Monday, July 28, 2008

Amazing Grace

My second grade year at Zela Elementary was an important one for me. It was the first time I saw a lot of kids paddled in front of the class--"You're in second grade, now. You should know better than that. Now, bend over for three swats!"--which greatly influenced my behavior by making me realize I had better be really good at hiding my misdeeds.

It was the year I first began to appreciate diversity, becoming aware that not all the students in the class were like me in terms of culture, beliefs and perspective. And second grade was important to me because it was the first time a teacher would allow us free time to stand up in front of the class and perform in some way.

We did it regularly, and it was enjoyable. It also helped boost my self-confidence.

"Sing Amazing Grace," my classmate Conard would request, when my turn came to march to the front. And I would. Once in a while I'd mix things up with "The Old Rugged Cross" or John Denver's "Country Roads," but most of the time I stuck to the old standard I knew really well from church.

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind, but now I see

As a kid I always found it odd that one would experience "grace" as a sound. Later in my adult years, I realized that John Newton was really writing about a very holistic experience: he describes the grace he experienced in several sensory-based ways throughout the song, using words like "sweet," "sound," "lost," blind" "fear" and "see."

He threw the whole kit-and-caboodle in terms of human experience into the song in order to demonstrate the completeness of his conversion.

I belted out "Amazing Grace" during those second grade talent periods with passion and conviction, just like I'd heard the song sung in church. It seemed to move Conard; he'd sometimes mosey up to me before we loaded onto the bus home and mention how he really liked the song, and that I sang it well. (Conard always whispered this quietly to me, or waited until no one was around before he brought it up. Even then, he realized the ass-beating that would come if an 8-year-old boy showed too much emotion.)

In my teen years, I arrived at the conclusion that "grace" is something one can experience without a supernatural deity gifting it upon us. While attending a .38 Special / ZZ Top concert in 1983, during the song Tube Snake Boogie, I felt the same feeling of "grace" that I'd experienced in church, and during those second grade class performances.

Surely, I thought, God wouldn't bestow the same feelings upon me during this classic rock song as he did upon me when I'm worshipping him through hymn.

It was soon after that I began to realize that, for me, "grace" is from within. It comes from the way I experience life, and the way I interact with others. "Grace" is in the small moments of life as much as in those efforts most dramatic, and exists there for us to experience if we pay attention. It's there when we teach our children, when we notice a beautiful flower, when we take an extra moment to show appreciation and when we work to help improve the lot and life of others.

And yeah, it's even there when we hear and appreciate a thinly-veiled song about getting it on with some chick on the hill.

Amazing Grace, starring Ioan Gruffudd as British parliamentarian William Wilberforce (a champion of the movement to abolish slavery), demonstrates "grace" in the same way I've experienced it during my lifetime. It's true that Wilberforce was devoutly Christian, and by all accounts a true evangelical. But as the movie depicts the man, Wilberforce recognized that one's life can be improved greatly by working to improve the lives of others.

The movie shows the lifelong effort Wilberforce made to convince his country to outlaw slavery, how he carried out his effort with conviction and persistence. and how his actions improved who he was as a man and a citizen.

Amazing Grace is an interesting bio-pic about a man I didn't know anything about, even though it's not a great movie.

But it was good enough: it was the first period piece I didn't sleep through in years.

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