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Psalm 1, as rendered by Nan C. Merrill
Mark 9:33-37

Blessed are those
        who walk hand in hand
                with goodness,
        who stand beside virtue,
        who sit in the seat of truth;
For their delight is in the Spirit of Love,
        and in Love’s heart they dwell
                day and night.
They are like trees planted by
                streams of water,
        that yield fruit in due season,
        and their leaves flourish;
And in all that they do, they give life.

 

        In all that they do, they give life.

        Before I realized that Psalm 1 is the psalm for today in the three-year cycle of readings known as the lectionary, I had rediscovered it in my devotional reading over the summer.

        As I often do when reading the psalms, I read the traditional version—the New Revised Standard Version of our pew Bibles—and then I consulted Nan C. Merrill’s book Praying the Psalms. Nan Merrill was a Quaker, and her renderings of the psalms reflect the Quakers’ more expansive understanding of the Divine—as Love (with a capital L), Light, the Heart of Love, the Beloved, Loving Presence, Compassionate One.

        I still love the more traditional translation of many psalms, but perhaps I am drawn to Merrill’s version of some of them in part because her understanding of God is so very different from the image of God I grew up with in my family’s fundamentalist church. That God was not so much loving as judgmental, not so much compassionate as harsh, less the extravagant source of mercy and grace than a stickler for the rules.

        The traditional version of Psalm 1 reminded me a bit of that strict, narrow-minded God. The traditional version reminded me of what I now understand to be a dualistic view of life and of the world. It created in my mind the false expectation that good things will happen to good people and bad things will happen to bad people. But I only need look around, listen to NPR, read the newspaper, turn to social media, or consider the realities of life in our nation and the world to understand that life is not so simple. Everywhere we turn we see many uncaring, immoral people getting richer and more powerful; we see some of them using their power to further oppress the poor and marginalized.

        That reality goads me to faith-based action—but the action and activism don’t always feed my soul. Especially now, when it seems there is a new racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, anti-poor, anti-Jesus tweet or policy pronouncement coming out of the government almost daily, it can be hard to keep going. It can be hard to find hope. Some days, it can take all my prayer and intention to try to keep from surrendering to cynicism and anger and to treating my apparent “enemies” the same way they treat people of color.

        I’ll be honest with you: Over the summer, when our government was actively taking children away from their parents at the southern border, I was so angry and upset that I nearly lost it. Although I was praying fervently, I felt powerless. Closer to home, I knew that Lucio Perez and his wife, Dora, and their children had also been separated from one another by our government. In my more reflective moments, I was aware that I was feeling something close to hatred for the people who had implemented these policies.  I wanted to choose life. I wanted to be a force for love and peace and justice, but I felt no peace in my spirit and so much anger in my soul.

        So when I read Nan Merrill’s rendering of the very first psalm, when I came to the line that said, “And in all that they do, they give life,” my spirit cried out. That is what I want to be—a person like a tree planted by running water, I thought. That is who I want to be—someone who imparts life in all she does. Someone who produces delicious, life-giving fruit. Someone whose heart is filled with love.

        How do I do that? How do I become like that? What in me—in all of us—is like a tree?

        Well, like all transformation and growth, it is a process. Like all spiritual paths, the process involves a certain amount of surrender and obedience to something or someone greater than ourselves. For Christians this means following the self-giving, extravagantly welcoming, radically loving ways of Jesus instead of my way or the highway. It means living as a servant, caring about and taking action to ensure the well-being and wholeness of others—all others. It means, according to Jesus, putting ourselves last instead of first, and welcoming the weakest and most vulnerable with the love and compassion of Jesus.

        For Christians this means having an intentional, regular relationship with the Holy Spirit of power, change, and healing; it means letting God’s transforming love do its work in us and through us.

        For Jesus, the psalmist, and most spiritual paths, this means making choices. It means choosing life. It means choosing peace. It means choosing love.

        It means living with intention. It means taking some things on and letting others go. It means staying grounded, rooted in God’s goodness, formed and transformed by God’s all-inclusive, merciful, love, sustained by God’s power. Being grounded means accepting the reality that we can’t do everything, and knowing that if we’re not rooted in Spirit we won’t be able to do much of anything. It means not reacting to every horrible thing that happens, but acting in love from a place of clarity and strength.

        It has less to do with following the rules than adopting God’s values. It is more about learning to love by letting ourselves be loved than believing certain things. It requires trust. It takes a lot of prayer. It requires choosing goodness and love—again and again and again, not only every day but multiple times a day.

        It helps to be on the journey with others who can both support us and hold us accountable. It requires understanding that living in honest and intentional relationship with others will eventually smooth out our rough edges and heal us—and that the process won’t always be pleasant. It requires commitment—to God, to one another, and to the process. It means learning to forgive—ourselves and others—again and again and again. It means living in gratitude. It requires a willingness to start over again and again, to take on what contemplative’s call beginner’s mind. It means dying to all that does not give life and living into the reality of our blessedness and the promise and experience of resurrection.

        It means living like a tree that is planted by streams of living water: close to the Source, always connected. That might mean attending worship regularly, praying without ceasing, exploring the scriptures, seeking God and God’s realm in all that we do. It means understanding that is the Source of all Love, and our deep and active, grounded and receiving roots that connect to it, that empowers us to grow strong and tall, that make it possible for us to sprout leaves and produce fruit even when there is a drought, even when we are surrounded by evil, even when we are weary and worn.

        It means being the church: a tree that shares its fruit with all, a tree that can withstand storms, a tree that welcomes everyone to sit in its shade, a tree whose fruit gives birth to new trees, new hope, new and beloved community, new justice, new peace.

Blessed are those
        who walk hand in hand
                with goodness,
        who stand beside virtue,
        who sit in the seat of truth;
For their delight is in the Spirit of Love,
        and in Love’s heart they dwell
                day and night.
They are like trees planted by
                streams of water,
        that yield fruit in due season,
        and their leaves flourish;
And in all that they do, they give life.

        Make like a tree!