Sunday, May 29, 2016

Words of Wisdom

With patience a ruler may be persuaded,
   and a soft tongue can break bones.
If you have found honey, eat only enough for you,
   or else, having too much, you will vomit it.
Let your foot be seldom in your neighbour’s house,
   otherwise the neighbour will become weary of you and hate you.
Like a war club, a sword, or a sharp arrow
   is one who bears false witness against a neighbour.
Like a bad tooth or a lame foot
   is trust in a faithless person in time of trouble.
Like vinegar on a wound
   is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.
Like a moth in clothing or a worm in wood,
   sorrow gnaws at the human heart.
If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
   and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;
for you will heap coals of fire on their heads,
   and the
Lord will reward you.
The north wind produces rain,
   and a backbiting tongue, angry looks.
It is better to live in a corner of the housetop
   than in a house shared with a contentious wife.
Like cold water to a thirsty soul,
   so is good news from a far country.
Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain
   are the righteous who give way before the wicked.
It is not good to eat much honey,
   or to seek honour on top of honour.
Like a city breached, without walls,
   is one who lacks self-control.
  -- Proverbs 25: 15-28

I used to work with a guy named Bob. We didn't work in the same department, but it was a small,
bull-pen type place where everybody was more or less in the same room. Bob had a very dry sense of humor. He had his favorite buzzwords and replies. The one I remembered best was when someone would ask how the day was going, he would always come back with "Same stuff, different day, ground finer."  Of course, he didn't say "stuff", but it became a catch phrase for the whole office.

The lady I called Granny had similar sayings that would pop up from time to time. The first time I went to visit her,  she told me something she said she told every guest. "The first day you're here, we wait on you. The second day, you wait on yourself. The third day you start waiting on us!"  It was all in good fun, but somehow I enjoyed doing a little bit of waiting on them; it was like being part of the family.

Ben Franklin had a similar proverb or saying that was a bit more pointed than Granny's: "Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days." While Mr. Franklin was much more well-known than Granny, she had a gentility and politeness he didn't always exhibit. He did, however, have Poor Richard's Almanac, and hundreds of pithy sayings that stated general truths or pieces of advice. There's one for almost every situation, occasion, or even just for everyday thought.

The book of Proverbs is considered a book of wisdom, sayings and moral lessons that are rather pithy and which convey truths in a commonly-understood language. Granny may have had the saying about the third day, as did Ben Franklin, but Proverbs also has somewhat the same wisdom: "Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor's house, otherwise the neighbor will become weary of you and hate you." The use of similes, comparing two unlike things that usually are preceded by "like," create contrasts that point in the same direction. They become part of the culture by being short and meaningful.

Wisdom often comes in small packages. Jesus tucked a lot of wisdom in words like love, faith, believe. Love your neighbor, faith has made you whole, do not fear--only believe. How often do we forget those bits of wisdom, particularly if they make us uncomfortable or just slip through the cracks of our mental filing system. It's uncomfortable to be asked to love our neighbor, particularly if they are "different" from  us in some way. It's hard to have faith that things will work out, especially when facing things like cancer, poverty, homelessness or the like. It's hard not to be afraid when facing those same things and the uncertainty they bring. It's hard to live in a world out of control-- our control.

"Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control." The world admires people with self-control, people who can stand on the ramparts and appear to be masters of all they survey. We reserve scorn for those we perceive to be without self-control--the addict, the obese, the homeless family living in their car, the mentally ill among others. How is this reflecting what Jesus taught in short, simple terms? How are we different than the crowd picking up stones to cast? Ben Franklin had a few words of wisdom here: "How many observe Christ's birthday; how few his precepts."

Perhaps we need to look for little bits of wisdom that are like shiny shells in the sand. They are easily overlooked and they require a modicum of effort to bend over and pick up, but there is a small slice of the world that can be held in the hand and observed. It can be a tiny piece that can be the linch pin for solving the whole puzzle before us.

Maybe it will remind us to look for the key words - love, faith, believe. And it may provoke other key words that we may have forgotten. Perhaps Ben has a final word of wisdom for this moment: "Work as if you were to last a hundred years. Pray as if you were to die tomorrow."

Proverbs -- words to live by.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café on Saturday, May 28, 2016.

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