This is the second of what I realize now are three times when the same lyrics are applied to two different tunes. Now in the case of Light of Ages and of Nations, and later, O Little Town of Bethlehem, they are actually two completely different tunes. But here, we have two distinct versions of the same tune – the one you all know and love.
The first is in 3/4 time, as we commonly sing it. The second is an expansion into 4/4 time, giving it a different sort of swing and feel. The first swings in an old timey sort of way. It feels comfortable and familiar, like an old shoe. The second offers some swing, to be sure, but also a little breathing room for that emotional swing and subsequent trills.
It’s a trick that’s used for a variety of reasons, this expansion of time signature. Perhaps most famously, it was used to highlight a beautiful voice at a momentous occasion, namely Whitney Houston singing the National Anthem at Super Bowl XXV in 1991.
The original is written in 3/4 – you can feel it as you being singing, right? Or if you need help, here’s Martina McBride singing it in 3/4 during the 2005 World Series, in St. Louis:
Beautiful, yes. Familiar. And pure, in its simplicity.
But now hear what Whitney did, by expanding it to 4/4:
While it’s true that this also came in the midst of a tense Gulf War, this rendition – giving space for leaning into the meaning and her beautiful voice – made this an instant classic.
Giving space – isn’t that what grace is all about anyway? And so I invite you to sing this both ways – to feel both its grounding and its expansive space.
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.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed!
Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come;
‘tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.
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’d first begun.
I know there are some who hate the word “wretch,” but there is something grittier, more real, about it. Soul (the option offered in the hymnal) can be sweet and ambiguous. Wretch is clear and focused. And while I firmly believe humans are innately good (a very anti-Calvinist position), I believe that we can be easily sucked into despair, destruction, and evil – and grace, however you define it and wherever it comes from, is what saves us. For me, it’s an easy line to draw between this song and the not-very-old UUA slogan, “nurture our spirits, help heal the world.”
But however you sing it, it’s a comforting hymn that calls us back to ourselves and gives us room to let go of the fears and pains we carry.
Amazing grace, indeed.