Cultivating the Soul:
Preparing the Soil

 (1 Timothy 4:6-16)

Last week you'll remember I began a three-week sermon series entitled "Cultivating the Soul." Using the analogy of a garden we explored the need to begin our cultivation process by cutting away the brush in our lives: those things that tend to turn us away from God. And last week we spent our time together focused on the issue of busy-ness as one example of brush.

Using our garden analogy again, lets explore what we need to do once we've completed cutting away the brush in preparation for planting garden. That next step is, preparing the soil. We need to turn over the ground, add fertilizer and composting material; we also need to get rid of any remaining loose roots and rocks that were exposed while we were cutting away the brush.

Now cutting away the brush is ridding the garden of the big unwanted things, but this alone will not guarantee we will have a productive garden. So we need to take another step by further preparing the soil for planting. It's in this process that we begin fine tuning the garden so that our plants will have the best possible environment in which to grow and thrive, thus producing good fruit.

Well, preparing the soil of a garden is no different then preparing the soil of our soul. We too need to turnover our life, get rid of the loose stuff, fine tune our thinking and living so we create the best possible environment in which to grow and thrive as disciples of Jesus Christ.

We may give our heart or mind to the Lord intellectually, but often times we fail to walk and grow n our relationship with the Lord. Preparing the soul requires giving our whole life over God, so that we can be formed into his image. In church language we call this process of preparing the soul, spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is the process by which we engage in activities that encourage our lives to be better formed spiritually.

In our epistle reading this morning Paul points us in the direction of Christ by telling us to have nothing to do with things that aren't of God, stay away from false stories that dress themselves up as religious truth, and to cultivate our souls on a daily basis so we can grow a disciplined and focused life.

Recently I went to visit with Sally at Green Acres, and in the midst of our conversation she explained to me how she cultivates her soul, how she continually prepares the soil of her soul to bear good fruit, and she gave me permission to share this part of our conversation with you.

Sally gets up early every morning, gets dressed, grabs her walker and begins to make her way out to the pavilion behind the nursing home. She says although she can't see very well, she can hear the birds chirping and the animals rustling along the ground as she strolls along the walkway to the pavilion.

As she walks along the walkway she sings some of her favorite hymns. She told me that she knows there's a skunk out there because she can smell it, and since she's not a great singer, she hopes her singing might keep the striped rascal away.

When she reaches the pavilion, Sally just sits and has a verbal conversation with God. She thanks him for the day, for the beauty of what she can see and is experiencing that morning. She acknowledges the beauty of creation, especially the shapes and colors in the sky, and she asks God to guide her in her daily activities.

When she's done talking with God, she says she returns to the building and "gets to it." Then at the end of the day she also has a conversation with God before going to bed, to thank him for the day. It's clear to me she really looks forward to her daily conversations with God, the expression on her face as she was telling me her story clearly indicated to me that this is a highlight of her day. And I suspect God and the animals out at the pavilion look forward to their time with Sally as well.

As a matter of fact she looks so forward to this time, on days she's not feeling well or when the weather is too bad to make it out to the pavilion, she feels a little empty, like something's missing.

What sally is experiencing is spiritual formation; it's a continuous preparing of her soul to receive the grace of God. Sally said, "Since I can't see to read the Bible anymore, or read some other type of devotional book, I just pull up a seat and talk to God."

So for Sally, Sunday worship and talking with God everyday is how she keeps her soul prepared to produce good fruit. And a key point of her time with God is that she expects to experience God. She walks out to the pavilion with the expectation God is there and is waiting for her.

To be spiritually formed we need to expect to experience God.

Spiritual formation begins with acknowledging Jesus Christ as Savior of the world. But being faithful to Jesus also means being honest about the world we live in, as well as the people with whom we live.

Although humans were created in God's own image, we quickly turned away from God into self-sufficiency and idolatry, a condition called sin. This sinfulness requires the radical healing that only God in Jesus Christ can provide.

No matter how old or young we are, or how long we've been a Christian, Christian maturity isn't reached quickly or easily. Learning how to be a disciple of Jesus takes years of practice, knowing that we have the assurance that our spiritual lives are enfolded by God's prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. And since God's grace is available but not forced upon us, we do have the freedom to resist growing in grace.

To grow in grace means accepting the teachings of Jesus as both the guidelines for our spiritual journey and the rules for living in God's household, and then following through with them. It also means taking the time to allow God to work within us to form us into the disciple he wants us to be. It's this process of maturing in the faith we call spiritual formation.

For Sally its worship and daily intentional conversations with God. For others it's reading the Bible or engaging in devotions. And still for others, it's attending Sunday school, Bible Study, spiritual retreats, helping others, or receiving the Eucharist frequently.

We each need to find what works best for us. Not what best fits into our busy schedules, but what spiritual discipline draws us closer to God.

But there is a big red flag waving when it comes to engaging in spiritual formation. Let's say someone decides that in order to be better formed into the image of God they want to engage in reading the Bible, followed by a prayer, every morning before they go to work. This is a wonderful goal.

So here it is Monday morning and this person gets up a little earlier than usual, has had their breakfast and they retire to the couch to read some part of scripture, and when there done they offer a prayer. They feel pretty good and off they go to work, thinking more about the scripture and what it might mean for them that day. This is very good and what we ought to do with scripture.

Now it's about a week or so later and this same person begins to sleep in a little longer. They're about to race out the door, but then remember they didn't read the Bible or offer a prayer. So they stop, go pick up the Bible, turn to any page read a verse or two, than pray, "God help me understand what I just read. Amen" Ok, I've done that, now I can leave.

This is the red flag. When we turn our spiritual formation efforts, our soil preparation efforts, into a To Do Checklist, we are turning an intimate moment with God into a legalistic approach to religious practice. No longer are we focused on our relationship with God, we're now focused on earning favor with God by sticking to a strict regimen of spiritual practice we fall victim to a To Do List. But we must remember favor is a gift of grace freely given by God, it can't be earned, no matter how closely we follow our religious To Do List.

This approach to spiritual formation doesn't work. It's like throwing fertilizer onto untilled ground. It may make a difference for a short time, but over the long haul you haven't prepared the soil for growing good, healthy roots and, fruit bearing plants, the fertilizer just washes away with the next big storm.

God isn't interested in our meaningless religious practices; he is interested in a genuine heartfelt relationship by which we use religious practices or spiritual disciplines as the means to enter into his presence, and to grow into his love.

There's a story of a woman named Charlotte, who even though her husband had died over a year ago, she still missed him immensely.

Whenever her loneliness became too great, she would head for the garage and her gardening tools. She and her husband Hank had a garden for as long as the grandchildren could remember, and she was determined that they would still have a garden even after Hank was gone. Besides, it gave her life purpose, and it seemed as if Hank were right there with her as she turned the soil, planted the seeds, watered the seedlings, and weeded and encouraged the plants to grow.

As she worked, she remembered the times they had worked side-by side. She recalled how she liked to see the muscles in Hank's forearms ripple as he pulled weeds, of how dark the dirt was against the tanned skin of his hands, and of how he would always wipe the sweat from his face with a big red bandanna.

Without much effort, she could even see again how the sunlight bounced off his wide-brimmed straw hat and the way his eyes would sparkle with anticipation as he spoke of the harvest to come.

Charlotte seemed to feel him nearby as she worked in the garden, and she often quietly murmured, "Hank, I know we will have some good tomatoes this year."

It's this type of intimate relationship we can experience with God, if we tend to our souls, as Charlotte tended to her garden. Just as Charlotte sensed and experienced the presence of Hank we too can experience the presence of God; we can sense him working side-by-side with us in the garden of life, encouraging us to grow deep spiritual roots and bear good kingdom fruit.

But like a garden, if we expect to grow and produce good fruit we have to take the time to prepare our souls. This is not a one time activity but a continuing effort to grow in our relationship with God, and to grow in his grace and love. Once we prepare a garden for planting we don't then just ignore it, we give it attention and nurture it.

You and I, as we work together in ministry, as we serve, as we study, as we visit with one another, are part of preparing the soil of each others souls. Just think about the spiritual growth we've experienced together the last several years.

I know I'm not the same person I was four years ago, and our life together as brothers and sisters in Christ is a major reason why. With the Holy Spirit working in and through you I have reached spiritual places I never experienced before. And I give thanks to God for how you are helping me cultivate my soul so that I might grow deep spiritual roots and bear good fruit.

Over the past four years this congregation, as a body, has been involved in cutting away brush, and has been engaged in preparing the spiritual garden of this place so that we can bear good fruit in this community, as a church family, ensuring those who come here on Sunday or throughout the week have a place where they can be encouraged to cultivate their soul without being judged, a place where they feel comfortable and welcome so they can grow in their relationship with God, through Jesus Christ.

Prepare the soil of your soul and experience the real presence of God in your life.


Read other messages by Pastor Wade