Saturday, May 19, 2012

Two Roads - Psalm 1

Mike was about 40 when he went to the hospital because he was having chest pains.  Doctors said he was having a pre-heart-attack.  Mike’s father and grandfather had both died of heart attacks in middle age, and Mike’s older brother had recently had a life altering heart-attack.  
Mike was an old-fashioned American man.  He liked meat and potatoes, and he didn’t care much for fruit and vegetables.  He was intimately acquainted with all the best barbecue restaurants in town, and church potlucks were his special forte.  And it all showed in his body.  His face was aged, and his belly was round.  When Mike traveled and showed people pictures of his family, people often thought his wife was one of his daughters.  Awkward!  
Mike decided that he didn’t want to follow his family tradition of mid-life heart attacks.  He wanted to see his kids get married and hold his grandchildren.  He gave up his baby-back pork ribs and fried apple pies for a new healthier way of life.  
He and his wife became students of healthy eating, and they starting taking long walks together at the end of the day.  He developed a taste for salads, fresh fruits, and even tofu - which is a big stretch for most Americans.  10 years later, Mike has lost about 50 pounds (20 kilos), and his heart is healthier than ever.  He is trim and fit, and he is enjoying his grandchildren.  Mike saw two roads for his life, and he chose the healthy path.

Xerox is one of those great companies that was so successful that it changed the English language.  Xerox became famous for their office copy machines, and now everyone (in America at least) knows what you mean when you say you want to “xerox” something.  But with the advent of the digital age, xeroxing became less and less important.  Suddenly, Xerox found itself on the edge of bankruptcy and cultural oblivion.  
     Enter Ursula Burns, the first African-American woman CEO of a large global company.  Actually Ursula grew up with Xerox.  Some thirty years ago, her first job after grad school was with Xerox, and she has stayed with the company ever since.  She built a reputation for being smart and outspoken.  
When she became head of Xerox’s manufacturing unit, she realized that major changes would be necessary simply to survive.  Ursula went to the labor union to talk it over.  Amazingly, she convinced the union to agree to her plan to cut the US workforce by 50% and to send jobs to China.  As she explained it, there are two roads here, and we can all lose all our jobs, or we can cut some jobs, do something new, and stay alive.
Later, when she became CEO, she knew that Xerox’s core business of paper printing was fading.  She negotiated the 6 billion dollar purchase of ACS, a logistics and information management company to propel Xerox into the business services industry.  Now, more than half of Xerox’s revenue comes from this growing field.  
Ursula saw two clear roads for her company.  They could keep doing the same things, resist change, and walk a slow and painful path into irrelevance, bankruptcy, and death.  Or, they could develop a healthy self-criticism, take some strategic risks, and step into the future with positive change and growth.  She saw two roads for Xerox, and she chose the healthy path.
The movie Wall-E tells the story of a humanity who chose the unhealthy path.  Set 700 years into the future, humans have abandoned planet Earth as unlivable.  Earth has become a pile of garbage that can no longer support any life.  Humanity’s grand plan was to float around on a space station, leaving behind a robot named Wall-E to clean up the mess.  
Hundreds of years later, the robot is still cleaning, and humans are still floating in space.  On the gigantic space ship, humans spend their whole lives on hovering chairs ordering instant foods from holographic computers.  They have grown so obese that they can no longer walk or even stand up without help.  
[3+] When Wall-E discovers a green sprouting plant - proving that life on earth is possible again - humans begin to reconsider the path they have chosen.  Slowly, painfully, humans choose the healthier path and return to earth to relearn how to work in harmony with the rest of creation.  
Wall-E presents the end scenario of self-destruction that comes from misuse of technology and abuse of our environment, and it hints at the healthy path of discipline, foresight, and harmony.  It is a call to all of us to choose the healthy path.
In so much of life, we face a choice between two roads.  One road leads to irrelevance, wasting away, and eventually to destruction.  The other road leads to success, health, significance, and real life.  We are familiar with a wide variety of two-road scenarios in personal health, business, the environment, war, leadership, finances, and on and on.  
However, when we start to talk about two roads in a spiritual sense, then we get very uncomfortable.  We don’t want to think about one path being good and one path being bad.  We even say things like, “All roads lead to God.”  That sounds nice and feels good on one level, but intuitively and logically, we know it isn’t true.  
We know that actions have consequences.  Our lives are going somewhere, and the choices we make affect the direction we’re going.  We know that if we say “Supersize Me” at McDonalds every day, then we will become super-sized and live a shortened life.  We know that our current environmental path is unsustainable and that we need to make huge changes.  We know that there are healthy paths and unhealthy paths.  We know that there are paths that lead to life and paths that lead to death.  This is an obvious fact of reality.
So today, in our last week studying the Psalms, we go back to the beginning, Psalm 1.  But actually, in many of the ancient collections of the book of Psalms, this psalm wasn’t even numbered.  It was the heading, the introduction, the frame for the whole book of Psalms.  Let’s listen to Psalm 1 now in all of its uncomfortable beauty.  (We will play “Psalm 1” by the band Sons of Korah, which sings the exact words of psalms.)  
Oh, the joys of those who do not
    follow the advice of the wicked,
    or stand around with sinners,
    or join in with mockers.
But they delight in the law of the Lord,
    meditating on it day and night.
They are like trees planted along the riverbank,
    bearing fruit each season.
Their leaves never wither,
    and they prosper in all they do.
 But not the wicked!
    They are like worthless chaff, scattered by the wind.
They will be condemned at the time of judgment.
    Sinners will have no place among the godly.
For the Lord watches over the path of the godly,
    but the path of the wicked leads to destruction.
Psalm 1 doesn’t mince any words or soft pedal its message.  It has a simple and bold point.  There are two roads in life.  One leads to emptiness, irrelevance, transience, and destruction.  One leads to joy, meaning, permanence, and life.  You could summarize this psalm in two lines.
Woe to those who live by their own reality for they will disintegrate and disappear.
Blessed are those who live in God’s reality for they will flourish and persevere.
Two roads.  We all face two roads.  Choose wisely.
The first road is “the way of the wicked,” but it sounds way more familiar than we would like.  This is the road of the bad advice, the compromise with evil, the sell-out, the peer pressure, the political games.  This is the road of sin - choosing our own path instead of God’s, believing that we know what is best for us instead of trusting God’s way.  This is the road of joining in with mockers - criticizing others, always finding something wrong with everyone, discounting the godly way as “idealistic” and not possible in the “real” world.   We have all been on this road, and the road signs calling for this detour are ever so tempting.  
But anyone who has traveled this road for very long knows where it leads.  Compromise with evil always leads to regret.  Temptation’s big sales pitch always turns hollow.  The final cost is way too high.  Pursuing our own path leads to emptiness and slow disintegration.  Cutting others down also cuts away at our own hearts.  Breaking away from God and going our own way always brings destruction down upon our heads eventually. 
And that’s just here in this life.  In the life to come, that trajectory just gets worse.
[8+] But there is an alternative, a healthier way.  We can “delight in the law of the LORD, meditating on it day and night.”  At first, that doesn’t sound all that great.  I’m not sure even lawyers “delight in the law.”  
Unfortunately, what we have here is a very common mistranslation.  The Hebrew word usually translated “law” is Torah, and it is much richer, more open, and more powerful than the English word “law.”  Walter Brueggeman, one of the greatest Old Testament scholars of our time, explains: “Christians have much to unlearn and relearn about the Torah.”
  Torah includes some laws or specific commands, but it is much larger.  Torah means instruction or direction or guidanceTorah explains God’s Way in the world and the way God wants us to live.  Torah is the pathway of life.  
When we think about “law,” we think about rules.  We think about do’s and don’t’s that constrain and stifle us, and we start to feel like college freshmen leaving home for the first time, ready to be rid of all the rules of our parents’ house.  But Brueggeman reminds us: “Torah is not the imposition of an arbitrary God ... It is, rather a discernment of the reality of things.”
  Torah is God teaching us the way the world really works.
Torah is not just about law, but think of the law of gravity, just as an example of how Torah works.  John David is just beginning to explore the law of gravity.  “If I hold my toy over the edge of high chair, and I drop it, what will happen?  Huh, weird!  It’s on the floor.  I wonder if it works like that every time?”  When we learn the law of gravity and integrate it into our lives, we aren’t imposing an outside arbitrary rule that limits our being or pleasure.  We are simply learning how reality works.  We are avoiding painful experiences like dropping a pan on our foot or stepping off a cliff.  Eventually, we learn how other laws interact with the law of gravity in interesting ways with things like balls, balloons, and airplanes.  The growth process of meditating on the law of gravity enhances our lives because it connects us with reality.
When we meditate on the Torah, we are tapping into God’s reality.  When we delight in the Torah, we are trusting in God’s Way more than our way.  Going deep into God’s instruction and guidance for life is like drilling a well to the deep waters of Real Life.  
Those who go deep into God’s Way are like trees planted by a river bank.  The life of God soaks them with Real Life, and they live lives of significance and meaning.  Their roots go down deep into God’s love and wisdom, and they have staying power.  They are not dependent on the changing weather.  They grow and become stronger and successful in the things that really matter because they are nourished by the life of God.  When we attune ourselves to God’s Torah found in the Bible, we attune ourselves to reality.  This is how the world works.  Integrate this into your being, and you will reap a beautiful harvest.  
There are two roads.  One road seems good, and many people take it - the road of self-reliance, self-regulation, self-direction.  But this road actually ends in self-disintegration.  The other road is the healthy path - God-reliance, Torah-learning, trusting God’s Way more than our way.  This way slowly grows us into fruitful beings, with sturdy roots, and lives of abundance.
Obviously, we all want the healthy path.  We want a life of wholeness and meaning.  How can we really live this path?  How can we stay in God’s Torah Way?  The Torah way depends on our habits and our choices.
First, develop the habits of the Torah.  God’s Torah instruction involves some basic habits for living well.  The first and most basic habit is prayer and Bible reading.  If you want to walk in God’s Way, then spend time with God and meditating on God’s Torah, God’s life guidebook.  The second most basic habit of God’s Way is Sabbath.  Sabbath is a basic life habit of God’s people.  Set aside one day for resting, for meditating on God’s Way, and for allowing God’s Spirit to restore you and your family for the rest of life.  This will connect you and your children to the deep springs of God’s Spirit in ways you never imagined possible.
Second, make choices based on the Torah.  How do you go about making your choices in life?  How do you decide what or when or how you should do stuff?  Let’s consider a few areas of life choices and think about them in terms of God’s Torah Way.
  • We all want to be successful, and we want our kids to be successful.  But what is real success?  So often, when it comes to education and success, we make our choices based on standards imposed on us by others.  We “follow the advice of the wicked, and stand around with sinners.”  But if you want to be successful in what really counts, ask: “Will this help me walk more in God’s Way?  Will this draw my child into greater faithfulness to the Way of God in the world?”  Getting a good score and being faithful are not the same thing.  Choose faithfulness first.  
  • We all want to look good and feel good.  There are all kinds of fashions: clothes, music, hair, houses, cars, technology.  But fashion has to be one of the most fleeting goods in the world.  So when you are making choices about a new scarf or a new house or a new appliance ask: “Will this really add to what really matters in life?  Will this actually help me live more in God’s Torah Way?”
  • A few weeks ago when I asked you to share your doubts, several people turned in doubts or questions about their job, their future, or the next step in their lives.  As you are considering these things, ask yourself: “What does it mean for me to walk in God’s Way?  What will help me live more fully in God’s path?”
There are two roads in life.  We know it.  We know that our choices make a difference.  In so many circumstances, one road leads to destruction and one to life.  God calls us to the healthy Way of his Torah - love and faithfulness, grace and truth, wisdom and humility.  We can walk in God’s Torah Way.  It happens in our simple habits and choices.  If we choose God’s Way, we will look back on our lives and say with the poet Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
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