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The Women’s World Day of Prayer 2010 was put together by women from Cameroon.  I went to the service at the Methodist Church in Annfield Plain, and I remember it very well because it taught me something very profound.  The theme was “Let Everything that has breath praise the Lord”, and one of the readings was the one we heard just now from Acts. The service that day showed us how Cameroonians praise God in all things.  When there is a wedding or a birth, the women go round to the house and praise God.  When there is a death, they go round to the house and praise God.  They praise God in all things.  And that idea, that truth, about praising God in difficult and tragic situations really struck home with me, which is why I have never forgotten that service.

 

In the story from Acts, Paul and Silas are in Philippi, where they exorcise the spirit of fortune-telling from a slave-girl, whose owner, angry about the loss of income, has Paul and Silas flogged severely, put in chains and cast into prison.  Imprisoned for doing God’s work.

 

You might say, “what’s wrong with fortune telling? We would all like to know a little bit about what’s coming to us.”  The problem with it is that it undermines trust in God; its about trying to get some control over our lives that is not ours to own.

 

So there’s Paul and Silas locked up for the night.  If it was me, I would be feeling pretty wretched: the pain from the beating, the discomfort from having your feet secured in stocks, lack of food and drink, lack of essential facilities.  And I think it would make me question my calling and direction.  So I would feel spiritually undermined.  The future must have seemed bleak – what was going to happen?  They just didn’t know.

 

But what do Paul and Silas do?  They prayed and sang hymns way into the night.  They praised God.  Even though they were in a really difficult situation, they praised God.  Following God doesn’t mean that God protects us from illness, injury, loss, death, but it does mean that God is with us when we hurt and God cares for us.

 

In the Gospel reading, Jesus is praying for his disciples – the ones who were with him that Thursday night and all the people who would follow him way into the future, and that includes us.  Jesus is praying and teaching his followers, and he is saying how God’s relationship with his people is all about love.  God cares for us.  And we have that confidence that our lives are rooted in God’s love.  That’s the reason why Paul and Silas could sing in the midst of all their problems.  That’s why we can praise God even when we are struggling.

 

As Paul and Silas are praising God, there is a severe earthquake, which shakes up the prison, knocks the doors open and unlocks the chains.  Paul and Silas stay where they are.  They could escape, but they don’t.  Now that must have taken some guts, to remain in a difficult situation when there is a way of escape.  But that’s what they feel God is asking them to do.  The jailer, finding all the prisoners still in place, is stirred to turn to God and is baptised that night with all his family.  There is more rejoicing.  God is greatly praised.  And another person is won to salvation, to be another follower of Christ.  The next day, Paul and Silas are released.

 

Learning to praise God even when life is tough is not an easy lesson.  Many people blame God for their crises and give up on faith when things get difficult.  As followers of Christ, we are called to stick in there, to go on trusting, go on singing.  And that needs practice.  That’s why we need to pray and go on praying, so that when troubles come, we have the resilience and strength that comes from Christ.

 

Christ was crucified.  Christ rose again and conquered sin and death.  Christ has gone into heaven so the he can be with us all for ever and so that the Holy Spirit can come and be with us and inspire us.

 

There is an old Baptist hymn which expresses this all beautifully.  I came across it because Enya sings in on her CD Shepherd Moon, and I like Enya.  As I recall, Enya dedicated it to Brian Keenan, the Irish writer who was kidnapped and imprisoned for 4 ½ years in Beirut in the 1980s.  I was convinced that she had written the song, but it turns out to be a hymn by Robert Lowry:

 

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through 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 though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

 

I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smoothes
Since first I learned to love it:
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing:
All things are mine since I am His—
How can I keep from singing?

 

And in 1950, Doris Plenn added another verse:

 

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,

And hear their death-knell ringing,

When friends rejoice both far and near,

How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile,

Our thoughts to them go winging;

When friends by shame are undefiled,

How can I keep from singing?

 

God is God when things go well.  God is still God when we are struggling.  God is with us in our joys, and we praise him.  God is with us in our sorrows and difficulties, and we can praise him.  We praise God, not for causing our hurt and loss, but because God is God and God cares.  And sometimes we need to remain in a difficult situation, even when we could escape, so that God’s work can be done.  Praise God! Praise God in all things! Praise God in good times – and in bad.

 

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