In His Image: Cultivating
Words by Leslie Bustard
Sunflowers stand high above me, their large black faces fringed with light yellow petals nodding in the breeze, as if giving their approval at my wanderings. A familiar aroma wafts around the silvery bracts of the mountain mint. A chubby bumblebee lights on a purple cone flower. Tiny cabbage white butterflies dance with each other across the green foliage, while a lone Eastern Tiger Swallowtail lands on a bright pink zinnia, its full attention on the yellow center.
Walking along the mulched pathways of my friend Louise's garden, I am surrounded by an abundance of zinnias. Louise planted their seeds in early June, and they have grown to be about four feet tall; their loud colors of pink, orange, and yellow pop out. Other flowers, such as purple salvia and wispy yellow cosmos, add to the cacophony of color. As a Master Gardener, Louise has learned “which plants prefer sun and shade, which want well-drained soil, and which like to have wet feet.” Her garden planning ensures that there are flowers blooming from April on through October.
This cultivating work reminds me of what an ezer is called to do in her home, to help her place and people flourish with love for God and love for others.
The woman was created to be the man’s ezer—that is, his necessary ally (Gen. 2). Together they were called to obey the Cultural Mandate (Gen. 1:28) by taking the stuff of God’s creation and moving it out into the world. This Divine command remains in effect for us today, to be lived out in the ordinary spaces of our homes, churches, jobs, and neighborhoods. Now, after Christ, we are called to obey not only the Cultural Mandate, but the Greatest Commandment, as well. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37‒39). Just as a woman is to be her people’s ezer in obeying the cultural mandate, so too she is to be strong helper as they love God and others.*
Why does a gardener prepare the soil, plant seeds, and pull weeds? Is it not to see the goodness that the land can bring forth? Cultivating a God-and-others-centered love takes the same imaginative purposefulness that gardening requires. As a gardener prepares the soil before planting, so we try to prepare the soil of our people’s hearts. The Lord knows that our hearts, “the seat of our loves, drive us toward what we want.” (James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love). Love of God and love for others does not come naturally to us. When Augustine, an early church father, wrote in his work Confessions, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” he was pointing out the need for rightly ordered loves. Our hearts are always going to love something and be moved towards it. The question is, what will we love?**
We prepare our heart’s soil by practicing habits and establishing rhythms that prioritize God’s Kingdom and his ways. And in doing so, our hearts and our minds are made ready for the seeds of God’s truth in Scripture. In our family, we prepared our hearts through the central rhythms of such things as worshipping on Sundays, gathering at care group, and serving in church. As my pastor recently said, we need to be in the practice of taking up on our lips the story of God’s steadfast love for us and rehearsing it together, because that works love deep into our bones. Church life is not always easy, but the week-in and week-out rhythm of being rooted in a local body of Jesus-loving and Scripture-honoring people is one way God oriented our hearts’ soil toward him.
Knowing that much in life is “caught not taught,” I saw one of the ways I could be a strong ally would be through practicing these habits in my own life. My family has heard my gratefulness over a meaningful sermon. They have seen me make meals for new mommas, greet newcomers at church, and teach Sunday school classes. But they have also heard me repent when I sinned against a friend or cried as I wrestled over broken relationships. This all required me to ask the Lord to strengthen my weak heart so that I might be a faithful church member.
After a gardener cultivates the soil, she is ready to plant the seeds. Seed planting is putting God’s word in our hearts and minds. We need to know who our Creator is, how we are separated from him, and why we need Christ as our Savior. Along the way, we learn what it means to love God and enjoy him forever. As our hearts are being re-oriented through God-focused rhythms, our minds are storing up Gospel truths. The words of Moses echo down through the generations: “You shall love the LORD your God . . . And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way” (Deut. 6:5‒7). Reading, reviewing, discussing, and teaching God’s Word is seed planting work.
Strong ally work will vary from home to home. I loved reading Bible stories and singing hymns with my children. When they were little, we would enjoy Hide ‘em in Your Heart or Rain for Roots songs. I shared stories about church history and people of faith. And so that my husband could read Scripture and review catechism with the girls at dinnertime, I endeavored to create a positive mealtime atmosphere around the table. Now that our children are grown up, pointing them to Jesus is woven through many of our conversations on family trips, at coffee shops, or in their own homes.
My oldest daughter has been one example to me of how single women can be ezers. Just as I have been given a place and a people to help, so has she. Since her college days, she has been active in her local church in New York City. After graduating, she not only started a teaching job where she daily leads young children, but she also began volunteering as a youth group leader at her church. In addition to helping out at the Friday night gatherings, her focus has been to meet with her small group of teenage girls during the week. Whether they meet all together or one-on-one, she makes herself available to them. She listens to their concerns, loves on them, and shares God’s Word with them. Carey is a strong ally for these young ladies (as well as their parents) as she plants the seeds of love for God and love for others in her people and place.
For flowers to flourish, weeds need to be dealt with. One of the biggest weeds in our hearts can be living a self-absorbed life. Many years ago, an older friend shared with me how she worked at helping her family fight that weed. As she planned each child’s school year, she would pray for different avenues of service, including working in their home, serving at church, and volunteering in the community. As her children grew older, they made plans together about what kinds of service would fit best with their strengths and interests. Even when life is busy, we must remember to look outside of ourselves, so that we can live a life of love that is not just in words and talk, but in deeds and truth (1 John 3:18).
Through days of rain and sunshine, a gardener has to wait for the plants and flowers to blossom and bear fruit. While we live and work as strong allies to our people and place, we have to trust God to bring about his harvest, in his time. We will never strive hard enough or work perfectly enough to produce the fruit for which we hope.
Instead, we must take hold of the grace of the Holy Spirit, who brings counsel and comfort. Take hold of the call to pray without ceasing. Take hold of the truth that Jesus will never forsake us. Because of his great love for us found in Christ, our good Father is forming us to love more deeply as we help our people love God and others more richly. Take heart: the work of our hands has been established by God, the Master Gardener.
*Byrd, Aimee. No Little Women: Equipping All Women in the Household of God. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2016.
**Smith, James K.A. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. 2016.