Sunday, March 27, 2011

Wilberforce, Newton, and Amazing Grace

After walking out of the BYU Forum address by Michael Flaherty, the president of Walden Media, I phoned Keryn and had her immediately add the movie Amazing Grace to the top of our Netflix queue. I wanted to see the movie that had come from the great story he told.

It turns out the movie focuses on the story of William Wilberforce. The early movie shows his internal conflict about whether he should pursue a life in politics where he showed great promise, or whether he should pursue a life of Christian reflection and ministry. His friends persuaded him that a life in politics could be the sort of ministry that would change the world.

They were right. Wilberforce was a pivotal figure in the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. You really should see the movie. It was a moving experience. I'm sure we'll purchase the film.

More lightly touched in the movie is the story of John Newton, the man who penned the lyrics to the famous hymn, Amazing Grace, from which the movie draws its name. Here is the story of Newton as Flaherty related it in the forum address. (This story is in the last few minutes of the talk.)

The film was called Amazing Grace after the famous piece by John Newton. After hearing the song, I always assumed that Newton had experienced a complete and instant conversion to Christianity. But it turns out the story was a little more complicated and his conversion was a little more drawn out.

Newton is best described in his own words, “an infidel, a libertine, and a slave trader.” One night as he was sailing back to England, his ship started to fill with water and was about to capsize. Newton prayed to God for help and the ship was miraculously saved. By the time he got back to England, Newton was reading his Bible daily. He went to church on Sundays. He stopped gambling. He stopped smoking. He stopped swearing. I bet he even stopped dancing. [laughter]

But for more than three more decades, he continued in the slave trade. For all of his new found insight and proper behavior, he didn’t at first see any reason for a career change, but instead resolved to be the most moral slave trader in all of England.

For his time and place, this didn’t seem like an outrageous contradiction. How could it be, when neither the law, nor the crown, nor even parts of the church would condemn slavery as evil. By all outward appearances, Newton could be considered an upstanding Christian in mid-eighteenth century England.

It was in prayer, however, that the truth broke through. Not in a flash, but over time. Like the prophet Samuel before him, Newton learned that the Lord doesn’t look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.

Finally, after many years, the things that broke God’s heart began to break John Newton’s heart. He became a dedicated abolitionist, a trusted friend to William Wilberforce, and of course, the author of Amazing Grace. With that first prayer from a stricken ship a whole new story was set in motion. The slave trade lost its most upright merchant and the world gained its most beautiful hymn. That’s the power of prayer. And saving a ship was the least of the miracle.

Prayer can be subversive in that way. It doesn’t always advance our ambitions, but sometimes can even undermine them and set us in an entirely new direction.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

How Comes the Millennium?

I have been wondering what it will be like to live during the Millennium, that period of 1000 years when the earth will be free of death and pain and war. When the earth will be renewed and the Savior will reign as king.

Perhaps that world will become that way in a flash of fire at the Lord's Second Coming. Perhaps.

But I wonder if the change might be more gradual. We know that Satan will be bound. Will he be bound because Jesus will restrain him, or will he be bound because there are none left who will hearken to him?

Will death be conquered because our bodies will be different, or will it be chased away because any who are sick will ask for a blessing and will be immediately healed of any pain and affliction?

I wonder if we must do more to ring in the millennial day. Do we do ourselves a disservice by patiently waiting for someone else to usher it in?

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