Planted by Streams of Water

The first hymn in our hymnbook is “Holy, Holy, Holy.” It was intentionally chosen to begin the hymnal because it establishes the temperament of the hymnal. The first Psalm was similarly chosen to begin the hymnbook of the Israelites.

The hymn describes the life of blessing. In Hebrew the first word of the Psalm begins with Aleph, the first letter of the alphabet, and the last word of the Psalm begins with Tav, the last letter of the alphabet. Here we find the “A to Z” of living a life that is constituted of asherey – which traditionally has been translated as “blessing.” “Blessed is the one who…” The problem with this translation is that our contemporary understanding of blessing has a different connotation than it had for the Israelites. When we think about someone being “blessed” we connect that to God blessing that person. But, the Hebrew people didn’t think of it that way. To be blessed was to be content, happy, to take pleasure in living.

So, who takes pleasure in living? The person “who does not walk in step with the wicked.” The person whose steps are in lockstep with the opposite of God do not experience the joys of living. The person who does not “stand in the way that sinners take.” The word translated sinners literally means “those who miss the mark.” The person whose path misses the mark does not experience the joys of living. And the person who does not “sit in the company of mockers” or hypocrites or con artists or phony pretenders. If you want to live a life of blessing, taking pleasure in living, choose your friends wisely.

And delight in the law of the LORD, meditating on it day and night. The law, the torah, is the good order of creation. God’s will and purpose ordained in the very structure of life. The one who is blessed is the one for whom God’s will is the core of their whole life. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ words are recorded, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it (Luke 11:28).”

The Bible doesn’t directly address many of the decisions we face in our time, though. I was asked one time by a middle schooler why the Bible wasn’t organized by topic. He thought it would be easier to know what to do if you could just turn to the page that dealt with the issue. The Bible isn’t a reference book, though. It is the story of God in the lives of God’s people, and it is through that story that we are nourished like a tree planted by streams of water.

Imagine for a moment a tree. What kind of tree is it? How tall is it? How big around is it? How strong is it? How flexible is it? What are its leaves like? Some of you pictured probably pictured a tall, stately tree like an oak or maybe a massive redwood. Others may have thought of a peaceful Weeping Willow or an apple tree loaded with apples or a flowering Dogwood. Like a tree, that person is stable, durable, productive, and thriving.

Dr. Beth LaNeel Tanner, an Old Testament scholar and professor, made these observations about this tree. “Notice that the tree is not extraordinary;,” she writes, “it is just a tree doing what trees do….It does not try to live outside of what it is created to be. It is happy being a tree. It gives fruit in its season, and its leaves do not wither because it is constantly fed. Its roots are deep and strong. The tree will stand even when the winds and the storms come. It provides for others, giving fruit, but also experiences seasons, offering fruit only at God-designated times. The one who is like the tree thrives….”

But the one who is not planted like a tree by streams of water is like chaff, the outer casing of wheat seeds, dry and worthless, easily burned or carried off by the wind. They blow this way and that, without purpose or roots, they have no grounding and are helpless in the winds of life.

Several years ago, a young college student, was talking with the campus minister at her college. The young woman was agnostic, she believed that the existence or non-existence of God could not be known. She was talking to the campus minister because she was impressed by her Christian friends’ observance of Lent. Even though she was agnostic, she admired the way they followed the disciplines of prayer, Bible study, and fasting. She “I’m not a Christian,” she told him, “but I want to give something up.”

The minister suggested this, “Why don’t you give up your unbelief for Lent? Just for a few weeks, give up agnosticism, and just for these weeks believe and practice the Christian faith. Practice the kind of Christian faith you think Christians ought to practice all the time. Pray just as though you really believe. Read the Bible listening for God to speak to you. And when Lent is over, you can go back to your agnosticism.”

So, she did it. She went to worship. She prayed. She even bought a Bible and started reading it. By the end of Lent, she had formed some habits that she didn’t want to stop. Her habits had fundamentally reformed her life. (Jinkins, p.41)

The word habit comes from Latin and has at its root the concept of “having, or consisting of.” Our habits determine what we consist of. We are what we do. Habits shape our character, and they can form belief. This agnostic college student’s habits transplanted her like a tree to be beside streams of water.

A 2013 Barna research survey studied millennials who are planted in church and staying there. They found that these 22-37 year olds had developed meaningful relationships at church. They had been taught to study and reflect on what is happening in the world through the lens of their faith. They had been invited to discover their own mission and purpose instead of being told to wait their turn to participate in church. They had been taught that they had a calling in life, a purpose for living. And they had developed a lasting faith through a sense of deep intimacy with God.

The phrase translated “streams of water” means the “division of the river where the ground is most fertile.” Sometimes a second path is dug out intentionally to ensure that the plant gets the nutrients and water it needs to thrive. As we celebrate Children’s Sabbath, may we reflect on the parallels between what the 1st Psalm instructs will lead to a strong, stable life of faith like a tree planted by streams of water and current Barna research has found.

1. Blessed is the one who has deep relationships. The Psalm warns against walking, standing, and sitting with wicked, sinners, and hypocrites. Barna finds that young adults who developed meaningful relationships at church remain firm in their faith.

2. Blessed is the one who turns to God’s Will as their guide. The Psalm teaches that the one whose delight is God’s will, considering it all the time in every situation, prospers in all that he does. Barna finds that young adults whose faith is the lens through which they make their decisions about morals and ethics and politics and work and engagement and how they contribute to society – they remain firm in their faith.

Imagine again your tree. Where is it planted? Is it planted in deep relationships? Does God’s Will flow around it, nurturing and feeding it? Does your tree need to be transplanted beside streams of water to yield fruit in season? Where you take pleasure in living and in all that you do, you prosper?

It is the first song in the hymnbook, preparing the way for all the songs of life that follow it. May you sing this song first.