Like Trees Planted by the Water
Like Trees Planted by the Water
September 4, 2016 Maple Grove UMC
The first word in the book of Psalms is "happy." Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked . . . The very first word in the Bible’s prayer book is "happy." And just one verse later it says that "their delight is in the law of the Lord." So there’s not just happiness, but delight is in this psalm. These words are so different from the ones we usually use about prayer that I think it’s worth pausing for a moment to bask in those words: happy are those . . . their delight is in the law of the Lord. So often prayer is portrayed as a religious chore, a time of struggling to keep our attention on God, something we do not so much because we enjoy it as because we feel guilty if we don’t do it. But the Psalms begin by asserting that the righteous are happy and that meditating on God’s Word is a delight. What a refreshing way to begin!
At the start, let me acknowledge my reservations about Psalm 1 and part of its worldview. Like so much of the Bible, Psalm 1 divides people into two clearly distinct groups: the righteous on the one hand and the wicked on the other. Now I’ve met a few people—my grandma, for example—who seem simply righteous, almost all good all the time. And I understand that there are a few people who are so broken that we’re tempted to categorize them as just wicked. But that way of thinking can lead us to an unattractive self-righteousness (we’re good/you’re bad), and it can allow us simply to write some people off as beyond redemption. The truth is, most of us don’t fit neatly into just one category or the other. Just when I think I’m at my most righteous, others seem to notice in me signs of wickedness. And even some of the most hardened criminals have impulses of goodness that put the rest of us to shame. I agree with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who wrote, "The line between good and evil cuts through every human heart."1
So life is not as black-and-white as Psalm 1 presents it. But that said, there are ways of living, there are attitudes and habits, that tend towards righteousness and others that tend toward wickedness. And Psalm 1 is reminding us that the ways that tend toward righteousness result in happiness and delight. Happiness, the Psalm says, results from not following the advice of the wicked, from not taking the path that sinners take, from not sitting in the seat of scoffers, which means, I believe, not being proud and arrogant, not quick to judge and find fault with others.2 Happiness is a result of delighting in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. In Hebrew "Law" (or Torah) doesn’t mean rules and regulations the way it does in English; it means teaching or instruction, a way of life. Old Testament scholar, James Mays, says that Psalm 1 "teaches that life is a journey through time;" and that "the way life is lived is decisive for how it turns out."3 In the Psalms the wicked, Mays says, are those who afflict the lowly, accuse the innocent, undermine the trust of the faithful, don’t listen for God, and threaten the good of the community. Happiness, in contrast, is the result of a life lived inquiring with all our heart who God is, what God wants, and what God wants to do through us.
Which brings us to Psalm 1’s image of the tree: "the righteous are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season." Don’t you want to be like a tree, planted by streams of water? Well, you are. Or you can be, any time you’ll let God plant you there. I won’t pretend to speak for you, but let me share with you how I long and need to know that I’m a tree planted by the water.
- Perhaps you are not, but I am so easily shaken. On a bad day all it takes is one word of thoughtless criticism to send me spiraling down. All it takes is one more bit of bad news and I feel like everything’s coming apart. With my brother still doing poorly, and my daughters moving away, and more on my plate than I know how to get to, it can feel sometimes like I’m slip-sliding away. But here’s what the righteous are: they’re like trees, planted by the water. In Christ, as Ephesians puts it, we are rooted and grounded in love. And so we sing, "I shall not be moved." For someone as shaky as myself, that’s good to know. Actually, it’s necessary, it life-changing, to have the stability of knowing God.
- Again, maybe it’s not so for you, but for me life can grow parched and dry. Whether caring for a baby day and night and night and day, or going to the same job week after week, or dealing with ongoing family conflict and stress, or coping with illness or depression—one can just get weary. And in my experience, meditating on the law of the Lord doesn’t always change these outward circumstances. But it does change my spirit, the way I reflect on and experiences these circumstances. When I remember to open myself to God, when I open my eyes to see God’s blessings, it may not change the world around me, but it changes me. We are like trees, but not the dry tinder-like trees out West, we are like trees, planted by streams of water, green and lush and fruitful. It’s good to know.
- Finally, probably not you, but I can get to rushing around, busy here and busy there, worried and distracted. A prayer from India in our hymnal begins, "Like an ant on a stick both ends of which are burning, I go to and from without knowing what to do . . ."4 The wicked, Psalm 1 says, are like chaff that the wind drives away—endless, pointless motion. Life can feel that way. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The righteous are those who can be still, like a tree, and reflect on timeless things.5 Trees have nowhere they have to go. They’re never in a hurry. Everything they need is within reach of their roots. It is good to know
One last thing about these trees in Psalm 1. Although it doesn’t come across in most translations, scholars tell us that the Hebrew says the righteous are like trees not just planted, but actually transplanted by the water. God not only blesses people, but God takes us from the places where we’ve been scattered, and transplants us to a place where we can thrive and grow together.6 Say, for example, to Maple Grove Church. Only a handful of the people here are native to this place--baptized and confirmed in this church. Most of us are transplants—trees that have grown, and sometimes withered, in other places, only by the grace of God to find ourselves transplanted in this well-watered space. Where have you been transplanted from? Don’t you delight, aren’t you happy, to sink your roots in here? And the tree that is Maple Grove grows strong and tall, offering shade and fruit for our community, and truly we will not be moved.
So just one thing remains: won’t you, all you righteous, all you who delight in the law of Lord, won’t you be with me a tree? Stretch out your mighty limbs. Feel your toes, your roots sink down into rich soil. Know that you are unshakable, immovable. Soak into your dryness the glad streams of God. And just be still, with all the time you need to reflect on timeless things. Happy are you, begins Psalm 1. Happy are you.
1 The Gulag Archipelago, https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/ 10420.Aleksandr_Solzhenitsyn
2 See A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, Vol 1, Psalms 1-72, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1980), 59.
3 James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 43, 41.
4 "A Refuge amid Distraction," The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 535.
5 See William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 56.
6 See Brown, 77.