Category Archives: proverbs

Help Yourself

Do not eat the bread of the stingy; do not desire their delicacies;

for like a hair in the throat, so are they.

“Eat and drink!” they say to you; but they do not mean it.

Proverbs 23:6-7 NRSV

Hot coffee fills the urns. Pitchers of juice and water are surrounded by paper cups. The table holds cookies, crackers, cheese, and veggies with dip. There are pretty plates and napkins on either end. Sometimes there’s a centerpiece. Someone went to a lot of trouble and no little expense to provide the refreshments. It could be the reception at a PTA meeting, snacks for the school concert’s intermission, coffee hour after worship, or a neighborhood open house. Everything is lovely, until someone violates an unspoken rule. It might be kids must wait for adults to take food, or two items only until everyone has gone through the line, or you must eat everything on your plate before taking anything else. The rule breaker is served a pointed look, a roll of the eyes, or a cutting comment about the lack of manners to go with that extra cookie. If the rule breaker is a child, it might be a harsh word and a plate taken away. Whatever the consequence, the stinginess of the host is a far greater problem than the ill manners or ignorance of the guest.

I believe in teaching good table manners; I believe rules of etiquette evolved because they make communal life easier and more fair. Eating what’s on my plate rather than wasting food makes a lot of sense – it honors the bounty of the earth and the work it took to create the food on the table. But begrudging an extra cookie or an uneaten apple slice? If my generosity as a host is tied to a specific set of rules, I’m not really giving the food freely – I’m trading it for orderly behavior and obligatory thanks.

I don’t want to be an ill mannered or inconsiderate guest. Even more, I don’t what to be a stingy host. Whether host or guest, I want to be grateful for the food on the table, the hands that prepared it, the mouths that enjoy it, and the God who delights in true hospitality given and received.

God, grant me a grateful heart and the ability to be generous to everyone who finds himself or herself at my table. Amen.

Harsh Startup

A harsh startup occurs when a discussion starts with a critical, sarcastic, or contemptuous tone.

William Smith wrote these words in How the Other Half Lives [Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2010 p. 107], referring to John Gottman’s research into what strengthens and what weakens marriage relationships.  The gist of it: a negative beginning leads to a negative outcome. Resolving conflicts and keeping a positive relationship rely on partners approaching differences of opinion with affection and respect. It makes sense that this applies to all kinds of situations and relationships – positive regard for others, even when there is disagreement and conflict, fosters progress and preserves the dignity of everyone involved.

Why is it so hard to approach disagreement with respect for the person on the other side of the issue? Why is it so easy to move from disagreement to personal attack, especially since it doesn’t end well for anyone involved? Avoiding the harsh startup makes so much sense, but it can be difficult to do when discussing important points of disagreement and conflict.

I’d like to say that I never begin discussions with my husband, family, friends, and acquaintances with a harsh startup, but I can’t. Just a few days back, I opened with harsh words  in a discussion about what kind of car to buy and where to buy it. This wasn’t exactly a life-or-death issue, just a question about a possible auto purchase. Fortunately, neither of us chose to continue down a dark verbal path because of my thoughtless words.

Gottman wasn’t the first person to realize that cutting remarks lead nowhere good for anyone. Sarcasm didn’t start with my generation and contempt has been around for thousands of years. But so has the solution, and it was vital enough to be included in our sacred writings:

 A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1, NRSV

[For more on Gottman’s research in marriage studies, see Gottman, J. and Silver, N.; The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004). For more on this subject by William Smith, see Fredrickson, J and Smith, W; How the Other Half Lives: the challenges facing clergy spouses & partners (Cleveland: The Pilbrim Press, 2010), chapter six]

Ants

Go to the ant, you lazybones, consider its ways and be wise. Without having any chief or officer or ruler, it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its sustenance in harvest. How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior. Proverbs 6:6-11 NRSV

 

There’s a big difference between being a good worker and a workaholic, and that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle these days. Either work all the time to further a career and amass wealth or be a shiftless weight on society. If a few biblical words are thrown into the mix to encourage hard work to avoid the fires of eternal damnation, this either/or reality has a lot more power. Suddenly, God’s love and personal worth are tied to unceasing work.

There’s a space somewhere between spending every waking minute working or thinking about work and spending all day sitting on the couch in a bathrobe binge watching movies and playing online Scrabble. The mind, heart, and soul need free time and the chance to work hard. After all, who says ants don’t stop long enough to see the beauty of the world on their way to work?

The Source and the Message

Hear, my child, your father’s instruction, and do not reject your mother’s teaching. Proverbs 1:8 NRSV

Listen, children, to a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight; for I give you good precepts: do not forsake my teaching. When I was a son with my father, tender, and my mother’s favorite, he taught me, and said to me, “Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments and live. Get wisdom and insight: do not forget, nor turn away, from the words of my mouth. Proverbs 4:1-5 NRSV

If you want to see good parenting, look in the grocery store or the public library; if you want to see atrocious parenting, do the same. In any number of shops or schools you will see parents ignoring their children, or speaking to them in ways that demean and humiliate. You will also see loving glances between parents and their children, and hear patient and respectful dialogue even in difficult situations. The power these words have to foster or maim the spirit isn’t immediately visible most times – it’s five, ten, twenty, forty years down the line that it’s revealed in the beauty and the ugliness, the soundness and the brokenness that mark the men and women the children grew into.

What happens when a parent says to a child: listen to me! What happens when a mother or father tells a son and a daughter that life and wisdom comes from listening to what is said? I think the answer depends not so much on the exact words as much as the actions of their source. If love and respect are offered to a child, parental mistakes and shortcomings will be forgiven and advice will be experienced as an offering of love. If fear and insulting judgement are offered, parents will be unable to admit mistakes and faults, foisting whatever is imperfect upon their child’s narrow shoulders – a burden rather than a blessing. It doesn’t matter how good and true the words used might be – they are weaponized, harming the child and even the child’s child.

The source and the message are never truly separate either way. For this reason alone, it should make us think very carefully and deeply before we say these three words: listen to me! Because our children will…

Happy?

Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy. Proverbs 3:13-18 NRSV

Once the basics of food, clothing, and shelter are met, happiness doesn’t have much at all to do with wealth or possessions. That’s why wisdom is better than a pile of precious metal: gold and silver can’t make an unhappy person happy in anything more than a momentary sense, and a happy person will be happy with or without them. Wise people know this vital truth.

I don’t know if wise and happy people live longer in terms of years, but they live more in the days given them. Whether they are monetarily richer or recipients of more accolades, I can’t say – but they consider what they have more than enough and do not take offense at the slights (intentional or unintentional) that come their way.

The wise walk down the street, seeing in the world around them life, love, and infinite possibility. Could the street have been straighter and the weather better? Perhaps. Could it have been worse? Sure. But isn’t it enough to be alive in this God-given world, in this time and this place? Isn’t what life offers marvelous? How we answer those questions reveal our wisdom or folly, our abiding happiness or impatient discontent.

Self-Inflicted

My child, if sinners entice you, do not consent. If they say, “Come with us; let us lie in wait for blood; let us wantonly ambush the innocent; like Sheol let us swallow them alive and whole, like those who go down to the Pit. We shall find all kinds of costly things; we shall fill our houses with booty. Throw in your lot among us; we will all have one purse” –

My child, do not walk in their way, keep your foot from their paths; for their feet run to evil, and they hurry to shed blood. For in vain is the net baited while the bird is looking on; yet they lie in wait – to kill themselves! and set an ambush – for their own lives! 

Such is the end for all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.

Proverbs 1:10-19 NRSV

When you grab all you can get, that’s what happens: the more you get, the less you are. Proverbs 1:19, The Message

Years ago, I watched a biography of Michael Douglas. Most of it, I’ve forgotten, but one part stands out still. When asked about one of his most famous lines – “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good” (Gordon Gekko, Wall Street)- he said with some astonishment: “I was amazed how many people adopted that as a creed. They missed the whole point.”

Gordon Gekko the character has a Wikipedia page; he was the archetype for many a Wall Street player who contributed to the destabilization of the financial market and the disappearance of untold retirement fund millions a decade ago. Many were never prosecuted and it seems that most paid very little if any cost for the devastation they caused. They robbed others to live a life of luxury, and they got away with it…or so it seems.

The older I get, the more I am convinced that there is no such thing as “getting away with it.” There’s a spiritual and emotional cost to the damage a greedy person inflicts on others. The bill that comes due may not be a prison sentence or a revoking of civil liberties. For a short period of time, a thief may even think himself or herself fortunate for dodging consequences. But the harm we do others for material gain we don’t even need is real and it’s deadly. The Ferrari may still be in the garage, the ocean view stunning, and a continued life of luxury guaranteed. Yet, such an opulent stage won’t bring happiness, peace, or the ability to escape the spiritual cannibalism that is no less deadly for being self-inflicted.

 

Fear, reworded

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. Proverbs 1:7

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. Proverbs 3:5

Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. Proverbs 3:7

NRSV

Fear is not a good translation in this modern age because it’s understood as an emotional response rather than a philosophical or religious perspective. For most of us, fear is the same as terror, fright, dismay, or anxiety. Fear understood this way leaves no room for trust, much less a whole-hearted trust!

A more accurate definition of Fear in these verses would be something like this: 1)awareness of both our own mortality and limitations and 2) of God’s eternal, infinite, and loving nature, and 3) respect for the difference.

I favor Eugene Peterson’s translation, found in The Message:

Start with God – the first step in learning is bowing down to God; only fools thumb their noses at such wisdom and learning.

Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own.

Don’t assume you know it all. Run to God! Run from Evil!

The Message (NavPress, 2016 – online at Bible Gateway)

The world did not begin with us, and it will not end when we die. Life managed to exist before us and will continue on after us. There are untold marvels that came before us and countless miracles that we won’t live to see. Everything begins with God, even you and even me. The wise experience this truth as a blessing; the foolish reject it for the curse they assume it to be.