"About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them." - Acts 16:25-32
Paul and Silas are in Philippi to tell the story of Jesus when they are accused of disturbing the peace. So they are badly beaten and thrown in jail. But notice how they react to the chains, the bruised limbs, the defeat of their plans. They hold choir practice. They sing.
Would you sing under those circumstances? Paul and Silas can because they feel embraced by the love of God that can reach into any place and circumstance. They sing the story of Jesus, the one who entered the dark corners and prisons of our lives so that we might join him in his freedom and victory.
A few years ago a Greek cruise ship sank off the coast of South Africa. After the ship ran aground the crew deserted with a few passengers in life boats. The remaining passengers were brought together to await the rescue helicopters. There the ship's entertainers tried to keep gloom at bay with magic tricks, jokes and sing-alongs. One passenger later recalled, "There we were sitting in the dark, singing songs to keep our minds off the cold and fright. We began with, ‘We are Sailing,' but decided that it wasn't true. We got into, ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean' and ‘Bye Bye Love, Bye Bye Happiness,' but this did nothing for morale."
Eventually all the passengers were saved before the ocean consumed the ship. But I wonder if, since that experience, any of the passengers have searched for other songs to sing, other stories to live by, amid the threatening storms that are sure to return.
That seems to me to be a good test of the songs we sing and the stories we choose to live by: Can I take it to prison with me? Or to a sinking ship? Would it sustain me even then?
O God, in the words of the old hymn, "Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing; it finds an echo in my soul, how can I keep from singing?" Amen.
Martin B. Copenhaver is the President of Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. His most recent book is Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered.