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Graceful Wind Chimes

June 24, 2013

Our garden has been especially beautiful this spring. Our daughter was married on Memorial Day weekend. She wanted to have her wedding with just the family outside at our home, so I had worked diligently to get the yard in good shape for the event.

The ceremony took place on Saturday morning in the side yard near our waterfall. The couple exchanged vows in the freshly painted gazebo. After a delicious lunch and a little clean-up, the celebration ended. I had put a lot of time and effort into an event that lasted about three hours.

After the wedding I suggested that since the yard looked so spiffy, we should invite church members to a garden walk. Clare agreed. Last Friday, just as the newly-planted lily bed came into full bloom, our guests came to visit.

We were blessed with a gentle breeze that afternoon, prompting one of the ladies to ask about our collection of wind chimes. I shared stories about some of the chimes and then pointed out my favorite, the one tuned to the first few notes of “Amazing Grace.”   

Several years ago on a trip to the South Carolina coast, Clare and I stopped for breakfast at a Cracker Barrel, a familiar landmark along interstate highways. At that time tables for two in the non-smoking section were in high demand, so we added our names to the waiting list. Fortunately, this establishment offers two diversions while waiting to be seated.  An array of rocking chairs is located on the front porch for customers who prefer to sit outside while waiting. Those rocking chairs, by the way, are for sale. The alternative allows patrons to make their way through a maze of merchandise on display inside the building.  As Clare and I waited for an available table, we chose to browse through the restaurant’s goods. I discovered a rack of wind chimes.

            Wind chimes are a favorite at our home.  Clare’s father, who made the first ones I ever saw, fashioned them from conduit pipe and small gauge chain.  The entire assembly was fastened to a piece of square wood with screw eyes and S hooks.  Though he died in 1984, we still enjoy the sound of those chimes he created whenever a breeze blows.

            Since that first encounter with my father-in-law’s homemade chimes, the art of making wind chimes has gone high-tech. Chimes have been tuned to sound like Gregorian chants or eastern temple bells. They have been tuned to the opening notes of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  There on the rack at Cracker Barrel I found a wind chime tuned to the notes of “Amazing Grace.”  

After seeing the chime and hearing its distinctive tone, Clare suggested that we buy several.  

            We gave one set to my sister and brother-in-law who live in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. This brother-in-law, Terry, later gave us a report: “If I sit on my screened porch with a cup of coffee and listen carefully while a gentle breeze is blowing, I really can hear a suggestion of ‘Amazing Grace.’”  He smiled and continued, “The other night during a big storm, those wind chimes rang like crazy.  Twenty-five people in our neighborhood came to our door looking for the revival meeting.”  

            Many people know that John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace.” His father was a sea captain, and John became a sailor as a teenager.  By the time he was twenty years old, he had become the captain of his own slave ship.  For nine years, he bought and transported Africans in the slave trade.

On March 21, 1748, in the midst of a perilous storm, Newton prayed to God for deliverance. That experience greatly changed his life. John Newton left the sea and the slave trade and eventually entered the ministry.  His memory of that stormy night at sea later led him to pen the lyrics of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Newton’s words were put to a tune he had heard sung by slaves imprisoned the hold of his ship.

In 1990, a television documentary produced for the Public Broadcasting System traced the story of John Newton’s hymn. Narrated by Bill Moyers, the ninety-minute film became one of PBS’ highest-rated programs ever.

For generations “Amazing Grace” has been sung in both rural churches and in city cathedrals. Shape note singers in Southern revivals have harmonized it. Native American flutes have played it, and the Harlem Boys Choir has performed it. Cherokee Indians sang it on the Trail of Tears, and Johnny Cash included the hymn in nearly all of his prison performances. The words never failed to move hardened criminals to tears.  

In 1970, folksinger Judy Collins released her version of the song.  Her clear, beautiful voice carried the song to the top of the pop music charts.   Judy Collins credits the song with helping her overcome her own problems with alcohol.  

At the conclusion of his documentary, Bill Moyers recounts an event that occurred on June 11, 1988. At a concert in Wembley Stadium in London, England, various musical groups, mostly rock bands, gathered in celebration of the end of apartheid in South Africa.  For twelve hours, rock bands groups like Guns n’ Roses blasted away, causing the crowd to grow louder and rowdier as the day progressed.  

The promoters of the event had asked Jessye Norman, a world-renowned opera singer, to perform the final number. Norman grew up singing gospel music at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia, long before her professional musical career began.   A single spotlight followed this stately African-American woman onto the stage.  Alone, with no musical accompaniment, Jessye Norman began singing a capella.

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.

Hearing these words, seventy thousand people fell silent. Jessye Norman began the second verse:

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;

By the end of the verse, the crowd was entranced.   As she began the third verse, several thousand people were singing with her.

’Tis grace hath bro’t me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Remembering words learned in the past, the crowd was transformed into a congregation as they sang the final verse.

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 revealed that she had felt an unseen power descend on Wembley Stadium that night.  

Whether “Amazing Grace” is played by a highlander on Scottish bagpipes or by Freddie Vanderford on a blues harmonica, whether sung by the untrained voice of a cotton mill worker or by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, whether played on a pipe organ in a grand cathedral or on wind chimes in a summer breeze, the familiar old hymn is a reminder of God’s love.  

When grace enters our lives, restless hearts fall silent. For those who pause to pay attention, there is a peaceful moment when our souls are restored.

Kirk H. Neely
© June 2013

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