Whatever becomes hard becomes unyielding and brittle, unable to accept change. The sixth-century Chinese sage Lao Tsu observed,
A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their deaths they are withered and dry.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.
The first time I read this I was nodding my head in agreement along with Lao Tsu, that is until I got to the last two lines.
The hard and strong will fall. The soft and the weak will overcome.
Wait…what? Doesn’t this go against everything we ever hear? The weak are oppressed. The strong lord it over the poor and keep them poor. To get ahead in this world and succeed you must be strong, not just physically, but in this cynical age you must be mentally tough as well. Isn’t that what we hear and see modeled?
Shortly afterwards a few words popped into my mind: Still full of sap. Still green. Where had I heard that before?
And then I remembered. It’s from Psalm 92. The last part of that psalm reads:
The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the LORD,
they flourish in the courts of our God.
They still bring forth fruit in old age,
they are ever full of sap and green,
to show that the LORD is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.
— Psalm 92:12-15 (Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition)
Even trees, when they grow old are apt to lose a part of their juice and foliage: and men in old age are subject unto all sorts of decays, both outward and inward, and can become withered and dry. It’s rare to see a man or woman in old age naturally vigorous, healthy, and strong. But here a special grace is promised to those who believe in the Lord. That promised grace is that when believers are in the grips of the natural decays of the body, or even of spiritual decay, there is a provision that will help to make us flourish and be fruitful.
God is encouraging us against all the decays in our attitudes and even our temptations of our mature years. Just think of all the oppositions that fly at a Christian in their older age, the difficulties with it, the temptations that must be conquered, the weariness we feel after a long spiritual conflict, and we see instead evidence of the faithfulness and power of God in His promise.
Over the weekend I did something I’ve done hundreds of times before with little to no difficulty: I played eighteen holes of golf. Now, I’ve always had difficulty in playing a good round of golf (score-wise) but I’ve never had a difficulty physically. But I haven’t had the time to golf for three years and by the 13th or 14th hole on Saturday a thought began to cloud my mind: I am getting old. It was getting harder to walk the slopes that would approach the greens and tee boxes, and my arms and back were telling me that by then they had very little left in the tank. And this is where a temptation slipped onto my radar. The temptation to feel sorry for myself. To brood excessively over days wasted and time lost. It was bad enough that my muscles and back were sore and stiff, but it seemed my mind wanted to follow and settle into that vast room we all reserve for the biggest of pity parties.
For the first time in my entire life I heard a voice inside my head say to me “Jeff, you’re getting old.”
I have to tell you, I’m not a fan of that voice.
To help push my mind into that party room was my surroundings. I was golfing with men and women I’d known since the age of 18, in our college town, in honor of our friend Rob who had been killed ten summers before in a car accident. I was with Jeff and Chet (my teenage son Nolan completed our foursome). On the next tee were Dan, Scott, Carter and Mike. In the next fairway I could see Gary, John, Allison, Melanie and Cindy. I knew them all as teens and kids, and wondered if any of them would admit to being as sore as I was.
As I get older it is tempting to dig in my heels and become set in my ways. To close myself off from new experiences, new people, or new opportunities. We get comfortable in our little safety zone and before we know it we’re the old man standing on the porch in our slippers and bathrobe yelling at the kids to get off our lawns.
So what do we do? What’s the solution? How do we keep the juices flowing and stay sappy? Some would answer that we remain open to all things. Find new dreams. Embark on new adventures. Get out of our comfort zones. All of these are true. But for me personally, I find that I am unable to do any of them unless I first do what the first few lines in Psalm 92 spell out:
It is good to give thanks to the LORD,
to sing praises to thy name, O Most High;
to declare thy steadfast love in the morning,
and thy faithfulness by night,
As I’ve aged I’ve found it easier to give thanks. I’m not embarrassed to admit that twice a day I sit on my patio and audibly sing praises. There are simple hymns that begin Morning and Evening Prayers in the Divine Office and I’ve become pretty good at using a modified chant of sorts. It clears my head and so far hasn’t annoyed the neighbors. My beagle doesn’t bark so that’s something. By participating in these offices of prayer I attempt in my own way to declare my love in the morning and my faithfulness by night. It is a time of praise, or Lauds, in the morning and of thanksgiving in the evening. Praise, not petition. Or at least not too many petitions, though I do have one or two requests for God now and then.
Later this year I’ll further renew myself at a silent retreat over several days time. It is there that I’m looking forward to soften the dryness that comes with the cynicism of this political season. It will be at this remote and prayerful location that I learn once again to be more gentle and yielding.
So how can the soft and weak overcome?
Just as I learned years ago that I cannot get through this life on my own without the help of both loved ones and God Himself, with this maturity of mine has come the wisdom to know that it’s all too easy to become stiff and dry. I’ve tried to do things my way before. I’ve stood on a worldly rock overlooking the stormy seas and raging winds and defiantly held my fist against it.
The rain didn’t stop, and the winds blew my butt down that slippery rock and into the cold, murky waters.
I’ve learned that lesson. I had to be taught it too many times.
I am planted in the House of the Lord. The winds still howl and the rains still pour, but my roots go deeper to drink and the sap still runs through these veins.
I bend, but do not break.
©2012 Jeff A Walker. All Rights Reserved.