A Few of My Favorite Proverbs - Reservoir Church
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Lives That Work

A Few of My Favorite Proverbs

Steve Watson

Apr 28, 2024

When I was a public school teacher, I had this fascinating principal Bak Fun Wong.  And one of the interesting things about him is he often led through proverbs. Like during a long one on one conversation or in a key moment in a staff meeting, he’d almost never weigh in with a solution or a proposal to whatever we were trying to figure out. Instead, he’d drop these proverbs – these one line sayings into a discussion and invite you to work with them and see where they’d take you.

For instance, in working on some really big change we didn’t know how to pull off, he might say:

To do the impossible, you have to see the invisible.

And to be honest, I’d be kind of annoyed. Like eyesight of the invisible is a power we do not have. Maybe I’d think, you know, Bak Fun, that is not what I would consider a solution, or a plan. Or maybe I’d think, Bak Fun, I’ve heard you say that 14 times this year already and it’s not landing any differently this time. Or maybe I’d think, this is crying out for parody.

One of my co-teachers and I used to joke about creating a collection of twisted Bak Fun proverbs. So like this one – To do the impossible, you have to see the invisible. Became: yeah, but to do what’s actually possible, you have to pay freaking attention to what is visible. (I felt annoyed with Bak Fun sometimes – too abstract, too impractical.)

But Bak Fun kept with his ways. He was not asking for my feedback or approval. Which I am grateful for. Because, surprise, surprise, he was usually wiser than me. He was inviting us into deeper, more powerful truths about what makes life work. And he was doing something better for his team than giving us solutions. He was creating an environment where we could co-construct a way forward together. And his proverbs kind of shaped the container of that environment.

I became a convert, in a way. 

Bak Fun had a lot of these proverbs. He was also a Chinese calligraphy artist, and he would paint these proverbs in black ink, with their English translations, frame them and give them to us as gifts. I have a couple on my wall in my office. And 15 years since we stopped working together, I still think of them all the time. Not because they’re always true in every circumstance. They’re not.

But they’re always deep. They’re always true in part. And if you can think of them as conversation starters and not just commands, they’re pretty powerful. As last words, meh, they may or may not always be right. But as first words, they’re pretty compelling. 

This is the kind of thing we find in the Bible’s wisdom literature of Proverbs. Sometimes they seem helpful and deep, other times the opposite – annoying little cliches. They can seem disarmingly simple. Out of touch with our times. 

Our Saturday community group at the church spends half our time every week in Bible study, and yesterday we took a chapter of Proverbs and we each had to find the one we like the most, the one that seems truest, as well as they one that we like the least, the one that seems just plain wrong.

And I tell you that at first, it was a lot easier to pick out the ones we have problems with. Kind of fun, but geesh, there seems like some terrible advice in there. 

Next week we’ll look at a different type of wisdom literature. May is Mental Health awareness month. And the state of Massachusetts is including faith communities in that awareness initiative for the first time. I worked with a couple folks at the department of mental health to talk about this initiative and spread the word. And next week, I’ll preach a mental health related sermon from an Old Testament wisdom book called Job, which is all about suffering. The sermon is: What if Job had a therapist, or even a few good friends?

But this week, back in Proverbs. What I’ll do this week is share just a few of my favorite proverbs and share how and why they speak to me. I hope you like the Proverbs, but even more so, I hope there’s some helpful stuff in here about how we read this book or even any book of the Bible. And maybe even some helpful stuff about how we practice spiritual growth, spiritual formation at all, with or without the Bible driving that. 

So here we go, four of my favorite Proverbs and why. 

Here’s the first, maybe my most favorite. 

Proverbs 26:11 (Common English Bible)

11 Like a dog that returns to its vomit,

    so a fool repeats foolish mistakes.

This is a modern translation I like. The one I have memorized is a little more poetic. What often goes through my head is that one: As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool returns to his folly. 

I like this because it’s gross and really specific, so it’s memorable. 

I like it because it’s true. I mean, I grew up with dogs in the house – plural, almost always two or three at a time, and they are gross. And after no dogs in the house for like 30 years, I have one again, and yep, 30 years later, dogs are still gross. Just telling you. They’ll do stuff like this.

And it’s true about people. I mean who doesn’t have the ridiculously stupid things we do, and we know they mess up our lives, or someone else’s life, or create problems for a whole bunch of people. And we know it’s foolish, and we just keep on doing that. I mean maybe you don’t relate. There is allegedly a class of people that learns things the easy way. But I’m not one of them. 

And judging by what I see out in the world and – let’s keep it real – some of the stuff you all share with me – and I think a lot of them are not people that learn things the easy way. We can come back to our core mistakes, like our greatest hits of folly, again and again.

And as I was sharing with the group yesterday, I actually really like the “fool” proverbs. There’s a whole class of them. There are actually lots of “categories” of proverbs, and this is one of them – the ones that knock fools, or contrast foolishness with wisdom. And I like them because they’re real. 

I mean there are some people who seem really un-self aware or really un-self -regulated. Like they don’t direct their emotions and instincts into fruitful, positive sets of actions. And the Proverbs are like:

some people are like this a lot. Notice that. And maybe don’t hire people like this. Don’t work for people like this if you don’t have to. Don’t vote for people like this. Because fools are gonna fool. It’s going to keep happening.

And it’s not just other people. Like these fool proverbs invite me to get curious about the foolish parts of me.

  • Like where do I keep repeating the same no-common sense moves in my life?
  • Where am I stuck in the same negative grooves that aren’t doing me or anyone else any good? 

And if I can see that, this gives me a way to read this proverb. Or really any proverb, or life advice or direction. Three ways actually.

One, there’s an invitation here to know the truth about yourself. 

For next week’s sermon, I’m looking at a list that a guy named Chuck DeGroat developed. Chuck is a therapist and teacher. He actually founded a therapy center years ago that is connected with Pastor Lydia’s old church in the Bay Area, where she first worked as a pastor. And one of the things he does now is counsel pastors and other leaders whose lives have come off the rails. Really interesting person.

Anyway, he has this list of the five pillars of emotional health and the first two are self-awareness and self-regulation. Self-awareness and self-regulation. Knowing the truth about yourself, and being able to regulate, lead and direct yourself toward health.  

See the proverbs are first invitations to pay attention to the truth about ourselves. We should read them in the order of me – you – they, not the other way around. In other words, follow the advice of Jesus in pulling the plank out of our own eye, before we look at the speck in someone else’s. Let the proverbs help us examine the truth of our own life. And maybe beyond that examine the truth together with people we’re in direct relationship with. And then maybe lastly, give whatever leftover energy we have to think about people we’ll never know – famous people, people in the news, stuff like that. 

And as we read them to know the truth about ourselves, I think God would invite us to do self-awareness with compassion, not condemnation. Some of us in the group yesterday were noticing that we read Proverbs through this super-critical lens, because we’ve got a lot of critical voices in our head. And Proverbs can come off as kind of harsh sometimes. 

But I as a dog owner again, and so a dog lover, when my dog is gross like this, I don’t hate him for it. If he literally pukes out his food, and then walks back to it and eats it up, I’m not like:

you disgusting creature, you are never welcome in my house again.

No, I just stop him. (I don’t even know if that’s totally necessary. I Googled: should you let a dog… and it auto-filled from there… eat its own vomit…. apparently lots of us have wondered…. and the internet was somewhat divided on this subject)

But when it comes to me metaphorically going back to my own vomit again, I think I’m invited to see myself as I see my dog, which is to be like:

huh, this is not ideal. This is worth doing something about. But dang, even so, I love myself so much. I’m worth the work. I’m a work of art, and it’s worth cleaning up the smudgy parts that take me down.

Is it weird to hear someone else talk that way? It’s weird for me to talk that way. Like I am so beautiful, so worthy, so beloved, that it’s worth trying to sort out the fool parts of me. I’m worth it. It’s weird because we don’t mostly think of ourselves this way, but God does. God does. 

So if God or any tool of God’s like the Bible invites self-reflection, self-awareness, even self-critique, always filter it through a lens of growing self-compassion. Maybe I’m a slow learner. But I want to get there. I want to keep finding my way toward a life that works. In the Bible, this is called righteousness – good living, right relationships. I want to keep finding my way toward a life of love. 

Second favorite proverb. (And I stuck this one in last minute, so it won’t be on your screen)

Proverbs 26:15 (Common English Bible)

15 Lazy people bury their hand into the bowl,

    too tired to return it to their mouth.

So at first this is a crappy proverb. I was taking a walk with one of you this past week. We were talking about the stupid things we keep doing and about our struggle to start things and our even bigger struggles to finish things. 

And for both of us, this struggle is real, it’s deep, and we’re pretty sure it’s genetic too. There’s a family pattern. And there’s a diagnosis for this too.

And they were asking me for advice, and I joked to them, well, despite the sermons we’re doing now, don’t go to Proverbs, because they just call us lazy people. There’s a whole class of “lazy people” Proverbs, and they are not flattering. 

So it’s like:

thanks a lot, Bible. Call me a lazy person when I don’t finish things. Like you’re like the dum-dum who puts their spoon in the bowl of cereal, and never gets it back out to your mouth. Ha, ha, stupid you!

I don’t know about you, but that kind of shame does not inspire transformation in my life. 

But let’s read it sideways. 

What if this is an image more than a criticism? Like that not getting stuff done, or never getting stuff done on time, it’s like that person that doesn’t have the discipline to get their own breakfast into their mouth. As an image, it’s funny. It’s kind of illuminating. And it makes you wonder, like maybe something can be done here. Maybe there is hope.

And then what if you can edit the language to make it work for you. Like Proverbs says “lazy person” in some other language and culture from nearly three thousand years ago, but we can be like

– we’ve realized that is not a helpful thing to call anyone, including yourself.

So I can change it to something like

– people who struggle to get stuff done.

And what if when I read it this way

– people who struggle to get stuff done can be like that person with their spoon stuck in the bowl,

and what if I read it not from the fixed mindset that implies but from a growth mindset. Like

you’re never stuck exactly where you are. With help and intention and a little work, things can change.

And that can get me curious about what change is possible in my life today.

And then what if I read this not as a condemnation but as an invitation. And what if read it not as a statement but as a question? Like:

what would help you, Steve, not leave your spoon in the bowl today? 

And then that makes me think of this exercise that is recommended for people like me with ADHD, this little mindfulness exercise called mindful eating. Where now and then, when I find myself eating by myself, instead of eating in a hurry, or eating while working or scrolling on my phone, I can eat while doing nothing else. Eat slowly, and eat mindfully. Pay attention to the tastes and smells and feels of each bite.

And one thing that will happen is well, I’ll eat. I won’t leave my food in the bowl. And I’ll learn something about being present, right here, in the only place in the world that is real – the present now. And that kind of presence, it turns out, helps with a lot of things, including helping with getting things done.

As my yoga teacher says,

there are two places in the world you can be – you can be now here – or nowhere.

That’s it. Nowhere or now here. And now here is almost always a better place to be. 

See where a different way of reading Proverbs can take us. Away from right/wrong, either/or and towards curiosity, towards depth, towards wisdom. And away from compliance or obedience and toward discernment – toward finding God’s best path forward this moment, this day. This is the way, friends.

More briefly, my third favorite proverb. It’s a pair of two. 

Proverbs 26: 4-5 (Common English Bible)

4 Don’t answer fools according to their folly,

    or you will become like them yourself.

5 Answer fools according to their folly,

    or they will deem themselves wise.

This is the place where Proverbs most tells on itself and illustrates what I was just talking about. Like out of one side of its mouth – it’s like,

don’t talk to fools.

And then a second later, it’s like

make sure you give those fools an answer. 

Why? Well, because life is complicated. No one size fits all advice always applies. 

Sometimes people say messed up things and it is better to just not engage. Don’t sink to their level. It takes two people to argue. When someone else invites you to the table, you do not need to show up. But then sometimes, you’ve got to say something. Maybe that person is open to correction. Maybe someone else is listening that needs to hear.

How do you know which Proverb applies to you in any given moment? Well, it depends, right? I think the idea here is – no one verse in the Bible can tell you. Figure it out. Trust your intuition. Or don’t, and ask someone you trust for a second opinion. Wisdom is about finding the best way forward, not about one-size-fits all truisms. 

And last favorite proverb. This is actually a whole set of them. 

Proverbs 10:17, 11:14, 12:15 (Common English Bible)

10:17 Those who heed instruction are on the way to life,

    but those who ignore correction lose their way.

11:14 Without guidance, a people will fall,

    but there is victory with many counselors.

12:15 Fools see their own way as right,

    but the wise listen to advice.

Proverbs 17:1, 5-6, 18:24, 22:2 (Common English Bible)

17:1Better a dry crust with quiet

    than a house full of feasting with quarrels.

5 Those who mock the poor insult their maker;

    those who rejoice in disaster won’t go unpunished.

6 Grandchildren are the crown of the elderly,

    and the glory of children is their parents.

18:24 There are persons for companionship,

    but then there are friends who are more loyal than family.

22:2 The rich and the poor have this in common:

    the Lord made them both.

All of these proverbs are a little different, but to me they boil down to this: find your people. You’re going to need them. And they’re going to need you.

When I was 19, and just getting to know Grace, she asked me once:

do you ever feel bad for all your people have done?

She was thinking of me as a descendant of Europeans, people who not that long ago were trying to colonize the whole dang world. And she was like:

how’d that go for you all? Do you ever feel bad about that?

And looking back, that question was one of the beginnings of my journey toward racial awareness and racial justice. And it was one of the beginnings of my journey away from individualism as a default – I am who I am, me, myself and I – and toward collectivism – like we need each other. We are all in this together. 

But at the time, I had no idea what I said. But I know I thought: I have know idea what you’re talking about. I don’t have “a people.” Someone else did all that stuff. Nothing to do with me.

But the Proverbs are clear that people who think of themselves as an island – not needing others, not responsible to others, not part of a generational web of interconnected – people like that are – you guessed it – fools. 

Proverbs says we have people and we need people. The good life if we are going to find it includes a lot of listening and learning. Anyone who just depends on their own inner light, or their own so-called genius, or says they don’t need advisors and mentors and stuff, they are self-deluded. They’re being a fool.

And Proverbs says we don’t only need people, we need to be a part of a wide web of people that aren’t just like us. 

We’re living at a time in culture where it’s easy for our people to be people who are just like us, the people of our so-called “life stage” however we see that, or the people who look like us or spend like us or think like us, the people we vibe with. 

But these Proverbs have so many other directions their language for the collective goes in. We need a word where rich and poor are in community together, seeing their mutual created worth and value. We need our family, but sometimes we need our chosen family too – people that are more loving and loyal than our own family. We need younger and older too. The best thing for grandparents is their grandchildren, and the glory of kids is their parents. Literally, but metaphorically too. We need people of different generations from us. We really need each other. 

  • Who are your people, friends?
  • Who are you connected with?
  • How is your circle of people getting wider, not narrower?

If this feels hard, church is good for this. Try out a community group, or volunteer somewhere and see who you meet. Or talk to one of us pastors about this. We’d love for Reservoir to be a place where you have people and where you’re part of the people someone else has too. 

So that’s it – a few of my favorite Proverbs and a few ways to read them. And hopefully, you hear, with a few ways to receive spiritual input and wisdom in general 

  • Never just as me but always as part of a we. Not to use against someone else, but to try out on me first. 
  • Not with command and condemnation, but with curiosity and compassion.
  • Not fixed mindset, but growth mindset. 
  • Not one size fits all, but wondering what moves me toward larger, freer, more loving today.

I think this is the way, friends. I think this is the way.

Let’s pray.