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.

A Thousand Words

Quill

John McKeel

 

Someone said, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” however, Don Chaney, a radio-advertising salesman once observed:

“You give me a thousand words and I’ll take the Lord’s Prayer, the Twenty-Third Psalm, the Hippocratic Oath, a sonnet by Shakespeare, the Preamble to the Constitution, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, and I’ll still have enough words left over for just about all of the Boy Scout Oath. Now would you trade these one thousand words for any picture?”[1]

Then there was the Creation: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” God spoke the world into existence. He created light, heaven, land, vegetation, seasons, fish, birds, animals and people all with a word (Genesis chapter 1). The Apostle John wrote: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” (John 1:1). Don’t ever doubt the power of speech!

But our speech can be good or bad. James, the brother of Jesus, said, “The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell,” (James 3:6). It’s been said that a person’s worth depends upon their two smallest organs: their heart and their tongue.

How can I learn to control my mouth? First let me say, “It ain’t easy!” (Bad grammar, but right on target.) So how do we go about “tongue taming”? Here are some hints:

  • Granny’s observation was correct: “God gave us two ears and one tongue so we should listen twice as much as we talk.”
  • Before you open your mouth, ask yourself, “Is it necessary for me to say anything?”
  • Ask yourself, “Is it true?”
  • Ask yourself, “Is it kind?”

Finally, share this prayer, “Lord, may my words be tender and kind for I may have to eat them.”

 

[1] Quoted by Ronald L. Willingham, How to Speak So People Will Listen, Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1968.

Freedom to Love

QuillNext weekend is the Fourth of July. It’s a time for picnics and parades and fireworks. For Americans, it’s a time for us to celebrate freedom. One of my favorite Christian authors is John R. W. Stott. He pointed out “One of the best ways of sharing the gospel with modern men and women is to present it in terms of freedom.”

“Freedom” is a great Christian word (Luke 4:18, 19; John 8:36; Galatians 5:1). It is an extremely appealing topic but freedom is also much misunderstood. I once read a quote from a Marxist, “When we get freedom, you’ll do what you’re told!”

What does it mean to be free? True freedom has limitations. If two people jump out of an airplane and only one of them has a parachute, which one do you think will enjoy the experience of sky-diving more?

As Christians we are freed from guilt, freed from sin and freed from fear. But in addition to being freed from we are also freed to. Again Stott points out “True freedom is freedom to be ourselves, as God made us and meant us to be.” That’s an important limitation!

Think about it. God is not free. He cannot be tempted or lie or tolerate evil. His freedom is freedom to be himself! What is true for the Creator is true for us. This past week our granddaughters have been visiting us so naturally we had to spend time at the beach. Rachel loved chasing the little fish swimming in the shallows along the shore. Now it’s an important truth that fish were created for the water. We learned that they are not very happy on the shore or in your pocket. Fish were created for the water and that’s where they are happiest.

People were created for love. Robert Southwell wrote, “Not when I breathe, but when I love, I live.” True love is self-giving. True freedom is freedom from my silly little self in order to live for God and others (See Mark 8:35). As the fish are created for the sea, so we were created to love. The Apostle John wrote “This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another…. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers…. Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth,” (1 John 3:11, 16, 18).

Jesus Loves Me

Ana Warner
Ana B. Warner

John McKeel

When John F. Kennedy and the men of PT 109 were rescued in the Solomon Islands, one of the crewmembers, Motor Machinist Mate William Johnston, went topside and gratefully sat beside his island rescuers.

He smiled. They smiled. He tried to talk, but what do you say? The islanders had been educated in a Christian mission. Johnston had gone to Bible school. Then they all grinned and began to sing: “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so” and they sang it all the way back to the American Navy base.

Ana B. Warner’s children’s song is engraved on our hearts, but few people know her story. Ana’s father nearly lost everything in the “Panic of 1837.” They were forced to move from their beautiful townhouse in New York and the family retired to a little Revolutionary War house on Constitution Island. It was just across the river from the Military Academy at West Point where her uncle had been the chaplain.

Ana’s older sister, Susan, continued to hold Bible classes for the cadets. Ana would pick wild flowers and give them to the soldiers to decorate their rooms. When the cadets graduated, the sisters kept up a lively correspondence with them. As the soldiers advanced in rank, they still remembered the two sisters who would row across the river and bring them back to their little home to study the Bible on Sundays. Today, the sisters are still honored at West Point. They are the only two civilians buried in the military cemetery there and their little home is maintained as a museum just the way it was in the mid-1800s.

The words to the song come from one of the many stories the girls wrote to help support their struggling family. In their book, Say and Seal, a beloved schoolteacher sang, “Jesus Loves Me” to a little boy who was very ill. Later, some of the stanzas were re-written by David Rutherford McGuire, and the chorus was written by the man who wrote the music, William Bradbury who wrote the tunes for ‘Tis Midnight and on Olive’s Brow, Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us, He Leadeth Me, My Hope is Built on Nothing Less, and many more.

Here are Ana’s original words:

Jesus loves me! this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong; they are weak but He is strong.

Jesus loves me! loves me still, tho I’m very weak and ill, that I might from sin be free, bled and died upon the tree.

Jesus loves me! He who died heaven’s gate to open wide; He will wash away my sin, let His little child come in.

Jesus loves me! He will stay close beside me all the way. Thou hast bled and died for me; I will henceforth live for Thee.

Chorus: Yes, Jesus loves me! The Bible tells me so.

A Trip to the Grocery Store

Spring TimeJan sent me to the grocery store the other day to buy apples. That seems like a simple, straight forward task, but when I arrived at the produce isle, I was confronted with a chaotic world swirling with choices. First, did I want organic or regular apples? Did I need red or golden delicious; gala, jazz, pink lady, honey crisp? Domestic or imported? In despair, I fled to the potato chip aisle, but that was even worse! Kettle, ridges, Pringles, sea salt, cracked pepper, salt and vinegar … I backed into the cereal aisle and had a complete meltdown. “Clean up on aisle 13!”

Why can’t life be simple? On the night that Jesus was betrayed, he prayed, may my disciples “be one as we are one,” (John 17:13). Sadly, the number of different varieties of Christian denominations is now measured in the tens of thousands. There are more flavors of Christians than there are flavors of ice cream! Why can’t we all be one as Jesus wanted?

“Well John, it’s not as easy as it sounds,” the Rev. Blowhard announces. “You see theology and dogma are complicated subjects full of subtle nuances.”

Suzy Simpleheart suggests, “Let’s just get everyone together and sort it out! We could have a worldwide conference and reform our faith until we all agreed.” But, it made international news a few years ago when the Roman Catholic pope crossed himself according to the Greek Orthodox practice in the interests of unity. That didn’t last long. Now imagine the stir that would follow asking the Calvinists to drop a letter out of their famous acronym, TULIP.

“What if we asked God to reveal which church is the true church in a blinding light?” asked Mike Moroni.

The answer is, God already has revealed the answer. He gave us the Bible. Why not just follow it, instead of being this flavor or that? Why not just be “Christians”?

A wise man, over two hundred years ago, set a slim denominational creed book beside a Bible and noted, “If it’s smaller than the Bible, they must have left something out.” And then he set the Bible beside an encyclopedic set of theological books and observed, “If it’s bigger than the Bible, they must have added something to it.” He then asked, “Why not just follow the Bible?”

Perhaps that’s too simple, but why don’t we give it a try? Let’s just be Christians and just follow the Bible.

No News Ain’t Good News

John McKeel

Sometimes it’s true, “No news is good news.” Parents worry about their children taking their first road trip. “Why haven’t they called?” they frantically ask, but, especially with kids, “No news is good news.” However “No news is good news” isn’t always true.

“Gospel” literally means “Good News” but many Christians are afraid to say anything. Sometimes the desire to be “polite” keeps us from talking about religion or politics with our friends. At other times, fear keeps us quiet. We might be afraid of saying the wrong thing or of not being able to answer a question or afraid of seeming “holier than thou” or being branded as a “Bible thumper” but “no news ain’t good news” when it concerns the Gospel.

Some people might not talk about the Good News because it really doesn’t seem all that great. Interesting perhaps, but not all that relevant. How sad! Can you imagine a young man who became a father over the weekend and not telling a soul about it at the office on Monday? Can you imagine a bride not beaming or an Olympian not wearing his gold medal?

So what is so great about the Good News? Here are three simple points I share with people. First, we aren’t alone. There is a God, and better yet, He cares about you individually! Someone once observed, “God must love a good story because he created people.” God is intensely interested in your story!

Two, we found the solution. It’s as if we just opened a box of parts and scattered them across the floor in a hopeless tumble. You look through all the pieces, bolts, nuts, wires and widgets but there are no instructions – not even a picture of the finished product. Just when we are ready to throw our hands up in despair, there is a knock at the door and in walks the factory representative with the plans and a screw driver! “Let me help,” he says. That’s good news!

Third, and this may be the most important point, the Good News is great news because it is a message of hope. Christians have no more fear of death than you do of laying your head down on your pillow at night. Our hope isn’t based on wishfully thinking or someone’s dream. It is based on an empty tomb and the promise of LIFE – now and forever.

God is real. He cares and we have hope. Now that’s Good News – but Good News isn’t Good News unless it is shared.

Would Jesus Use a Smart Phone?

RiggingJohn McKeel

“Bing.” It’s the middle of the night, but my Smartphone dings and the little blue-white screen lights up the bedroom… again. Do I check my messages or roll over and try to get back to sleep?

I’m at a restaurant enjoying a quiet dinner with my sweet wife. We’re in the middle of a wonderful conversation and the phone in my pocket begins to vibrate. It might be important, but what is more important than sharing time with my love?

The preacher makes a great point I hadn’t thought about. The Apostle Paul was in Troas and the preacher says Troas was once in the running against Constantinople to be the capital of the Roman Empire. Instinctively I reach for my Smartphone and Google …

Smartphones were invented to make our lives more efficient, but now it seems like they are sucking up more and more of our attention and time. I read an interesting study by a social scientist this week that warns – hold on a second, my iPhone just delivered a text message and my wife called at the same time. (I’m not making this up!) Any way, he warns of three specific dangers: Smartphones hurt relationships, keep us from focusing and being productive at work, and keep us from being fully present in life.[1]

All of this relates to their being a constant distraction. We become Information Junkies. The next time you are in a restaurant or coffee shop, notice how many people are texting or checking their phones instead of paying attention to the people they are with.

Now think about Jesus. Although he was the Son of God and had access to all of the knowledge in the universe, I believe when he was with people, he was wholly with them. He was moved by the widow’s tears, touched by the pain of the sick, focused on the lost.

So how can we find balance between our need for information and our need to truly be present in our surroundings and with the people we love? Recently I’ve started taking a regular “Techno-Sabbath.” That means turning off all my devices – computer, laptop, TV, Smartphone, iPad, DVD player – anything with buttons or batteries – for the day. Somehow the world continues to spin on without my input and I’m feeling much better. My stress levels go down. I’m more focused and my relationships are more meaningful without the constant interruptions and temptations to look something up. Try it! Instead of being mastered by technology, master life. Turn it off!

[1] http://www.artofmanliness.com/2016/02/22/break-smartphone-habit/

Your Golf Clubs Will Thank You

John McKeel

Ray was a nice guy. I couldn’t do what he did. Ray was a bus driver and every day had to deal with bad drivers and irate passengers. He was responsible for people’s safety and he took that responsibility seriously but Ray had a problem. He was the angriest man I ever knew.

Playing golf with Ray was a unique experience. If a shot went foul, Ray’s face would turn red. The veins on his neck would begin to flare. A string of profanity would pour out of his mouth and he would bend his club over his knee and fling it into a tree or the water trap. That would make him even angrier and balls and clubs would soon be pouring out of his bag in every direction.

Perhaps it was therapeutic. All day long from morning till night Ray had to be reserved and polite. He couldn’t indulge in road rage and the bus company frowned on their drivers using firearms or martial arts on brain-dead passengers. So Ray would smile and laugh and hold it in until he couldn’t take it any more. Then pity the poor golf clubs and the people he played with on the weekends. He wasn’t pleasant to be around and his wife finally gave up. Who wants to live with a volcano?

You couldn’t say Ray was happy. Life robbed him of joy and his future prospects didn’t look good. What advice would you give him? Here are some of the things we talked about at the nineteenth hole.

God created us with emotions, including our anger. Jesus wasn’t a Stoic and we shouldn’t be either. However, there is often a world of difference between the anger of Jesus and our explosive outbursts. The anger of Jesus was righteous (justified) and he became angry at injustice. Think of the hard-hearts of the Pharisees (Mark 3:5) or the way the merchants took advantage of the pilgrims in the Temple (John 2)

Second, Paul advises us not to let the sun go down on our anger. That means not saving up slights! When I was a little boy, merchants gave out green stamps that you could save up, paste into books and redeem for items in their catalog (like my first pup tent). Sometimes we’re like that. Something happens that upsets us but it’s not a big enough deal to become truly angry about so we just file it away until we have enough little annoyances to redeem for a good fight.

Third, sometimes I go looking for a trouble. The other day Jan and I were in the mood for a great hamburger. The line was long (just like I expected) and I saw an arrogant, rich man walk right to the front of the line and place his order before the rest of us and especially a little family whose turn it was. They were just about to order when this guy and his painted wife pushed by them. I was furious and was just about to say something when he pulled out his wallet and paid for the little family’s meal. “Thanks Uncle Ralph.” The funny thing is I was disappointed I couldn’t express my righteous indignation! I think I was just looking for a fight. Ouch.

No, the best advice I could give to Ray (and myself) is to learn the power of patient forgiveness. Paul told the Romans, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” (Romans 12:17-21).

Your golf clubs will thank you.

The Family of God

John McKeel

Young John McKeel
SP4 John McKeel
Berlin, 1973

My senior year of High School, I dropped out of German language classes. “When will I ever need to speak German?” I reasoned. Two years later I was standing on a doorstep in Berlin waiting for someone to answer the doorbell. Like many young soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, I was afraid I would be stationed far away with no other Christians to worship with. I was in the Army and I was trying to find the Gemeinde Christi (“Church of Christ”).

Of course, I shouldn’t have been afraid. Like many military families have discovered since the days of Cornelius the Centurion in Acts chapter 10, if there isn’t a church, just start one in your home! You don’t need a preacher – we are all priests (1 Peter 2:9). You don’t even need a building. Jesus said, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” Today there are churches around the world founded by “military missionaries.”

The door opened and I mumbled, “Guten Tag.” (“Good day.”)

A sweet grey-haired lady smiled and answered, “Guten Tag.”

I panicked. Here was a real, live German person standing in front of me. She smiled again and looked at me. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do. If only I had finished my High School German classes! Why did I drop out? Why? Why? Why? Suddenly I remembered one of the practice phrases I had learned and without thinking, I blurted out, “Ich kann meine Gummischuhe nicht finden!” (“I can’t find my galoshes.”)

Marianne broke out laughing and replied, “Amerikanische ja?” and with that she invited me in to her home – a home that was used by Christians as a church every Sunday. She brought me tea and cookies and chatted away the afternoon showing me photo albums and laughing infectiously. I didn’t understand a word, but I didn’t need to. We were brother and sister.

Soldiers had started the church when they were stationed in Berlin many years before. They were gone now but the Germans who obeyed the gospel continued to meet and worship and share the good news to this day.

Isn’t that a great thought? We have brothers and sisters we haven’t met yet. We truly are a family: the family of God.

A special thanks to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines today – especially those who carry the gospel with them wherever they go!