The Power of Grace

The Power of Grace May 23, 2024

Often I encounter powerful stories that I feel are worth sharing with you the reader. Recently, I stumbled back upon a story from one of my favorite books, What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancy. He uses this story to end his book.

Bill Moyers’ documentary film on the hymn “Amazing Grace” includes a scene filmed in Wembley Stadium in London. Various musical groups, mostly rock bands, had gathered together in celebration of the changes in South Africa, and for some reason the promoters scheduled an opera singer, Jessye Norman, as the closing act.

The film cuts back and forth between scenes of the unruly crowd in the stadium and Jessye Norman being interviewed. For twelve hours groups like Guns ‘n’ Roses have blasted the crowd through banks of speakers, riling up fans already high on booze and dope. The crowd yells for more curtain calls, and the rock groups oblige. Meanwhile, Jessye Norman sits in her dressing room discussing “Amazing Grace” with Moyers.

The hymn was written, of course, by John Newton, a coarse, cruel slave trader. He first called out to God in the midst of a storm that nearly threw him overboard. Newton came to see the light only gradually, continuing to ply his trade even after his conversion. He wrote the song “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” while waiting in an African harbor for a shipment of slaves. Later, though, he renounced his profession, became a minister, and joined William Wilberforce in the fight against slavery. John Newton never lost sight of the depths from which he had been lifted. He never lost sight of grace. When he wrote ” … That saved a wretch like me,” he meant those words with all his heart.

In the film, Jessye Norman tells Bill Moyers that Newton may have borrowed an old tune sung by the slaves themselves, redeeming the song, just as he had been redeemed.

Finally, the time comes for her to sing. A single circle of light follows Norman, a majestic African-American woman wearing a flowing African dashiki, as she strolls onstage. No backup band, no musical instruments, just Jessye. The crowd stirs, restless. Few recognize the opera diva. A voice yells for more Guns ‘n’ Roses. Others take up the cry. The scene is getting ugly.

Alone, a capella, Jessye Norman begins to sing, very slowly:

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.

A remarkable thing happens in Wembley Stadium that night. Seventy thousand raucous fans fall silent before her aria of grace.

By the time Norman reaches the second verse, “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved … ,” the soprano has the crowd in her hands.

By the rime she reaches the third verse, “’Tis grace has brought me safe this far, And grace will lead me home,” several thousand fans are singing along, digging back in nearly lost memories for words they heard long ago.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,

Bright shining as the sun,

We’ve no less days to sing God

Than when we first begun.

Jessye Norman later confessed she had no idea what power descended on Wembley Stadium that night. I think I know. The world thirsts for grace. When grace descends, the world falls silent before it.

Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.

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