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                     of Almelund, Minnesota

         

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Singing Our Souls to Peace

Pastor Marla Amborn

Immanuel Lutheran Church

April 22, 2018

Acts 16:16-34

 

Singing prisoners! Prisoners singing songs of praise to God! It’s not what you’d expect. Especially after the tough day that Paul and Silas experienced. They were imprisoned for casting a demon out of a young woman. Beaten. Thrown in the deepest, darkest part of the prison. Shackled. It doesn’t get much worse than that! But somehow, they choose to sing hymns of praise to God, even in the toughest circumstances. How could that be? How could Paul and Silas sing in such difficult circumstances?

 

As I was thinking about this scripture, it reminded me of an experience I had several years ago. A friend of mine was going through a difficult period and experiencing depression. I knew she loved music and loved to sing. So, I put together a series of hymns to help lift her spirits. I arranged them in order going from hymns of lament to hymns of joy. I printed them out in sequence in a nice little packet, hoping that singing these hymns would bring her from a place of sadness to joy.

 

Sooner than I would have expected, I had the chance to test this out for myself. Our dog, Stoli, had congestive heart failure. We had been nursing him along for months, giving him medication and lovingly taking care of him. But he was getting worse and worse. One night he was really laboring to breathe. We sat up with him into the night keeping vigil. We were at his side, in the wee hours of the morning, as he took his last breath. Yes, he was a dog, but Stoli was also a beloved family member. The grief was deep. Tears flowed.

 

I didn’t get much sleep that night. The next morning I was exhausted. Sad. Weary. Low energy. But there was a busy day planned and I didn’t think I could just take the day off. I needed to go to work. But, I honestly didn’t know how I was going to make it through the day. I saw this packet of hymns sitting on my desk, the one I had made for my friend. I grabbed it as I went out the door.  On my way driving into the office, I sang them.

 

One of the first ones was:

? Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand,

I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.

 

A little later was:

? What a friend we have in Jesus,

all our sins and griefs to bear!

 

It gradually worked up to:

? Children of the heavenly Father

 safely in his bosom gather

 

And eventually moved on to:

? Now thank we all our God

with hearts and hands and voices

 

As the thankfulness rang through, it led to:

? Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

 

And it finished up with a song of true praise:

? Praise God, from whom all blessings flow

 

There were more songs along the way. The ramp-up from sadness to joy was more gradual. But you get the idea.

 

By the time I got to work, about a half hour later, I was feeling so much better. Although it would be pushing it to say that I was feeling true “joy,” the deep sadness had lifted. I had the emotional centeredness that I needed to face my day. I discovered for myself the real power that singing hymns to God can have.

 

Paul and Silas knew this power. They knew that singing hymns of praise to God could lift their spirits. They knew that worshipping God in the toughest of circumstances was good for the soul.

 

In our scripture for today, were they worshipping God in song because they were so happy? That seems unlikely. I think it is more realistic that they, too, knew the power of song to bring a sense of peace and wellbeing. They wanted that peace. They wanted that comfort. They wanted to feel God’s presence, so they lifted their voices in song.

 

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he wrote:

“Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name                of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:19-20)

 

In that prison cell, Paul followed his own advice. As he was shackled in chains, Paul sang psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. As he was in a dark place, wrongly imprisoned, hurting and bleeding, unsure what the future held, Paul burst out into song. Paul and Silas made melody to the Lord giving thanks in all times for all things.

 

Maybe Paul and Silas started with songs of lament, like I did on that sad morning after Stoli died. But at some point, they undoubtedly moved on to songs of thankfulness, joy and praise.

 

Their singing got the attention of the other prisoners. Their singing got the attention of the jailer. Their singing bore witness to a faith that kept them grounded even as the earth shook.

 

All of us have difficult things to endure from time to time. Sometimes we wonder if we’ll make it through. Sometimes we wonder where we’ll find the strength to face the hardships that come our way.

 

It is when life gets hardest, that is becomes most important to thank and praise God. At times like this we would be well advised to follow the witness of Paul and Silas and lift our voices to God in prayer, praise, and song.

 

What if we can’t sing well or what if we sing off key? It doesn’t matter! It is music to God’s ears whenever God’s faithful people lift their voices to him in song. And the act of singing our troubles away is a powerful witness to those around us.

 

As Paul and Silas sang in that jail cell, their singing bore witness to a faith that made others look on in wonder, wanting what they had. Their singing in such difficult circumstances was a testimony to the power of the God they love. Their singing, coupled with staying around after the earthquake opened their jail cells, led the jailer to faith. Thanks to this witness in song and in deed, the jailer and his whole family were baptized into the Christian faith.

 

Is singing your praises to God just some kind of “feel-good, self-help” scheme? By no means! Worshipping God in song is a way of acknowledging God’s power. Worshipping God in song is a way of saying to God, “You’re God and I’m not.” Worshipping God in song is a way of bringing our cares to the throne of the almighty, trusting that God knows best and that God will use his power in love and wisdom for our good.

 

So -- if you sing your praises to God in the midst of your troubles, will God send “an earthquake” to free you from whatever shackles you like he did for Paul and Silas? Maybe, maybe not. Your soul will be free, regardless. You will realize that whatever has its shackles on you can’t hold you when you are secure in the loving arms of God. When you sing songs of worship to God in your toughest times, others who see you will be inspired by your witness.

 

Ben Larson was in Haiti in January, 2010, at the time of the earthquake that killed over 200,000 people.[1] This 25-year-old from LaCrosse, Wisconsin, was a seminary student on a mission trip with his wife, Renee, and cousin, Jonathan. When the earthquake hit, the three of them were in a large open room at St. Joseph’s Home for Boys in Port-au-Prince. As the earth shook, the building collapsed. Renee and Jonathan were able to get out, but Ben was trapped.

 

As they were digging through the rubble trying to get to Ben, they could hear him singing! As he was trapped in the rubble, Ben was singing the hymn “Where Charity and Love Prevail.” Renee yelled to him to keep singing. He did -- for a while. The last words she heard him sing were "God's peace to us we pray." Then the singing stopped. Three days later they pulled Ben’s body from the rubble.

 

It’s not the happy ending you would hope for, for a young man who had dedicated his life to serving God. This earthquake didn’t free him, as it did for Paul, but entombed him. Or did it? This earthquake freed him from the troubles of this life and brought him into the glory of the next. And in his death, Ben’s witness rang out loud and clear.

 

The story of Ben's last song traveled to Fort Worth, Texas, where it inspired Stephen Johnson to write a song in his honor. Johnson said:

"Ben’s story not only resonated with me in that a fellow believer had a heart for Christ and was actively serving as he passed away, but also as he was trapped under the rubble, he sang about God's peace in his final breaths.”

What a wonderful example Christian hope![2]

 

And so Stephen Johnson wrote "Peace Ascends," a 30-minute choral and orchestral piece in three movements. The second movement, titled "Where Charity and Love," is dedicated to Ben Larson.

 

Life is not fair. We can’t always control the tough things that come our way. We may not deserve them. We may wonder “Why do these bad things have to happen to a good person like me?”

 

Rarely do we get an answer to those “Why?” questions in this lifetime. We don’t have the big picture. God does. One day, maybe when we see God face-to-face, we’ll understand why God does what he does. For now, we just need to trust in the love and wisdom of the God who created us and loved us so much he sent his son to die for us.

 

What we can do today is choose how we will respond when hardship comes our way. We can allow ourselves to be beaten down, discouraged, and imprisoned in a dark cell of self-pity. Or we can choose to thank and praise God in all circumstances. We can believe that God loves us and is at work for our good. We can choose to worship God in bad times as well as good. Together with Paul and Silas and with Ben Larson and with countless faithful Christians through the ages, we can let our voices sing out in faithful witness.

 

May it be so for you. Amen!

 

 

If you’d like a copy of the booklet of hymns, from lament to joy, contact Pastor Marla


[1] Loved ones recall Ben Larson's last day in Haiti. Minnesota Public Radio News. Elizabeth Dunbar St. Paul, MN. Feb 8, 2010.

[2] Last song of Haiti earthquake victim inspired music composition. By news@duluthnewstribune.com on May 14,

  2011 at 12:00 a.m.