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!

Grudges, Gossips, and Slander

Photo by Keira Burton

I honestly believe more people will go to hell for the sin of gossip than all the other sins combined. Gossip must be guarded against zealously because it is such a delicious sin. Proverbs says:

      The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels;
they go down into the inner parts of the body (Proverbs 18:8; see also 26:22).

It’s no wonder why Peter concludes his Spiritual Weight Loss program telling us to “put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Peter 2:1). What gives slander and gossip their enticing flavor? Everyone loves a secret. It makes us feel powerful, “in the know.” That is why the supermarket gossip sheets sell so well. We all want to know the rest of the story. But, strangely, gossip also makes us feel better about ourselves. If the other person isn’t so great, we must be a little bit better. The standard isn’t quite so high.

The early Christian Hermas gives this sage advice:

“First, speak evil of no one, and do not enjoy listening to someone who does. Otherwise you, the listener, will be responsible for the sin of the one speaking evil, if you believe the slander which you have heard, for by believing it you yourself will hold a grudge against your brother. In this way you will become responsible for the sin of the one who speaks the evil. Slander is evil; it is a restless demon, never at peace but always at home with dissension. So avoid it, and you will always have success with everyone.” [1]

Unfortunately, you can hear otherwise good Christians slandering other Christians. In hushed voices tinged with concern, they begin:

“I love brother Smith dearly, but….”
“If they were my children….”
“You know the trouble with ….”
“It’s so sad. I really want to help….”
“If I were in his shoes….”

One of my favorite authors, William Barclay, describes:

“The word that James uses for to speak harshly of, or, to speak evil of, is the verb katalalein. Usually this verb means to speak evil of someone else in that person’s absence, to criticize, to insult, to slander someone when he is not there to defend himself. This sin of slander and of insult and of evil-speaking is condemned all through the Bible…In the Pauline letters katalalia, the noun, is translated back-biting.… Katalalia is the sin of those who meet in corners and gather in little groups and pass on confidential tidbits of whispered information which destroy the reputation and good name of those who are not there to defend themselves.… People are slow to realize that there are few sins which the Bible so unsparingly condemns as the sin of irresponsible and malicious gossip.”

No sin is so universally condemned! God condemns it, “Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly I will destroy” (Psalm 101:5). Paul condemns it (2 Corinthians 12:20), Peter condemns it (1 Peter 2:1), and James condemns it (James 4:11-12).

How can we guard against gossip? By asking yourself three questions before you open your mouth:

1. Is it true?
2. Is it kind?
3. Is it necessary?

But before I close today’s devotional, did you hear about ….

[1] The Shepherd of Hermas, II, 2 in Holmes, M. W. (1999). The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations (Updated ed., p. 377). Baker Books.

Envy: The Sour Aftertaste of Sin

Photo by Govinda Valbuena

Envy is not simply a longing to have the same kind of thing the other person has; the envious person wants to strip another of something in order to possess it completely and solely (Proverbs 14:30). Apostle Peter’s spiritual weight loss program tells us to “put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Peter 2:1).

Christians are not immune to envy. Ananias and Sapphira saw the praise Joseph the Levite received when the apostles changed his name to Barnabas (Acts 5), and their envy led to their deaths. In our time, one preacher envies another minister’s success and begins to slander him because he is eaten up with envy.

Henry Stein wrote, “A convincing case can be made that the entire free enterprise system is fueled by envy.”[1] Anne Morrow Lindbergh observed, “We worship success, but we really don’t like the successful. We are envious of them.”

Sometimes it is easier to understand the meaning of a word by looking at its opposite: light/dark, heavy/light, fat/thin. The Greeks considered “envy” (phthonos, φθόνος) the opposite of “the love of people” (philanthropia, φιλανθρωπία). [2]

Envy expresses itself in all walks of life. Children want other children to envy their toys. Adults engage in “conspicuous consumption.” People marry a “trophy spouse.” Envy often leads to overspending and consequent marital conflict. (Disagreements over money are the most frequently cited cause for divorce.)

Early Christians saw envy as “the end result of all human sins.”[3]. As such, envy – our fundamental dissatisfaction – is the fruit of all the other sins. Envy is like the sour aftertaste of sin. It is a fundamental problem for us all and is considered one of the Seven Deadly Sins. [4]

Think about it. Envy is a major cause of unhappiness and self-contempt. The man who covets another man’s wife becomes dissatisfied with his own. The student who envies another’s grades underestimates his own abilities. The woman who envies another woman’s appearance becomes a supporter of a cultural system that diminishes her own value and encourages her own unhappiness. Envy diminishes people’s enjoyment of life because they cannot be content with what they have.

Peter, help us! How can we strip away our envy? This might sound strange, but the root of envy is doubting God. We need to understand that God wills the very best for us! We may think we need something, but the Lord knows what we really need! Therefore, I believe the best way to counter envy is to cultivate an attitude of gratitude!

[1] Henry Stein, Ethics (and Other Liabilities), 1982

[2] See Demosthenes, “Against Leptines” 165. Cited in Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). In A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 1054). University of Chicago Press.

[3]Didache: “ἔσχατον τῶν ἀνθρωπίνων ἁμαρτημάτων”

[4] PEWSLAG: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Lust, Avarice, and Gluttony