Mustard Seeds

Ruins of the Capernaum Synagogue
Capernaum Synagogue — John McKeel

The First Century synagogue was the domain of men. Women could observe either from the balcony or from behind a latticework, but men and women did not worship together. On this particular Sabbath, while Jesus was teaching, a hunchbacked old woman hobbled into the midst of men. Every eye must have been fixed on her. Some were angry. Some were curious, but one set of eyes was touched with sympathy. Jesus called to her. “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he placed his hands on her, and she stood upright pain-free for the first time in eighteen years.

It’s a beautiful story, but not everyone saw it that way. The leader of the synagogue was indignant. There are rules to be followed, traditions to be respected, and order to be observed! A woman in the assembly! An old, disabled woman, no less! He knew the Law of Moses. The fourth commandment demanded respect for the Sabbath, and that meant “No work.” This was entirely outrageous! When he could control himself no longer, he stood and barked, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath” (Luke 13:14).

I wonder if the ruler objected because she was an old woman and ugly? Would he have been so adamant if she was beautiful, rich, and young? Jesus came to her aid and defended her (Luke 13:15, 16).

Immediately following this encounter, Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches” (Luke 13:18, 19).

A single mustard seed, like the old woman, appears insignificant. But there are no unimportant people in the kingdom of God. A tiny mustard seed becomes a great bush! I wonder how the synagogue ruler would have felt if he knew what Jesus knew; that little, nameless woman was a princess in the presence of the Son of God. Next Lord’s Day, look around the assembly. Although there is no red carpet or cameras outside, we are all very important people. We are the children of God!

Be a Blessing,


Monument to a Boll Weevil

The Boll Weevil Monument in Enterprise, Alabama

Optimists are positive, and pessimists are – well, more reserved in their judgments. For example, pessimists believe the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” is a train. An optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds – and a pessimist is afraid the optimist is right.

However, I believe there are blessings in curses if we look for them. Take, for example, the monument to the boll weevil in Enterprise, Alabama. It is believed to be the only monument to an insect. In 1915, the Mexican boll weevil destroyed sixty percent of the cotton in Coffee County. Since farmers only grew one crop, the result was catastrophic! However, what began as a curse ended as a blessing because it forced the farmers to diversify with an emphasis on peanuts. Then, just two years later, Coffee County harvested more peanuts than any county in the nation.

“The citizens were so ‘grateful’ for the boll weevil that they dedicated on December 11, 1919, a public marker on the main street of Enterprise with this inscription:

In profound appreciation
Of the boll weevil
And what it has done
As the herald of prosperity.”

                 —Alabama Enterprise

Ronald Reagan observed, “Optimism comes less easily today, not because democracy is less vigorous, but because democracy’s enemies have refined their instruments of repression.” James, the brother of Jesus, wrote:

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2 – 4).

What’s That Smell?

John McKeel

The other day I was rummaging through some old pictures I had taken while hiking and climbing in Colorado. My favorites were the pictures of the beautiful mountain wildflowers – Columbine, Indian Paint Brush, Mountain-Forget-Me-Nots – the list is nearly endless.

These flowers have two different kinds of smells. Bees like some because they smell sweet. As the bees flit from blossom to blossom they carry pollen between the plants, but not every flower is sweet.

“What’s that smell?” my little daughter asked. “It smells like something died!

Just as some flowers smell sweet and attract bees, others smell like rotting meat and attract flies to carry their pollen. (Skunk weed is just one example.)

The Apostle Paul teaches that Christians smell like Christ (2 Corinthians 2:15, 16). That smell attracts some people and repels others. To some, it is the sweet smell of life and to others, Christianity smells like death. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes he sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). Christianity means life now and life to come. Nothing could be sweeter!

Try singing “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” this morning. Here is my prayer for today:

“Dear Lord, may we become the sweet scent of Christ. Help us breathe in your Spirit and live a life that spreads abroad the fragrance of your love.”

The Scratch on the Record

Photo by Dorien Monnens

My grandchildren were browsing among my moving boxes looking for a treasure called “vinyl.” It seems those piles of shiny CDs I own are about as valuable as 8-track tapes, but old-fashioned black vinyl records are in fashion again. Surely Papa had a stash of records in there somewhere!

Alas, I don’t, but I remember something magical about putting one on the stereo and watching the album drop onto the turntable. Then the play arm with its needle would swing over and find track one. Analog was amazing, but it had one fatal flaw. If a record got a scratch it was doomed.

My first album was Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. I worked hard and saved to buy it. It brought me such joy until one day my baby sister grabbed the arm and dragged it across the record. I can still hear the screech and I’m sure she still remembers my desperate cry of despair! I tried everything. I tried to ignore the scratch: “Like a bridge over – click – troubled waters – CLICK.” It was no use. The record was ruined.

Life is like that. There are scratches on everybody’s record, and there comes a point when they can’t be ignored. The record needs to be replaced. That’s what Christians call the “New Birth.”

This morning, in your devotional time, try singing “Why Did My Savior Come to Earth?” Here is my prayer for today:

“Dear Lord, You have created a beautiful world in which we marvel, but what You do best is re-create our broken lives. Thank You!”

What Are You Afraid Of?

Sadie and Joey in Kansas

Our dog, Sadie, hates thunder, and we are in the middle of a series of thunderstorms in Illinois. She will even abandon her greatest love – playing fetch – at the first flash and boom and run for grandma’s room to hide behind her vanity. The cat, Joey, isn’t too concerned but worries about Sadie, so we often find them both in their “hidey hole.” (Although sometimes I wonder if the cat isn’t just laughing at the dog, I like to think Joey is consoling Sadie.)

There is something visceral about booming thunder. “As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel. But the LORD thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel” (1 Samuel 7:10). On the other hand, in John chapter 12, just a few days before Jesus was crucified, God spoke from heaven. Some declared it was just a natural phenomenon like thunder and nothing to pay attention to. Others suggested the sound might have been an angel speaking to Jesus, while some of the disciples indeed heard the words and heard the very voice of God.

The storm has passed. Sadie has crawled out from behind the vanity, denying she was afraid. She was just a little sleepy. The cat doesn’t believe her, but what does it matter? Life is full of phobias. Kendra Cherry posted an “A to Z” list of phobias. [1] Here are just a few from the A category:

Achluophobia: Fear of darkness

Acrophobia: Fear of heights

Aerophobia: Fear of flying

Algophobia: Fear of pain

Agoraphobia: Fear of open spaces or crowds

Aichmophobia: Fear of needles or pointed objects

Amaxophobia: Fear of riding in a car

Androphobia: Fear of men

Anthropophobia: Fear of flowers

Anthropophobia: Fear of people or society

Our fears can protect us, but in my experience, fears can often prevent us from enjoying the life God has given us. Our Christian hope helps us overcome our fears and celebrate life!

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)

  [1] Downloaded August 3, 2022, from

Worn Out for Good

Photo by Yuri Kim

There is something immensely satisfying about hard, physical labor. For example, when you have finished mowing the yard, you can stand in the shade, covered in sweat, drinking an ice-cold glass of tea, and see what you have accomplished. It feels good! Sadly, church work is rarely like that. Yes, it can be exhausting and turn your brains to mush, but there are few times when you can see what your lessons and sermons have accomplished. No one applauds (or even says amen anymore). You might get a handshake and a “good sermon preacher,” as people walk out the door, but you are just as likely to have Brother Curmudgeon gripe about something that rubbed him the wrong way. It can be exhausting.

Paul told the Thessalonians to “to respect those who labor among you” (1 Thessalonians 5:12). The word “labor” means “work that wears you out.” He is talking about all Christian leaders from preachers, to teachers, to elders, and deacons. We rarely think about “church work” as real work but trust me. It is! Why is that?

First, the care of souls is serious business. The consequences are not inconsequential! Eternity may hang in the balance. Leaders will give an account to God for their work! Paul told the Ephesian elders:

You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ … I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:18 – 27).

Second, the work is never done. In this same passage, Paul said, “Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.”

Third, the task of ministry depends on your spiritual maturity, patience, wisdom, and often loving the unlovable. The rewards are often intangible. (Someone recently told me as a preacher, I had a great retirement plan. Unfortunately, you must die to claim it!)

That is why Paul concludes his first letter to the Thessalonians by encouraging them to 

Respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work (1 Thessalonians 5:12).

The word translated “respect” by the ESV is also translated as “know” by the KJV, ASV, D-R, ERV, and the first English Bibles, Wycliffe, Tyndale, ad the Geneva Bible. How well do you know your leaders? They answer to God for your souls, shouldn’t we “show your appreciation” (GW, ISV, NASB, and NCV translations)? The GNB, RSV, and NRSV read “show your appreciation” while the GNB, RSV, and NRSV remind us to “pay proper respect” or “give recognition” (HCSB). The Contemporary English Version tells us to “be thoughtful” and The Message tells us to “honor” them.

Caring for souls is hard work – work that causes sleepless nights, exhaustion, and indescribable joy. It is the greatest work in this world – and the next!

A Matter of Perspective

Photo by Johnny Mckane

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind (1 Peter 3:8 ESV).

When I was attending Abilene Christian University, we lived in a house with a gray, gravel driveway. Gravel is the most ordinary of materials. We might glance at it and never give it another thought, but to my toddler son, gravel was the stuff of magic. When he got out of the car, he squatted down, picked up a stone, and turning it over and over in his tiny hands; he was lost in wonder. Was there anything so wonderful as a little gray rock flecked with sparkles? I put down my books and sat down beside him. He laughed and held out one of his treasures. Have you looked at the world through the eyes of a child? It becomes a world full of magic.

As the Apostle Peter is closing his first letter, he encourages Christians to cultivate a way of thinking and feeling. He encourages us to change our perspectives. He lists these five virtues: “unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” The series begins and ends with how we discipline our thoughts. First, we are to think alike, and finally, we are to be humble in our thoughts.

Today, let’s focus on the first virtue: “have unity of mind.” There is more to this virtue than appears at first glance. This virtue encourages us not only to think and reason the same way but to feel the same too. Peter has chosen to begin this series with a word that only appears here in the New Testament. It is a compound word combining homos (ὁμός – think of the English word “homo-genized”) and phren, (φρήν – in English, like in Greek, the stem phren– refers to “the seat of the intellect, feelings, and will; the mind”). So when we join them together in Peter’s special word, homophron, we have the meaning “like-minded, united in spirit, harmonious.”

A quick look at the various translations reveals: “be ye all of one mind” (KJV). Many English Bibles stress the idea of Christians being in harmony with one another (NASB, LEB, NET). The Complete Jewish Bible takes it one step further: “be one in mind and feeling.” It gets to the heart of the matter.

How can we think the same thoughts? How can we feel the same way? By learning to see the world through God’s eyes instead of our own. Lost in the busyness of everyday life, I only see the world through my eyes. Peter challenges us to take up a new perspective and see the world with the same eyes: God’s eyes.

Thinking About Sin  

Photo by Maruxa Lomoljo Koren

Yesterday I wrote about “Silent” Cal, Calvin Coolidge the 30th president of the United States. He was a man of few words, and one Sunday his wife was ill and stayed home while Calvin went to church by himself. When he returned, his wife Grace, asked, “What did the preacher talk about?”
“Sin,” was Calvin’s short reply.
“Well, what did he say about it, Calvin?” she asked.
“He was against it.”
Sin is a huge subject. The most common word for sin is hamartia (αμαρτια) which means “missing the mark,” and thus “failure, sin.” The Apostle Paul observed, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” Romans 3:23, but there are many ways we can miss the mark. 

  1. We can sin out of ignorance (agnoma αγνοημα) Hebrews 9:7. On a quiet Sunday morning, with no traffic for as far as the eye could see in any direction, I made a U-turn in the middle of the street. A nice motorcycle patrolman informed me of the error of my ways but pointed out “ignorance is no excuse.” I atoned for my sin in traffic school.
  2. Some children of the 60s were “born to be wild.” They delight in being “lawless” sinners (anomiaανομια) Matthew 7:23; 13:41; 23:28; 24:12; Romans 6:19. They want to “do their own thing.” The problem with this kind of sin is God’s laws are not arbitrary. He is a loving God and wants us to have the most fulfilling life. If we chose to disobey God’s law, we are hurting ourselves. Think about it. Two people might jump out of an airplane, but if only one of them is wearing a parachute, who do you think will enjoy the experience more? Good laws are liberating!
  3. Many people have no time for God or religion. Paul calls them “ungodly” (asebia ασεβεια) in Romans 1:18; 11:26. Theirs’ is a double sin. Not only are they actively sinning, but their impiety also interferes with others’ faith. They are guilty of “suppressing the truth.”
  4. If we believe God loves and provides the best life for us, sinners have something missing. As a result of sin, they are “defective,” something is missing from their life (attama ηττημα) Romans 11:12; 1 Corinthians 6:7.
  5. Let’s go back to our definition of sin as “missing the mark.” That can happen in many different ways. For example, the arrow can fly over the target and go too far. This is called a “transgression” (parabasisπαραβασις) Romans 4:15; 5:14; Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 2:2. Likewise, we can also fall short of the mark. This too is sin.
  6. We might miss the mark because we weren’t paying attention. We weren’t listening (parakoa παρακοη) Romans 5:19; Hebrews 2:2.
  7. Sin can also be described as a “misdeed, false step, blunder” (paraptoma παραπτωμα). Sin often “trips us up” or we might “trespass” Matthew 6:14, 15; Romans 5:15 ff.

Whether it is from ignorance, accident, or willful rebellion. Sin is at the heart of the human condition!

The Wisdom of Silent Cal  

Photo of Calvin Coolidge aged 52
Calvin Coolidge in 1919

 Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, was a man of few words. It was said that Coolidge could be silent in five different languages. There is an apocryphal story about a person sitting next to him at a dinner party who once said, “I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” Coolidge replied, “You lose.” Here are some of my favorite Calvin Coolidge quotes:

  • “It takes a great man to be a good listener.”
  • “Don’t expect to build up the weak by tearing down the strong.”
  • “We cannot do everything at once, but we can do something at once.”
  • “I have noticed that nothing I have never said ever did me any harm.”
  • “No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave.”
  • “Prosperity is only an instrument to be used, not a deity to be worshipped.”
  • “Don’t you know that four-fifths of all our troubles in this life would disappear if we would just sit down and keep still?”
  • “If you don’t say anything, you won’t be called on to repeat it.”
  • “You don’t have to explain something you haven’t said.”

Finally, Coolidge was a man of faith. It would do well for us to think for a moment about these words:
“Our government rests upon religion. It is from that source that we derive our reverence for truth and justice, for equality and liberality, and for the rights of mankind. Unless the people believe in these principles they cannot believe in our government. There are only two main theories of government in our world. One rests on righteousness and the other on force. One appeals to reason, and the other appeals to the sword. One is exemplified in the republic; the other is represented by despotism.
The government of a country never gets ahead of the religion of a country. There is no way by which we can substitute the authority of law for the virtue of man. Of course, we endeavor to restrain the vicious, and furnish a fair degree of security and protection by legislation and police control, but the real reform which society in these days is seeking will come as a result of our religious convictions, or they will not come at all. Peace, justice, humanity, charity—these cannot be legislated into being. They are the result of divine grace.”
“It is hard to see how a great man can be an atheist. Without the sustaining influence of faith in a divine power we could have little faith in ourselves. We need to feel that behind us is intelligence and love. Doubters do not achieve; skeptics do not contribute; cynics do not create. Faith is the great motive power, and no man realizes his full possibilities unless he has the deep conviction that life is eternally important, and that his work, well done, is a part of an unending plan.”
I was going to say something else, but, perhaps considering the subject matter, I’ve said too much already.

Prayer of an Anonymous Abbess

Here is one of my favorite prayers. It comes from the German children’s book author Margot Benary-Isbert (1889-1979). She moved to the United States from Postwar Germany in 1952 and became a United States citizen in 1957. While Benary-Isbert wrote for children, I especially like her “Prayer of an Anonymous Abbess,” which was written for those of us with “silver hair.” – John

Margot Benary-Isbert

Lord, thou knowest better than myself that I am growing older and will soon be old. Keep me from becoming too talkative, and especially from the unfortunate habit of thinking that I must say something on every subject and at every opportunity.

Release me from the idea that I must straighten out other peoples’ affairs. With my immense treasure of experience and wisdom, it seems a pity not to let everybody partake of it. But thou knowest, Lord, that in the end, I will need a few friends.

Keep me from the recital of endless details; give me wings to get to the point.

Grant me the patience to listen to the complaints of others; help me to endure them with charity. But seal my lips on my own aches and pains – they increase with the increasing years, and my inclination to recount them is also increasing.

I will not ask thee for improved memory, only for a little more humility and less self-assurance when my own memory doesn’t agree with that of others. Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally, I may be wrong.

Keep me reasonably gentle. I do not have the ambition to become a saint – it is so hard to live with some of them – but a harsh old person is one of the devil’s masterpieces.

Make me sympathetic without being sentimental, helpful, but not bossy. Let me discover merits where I had not expected them and talents in people whom I had not thought to possess any. And, Lord, give me the grace to tell them so.


Margot Benary–Isbert