Changing ‘Amazing Grace’, to Feel Better About Ourselves?

Changing ‘Amazing Grace’, to Feel Better About Ourselves? March 27, 2006

Miss Kelly is distressed to find that some hymnals (including the one in my church) feature a change in the words to Amazing Grace.

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…” Has been changed to reflect both the freedom that comes with salvation — which is very nice — and also the decree from some publishing house on high that we never, ever sing a lyric that might suggest a negative.

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved and set me free…”

Never mind that half the time most of us are day-long walking negatives and yes, wretches, to boot. We mustn’t examine that, look at it or even acknowledge it. It might make us feel badly about ourselves. Aw.

I know some female monastic houses (and a few male ones) have edited the psalms so that in their daily offices they are reading “nothing negative, violent or dark;” and heaven knows the psalms — which are marvelously pure and complete expressions of the whole human condition — do express our dark sides. So, for these monastics the Divine Office has become a big Kumbaya-fest where everything is happy and light and free, lollipop, lollipop, ooh lolli-lolli…

But that decision has always seemed to me to be extremely short-sighted and cheap. As with what Deitrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” in The Cost of Discipleship, these monastics are creating “feel-good” liturgy that is all-grace-and-all-light but which does not permit introspection, does not allow one to read a hard verse and stop to consider — “Lord, is that me?” If you’re only looking at the positive, it’s very easy to equate any negatives you do encounter as being the fault of “someone or something else.” The problem can’t be rooted in you, after all –- you’re all-positive!

At some point in every life, the ugly and dark stuff intrudes. Seems to me the best and healthiest way to deal with it, when it comes, is to have more than a passing acquaintance with it; if you’re acknowledging on a daily (or weekly) basis that what is lesser, and baser, exists and resides within our own hearts right next to all of our highest and purest ideals, you’re much less likely to be shocked or overwhelmed when you encounter the dark, either within yourself or within others. Or even within your town or your church or your government.

This is why the Catholic church urges daily (or at least weekly) examinations of conscience. It’s fallen out of practice, of course, like confession (which is the natural response to an Examination of Conscience). These days society and Dr. Phil tell us we are not to “dwell” on what we do wrong (“you just made a mistake..”) but to examine one’s conscience is not to “dwell;” it is not “wallowing in Catholic guilt,” as some would say.

We examine the conscience in order to be in touch with that baser nature that exists within us -– for to ignore it is to allow it to run amok at one’s own peril. Like a child whose parents won’t discipline him because it might make him feel bad, our unattended to conscience can do a lot of rationalized and relativistic damage to our souls and hence to our lives and the lives of those around us. If you’re attending to it — if you’re actually looking at what you’re doing, clearly and honestly -– the self-awareness is helpful.

And an examination of conscience can even be about those “positives” in our life. You may have done something good for someone, and feeling really good about having done it, but when you’re alone and looking at your day, such an examination might ask you if you did that good deed for that person, or for yourself — or if the act was some combination of both. Did I do that favor for so-and-so because I’m getting no praise at work, and I needed to hear it from somewhere? That doesn’t necessarily negate the good you did, but it is important to stay aware of your motives, and know when you’re really serving a generous instinct, and when you’re merely serving your ego.

It’s not about guilt. It’s not about ruminating. It’s about staying honest. My li’l brother Thom asked me this morning if I had ever seen a priest he’d heard of, who does a good sermon “but a little brimstone-y. He pulls no punches about our sinful natures. Since hardly any priest talks about our sin from the pulpit, maybe we need it, but maybe we don’t need that much.” he wrote.

There has always got to be balance, of course. But in an era where so many preachers of every stripe are loath to “burden” us with reminders that we can frequently be utter stinkers, I don’t think it hurts to hear it.

And if no one is saying it, we can always remind ourselves — we can take a look at our lives and sing, “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.”

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