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The Source

September 3, 2013

“The Source” Psalm 1; Jeremiah 17:5-10 © 9.1.13 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Robert Frost once spoke of his choice between two roads diverging in the woods. We know he selected the “road less traveled by.” And that, he said, “has made all the difference.” Another Robert—Robert Plant—sang of “two ways you can go by” in the classic Led Zeppelin tune “Stairway to Heaven.” The poet whose work sets the tone for the whole psalter would nod his head in agreement with both assessments of life’s options. Bottom line: the list from which we choose has only two items on it.

Specifically, the psalmist would say that there is no in-between way of living. One is either righteous or one is wicked. For him there are no shades of gray—not even one, much less 50. No little bit wicked, little bit righteous, devil and angel all wrapped into a package. Some have found that notion naïve, others offensive. But before we make up our minds, let’s hear the case this poet sage wants to make.

Much of popular piety equates righteous and wicked, good and bad, with a kind of checklist of actions, usually having to do with personal morality. During my college days at the University of Georgia, I was a fundamentalist, and sought out people of like mind. In the group of guys I associated with, the half-humorous, half-serious, cleaned-up version of the roster of forbidden actions was “don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew or go with girls that do.” The late Robert Webber, in his book Ancient-Future Faith, took his fellow evangelicals to task for such attitudes: “For most of us brought up in the evangelical branch of Christianity, spirituality has been defined almost exclusively in terms of a handy list of do’s and don’ts. On the negative side, spirituality means abstinence from worldly habits such as drinking, smoking, dancing, and card playing; on the positive side, spirituality is defined in terms of church attendance, prayer, regular Bible reading, and witnessing. This formula is usually set forth as a way to grow spiritually. But for me it led to a spiritual legalism lacking authenticity and life” (Ancient-Future Faith: 118).

The psalmist might say that equating morality with a list of actions pays more attention to the symptom than the disease. Doing this, not doing that, does not make one righteous or wicked. Instead, the poet would insist that because one is righteous, he or she ignores the advice of the wicked and listens instead to the delightful instruction of God. The wicked are like that, too; they display by their actions their root character. Jesus said it: “By their fruits you shall know them.”

What makes the difference is the basic direction someone or a whole group of someones is turned. Let’s put the question the way Jeremiah did. In effect, he asked: whom do you trust? “Thus says the Lord: cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength….” On the other hand: “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.” On whom or what do we stake our lives? When you and I answer that honestly, then it is that you know, I know the object of our worship, the source of our security.

We might trust in technology. But what good is that? It’s fragile and changes all the time. Who can keep up? What once was hot technology becomes obsolete in a few months. Or we might say that if we just had the right plan or the proper clothes or filled our homes with more things and knew and influenced the right people, we would be successful and popular and worry-free. I know people who think that way, and I suspect you do, too. Maybe if we could find the perfect structure for our organization, we could finally pay attention to the really important things. If we just found the right job or did our current job better and/or got a raise in pay, all would be well. If our leaders understood us and paid attention to our needs and gave proper respect to our viewpoints, and got busy and actually did something, this would be a better nation, state, and church. But really, who are we kidding? Don’t we know somewhere deep down that the warning of the prophets and poets of the Bible is right: no human effort or program can claim, should claim our complete loyalty and trust. Every object, person, structure, institution, viewpoint that would ask for our investment and our confidence is subject to judgment; in the end they are unable to stand when God stretches out his hand. In whom or what do we trust? That’s one way to frame the question about the fundamental orientation of our lives, the direction that identifies us as wicked or righteous, wise or foolish.

But both the psalmist and Jeremiah talk about the life of the righteous in another way. The faithful person is a tree, planted by flowing water, sending out roots. What makes the difference between the righteous and the wicked is the connection with the Source of Being. The question here is: on whom, on what do we depend to sustain us, to help us thrive and prosper?

Remember that these writers lived in a land where water was a precious commodity. Without water, there is no life. So they are speaking about matters of life and death. The psalmist spends very little time on describing the life of the wicked. For him, they’re not even worth talking about. But beyond that, he knows their lifestyle can’t be sustained, because it’s rootless. Without roots to drink in the life-giving water, there is no alternative but to wither and die.

Though they strut around, spouting their opinions, stuck on themselves, scoffing at any authority but their own, the psalmist would say the wicked have no substance. John Calvin much later talked about their “appearance of life.” There’s nothing there worth copying; everything is superficial, on the surface. So there’s an overvaluing of externals—the trappings of success, the approval of others, the maintenance of order, the accumulation of goods.

The singing duo Indigo Girls described that sort of person and the results of his or her life in their song “Left Me a Fool.” Addressing a former lover, the singer pulls no punches: “Everybody loves you, and they want to know your story, you go riding out a mystery, concealed in all your glory, but when it comes to flesh and bone, you remind me of shallot, only made of shadows, even though you’re not…. Oh to reach through all your surface, just to find an empty pool” (words and music © 1985 Emily Saliers).

The wicked are self-centered, self-referenced, self-directed, listening to no voice but their own. There is little or no connection with people in genuine community; they live apart from God and from creation, uprooted, without resources to sustain life.

How sad to be like that, especially in crisis! It is then that we most need roots that go down deep, nourishment and refreshment from the Source of all. Those who are skilled in dealing with people in such times talk about the “trigger” or the “precipitating straw” which the rest of us call “the last straw,” the one that “broke the camel’s back”: an incident, an added responsibility, even a single word, that finally sends folk on a downward spiral, over the edge. Or we could think of those games we have all played in which blocks are piled one on top of the other until one finally sends the whole thing tumbling down. Not everything goes, of course; there are still some at the bottom. In a crisis, what is to keep those other blocks of life from falling, too? What will keep us from spiraling down till we crash and burn?

The difference is the resources people have to drawn on—friends, family, prayer, the Scriptures, faith in the God made known in Jesus Christ. But as a friend of mine once observed, you don’t just wake up one morning and find you have resources for living. Faith has to be cultivated, relationships cherished, crises endured, the hurt of others and the whole world shared and grieved. All these give life a kind of depth and weightiness, a gravitas. The life of the righteous is life in community, connected with God and other people, as well as creation and our own inner self. That’s what gives life substance, so we’re not like the chaff, the lightweight debris that is so easily blown around by the wind of change. We are instead heavy sheaves, which, by the way, are crushed in the process of refinement into flour.

For years, I didn’t like the ending of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I always wanted George Bailey to get revenge on Mr. Potter in a sequel, called something like “It’s An Even More Wonderful Life: Uncle Billy Strikes Back.” You may recall that Potter, the most powerful and meanest man in Bedford Falls, was a money-grubbing crook. He would do anything to get even more power, and so stole money from the savings and loan, then tried to pin it on George. He was never brought to justice for putting George and his family through such misery. But maybe the ending of the movie isn’t sentiment, but theology. Maybe it is the first psalm on film. Potter looks like the prosperous one: he has money, power, servants. But he is miserable, angry, alone; he is isolated and excluded from community. George, on the other hand, has a family and friends willing to give for his sake, to get him and his business out of financial trouble. They surround him with love and care. They form his community. It is George that is connected with the source of life, both with God and with a group of people who care for him. His resources are the kind that will carry him through.

How do people survive, even thrive, despite incredible odds? The key to standing upright against the brutal wind is rootedness in a source outside ourselves, connectedness with a vision of life sustained by none other than the Creator of all, known in Jesus, present by his Spirit.

I can’t deal with the text of Psalm 1 without thinking of Mary, an elderly lady whom everyone recognized as the matriarch of the Montevallo Presbyterian Church, where I was pastor and campus minister for fourteen years. Even in her last days, when she barely recognized her family, Mary could still recite the Lord’s Prayer, and with prompting by others, Psalm 1. Such is the power of liturgical and biblical texts to sustain us and become part and parcel of our being. Even the brutal wind of age which had ravaged her mind and body could not uproot Mary.

When she died, I wrote a song in her memory, and I want to share it now as a poem: “Blessed are the ones who make no friend of sin, who hear the voice of God above the ceaseless din, whose ways are full of justice, walking humbly with the Lord. Even in the darkness, their hope will be restored. They bear their fruit in season, sometimes a hundred-fold; all their efforts prosper, though they have no lands or gold. And when the day is over, they stand with heads held high, trusting in the Lord, and not afraid to die. The fear of the Lord is the fountain of wisdom, the love of God—the key to the truth, to the truth. By the river I am planted, like a tree against the wind; I shall not be moved, for Jesus is my friend. And when the harvest comes, with my Savior I shall go, safe within my home, where the living waters flow. The fear of the Lord is the fountain of wisdom, the love of God—the key to the truth, to the truth.” (“By the River,” words and music © 1995 by Tom Cheatham).

There are two ways you can go by; the One who walks with you makes all the difference.

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