Each night, after we have gone through the routines of bedtime, and after Brooke and I have gone downstairs to talk, or read, or watch television, one of our girls comes down. She explains how she is ready to turn off her light, because we let them read past the initial bedtime, and wants a back scratch and a song.
I feel slightly annoyed to be interrupted like this. Yet, either I or my wife goes upstairs and offers a song and back scratch to one, and then the other girl. They are seven and ten, and whenever I go, and especially when I rub the back and sing to our ten year old, I wonder how much longer I will be gifted this.
Soon, she will not want these.
Psalm 1 lays out a simplistic moral ethic: blessed is the man who is not wicked, but meditates on the law of the Lord. It seems little more than an arithmetic problem, or debits and credits, and has the crude simplicity we would teach a kindergartner. The righteous man is a tree; the wicked are like chaff, blown by the wind.
The righteous: “On [God’s] law he meditates day and night.”
First, the law. I think of it as rules and requirements, the ancient Jewish code of living. Yet Samuel Terrien writes:
“The Torah is really gospel, for it proceeds from pure grace when it invites man and woman to fulfill the divine design on earth…its diurnal and nocturnal meditation did not represent submission to a rigid discipline or an obligation of abstract obedience, but it blossomed forth as a willing manifestation of gratitude to the extended hand of God” (Terrien, 73).
God’s hand extended, and the law is both invitation and gratitude. Perhaps an invitation to experience the wonder of divine life, and the gratitude therein.
Meditating on this did not simply mean memorizing, or reading, or listening to the text. Rather, it came from the gut. I meditate sometimes in the early morning, before my wife is awake, when I am stunned at how I got her, and how she carries the beauty and compassion and peace that I want to carry. The feeling starts in my chest and catches in my throat. This is meditation. A hushed sigh. Or, on the other side, a groan. This may come at a realization of my own brokenness and selfishness, or at the absurd selfishness of our world.
Sometimes, my wife says, she simply has to cry. This is the meditation the psalmist refers to, the feeling that rumbles through our bodies and erupts inarticulately.
I long for the divine life, whatever it is. I am alternatively blind or frustrated at the unblemished promises of such a life and my own scratching existence.
The closest I can come is this. I must watch. Watch for this divine invitation in the tedium of some days, in the messiness of this life, which seems to slip out of my control every moment. I must watch in the early morning when I wake before my wife, when I have a cup of coffee and the sun colors the sky pink in the east, when I cannot escape work on a Tuesday and miss my book group, when I feel irrationally angry or happy or melancholy. I must watch with ancient texts drumming in my head, or modern novels, or whatever can root me in this moment and this longing, whatever can make me awake to the extended hand of god.
Rooted in the moment: the psalm tells of how the righteous is like a tree. Trees in the Bible, of course, take us back to Eden. We see this most clearly how the curse came through a tree, as Adam and Eve ate the fruit they were not meant to, and its reversal through a tree, though one fashioned by the Romans for Christ to climb. The tree acts as a symbol of the world made right. Whether the Bible has colored the Western mind, which it has to be sure, or whether this is an evolutionary, archetypal symbol, I don’t know. I know gardens and trees are in almost every great story, and often represent a place of wholeness and connectedness, from the olive tree that makes Odysseus’s bed to Jane Eyre encountering Rochester in a garden.
Gardening takes attention and time. My youngest daughter planted a few seeds in cups, and they sit on her bathroom window. She forgets to water them, but I remember. Three of the four have sprouted, and even then my watering seems to have gone on for the last six months, though it can’t be more than a few weeks. The lifespan of a single summer is tortuously slow for a vegetable or flower garden, let alone the lifespan of a tree. Yet, cultivating such a tree or such a life requires nothing more than attention and time.
Watch, and do it again.
Every night when one of the girls come down, I don’t want to go upstairs. I can’t recall a night I wanted to stop what I was doing. Yet, I go. I sing and scratch their backs, and I hope that I am creating in them a posture of receptivity and loved-ness; I hope I am creating connection between me and them. I know, however, that I need to go because it is an invitation to something that I cannot explain, a divine invitation, to watch and wonder at fatherhood or parenthood or love. I don’t have the word for it.
Each night is a divine invitation to cultivate a life I both experience and hope to have.