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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Golfing, Slaving, and Singing in The Land of the Dying

"I am still in the land of the dying; 
I shall be in the land of the living soon. (his last words)” 

--John Newton, sailor and Anglican priest   

 Paul Atzinger

Paul Azinger is a professional golfer who spent almost 300 weeks in the Top-10 of the Official World Golf Ranking between 1988 and 1994.

Fate can be so unkind. In 1993, Paul Azinger learned that he had lymphoma: he had developed life-threatening cancer at the age of 33. He had just completed the best season of his career, a year in which he had won more than $1.4 million playing golf. He had captured his first major tournament, the P.G.A. Championship, in a playoff over Greg Norman. He also had won three tournaments, bringing his career total to 11. He had even played a big part in the United States victory in the Ryder Cup at The Belfry.

Needless to say, the news of his disease changed his life.

"When something like this happens, you can scream, 'Why me? Why me? Why me, God?' " said Azinger. "You can run away. Or you can do an about face and run to God. That's what I did. He had a plan."

Through it all, Paul Azinger never said "Why me?" Not when he found out for certain that the searing pain in his right shoulder was cancer. Not when he was so sick from chemotherapy that he couldn't stand up. Not when he woke up and found tufts of hair on his pillow.

Believe it or not, Azinger called his battle with lymphoma "a great blessing." He said, "This whole ordeal, this has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. I can honestly say that. One of the best things about it is that it's given me a forum to encourage and inspire a lot of people. It's taught me a lot."

What, exactly, did cancer "teach" Azinger?  He explains: "I know I'm not bulletproof. I'm just as vulnerable as the next guy. None of us is promised tomorrow. We've got to live every day to the fullest."

(Larry Dorman. "To Azinger, Cancer Becomes a Blessing." The New York Times. May 17, 1994)

But, how did Azinger ever reach this state of realization? He wrote the following: "(At first) A genuine feeling of fear came over me. I could die from cancer. And then something hit me even harder. I am going to die eventually anyway, whether from cancer or something else. It’s only a question of when. Everything I had accomplished in golf became meaningless to me. All I wanted to do was live."

His friend, Larry Moody, taught a Bible study on the PGA tour. After learning of Azinger's cancer, Larry said these words to him: 

"Zinger, we are not in the land of the living going to the land of the dying. We are in the land of the dying trying to get to the land of the living."
In one of his sermons, Reverend Weldon C. Bares wrote about Azinger and this revelation. "Those words made a difference to Paul Azinger. Think about that statement: 'We are not in the land of the living going to the land of the dying. We are in the land of the dying trying to get to the land of the living.' That place, according to the Bible, is Heaven, the land of the living. A place where there is no death, no night, no tears, no sickness."

(Rev. Weldon C. Bares. "The Land of the Living." Lake Charles American Press. August 09, 2014) 

With his faith, his family's support and great medical care, Azinger overcame his biggest challenge -- the deadly disease. Paul later wrote a book called Zinger about his battle with cancer and was the recipient of GWAA Ben Hogan Award in 1995, given to the individual who has continued to be active in golf despite physical handicap or serious illness. 

 John Newton


We Are In the Land of the Dying

The life story of Paul Azinger brings me back to the quote at the beginning of this entry. 

John Newton, the author of the quote, was born in London July 24, 1725, the son of a commander of a merchant ship which sailed the Mediterranean. When John was eleven, he went to sea with his father and made six voyages with him before the elder Newton retired.

In 1744 Newton was impressed into service on a man-of-war, the H. M. S. Harwich. Finding conditions on board intolerable, he deserted but was soon recaptured and publicly flogged (eight dozen lashes) and demoted from midshipman to common seaman. Following that disgrace and humiliation, Newton initially contemplated murdering the captain and committing suicide by throwing himself overboard. Instead, he recovered, both physically and mentally.

(John Dunn. A Biography of John Newton. 1994)

Newton later wrote, he remained arrogant and insubordinate, and he lived with moral abandon: "I sinned with a high hand, and I made it my study to tempt and seduce others."

Although he had had some early religious instruction from his mother, who had died from tuberculosis when he was a child, Newton had long since given up any religious convictions.

Then, at his own request, Newton was exchanged into service on the slave ship Pegasus, which took him to the coast of Sierra Leone. He did not get along with the crew, and they left him in West Africa with Amos Clowe, a slave dealer. Clowe took Newton to the coast and gave him to his wife, Princess Peye, an African duchess. She abused and mistreated Newton equally to her other slaves. Newton later recounted this period as the time he was "once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in West Africa."

(Memorial epitaph, St Mary Woolnoth Church, Lombard Street, London)

Early in 1748 he was rescued by a sea captain who had known John's father. Newton boarded the merchant ship Greyhound to return to England.

On the homeward voyage, while he was attempting to steer the ship through a violent storm, Newton experienced what he was to refer to later as his “great deliverance.”

Before the tempest, Newton had been reading Thomas a Kempis's The Imitation of Christ, and was struck by a line about the "uncertain continuance of life." He also recalled the passage in Proverbs, "Because I have called and ye have refused, … I also will laugh at your calamity."

("John Newton: Reformed Slave Trader. August 08, 2008) 

Newton recorded in his journal that when all seemed lost and the ship would surely sink, he exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” Later in his cabin he reflected on what he had said and began to believe that God had addressed him through the storm and that grace had begun to work for him.

Indeed, Newton had converted during the storm, though he admitted later that his true conversion did not happen until some time after that. He admitted about his initial experience, "I would not consider myself to have been a believer, in the full sense of the word."

For the rest of his life he observed the anniversary of May 10, 1748 as the day of his conversion, a day of humiliation in which he subjected his will to a higher power.

(Al Rogers. "Amazing Grace: The Story of John Newton.
 Away Here in Texas. July-August, 1996)

John Newton ultimately became captain of his own ship, one which plied the slave trade. While in West Africa (1748–1749), Newton acknowledged the inadequacy of his spiritual life. He became ill with a fever, and professed his full belief in Christ, asking God to take control of his destiny. He later said that this was the first time he felt totally at peace with God.

He continued in the slave trade for a time after his conversion; however, he saw to it that the slaves under his care were treated humanely. Hoping as a Christian to restrain the worst excesses of the trade, he went about "promoting the life of God in the soul" of both his crew and his African cargo.

Recollection of that chapter in his life never left him, and in his old age, when it was suggested that the increasingly feeble Newton retire, he replied, "I cannot stop. What? Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?"

But, by 1755, after a serious illness, he had given up seafaring forever.

(Adam Hochschild. Bury the Chains, The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery. 2005)

During his days as a sailor he had begun to educate himself, teaching himself Latin, among other subjects. From 1755 to 1760 Newton was surveyor of tides at Liverpool, where he came to know George Whitefield, deacon in the Church of England, evangelistic preacher, and leader of the Calvinistic Methodist Church.

Newton became Whitefield’s enthusiastic disciple. During this period Newton also met and came to admire John Wesley, founder of Methodism. Newton’s self-education continued, and he learned Greek and Hebrew.

He decided to become a minister and applied to the Archbishop of York for ordination. The Archbishop refused his request, but Newton persisted in his goal, and he was subsequently ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln and accepted the curacy of Olney, Buckinghamshire. Newton’s church became so crowded during services that it had to be enlarged. He preached not only in Olney but in other parts of the country. In 1767 the poet William Cowper settled at Olney, and he and Newton became friends.

Cowper helped Newton with his religious services and on his tours to other places. They held not only a regular weekly church service but also began a series of weekly prayer meetings, for which their goal was to write a new hymn for each one. They collaborated on several editions of Olney Hymns, which achieved lasting popularity. The first edition, published in 1779, contained 68 pieces by Cowper and 280 by Newton.

Among Newton’s contributions was a hymn to illustrate a sermon on New Year's Day of 1773. It is unknown if there was any music accompanying the verses; it may have simply been chanted by the congregation. It debuted in print in 1779 in Newton and Cowper's Olney Hymns, but settled into relative obscurity in England.

In the United States, however, the song was used extensively during the Second Great Awakening (Protestant Revival Movement) in the early 19th century. It has been associated with more than 20 melodies, but in 1835 it was joined to a tune named "New Britain" to which it is most frequently sung today.

Newton's hymn became one of the most recognizable songs in the English-speaking world. The hymn is "Amazing Grace." Author Gilbert Chase writes that it is "without a doubt the most famous of all the folk hymns

 (Gilbert Chase. America's Music, From the Pilgrims to the Present 1987)

Through the years other writers have composed additional verses to “Amazing Grace” (it was not thus entitled in Olney Hymns), and possibly verses from other Newton hymns have been added.

However, these are the six stanzas that appeared, with minor spelling variations, in both the first edition in 1779 and the 1808 edition, the one nearest the date of Newton’s death. It appeared under the heading Faith’s Review and Expectation, along with a reference to First Chronicles, chapter 17, verses 16 and 17.

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. ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ’d!
Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

In 1788, 34 years after he had retired from the slave trade, Newton wrote Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade in which he described the horrific conditions of the slave ships during the Middle Passage. He wrote the book to help William Wilberforce's campaign to end the practice -- "a business at which my heart now shudders," he wrote.

Newton apologized for "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 his book sent to every MP, and the pamphlet sold so well that it swiftly required reprinting.  

(Adam Hochschild. Bury the Chains, The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery. 2005)

I Understand

With his last words, John Newton confirmed his humanity and his imperfect being. As his life drew to an end, he became acutely aware of his greatest shortcomings and with greater understandings, he found that living on earth requires redemption after living life to its fullest. Paul Azinger, hundreds of years later, also found that the most important concept of life is spending time "trying to get to the land of the living."

The time we spend here is merely meant to be preparation for eternal life. In a manner of speaking, death is a release into the life we desire. We should not fear death, but we must prepare for a transformation while building a solid spiritual, moral soul. This means accepting fate but not giving up -- a dedication to both physical and spiritual readjustment builds a person up to being fit enough to enter the graceful land of the living. "It saved a wretch like me."

  “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”

--John Newton

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