As President Obama heads toward the end of his second term, practically everyone has an opinion about our President. And it is usually based on which side of the political aisle you sit. I have an opinion of him that is not based on politics or ideology. It is that it seems like President Obama has a good taste in music, and from two occasions I’ve seen, a pretty good singing voice.
You may have seen the video of President Obama singing Al Green’s hit song, “Let’s Stay Together,” during a fundraiser a couple of years ago. One of my all-time favorite songs, I was impressed with the President’s soulful rendition of the classic. Then, last week, at the close of his eloquent eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, President Obama sang “Amazing Grace,” the classic Christian hymn.
The eulogy was part of the funeral for Rev. Pinckney, one of the nine African-Americans murdered at the church in Charleston the previous Wednesday night. While I feel the eulogy should have been a little more about the life and legacy of Rev. Pinckney and the others who were slain, and a little less about the agenda that Obama and liberals promote, his talk was still inspiring and thought provoking.
The President’s eulogy seemed to center around God’s grace, and how we are receivers of that grace. Having received grace, we are to give grace to others around us. In the President’s talk, the examples he gave were in areas like social justice and government programs. But probably the best example of grace I’ve seen given is the forgiveness the families of those slain have shown toward Dylann Roof, the accused murderer, after he was caught.
Over the years I have heard grace defined in various ways. Probably the most simple definition (simple always works best for me) is “unmerited favor.” We don’t deserve it, but God gives good to us anyway.
If you know the background of the song, “Amazing Grace, seeing President Obama sing it at that occasion was even more powerful. “Amazing Grace” is a classic song of the whole Christian church, not just an African-American spiritual, as I heard one commentator describe the song. It is probably sung in more churches every Sunday across the world than any other song. A version of the song sung by Judy Collins even became a hit on the radio, staying on the Billboard pop music charts for 15 weeks in the early seventies.
But what makes “Amazing Grace” unique in its relationship to President Obama and his eulogy for the murdered African-Americans is the writer of the song, John Newton. You see, John Newton was once a slave trader.
Born in 1715 in England, John Newton was the son of sea captain and a God-fearing mother, who took him to church as a child. In his teens, Newton became a sailor and enjoyed the wild and free life of a sailor. About that part of his life Newton said, “I not only sinned with a high hand myself, but I made it my study to tempt and seduce others upon every occasion.”
During that time Newton managed a slave warehouse in Africa and worked on ships carrying slaves. It was on one of those trips that a storm came up, and everyone feared that the ship would sink. Remembering scripture from his youth, Newton cried out to God to save him, physically and spiritually. And He did. Giving up his life on the sea, John Newton went on to become a minister and would later become an Abolitionist leader in the fight against slavery in England. He personally had seen the horrors of slavery and advised and encouraged other Christian leaders, like William Wilberforce, in their battle that eventually removed slavery from that country. Newton was warm and caring in his ministry to others. He also wrote several hymns, like “Amazing Grace.”
We can remove symbols that are deemed offensive, correct past institutional mistakes, and establish government programs to lift others up. This can be good and necessary. But hearts must be transformed, not just conditions. That’s when real change takes place. John Newton’s heart was transformed by the grace of God, from a wicked slave trader to a kind hearted minister, who worked to eliminate slavery in his country. And that is truly “Amazing Grace.”