About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.
-Acts 16:25 (NIV)
I’ve never been in jail. Well, I got shut into solitary on an Alcatraz tour. I’ve visited a couple of people. But, so far, I’ve managed to avoid a lengthy incarceration. This means that, admittedly, I don’t know the rules about being in jail first-hand.
I’m pretty sure about this, however: I don’t think jail would make me feel like singing. Oh, maybe Folsom Prison Blues or Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. Maybe just to pass the time or whatever. In general, though, the brief time I’ve spent in jails and prisons only reinforces for me the obvious: they’re bleak places, gray and cold and filled with some of the worst hopelessness human beings can know. Not much to sing about.
That’s why, I guess, I’ve always been so interested in this story of Paul and Silas in prison. I know how it comes out, so I know that they have something to sing about. They didn’t know that, though — not at the time. What they knew is that they were in jail, accused of thumbing their noses at Rome by “advocating unlawful customs.” If things went as they often did, they would be imprisoned and punished until they “confessed.” They were in the equivalent of maximum security, shackled into stocks and under heavy guard.
Let me say it again: not much to sing about.
Look, I get the importance of being optimistic. I generally try to be a glass-half-full kind of guy. But I challenge you to find half a glass of anything good in a prison cell. There are times when even the sunniest dispositions fade, when the most relentless optimists give in to despair. That’s why optimism is good if you can manage it, but it’s nothing to build your life on. If there’s nothing behind it, nothing holding it up, then it’s just whistling past the graveyard. It doesn’t grapple with the harshness of life. It doesn’t take seriously the horrible things that can happen.
But Paul and Silas weren’t just being optimistic, I think. They weren’t exactly unrealistic idealists trying to convince themselves things weren’t as dire as they really were. Their songs were “hymns” — praise songs addressed to God. They were accompanied by prayers. Their songs were a proclamation of their trust in God, even in their dark times. Far from denying their circumstances, they were acknowledging them and witnessing to their faith in the power of God over those circumstances.
That can be hard. Praising God when it seems that there’s no reason to can take some effort. Singing hymns for what he could do or has done is tough when what you really want is for him to act now. It’s hard to worship him as the saving God he is when he hasn’t yet saved you from whatever you feel the need to be saved from. And, yet, that’s exactly what this story calls us to do. It doesn’t promise everything will always go well for us, that we won’t have devastating catastrophes. It says something more important.
It says we should praise him anyway.
I’m struck by what singing has become in many American churches. It’s so often the metric by which a community’s worship gatherings are evaluated. It’s supposed to be led by professional musicians and create a sense of joy and the presence of the Spirit in the audience — I mean, the congregation. But that isn’t really a slip, of course, because often the church is just an audience, siting back and watching the show instead of joining in the singing. Often, they aren’t even encouraged to join in. In our context, this story is so puzzling: singing in prison, with no instruments or leaders with powerful voices, with bad lighting and terrible acoustics and not a Matt Redman or Chris Tomlin (or even a Fanny J. Crosby) lyric to be found? How is that going to encourage the church and win people to Christ?
But it says the other prisoners were listening. There’s a way in Greek to say “they overheard them,” and a way to say, “they were listening to them,” and here it’s the latter. The other inmates were paying attention to these two. If for no other reason than it’s weird to praise God when you’re in prison.
Every church I know anything about is trying to figure out how to win people to Jesus, or evangelize, or make disciples, or do outreach, or whatever they call it. And few are doing it well. There are all kinds of reasons for that — but perhaps one of them is that we think evangelism happens best when the lighting is right and the mood is created and everyone in the room is feeling spiritually up and has on their best church face. We think people mostly come to Christ from padded pews or comfortable theater seats or in trendy, warehouse-y looking spaces, with worship team or band or organist, singing the songs we like best.
Whatever the not-yet-convinced might have once thought about all that, these days they seem to think it’s disingenuous, phony, and maybe even manipulative.
Paul and Silas knew that there was no better witness for the Lord than when his people praise him and call out to him from the dark places, when a church service is miles or worlds away.
So here’s what I think: let’s worry less about what we’re singing on Sunday morning in church, and more about what we’re singing on Thursday afternoon at the office, when the deadlines are here and the pressure is on. Let’s think more about what comes out of us at school, or in a meeting room, or behind closed doors at home. Let’s think about what we sing with our words and actions — and maybe even our actual singing voices — at a hospital or a funeral home. The people around us will pay attention if the circumstances swirling around us don’t smother our praise or quiet our prayers. They won’t always understand, or come to their own faith, and certainly not right away. But they will take note.
Perhaps our churches aren’t helping people come to faith because away from the church building, when the darkness is pressing in and the bars are clanging shut, we aren’t that different. Instead of taking what could be despair and making praise and prayer from it, we slump our shoulders with the rest of the prisoners. There’s nothing weird, nothing otherworldly, in that. There’s no salvation there. No hope, no deliverance.
But sing when it’s all gone off the rails, and people will notice. They might not understand, but they’ll believe that you’re convinced of God’s power and grace. And that may be the time when they first begin to look for salvation and begin to hope that the light of God might penetrate their darkness, too.
People around you now are listening for something that they’ll only know when they hear it. Sing.