Sunday, 22 February 2015

Rehabilitation and Forgiveness - Part 1

Rehabilitation and Forgiveness - Part 1

For Lent, I have been reading a biography of John Newton. Newton joined the Navy but then became a Captain of slave ships. After a very stormy sea in 1748, his ship almost sank off Ireland, and he awoke in the night and called out to God, as the ship filled with water. The cargo sifted and blocked the hole, and they were able to make it safely to port.

That was the start of his conversion to Christianity, but he continued to ply the slave trade, although he took more care of the slaves themselves. By this time, he had stopped himself swearing, and given up gambling and drinking, and was reading the bible.

After suffering a stroke in 1754, he gave up the sea, but continued investing in the slave trade. He became tide surveyor at Liverpool in 1755, studying in his spare time Greek, Hebrew and Syriac. He applied to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England in 1757, but it was to be seven years before this was accepted. He received Deacon’s orders in 1764 and was appointed curate of Olney. He became well known for his friendships with non-conformists, and for his pastoral care as much as his beliefs.

In 1788, 34 years after he had retired from the slave trade, Newton broke a long silence on the subject with the publication of a forceful pamphlet “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade”. He was now a confirmed abolitionist and lent his support to William Wilberforce. In his book, Newton speaks of “a confession, which ... comes too late ... It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”. He had copies of the book sent to every member of parliament.

The story of John Newton is a story of change, of how a man so steeped in such an evil trade, can come to see the error of his ways, and can even fight against what he had done in the past. It is a story of redemption, and shows us how people can change for the better, whatever their past mistakes.

Newton went blind, but he penned these verses:

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

There is a blindness that is to do with how we judge people, and how the burden of their past can affect how we treat them in the present. It assumes people cannot change – you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, a leopard doesn’t change its spots – these maxims reflect what we so often think.

In a time of Lent, what better to give up than old grudges and let eyes be opened to change that can happen? It is not so much for their sake, as for ours. People to change for the better. Let's not be blind to that.

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