This month was always going to include a deal of looking back. Although we might wonder why a tenth anniversary causes us to reflect more than a ninth anniversary does, or an eleventh, the fact is that it just does. So we reflected on September 11, in various ways.
For me, the most notable reflection came from a member of my church on the Sunday morning. “On September 11,” he said, “I watched what happened in the USA and I asked ‘Is God really in charge here?’ And as a result of that morning, the foundations of the faith as I had known it came tumbling down with the World Trade Center.” He went on to describe a youthful experience of faith remarkably similar to my own, one in which a premise followed a given and led to an outcome, and all that Christians believed and stood for became a package to cover the whole of life and living, in this world and the next. And the attack on the World Trade Center did not fit the package, and with the removal of a plank there came another, until the whole 110-storey edifice crumbled.
“I was left, in the days that followed, with a choice,” he told us. “Either the whole thing was empty and I had better find another approach to life, or it meant something different from what I had previously assumed, and I needed to adjust in the light of it. And I rebuilt a new structure, that had only one storey — not 110. That one storey was Jesus. I felt like Peter, whom Jesus asked ‘Will you also go away?’ and who answered ‘Where else could we go?’ He spoke for me. Where else could I go? When all the other convenient parts of the structure didn’t seem to fit, the single storey left was Jesus. And if I have one thing left to say to anyone else today, it would be ‘Keep on the journey.’”
I can identify with that. Just a few days before, I had been showing Amazing Grace to a Year 10 class — the story of the battle, led by William Wilberforce, to introduce English legislation against slavery. Wilberforce visits John Newton, the former slaver who wrote “Amazing Grace”, the hymn; not only one of the best-loved hymns of all time, but possibly one of the most popular songs in history. “My memory’s fading,” Newton says to Wilberforce, “but I remember two things very clearly. I’m a great sinner, and Christ is a great Saviour.”
It’s a good synopsis. A one-storey building, if you like. And if there is to be a link between any sinner and the Great Saviour, there has to be a transaction of grace. When we come to forget it, or to start imagining, consciously or otherwise, that God is obliged to love us on our merits, we are building a new edifice. More significantly, we are destroying the old one. There is only ever grace between us and God.
I am glad the hymn is named as it is, because it didn’t start that way. It was originally called “Faith’s Review and Expectation”. A snappy title it wasn’t. It may be that some anonymous editor has given us all a great gift, or perhaps Newton just thought better of it. But whoever named the song, a lot of people have sung it at times of great significance or poignancy, or both.
It was sung by both sides during the American Civil War, and by Cherokee Indians on the Trail of Tears. It was sung on the occasion of Martin Luther King’s having the legendary dream. It was sung when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. It was sung in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and of course it was sung again on September 11, 2001, following the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. “Amazing Grace”, written by a man who traded in slaves and trafficked in human suffering, but who gave the world a song that has become inextricably linked with hope, freedom and soaring vision after times of bondage and despair. It came from his own profound experience. Grace.
How is our faith package? Whether it is strong, wavering or doubtful, it should rest on two facts for a one-storey building: that I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great saviour. We have nowhere else to go.