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Trying to Understand Amazing Grace

By via the Southern Poverty Law Center

Published in ChicagoNow, June 30, 2015

When President Obama concluded his moving eulogy for South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney, the pastor killed along with eight others in last week’s church shooting, by singing Amazing Grace, like many others I was moved to tears. Then I spent the rest of the weekend trying to wrap my head around just what grace is.

I’ll confess upfront that I am neither a Christian nor even an observant Jew. Nevertheless, I am intrigued by the notion of the free and often unmerited love of God. While grace is not part of my religious tradition, I am certain a broader interpretation of it would make the world a better place. After thinking about it, I came up with four personal interpretations of how grace is truly amazing.

Grace as extending compassion to people, regardless of whether they have earned it or not. The notion of forgiveness has always intrigued me. How were the families of the nine people slaughtered in a hate crime in a church able to forgive? So many people can never forgive the smallest slight, and here were people whose faith and compassion extended to a man unworthy of such generosity. This is how their religion defines grace. If this extraordinary ability to forgive is not part of a person’s religion, can’t she at least forgive people who have wronged her with the same generous heart?

Grace as empathy for others. I often think about the proverb of uncertain origin, “there but for the grace of God go I.” I guess it means God’s grace is the only thing between me and another person’s tragedy happening to me. But I prefer to think of it differently. I see this as a call to have compassion and empathy for others and not to judge their choices in life. Unless you have walked in someone else’s shoes, you have no idea how she experiences life. It’s far better to ask how you can help or support someone than to guess or impose your personal values.

Grace as unconditional love. This concept profoundly moves me as I picture the ideal love a parent has for his or her child. The cliché of, “I may not like what you did, but I will always love you,” is a hard one for children to grasp, but an important one for parents to communicate to their kids. The love I have for my grandkids reflects this kind of grace. I am not responsible for disciplining them or teaching them values or manners. My job is easy. I just love them no matter what.

Grace as acceptance of others on a larger scale. The lyrics of the song I wish were our national anthem, America the Beautiful, reflect this interpretation:

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America!

God shed his grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

The inspiration for this song is a poem written in 1893 by Katherine Lee Bates. It was inspired by the scenery she saw on a train trip that included the “alabaster” buildings of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the wheat fields of Kansas, and the majestic views from Pike’s Peak. Samuel Ward set the poem to music in 1910. This is the melody most of us know. Ironically, the poem was published in 1895 to celebrate the 4th of July.

As we approach the 4th of July 120 years later, the grace I am thinking of is the notion of brotherhood (personhood) that is supposed to be the crowning achievement of our beautiful country. Far too often, it is not. But the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy in the recent Supreme Court ruling in support of marriage equality give me hope:

My wish is that we all find our personal understanding of amazing grace in our lives and extend that grace to the lives of others.


by Laurie Levy
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