This summer we are journeying through the Psalms. The Psalms are the book where we most clearly hear the voice of faith, the voice of humans, ancient people, struggling to live their lives with God. Today we are starting at the very beginning, with the first Psalm, which St. Jerome described as, “the entryway to the mansion of the Psalter.” This Psalm sets the stage, it frames what is to come. Today I want to especially focus on the first word of this first Psalm. That word is asher. The word starts with the letter aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In many ways, we are truly at the very beginning. There is no exact English equivalent for this word “asher.” Sometimes it is translated as “happy.” The word “happy” sometimes seems too cheap, too fleeting, a word a child would use to describe a day at the beach. Some prefer the word “blessed,” which sounds more dignified and holiness.
Right from the beginning, this word “happy” causes us some difficulty. Does God even want us to be happy, of all things? The religious path, the Christian path is one of suffering, self-denial, and sacrifice. Right? God wants us to be obedient and submissive. Happiness has to do with pleasure, and the flesh, and all the worldly attachments we’re supposed to surrender to God.
For a while growing up, I attended a church where a lot of folks believed that there was an inverse relationship between God’s happiness, and our happiness. If I was joyful or giggly or exuberant, you could imagine that God would cross God’s arms and purse God’s lips, and look down God’s nose upon me with displeasure. But if I was miserably suffering in uncomfortably restrictive church clothes in a hot church pew then God was - well not exactly happy, but perhaps grinning smugly, God’s lips remaining piously clasped shut.
To be fair, I must note that most of the members of this church were farmers. Which really explains a lot. This picture of God resembled our church janitor, someone who never really saw children, but only chaos-in-the-making, bundles of destructive energy needing to be controlled. I wonder if any of us believe in a church-janitor kind of God? Do we believe in a God who looks at us and sees destruction-in-progress? Does our God believe that our desires and hopes and dreams are raw energy to be contained?
I don’t think many of you picture God in such an extreme way, a God who is shored up by the discomfort of his followers. But maybe there are subtler ways in which you might struggle with the idea that God wants you to be happy. I experienced this very recently. I was struggling with a particular prayer practice. I thought that I had to stick with it and make it work because I had said that I was going to prayer in this particular way. But then I read that, “One of the main tasks of you prayer is to find what suits you, personally” and that what suits you might change through the seasons and years of your life. Well that was a new idea. Maybe I didn’t need to please God by struggling with this particular practice that didn’t suit me. Suddenly I was free to explore a different way of being with God in a different season.
This is one example, but there are many ways we might find it hard to believe that God wants us to be happy because we so often perceive this choice between doing what we want and what God wants. Maybe you heard that to love God you must deny your dreams and hopes and especially your desires in order to obey God. Maybe you believe that the religious path means you stop doing what you like and love to do, and focus on what God wants you to do, even if it makes you miserable. Or maybe when things go wrong you have this troubling suspicion that God is punishing, that God wants you to suffer. Maybe you feel that to be a good Christian, there is a particular part of yourself that is not acceptable. You need to stuff that part of yourself into a shoebox and hide under your bed or in your closet, and will that thing to become smaller and smaller until it disappears.
It may come as a surprise the Psalms, and Psalm 1 in particular are very interested in this question of human happiness, what it means to have a good life. As we have seen, the Psalter opens with that word “asher,” happiness. Now the word is “asher” does not mean a positive feeling state. Asher has to do with the honor and privilege that characterize the people of God. The word “asher” appears throughout the Psalms. The greatest source of “asher” in the Psalms is being in relationship with God, and the different activities and experiences that mark that relationship.
I don’t want to define the meaning of the word “asher,” because I think the best possible definition of the word is Psalm 1 itself. The Psalm opens with both a negative and a positive description of “asher.” Blessed, happy is the one who does not take the advice of the wicked. The specific characteristics of behaviors that characterize the wicked are not identified, but the positive description of the blessed person is more concrete. Asher is the one who meditates on God’s law day and night, careful to live in harmony with God’s intentions. Chewing on and turning over the divine command help this person to better understand God’s wisdom and direct life toward God.
Next the Psalm paints a picture of asher, an image of the prosperity that is the result of keeping God’s law. It is an idyllic scene, a tree planted by streams of water. The tree is a prominent theological image throughout the Hebrew Bible. It recalls the perfection of God’s creation, and the primordial garden where God walked with Adam and Eve. In times of chaos and destruction, the tree is an image of deliverance, of restoration and hope for the future (Isaiah and Ezekiel). The Hebrew Bible often mentions three things in connection with trees: they produce fruit for food, they offer shade from the heat, and they grow branches which become homes for birds. I would add that trees beautify a landscape, and they produce oxygen, and they remind me, in the words of the poet Mary Oliver, “to go easy, to be filled with life, and to shine.” These are blessings not for the tree itself, but to be enjoyed by a wider community, by a whole ecosystem.
The tree is an image of God’s salvation. The tree suggests slow, steady sources of blessing that may take years and even generations to come into being. It’s about prosperity, but exactly the health-and-wealth message of the prosperity gospel. This prosperity isn’t a personal possession, but a participation in the flourishing that God intends for all people. The salvation promised in Psalm 1 is not about going to heaven or getting saved. It promises that your life can be a source of blessing to everyone around you. You can have the strength to endure life’s storms and times of scarcity. Your life can provide shade for the weary, and fruit for the hungry, and branches where others can be at home. Asher is not a personal state of blessedness, but the stability and fruitfulness of a life that is lived well and is a source of blessing to others.
In contrast the wicked are dried up, lifeless. They are blown about thoughtlessly by the winds of change. Their pattern of living does not take root, it does not grow strong, and it does not offer branches or fruit or shade. Sometimes we believe that God runs around giving presents to reward blind obedience, and shoots down arrows at those who disobey. This is a Santa-Claus-style morality that divides the world into “naughty” and “nice,” rewarding and punishing in turn. I don’t think this is the kind of moral vision Psalm 1 is teaching. The comment that this Psalm makes about the wicked is not that God punishes them, but that their way of living does not last. Disregarding God’s wisdom about how to live well, the wicked do not cultivate that patterns that would help them to grow strong, stable, and fruitful.
We see this with regard to the command to observe the Sabbath. God worked for six days and rested on the seventh. The pattern of work and rest was part of God’s creative process. This command is about more than work-life balance. The command teaches us about the nature of reality. Created things are not units of production to be maximized, but gifts of God that give God glory. The pattern teaches that the world, that you and I, are good before we do, produce, or accomplish anything, simply because God made us. Created things have limits. Limits are a hard thing to accept. We are free to ignore the limits. but if we work our bodies and our minds until they are too tired to go on, what will last? Without Sabbath, how will we grow roots or produce fruit? Without rest we will be chaff - dry and brittle - blown about thoughtlessly by the wind.
Sabbath rest is not only for people, but also for animals and for the land itself. The pattern of Sabbath rest teaches us another important truth - created things are not units of production to be maximized, by gifts of God to give glory to God. We can regard the earth as raw material to be exploited, but does such a lifestyle have any staying power? We can ignore that God’s creation is a gift entrusted to our care, but will this path lead to happiness? If we pollute and drill and mine and burn without ceasing, what will last?
This summer we have seen devastating fires in Colorado, Arizona and other parts of the west. Many believe that such fires are increasing in frequency and intensity as a result of changes in our climate. If we hold the newspaper account of these events in one hand, and Psalm 1 in the other hand, the message that emerges is both striking and tragic. As a society we do not practice rest, but pursue habits that push the limits and drive the earth out of balance. We do not observe Sabbath rest, and do not grant it the created things that sustain us. But as we disregard the creaturely limits of our planet, the land grows dry and parched as chaff , until it catches fire and nothing remains to slow its terrifying blaze.
Our individual and corporate forgetfulness of the Sabbath is a flawed pattern of living that leads to destruction. The way of the wicked will perish.
So what does last? Is there a better way. Psalm 1 says that the key to asher is studying, meditating on God’s law. The Psalm is placed strategically to carry us from the law that preceded it, and into the songs that will follow. Every word of the Psalms is rooted in God’s covenant relationship with Israel and the gift of the law.
But the Jewish law is tricky subject for many Christians. We often associate the law with slavery and bondage, in contrast to the freedom we have in Christ. Sure, the 10 Commandments are sound moral teaching, but everything else gets a bit too complicated. And Jesus fulfilled the law anyway, right? so we can just move beyond all of that.
Yet in Psalm 1, the law is not a burden or a damper on human freedom. Instead the law is a source of blessing, of prosperity, and even happiness. We need to shift our understanding of the law to make sense of the Psalm. Let’s think back to the very first law, the first two commands that appear in the Bible, given to Adam and Eve. One of the first was to be fruitful, multiply, and steward the earth. I imagine this command gave Adam and Eve great pleasure. It called on their gifts and creativity to consider how best to care for the world. Following this command had obvious, tangible benefits for them and for the generations to come. Meditating and turning over the command would guide them toward knowledge of God’s love for the world, God’s love for them, and the divine invitation for humans to join God in the work of creation.
The other command given to Adam and Eve was that they must not eat from a particular tree, the tree of the knowledge of the good and evil. I don’t think they understood what made this tree different from all the others, or why eating its fruit was a capital offense. The command was not obviously good to them, except for the fact that God gave it. Perhaps they took pleasure in this too, as they walked through the garden, passing the tree but not plucking its fruit and maybe remembering the special place God had created for humans within creation.
The law actually promotes our happiness. It helps us to live a good life. Ellen Charry, one of my seminary professors, has written that, “happiness is enjoying God, creation, and self by cultivating the wisdom behind the divine commands that enable one to become an instrument of the world’s flourishing.” The important thing is not merely the dos and do-nots, but the logic and the spirit that animate the law. Think of the way a yoga teacher or a physical therapist might instruct you on how to align your body while performing an exercise. It’s not an arbitrary restriction. Because they understand something about the mechanics of how your body works, this person can share wisdom about how to use your body gracefully, safely, and effectively. The law teaches us about how God structured the world. The world was created by a good God, so actions that cultivate order, community, and compassion will yield the best results. Living in this way is asher, happiness.
This is a Psalm of orientation, the first of three types of Psalms that we consider hits summer. Such Psalms express hopeful confidence in the goodness of God’s creation and security in God’s presence. But there are many Psalms to follow where peace and prosperity do not seem to be a reality. If you see a world where the wicked prosper and the righteous are cut down, then you will also find many good companions in the book of Psalms. But Psalm 1 is the starting point. This is the vision of reality we are yearning for, even though at times we cannot see it, and growing weary of hoping for it.
Wherever you are today, and whatever you can or cannot believe, asher calls to us. The tree calls to us. How many times walking down the sidewalk, have you slowed down to linger in the cool of the shadow cast by a tree? How many times have you relaxed under a tree, enjoying a quick respite from the heat of the day? As our vbs group walked down to the beach last Friday, we passed a few mulberry trees, and I watched one of our teens pull down a branch and distribute its fruit to the children walking with her. The juice left a purple tint on our fingers. And I was stunned by the knowledge that the fruit was simply there for us to take and enjoy. None of us worked for that fruit, neither its sweetness or its purple stain. It was offered freely, pure gift. Like communion, out in the open on Pratt Street. The one who plants a tree waits years without enjoying its fruit or its shade, but once it grows it is a gift to a whole community. Whoever tended and planted that mulberry tree years ago, could she have predicted us walking down the sidewalk? or the gift the tree would offer on a hot summer’s day?
That is asher. That is happiness. To cultivate and practice excellent habits of living, not knowing when the fruit will grow or who will enjoy it. I keep thinking that I would like to be like such a tree, inhabiting my body more lightly, more free from the burden of myself. Sharing of myself with so little effort, with no sense of loss. A blessing to my fellow creatures near at hand. A blessing to a stranger walking by, who may never know my name.