A few years ago, the film director Bill Moyers made a documentary about the well known hymn Amazing Grace. It includes a scene filmed at the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium on 11 June 1988. Various groups had been invited to perform in celebration of the changes in South Africa and the breaking up of Apartheid.
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 crowd in the stadium and Norman being interviewed. For twelve hours groups like Guns ‘n’ Roses entertain the crowd – high on booze and excitement. The crowd yells for more and the groups willingly oblige.
Meanwhile, Norman sits in her dressing room discussing ‘Amazing Grace’ with Moyers. The hymn was written by John Newton, a coarse, cruel, slave trader, who was the captain of a ship involved in the infamous African slave trade in the 19th century. Captain Newton held many of the vices that were common to most seamen: cursing, drinking with a woman in every port.
On one of these voyages, Newton carried a passenger who was a Christian who took the time to share his faith with him. As a result of this, Newton began to study the Bible and to pray. One day, Newton came to the story of the Prodigal Son and, after reading it, fell on his face and repented of the terrible things he had done and gave his life to the service of God. Newton later joined forces with William Wilberforce in the fight for the abolition of slavery. Grace had both touched and changed his life.
John Newton never lost sight of the depths from which he had been lifted. When he wrote the line: “… that saved a wretch like me” he meant those words with all his heart. In the film, Norman tells Moyers that Newton may have borrowed an old tune sung by the slaves themselves, redeeming the song just as he, himself, had been redeemed.
Finally, the time comes for Norman to sing. A single circle of light follows Norman, a majestic African-American woman wearing a flowing African Dashiki, as she strolls onstage. There’s no backup band, no musical instruments … just her. The crowd become restless. Few recognize who she is and people begin to start booing her to get off the stage. Alone, a capella style, she begins to 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.”
A remarkable change took place in Wembley Stadium that night. Seventy thousand raucous fans fall silent. By the time Norman reaches the second verse: “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved” the soprano had the crowd in her hands. By the time 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 far back in their memories for words they’d long forgotten. And when she sang: “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.” Most of the crowd sang along with her.
There’s nothing quite like God’s grace and we all need more of it in our lives. The writer Philip Yancey writes: “Grace is the most perplexing, powerful force in the universe, and, I believe, the only hope for our twisted, violent planet.” And so it is.
Will you open your hearts to the Amazing Grace that God offers and allow him to touch your heart and change your life? Like John Newton, you’ll never be the same if you do.
This is a copy of my article for the MAY 2016 edition of the Billericay ‘Around Town Magazine’