St. John’s University, Collegivelle, MN, 56231 2006
Thursday, June 4
The Two Ways
A meditation by Ray Cook Furr
Psalm 1 1Happy 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; 2but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.3They 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.4The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;6for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
My first thoughts after reading Psalm 1 went to a poem that I memorized and performed for a middle school English class. The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost speaks to two diverging roads in the journey of life and the choice that one must choose. The Psalmist says there are two paths. Our entire lives will reflect which path we take.
I have spent most of my life struggling with being in the will of God. When I was young, I was troubled by every decision as if it were my last. Choose the wrong path and there’s no coming back, I thought. Thankfully, that is incorrect. I have chosen the wrong road many times only to find that God gives me the grace and wisdom to make a u-turn or take another turn that allows me to return to the right road. I learned from my errors and God’s forgiveness frees me from the destructive obsessions of coulda, shoulda, woulda. We are going to make wrong choices but God helps us correct them.
The Psalmist urges us to take the path that leads to a lifestyle that finds its source in the Creator. When we choose this path we have at our disposal divine instructions and teachings that give us nourishment to make it through life. Here we find meaning and purpose that yield a joy that cannot be found anywhere else.
The first word of Psalm 1—happy or blessed…sounds like a beatitude found in Matthew 5. We long for happiness. A happy life is one that is truly vibrant and authentic. The Psalmist uses the image of a tree that is planted by the river to convey the ideas of stability with strong roots, of freshness with green leaves and of fruitfulness that is evident of a healthy life. I was a member of a hunting club that bordered the Colorado River. On both sides of the river, there were mammoth pecan trees that flourished. Every year, they yielded hordes of large, delicious pecans. Twenty or thirty years before, the landowner strategically planted these trees to thrive. He knew they would spread their roots to gain their daily nourishment from the life-giving waters of the river. When the river overflowed and receded, it would deposit fresh, new soil rich with nutrients from which the trees could feed. The annual harvest was evidence of his wisdom.
The healthy life of a Christian is one that is well planted beside the life-giving waters of scripture and prayer. When the Psalmist refers to the torah, he is not simply referring to a litany of rules and regulations that one must follow line by line to experience God’s favor or reap our rewards. Torah means “teaching” or ‘instruction” and in the broadest sense, it suggests God’s will. Happiness is a dynamic process that involves and requires a life of meditation upon God’s will, so that we can discern what God would have us do in any and every situation. Jesus summarizes the torah and says that happiness is derived from discerning what it means at all times and in all places to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … And … your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39; Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).
The translation “prosper” in verse 3 is misleading of Psalm 1. In our world, prosper means fame and fortune. On any given Sunday, you can tune into telecasts where preachers espouse that righteous living yields financial success. Give God a dollar and you’ll be rewarded tenfold. I remember one, large church in Dallas during the 1980s that withdrew fellowship from people who were forced to file bankruptcy. God is not in the business of investment banking and for a church to shun others when they experience hard times or fail to financially prosper, is not the church of Jesus Christ. A better translation of verse 3 is “thrives” (Jewish Publication Society Bible). If there is a reward involved, that reward is the stability and strength derived from being connected to God that offers the opportunity to grow and bear fruit.
We often view the God of the Old Testament as an angry, abusive parent ready to give us a beating when we disobey. But in verses 4-5, the Psalmist does not portray a God who inflicts punishment upon “the wicked.” Instead it is the choice of “the wicked” to separate from God. A better translation of verse 5 is, “The wicked do not stand up for justice.” They do not stand for justice because, unlike “the righteous,” they do not meditate on God’s torah—teaching and instructions. God does not exclude “the wicked” from “the congregation of the righteous.” On the contrary, it is “the wicked” that choose not to be there. Paul says in Romans 1 that God doesn’t rain down fire and brimstone for their disobedience. Rather, God lets them follow their own destructive paths. Our choices have repercussions.
In the final analysis, Psalm 1 invites a choice — our choice. While life’s choices are mostly gray and not black and white, the Psalmist says there are clearly two contrasting ways that yield sharply different consequences—happy and perish. These are the first and last words of the psalm. Will we choose God’s way, which promises life? Or will we choose to go our own way, which promises death?
So, how can we assess whether we are choosing and following God’s way? The Psalmist gives us two suggestions with the words justice and righteousness. These two words are scattered throughout the Psalms as actions of God’s will. Some examples are Psalms 96 and 98 which say that God “is coming to establish justice on the earth … with righteousness.” Psalms 72 and 82, feature “justice” and “righteousness” as basic articulations of God’s will, defining them as attendance to and provision for the poor, the weak, and the needy. If there is a law involved, it is the law of love (see Romans 13:8-10).
My greatest temptation is to watch the horrors of the news depicting injustice and destructive carnage and do nothing. It’s so easy to look at the food lines and say “Thank you Lord that my family is not hungry.” I am quick to mourn the tragic death of another black man and utter the empty words of “This horrible situation has to stop.” Every day I log on to the internet see how many new covid-19 deaths occurred without stopping to pray for their families. My choice to do nothing is not the choice of one who meditates and seeks the will of God. The promise of Psalm 1, reinforced by Jesus and Paul, is that the God-directed and neighbor-oriented way is the most rewarding and happiness-producing life possible. The choice is ours.
Questions to Ponder
Every day we are challenged with a new road. Sometimes the choice is not clear. What roads are you faced with today? How will you evaluate which road leads you to God’s will?
What attitudes or opinions have you abandoned because these views are no longer compatible with your understanding of God? How has that change of mind influenced your actions?
Is it possible that my understanding of justice and righteousness is too limited? Do my favorite news sources and politics have more influence on my understanding of God’s will, than my meditations on scripture and prayer?
The Road Not Taken
By Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.