First impressions, we are told, mean a lot. First words mean a lot. Think of famous first lines in literature. Jane Austen began Pride and Prejudice with this insight: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Charles Dickens famously opened his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, with this line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning began her most famous poem, Sonnet 43, with these words of adoration, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 begins, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate….”
Just as I believe that Austen, and Dickens, and Barrett Browning, and Shakespeare all chose their opening words carefully, so it is, I think, with scripture. Genesis fittingly begins with the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth….” Mark, probably the first gospel written in the Christian scriptures, echoes Genesis when it opens with the proclamation, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The Gospel of John is even more obvious in its reverberation of creation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
This Sunday, track one of the Revised Common Lectionary includes in its readings Psalm 1. Its first two verses are these:
Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.”
Think of it: the very first word of the Psalter is “Happy.” Now some versions of the Bible use a different word: “Blessed.” That’s an amazing thing. What if we too reminded ourselves that those who are happy are blessed, and those who are blessed are happy? This is an insight that all too often gets drowned out in the lives of many of us. We are programmed to think about satisfaction—or more importantly, the lack of it. We are told to buy, buy, buy. We are persuaded that products will make us more beautiful, thinner, fuller—as if those three things could coexist at the same place and time. But will those things make us truly happy? Will they make us truly blessed?
Psychologist Martin Seligman has claimed that there are three components of happiness: pleasure, engagement, and meaning, and the last two are the most important in living a happy life—while pleasure is fleeting, being engaged with others and feeling a sense of positive purpose in one’s life is more enduring, and leads to a general determination that life is worthwhile. Happiness does not rest in things. Happiness rests in living life well.
This is a gift that all too many of us feel eludes us. Most of us do not live our lives feeling happy all the time, or even most of the time. There are so many things that are beyond our control.
Yet Psalm 1 points to something that IS in our control. Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord, who meditate upon it day and night. This then requires a further determination of the law and what its ultimate ends are. Here, we are fortunately given the answer in Mark 12:29-30. When asked what the pinnacle, the epitome, of God’s law was, Jesus answered: “The first is this: ’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
The summary of the law, the key to happiness, is love: love of God, and love of each other. When we do this, we bless God, and bless each other. But we also bless ourselves, and remind ourselves of what roots us in the heart of real truth, and real happiness. The key is not to sit in “the seat of scoffers,” to all-too-coolly hold ourselves aloof from real connection and real risk in loving, but to embrace love and the happiness it brings whole-heartedly, and damn the risk of failure. Love never fails, but is, to quote Shakespeare again in Sonnet 116, “an ever-fixed mark, that looks on tempests, and is never shaken.” That’s the love that God offers us and at the same time calls us to embody. Happy are those who delight in the law of love, which is the end of all our days, and the promise of all our longings. Alleluia!
Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of Missouri. She attends Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, MO. She is a member of and musician at the Church of the Holy Communion in University City, Missouri, in the Diocese of Missouri, and tweets daily prayers and news of note @HolyCommUCity. Her blog is Abiding in Hope.
Image: Hibiscus of Joy by Leslie Scoopmire