December 2016 -January 2017
Beyond the Walls
On Being Fat and Flourishing
By Brenda Evans
It’s actually Ruby’s fault. She started it. “Be fat and flourishing,” she advised, “even when you get old. That’s what the King James Bible says.” She ought to know.
Not that Ruby, a long-ago Kansas City friend, was overweight, rich, and ready to put one foot in the grave. She wasn’t. She was in her 70s (or her eighth decade, and my husband Bill reminds me I’m there, too), living on retirement income, and only a little plump. What Ruby meant was that older people like her still ought to have vigorous sapwood and bear fruit. Exactly what the Psalmist meant by “fat and flourishing” in 92:14.
I thought of her last week when yet another tree fell across the road we travel to and from town—a 15-inch pine at least 40 feet tall this time. Apparently, the sap to its roots had dried up, so they weakened their hold on the soil and keeled over. Tree sap flows through a layer between the heartwood of a tree and its bark. This sapwood layer is soft and living. Heartwood in the middle of the tree is harder, without sap, and more or less dead. If a tree has healthy sapwood it continues to thrive and bear fruit, even if its heartwood begins to rot out. Ruby was determined to be fruitful sapwood.
Sometimes, we older folk act like we are useless. We make unfounded excuses for taking ourselves out of activities, including community and church ones. Then again, sometimes our oldness slaps us in the face, like it did when I turned 70. My husband Bill congratulated me, kissed me, and promptly told me for the first time that I was now in my eighth decade. A milestone to him, one he was well past and proud of. A hazard to me, it felt like he had skinned all the bark off my shins. So, I did what any wounded 70-year-old wife might do; I denied it.
“Can’t be,” I said. “I’m just 70.”
“Is,” he said. A man of few words. Sometimes.
“Eighth decade doesn’t make sense to me.”
“Does to me.”
“Well, just tell me why.”
And he did, on and on, until I finally understood. Sort of. At least I caved in, because I knew he was a numbers guy, and I was not. Actuarial charts, spreadsheets, statistics. He understands them all.
But so what if I’m in my eighth decade…or seventh or ninth or whatever decade, for that matter? My vitality in the Lord and my fruitfulness does not have to die. That’s what Ruby meant. I can stay full of sap and green, not turn into heartwood just yet. To Ruby, becoming heartwood meant getting to that place in life where you say your time has passed, and there’s not a thing left for you to do.
I admit to some things I can’t do now and other things I never could. I’ve always had limitations. Never could run with horses, for example, as the Lord reminded Jeremiah. Lion-infested thickets along my Jordan terrify me as well, always have (12:5). But I’m not ready to roll over into the easy, lifeless center and play dead, just waiting like heartwood to become a stick of furniture or firewood. Not yet anyway. I want to bear fruit.
There are many options for older folks. The Holy Spirit is the sap-producer in our lives—the place fruitfulness begins (Galatians 5:22-26). That fruitfulness is not just about developing inward graces of the Lord; it’s also about bearing those graces outwardly. Fruit is outgrowth, visible and useful for the benefit of others in all kinds of ways.
Take temperance, for example, a fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5. What bursts out of and grows on the limbs and branches of our lives when we are temperate? We tend to think first of sexual purity or avoiding certain vices such as alcohol, gluttony, gossip, and road rage—or home rage. (Something we personally don’t have much trouble with.)
But then there’s greed. We do have trouble with that, and that’s a fruit-of-the-Holy-Spirit issue. We older Christians can and should model self-restraint over our wants. Models are not just words on paper, 10-second sound bytes, or 140-character tweets. Models in the use of money are three-dimensional people who breathe, think, and do. They have length, width, and depth. Fruitful models are generous, frugal, self-controlled.
How do I measure up regarding money? What about my length, for example—my money habits over the long haul? How disciplined, accountable, and reliable am I? What about depth? Is my self-control thin as bark on a birch tree? Shallow discipline over money is a self-control failure that impacts family, friends, church, and community. Impulsivity and greed—always spending, bragging, grasping, hoarding—means no Spirit-induced sap is flowing through my life, and I’m no model. My roots are dried up, just waiting for collapse.
This week, the fallen pine is still there, half on the south side of the road, half on the north side with two lanes cleared through the middle for traffic to come and go. Chain saws have exposed its insides. I slowed yesterday to look at its heartwood and sapwood. They were there as I expected. I saw no rot. Just a lack of sap to the roots, I assume, made the tree vulnerable to collapse.
Tree removers will come soon and cut the pine into manageable logs or grind it into mulch or sawdust on the spot. That’s what you do to fallen trees. Jesus’ mote-and-beam parable came to mind, His words about sin—my neighbor’s and my own. Their speck. My log (Matthew 7:5). I have my favorite specks. Don’t we all? I’m quick to notice and talk about the sawdust of other people’s sins. Greed is one of those, always in someone else’s eye, not mine. Jesus warned about that.
I was reading Jeremiah 32 this morning on my daily route through the Chronological Bible. Jeremiah was praying in the courtyard of King Zedekiah’s palace in Jerusalem where he was imprisoned: “Ah Lord God,” he began and went on for several lines. Immediately, the Lord talked back to him: “I am the Lord, the God of all flesh: is there anything too hard for me?” (32:18-27). Jeremiah believed there is nothing God can’t do, including dealing with greed, listed among the despicable sins of Judah and Israel that brought about their judgment. Do I also believe God can do anything, including help me get my sap flowing against the destructive power of greed?
I think of Datchie—her arms always open, spread wide to hug anybody who came through her back door. Datchie was old, fragile, and with meager income, but her spirit was green and fruitful. She taped a $20 bill to the bottom of her kitchen trashcan to hide it from thieves, and to save it for someone in need. Becoming heartwood was anathema to Datchie. Even in extreme frailty, she was full of sap and flourishing. The spread of her arms and the breadth of her generosity flowed out to bless others. Into very old age, she continued to bear the beautiful fruit of generosity.
I want to be like Datchie. A Spirit-imbued old woman radical about bearing visible fruit: self-control, reliability, generosity, frugality. I want to be fat and flourishing for the Lord.
About the Writer: Brenda Evans is a retired English teacher. She and her husband Bill, former director of the Free Will Baptist Foundation, live in Ashland, Kentucky. Learn more about smart giving at www.fwbgifts.com.