I did think for about two seconds that I might write a piece commenting on the peculiarities of the Hebrew in the text. But these last few months I have thought a great deal about the decline of the evangelical church in the West. Of course, there are areas (pre-pandemic) where the church is still growing—if one uses numbers as our metric for growth within our buildings—and usually this is a result of immigration from the majority world, other Christians are attending our church services (and leaving their own churches), or because we are reproducing. There is, therefore, some cause for alarm when we think about our young people leaving the church, and somehow it is a crisis of sorts because without them, what is the church and its legacy?
I qualify these statements with the fact that I am still a young adult, and moreover, much of my ministry experience has been with youth and young adults. When the first set of reports came out about young people leaving the church, I shrugged and could not imagine why this was cause for alarm. After all, this was the norm. I noted with interest the notions of authenticity, inclusivity, and vulnerability: the insistence from young people that integrity was what they sought, as well as relationship, mentorship, and opportunities to lead and to make an impact in their local communities. But really, it was the responses to this report which really caught my attention, particularly the question of “how do we keep our youth and young adults in the faith?” (my emphasis). My friends have written at length in the last few weeks about what might we do with our youth/young adult challenge, but I contend that this is but a symptom which is beginning to expose the rot. So my concern is not primarily that young adults are leaving the church (even the vaunted diaspora second-generation), but that, to paraphrase Stanley Hauerwas, we have not been a church where we understand we are the church, in much the same way that we have not understood the world to be the world.
By this I mean that our language, grammar, and way of life have been co-opted by Constantinian impulses. It is almost unavoidable, given how entangled our understanding of the Jesus-story has become with corrupted power. We have over-spiritualised our issues and sedated our people with afterlife glory while being ignorant of the present. Or conversely (or simultaneously, wherever one might stand in the plot of things), we have under-spiritualised and become ignorant of the spiritual dimensions of this world. We have confused having a voice in our society with needing to dictate its direction. In the Hebrew worldview, this division between the spiritual and the material did not exist, though the Hebrew people were not without their own impulses for power and material gain.
So it is important to me that the first psalm in the Book of Psalms is based in the Wisdom tradition, especially if we understand that this book as a whole points us towards an integration of the teachings of God—both in the Old and New Testaments—into the practice of our faith. There are a few key indicators that this psalm belongs to the Wisdom tradition: walking on the way being a metaphor for choosing a particular ethic (the triadic line involving walking-standing-sitting), knowing (yd‘), counsel (y‘tz), references to the wicked (rasha‘) and to the scoffers (letz), and the comparisons and categories of types of people. Of course, wisdom can mean human intelligence or skill, but wisdom as understood by this tradition is aligned with God’s ethic, such that the implementation of wisdom has a moral and spiritual dimension to it, with the understanding that to be wise is pleasing to God and produces the good life. Put another way, the fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). As such, wisdom cannot be understood separate from the context of being in relationship with YHWH. Wisdom is also developed over the course of experience, which is to say that one must be fully engaged in life, which invariably involves other people. Thus, we understand that to be wise fully involves both God and neighbour.
A quick note about the Wisdom tradition. There are, broadly speaking, two types of Wisdom literature. Kessler notes that there are a diversity of forms in Wisdom literature, though I have elected to take a broad generalisation for length’s sake. One takes the form of a proverbial saying, taking a stance of affirmation. This usually focuses on character development and the understanding that the character of wise people reflects God’s ethic. The second type pays attention to where life is inexplicable, and sees the wise person as one who “has the courage to press beyond the easy answers and to face the most painful questions that are posed by a world created by God yet riddled with injustice and death.” It is also worth noting that Wisdom sayings are not meant to be understood as cause-and-effect, but rather, convey what a life led by wisdom might look like, understanding that the world we live in is unpredictable and invariably full of suffering.
Psalm 1’s first comparison is between the righteous and the wicked. The second contrasting set of images is the tree and the chaff: the tree is well-watered, rooted, and flourishing, whereas the chaff is scattered by the wind. The last contrast occurs in the way of the righteous as opposed to the wicked: one is known, and the other is lost.
The righteous are described first in the negative—they are not in the company of the wicked. More specifically, it is not merely the company, but that the formation the wicked have to offer—seen in the counsel, the seat, and the way—are not what the righteous are immersed in. Likewise, the wicked cannot withstand judgement, nor do they belong in the community of the righteous. In v. 2, we are told what the righteous are like: YHWH’s teachings are their desire, what they long for. Ellen Davis suggests that this desire might be better translated as “happy-occupation,” insofar that YHWH’s teachings occupies and brings delight to the righteous person. The murmuring the righteous person indulges in illuminates a culture in which silent reading does not exist, but there is also a sense that the person who is murmuring the teaching is in fact meditating upon it. As a tree planted by the life source, they do not lack for anything, and they are the first recipients of God’s goodness. Their fruit benefit all those around them, and to extrapolate from the metaphor, the goodness that they have received from God benefits and causes flourishing for those around them. YHWH knows intimately the way of the righteous (Robert Alter translates yd‘ as “embrace,” while the NRSV translates it as “watch over”). In contrast, the way of the wicked is rootless, and they disappear in the wind. Davis suggests that we might understand ’bd—which I have translated as “lost”—to be “vanished,” in that in comparison with the way of the righteous which “sticks” in YHWH’s mind, the way of the wicked literally disappears. They are inconsequential, despite their scoffing of the righteous (v.1).
As we listen to the language, grammar, and diction of the church, do we hear the murmurings of God’s teachings undergirding our conversations? Do we hear and see God’s teachings in the formation of our communities, where our ethic is shaped by the Jesus-story, and our character demonstrates that we know whose we are? Are our lives—individually and corporately—a clear blessing, encouragement to flourishing, and witness of God’s faithfulness to the world around us? Do we understand our sacraments as pointing to God’s ethic, or have they become empty rituals? Do we understand that following God is meant to be a delight, a “happy-occupation”? Are we in relationship with our neighbour, including those who are visibly different from us? Do we know that God knows us, embraces us and watches over us?
That report pointed to several important things, but fundamentally, our task ahead, with all due respect, is not to keep our youth and young adults. Rather, we are called to cultivate a community—the church—in which we are formed deeply by the Jesus-story and the rhythms of the Kingdom, to speak again with the language, grammar and diction of the Kingdom, and where we begin again to delight in walking in the way of God. And, as we do so, we will join in the Triune God’s task of breathing new life into the world around us as we have first been breathed into.
It is then, perhaps, that others will respond to the invitation to the Kingdom of God, because they will know what the Kingdom of God is.