The Psalms can be an interesting look at the human soul. They shed light on our passions, our pursuits, our longings, our love, our hate, our fears, our anxieties, our questions, the things we celebrate and the those we despise. It is said that David, the Shepherd turned king, has written most of them (about half of the 150 found in the bible). We are not unlike those authors.
They reveal the human heart as it grapples with the reality of what is. The now. What is vs what was expected viewed through the lens of what is ultimately hoped for.
Why are things the way they are? What are we to expect and make of it? Can I trust my neighbour? What about those who are not like me, those who trust a god or gods different than mine? If there is a God, what is this God doing and why is it not intervening on my behalf?
They were written a long time ago. The writers assessed things in light of what they understood, the world and the internal and external conflicts they were involved in and knew of. They had a particular way of understanding and engaging with God, their community and the ‘others’. The writers take what is around them and engage with those things whether they be the politics of the time, matters of religion or things as simple as observing nature.
They contain inspiring, encouraging and potentially life altering lessons that can be gleaned no matter who we are, where we are and when we are. Yes, they do also contain strange notions but even those can be stepping stones for asking ourselves pertinent questions today. As an ancient text, the psalms tell a story that a modern reader can enter into.
Psalm 1 shows us two roads we are constantly presented with. One road leads to life and the other to death. Both run their course simultaneously and we easily skip and stumble from one to the other. Yet, they are headed in different directions and the yield very different results.
The road that leads to death is said to be taken by the wicked, the sinners and the scoffers while the road that leads to life is said to be taken by those who do the opposite. Rather than following the advice of the wicked and participating in destructive things, they do that which pleases God.
Now you don’t need to tune out here. Those were the parameters within which the biblical authors wrote. They were trying to understand the world from a perspective of a nation that believed in and belonged to the creator God. They were chosen and special. Whether or not we agree on the existence or relevance of this god, my suggestion is that we can agree on many of the observations. How they interpret those things in light of the divine, life after death and so on is what they knew and believed. It’s not much different today as we make observations from our reality and interpret it based on our background, current state, beliefs, etc.
Back to the two roads. We should not restrict their destination as being in the future somewhere. There is a trajectory of course but we also know that our daily actions and decisions mark the difference between a day that feels like ‘life’ and one that feels like ‘death’. Compound those days over time and yes, life abounds or death sinks in. Life-giving behaviour becomes normal or destructive behaviour does. The longer one is on a certain path, the more difficult it is to change reverse course. Yet, the good news is we can.
We can observe our own lives and, if we ware to be honest, recognize whether our current state of affairs tastes like life or like death, like heaven or like hell, good or bad, like a dream or like a nightmare.
Imagine the two scenes for a moment. A healthy and sturdy tree in full bloom with a beautiful river running by it and yielding its fruit every season. The tree is alive and in turn provides nourishment, shelter and protection for other creatures. You hear the water ruffling over stones, you hear the birds chirping and the wind softly blowing across the field. There is life here.
On the other hand you have a dry and desolate land. Nothing lives there except maybe some insects and animals whose bite could kill you. Everything is dried up and blown by the wind. Life is not sustainable and while we may often cross that path it is not one we normally wish to stay on. There is death here. The death of our minds, of our souls, of our passions, of our relationships and the death of hope.
We know the feeling of both roads. We’ve tasted the life giving results of loving and being loved, of caring and being cared for, of forgiving and being forgiven, of accomplishing things, of reaping the fruit of good decisions and of hard work. We also know the feeling of death and destruction when we let our anger boil over, when we lie or when our lives become a complicated web of ill informed and stubborn decisions, broken relationships and aloneness.
There is a living heaven and a living hell. Here and now. Which road were you on during your last interaction with a spouse, a child, a friend or a colleague? Which road does your current state of mind find itself on?
If you’re bothered by the part of the psalm that says those on the road leading to life are those who delight in what the Lord wants and think about his law, I understand. Let me remind you though that while the Old Testament laws are certainly a confusing mess that somehow made sense to the people of Israel at the time, the bible has also given us some useful summary statements highlighting the bottom line. Those statements draw our attention to tried and true ways of living. They are true and good at all times, in all places and in all systems of belief that value life and the other.
In one Old Testament book people were wondering exactly what it was God wanted from them. It was getting complicated. The simple answer was to be merciful, just and humble in our everyday life recognizing there is more to life than what we can see, know and understand. Elsewhere when Jesus was being challenged and asked about the laws and the prophets he said that the law is summarized in two statements; love God and love others (your neighbour as yourself). We also read that hating your neighbour while claiming to love God makes one a liar. In other words, you can claim to love a God that can’t be seen but if you can’t love the person next to you, whom you see and is real, you don’t know what it means to love God. So if push comes to shove, regardless of what I believe about gods and God, it seems I am closer to the divine when I love my neighbour here and now than I am when I claim to know God and things about God yet do not love. There are many who claim to know God but find themselves on the road that destroys just like there are many who claim there is no God who are on the path of life.
It’s easy to become lost in external and eternal concepts that may or may not be true and in the process lose the accountability of what it is we are doing with the life we’ve been given at this very moment.
We know we have the potential within us to be the wicked, the sinner and the scoffer. Heck there aren’t many days when I don’t put at least one toe on that road! We also know the taste of what it’s like to be that beautiful life giving tree or to sit in the shadow of one. To feel fully alive and connected.
So the test of whether I’m on the road that leads to death or the one that leads to life is not my statements about things but rather my actions here and now. I do not know what I do not know but I do see, even if partially, what is in front of me. What am I doing with that?
Who are you listening to? Who gives you your queues? What are you pursuing and where is that leading? As you head wherever it is you are headed what do you leave behind? Life or destruction?
Happy are those who delight in and cultivate what is good and do not choose the path of destruction.