Singing In Prison
TEXT: Matt. 26:26-30; Acts16:20-31
The Bible is full of music. When the Israelites get across the Red Sea at the expense of the Egyptians, Moses’ sister pulls out her tambourine and leads them in a song. Jesus is born amidst the songs of the angels, and in the book of Revelation, we see that all of heaven seems to be singing most of the time.
The book of Psalms is the songbook for Israel. The Psalms were not meant as poems to be read, they were songs to be sung…songs for every occasion and mood. They are not meant as a theological treatise about what God wants us to think and feel. They are the record of how God’s people actually did think and feel as they faced life’s joys and tragedies. Sometimes they rejoiced in God’s protection and sometimes they wanted God to dash the children of their enemies against rocks. They are the real songs of a real people as they dealt with real life.
They were also the songs of the church for many years. In the early years of this country, chanting the Psalms was the only music acceptable in a church service. It took a full hundred years for American Christians to break down and sing some of that radical, morally-suspect, harmony-dependent singing coming out of England…awful new songs like Amazing Grace and O, For a Thousand Tongues. After all, lush harmonies and a distinct metre could lead to other sensual desires, and the church would be headed to hell in a handbasket. And those words to those other songs…why, they didn’t have any Bible verses in them! They were not proper for church. Struggles about musical styles in churches are not new.
But in the Bible, they sing with wild abandon. Psalm 150 pulls out every instrument in the book for the praise of God, and Israel sings its way through history. They sing songs of victory, and they sing laments when in great pain.
That is the inheritance of the New Testament Jews, including Jesus and Paul, and we see both of them singing at incredibly difficult times. As Jesus is about to leave the gathering of his closest disciples for the last time…after they have shared a last supper together and he has taught them all he can teach with his words…they sing a hymn together. Then Jesus heads to the Garden of Gethsemane where he prays an anguished prayer before his arrest.
And in the story from Acts, we find Paul and Silas singing while they are actually in prison. They have just been stripped and severely beaten, and they are thrown in prison with their feet in stocks. And in that condition, they sing to God.
I don’t know that Paul and Silas had ever had voice lessons. I don’t know if the songs they sang were “proper” songs by good composers or if they were just making songs up as they went. I don’t know if it sounded like Pavarotti or like a dog in pain, but I do know that the other prisoners listened and that God responded with an earthquake that set them free.
Sometimes I think we have confused the point of Christian singing with the expectations of the entertainment world. It isn’t about the quality of the performance, it is about the sincerity of the heart and the need of a soul to connect with its creator in the deep way that music provides.
When I think of singing, I remember a funeral I did in Dover for the wife of a long-time member of the church. The couple had been married many years and were inseparable…until now. We gathered in the church, and the family wanted the congregation to join them in song. So we stood up to sing a favorite of many of that generation, “How Great Thou Art.” Her husband was in the family pew right in front of the pulpit, and I will never forget the way he sang that hymn. It wasn’t coming from his lips…that song was coming from his soul. His whole body sang it as if it were the last thing keeping him alive. He became that song…he was one with it, and I cried as I watched him sing for the sake of all the love he had known, begging the greatness of God to hold him when his own strength was not enough.
I know many musicians who hate that song…who think it isn’t good music and who sigh deep sighs when a pastor picks it. But that’s not what Christian singing is about. It’s about what is needed in the soul. It’s about connecting with God.
When I think of singing, I also think of my mother. Like me, she’s an alto, and I remember as a child wondering why she was always singing the wrong notes in church. It was just the alto line. But I also remember that her favorite Bible passage is a musical one. It is from the book of Revelation in the fifth chapter where ten thousand times ten thousand angels, and the living creatures, and the 24 elders, and all the wild and wooly inhabitants of both heaven and earth are singing, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” She couldn’t even read that passage without welling up in tears, thinking about the joy of that scene.
I am humbled when I think about my mother’s favorite Bible passage. My favorite passages are, in essence, all about me. They are passages that remind me that God loves me no matter what--that God won’t abandon me, will take care of me, and has my greatest good in mind, even when things seem to be going badly. Those are the passages I turn to—the things that help me deal with my life.
But my mother somehow learned early on that Christian faith was not about her. It was about the greatness and glory of God. She did not sing God’s praise because God had been especially good to her. Her own mother abandoned her when my mother was only four and she was raised in poverty by her great-grandmother. She was widowed at only 48 years old. While, even so, she has always had gratitude in her heart, that’s not why she sings. She sings for the same reason that all the inhabitants of earth and heaven sing in Revelation 5…because God is worthy of praise and she feels that in her soul.
Like some musicians have issues with How Great Thou Art, I have ambivalent feelings about the hymn I’ve chosen for our hymn of dedication. Robert Lowry wrote the song back in 1869 as a Sunday School song. Musically, it’s not all that interesting, and there have been times in my life when I’ve found the music downright annoying.
And yet it comes back to me again and again because the melody does stick with you and because the words are as true as any I know. When the storms and tragedies of life hit and I find myself bogged down in my own pity party, somewhere in the distance I can hear this song. It seems to talk of the Revelation scene that my mother so loves… “My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation. I hear the clear, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation. Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear that music ringing. It finds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?”
I think that’s what Christian faith does for us. The message of Easter, tells us that above the darkness of crucifixion, above the laments of Mary and the denials of Peter, there is a clear, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation. No matter what swirls around us, there’s music playing in the distance, telling us of final victory, of a story more true than the one we are currently hearing. “What though my joys and comforts die? I know my Savior liveth. What though the darkness gather round? Songs in the night he giveth.” I think that’s why Paul and Silas could sing, beaten and bloodied in prison. I think that’s why the other prisoners listened.
The chorus goes: “No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging. Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?” That’s the message that keeps bringing me back. To me the song is like an annoying relative who has personal habits that embarrass you in public, but who has a wisdom that you can’t be long without. I have often wished that the tune would go out of my head. And yet I’ve grown to love its quirky ways, because it helps me to sing when I’m in prison. Like my mother’s favorite Bible passage, it reminds me that it doesn’t really matter if all my joys and comforts die. It’s not about me. My Savior liveth and will give me songs in the night, just as he gave them to Paul and Silas. There’s an eternal song going on above earth’s lamentation, and I need only quiet my soul long enough to hear it. Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson