Amazing Grace: How One Sunday in a Small, Dying Iowa Church Changed My Life
Amazing Grace: How One Sunday in a Small, Dying Iowa Church Changed My Life

By Rick Chromey

 

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me.”

I’ve been singing that hymn my whole life, yet never captured what it truly meant until one frigid Sunday morning.

I was a student at Nebraska Christian College. For extra money, I’d occasionally preach for churches in need, and this particular weekend, I agreed to speak for a small church about two hours from school.

It was a brutally cold Sunday.

The tiny, white, clapboard and steepled church was miles from the nearest town, saddled by snowbanks, and guarded by Iowa cornfields. Only a few cars were parked outside. Was I late? Services were scheduled to start shortly.

I opened the front church door to enter a darkened sanctuary with rows of empty pews. No one greeted me. No signage. Just a deep, icy chill.

I heard laughter and followed it to the basement where 15 saints were joyfully gathered. Metal chairs lined the wall. An old piano was in the corner. I introduced myself to an elderly gentleman, who graciously seated me before opening the service with prayer.

Another lady led the songs, accompanied by an aged pianist whose keyboard method resembled a “search and destroy” mission. We sang a few hymns, passed an offering plate, and took the Lord’s Supper.

And then it happened.

A shabbily-dressed, overweight, twentysomething woman stood up to share “special music.” And, trust me, it was special as she tortured us with every verse of “Amazing Grace” (including stanzas I didn’t know existed). It was the worst rendition of “Amazing Grace” ever sung (if you can use that word). The poor woman crucified every note. She screeched and growled. Her pitch wasn’t even in the ballpark.

It was absolutely, positively awful.

Actually, the whole service was terrible (and I’m being kind).

It’s no wonder this church was dying. In my college classes I learned how to grow churches, attract visitors, nurture families, and create positive spiritual experiences. This church broke every rule. As I sat in my chair of judgment, critically analyzing the experience, I quickly surmised this church was comatose. It was time to close the doors.

When the young woman finally, and graciously, nailed her last painful note, I winced. I cringed again as everyone—the entire church—surprisingly stood and applauded the woman’s effort. Did I miss something? Surely, they don’t encourage this terrible singing? It’s no wonder people don’t return.

I wanted to preach, gather my check, and leave. I had suffered enough.

And that’s when I saw it.

The young woman beamed, ear to ear, and raised her arms and fingered “I love you” to her adoring friends. Suddenly everything became crystal clear. This young woman was deaf. She couldn’t sing a lick because she could hear nothing.

I was shell-shocked.

My pharisaical critiques melted like snow in Phoenix. My arrogance had deafened me to divine perspectives. I had judged this woman and this church far too harshly. I was the only deaf (and blind) person in that room. I was actually a blessed witness to a heavenly carol among a company of saints.

I finally saw this church as God saw it.

Suddenly my prepared sermon seemed shallow. What could I do to top that graceful performance? What could I say to improve what this deaf woman so powerfully communicated?

I remember nothing after that angelic song.

It was truly amazing.

And something changed inside me.

The amazing grace I hungered to experience was gloriously captured by the wonderful warble of a beautiful deaf girl. If she could bravely offer her feeble tune, surely God could use my frail talents. Don’t we all desperately desire to participate in a church where even the deaf enjoy a voice? Where even the average, shabby, and broken are empowered to serve? Where we all have a place of grace?

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound (and it is sweet!)

I once was blind but now I see.”

And now I hear, too.

Grace is incredibly loud, when you truly listen.

 

Rick Chromey is the founder and president of MANNA! Educational Services International (www.mannasolutions.org). He has empowered leaders to lead, teachers to teach, and parents to parent for more than three decades. He lives in Boise, Idaho, with his wife, Linda.

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