The Cultivating Life

Scripture Focus: Psalm 85.8-13
8 I will listen to what God the Lord says; 
he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants— 
but let them not turn to folly. 
9 Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, 
that his glory may dwell in our land. 
10 Love and faithfulness meet together; 
righteousness and peace kiss each other. 
11 Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, 
and righteousness looks down from heaven. 
12 The Lord will indeed give what is good, 
and our land will yield its harvest. 
13 Righteousness goes before him 
and prepares the way for his steps.

From John:  In times of crisis, we need to rely on the harvest of faith. This re-edited post from 2019 gives us simple steps to cultivating a faith that we can rely on. A well-cultivated faith will yield encouragement for our own survival and also an overflow that we may share with others.

Reflection: The Cultivating Life
By John Tillman

The Lord seeks harvests of faithfulness from the earth. When we partner with him and cultivate the soil of our hearts, we ensure that Christ’s power will take root in us and bring forth a harvest of the fruit of the spirit.

We have written before, “cultivation is supernatural,” but the simple actions of cultivating faith are not ethereal or fanciful. They are the practical, steady doings of the farmer.

Water the Ground with Prayer
Praying is like watering the soil of your heart so that it doesn’t become hard and dusty and so that the things God plants there can grow.

Jesus taught his followers to pray to God as our father. It is easy to forget to converse with God like a trusted friend or a parent. Praying is also listening, so when we pray, listen—the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us something.

Spread the Good Seed of the Bible
The Bible, the Word of God, is the good seed that God plants in us, his fields.
It is a false dichotomy to attempt to set The Holy Spirit (or Jesus) against the Bible as if we could cancel the one with the other. If Satan’s kingdom would fall when divided against itself, how much more Christ’s?

The Bible is the writing of—the very breath of—the Holy Spirit, given to the men and women who wrote the Bible. So, to hear from the Holy Spirit, the most direct method is to pick up a Bible and read.

Nourish the Soil and Pollinate through Corporate Worship
Many plants growing near one another will share water and nutrients with one another. Other plants, when they detect a closely related plant will put out less extensive roots, so as not to soak up all the resources for themselves.

When we gather to worship we are helping others to experience the fruit of the Spirit and to share our physical and spiritual resources.

Cultivation is not an out-of-the-box, pre-prepared spiritual solution. It’s customized to our culture and our climate. When we keep worshiping God with others and planting the right seeds of what we learn about the Bible, and we keep watering the soil of our hearts with prayer, “faithfulness will spring up from the earth,” and “our land will yield its harvest.”

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Those who are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God — Psalm 92.12

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Proverbs 20 (Listen – 3:19)
Psalm 85 (Listen – 1:25)

Read more about Kiss of Righteousness and Peace—Guided Prayer
When love and faithfulness meet, righteousness and peace kiss each other. But before that…there is confession and justice, mercy and redemption.

Read more about The Ever-Patient Agriculturalist
Throughout the Bible, God is often pictured as an ever-patient agriculturalist. God begins by planting a garden in which to place humanity…

Facts and Harsh Realities

Scripture Focus: Proverbs 19.6-8
6 Many curry favor with a ruler, 
and everyone is the friend of one who gives gifts. 
7 The poor are shunned by all their relatives— 
how much more do their friends avoid them! 
Though the poor pursue them with pleading, 
they are nowhere to be found. h 
8 The one who gets wisdom loves life; 
the one who cherishes understanding will soon prosper.

Psalm 83.1-4
1 O God, do not remain silent; 
do not turn a deaf ear, 
do not stand aloof, O God. 
2 See how your enemies growl, 
how your foes rear their heads. 
3 With cunning they conspire against your people; 
they plot against those you cherish. 
4 “Come,” they say, “let us destroy them as a nation, 
so that Israel’s name is remembered no more.”

Reflection: Facts and Harsh Realities
By John Tillman

When we say “scripture is true,” oftentimes we mean that it is the true word of God—that it is God’s chosen means of self-revelation—the message of the gospel. However, that is not all we mean when we say that scripture is true. Sometimes the scripture being “true” just means it is spitting straight, cold, hard facts. 

Harsh facts of life are inked in black and white in Proverbs. No punches are pulled. “The poor have no friends.” “Bribes work.” “Fools die.”

These kinds of statements aren’t endorsements of these conditions or events. They are merely factual observations that are meant to encourage students toward wisdom. When Proverbs tells us that the poor have few friends, the writers are not advising us to avoid their friendship. Rather than endorsing transactional relationships and practical concerns, the wisdom of the Bible encourages impractical friendships and helping those who cannot help us in return.

The wisdom of the Bible does not come from isolated religious hermits. The writers of Proverbs and the rest of scripture lived in the real world. They knew corruption. They were acquainted with grief. They bore the burden of oppression. They tasted the lash of abusive leaders. They knew more brutal horrors of war than we do. 

Among the harshest of realities are the realities of war. Writing this post on Friday, who knows how much further the war in Ukraine may spread by Monday. Uncertainty abounds.

I’m personally connected to some Baptist mission work in Ukraine through a seminary classmate. With non-Ukrainian workers now evacuated, the group’s posts are tense with concern and vibrant with faith. The pastors and churches they support in Eastern Ukraine are in real, tangible danger. As they share pictures of their children huddled in shelters…harsh realities surround them.

We don’t turn to scripture to avoid harsh realities but to face them. Pray continually this week over the harsh realities of war. Ukraine’s war has caught more headlines than most, but hardly a month goes by without some conflict that costs lives somewhere in the world.

The Bible acknowledges these harsh realities side-by-side with aspirational faith that justice will be done. Liars, lunatics, and war criminals will come to their end and be rewarded in kind for the evil that they do. God will not remain silent or stand aloof. He is with the suffering and the dying and those responsible will face justice.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Deliverance belongs to the Lord. Your blessing be upon your people! — Psalm 3.8

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Proverbs 19 (Listen – 3:09)
Psalm 83-84 (Listen – 3:20)

Read more about Worship and Politics
I have never heard anyone say that a politically tinged sermon which agreed with their politics was “too political.”

Read more about Are We Proud of the Prideful?
May we be and see better leaders in the mold of Christ rather than the world.

Hardest Words to Say: “I’m Sorry”

Scripture Focus: Psalm 78.36-37
36 But then they would flatter him with their mouths,
lying to him with their tongues;
37 their hearts were not loyal to him,
they were not faithful to his covenant.

Proverbs 14.9
9 Fools mock at making amends for sin,
but goodwill is found among the upright.

Reflection: Hardest Words to Say: “I’m Sorry”
By Erin Newton

Social relationships are fragile. Whether platonic friendships or intimate relationships, some experiences are damaging, maybe even severely. Our cultural climate provokes the struggle to keep peace with friends, families, neighbors, and coworkers.

Often damage to relationships is inflicted by gossip, envy, lies, selfish pursuits, disrespect, infidelity due to boredom or temptation, lack of appreciation, or narcissism. These relational blunders have plagued humanity since the beginning.

Psalm 78 describes the forgetfulness of God’s people in the wilderness. Although God had worked miracles in parting the sea and providing manna, the people failed to remember. Even more, the psalmist says “they did not keep God’s covenant and refused to live by his law.” (v10)

For the wandering group, the law was summarized in the 10 Commandments given to Moses at the start of their journey. The first half relates to the people’s fidelity to God. The second half relates to their relationships with one another. Fidelity in intimate partnerships. Honor to elders. Respect for another’s possessions. Justice in withholding violent wrath. These statements were concise enough to remember.

Yet, the people forgot. They grumbled against Moses. They demanded God give them what their bellies craved. They followed in the ways of foreign religions which included idolatry and sexual immorality. They followed the way of Lady Folly by flattering God with empty words and the façade of religious ritual. (Prov 7)

The psalmist echoes the painful reality of God’s wrath poured out on the rebellious people. But they were fools. They refused to see their error. Their relationship was not important enough to make amends.

In which relationships do you feel the need, compulsion, desire to make amends when damage is done? Is it easier to smooth things over with certain people? What prevents you from restoring peace? The relationship between you and God is likely the one that suffers the greatest amount of frequent damage. We rely heavily upon his mercy and grace. We use the character of God as permission to be apathetic to making things right with God or one another.

Reconciliation is hard. Proverbs warns that the fool mocks the attempts to make things right. Fools see no value in integrity. Pride is a hallmark characteristic of the fool. “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Cor 7.10) Seek the godly type of sorrow.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
Your way, O God, is holy; who is as great as our God? — Psalm 77.13

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Proverbs 14 (Listen – 3:45)
Psalm 78:1-37 (Listen – 7:12)

Read more about Sojourn of Grace
Psalm 78 is a poetic filter through which to view Moses’ detailed record of the Israelites’ travels in the wilderness.

Read more about Liquid Wrath and Liquid Forgiveness
The forgiveness of our sins is accomplished by the sacrifice of Christ’s blood. A liquid sacrifice, flowing from love.

Discipline for the Anxious

Scripture Focus: Psalm 77.1-4
1 I cried out to God for help; 
I cried out to God to hear me. 
2 When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; 
at night I stretched out untiring hands, 
and I would not be comforted. 
3 I remembered you, God, and I groaned; 
I meditated, and my spirit grew faint. g 
4 You kept my eyes from closing; 
I was too troubled to speak.

From John: This rewritten post was first posted in 2018. Since then, suicide rates continue to rise in the United States among Christians and Christian ministers. With Covid and political strife crossing into church life, it hasn’t exactly gotten any easier for pastors in the past few years. Many have left the ministry under these pressures. For ministers and laypersons, Christian meditation and prayer is vital to surviving our world but Jesus and Paul would both testify that some problems can’t be “prayed away.” Seeing a counselor or doctor does not make one unfaithful. See the resources at the end of this post for help and more information.

Reflection: Discipline for the Anxious
By John Tillman

We live in distressing times. If there are corners of our world not touched by division, aggression, worry, and angst, you probably can’t get email there.

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues have long been on the rise—especially among younger adults. Depression used to be the leading mental health issue. It’s been overwhelmingly surpassed by diagnoses of anxiety. In 2020 and 2021, Covid and the distressing task of sorting through the disinformation and politicization of the deadly disease drove anxiety to new heights. According to the CDC, symptoms of anxiety and depression peaked in December 2020 and January 2021 but are still far above previous norms.

A Harvard study found that church attendance paired with spiritual disciplines such as meditation and prayer have a beneficial effect on mental health. In a Forbes article, study author Ying Chen noted that being raised religiously, “can powerfully affect [children’s] health behaviors, mental health, and overall happiness and well-being.”

The psalmists would not express surprise at these findings. Though we think of our society as facing pressures unknown to humanity until now, we would be mistaken to think of ancient times as idyllic and calm.

David and the other psalmists certainly knew what it was like to live under threat, under financial pressure, under the constant weight of political instability and the wavering loyalty of an unpredictable government.

Amidst such pressures, they had a safe haven. Their help for the stresses of life was meditation and prayer.*

The psalmist writes of being “too troubled to speak,” yet he cries to God. He writes of insomnia, yet he rests in God. He writes of doubts and of feeling that God has rejected him, that his love has vanished, that he had forgotten to be merciful. Yet in the midst of doubts and fears, he remembers God’s faithfulness in the past. He meditates on these memories in the heated moment of stress.

The benefits of meditation can help in a crisis but are no quick fix. Meditation is not a fast-acting antidote for the world’s venom, but an inoculation to be taken ahead of time.

When beginning (or returning to) meditative prayer, start small and short. Use the prayer provided at the end of this devotional (Psalm 119.147) as a start. Spend two to five minutes simply re-reading the prayer with an expectant heart, asking God to be with you.

*We are in no way implying that meditation should be pursued in lieu of proper medical treatment. If you are in need of counseling and professional services, please consider the following resources:

Mental Health Grace Alliance
Not A Day Promised Resource Page
Life Recovered (Resources for Ministers)
Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention
Suicide Prevention Resource Center

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Search for the Lord and his strength; continually seek his face. — Psalm 105.4

Today’s Readings
Proverbs 13 (Listen – 2:45)
Psalm 77 (Listen – 2:12)

Read more about The Practice of Meditation :: Running
One way of thinking of meditative prayer is exercise to expand your spiritual lung capacity, allowing you to breathe in God’s spirit more naturally.

Read more about Breathing Prayers
The social, financial, and mental health costs of this sickness are pushing our culture to the end of the ability of the “human spirit” to endure.

Platforming Idols

Scripture Focus: Psalm 68:19
19 Blessed be the Lord who daily bears our burden. God is our salvation.

Isaiah 46.1-2
1 Bel bows down, Nebo stoops low;
    their idols are borne by beasts of burden.
The images that are carried about are burdensome,
    a burden for the weary.
2 They stoop and bow down together;
    unable to rescue the burden,
    they themselves go off into captivity.

Reflection: Platforming Idols
By Erin Newton

“Important” people are easy to spot. These social influencers are usually surrounded by crowds. Royalty and the political elite are transported in special caravans. The importance of a person is often depicted by how they are presented to the common people. (Even Star Wars’ Boba Fett is mocked for walking instead of being carried as a symbol of status.)

The vision set forth in Psalm 68 is a royal procession. God has cleared away his enemies, he goes before the people who sing songs of the great deeds he has done. Gifts from foreign kings are brought to his temple sitting high upon a mountain. All while the earth trembles at his presence.

God is lifted high to the center of attention, glory, and majesty. Amid this promenade, an interesting statement is made. God daily bears our burdens.

The ancient world had religious ceremonies where idols were carried out among the worshippers. Images gilded in gold and set with precious gems would ride upon platforms for the crowd to revere. However, Isaiah 46.1 reveals the true nature of these gods. “The images that are carried about are burdensome, a burden for the weary.” These gods, once exalted in festivals, are a millstone around the neck of the people. They go from deities to rubbish, “…unable to rescue the burden, they themselves go off into captivity.”

What a difference between the gods of the earth and the true God of heaven!

The psalmist expressed not only the magnificence of God but the unique nature of his intercession for his people. God is not the burden on our backs. My early life was one filled with extensive legalism. The daily spiritual checklist that I thought defined my worth was burdensome. Legalism did not anchor me in faith, it anchored me into hell.

Are there things you have trusted that were more burdensome than you imagined? Sometimes, not always, the burden in our lives is the false god we’ve decided to carry. It is time to remember that God is the one bearing our burdens. Abide in him.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11.28-30)

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; shout for joy, all who are true of heart. — Psalm 32.12

Today’s Readings
Proverbs 6 (Listen – 3:22)
Psalm 68 (Listen – 4:26)

Read more about Gods of Ruin and Ridicule
We must decide every day whom we will serve. The gods of this world bring ruin and ridicule.

Read more about Lamenting Materialism
Today, Ba’al wouldn’t be a rain god, he’d be Gordon Gekko. Or Bernie Madoff. Or Jordan Belafort…Materialism is one of the chief idols of our age.