I have a friend who was searching for one more class to fill his schedule the last semester of college. Talking to the registrar, he said it really didn’t matter which class, he just needed one. What class was available after noon on Tuesday/Thursday? The registrar’s brow wrinkled as he scanned down the course offerings. He shook his head, “I don’t see anything still open. Wait; there’s one, but it’s in the music department on Bartók composition.” My friend said, “Oh that will be great. I’d like to learn that.” The registrar was surprised, but completed the enrollment. The first Tuesday afternoon when my friend found the music hall he learned that Béla Viktor János Bartók was a Hungarian composer and pianist. The class was not going to help him compose his “bar talk” to improve his chances with women at the pub.
Life is full of surprises. Maybe you’ve signed up for a seminar and been surprised that it wasn’t what you expected. Or took a bite full of something that looked yummy to the eyes, but was in fact disgusting to the taste. You might be surprised say, if you opened the hymnal to sing and found instead a discourse on ethics and philosophy.
Yet, that’s what we get in Psalm 1. The book of prayer for ancient Jewish worship starts with a lesson on how to live happy ever after. The introduction to the Hebrew worship book starts with a note on how to find happiness in life, and it ends with a comment on prosperity.
When post-Enlightenment folks think of “happiness and prosperity,” we tend to imagine an abundance of material goods, successful careers, delightful lists of accomplishments, and maybe a cabin at the beach. None of which is the kind of happiness that the psalmist had in mind. The most fundamental definition of happiness in the psalmist’s day would have been being in the presence of God in the best of times and the worst of times—knowing God in all times.
I like the psalms because they are so honest. The psalms sing of the glory of God’s creation, and they lament when enemies prevail. They bear open the agony of life’s aches and soul wounds, and they rejoice in the unending abundance of God’s provision. The psalms are honest with raw emotions poured out before God. At times, the psalmist shows anger and shakes his fist at God. At times, he quakes in fear. At times, he sings and dances with joy, delight, and wonder. Out of the depths of the relationship with God, the psalms are an expression of faith through the highs and lows of life. So happy are those who are able to go to them and dive into this well of assurance. Happy are those who find God’s peace in the teachings of faith. Blessed are those who “steep in God’s Presence, trust in God’s leading; seek God’s counsel for they are like those trees planted by water whose roots sink deep. They flourish, thrive, and endure it all.” The Torah, the teachings, the holy scriptures were a way to draw near to God. So the text says, “Happy, Blessed, are those who can draw near to God’s teachings to be long-sustained in the journey of life.”
Studying Torah, reading scriptures, digesting the Bible, can be a daunting task. It can raise more questions than answers. It can be confusing. Wrestling with scripture might not always seem like a delightful blessing especially if we are attempting to go it alone. Those trees planted by the water need source of nourishment as do we. Those trees were also supported by earth, sun, and one another—as are we.
I have fond memories from my childhood of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was when we opened the table and put in extra leaves making it as big as possible. Thanksgiving was when my cousin, aunt, and uncle came to our house. My sister came home from college. My brothers and their wives and children gathered. My grandparents even made the long journey to Texas. Mother would bake for weeks in advance: pies, cookies, homemade fudge. The house smelled of sugar and vanilla, roasting turkey, and stuffing. The best part was the table. The food on the table was awesome, but sitting around the table with family was most important. Sitting around the table—the grown-ups told stories when they came together. They told stories of the good ole days when bread was a nickel and nobody had a penny to their name. Dad told stories of jumping on a freight train and riding it to California when he was still a youth. Mom told stories of working the family store before and after school. They told stories about aunts I had never met. They told hilarious stories about my uncle’s comical misadventures. Each year they told pretty much the same stories. They told stories of who we were—and where we came from—and the stories told what made us family. That’s what happened around the big table made wide enough for all: family connections and roots established. There was good company sitting around the table.
The palm speaks of the essence of Happiness being found in sharing the scriptures in community with one another. Happiness is found sitting around the table of God’s presence. Happiness is found like those trees that sink deep roots and draw life from the waters of God’s Spirit. Sometimes the world is a mess; sometimes it is a delight; how we step through it, how we make sense of it, is critical to our physical, emotional and spiritual wholeness, so we gather in community around the table. We gather around the communion table. We gather around Sunday school tables. We gather around tables at coffee shops and cafes. We gather in faith communities to help one another read and study scripture. We gather around the table of faith communities to help one another keep our roots planted by the streams of God’s teaching. We gather around tables of different faith communities to learn together and to remember together—who we are and where we came from and to sort through the day-to-day path of applying God’s teachings to everyday life. To grow our faith and to be reminded to check and see if we are facing life’s questions with practices that reflect our faith beliefs.
Our table conversations can be a place to share joys and concerns and find support and celebration. Our faith partners can be places to ask those hard questions about how well we are living out our faith. Are our daily actions congruent with what we believe or what we say we believe? Do our consumer spending choices match our care for the earth and all her peoples? Do our parenting decisions reflect to our children what we value? Do our job performances, our marriage relationships, and our self-care practices truly align with who we desire to become? Are we like those trees in the psalms drawing our hydration from the river of God’s Spirit or are we being fed the deception of the culture?
“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path of the rebellious, or sit in the company of the self-sufficient; instead they delight in the teaching of the Lord, and they study the teaching day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in season, and their leaves do not wither. … and whatever it produces thrives.”
Sitting in good company with one another at the welcome table of God’s teachings, sharing fellowship and study and conversation in good company of one another, finding “delight” and happiness through faith relationships and community anchors us and sends our roots deep to sustain and flourish our faith. When we participate around the table, we might just be pleasantly surprised that the class of faith and scripture in good company of one another, brings us far more happiness and blessings than we realized we signed up for.