On the street outside the manse are some Red River Gums. They are magnificent trees, standing tall and strong beside the footpath. It is not hard to picture them growing wild, gracing the edges of a watercourse in the bush.
They are not good street trees. A few years ago, one dropped a branch that broke the stobie pole beside the manse. Others have damaged houses nearby. At the moment, they are flooding the area with dead leaves and bark, blown around by the hot winds in the last few weeks. The council street sweeper spent the best part of an hour last week repeatedly driving up and down the road collecting debris.
The Hebrew Bible often uses trees as images for people. The righteous are like great trees flourishing by water (Psalm 1:3; Psalm 92:12-14). On the other hand, the wicked are compared with chaff, plant waste blown by the wind. An Australian version might speak of dry dead gum leaves as examples of what is trivial, insubstantial and valueless. What is more, the treachery of the wicked might be likened to the unpredictable way the trees drop branches.
Psalm 1 draws a contrast between the righteous and the wicked, the great green leafy fruit trees and the valueless chaff. The difference seems black and white – only two sorts of people, strong and successful or insignificant and easily disposed of. Psalm 1 as the first psalm in the Psalter is often considered the introduction to the collection of psalms. Other psalms in the Psalter add nuance to the naïve imagery of two polar opposites. Frequently, the psalms express the pain of people suffering. The speakers would be members of the covenant, God’s people, and so closely associated with the righteous. In some psalms, they express disorientation and pain because of what they have done. In others, though, there is no admission of guilt or responsibility (Psalms 6, 7). These people belong to the righteous, not the wicked.
How are we to explain this discrepancy? Is it simply that Psalm 1 expresses a view of the world that is not upheld in the other psalms? Or perhaps something else is going on. I wonder if Psalm 1 in conjunction with the other psalms is trying to teach us something about what it means to be righteous. Yes, our initial reaction is to accept the black and white imagery – righteous people are healthy, successful and solidly grounded, like the appearance of great trees, but then the other psalms show that righteous people are also subject to pain and anxiety. What it means to be righteous must be re-interpreted away from simplistic images of the physique of a teenager or the wealth of Donald Trump. Or, in the words of the psalm, what it means to have green leaves, bear fruit and be located beside streams of water needs to be re-thought. Our initial picture is misleading. What if a branch dropping from a red river gum is not treachery, but a cry of pain?
March sees the start of Lent, traditionally a time of reflection on the human condition in preparation for the joy of Easter. Lent starts with Ash Wednesday, when, traditionally, the ashes were intended to remind people of human frailty and death and the transitory nature of the things of this world.
I am not sure that we need to be reminded of such things at the moment. There is plenty in the world that points this way: Many members of our congregation are dealing with human frailty in different forms at the moment. Looking further, we see a world ravaged by extreme weather, which is likely to become more severe in future years, increasing pollution of oceans with plastics with no end in sight, and the depletion of fish stocks. The whole planet is frail.
Perhaps then this Lent we should take a cue from Psalm 1 in the context of the Psalter, and rethink our images for what it means to be righteous, what it means to thrive, bear fruit and draw on (living) water, away from the simplistic to something that better matches the reality of our lived experience. What does it mean to show faith and righteousness in the presence of illness, frailty, anxiety and the other things we might experience? Stoic acceptance, by its very name, is not the Christian faith. Does faith allow for dropping a branch in pain, like a red river gum?
At its core, Easter is a celebration of life, of thriving amidst all the complexities of our experience. May we prepare for this celebration with a confident, joyful and realistic heart.
Rev Dr Peter Trudinger
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