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Are you a wretch?

Not every religious tradition asks you to choose your theological stance midway through a hymn.
By Victoria Safford
Winter 2011

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(©Mary Hope/iStockphoto)

So last Sunday, when we were all singing “Amazing Grace,” and we got to that bizarre moment in the first verse where our Unitarian Universalist hymnbook slaps down an asterisk and a choice, what did you do? Which did you choose to sing: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me” or “. . . that saved a soul like me”?

It probably depends on how you were feeling that day, how particularly wretched or soulful. I know of no other hymnal in print that virtually stops the singing in mid-measure to poll the congregation, to call for a theological debate within the mind and heart of every singer. And right there, quickly, because the pianist isn’t going to wait for you, the congregation isn’t going to wait for you, Sunday rolling on its way to Monday isn’t going to wait for you, you have to stake your claim, make your mark, testify—all the while wondering if the person singing next to you will take offense if you confess at the top of your voice your own wretchedness and even our common condition as a fallen, faulty species. Or will your neighbor be annoyed, or maybe shocked, if you stand there warbling on about what a pleasant soul you are, what a nice, well-rounded, fully individuated, sin-free, guilt-free humanist soul? There you stand, frozen in time, and the music plays on while you hastily cobble a theology.

We sing our song in different keys and cadences. We are on our own to make a faith out of nothing, which is to say, out of everything we have. That is daunting, lonely work, demanding and relentless work, the work of a lifetime, and I suspect it is the very scope of it that keeps our tiny movement small. Not everyone wants to stop singing in the middle of the song and consider once again and all alone the nature of the human soul and God, infinity within and infinity without.

It’s a lot to ask of people on a Sunday morning.


This meditation is excerpted from Walking Toward Morning: Meditations, originally published by Skinner House in 2003 and recently reprinted. See sidebar for links to related resources.

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