How Can We Keep From Singing?

Acts 16:16-34

2 Timothy 1:3-7

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that refuge clinging;

Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,

How can I keep from singing?

We all have hymns that speak to our souls, songs that comfort us when we’re afraid, and words that inspire us to live courageously in challenging times. This hymn – “How can I keep from singing” – speaks to my soul. It came to me in a time of challenge and has sustained and encouraged me to be faithful to my calling when I could have strayed off the path or succumbed to superficial ministries and popular platitudes.

In April 1999, a week before finals at Georgetown University, where I served as University Chaplain for Protestant Ministries, my program was gutted and my position and my associate’s were eliminated. It was totally unexpected. I was successful at what I was doing and had expanded Protestant programs from a handful of participants to nearly 500 students, staff, and faculty over my seventeen year tenure. I expected to retire at Georgetown after twenty more years of faithful service. When I was told that my position was eliminated, I was devastated. At 47, I imagined the worst. My dad had been severed from a long term position in his early fifties and never fully recovered professionally or personally. Unknown to me at the time, he even contemplated suicide when our finances became so dire that we received food baskets from local churches.

Childhood memories flooded my spirit: I imagined poverty, losing our home, and never ever recovering professionally. It was then that I discovered the hymn – “How can I keep from singing?” I had good reason to worry, but my worries could not compete with God’s faithfulness. I discovered that nothing could separate me from the love of God.

Thro’ all the tumult and the strife

I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul—

How can I keep from singing?

What tho’ my joys and comforts die?

The Lord my Saviour liveth;

What tho’ the darkness gather round?

Songs in the night he giveth.

It wasn’t easy to recover professionally, but I eventually secured a position at a local seminary, found two interim ministry positions, and then moved on to a seminary administrative post, and was asked to be a visiting senior professor at one of America’s premier seminaries, and then by gentle providence arrived here nearly three years ago.

Life can be difficult without a doubt, but I discovered a sustaining and gentle providence greater than my fears and this providence inspired and encouraged me to claim a future and a hope, to live by abundance not scarcity, and believe that I had the resources to respond creatively to the apparent shipwreck of my professional life. And, certainly, without this hymn and God’s gentle providence, I would not be here, in the most joyful calling I’ve experienced and rejoicing in the Cape Cod lifestyle with my family and the two grands. How can I keep from singing!

This hymn, I suspect, was inspired by today’s reading from Acts. In the course of their Philippian mission, Paul and Silas found themselves in prison, beaten, humiliated, and alone. I am sure that they wanted to be anywhere but jail, and may even have had second thoughts about the vision that led them to Philippi, but they began to sing. We don’t know what hymns flowed from their lips. Were they in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek? Were they in Latin? But, despite the tumult, scripture proclaims: About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.

Paul and Silas knew that God was with them and that the vision that brought them to Philippi would bring them safely to God’s next vision for them. I have seen the power of faith to get people like us through cancer, the loss of a loved one, unemployment, divorce, and disability – it wasn’t easy – but God’s grace got them through and gave them a song in their hearts. How can we keep from singing!

As I was pondering Mother’s Day, and gratefully remembering my own mother and her faith – a fallible woman, who dealt with depression, low self-esteem, and obsessive thinking – who still fought the good fight and walked the path despite her inner turmoil, I turned to Paul’s affirmation of the women in Timothy’s life: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.”

Without Eunice and Lois, Timothy would never have become a person of faith and eventually a leader in the early Christian movement. Women of faith – our mothers and grandmothers, sisters and aunts, our Sunday school teachers and women who have loved us – living faith, ignited a flame in Timothy’s heart that burns in us today.

The faith of women matters and can plant a song in the heart of a child that lasts a lifetime. Your life can be the answer to someone’s prayer, it can be the bread of life and the cup of salvation for a child, and it can set a young person on the right path, when temptation is all around. I know that I wouldn’t be here apart from my mother’s love and prayers. Fallible though she was -and fallible though we all are – women and men alike – her faith gave birth to my own spiritual journey. And, although her prayers for me may have been answered in ways she did not imagine, her prayers created a field of force that sustains me even to this day.

The faith of women – and men – matters. You don’t have to be a biological parent to be a spiritual parent. It is said that every child needs five caring persons to flourish. I suspect that this also applies to those of us described as adults. We need the prayers of others. We need someone to see our gifts, when we don’t. We need someone to accept us when we wonder if we are acceptable. We need someone to walk through the dark valleys with us, and not blink when we are at our worst.

This is the embodiment of God’s providence in flesh and blood women – and also men. Providence is not abstract, unrelated to daily life. It is the inspiration that appears out of nowhere when we come to a dead end, it is the energy that gives us a second wind to confront injustice, it is the chance encounter that changes everything, it is the right book at the right time, coming to us out of the blue, it is the right church, the right pastor, and the unexpected possibility that makes a way when there is now way.

God’s providence is here – in all the mothers, grandmothers, children, and grandfathers and fathers – in spiritual parents all of you, who share providential love, who pray for others, who reach out to people in need. God is here! How can we keep from singing!