Against “Amazing Grace”

hymnalIn a world in which it seems that just about everything seems to be complained about online—bitch, bitch, bitch, moan, moan, moan—ad infinitum, here’s a little beef I’d like to proffer, that I don’t recall having seen anywhere yet:

I despise “Amazing Grace.”

Mind you, I’m not complaining about the notion of grace itself, God’s unmerited favor given in the gift of his son to save us from our sins—the distinctive Christian soteriology. It is not, therefore, the theological concept I doubt—though as an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I’m probably a bigger fan of the book of James than a lot of my Protestant brethren.

I don’t even have an issue with the hymn’s composer, John Newton, that poor former British slave trader, who was haunted by the dehumanizing work he had pursued, though not enough to leave it for decades. It was good for him to repent, and write against slavery. I am glad he found forgiveness, despite the horror he perpetuated. (I believe that forgiveness can, indeed, be received. Even for horrendous evils.)

It’s the hymn that’s the problem. [Read more…]

Gotta Dance

2350196127_9f6e774f0b_zMy mother was a dancer. I use the term dancer in the most flexible possible way, to mean: “One who dances.”

She said that she had always wished to be a ballerina—an image that didn’t compute with my childhood understanding of my mother, a labor room nurse who played racquetball at the YMCA, and otherwise attended a smattering of sports events in which my siblings and I competed.

She wore tight jeans and therapeutic sandals, and most of the dancing I saw her do was with her friends in the neighborhood on Friday afternoons, when everyone finished work and school, and the children played while the women drank wine coolers and bumped hips to Neil Diamond hits.

For the children, women dancing and drinking in the living room with the massive stereo speakers turned way up, was something to be avoided. So we played hide-and-seek, Legos, Barbies, and otherwise averted our eyes to the mothers.

[Read more…]

Thin Places, Part 1

DSC_0176A few summers ago, my husband Tom and I were in Dublin for a week, and one day, we took a tour bus to two ancient holy places—thin places, the Celts would have called them: spots where heaven and earth are very close to one another, where the ordinary distance between the two collapses.

When I was an evangelical teenager, I thought the idea of thin places was sort of cool, another way to describe that feeling I got when I sat on the beach during vacation and saw an especially vibrant sunset, or stood on top of a mountain and spun slowly to take in the vista. The world was transformed in a moment of extraordinary beauty, and so was I, for a little while.

I felt close to God, closer than I felt singing hymns or listening to sermons. Church, in its very weekly-ness, wasn’t extraordinary like that. I’d never been one of those “on fire for Jesus” types, like my friends who raised their hands in worship, but when I felt that spark, I thought maybe for a while I was like them. [Read more…]

Dancing on the Way to Prison

By John Bryant

Worshipping HandsI’m standing in a circle with thirty singing and swaying old men and we hold each other’s hands because of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and signal the presence of His Spirit by fluttering our fingers during certain parts of the song, the fluttering strange at first and then completely appropriate and satisfying.

There is an old man in front of me with wide forehead and dark eyes and he is bald and tall and strong and he is dancing. He shakes his hips and leaps on one leg and then the other in those impossible khaki shorts he wears in winter, and he looks like he would’ve been a murderer or bouncer or head of a biker gang if he’d not been made a perfect child and clown by the Holy Spirit.

We release hands and begin another song, and these strong old men fold their hands behind their backs like little children holding flowers for girls and they put their voices into the middle of the circle where the song gathers like a creature rising out from fire and for all their gruff, worn appearance the singing is impossibly loud, sincere, and generous. [Read more…]

How Much God Loves Us

By John Bryant
waterHe was born with cerebral palsy and he has it all the way up until he is completely underwater, when, he says, his whole body is pleasantly different, his limbs smooth and loose and elegant. I hold him under his arms in the pool and he can walk and tell me everything.

He takes three quick steps and can feel the surprise in the way I hold him, and his whole body shakes like a bird in your hand. I’ve never felt a whole body pulse with joy—all hair and fingers and toes—like he is still in the furnace of creation.

When he is done, we float him to the edge of the pool, and I leap out and dig under his arms and we lift him out into his great quivering weight and into the wind and the sun, and the length of his body contracts like a drop of water back into what is wrong. We lay him on his chair and towel, his great knobby knees and his furled, funny, complicated posture.

We push him in his wheelchair back to the cabin, wheels caught and muscling through gravel.  We feel him slip in his chair. We stop. My friend holds him at the knee, and I hold him from the back under the arms, and on three I lift him up to my chest, high as I can, up to the sun like an offering, then back into his appointed place.

I pause, take a step in front of him, just to see him. The sun is in his eyes. His face wide, flat, simple. I tell him we’re close and his spine curves out like a plant growing to the sun, leaving a hollow space between his back and the chair. I push him, tell him about my wife. He smiles, his head tilted at the crook in his neck, his eyes always turned up in reference to something coming up over the hill no one else can see. [Read more…]


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