I went to church on Saturday night. Fascinating experience.
First of all, it wasn’t a church service. It was a bar/music venue called Fitzgerald’s. It’s located in Berwyn, an inner ring suburb in Chicago.
The featured act was The Blind Boys of Alabama. The ‘Blind Boys’ have won five grammies and were featured in the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou” awhile back. They are old (70’s my guess) and truly blind. And they are gospel. Pure gospel.
So, the Blind Boys get up in this club and they rock the place. Sure, there were some real fans there but it wasn’t a very ‘churchy’ crowd. But people were dancing, and testifying, and shaking and singing along. I think what happened is that the Blind Boys stirred something, almost hidden away, in the hearts of the audience. It reminds me of something I’ve used in sermons before.
In his book, "What's So Amazing About Grace" Phillip Yancey tells this poignant story about the primacy of grace. Bill Moyers documentary film on the hymn "Amazing Grace" includes a scene filmed in Wembley Stadium in London. Various musical groups, mostly rock bands, had gathered together in celebration for the changes in South Africa, and for some reason the promoters scheduled an opera singer, Jessye Norman, as the closing act.
The film cuts back and forth between scenes of the unruly crowd in the stadium and Jessye Norman being interviewed. For 12 hours groups like Guns 'n Roses blasted the crowd through banks of speakers riling up fans already high on booze and dope.
Meanwhile, Jessye Norman sits in her dressing room discussing "Amazing Grace" with Moyers. The hymn was written by John Newton, a coarse cruel slave trader. He first called out to God in the midst of a storm that nearly threw him overboard. Even after his conversion, though, Newton continue to ply his trade. He wrote the song "How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds" while waiting in an African harbor for a shipment of slaves. Later, though, he renounced his profession, became a minister, and joined the fight against slavery. John Newton never lost sight of the depths from which he had been lifted. He never lost sight of grace. In the film, Jessye Norman tells Bill Moyers that Newton may have borrowed an old tune sung by the slaves themselves, redeeming the song, just as he had been redeemed.
Finally, the time comes for her to sing. A single circle of light follows Norman a majestic African American woman as she strolls onstage. No backup band, no musical instruments, just Jessye. The crowd stirs, restless. A voice yells for more rock and roll. Others take up the cry. The scene gets ugly.
Alone, a capella, Jessye Norman begins to sing, very slowly:
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found-
Was blind but now I see.
A remarkable thing happens in the stadium. Several thousand fans fall silent as she sings.
Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed
By the time she reaches the third verse, "Tis grace has brought me safe this far, And grace will lead me home," several thousands fans are singing along, digging far back in nearly lost memories for words they heard long ago. Thousands of voices proclaim:
When we've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we first begun.
Jessye Norman later confessed she had no idea what power descended on Wembley Stadium that night.
Yancey said - I think I know. The world thirsts for grace, When grace descends, the world falls silent before it.
That’s what happened at Fitzgerald’s last night. Instead of silence people shouted and danced. But the spirit of God was present.