You are not permitted to download, save or email this image. Visit image gallery to purchase the image.
Hello to 2018, and a Happy New Year to you!
It’s very human, isn’t it, to want the new year to be better than the last? New Year’s resolutions, however, receive bad press for their unfortunate habit of letting one down. Here’s a simple idea for entry into the future, a posture for the new year if you like, associated with the well-known hymn Amazing Grace.
Amazing Grace is often sung at funerals and connected therefore with loss and a sharp sense of poignancy. But, interestingly, it didn’t start out as an end-of-life dirge; instead it started as a joyous New Year hymn on January 1, 1773. Its theme is grace, God’s love for us that we haven’t earned and certainly don’t deserve. Its author, John Newton, wrote about God’s upholding grace in the past, grace enjoyed in the present and the hope of grace and heaven to come. Every year, he reflected deliberately on God’s grace in this tripartite way.
Newton himself led a singular life. Upon leaving the Royal Navy, he became involved in the Atlantic slave trade; he would pick slaves up in Africa, sometimes sailing way upriver to find them, and then transport them to North America, where they were sold. He was violently anti-Christian in belief, heartlessly lampooning those who professed faith in God. He was rough and tough, a typical seaman who rested on his own strength and wits.
In 1748, however, his life changed. Off the coast of County Donegal, Ireland, his ship was caught in a fearful storm. Coming face to face with his own wretchedness as a person and his inability to save himself, he called on God to rescue him. He emerged from this experience a new man, referring often afterwards to that "great turning day". A few years later he withdrew from the slave trade altogether, eventually becoming a minister.
Newton’s heinous past was still there — undeniable — but he’d been redeemed. Thus Amazing Grace opens with reflection on past deliverance:
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.
His was an extraordinary deliverance, he recognised, and only an extraordinary grace could have achieved it.’Twas grace that taught my heart to fearAnd grace my fears relieved,How precious did that grace appearThe hour I first believed.
He then moved to consider the present and future:Through many dangers, tools and snaresI have already come.’Tis grace hast brought me safe thus farAnd grace will lead me home.
A good half of the original arrangement of words dealt with God’s promise of future grace. Here are a few lines:
The Lord hath promised good to me,
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.
When Newton wrote the hymn for his congregation at Olney, England, he knew it was God’s grace only that had rescued him and was sustaining him. As for the future, well, that too was in the kindest of hands, God’s.
Each new year gave him the opportunity to consider again God’s love (he wrote to a friend: "With new years, new mercies") and tell again the story of God’s grace.
Like me, you might find time this week to pause and reflect thankfully on the story of grace in your life — shown to you in the past, upholding you right now and waiting for you in the future, in 2018 and beyond.
- Jenny Beck is a member of Dunedin City Baptist Church.