It’s been a week to weep.
It’s been a week to wail.
It’s been a week to cry hot tears and sob with rage and fury.
Beside my bed is a copy of our Hymnal. When Noel Werner joined our staff 15 years ago, he taught the church to use the hymnal as a Devotional Book. I encourage you to do the same. And so this week, at home, in private, while shaken from the events of the last weeks and undone by another mass murder, I turned to my hymnal for guidance. I found hymns for my soul:
Be still my soul, when change and tears are past …
How can I keep from singing: No storm can shake my inmost calm, when to the Rock I’m clinging …
Swing low sweet chariot, coming for to carry them home …
Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand.
I am tired. I am weak. I am worn …
Paul and Silas are singing too. After witnessing the slaughter of innocents, and traveling to Philippi, they are punched, stripped, beaten, jailed, and having their feet locked in stocks, Paul and Silas do, what they know to do: they sing. They sing hymns to God. They sing in the night when they are naked, bleeding, barely able to move. It feels like they sing for us.
What did they sing? Songs of the heart? Songs of praise? Old chestnuts from the Hebrew cannon? New songs coming out of house churches?
When they had no hope for living even one more day, they sang.
So much happens in this passage. It’s epic for all its drama and theatricality. It’s as if the camera is working hard to capture each turn and que. It’s operatic in its intensity. Wagnerian and symphonic. Do you hear the themes and emotions?
Philippi as an epicenter of trade and affluence, completely controlled by the Roman Empire. It’s treacherous place to worship God. The streets are full of murmurs about Jerusalem, gossip about a Messiah who came alive after death; whispered rumors about a prayer meeting outside the gates, evidence that something’s afoot; danger’s ahead.
ACT 1: Paul and Silas are followed by a girl. A slave girl. A girl without a name. She lives in captivity and her job is to make a lot of money for her masters. Money made from soothsaying and fortune-telling. She has her sights on Paul.
She begins following Paul and Silas; if they turn left, she turns left; if they go east, she goes east. And all the while she follows, she screams: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”
Some preachers working the crowds would be flattered by that line, and even encourage the girl to continue her wild form of mission advertising.
But it is implied, despite her glorifying words, that Paul looks deeply into her ravaged soul, recognizes a diseased spirit has overtaken her, and commands the force that has possessed her, to come out.
ACT 2: The spirit is gone, and the girl seemingly becomes healthy again. She can no longer foretell the future or read palms. But the slave owners lose out on revenues, so Paul and Silas are hauled to the magistrates, not claiming financial damages, but saying these Jews were teaching religious practices illegal for Romans. They want revenge.
ACT 3: Paul and Silas are stripped, flogged, and dragged, probably unconscious, from pain and blood loss, into a dungeon where their ankles are locked in stocks so there will be no possibility of movement. No hope for living even one more day.
And what do they do? What do they do with the last hours of their lives? They sing. They sing.
The cacophony of an opera becomes still, subdued, quiet. The violent and bloody spectacle becomes a sweet and holy song.
Like something from Taizé or Iona.
“Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;”
“the Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Vict’ry is ours, Vict’ry is ours, through him who loved us.” [ii]
Sung twice or more.
That’s what it’s like to be free. To be able to sing our faith, no matter our circumstance. That’s what it’s like to be free.
It’s so hard to sing from our prisons. [iii] For Paul and Silas, not even an earthquake could tamp down a song. Not even the dank of that jail cell could mute God’s Word. Not even a whiff of freedom could move Paul and Silas to flee.
The jailor can only fall before them in his shock and gratitude. A jailor’s heart is converted to Gospel Life. He and his household are baptized. They have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and belong to Christ Jesus forever and ever.
I see the devastated families of Texas 4th graders and teachers. I see folks who went about their Saturday grocery shopping in Buffalo: 10 killed. Is there a song for them?
I see my beloved church members. You who wrestle with fear and grief, anxiety and panic, sorrow and regret. Is there a song for you?
I see that slave girl. A girl who has recovered her mind and soul, but lives with the consequences of her slave holders’ retaliation.
Is there a song for her?
And there’s a teenage boy. He’s 18 years old. He’s been enveloped in rage and vengeance. He couldn’t sing from his prison. He’s committed a massive atrocity of brutality and violence. Is there a song for him?
There is. There is.
[i] Scripture Lesson: The Acts of the Apostles 16: 16-34 (NRSV) One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
[ii] Goodness Is Stronger Than Evil, from Glory to God #750. Text: © 1995 Desmond Tutu (admin. Idea Architects); Music: © John Bell, 1996 WGRG, Iona Community, Scotland.
[iii] Burt Burleson. The Truett Pulpit: Acts 16: 16-34. baylor.edu, April 25, 2016.