MUSTARD

black mustard - Brassica nigra
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches. [Matthew 13:31-32 (NLT)]

Following the Parable of the Four Soils and the Parable of the Weeds, Jesus told a third parable of growth by comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed. I know little about farming and soil but I’m familiar with black mustard, (Brassica nigra), the kind of mustard grown in Palestine in Jesus’ day. Its clusters of bright yellow flowers are a common sight in the meadows, thickets, vacant lots, and fallow fields in my home state of Illinois.

Both times Jesus mentioned the mustard seed, He referred to its small size. When comparing the size of our faith to that of a mustard seed, He told us even if our faith were as small as a mustard seed that, “Nothing would be impossible.” When comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed, He called it the “smallest of all seeds.” Having admired the mustard seed charm my sister had on her bracelet, I questioned His statement. While it was small, I knew other seeds are even smaller. Surely the One who was there at creation’s beginning knew that the almost dust-like seeds of orchids and begonias are smaller. Additionally, while the mustard plant can grow as tall as 10 to 12 feet, it’s not a tree!

Jesus, however, wasn’t teaching botany, He was telling a parable and hyperbole (an exaggerated statement not taken literally that’s used to emphasize a point) was a common technique in rabbinic teaching. Jesus used it when speaking of recognizing a speck in our neighbor’s eye but not seeing the log in ours, Pharisees straining the gnats out of their water while drinking a camel, and trying to put a camel through a needle. When we look at the original Greek, however, we find less exaggeration. Jesus refers to the mustard seed as the smallest seed which a man sows in his field. While not the smallest seed in existence, mustard was the smallest seed that would have been sown in a Palestinian field. Jesus says it grows larger than a lachanōn (a garden herb or vegetable) and, indeed, black mustard does seem like a tree when compared to most herbs! That a seed measuring less than a tenth of an inch can grow 1,440 times its original size into a 12-foot plant in just one season is impressive and that was His point!

While most of America’s farmers consider this pervasive plant a noxious weed, it’s been cultivated as a crop for thousands of years in the Holy Land. Its seeds were powdered or made into a paste for medicinal and culinary purposes. Unlike most of us, Jesus’ listeners were familiar with mustard’s characteristics. As I describe those qualities, consider how they might apply to God’s Kingdom here on earth.

With its narrow clusters of small yellow flowers, mustard isn’t a showy flower—one might even call it a humble little thing. Nevertheless, a golden field of mustard is a thing of beauty. For a variety of scientific reasons, black mustard has a competitive advantage over most other plants. It’s one of the first plants to spring up after a fire and can out-compete anything else growing in the same field. It produces thousands of seeds every season and mustard’s long-lasting seeds can survive underground for as long as 50 years. An annual, while it dies at the end of a season, it regenerates at the next rainy season.

Although mustard was welcome as a cash crop in Palestine, because of its characteristics, black mustard is considered invasive in 44 of the 48 contiguous states. Nevertheless, in spite of the Midwest’s farmers’ persistent efforts to eradicate it, black mustard returns every year. Nature Collective describes it as “an ornery guest that refuses to take the hint.” In spite of persecution from Jewish leaders and Rome, the early church was just as defiant, determined, and persistent as black mustard!

Jesus’ listeners would have been familiar with the plant’s beauty and ability to self-seed, lay down a deep root system, and grow almost anywhere, along with mustard’s knack of surviving and thriving in less-than-ideal conditions. Jesus’ point was that from small and humble beginnings, the Kingdom of Heaven—Jesus’ domain as Messiah—would gradually grow into a large and beautiful entity. Once seeded, nothing seems to stop mustard and the same goes for the Kingdom!

May our faith be as persistent, hardy, determined, steadfast, and as difficult to destroy as the mustard seed!

“You don’t have enough faith,” Jesus told them. “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.” [Matthew 17:20 (NLT)]

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PLANT GENEROUSLY

Then Jesus said to them, “If you can’t understand the meaning of this parable, how will you understand all the other parables? The farmer plants seed by taking God’s word to others.” [Mark 4:13-14 (NLT)]

The Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all repeat Jesus’ parable of the Sower and the Soils. As the farmer sows his seeds, some lands on the packed soil along the footpath. The birds steal the seeds so nothing takes root. Some seeds land on a thin layer of dirt over underlying rock. Although the seeds quickly sprout, without deep roots, they wither and die. Other seeds land among the thistles and thorns. Although they take root, the fast-growing weeds crowd them out. Only the seeds that fall on fertile soil take firm root, grow into maturity, and bear fruit. Rather than teaching Agriculture 101, by comparing those soils to the various ways God’s message is received, Jesus was teaching about evangelism.

The parable’s farmer scattered his seeds without determining beforehand which soil would be most receptive. In the same way, when we sow the seeds of God’s word, there’s no quick way to determine if or when that seed will take root and grow. Moreover, sometimes those seeds might lie dormant for years until conditions are optimal for them to take hold. For example, lodgepole pine seeds actually need the intense heat of fire to explode their seed cones before they can germinate. In the same way, the seed of God’s word may lie dormant until a person’s life goes up in flames.

As for the seeds on the footpath and the birds and other animals who might eat them—when they deposit their feces, those seeds may end up in a more receptive environment. In fact, passing through the belly of an emu actually helps germinate the seeds of an Australian plant with the wonderful name of Snottygobble. Even if our testimony is rejected, it may inadvertently get passed on to a more receptive person!

As for the shallow rocky soil—leaves could fall on it, decompose, and add nutrients and depth to the soil while rain might keep the plants from withering and dying. Having seen trees growing out of mountain sides and wildflowers peeking up through sidewalk cracks, I know that seeds can take root in the most unlikely places. Just as it’s possible for seeds to grow in adverse conditions, it’s possible that the word of God can soften even the hardest of hearts! As for the thorny weeds—what if someone came along and did some weeding or hungry goats or pigs (who apparently like thorny vines) passed by and ate the weeds? Beautiful flowers can grow in the midst of weeds!

Even in good soil, some seeds might never germinate. While the synagogue in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth should have been fertile ground for Him, it wasn’t. His message there ended with a furious mob wanting to kill him! Yet, in the unlikely soil of the Samarian city of Sychar, Jesus met a woman of questionable morals who realized He was the Messiah and brought the village’s people to meet Him. The city of Corinth, with its cults of pagan gods, 1,000 prostitutes, temple to Aphrodite, and reputation for drunkenness and debauchery, didn’t seem to be fertile soil and yet the Apostle Paul planted a successful church there. Indeed, God’s word can take root in the most unlikely places.

While Jesus knew how people would respond to Him, we don’t. None of us can accurately predict if, how, or when the seed of God’s word will be received. In 2005, without knowing if the seeds would germinate, scientists planted thirty-five 2000-year-old date palm tree seeds excavated from Israeli archaeological sites. Even though it took those ancient seeds two millennia to sprout, against all odds, seven of them took root and are now producing fruit!

Rather than trying to analyze the soil or waiting for optimal growing conditions, our job as God’s farmers is to continue sowing good seeds whenever and wherever we can. Eventually, some will fall on fertile soil! God will take care of the harvesting and sorting when the right time comes.

The Parable of the Soils tells us that, regardless of hardened hearts, superficiality, competing pressures, and even failure, the promised harvest is “a hundred times as much as had been planted.” Without a doubt, in spite of setbacks and challenges, God’s Kingdom will prevail, but only if we continue to plant those seeds!

It’s what you sow that multiplies, not what you keep in the barn. [Adrian Rogers]

Remember this—a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. [2 Corinthians 9:6 (NLT)]

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PATIENCE

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. [Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT)]

great blue heronAs we continued our brief study on prayer, one person shared that his prayer frequently is for patience. Agreeing, I admitted often praying, “Lord, please give me patience…and give it to me now!” While patience is a fruit of the Spirit, I have a problem getting it to grow in the garden of my life.

Without a doubt, we live in a fast-paced world and perhaps we’ve grown more impatient because of that. For example, a good download speed is 100 Mbps which allows for the receipt of 12.5 MB per second. A byte is the equivalent of one typed character so that’s like 12.5 million letters in one second (or four complete King James Bibles)! Nevertheless, we complain when we see that download circle spin for even a few seconds!

We no longer need to visit the library or bookstore for a book, the encyclopedia for an answer, or Blockbuster for a movie. Our apps mean we skip the checkout lines and our DVRs allow us to skip the commercials! Grocery shopping takes only a few minutes thanks to Instacart and DoorDash allows us to skip the groceries altogether! We pay bills, do our banking, plan travel, and shop with a few clicks of a mouse and what we order today appears on our doorstep tomorrow! We literally live in a world of instant pots, grams, chargers, coffee, rice, carts, and gratification. Patience may be a virtue but it seems as rare as handwritten letters and phone booths. Its rarity, however, doesn’t mean it’s unnecessary!

I thought about patience this morning while walking in a nearby park. We were mesmerized while watching a beautiful Great Blue Heron ((Ardea herodias) hunt for breakfast. With a height of four feet and a wingspan of nearly seven feet, the Great Blue is an impressive bird. When foraging, it stands still for long periods of time with only his head moving while patiently scanning the water for prey. When a heron wades through the water, it seems to glide. Its long legs move so deliberately and gracefully there’s not even a ripple in the water. At the Great Blue stalks its food in the wetlands, this statuesque bird is a model of focus, diligence, and purpose. Watching a heron hunt is like seeing something in ultra-slow-motion. But, when its next meal comes swimming past, the heron moves with lightning speed, uncoils its long neck, and plunges its sizable beak and head into the water. On occasion it comes up empty-beaked but, more often than not, its patience pays off and the bird emerges with a fish, frog, snake or other unlucky critter. While I’ve gotten plenty of photos of a heron hunting and several of one enjoying its catch, I’ve never gotten one of the bird actually getting its meal. You see, the heron’s patience exceeds my own. No matter how long I stalk the bird for the perfect shot, I give up before it does! Were I a heron, I surely would go hungry!

Watching the heron today was a beautiful reminder to slow down and exercise patience as we move through life. It’s easy to lose faith when things don’t move along at the pace we want them to go but life isn’t meant to be measured at megabits per second. Unlike Siri, God isn’t at our beck and call with answers to every question. Moreover, unlike UPS, He doesn’t give us a tracking link to check on a prayer’s progress and know its delivery date. God works in His time and way and what seems like a delay on His part is just our unrealistic expectations concerning God’s perfect plan.

God speaks to us through his creation and nature (like God) takes its own sweet time to accomplish its purpose. Indeed, “For everything there is a season.” It takes time for seeds to germinate, seedlings to flower, and flowers to bear fruit. It takes time for nests to be built, eggs to hatch, and eaglets to fly. It takes time for bees to pollinate, seasons to change, caterpillars to become butterflies, saplings to become tall oaks, tadpoles to become frogs, and for the heron to stalk its meal! May God’s beautiful world remind us to slow down and savor the moments and people with whom we are blessed.

Lord, please give us patience—for other people’s sentences to be completed, for projects to be finished, for questions to be answered, and for problems to be solved. Give us patience to let our children mature, for friendships to grow, and for skills to develop. May we have patience for tempers to cool and relationships to mend, patience with our own shortcomings and those of others, patience for healing to occur, and patience for prayers to be answered. Teach us how to wait!

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience. [Ralph Waldo Emerson]

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. [Colossians 3:12 (NLT)]

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LISTENING

Come, let us worship and bow down. Let us kneel before the Lord our maker, for he is our God. We are the people he watches over, the flock under his care. If only you would listen to his voice today! [Psalm 95:6-7 (NLT)]

limpkinLooking like a cross between a heron and an ibis, the limpkin (Aramus guarauna) is common along Florida’s fresh water canals, wetlands, and swamps. While they’re lovely to look at, they’re not lovely to hear. Often referred to as the wailing or crying bird, limpkins have a loud piercing “banshee” scream that usually is heard at night, dawn, and dusk. During courtship, a male limpkin makes repetitive long, loud, rattling calls while a female replies with slightly lower (but still disturbing) screams.

It’s mating season and, as the limpkins establish their territory and seek their mates around our lakes, the male limpkins are wailing away. On this morning’s walk, I encountered three of these screamers high in trees near the water. Although they continually called out, they never seemed to pause long enough from their wailing to hear an answer. While the three males continued their haunting screams, I encountered a female limpkin quietly walking along the shoreline. I wondered if she simply was waiting for the men to quiet down long enough so she could return their call.

My family is doing a seven-day prayer study which began with the statement, “Prayer is conversation with God.” As we shared our prayer habits via email, one person wrote that some days he simply asks God, “What’s your will for me today?” He added, “The hard part of any conversation is being willing to listen and be receptive to what is being said.” As I thought of his words, I realized our similarity to the screeching limpkins—how we often call out to God without pausing to listen for His response. We ask what to do or where to go but don’t listen for His answer (perhaps because we’re not that anxious to obey).

While there is no rigid format either to prayer or conversation, there are guidelines to a good conversation which also apply to prayer. Conversation and prayer are about building a relationship and both require a balance between talking and listening. It’s neither prayer nor conversation when we come only to talk. Moreover, there’s a big difference between actively listening and simply waiting until we can speak again. We must listen with the intention of understanding and, when we ask questions, we’re supposed to wait for the answers! My mother often reminded me that God gave us two ears and only one mouth because we were to listen twice as much as we spoke.

Just as there’s no need to impress others with big words scattered throughout the conversation, we don’t need a special vocabulary to speak with God. He knows what we mean and, when we can’t find the right words, the Spirit fills in for us. In the same way, just as unnecessary details and long explanations can bog down a conversation, they can bog down our prayers. Since God is all-knowing, He already knows the details! A good conversation is one where we are honest and God expects nothing less than complete honesty in prayer, as well.

We may be guarded in conversation but there are no secrets with God. While we should be prudent about revealing personal information in conversation, we can be totally vulnerable and open in prayer. Scripture shows people expressing the whole range of emotions in their prayers—everything from anger, outrage, disappointment, confusion, sadness, and fear to joy, confidence, awe, delight, acceptance, and gratitude.

No president, royalty, pope, prime minister, or Nobel Prize winner has ever welcomed me into a conversation. People like Bill Gates, Greta Thunberg, Max Lucado, Volodymyr Zelensky, Taylor Swift, Tom Hanks, Simone Biles and Joyce Meyer haven’t asked me to give them a call. While I may not be on speaking terms with the rich, powerful, or famous, I am with God—the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe! He invites all of us to call any time and He’s never too busy to take our call. As for those well-known and influential people, if we ever did speak with one of them, we probably would listen carefully to what they had to say. Can we do any less when we converse with God?

To have God speak to the heart is a majestic experience, an experience that people may miss if they monopolize the conversation and never pause to hear God’s responses. [Charles Stanley]

I love the Lord because he hears my voice and my prayer for mercy. Because he bends down to listen, I will pray as long as I have breath! [Psalm 116:1-2 (NLT)]

Be still, and know that I am God! [Psalm 46:10 (NLT)]

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IN ENEMY TERRITORY

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. [1 Peter 5:8-9 (NIV)]

anhingaAnhingas are among my favorites of our lake’s birds. Unlike most birds, their bones are heavy and dense and, rather than waders like the herons and egrets or paddlers like the ducks, they are deep-diving swimmers. Lacking the oil glands that waterproof the feathers of other water birds, anhingas (and their cormorant cousins) become water-logged in the water. While making it difficult to remain afloat, that allows them to dive up to sixty feet deep, swim underwater for several hundred feet, and stay underwater for more than a minute. Eventually, however, the birds become so heavy they will sink unless they return to land to dry their feathers.

Every morning I find anhingas resting along the lake’s shoreline and spreading their wings to dry. The wettest ones get barely out of the water but, as they dry, they waddle further back until dry enough to get up onto a rock, bench, or low hanging branch. As their feathers continue to dry, they move higher up in the trees until they are dry and light enough to take flight.

Unlike the lake’s ducks who nest and sleep in the vegetation along the shoreline, anhingas remain on land only out of necessity. Vulnerable to predators, a soaking wet anhinga is like a “sitting duck.” With its stubby legs and large webbed feet, it can’t run; water-logged, the water isn’t a good option and yet it’s too wet to fly up to safety. While hissing, grunting, and trying to look intimidating by ruffling its feathers, raising its tail, lengthening and waving its long neck, and pointing its spear-like beak may deter some birds of prey, that behavior probably won’t dissuade hungry alligators or crocodiles.

Just as being vulnerable to a predator’s attack is part and parcel of being an anhinga, being vulnerable to our enemy’s attack is an inevitable part of being human in our fallen world. Rather than gators and crocs, that enemy is Satan and he can sneak up on us even more adeptly than the wiliest reptile in the Everglades. Rather than the weight of soaking wet feathers, it is the weight of things like pain, illness, betrayal, weariness, conflict, loneliness, loss, disappointment (and even hurricanes) that make us especially vulnerable to attack. The enemy will use every weapon in his armory including lies, half-truths, fear, despair, hopelessness, and (his favorite) doubt to assault our belief in the goodness of God. Fortunately, in His wisdom, God armed us for battle with more than the saber-sharp beak and intimidating appearance of the anhinga. We wage war with the weapons of our faith: God’s Word and the power of the Holy Spirit.

An anhinga, aware of its vulnerability when wet, only enters the water to hunt or bathe. With neck extended and eyes wide open, it remains watchful when drying along the shoreline and never dawdles there once dry. Like the anhinga, we must be alert to our vulnerability in our fallen world. Unlike the anhinga, however, we often act as if we’re not sitting smack dab in the middle of the enemy’s territory! A. W. Tozer warns us about thinking of the world as a “playground instead of a battleground.” May we never forget that we live in the enemy’s territory and he is as dangerous as a prowling lion or a hungry alligator!

Anyone who serves the Lord is going to be the target of Satan’s attacks. [Zac Poonen]

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. [Ephesians 6:10-12 (NIV)]

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SOWING

Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of heaven is alike a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew.” [Matthew 13:14-16 (NLT)]

p0rairie rose - rose hip
Our brief return north last June meant we again enjoyed walking among the Midwest’s summer wildflowers. I only stepped a few feet off the path for a photo and yet my pants were covered with sticky seedpods from the Tick-Trefoil. Sometimes called sticktights or beggar’s lice, their seed pods are covered with fine hooked hair that catches on anything it contacts—whether clothing or a passing squirrel. I spent the rest of the walk picking off the pods and scattering them along the trail. After carefully stepping over a pile of seed-studded raccoon poop, I was reminded that a flower’s purpose isn’t merely to look pretty; it’s to spread its seeds any way it can.

Like the Tick-Trefoil, some flowers have pods that attach to clothes and animals and ride through the forest on pants’ legs and fur until they find a good home. Flowers like the False Solomon’s Seal and Pokeweed, however, produce fruit that is eaten by animals and, like that raccoon, leave the seeds behind in their waste. Other wildflowers, like the Asters and Milkweed, have seeds attached to a feathery sort of “parachute” that is blown away by the wind to (hopefully) land on fertile soil. That the flowers are rooted into the ground doesn’t seem to keep them from spreading their seeds every which way to make more of their kind.

Looking at the colorful blossoms throughout the park, I saw that the native wildflowers have done their seed-spreading job well. Unfortunately, undesirable invasive species like Canadian Thistle and Purple Loosestrife also have been expanding their territory. The seeds of these invasive weeds are trying to defeat the native wildflowers in the same way Satan is trying to defeat us by planting his seeds of evil. So far, the flowers are ahead of the game; are we?

Jesus also told a parable about a farmer who planted seeds and the various kinds of soil on which his seeds fell. Types of soil, however, make no difference if the farmer fails to sow any seeds! Unsown seeds will never germinate! Would that we Christians were as determined to spread God’s word as the flowers are to scatter their seeds. As pretty as it is, the Prairie Rose knows that its job isn’t finished when it blooms into a beautiful flower. Its real purpose is to bear fruit (the rose hip) and spread its seeds far and wide. Unlike the rose, however, many Christians are quite content just looking good and give little thought to bearing fruit, let alone enlarging God’s garden by sowing His word.

It’s what you sow that multiplies, not what you keep in the barn! [Adrian Rogers]

He said to his disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields.” [Matthew 9:37-38 (NLT)]

And then he told them, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.” [Mark 16:15 (NLT)]

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