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  "Upon Singing
Amazing Grace"
  Tin Can


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On My Road"
Wendy Lewis
  Wendy Lewis

Rūs + Literary Series
Upon Singing Amazing Grace

January-February, 2008

I don’t believe in God. It still makes me slightly uncomfortable to say it out loud. The first nine years of my life were spent in a tiny fishbowl of fanatical cult religion with little or no outside influence to inform or educate. Being born into a small, misguided world where I was one of the “chosen,” it was a terrifying step to plunge into the cavernous if ultimately liberating abyss of simply being human. That came later.

Before then, my entire being was entrenched in church dogma and practice; church school with kids only from our church family, service twice on Sunday, prayer meetings on Wednesday night that were painfully long on the knees when the old ladies would “speak in tongues”. There was church camp, church youth group, summer conference and church picnics, sweaty summer revival tents from traveling lunatics, dunk tank baptisms, altar calls, and the frequent ritual of communion, which always meant a much longer service. Then there was the required daily Bible readings morning, noon and night and extra readings when I’d sinned, which was often. God knew every move I made, every thought or secret I kept, every doubt and question—there was a price to pay for each. God’s presence in my life did not invoke feelings of love or comfort.

I read the Bible a couple times over before I reached my tenth birthday, or so I told myself as I blankly scanned the tiny print pressed into tissue thin pages. I liked the sound of them as they were turned and got pleasure from placing the thin brown ribbon carefully in valley of the binding. I was not allowed to read the book of Solomon, which was flush with sexual references, so of course, I clandestinely pored over it. Psalms read like poetry, song and dance. The book of Revelations, flush with its horrific forecasts of the inevitable “end times” when earth and all upon it would perish, was not recommended reading without the interpretive assistance of a parent. We, calmly assured, would be “saved.” Just us. Only those of us hiding from the rest of the world off Highway 7 in Hopkins, Minnesota, together with our scant sister congregations scattered around the country. We were The Chosen Ones. We were the only ones who would be spared God’s wrath upon the world even though we remained irredeemable sinners. It never made sense.

I had too many irrepressible secrets, doubts and questions as the years went by, so I came to know I would not be among those swept up in the rapture. When I was nine years old, the church finally imploded, swollen beyond the bounds of its unholy flesh, rife with sexual abuses and financial scandals, elder infighting, mental illnesses, epic judgments and curses perpetrated by the fiery minister upon certain members of the congregation during myriad sermons. Before the final crash, my family fled Hopkins for the south, 1200 miles from the wreckage. While my parents continued holding fast to the teachings of this deconstructed minister from a safe distance, my systematic dismantling of religion continued for the next twenty years.

All that remains for me now are the songs. Gospel music is adhered like shrink wrap to my internal architecture, "Were You There," "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," "Farther Along," "Sweet Sweet Spirit," "The Old Rugged Cross" and on and on. I embody these songs, regardless of the circumstances under which they became a part of my repertoire. And the mother of all gospel songs, "Amazing Grace," is the one that is buried deepest in my bones. Every time I force myself to sing it, in a club, at a gravesite or wedding, my immediate response is to burst into inconsolable tears, even if I’m alone in my car. I feel empowered and rendered helpless all at once. It just gets me, every time.

John Newton underwent a religious conversion after a series of life-threatening events on a number of slave ships he crewed between 1748 and 1754. While it seems the conversion was more related to his own second near-death experience (this one from an illness at sea) than renouncing his hands-on complicity in the pillaging of human beings from African shorelines, he penned the lyrics for "Amazing Grace" shortly after he was ordained as an Angelican priest in 1772. While the history on him appears murky and debatable (and just for the record the music is considered an Scottish/Irish standard, not his) clearly the song took on a life of its own and has exceeded the bounds of its Christian origins. It was not only used by forces on either side of the Civil War but was also purportedly sung by the Cherokee tribe to bury their dead on The Trail of Tears, where there was no time for a full native ritual. Apparently, that’s why many modern Native American musicians have recorded the song. At any rate, “Amazing Grace” marched on to become a staple secular anthem for human rights protests. The more I sing it or hear it sung, the more I am reminded that no religion corners the market on morality. Owning up to the fallible force of our human nature is universal; so is forgiveness. 

When my long time friend Guy asked me to sing "Amazing Grace" at the last minute for his father’s funeral, I immediately froze, choked up, made excuses and disclaimers, and then, acquiesced, as I generally do. Of course I wanted to sing it, but the singing of that song begins by calling up my own sordid history together with gathering all my dead people and then goes on to unearth antiquity’s crimes and forbearances from time immemorial. It’s a lot to carry and I’m never sure I am worthy of it.

I requested an a cappella version I would deliver from the back of the Washburn-McGreavy chapel in (ironically) Hopkins, MN on November 13th 2007 so I would not have to face the room. The animated military chaplain, who was clearly dedicated to making this ceremony one of celebration and theatrics, did much towards lightening the atmosphere and I think all were grateful. He wanted to announce me as “a professional singer” et al, pressuring me for credentials during our little meeting prior to the procession, but I asked him not to. He insisted but I protested—again. It wasn’t about who I was and I preferred to be invisible. It was about Max Reed.

After an invocation and a long, light-hearted introduction, the minister gave me the nod. I took a deep breath and held on tight to the last pew in the chapel, feet spread apart, leaning against the wall, head down. I was afraid but anchored. I raised my head and began… “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…” breath, pause, open eyes “…I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see…” deep breath, standing away from the wall, still leaning on the pew  “…’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fear relieved…” digging in a bit, getting some legs “…how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed…”  I hold no beliefs but imagine anything is possible “…Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come, ‘tis grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home…” standing upright, not leaning, not gripping the pew, hands drawn up to my chest  “ …Amazing Grace…. how sweet…. the sound…” taking my time, out of time, descending, rolling over and over and over “…that saved a wretch…… like me…………. I once was lost, but now…. am found…….. was blind…………. but now…….. I see………”

Max’s daughter had asked that his casket remain open for the entire service so he lay before us while we honored his life on that cold afternoon. I kept thinking he looked like he was napping on the sofa while the football game raged on. He loved football and baseball and basketball—basically any televised sport. Max was somewhere around five feet tall (like my own father) Napoleonic, ornery, clever, blunt, well-read, finicky, honest, assertive, moral and generous. He was veteran of WWII, smoked four to five packs of cigarettes a day, loved to eat raw hamburger with lots of salt and pepper, ice cream, butter and harbored an well documented obsession with painting and repainting his house. He lived to 84 years of age. He finally quit drinking in his later years, of which he was very proud. These are a few things I know about this man and the life he lived, in addition to having my own tether to him through his son and having spent some time with him over the years.

Max had experienced his share of hard knocks and delivered some blows during his life as well. It happens. It was fascinating to listen to the eulogies delivered from his family, friends and co-workers and I think we all learned things about him that day we didn’t know gazing out of each other’s windows. During the course of my friendship with Guy, we’ve exchanged a lot of war stories about our respective childhoods. We suffered the blindness inherent in loving parents, as most of us do. Love is not simple. Being humbled is never pretty. But over the last five years or so, I was also privileged to witness Guy make a renewed connection with his father—an increasingly present embrace they shared all the way to their last moment together on the planet. Guy is Max Reed’s son and even with what went wrong along the way, there was plenty that went right, as evidenced in the men they both became. Grace comes to those who surrender.

We processed to Fort Snelling where Guy’s father was laid to rest in full military regalia—color guard, six gun salute, casket draped in an American flag, taps echoing across the cemetery. There were uniform grave markers as far as I could see in every direction, perfectly spaced, dwarfing our party of mourners. The dead outnumber the living. It was chilly as we crowded closely together under a raucous, grey sky and the green tent covering Max Reed’s final resting place fought hard against the winds of November.

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