One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
When things aren’t going your way, how do you react? When you get into a situation where everything you’ve planned for, everything you worked for, starts to come undone, what do you do? It’s bound to happen at some point. You make plans, and they all go awry. How do you respond when they do?
One of my favorite movies has to do with these questions. It’s a British movie called “Clockwise.” I think I was one of the few Americans to have seen it, but I loved it. It starred ex-Monty Python, John Cleese as John Stimpson, the headmaster of an English private school (which is what the British call the equivalent of our public school). He has been named the chairman of the British Headmaster’s Association, which is made up mostly of headmasters from British public schools (which is what the British call private schools—it’s very confusing). He is proud of his achievement because he is the first private school headmaster in history to be named to that post. His installation is to take place at 3 p.m. that afternoon in Norwich—a three-hour drive from his home, or two hours by train. He spends much of the early morning working on his speech, while making sure things were in order in his school.
Mr. Stimpson rules his school with an iron fist. He watches the students gather in the courtyard from his office window, often using binoculars to see who is smoking, bullying, cheating, or any other illicit activity. He is quick to use his microphone and carefully placed loudspeakers to call out students: “Lydia Portsmouth, put out that cigarette and get to class! Mr. Johnson, tuck in your shirt!” He is a man who demands order, and who lives by the clock. But things start to go awry as he tries to get on the train to Norwich.
He asks the stationmaster which train it is to Norwich. The man says, “Left.” Stimpson replies, “Left,… right!” (that’s the English way of saying “okay”). Suddenly he sees two of his students skipping school. He yells at them to get back to school, turns to the station master and says, “Right!” The station master, not sure if he’s saying “okay” or asking “is the train is on the right?” says back, “Right?” Stimpson heads to the train on the right. He sits down and goes over his speech. Then he hears the station master in front of the other train yell, “Train to Norwich! Last call!” He asks another passenger, “This is going to Norwich, right?” The mans says, “Plymouth.” Stimpson runs out, forgetting his speech. He misses the train to Norwich. He runs back to get his speech, but the train to Plymouth pulls out. Stimpson stands up straight, and says to himself, “Right! Must find Gwenda.” That’s his wife who had dropped him off. She had actually stayed long enough to see the train to Norwich leave, making certain he was on his way.
Stimpson runs out of the station just in time to see his wife drive away, despite his yells. So he takes a taxi home, hoping to find her there and to drive to Norwich. But she had gone to her volunteer position of driving older dementia patients around the countryside to look at scenery. Stimpson runs after the taxi that has left him off, but it drives away. He looks to his left, and there at the stop sign is one of his students, Laura Wisely, who is skipping school and has snuck off with her father’s car. She tries to duck out of his sight, but he sees her. “Laura Wisely! You have study hall! Study hall is not a free period. You need to be in school!” Suddenly he realizes that she can drive him to the hospital to find his wife. “Right!” he says, “You can drive me to hospital to find my wife, then it’s back to school for you.” She agrees.
He gets to the hospital, but doesn’t find his wife. He then says to Laura, “Right! Can you take me to Norwich? It’s only three hours. And if you do, I’ll forget that you skipped school. “ She has no choice. Off they go. As they stop for “petrol,” Stimpson’s wife sees him with Laura, but she can’t pull in to confront him. So she’s now convinced that he is having an affair with his student, and sneaking around. Also, Laura’s parents have found the car missing, and have called the police to report a stolen car. Eventually, the police find that Laura is missing, and now have reports that she may have been kidnapped by an older man. So Stimpson, just trying to get to Norwich, is now in a car reported stolen and he’s suspected of kidnapping.
Everything continues to fall apart from there. He tries to call the Headmaster’s Association from a phone booth to tell them he’ll be late, but the phones have been vandalized. In frustration, he begins kicking the phone, and a neighbor calls the police to report that vandals are attacking the phones again. The police show up to arrest him, but they’ve driven away. The police find them, but when Stimpson and Laura make a wrong turn, they coincidentally evade the police by taking a shortcut. Unfortunately, this shortcut cuts across a farm field. They get stuck in mud.
All along, with every setback, Stimpson calls out, “Right!” He then tries to get things under control, but they continue to fall apart. In an attempt to get the car unstuck, he falls in the mud and is covered in filth. They find a nearby monastery, where the monks take his clothes to clean them, leaving him in a bath and only monk’s robes to change into. He realizes he can’t stay because he’ll be late, so he and Laura run out to hitchhike to Norwich, with him dressed as a monk. She uses her feminine wiles to lure a man in a Porsche to stop for them. Stimpson manages to get the man’s clothes, which are much too short for him, and to drive the Porsche to Norwich, which the man reports as stolen. So now Stimpson is suspected by his wife of having an affair with a student, of kidnapping her and stealing their car by her parents, and of having stolen a man’s clothes and car, all while impersonating a monk.
You see where all this is going. The fun is in how Stimpson reacts to everything falling apart. That’s where the humor is. But when our world is falling apart, do we find humor in it?
The reality is that when things go wrong with most of us, we have one of several reactions. Some of us react in frustration and anger. We lose our temper and start to bang around, hitting things, knocking things over, and yelling. Some of us react in anxiety and clamping down. We become immersed in worry, and try harder and harder to gain control, although those attempts can often cause us to lose control. Some of us react with helplessness and tears. We freeze and break down in crying, thinking, “what can I do? It’s all falling apart.” But some respond in the way Paul and Silas did in our passage. We become calm and immersed in prayer.
There is a big contrast in the way the slave girl’s masters reacted to things going wrong for them, and how Paul and Silas reacted to things going wrong for them. The masters became angry, and in their anger they began spreading lies. They incited an already existing anti-Semiticism among the Greeks. They managed to have Paul and Silas flogged severely and then placed in prison. This was no modern prison. Their badly beaten heads, hands, and feet were placed in stocks. How did Paul and Silas respond? They prayed. They centered, focused on God, and sang songs of praise. They were in dire circumstances, and they responded with calm and prayer.
Then an earthquake suddenly hits, which wasn’t too uncommon in that earthquake-prone region. The quake breaks their shackles and the walls. They are free. All is dark, and suspecting that his prisoners have escaped, the guard readies to kill himself. Things didn’t go right for him, and so he becomes suicidal. That’s not an overreaction. Among the Romans, if a prisoner escapes, the guard is typically executed as punishment. So his plans to kill himself make sense—why wait to be killed? Paul and Silas, knowing what he will do, yell out, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” He takes them to his house to guard them (they are still his prisoners), and he washes their wounds and binds them up. He then becomes a Christian, learning the ways of centering and faith in response to calamity.
Everyone around Paul and Silas responded to their situation with anger, frustration, manipulation, or despair. Paul and Silas responded with calm and prayer.
One of the keys to life, and learning how to deal with life when it doesn’t go our way, is to learn the lesson of Isaiah. Isaiah said, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” This is a common Old Testament imagery, used also by Jeremiah, comparing us to clay (we are made from dirt) and God to the potter.
The metaphor is rooted in ancient communities, where the potter was a central figure in ancient life. Much of home life revolved around pots. Pots stored water for purification, drinking, and cleaning. It stored food to be eaten. The bowls and cups and serving platters were pottery. And pottery was used to cook with. It was quite common to gather at a potter’s shop and watch the potter form his pot on the wheel. It is fascinating to watch and was their entertainment. Find a video of a potter molding a cup or bowl and you’ll see what I mean. The potter plops a lump of clay on spinning wheel. Then he or she slowly uses the spinning motion to form a cup, bowl, or pot.
Isaiah understood that in the molding of a pot lies a powerful metaphor for the spiritual life. For the potter to be able to do his or her work, the clay had to be centered on the wheel. If the clay were off just a bit, the pot would be misshapen. It all had to do with being centered. Nothing was possible without being centered. But once centered, the clay could be molded into anything.
That’s the metaphor for Christian life. We have to live from the center. We need to place ourselves in a calm, centered place so that God can mold us in any situation. We have to make ourselves available to God. That’s what Paul and Silas did. Mr. Stimpson tried to be centered, but ultimately failed to do because he was centered on the clock, not on God. The slave masters and the guard were off-center, and so their lives reflected it. The slave masters were manipulators. The guard was fearful.
The lesson of the potter is that we are called in life to live life from a calm center, where ultimately God can molds us to serve God. One of the reasons so many people in life have a hard time is that they aren’t centered. They let the concerns of life push them all over the wheel, and it warps them. Christian wisdom teaches that we can’t control what happens in life, but we can control how we’ll respond. Yet for Paul and Silas, the more life got out of control, the calmer they got. They learned the lesson of the portion of St. Patrick’s prayer that we are focusing on this morning: “Christ in quiet, Christ in danger.”
The Christian and biblical example is always one of centering. It is of Abraham in the desert, Moses in the desert, David in the cave, Elijah in the cave, and Jesus in desert, on the mountain, and in the garden, centering and praying. One of the problems of so much of the contemporary Christian movement is that it is focused on constant stimulation, not centering. In contemporary worship services, there is no time for centering. It’s meant to be stimulating, but is stimulation the biblical model? That doesn’t make them wrong, but this need for centering is one reason we build so much time in our worship service for quiet and centering. We start off that way with our chant and quiet prayer. We have time for quiet during our prayer of humility. We have time of centering and prayer during communion and during our pastoral prayer. We recognize the need for centering.
I want to end by asking you to do an exercise for at least two minutes, which leads you into centering:
1. Make sure you are in a place of quiet.
2. Place your feet on the floor, your back straight and comfortably against the back of your chair, and place your hands in your lap so that your shoulders are relaxed.
3. Close your eyes.
4. Gently focus on your breathing, letting go of thoughts in your head. You’ll have thoughts, and it won’t be easy to let them go, but just gently let them go.
5. Breathe back and forth till you find yourself calming down.
6. If you get distracted, just focus on these words, “God, place me in your center.”
7. When you’re done, thank God and slowly go back to your day.
Something like this is a practice Paul and Silas did and understood, and it’s what allowed them to remain calm when all was falling apart.