Here in the Central States Synod—and across the ELCA—we’ve been talking about vitality for a few years now. When I was invited to do a devotion for a focus group on synod vitality recently, though, I realized that I had never done a word search for “vitality” in my trusty online Bible Concordance. So I did one, and added in “vital” just to cover my bases.
You will likely not be surprised to hear that these words don’t appear much in scripture. Compared to our holy testaments, “vital” and “vitality” are relatively new words—about as old as our Lutheran tradition, turns out.
Of course, translators have been known to insert new concepts into old texts. And sometimes when they do, their diction reveals something about the original text. Especially when you allow two different translations to talk to each other.
Case in point: Psalm 92. The NRSV, which never uses “vital” or “vitality” translates the center of the psalm like this:
12The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
13They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God.
14In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap,
The New English Translation, on the other hand, renders these verses like this:
12The godly grow like a palm tree; they grow high like a cedar in Lebanon.
13Planted in the Lord’s house, they grow in the courts of our God.
14They bear fruit even when they are old; they are filled with vitality and have many leaves.
So are we green and sappy, or vital and leafy?
Yes. At least I hope we are.
A vital community is growing—bigger and stronger. A vital community is planted in the Lord’s house, and all that it does grows out of its relationship to God, lived out in relationships with one another and the wider community. A vital community produces fruit, even when it’s old. Vital communities “have many leaves,” the NET says, or are “green and full of sap,” according to the NRSV rendering.
This language feels very evocative and appropriate to me, though I rarely think of my church or my synod as sappy. I’m going to now, because it turns out that “sappy” is a good word to describe a vital community.
Tree sap is made up primarily of that essence of life: water. It moves throughout the tree to distribute nutrients and maintain turgidity, or saturation. When a tree has lots of free-flowing, watery sap, it looks and feels healthy. All of its constituent parts (think leaves, branches, trunk) are full and strong. A sappy tree, the Psalmist reminds us, is a green and leafy tree.
And a sappy church is a similarly healthy place. It drinks deeply from the waters of baptism and the nutrient-rich Word of God. It produces fruit across its ministries, offering life-long opportunities for faith formation, providing sustenance for all who come, and nourishment for the wider community as well. Different trees produce different kinds of sap, but all vital trees produce and distribute sap.
Some trees also produce resin, and here I offer a word of caution. If you’re not an amateur arborist, you might not have given much thought to the difference between sap and resin, but they are most definitely different. Resin does not flow freely through the tree. It flows from individual ducts when the tree feels harmed in some way, and it serves a wholly protective function. If a branch is broken off, for example, the tree will seal off the hole left with resin, which eventually hardens and becomes impenetrable. Trees often emit resin to seal up the hole made by an invasive species like the pine beetle. The resin works great. In fact, nothing can get in. Feel free to pause here and take in that image.
Maybe you’ve seen it happen at church. Wary of changes in our environment, or in order to ward off further loss, churches can close in, harden their exteriors. This is an understandable instinct that can prevent harm. It can also prevent growth and new life. In fact, only some trees produce resin, and very few resin-capable trees also produce fruit.
So, if we want to be vital, we would do well to concentrate on being more sappy, and less resiny (it’s a word—I looked it up). We should concentrate on creating an environment in which people and ideas flow freely. We should stop periodically to ask ourselves whether we are firmly planted in the Lord’s house, as Psalm 92 declares the righteous to be. Here are a couple more questions to consider, as you work to become a community full of sap.
- What interrupts the free flow of ideas, innovation, and welcome in our church?
- How might we create a sappier, more verdant environment for all?