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“Sometimes I sits and thinks”

Date: May 28, 2024/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

May 26, 2024 (Trinity Sunday)

“Sometimes I sits and thinks…”

Psalm 1

I learned something a couple weeks back.

We’ve all seen, in Western movies and TV programs, tumbleweeds blowing around.  A lot of the time they symbolize something:  desolation, emptiness, perhaps a lead character’s aimlessness.

As a result of these programs, we tend to assume that tumbleweeds are native plants in the American west.  They’re not, as it turns out.  There are actually several different plant species that break away from their root systems when they die and dry out, spreading their seeds as the wind blows them across the ground.  But none of them is native to North America.  They were introduced here, possibly by accident, possibly when their seeds ended up in sacks of grain brought here from elsewhere.

Wherever they came from, though, tumbleweeds have flourished in certain places in America.  I once was driving through south Wichita on a Sunday morning, nobody else on the road, and watched several tumbleweeds rolling across a major street.

And, like many different kinds of weeds, they have become a bit of a nuisance in some places.  A friend of mine who lives in eastern Colorado shared a photo years ago of her house, with tumbleweeds piled against the outside walls all the way up to the eaves.  This kind of thing happens when a few of the dead plants get stopped by a fence or a house or some other kind of obstacle, and then more of them are blown in, and they get tangled up into a mass.  I’ve even heard of them piling up against houses like my friend’s and trapping the residents inside until somebody brings in heavy equipment to remove them.

The point of the tumbleweeds’ presence in movies and TV programs is often to evoke a sense aimless wandering, a lack of rootedness, the desolation of some places where people try to eke out an existence.  In church we might see them as representing the way a lot of people approach spirituality:  drifting from one fad to another, from one popular practice or charismatic figure to another, never really settling anywhere but moving on as soon as they realize that there’s no quick fix to what ails their souls.

The first Psalm offers an alternative, and it’s where we begin our look at twelve spiritual disciplines, practices Christians have engaged in for centuries as they seek a closer relationship with God, with Christ.

A lot of Christians don’t think very much of Psalm 1.  It seems, at least a first reading, to be a psalm in praise of the Jewish Law, which we believe we’ve been freed from having to follow.  We believe we’re saved by grace, not by our works and our ability to keep every single commandment found in the Hebrew Bible.  So we might see this psalm as an illustration of an older order, a way of life we’re not required to adopt.

But is that the case?  Or does it have something to teach us, just as it has taught many people, Jews and Christians alike, throughout history?

The cottonwood is the state tree of Kansas.  Do you know why?

The ground in quite a bit of the state doesn’t really support big trees.  In fact, when white settlers first started moving out onto the prairies and into the Flint Hills—which are not flat, contrary to what my husband likes to say when he wants to yank my chain—they had to burn buffalo chips for heat and cooking, and cut limestone out of the ground to make fenceposts.  A lot of the earliest white settlers’ houses were made out of sod.  There just weren’t a lot of trees to cut down to burn or to build houses and fences.

But these settlers learned fairly quickly, as the Native Americans already knew, that the easiest way to find a water source is to go where the trees are growing.  And one of the most common, and hardiest, trees on the prairies is the cottonwood.  Cottonwood trees put down very deep roots that spread out and are able to tap into underground water sources.  So even in years of drought, even when the streams they grow near dry up, they are nourished by these underground waters; and people could dig wells and tap into that same underground water.

To symbolize the life of the righteous, the psalmist chose the image of a tree planted beside a water source.  The Bible came out of a land that was pretty dry—more so, even, than the prairies of the American Midwest.  In that climate, most native plant life is shallow-rooted and short-lived.  A good rain will cause a desert to green up and bloom profusely, but only for a very short time, only until it dries out again, which happens pretty quickly.

But where there is a water source, it’s possible to grow healthy, tall trees that stay green even when it’s dry.  So the psalmist compares righteous people to such a tree, rooted deeply in a source of ongoing strength and nourishment, so that they can stand even in difficult times.

The psalm also shows us the opposite—the wicked—and gives us another simile to describe what they’re like.  We don’t really see it in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible that Lyssa just read from, but the description of the wicked in the first verse of the psalm includes three verbs:  walk, stand, and sit.  They’re verbs of action, of motion.  And the simile to which the psalm compares the wicked is very different from that used to describe the righteous:  instead of being like a tree with deep roots, they are like chaff that the winds blow away.

If the psalm had been written in the American west, the image might have been a tumbleweed—no roots, no connections, no anchor; just blowing around, drifting from here to there, always in motion, never settling down, sometimes even destructive, like when they pile up against a house and trap the residents inside, or something ignites them and they spread fire wherever the wind blows them.

When the wind comes up, when times are troubled, the wicked just dry up and blow away, while the righteous stand fast, like a tree nourished by deep connection to water sources.

So here we are, with this psalm that seems to describe a life that is rooted in and bounded by Law, but we’re Christians and we might not believe the Old Testament Law applies to us anymore.  Paul tells us many times that we’re justified by grace through faith, made righteous before God not through our own efforts but through Christ’s death and resurrection.  Therefore, we’re the righteous described here as trees planted by streams of water, waiting for the judgment day when the wicked, who are not us, are swept away.  We don’t have to meditate on the Law day and night; Christ has made it possible for us to be righteous without having to work for it.

Maybe this psalm isn’t for us Christians.  Maybe it’s for those still under the Law, and we might think that tree planted by a stream is a pretty image, but other than that the psalm doesn’t have anything to say to us.

Or is this psalm talking about something else?  Is it about, rather than how we will fare in the final judgment, how we fare in this life, what happens to us in the inevitable storms and troubles, stresses and strains that none of us can escape?

The NRSV Bible translates the Hebrew word torah as “Law.”  It’s not the only version that translates it this way; the New International Version and many other modern Bible translations do the same thing.

In the Hebrew Bible, the first five books—the same first five books as in our Bibles—are called the torah.  And those books do contain a lot of rules—the Ten Commandments, as well as lots of others governing everything from what people ate to how they were to treat their slaves, their land, and even the foreigners living among them.

But that’s not all that’s in those books.  They also include the stories that form the collective memory of the Jewish and Christian people.  The story of creation.  The Garden of Eden and how Adam and Eve came to be cast out of it.  The Flood and the Ark.  The story of the ancestral family:  Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebekah; Jacob, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, Zilpah, and their sons, including Joseph.  The story of the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt and how God delivered them out of it.  The story of Moses leading the people through the wilderness after they came out of Egypt.

Torah isn’t just rules.  Torah is the instruction of God.  That’s a better translation of the word.

So a better way to understand when the first psalm talks about how the righteous “delight in the law of the Lord” is this:  “Their delight is in being instructed, guided, directed by God; and day and night they keep God’s ways and God’s guidance on their minds.”  On that law they meditate day and night.

In other words:  righteousness, according to the first psalm, isn’t complete obedience to every little rule given by Moses and interpreted by Jewish and Christian scholars throughout history.  Righteousness is a particular approach to life, a particular attitude, a particular orientation.  Righteousness is about being deeply rooted in something that nourishes life even in dry times, hard times.  And one way to become deeply rooted like that is through meditation.

Richard Foster, in his classic book about the spiritual disciplines, Celebration of Discipline, points out that many of us Christians don’t have a whole lot of use for meditation.  It’s because the practice of meditation is often associated with Eastern religions, and in the practices of those faith traditions, meditation often involves emptying the mind.  I think we might even see the notion of emptying the mind as dangerous—if we do that, then the evil, the demonic forces in the world might come in and take over.

But that’s not what Christian meditation is.  Christian meditation is about letting God fill our minds with God’s thoughts, God’s teaching, God’s words.

We might meditate on passages from God’s Word, the Bible.  We might spend some time with a particular psalm—the 23rd might be a good place to start since most of us are at least somewhat familiar with it—and think about the imagery in that psalm and how it compares to the lives we live.  Or maybe we put ourselves in one of the stories about Jesus, imagining ourselves, for instance, out on the boat with Jesus’ disciples when a storm blows up and Jesus comes walking across the water; we feel the waves and the wind, we imagine ourselves helping the disciples bailing the water out of the boat in the hope of keeping it from sinking, we see Jesus walking on the water and become afraid, just like the disciples did.

There are other ways for Christians to practice meditation, too.  Maybe you’re a person who loves to be outdoors, so you go out and see what the creation has to say to us about the Creator.  Or maybe we simply sit and breathe, perhaps employing a breath prayer—a simple phrase repeated over and over, like the “Jesus Prayer” that comes out of the Eastern Christian tradition:  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  We can allow the repetition of that prayer to quiet our minds, to take our focus off our fears and worries and to-do lists so that we can focus on God.

Whatever form of meditation we might try, the goal isn’t to empty our minds, but to let God fill them with his love and his teaching, so that we might be more rooted and grounded in something beyond ourselves, something that can keep us from collapsing when times are hard.  And once we are rooted and grounded in that way, then we are able to take our focus off ourselves and our own desires and worries, so we can turn and obey Jesus’ second great commandment:  to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Perhaps then we can help our neighbors also to find a connection with the God who sustains us and keeps us from falling.