Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Where the rocks meet the roots and the tree

The text below is the original Hebrew of Psalm 1. I don’t know Hebrew, but I like the way it looks and it helps remind me that scripture comes to us as a stranger.

א אַשְׁרֵי הָאִישׁ-- אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָלַךְ, בַּעֲצַת רְשָׁעִים;
וּבְדֶרֶךְ חַטָּאִים, לֹא עָמָד, וּבְמוֹשַׁב לֵצִים, לֹא יָשָׁב.
ב כִּי אִם בְּתוֹרַת יְהוָה, חֶפְצוֹ; וּבְתוֹרָתוֹ יֶהְגֶּה, יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה.
ג וְהָיָה-- כְּעֵץ, שָׁתוּל עַל-פַּלְגֵי-מָיִם:
אֲשֶׁר פִּרְיוֹ, יִתֵּן בְּעִתּוֹ--וְעָלֵהוּ לֹא-יִבּוֹל; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה יַצְלִיחַ.
ד לֹא-כֵן הָרְשָׁעִים: כִּי אִם-כַּמֹּץ, אֲשֶׁר-תִּדְּפֶנּוּ רוּחַ.
ה עַל-כֵּן, לֹא-יָקֻמוּ רְשָׁעִים--בַּמִּשְׁפָּט; וְחַטָּאִים, בַּעֲדַת צַדִּיקִים.
ו כִּי-יוֹדֵעַ יְהוָה, דֶּרֶךְ צַדִּיקִים; וְדֶרֶךְ רְשָׁעִים תֹּאבֵד.

English Text of Psalm 1 can be found at: http://www.biblestudytools.net/OnlineStudyBible/bible.cgi?new=1&word=psalm+1§ion=0&version=nrs&language=en

On Wednesday, November 19, it is time to teach on Psalm 1 and all fall I’ve been thinking about verse 3:

He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season,
whose foliage never fades,
and whatever it produces thrives
(Tanakh, JPS).

“He” is the faithful person, the one who follows the teachings of the Lord. The psalmist tells us that he mines the scriptures day and night. I like this idea of faithfulness. I wish more of us thought studying scripture were a worthwhile thing to do, and praiseworthy to God, and beneficial to our own lives.

So “he” is faithful and as the image at the river unfolds, he is imagined as a tree with roots going down deep and wide. These roots will produce fruit in season and also beautiful flowering branches--long and full. The fruit that grows on this tree will not wither, but it will thrive. My friend and professor, Jo Bailey Wells, utilizes this image as a hopeful guide for leadership development in the church and more broadly, I think she would include all Christians. She remarked, “I hope to grow leaders whose leaves will not wither, whose branches have the capacity for summers of fruitfulness and winters of frost. Preparing for all the seasons, by addressing the roots first and foremost, is what I understand we are doing in the work of spiritual formation” (from “Roots Down, Walls Down,” AEHS Perspectives, 2008-2009).

This is an apt use of Psalm 1:3 and attending to the roots is also much of the work of teaching middle school boys. Sometimes as teachers we must feign immediate validation, knowing that healthy roots are under the ground, growing into the earth, spreading in all kinds of jumbled and confusing directions, and the invisible roots may not grow into trees that bear the fruit we think they ought to until after we have parted from these trees, these roots. Psalm 1 is a call for patience in dealing with the trees and roots around us.

Maya Angelou, one of the world's best poets and authors, brings in a third earthly element, beyond the tree and the river, the rock. Is the rock the solid foundation that is the teaching of the Lord, the Law, the Torah? Is the rock a new president, one who feels solid and dependable? Is the rock a country which we put our hope and trust in? Is the rock a stumbling block to the path of the roots that must have room to grow in order to grow fruitful branches?

Her poem: A Rock, A River, A Tree can be heard and seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HDtw62Ah2zY

What else could the rock be? How does the rock relate to the river and the tree? Are the rock, river, and tree in communion with one another or are they in a kind of erratic disharmony all with different needs, purposes, and drives?

The rest of Psalm 1 denounces the wicked, those who are not faithful, are like chaff that wind blows away. Think tumbleweed, not a well rooted oak of Mamre or a 300 hundred foot tall tree that has lived 300 years in Glacier National Forest. No, this is dead grass.

In Angelou's poem, I think the images of rock, river, and tree are ultimately meant to represent our country. She was, in fact, helping inaugurate a president and I take nothing away from her amazing poem. But that is only the most superficial level. Upon closer reading, it is clear that Angelou is talking about the Earth. She is also talking about God. In A Rock, A Tree, A River, she picks up on the imagery in Psalm 1. She makes inferences to Dr. King's language "The arc of history is a slow bend towards justice," when she says, "The horizon leans forward, Offering you space to place new steps of change." Her poem is so great that it inspires us to take the meaning even further than hope in America. Psalm 1 takes us to a deeper level than country, that the rock, river, and tree are our lives inside of God's life. There are frosty and wintry periods. There are paths blocked by rocks and twisted roots. But ultimately there is fruit and produce that blooms from these elements as a result of life with the Lord.

What does your life with God look like? Is it like rocks, roots, trees and rivers growing together? Or is something very different? I welcome comments from students, parents, and any other readers.

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