The Psalm 1 tree or The Giving Tree? | 20 September 2015

Text: Psalm 1

The trees have been in the news recently.  Earlier this month the Washington Post carried an article with the lengthy headline “Scientists discover that the world contains dramatically more trees than previously thought.”  Before this study scientists had used satellite imaging to estimate that there are about 400 billion trees in the world.  The revised number is 3.04 trillion.  Climates like Ohio, home of temperate forests, have about 600 billion trees total, itself quite a bit more than the previous estimate for the whole planet.    The new global estimate means there are about 422 trees per person.

For those wondering, a tree gets defined as a plant with woody stems larger than 10 cm in diameter, about four inches, at breast height.  So the waist high service berry and Japanese maple we planted in our front yard two years ago do not yet count as trees.  The new total is based on satellite imaging, plus on the ground measurements at 429,775 different locations around the world, so this was truly a colossal study.  If you want to know more of the technicalities I’ll put a link to the original scholarly article from the journal Nature on the sermon page of the website, although be forewarned that the methodology section contains sentences like this:  “To account for this collinearity, we performed ascendant hierarchical clustering using hclustvar function in R’s ClustOfVar package in each biome-level model.” p. 6

3 trillion is a lot of trees, but it’s the least amount of trees in the last 10,000 years, barely half of what it once was.  We’re losing about 15 billion trees a year.

More locally, the Dispatch carried an article on Wednesday about the city’s “Branch Out Columbus” campaign.  The goal is to raise the tree canopy of the city from 22% to 27% in the next five years by planting 300,000 trees.  The majority of these will make up for the 200,000 trees anticipated to be lost in that time, the emerald ash borer being a major culprit.  The article noted that special attention will be given to low income neighborhoods, but that everyone is encouraged to plant trees.  A small piece of the funding will be for $50 rebates for people who purchase and plant their own native trees.  The first round of rebates is available through the end of October, and now is a good time to plant.  (Link HERE for rebate info).

Trees are good.  They pull carbon out of the air, build up soil fertility, filter water, slow down erosion, provide habitat for all kinds of beneficial insects and wildlife, provide shade and fruit and beauty.  Not to mention the wonderful usefulness of wood.  You are currently sitting on a cushioned tree.  I am speaking behind and standing on a tree.  The trees are holding up this sanctuary.  When you go home into your house you will most likely be surrounded below, above, and around by a gift of the trees.  Factor in other products from trees like paper, medicines, oils, dyes, cork, cinnamon and maple syrup, rubber, and oh yeah, oxygen, and it’s hard to imagine life without trees.

Given all the depressing news in the world it’s good to see the trees in the news.  I wonder how our mindset would change if they made the front page every day.  Trees growing slow but steady this year.  Local tree shades residents.  Trees holding strong after big storm.

We’re in the midst of our first fruits pledging for next year’s budget, and it’s a good time to consider stewardship from the perspective of a tree.

Psalm 1 uses a tree as a primary image for the righteous life.  As the first in the collection of 150 Psalms, Psalm 1 gives something of an orientation to the Psalms.  It presents us with two different paths, the way of the wicked, which ends up being as immaterial as chaff blown away by the wind; and the way of the righteous, which is as healthy and sturdy and fruitful as a tree with a lifetime supply of nourishing water, planted by stream.

Jesus uses a similar kind of motif to end the Sermon on the Mount using different words, talking about the wise and foolish builders.  Those who listen to his words are building their houses on solid ground – the wise.  Those who ignore his teachings are building on sand – the foolish.

This binary approach of the wicked and the righteous might feel a little simplistic to us.  Rather than thinking about this as different groups of people who fall neatly into one category or the other, we might think of these two paths and tendencies as existing within each person, within ourselves.  There are parts of us that stray off course, foolish and misguided, and there are parts of us that, in the words of the Psalmist, delight in the law of the Lord, wise and righteous.

The Psalmist exalts in those who seek the righteous path: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…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 prophet Jeremiah uses the same imagery.  Jeremiah 17:7-8 says, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord.  They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.  It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”

Both the Psalmist and Jeremiah point to a strong healthy tree with everything it needs to thrive and say, “you want to know what a life connected to the Divine looks like? – it looks like that.”

The combination of this being a season when we think about giving, plus the lectionary tree reference, along with that opening line about “Happy are those…” was enough to make me think of that popular children’s book, The Giving Tree.  It had been a long time since I’d read that book, but after looking it over again it makes me think that it, just in itself, could be the subject of a long exegetical sermon on the nature of giving.

Is that story a beautiful picture of selfless giving that ultimately fulfills both boy and tree?  The tree gives of itself through all the seasons of life.  No matter what the boy needs, the tree finds a way to fulfill the need of the moment, even at great cost to itself.  And even when it looks like it has nothing left to give, it offers itself as a place of rest and quiet.  The giving tree.

Or is this a dark parable about humanity’s one sided relationship with nature?  Or about a co-dependent relationship which is ultimately harmful to both?  The giving tree is willing to do anything to make the partner happy even if it involves reducing herself to almost nothing.  The boy is oblivious to the effects of his desires and discontent, and keeps taking and taking until there’s nothing left but a grumpy old man and a bare stump.  Never once does he ask what the tree needs.  I wonder how this book would read differently if, rather than being called The Giving Tree, it would be called The Taking Boy.

Or maybe this too, is too binary.  Either praising the message or condemning it.  This was one of the reasons I wanted to gauge this kids’ emotional response to it.

So here’s a question back to you.  When you think about a life of generosity, life as a giving person, a giving community, a righteous life, do you identify this more with The Giving Tree or with the tree of Psalm 1?  They don’t appear to be the same tree.  Psalm 1 does not say, “Happy are those who are righteous, they will be like a tree that gives itself completely away until there’s nothing left.”  Instead, Jeremiah says, “it does not cease to bear fruit.”  But there are certain parts of the New Testament that call for costly sacrifice, like being willing to carry a cross, or selling all you have and giving to the poor.  And the Hebrew Bible isn’t all down on stumps.  There’s the lovely passage from Isaiah we remember at Advent which says, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”  Christians have understood this as referring to the coming of Jesus.

Which have you been taught to admire and imitate?  Do we keep giving ourselves away until there’s nothing left, or is there some way to keep being renewed from the Source of Life itself, the living water, bearing fruit all seasons?  Or is it some open combination of both of these?  Even a tree by a stream has a life cycle, we’re all on our way to being compost eventually, and in the meantime we want to give and give and grow and grow at the same time and trust the Spirit with whatever comes next.  Different stages of life might call for an emphasis on one or the other.  And sometimes the boy needs to let the tree have a life of its own, or the tree needs to tell the boy, “No, my happiness does not depend on fulfilling your every need.”

I’m hopeful we don’t have to choose between giving and growing, emptying and filling, that one naturally leads to the other in some kind of Divine ecology.

As a closing thought, I want to mention one of the surprises from studying the language of Psalm 1.  Every English translation I’d ever seen says something to the effect of this being a tree planted by a stream of water.  When I hear this I think of a scene like the banks of the Olentangy, or the tree lined Blue Jacket creek which runs through my parents’ farm.  There are streams of water, and, out of all the 3.04 trillion trees in this world, there is a small percentage that have the good fortune of sprouting and growing right beside them.  Good for them.

But the Hebrew of Psalm 1 is actually pointing to a different picture.  There is a common Hebrew verb meaning to plant, but the word used here is a much rarer word that means to transplant.  Both the Psalmist and Jeremiah use this word, as does Ezekiel to talk about a very similar thing.  So this is a tree that has been transplanted.  And the word for stream or river actually refers to a channel or a canal, as in irrigation.  In other words, the location of the tree and the very existence of the stream, rather than being chances of nature, are the result of intentionality.  Even if the tree was not originally by a stream, and even if a particular piece of land was not originally well watered, they have been made to be that way through a conscious choice.  Through careful intentionality.  Through an act of grace.

This is a freeing thought.  What do our spirits need to thrive?  What practices and habits and relationships transplant us by a steady stream of living water?  How can we learn to be more generous with our time and our kindness, our finances, our skills?  Happy are you who are transplanted by such a channel of water.  They will bear fruit.  Their leaves will not whither.