Wednesday, July 1, 2015

An imperfect rendition: "... how sweet the sound"

President Obama / An imperfect rendition of "Amazing Grace
brought the room to its feet and resonated with an entire nation.

Last Friday, President Obama moved a congregation -- and a nation -- when he broke out into spontaneous song, singing "Amazing Grace" at the conclusion of his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine slain members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina.

That President Obama broke out in an imperfect rendition of this most spiritual of American songs was so unexpected. His surprising ability to make the music connect reaffirmed for us that music is, indeed, a ministry, one of the deepest expressions of the Christian faith. 

"Music is almost to me an echo of the sounds of the divine world, and when you hear these sounds, it stirs something deeply spiritual within you," said Grammy-nominated gospel singer Wintley Phipps, who has sung for every president since Ronald Reagan and who sang at President Barack Obama's National Prayer Service following his inauguration. In a 2009 interview with PBS' Religion & Ethics Newsweekly program, Phipps went on to say: "Music also is the most powerful way of impressing the human mind with hope."

In describing "Amazing Grace," the newsweekly magazine Time wrote: "Amazing Grace was written by an Englishman who in the early part of his life was an outspoken atheist, libertine, and slave trader. John Newton was born in London in 1725, the son of a Puritan mother and a stern ship commander father who took him to sea when he was 11 (“I am persuaded that he loved me but he seemed not willing that I should know it,” he later wrote).

"By 1745, Newton was enlisted in the slave trade, running captured slaves from Africa to, ironically, Charleston, S.C. After he rode out a storm at sea in 1748, he found his faith. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1764 and became an important voice in the English abolitionist movement. At that time he wrote the autobiographical 'Amazing Grace,' along with 280 other hymns."

President Obama embraced race and religion in his moving address in Charleston, saying: "As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us for he has allowed us to see where we've been blind. He's given us the chance, where we've been lost, to find our best selves." He named each victim of the church shooting and declaring each "had grace."

At the conclusion of his eulogy, President Obama turned to "Amazing Grace" -- a go-to hymn at American funerals -- as a means of comforting the grieving families. It's been said that the African American spiritual teaches each of us that we're going to come up rough sides of mountains, and from time to time experience difficulties in our lives. However, we learn, faith gives us the ability to weather any storm.

"As the president segued from the words 'amazing grace' into the musical notes of 'Amazing Grace,' the audience members could be heard murmuring their surprise," wrote the Los Angeles Times. "So unlikely was it that a leader of the free world would try singing his way out of a eulogy that many weren't sure whether to believe he was. The fact that Obama's singing was a little off-key only seemed to help the cause, inspiring the audience to join in instead of just sitting back and listening."

Indeed, as we observed, President Obama's "Amazing Grace" moment showed us all what a little music could do in the right context. It was a moment in which he notably brought the room to its feet and resonated with an entire nation.

To see a video of President Obama singing "Amazing Grace":

To learn more about "Amazing Grace":

Photo: Courtesy of and Google images.

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