Amazing Grace and wretchedness
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me”. These moving words by John Newton have touched most of our hearts at some stage in our lives. Amazing grace… Wretch…
If you know John Newton’s story, it is even more powerful. John Newton was a slave-trader. For most of his life, he traded in human suffering. Not only was he a trader, he captained a ship that kidnapped people from their own countries and sold them in the west.
Then Newton met the Lord, was “saved”, as we would say. After becoming a Christian, he wrote this lovely hymn. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
And a wretch, I think most of us would agree, is exactly what he was.
Except, Newton wrote this hymn while still involved in slave trade. He became born again in 1748. His salvation, his repentance, this wretchedness that he wrote about, that he was saved from, was, in his own words, swearing, gambling and drinking. He thought he was a wretch, because he swore, drank and played canasta.
After becoming a Christian, he stopped those things. But it would be another 40 years before he repented from slavery. Before he stopped his slave trade. 40 years in which he thought repentance meant not playing rummikub. 40 years, before he understood that slavery is a sin.
Talking about wretchedness
Then it makes sense that we are hesitant to use words like Sin. Wrath. Judgement. Repentance.
Because for too long these words have been abused, used to distract our attention from the actual problems. They made us focus on petty trivialities, while ignoring massive injustices.
In 2006 the Barna Group did a survey among 16- to 29-year-olds, asking them for their top three associations with present-day Christianity. Being “anti-gay” was first (with 91 percent), followed by “judgmental” (with 87 percent), and “hypocritical” (with 85 percent).
Christians, it seems, have a bad name. Because we sing about our wretchedness in swearing and playing cards, while participating in massive global injustices.
We have forgotten about our Hptftu.
Our what? Francis Spufford wrote a book entitled “Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense”.
He starts, weirdly enough, with sin. He calls it hptftu: our human propensity so stuff things up.
Because, Spufford argues, that is what we do. We stuff things up. Worse: we stuff each other up. And that is on our good days. Even when we try to do good, we just stuff up. We hurt one another. We don’t even consider one another. And when we do… we just make a mess of things
It’s like we can’t help ourselves!
In today’s gospel, we read about John calling people to repentance. Not just the “sinners, those people out there”. His choicest, harshest call to repentance, is for the Pharisees and Sadducees. The good religious people.
You see, they were coming to see how sinners repented. How others came to be baptised. Because, like Newton, they didn’t need to repent! Mos! They are religious, scrupulous in their obedience to the law.
But John calls them a brood of vipers.
Orthodoxy and orthopraxy
You get two types of religions (again referencing Spufford): one kind focuses on doing the right things (orthopraxy). It gives rules, or rather rhythms for every minute of the day. You know what you must do. Whenever you face a choice, it gives you clear guidance. You know what to eat, drink, wear, how travel.
The rules are sometimes difficult to obey, but they are not impossible. There are even loopholes that make them easier to obey. This makes life easier, more structured. You know who is in and who out; who is pure and impure; what is allowed or forbidden.
But Christianity is not one of those religions. It does not focus on doing the right things. It does not give us clear guidelines for every moment of every day, with rules for every single thing.
If we think that, we make the same mistake the Pharisees and Sadducees made. Christianity is not about doing the right thing, but about being the right person (orthodoxy).
Which is, of course, much harder. The things Christianity asks of us, are way more difficult – even, one must admit, impossible. In Luke’s telling of the same story of today’s gospel reading, John specifies the fruit his listeners should bear: If you have two shirts – give one away. Be content with your pay.
Christianity asks things like giving half of your possessions away – later to give it all away. To turn the other cheek. Love strangers as though they are your family. To love your enemy.
But it goes even further: what goes on in your heart, matters! It is not enough to just act nicely toward strangers and not be rude to your enemies. God sees your heart. God cares not only about your actions, but about your heart, your beliefs, how you feel toward strangers, enemies.
HPTFTU in focus
What Christianity does, is to shine a massive spotlight on our hptftu – our human propensity to stuff things up. We can’t hide it. We can be as good as Pharisees and Sadducees in obeying rules, not swear or gamble or drink. Christianity says: we stuff things up. All of us. We are all sinners. All in need of repentance
And repentance is to admit that. To admit that we make a mess of things, even when we mean well. That we can’t bear good fruit on our own.
And to, then, give ourselves over to God, to God’s amazing grace. So that we are not in control. That our hptftu is not in control, but God’s Spirit is in control.
Advent is a time of preparation, and therefore a time of repentance. We are preparing for judgement. But judgement is not the same as punishment. You prepare for punishment by ducking. You prepare for judgement by repentance, by surrender.
Because God’s judgement is like a pruner, like garden shears that prunes away the dead bits in order to bring better growth. To bring more life, healing, flourishing, hope.
Bearing fruit is not a result of the tree trying harder and acting more Christian-like and not playing canasta anymore. To bear fruit is to repent by submitting to God, by saying: I can’t. But I know you will, in and through me.
This is what Advent reminds is to do.
These thoughts are very much inspired by Spufford’s argument in “Unapologetic”