but the wrong yo-yo).