Sunday, May 20, 2012

like trees, planted by streams of water

Where Are We Rooted?
Psalm 1
Manassas Church of the Brethren
May 20, 2012

Happy are those
  who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
  or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
  and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
  planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
  and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so,
  but are like chaff that the wind drives away. 
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgement,
  nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
  but the way of the wicked will perish.

I was born and bred in a Hokie family. My sister, father, and grandfather all attended Virginia Tech, and when I was little, the entire family lived and breathed orange and maroon. We were in Blacksburg often, for basketball games, baseball games, campus visits, but most of all: FOOTBALL. I am not a huge sports fan, but all that early indoctrination planted in me an undying love for Hokie football.

College football in the south is a big deal – there are elaborate rituals built up around it that bring people together and give us something to be deeply passionate about. And Virginia Tech football is no exception. Honestly, it’s divine. How do we know that God is a Hokie? Obviously, because the leaves turn orange and maroon in the fall.

A couple of months ago, the university revealed plans to build a brand new, state-of-the art practice facility for the football team. The current one is old, out of date, and not able to keep up with the rate of “progress” of rival teams. It’s a needed update for a growing program that brings in a LOT of money to a state university. A good thing. But. The plans for the practice facility put it right in the middle of an old stand of trees called Stadium Woods. No, a REALLY old stand of trees. In fact, this grove is actually one of the only remaining old-growth forests on the east coast. The woods are marked on a confederate general’s map of the area from 1864 and some of the white oaks there are over 300 years old…and could continue growing for another 300 years.

I have a tree-hugging hippie’s soul, so it says something about my loyalty to Hokie football that my own opinion on the stadium woods practice facility is pretty ambiguous. I like trees, but I LOVE football.

There’s a movement to save the stadium woods, and put the new practice facility elsewhere. A faculty member who opposes the practice facility puts it this way:

“The practice facility’s life span is 50 years. White oaks can live to be 600.” “Sometimes trees must be cut for progress,” he said, “But we stop in the presence of 350-year-old trees and say, ‘Whoa. We don’t go here.’ You take your hat off and give them the respect they deserve.”

Like dust, blown away by the wind, they have no standing.
Like trees, planted by streams of water, they bear fruit at just the right time.

How many of you have a Facebook profile? Okay, now that everyone knows, you might be getting a few more friend requests this afternoon. And you’re not alone – 900 MILLION people around the world use Facebook. 900 MILLION. I cannot even imagine how that translates into numbers of pictures of cats doing ridiculously cute things.

This week, Facebook became a publically traded company, and it entered the market as the third-largest public offering ever in the US – just behind General Motors and Visa. Now, I don’t really understand the stock market, but I do understand a bit about Facebook - I’m on it a lot – and it really astounds me that a company built on a completely virtual service could compel such gigantic monetary buy-in. Facebook doesn’t sell anything to users, doesn’t deliver any material product to your doorstep, doesn’t really change our physical reality in any way. Their revenue comes from advertising – screen space and those 900 million sets of eyes.

In all of the hullabaloo about Facebook this week, someone asked: “What would happen if Facebook just disappeared? How would your life change?” Well, my nosy self would certainly miss the constant barrage of information about other peoples’ lives, and I’d definitely lose touch with some far away friends. But otherwise…? The amount of time I spend staring at a screen full of status updates really isn’t all that fruitful. How would life change? I’d probably spend more time out in the garden, or hiking in the mountains, or nourishing relationships with neighbors and people close by, here.

Like dust, blown away by the wind, they have no standing.
Like trees, planted by streams of water, they bear fruit at just the right time.

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild, in her book The Outsourced Life, explores the ways that we’ve begun to turn over responsibility for relatively basic human functions to others. She lists services that we can now pay someone else to do. We have online dating to find our spouses, nameologists to pick names for our babies, party planners to create the perfect birthday experience, paid graveside visitors to free us from the drag of visiting a cemetery, life coaches to guide us through technique and training for living, and even things like “wantologists,” to help us discover our own desires and “Rent-a-Friends,” whose name says it all.

Now, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with hiring a wedding planner or asking for help when we need it. I think that’s good. What’s troubling is that we sometimes seem so distanced from our own lives that we feel the need to pay someone else to do these things that were once the very stuff that comprised a life well lived: nurturing relationships, falling in love, caring for children, celebrating life’s joys and grieving its pain. If someone else is getting to do all the good stuff for us, what’s left? Where does our life come from? Where are we rooted?

Like dust, blown away by the wind, they have no standing.
Like trees, planted by streams of water, they bear fruit at just the right time.

The psalmist paints a picture of two distinct ways of being – rooted in God’s abundant life or being blown dust, tossed aside by the breeze. It might be that these two ways translate into “good” and “evil,” but I’m inclined to think that the choices we have are both more and less complicated than that.

On the one hand, things like football and facebook and personal services are NOT evil. They’re human inventions. Sport is good fun, social media is a blessing for far-flung families and friends, and we ENCOURAGE ourselves to become servants, to wash the feet of others and accept that others will wash our own feet, too. When we choose these things, we’re not choosing wickedness. We’re not deciding to become sly and nefarious sinners – we’re just living in the world.

But on the other hand, if we really listen to the Psalmist, and if we really do meditate on God’s word day and night, we might come to the conclusion that just living in the world is not enough. Just living leaves us vulnerable to those winds that chase chaff and dust all over the place. If we’re aiming to be, as verse one says, “truly happy,” we’re probably longing for something much more than that – something more secure, more certain, more rooted. We want to bear good fruit, to be of good use, and in order to do that, we have to choose pretty carefully.

Because the choice is not really between righteous and wicked, good and evil, or right and wrong. The choice is really between life – deeply-rooted, well-nourished, fruit-bearing life – and dusty, empty death.

So, I guess the question is, what are the choices that help us sink our roots deeper? What are the things that give us life? The psalmist says meditating on God’s word does it – which is surely true. Prayer probably works. I like hiking, and writing, and am learning to appreciate baking and gardening – those activities that require attention and involve risk and mystery. Arthur Boers calls these kinds of things “focal practices,” by which he means activities that have a commanding presence, making demands on us, continuity – connecting us to others before and after us, and centering power – the ability to call us back to focus from the midst of distracted and distanced lives. Boers talks about cooking, gardening, quilting, photography, running, birdwatching, and practicing hospitality as examples of focal practices – things that root people in place, connect them to others, and remind them of the mystery of God’s world around them. These are things that require patience, discipline, and commitment. Sinking roots requires effort, but pays back in rich rewards. What sorts of focal activities do you practice? How do they draw you closer to God and call you into life?

My mom works as a hospice chaplain, sitting with sick and dying people and their families, companioning them as they move out of this life. She gets to be with people in very tender moments rich with revelation and mystery. Just this week, she was sitting with a dying woman who was dozing in and out of consciousness. Mom told me that the woman slowly opened her eyes, looked at her and said, “They have the prettiest trees there.” And then, smiling, “I found the prettiest yellow flower there. I laid it on the counter for you. I thought you would like it.” I don’t know what that means, or where this dying woman saw those beautiful trees and yellow flowers. But I think it must have been some kind of delightful place, close by to a stream of water, because the next thing she said was “Those two boys went out there in the mud and got it all over their boots! And I am not going to clean them up!”

Isn’t that the kind of deeply-rooted life that we really long for? To be so well planted in God’s gorgeous kingdom that it’s what we see when we’re moving on from this life to the next?  

The Psalmist tells us we have a choice. Dust is not all there is. We can sink our roots right next to God’s nourishing streams, and we will bear the right fruit at the right time, and our leaves will never fade.

And God promises to watch over us, always.


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