“You didn’t pick that horrible song, did you?” asked my mother.
My brother-in-law Stephen and I had just returned from meeting with the two ministers who were sharing my sister Patricia’s memorial service, after she died of melanoma. My mother and Stephen were happy that it was in Stephen’s Episcopal church, at Patricia’s request, and I was thrilled that my sister’s Unitarian Universalist minister /music director was doing the eulogy and bringing the UU choir. As a UU and a musician myself, I had gone along to attempt to plan a service that would offend no one.
Since my mother had made no requests I wasn’t sure what song she disliked so much, but I ventured a guess. “Do you mean ‘Amazing Grace”?” I have my own history of disliking that song, but I didn’t know my mother hated it too.
“Yes, that’s it.”
“No, we didn’t choose it. But why don’t you like it?”
“Oh, it’s just so overdone. I’ve been to too many funerals lately and everyone picks that one.” Too true. At almost ninety, my mother has indeed been to way too many funerals, and this one for her middle daughter was way beyond what she should have to bear.
Still, I had to laugh, even in these circumstances. It was my husband’s father Jim who had first expressed hatred for That Song, possibly for the same reasons, but also he did not approve of any song that called anyone a “wretch”. He probably should have been UU instead of Presbyterian, because our hymnal puts an asterisk at that place in the lyrics and invites the singer to substitute the word “soul” if they so choose. In her meditation collection Walking Toward Morning, Victoria Safford celebrates a church that asks people to choose their theology in the middle of singing a hymn: “I know of no other hymnal in print that virtually stops the singing in mid-measure to poll the congregation, to call for a theological debate within the mind and heart of every singer. And right there, quickly, because the pianist isn’t going to wait for you…”[i]
Personally, my objection is not the word “wretch”, since I have often felt wretched and far from perfect, and since the guy who wrote the song was a slave trader who was quite certainly a wretch. However, the idea that I need a God to save me from eternal hellfire is not part of my theology. The first principal of Unitarian Universalism is “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”; Unitarians Universalists reject the idea of original sin. I am, I’m sorry to say, a direct descendent of Jonathan Edwards, who wrote “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and I must say he would not recognize me as kin.
Anyway, my mother-in-law vetoed having That Song at Jim’s funeral and squirmed in visible discomfort two years later at his brother Larry’s service. I was right there with her. Just a week before that service, I attended one for a gentle, beloved friend whose minister chose to use her funeral as a chance to convert his captive audience: “If you ever want to see this woman again, you MUST accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour and repent of all your many SINS! If you do not, you will be eternally DAMNED!” Really? I gave up that theology at 14 when my best friend was Jewish. That’s why I like the Universalist part of the UU faith—Jesus had some great ideas, but so did a lot of other people in the history of humankind.
It doesn’t help that there are…quick look at Wikipedia…six verses to the thing, and the first verse is usually sung again at the end. The problem with congregational singing, unless there is a drum section or a very aggressive organist, is that hymns are sung too slowly and the tempo drags more with each verse. “Amazing Grace” turns into torture by the end. At that horrific service for my friend, I noticed with gratitude that the minister had skipped for some reason having the congregation sing That Song, even though it was listed in the program. I happened to overhear him bemoaning this as I walked down the aisle at the end. The organist, who had also noticed the omission, was quietly playing the tune and doing lovely improvisations on it. I said comfortingly, “Oh, but it sounds so amazing done this way.” I still congratulate myself on my tact in that moment.
So, in short, I don’t have a warm and fuzzy feeling about That Song. But…..
The night before Patricia died, it was clear to me that the end was near. She had taken a sudden turn for the worse, and I knew that several of her friends wanted to see her. There had been talk of her UU choir coming to sing for her in the hospital, but she had resisted that. At 7 p.m., since Pat was no longer in a state to protest, I sent a quick email to one of the choir members who had been corresponding with me arranging food deliveries for our family. My niece Erin contacted one of Patricia’s artist friends who had been asking to visit her. By 8 p.m. at least ten women, choir members and artists, had gathered in the lovely palliative care room that Vanderbilt Hospital provides. The singers and I started with UU hymns such as “Spirit of Life” but quickly morphed to other songs that everyone would know. Early on the pianist Susan had suggested “Amazing Grace” and I had burst out, “I hate That Song!” Later, once we had run through “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and even “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in jazz style (we were in Nashville, after all) someone else suggested “Amazing Grace”. Susan looked at me, and I nodded. She began to hum it.
Among the choir members and the artists there were many who knew how to improvise harmony. “Amazing Grace” without its lyrics filled the room. Even the nurses who had to be hardened to these situations began to find excuses to walk in. Later, after all of the visitors had quietly said their goodbyes and left, Erin, Stephen, and I looked at each other and at Patricia, speechless. Erin finally said, “I think church just happened here.”
Two weeks later, when I was home in Sacramento, a package arrived from a friend who knew nothing about my history with That Song. It was a wind chime which played the notes from “Amazing Grace”, and the card read: “May you listen to this to remember your sister, and if you get tired of the tune you have my permission to hang it in the garage.”
I finally understand how amazing grace can be.
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch[ii] like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believ’d!
Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.
[i] Essay reprinted at http://www.uuworld.org/spirit/articles/188430.shtml