Sunday, February 12, 2017

Amazing Grace

Saturday afternoon Father Bruce Nieli and I co-officiated Jacqueline and James’ wedding at the Chapel of St. Basil on the campus of the University of St. Thomas, in Houston, Texas. Here are the words I shared with them and their guests:

Marriage is about two people, in this case Jacqueline and James, coming together. However, as mentioned before, in this case, as in many, there is that additional, shall we say, "element", grace. Grace is central to this union. 

One of my favorite hymns is John Newton's Amazing Grace. Now, I realize, that due to its popularity in modern culture, that is somewhat like saying that I like chocolate. Still, you must admit that a rabbi saying that a song rooted so deeply in Christian theology, is his favorite, is more man bites dog, than dog bites man. And when you do listen carefully to the words, you not only understand the deep Anglican roots of the hymn, in general, you realize that as it was written, it speaks to the concept of grace, as understood in Christianity to be one of its most central theological ideas. 

So, why does this rabbi, along with many non-Anglicans, and for that matter non-Christians, so love this hymn? I believe that this may be attributed to the malleable nature of the words, and specifically the concept of grace. It may have been written by John Newton with specific theological connotations, but even those of us who differ from Newton in our theology can still identify with the words and the broader meaning of grace in our lives. 

That broader meaning could be defined roughly as an ineffable sense of hope. Grace, in that sense means to us that even when we think all is lost, we need not give up. Hope can pull us through. And the hymn tells me, that that is not a one time occurrence. Life is not easy, it includes struggles along the way, and grace, hope, the triumph of the human spirit, are there to pull us through it all. 

You see that quiet resolute triumph in what Jacqueline says, "We come from different backgrounds, different parts of the country, different educations and religions. We (still) work because our souls (I have truly come to believe) are bound to one another... You are my soul mate, my other half, my best friend – anyway you cut it, you are my person."

You see that hope in what James says, "She is truly everything I have ever wanted in a partner. Her kindness, passion, heart, selflessness, beauty and unwavering love are just the beginning of all that she brings to our relationship and I am as happy as I have ever been and so incredibly excited for our future together."

Poignantly, the hymn speaks of the need for grace as a constant:

'twas Grace that taught,
my heart to fear.
And grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear,
the hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come.
'tis grace that brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead us home.

Why does it speak of the need for grace as ongoing? Because life's challenges and triumphs are ongoing, are often intertwined. They stretch across time. 

You can hear this in how Jacqueline speaks of the genesis of their relationship, but also in her ongoing devotion to it, "You met me when I was at many crossroads – I was ready and lost all at the same time. As you have discussed with me before – you were too... Whether you believe it or not – you are one of the most amazing men. I would redo every sacrifice and exception that I ever made for you – time and time again."

James also echoes the idea of the ongoing need for and power of grace in his words about Jacqueline and her mom as ongoing forces in his life, "Her daughter... brings tremendous love and passion to our relationship and is a guiding force behind many of our most important decisions and plans. They both have brought incredible joy and happiness to my life and I cannot imagine a life without them."

Indeed, grace unearths in us feelings of hope, love and strength, just like it did in the soul of John Newton. As James says, "I have never felt the way that I do now and I always want to continue and further this feeling of undying and unwavering love and happiness." Or, as Newton might put it, "Unending love, Amazing Grace."

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