Finding God in the Story of Amazing Grace
- Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Little John Newton, six years old, hoisted himself up in his chair, leaned across the table, and stared out the parlor window at the sunlight dancing on the surface of the Thames. Away flew his thoughts, beyond the river and the estuary, over the wide world, to the dim and distant figure of his father, a stern-faced man in a merchant-captain's coat, cresting the blue Mediterranean swells at the wheel of his ship.
"What are God's works of providence?"
John turned at the sound of his mother's voice, gentle but insistent at his side. A dog-eared copy of "The Westminster Shorter Catechism" lay open in her lap.
"What are God's works of providence?" she repeated, glancing up at him.
The boy brushed the hair from his eyes. Then he blinked, rubbed his nose, and grinned. She gave him an encouraging nod. "God's works of providence," he ventured, brightening beneath her smile," are His most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing of all His creatures, and all their actions."
"Good!" she beamed. "And what special act of providence did God exercise towards man in the estate wherein he was created?"
John bit his lip and frowned. "I'm sorry, Mother," he said, his father's grim and serious face flashing before his mind's eye. "I guess I haven't learned that one yet."
"No matter," she said, hooking a finger under his chin and lifting his face up to her own. "You shall learn it tomorrow! But can you remember the song we sang together yesterday?"
"Oh, yes!" he said, clapping his hands. "Let's sing it again!"
She lifted him into her lap, and the fresh, clean smell of her white linen apron and blue taffeta skirts filled his nostrils. He snuggled close to her and they began:
"Let children hear the mighty deeds which God performed of old;
Which in our younger years we saw, and which our fathers told."
"Another!" he shouted when they had finished. "Can we sing another?"
"Why not?" she said, taking another book from the table – "The Hymns and Psalms of the Reverend Isaac Watts." "Can you read this?" she asked, holding it up in front of him.
"O God," he said, squinting at the page, "our Help in ages past, our Hope for years to come. Our Shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal Home."
From somewhere on the street below came the laughter and shouts of neighborhood children. They were loud and exuberant at their play, but John never heard their calls. He was too full of the scent of his mother, too enraptured with the words of the song as it rose and fell on the gentle waves of her voice.
He was in his own personal heaven.
"If the foundations are destroyed," says David in the eleventh Psalm, "what can the righteous do?" (Psalm 11:3). It's a question well worth pondering.
But suppose the foundations are not destroyed. Suppose that on the contrary, they are laid deep in the hidden bedrock of the unchanging grace of God. Suppose that they are so well established and so painstakingly constructed that they stand unshaken despite the ravages of time and tide and chance. What then?
In that case, the righteous can hope to do all things (Philippians 4:13). In that case, we can expect the blind to see, the lame to walk, and the dead to live again. Best of all, we can look forward to the happy spectacle of prodigals coming home to the house built firm upon the Rock.
The story of the Reverend John Newton is the story of a beloved son, errant blasphemer, slave of slaves, and preacher of the everlasting gospel. It's a story that ends well because it begins well – in spite of a bleak and disastrous "middle passage."
We don't want to miss that good beginning. It's absolutely essential to everything that follows. Because for all its subsequent sordidness and sorrow, our narrative starts with a tender, touching scene: a child on his mother's knee, singing hymns and reciting verses from the Bible. An unlikely point of departure, perhaps, for a foul-mouthed sailor and a dealer in human flesh.
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