Feel a Thought

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. ―  Paul, Colossians 3:16, 17

“Where words leave off, music begins.” ― Heinrich Heine

Why does God want us to sing? If all we are supposed to do is “teach and admonish one another,” then it would seem a good sermon or Bible class would be far more appropriate than singing.

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent” ― Victor Hugo

While a lesson appeals to our intellect, music is played with our hearts (Ephesians 5:19) and the heart is a powerful thing. You can reason with an intellect, but not so much with the seat of feelings. Perhaps that explains why we feel so strongly about our tastes in music.

My Orthodox friends love the ancient monophonic chants. And because they feel so strongly about their style of music, they believe four-part harmony distracts from the sacred texts with its unnatural ornamentation. So should we only chant?

On the other hand, my young Millennial friends long for a total immersion in the worship experience. Their ears are delighted with overwhelming explosions of sound. Their eyes watch colorful backdrops of pictures moving with the beat of the music and their whole body shakes with the tactile experience of rhythmic movement, clapping and lifting holy hands. For them, worship in song involves as many different senses as possible. Simple song is drab in comparison.

My southern Sacred Harp friends delight in camp meeting choruses and shape notes, while my sophisticated choral friends believe in offering only the best music to God. Perfect pitch, spot on timing and virtuosity are the keys to a successful performance before God. Nothing else will do.

So what kind of music does God enjoy? Chants? Stately hymns or rambunctious praise? Perhaps the answer can be found in Who God is: our Father. And I know Fathers love the music of their children especially when that music comes from their loving hearts.

Be filled with the Spirit, making melody to the Lord with your heart, ― Paul, Ephesians 5:18, 19

“Words make you think. Music makes you feel. A song makes you feel a thought.” ― E.Y. Harburg

Are You a Tourist or a Mountaineer?

Walking through the tourist center, I was always impressed by the visitors. They put their quarters in the telescopes, trained them on the mountain, drew a deep breath and concluded, “No one can climb that!” Of course, at the same time I knew people were in fact climbing that mountain (they were friends of mine).

On the other hand, once in a while, a climber would walk into the visitor center. He too would drop a quarter into the telescope, but he wasn’t looking at the challenges. He was looking for the opportunities. A tourist focuses on the obstacles –  the rock walls, the dangling glaciers and the knife edges. A mountain climber searches for opportunities — a crack in the wall’s defenses, an overlooked chimney or a connecting ridge.

Life is like that too. Some people see opportunities where other people only see obstacles. Why is that?

Some people chose to be pessimists (the glass is half-empty), while others chose to have an optimistic outlook (the glass is half-full). I love the joke about the optimist who believes, “This is the best of all possible worlds!” And the pessimist is afraid he’s right.

I believe we chose our outlook, positive or negative. If that’s true, then we are responsible for the consequences of our choices. Eileen Guder, in her book, God, But I’m Bored, reminds us:

You can live on bland food so as to avoid an ulcer; drink no tea or coffee or other stimulants, in the name of health; go to bed early and stay away from night life; avoid all controversial subjects so as never to give offense; mind your own business and avoid involvement in other people’s problems; spend money only on necessities and save all you can. You can still break your neck in the bathtub, and it will serve you right.

It may feel like life is trying to crush you. It’s always easier to just give up and go home, but mountain climbers have also learned to climb the mountain “one step at a time.” Challenges can become opportunities when we focus on “just the next step.” Jesus concluded, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own,” (Matthew 6:34). A.J. Cronin (quoted in The Anxiety Cure) studied the things ­Americans worried about and discovered, we spend:

40% of our time worrying about things that never happen.

30% of our time worrying about things that happened in the past!

12% of our time worrying about our health

We waste 19% of our time concerned about petty, miscellaneous worries

And only 8% of our time on things that should legitimately concern us.

If you want to be a mountain climber and not just a tourist, choose your attitude and take life “one step at a time.”

A Pop Can More Precious Than Gold

You’ve heard the saying, “You can’t take it with you!” meaning you can’t take anything earthly with you to heaven. Well, there was a rich old miser who showed up at the gates of heaven with a suitcase full of gold. When Peter saw it, the apostle laughed and shook his head and wondered aloud, “Why did you bring a sack full of paving stones with you?” (The streets of heaven are paved with gold. Get it?)

In the 19th century the complexities of refining aluminum ore made the metal more precious than gold or silver. In fact, Napoleon III, the first President of the French Republic, served his state dinners on aluminum plates. Rank-and-file guests were only served on dishes made with gold or silver!

It’s a little known fact that the Washington Monument is topped with a pyramid 9 inches high by 5.6 inches square of pure aluminum. At the time (1884) aluminum was a precious metal and many didn’t even believe they could cast the capstone from the stuff. The pyramid was to cost a phenomenal $75, but the final bill came to a whopping $225. (Remember those were 1884 dollars!) Before being placed atop the monument, the capstone was put on public display at Tiffany’s in New York City where visitors could step over it so they could all boast they had “stepped over the top of the Washington Monument.”

The problem with aluminum was how to extract the metal from its ore. Heat extracts iron, but not aluminum. Finally, in the 1820s, a German chemist was able to extract a few precious flakes and people fell in love with the shiny silver metal. In the mid-1800s, ingots sold for $550 per pound! The French government proudly displayed bars of aluminum alongside their crown jewels.

However, shortly after the Washington Monument was capped, scientists discovered a very inexpensive way of extracting aluminum from aluminum ore, the most common metal in the earth’s crust. In 1888 Alcoa managed to produce almost 50 pounds of the metal a day. Twenty years later production soared to 88,000 pounds per day! The price dropped from $550 per pound to 25 cents per pound (1850 prices). Today aluminum can be found everywhere from pop cans to baseball bats.

On the spiritual side, I worry about how people value grace. The precious blood of Jesus takes away our sins. Grace reconciles us to God. What could be more valuable? But, perhaps, because grace is available to all, we don’t value God’s gift the way we should. Just because it is free doesn’t mean it is cheap!

The Fashionable Sloth


One of the most memorable characters from the book of Proverbs is the “sluggard.” He is a lazy man. He can’t leave his house because “the sluggard says, ‘There is a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming the streets!’”

“As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed.”

“The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth,” (Proverbs 26:13-16).

The sages of the middle-ages called sloth “the first deadly sin.” Sloth, in modern vernacular, means “laziness.” We might think of laziness as a weakness or common fault, but would we call it a sin? (See Proverbs 6:6-11.)

There are two categories of sin: sins of commission and sins of omission, the failure to act. Think about the parable of the Good Samaritan.

My first observation is that laziness doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of activity. Heaven knows we’re packing more and more into already too busy lives, but is it purposeful activity? Are we moving towards a goal or are we just bouncing off the walls? Do we believe it because we’ve heard something so often we accept it as truth or do we believe (and behave) because we have discovered a precious truth?

Second, sloth prevents us from escaping lazy preoccupations and paying attention to the things that have eternal significance. For example, for the lazy of the world, love is something that “just happens.” We “fall in love” and we “fall out of love.” Marriages are based on phileo (friendship love) or eros (erotic love) with the result when the attraction is over, so is the relationship.

Christian lovers are attracted to each other and they are friends with each other, but marriage is based on agape (a love that is controlled by the will). Agape can never be lazy. It is proactive and involved. It works. It builds. It does. Therefore, if love is something we should do, then lazy people, who are unwilling to put forth the effort to love, should be justly condemned!

Let’s look at another example. Unfortunately, many Christians have just enough gospel to make them miserable, but not enough to make them joyful. They know enough about the biblical message to keep them from doing those things the world is tempting them to do; but they do not have enough of a commitment to God to do those things through which they might experience the fullness of His joy! I am convinced more people will be condemned at the Judgment because of sins of omission than commission.

Tony Campolo wrote, “Sloth deadens, but the Spirit gives life. Sloth thrives on feelings of inferiority, but the Spirit gives us the assurance that we are the children of God. Sloth is self-centered, but the Spirit creates a burning desire to change the world. Sloth leaves us bored and empty, but in the Spirit we find the fullness of God’s joy.”

What’s the Diagnosis?

Once there was a very uncomfortable man so he went to the doctor to find out what his problem was. “What are the symptoms?” the doctor asked.

“My eyes bug out and my ears are ringing.”

So the doctor examined him carefully, drew blood and announced, “Your tonsils need to come out,” and so they did, but the problem persisted. The poor man went to see another doctor.

“You poor man! Clearly your teeth are the issue,” so the he went to the dentist and had all his teeth pulled out. Alas, the problem continued so he called in a specialist who gently told him, “I’m sorry but you only have six months to live.”

Shocked, the man decided to live life to the fullest. He traveled around the world spending his life savings. Finally, after five months of extravagant living, the man went to a tailor to be fitted for the suit he would be buried in.

The tailor announced, “34 inch sleeve. 16 inch neck.”

“That can’t be right,” the man objected. “I wear a 15 inch collar.”

“Well,” the little tailor said, “if you wear a 15 inch collar, your eyes will bug out and your ears will ring.”

Why do we try to make things so complicated? We buy computers that could run the space program when all we really want to do is check our email or balance a bank statement. We buy cell phones with features we will never use to impress people we don’t really like and have you looked at baby strollers lately? There is a place for your latte (and a cup-holder for junior’s), a place to plug in your iPhone, stow the baby bag (and all the gadgets that come with that), sunshades, air bags, air conditioning and a place to put the baby complete with enough straps and snaps to ensure you will never get anywhere on time.

Church can be the same way. We can become so concerned about the fine points of theology, the nuances of grammar, the implications of archaeology and the opinion of everyone else that we forget what it’s really all about.

Why does it have to be so complicated? I just want to be a Christian! So let’s put down the laptop, turn off the cell phone, unplug the iPhone and take a deep breath. Didn’t that feel good? Go ahead – take another. Now sit quietly for a moment and smile.

Writing God Out of the Script

January 1st, New Year’s Day, is traditionally a day for “New Year’s Resolutions.” Through the month, we’ll be returning to our PEWSLAG series, “The Seven Deadly Sins.” (PEWSLAG stands for Pride, Envy, Wrath/Anger, Sloth, Lust, Avarice/Greed, and Gluttony/Desire).

In the February 28, 2005 edition, The National Review reported on a polling organization that asked a thousand citizens to update the list of “Seven Deadly Sins” (pride, envy, wrath, sloth, lust, avarice, and gluttony). Apparently, the list seemed out of date so it was replaced with the sins of cruelty, adultery, bigotry, dishonesty, hypocrisy, greed, and selfishness. Personally, I’m glad gluttony is off the list, but it makes you think: “What is the difference between the two lists?” and what does it say about modern times?

The old list was the product of a monk by the name of Evagrius Ponticus as revised (and simplified) by a later pope. The Bible is overflowing with catalogs of sin (see Galatians 5:19-21 for one example) and he was trying to narrow it down to root sins – sins that lead into other sins, but that leads us into defining what sin is.

While sin harms us and other people, the biblical focus is on how it damages our relationship with God. Therefore, David confesses “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4) after he committed adultery with Bathsheba and had his friend Uriah murdered. David understood that the root cause of his sins was disobeying God. The beginning of his tragic actions was lust (He saw Bathsheba and allowed himself to fantasize) and pride (“I’m the king.”). These two “gateway sins” led to adultery and murder! No wonder they are included in the list of deadly sins.

In contrast, the modern seven sins are “equated with causing pain or mental distress to people” with its logical corollary “Is it wrong if no one gets hurt?” which begs the question “Are there victimless crimes?” Obviously, God doesn’t count.

It’s not that the modern list isn’t horrible – it is – it’s just not all that helpful. For example, adultery is a terrible sin, but its roots are found in pride, lust, envy and perhaps gluttony (properly defined). Likewise, hypocrisy stinks but it is the result of earlier sins like pride and anger.

By chopping at the roots of sin rather than the leaves of sin, we have a far better chance of making actual progress in the tricky business called “Life.”

The 14 Pointed Star

It may be one of the two ugliest churches in the world, but the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a special place. It is a UN World Heritage Site – the first in Palestine and Israel. Constantine the Great’s mother, Helen, was responsible for building it in 339 A.D. Since then it has been rebuilt, survived destruction by the Persians (614), a mad caliph (1009), earthquake (1834) fire (1869) and an Israeli army siege against suspected Palestinian militants who had taken refuge there (2002). The Church of the Nativity was constructed over the traditional site of the birthplace of Jesus, a cave below the church.

If we were to climb down into the cave by the circular staircases on either side of the altar, we wouldn’t recognize the grotto below the church as a cave. Today, it is hung with tapestries and lit with lamps. There is a simple altar and there on the floor, supposedly over the very spot of his birth, is a fourteen-pointed Silver Star. While it is likely that Jesus was born in a cave (they were used as stables in those days), it is highly unlikely anyone would remember exactly which cave much less exactly which place in the cave was the very location of the birth of a carpenter’s son almost 400 years earlier!

However, the Silver Star itself became one of the reasons for the Crimean War (1853-1856, famous for the charge of the light brigade and Florence Nightingale). There have been hostilities between the Roman Catholic Church (West) and Greek Orthodox Church (East) for centuries. Different churches control various parts of the shrines of Christendom in Israel. For example, the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopic churches control the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. These groups have often fought with each other (literally – imagine a brawl of monks using crucifixes and candlesticks as bludgeons). In fact, today the keeper of the keys to that church is a Muslim!

In 1845 the Roman Catholic Silver Star, which supposedly marks the very place where Mary gave birth to Jesus, was stolen. Napoleon III of France proclaimed himself protector of Catholics and insisted that he was the protector of the holy sites in Israel as well. The Russians had already claimed to be the protector of the holy sites in Israel and of the Orthodox Church through the Turks. Napoleon demanded the keys to the front door of the Church of the Nativity be given to the Romans who were having to use a side door to get in and he also demanded the silver star be returned. This became one of the causes for the Crimean War. The irony breaks my heart: people fighting over the right to protect the birthplace of the Prince of Peace!

Perhaps now, more than ever, we need the “peace that passes all understanding” to take control! With thousands of warring factions each claiming to be the true church, I want nothing to do with “religiosity.” I am neither Protestant, nor Catholic, nor Jew. I am just a Christian!

A Short Sermon

When I graduated, my mom gave this wonderful advice that I have tried to honor in my preaching. She looked at me and said, “Son, no one ever complained about a short sermon.” That must be true because the greatest sermon ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7) only takes about 20 minutes to read!

In his later life, it is said the Apostle John settled in Ephesus. There he ministered with a very, very busy congregation. One day they asked John to preach. The old man with long white hair and a flowing white beard tottered to the front, turned and said, “Little children, let us love one another.” (You might recall John wrote those very words in his first letter – 1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11, 12.) Then he sat down. This was shocking since, in those days, sermons could go on for hour after hour. (Once the Apostle Paul preached all night! Acts 20)

The next week the preacher invited John to speak again, and the apostle preached the very same sermon: “Little children, let us love one another.” The people mumbled a bit but John sat down.

On the third week, the invited John to speak yet again and the very same thing happened. The Apostle John stood up and said, “Little Children, let us love one another.” The hapless preached didn’t leave it at that this time, but prompted the old apostle. “John, you were there with Jesus. You heard so many great things. You were there at the Last Supper. You stood at the foot of the cross. Don’t you have anything else to tell the congregation?”

With a twinkle in his eye, John looked over the congregation and answered, “If you loved one another, I wouldn’t have to say anything else!”

This story doesn’t come from the Bible. Instead it is a reported incident from early Church history, but the point is certainly true. Do we truly love one another? How would we know if that was so?

I would like to think that, if you are visiting with us, you could feel the love in this place by the warm reception you’ve received. You can see it in our sincere smiles. You might have noticed we tend to hug each other rather than just shake hands. That’s because we really do care about each other – and, we’d like to share that same love with you.

Now I can’t guarantee my sermon will be as short as my namesake’s, but the message will be the same: “Little children, let us love one another!”

When Words Run Out

John McKeel

By all accounts, Hannah was a good woman. She loved her husband – even though he had two wives. Hannah was long-suffering in the face of her sister-wife’s taunts and Hannah was deeply devoted to the Lord so why didn’t God do something to help her? You see, in those days, people took it as a sign of God’s blessings and approval when they had children so when Hannah couldn’t conceive; they took it as a sign of God’s disfavor.

Still Hannah tried to put on a happy face as Elkanah took his wives and children to Shiloh for a religious festival. It was clear to all that he loved Hannah best – after all he gave her a double portion of the feast. Unfortunately, that only angered her rival and led to a new round of taunts from Elkanah’s other wife.

Have you ever been so broken that you run out of words to describe your pain? While everyone else was celebrating, Hannah, totally broken, fell down in tears before the shrine of the Lord. It was an ancient tent – the original dated back to the Exodus and the days of Moses. It had entered the Promised Land carried by priests over the Jordan River but now it was nearly worn-out. While everyone else was celebrating by the fireside down in the valley, Hannah quietly climbed to the hilltop to visit the ancient shrine. She needed to talk to God. She needed to plead with him in private. She poured out her soul beside the gate of the shrine. Hannah fell to the ground and mouthed the words that would no longer sound. She was all alone in her pain save for a solitary figure watching from the shadows. It was Eli. He saw the woman writhing alone. It was such an unusual sight that the prophet jumped to the conclusion this woman was so drunk she had wandered off alone and now shamefully rolled in the dirt before the ancient tabernacle. He said:

14 “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation,” 1 Samuel 1:14 – 16.

What about you? Are there times when you don’t know how to pray or what to ask for? How do you talk to God? When you think about it, carrying on a conversation with the Almighty seems absurd. Maybe you’ve spent the night in prayer. You’ve prayed so hard, you started repeating yourself. Finally, like Hannah, the words ran out. There is good news! Don’t despair. As Christians, God’s Holy Spirit lives within us and one of the Spirit’s blessings is to carry our prayers to God when words run out:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express,” Romans 8:26.

Our formal month of prayer is about to end but it’s our prayer that you have learned the value of having a conversation with God and made prayer a daily part of your life as a Christian. God answered Hannah’s prayer and the powerful prophet Samuel was born. God’s Holy Spirit is waiting to take the prayers of your heart to our Heavenly Father. How can God help you?

Marcus the Therapist

QuillJohn McKeel


Marcus the Therapist sat down with Simon the Zealot. Simon was honing his short sword with a stone, then testing its edge by shaving off the hairs on the back of his arm. “Simon, you seem to be a little upset right now.”

Simon rubbed his thumb along the blade drawing a bead of blood as he looked up. He clenched his teeth, narrowed his eyes and spat, “Right about that!”

“Would you like to talk about it?” Marcus asked.

Simon drew a deep breath and then let it out slowly. “Do you think it would help?” he asked.

Marcus smiled knowingly. “It just might.”

“Well,” the Zealot began, “those pansy priests are taking advantage of the poor pilgrims” he said. Marcus cringed at the word “pansy” but nodded and said, “Hmm. Go on.”

“Ya see, the pilgrims walk for hundreds of miles to worship in the Temple,” the crusty Simon observed. “Some of them are leading or carrying precious little lambs they have raised themselves.”

Marcus rolled his eyes. “How will we ever mature as a race if these bloody sacrifices continue?” he thought to himself.

“Well, think about it, Doc. The people love those little lambs, but they hate their sins. They are consumed by guilt …” At the word “guilt” Marcus perked up. “That precious lamb will be their sacrifice to atone for their sins. Can you imagine?” he asked.

Marcus shuddered. He could hardly believe this was the first century! Hadn’t mankind progressed past such barbarity? “Continue,” the therapist nodded.

“When the poor pilgrim and his lamb get to the temple, the bleeding priest looks at the pilgrim’s sacrifice, shakes his head and points to some so-called ‘blemish’ on the little lamb. The sacrifice isn’t good enough. It’s never good enough. Then the priest points the pilgrim to one of the official lamb dealers where he can buy a ‘pre-approved’ lamb – mangy beasts,” Simon spat. “Naturally the priests are getting a kick back on the deal, but that’s not all!” Simon stood up gripping his razor-sharp sword. “The pilgrim can’t even use his own money – it being tainted foreign money and all. He has to exchange it – at a fee – for so-called Temple money. Only it ain’t even real Temple money. It’s a Tyrian shekel it is!” The Zealot raised his sword in holy anger. “I could just run somebody through!”

Marcus took a deep breath. “I see,” the therapist began. “Why don’t you sit back down and breathe deeply for a moment. That’s right. Try breathing in slowly and letting it out in one big exhale.”

With Simon sitting down again, Marcus continued. “Life’s not fair Simon,” he started. “Sometimes things don’t always go the way we think they should. That’s no excuse though for your losing your temper. You have a choice. You can choose to become angry and lash out and hurt others, or you can be in control. By not reacting to other people’s choices, you are really winning! Doesn’t that feel better?”

Marcus looked down at his sundial. “Well Simon, I think you’ve made good progress today.” He stood up, looked out the window and wondered, “Who is that Galilean with a whip over at the Temple?”

Moral: There is a time to become angry, but listen closely to the sermon this morning to understand the difference between righteous indignation and unholy wrath.