A Time for Proverbs I
Bill Long 7/21/09
Reflections on a Kansas Seminar
The Biblical book that meant most to me for about a decade, from 1995-2005, was the Book of Job. I loved the way that Job addressed God in an uncompromisingly defiant fashion when his world had fallen apart. He mouthed what many people are slow even to think when distress enters. But then, about 2006, the Book of Job began to lose its allure. Part of it may have resulted from my not feeling that distress was part of my life anymore; in any case, I discovered that a nearby book, Proverbs, began to grow on me like Job did in the 1990s. I began to see Proverbs not as a collection of banal or commonplace adages but as a profound exploration of the human condition, using the method of short, pithy statements to plumb the depths of human life. So, I began to take notes on the book, writing down verses that appealed to me. Before long I had 100 proverbs that began to clamor for attention; I knew I wouldn't be satisfied until I had written one, or maybe more, books on them.
I began to see that the Book of Proverbs was really making an audacious claim--that the way of wisdom, or the path of "maximum" life--had "rules" to it and ways to "master" the way or the path. I began to see Proverbs as the most all-encompassing system of religious belief in the Bible, with the possible exception of the Book of Leviticus. Wisdom calls; wisdom gives guidance on how to live; wisdom tells us how to act, speak, and deal with people; wisdom gives us almost all we need for the good life. Once you "buy into" the importance of wisdom (Prov. 16:16), you are brought deeply into a universe which unfolds for you in ever deeper layers. It is as if you have entered a bathyscaphe and been taken to a layer of the ocean you never knew existed--and then you have the privilege of investigating that level of life with unhurried pleasure. Such an activity yields learning of immense power and joy.
So, I began to work on the book on Proverbs late in April. Entitled Wisdom Seeking: 30 Days with the Book of Proverbs, the book explores the world of Proverbs in three introductory chapters before looking at 30 specific topics in Proverbs in the rest of the book. A later essay will go through the "flow" of the book, which I am currently editing. In the remainder of this essay I will talk about a seminar I did on Proverbs at the Community Congregational Church, Garden City, Kansas as a way of building a partnership among learners in Proverbs.
The Idea Behind the Seminar
I mentioned to Pastor Mike Lake when I visited GC in April, 2009, that I would love not only to write on Proverbs but to have a congregation that would "partner" with me in the endeavor. This partnership would include two seminars in 2009, a book signing and conversations in between seminars with whoever in the congregation that wanted to join with me in thinking through the Book of Proverbs. The project is supported by a memorial fund set up by a long-time member of the church, and she was delighted to have this scholarship-oriented use being made of the fund. A dozen of us met for five hours on Saturday July 18 in Garden City and talked Proverbs.
On To The Seminar
Four observations anchored the first hour of presentation and discussion. First, we live our lives "between the Books of Job and Proverbs." That is, Job is about what happens when life falls apart; Proverbs probes how to live when life is pretty orderly. Life is never really so bad as Job depicts; life is never really so predictable and organized as Proverbs presents. Yet, both Job and Proverbs give us "true" pictures of life. If we are to liken life as a path down a road and imagine that Job and Proverbs are two curbstones of the road, we can say that we truly live our lives between Job and Proverbs. Sometimes life veers perilously close to Job either because the actual events of life tend to overwhelm or because we feel that life is about ready to overcome us. Other times we approximate a life of clarity, patience, divine blessing and gentle walks down the path before us. But life is lived between Job and Proverbs.
Second was the question of whether the place we occupy on that road is one that is chosen or imposed by circumstances. We had a vigorous debate on that subject, with most of the participants wanting to argue that life is more a matter of choice than of circumstance. Certainly that attitude reflects the dominant American philosophy of life (you are what you make of life), but we can see how a variety of perspectives would be useful to air.
Third, we discussed the nature of a proverb in the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs are short, pithy statements that reflect what I call "compressed wisdom" about life. I became entranced by compressed wisdom when I realized that it was that which made two of the more memorable English-language authors, William Shakespeare and John Milton, so famous. Proverbs, then, gives us compressed wisdom about life.
Fourth, I wanted to probe more deeply into what one might call the philosophy of Proverbs. In a nutshell, it is that life can be managed or mastered. Wisdom in Proverbs is "life mastery." One who exercises a certain skill knows how to make something or do a task well, but one who has wisdom knows how to live a good life. Life is "mastered" by living wisely. If the particular skill that a woodworker brings to life is ability to shape things in that medium, the particular skill of wisdom is the "interpretation of a thing" (cf. Ecclesiastes 8:1). Wisdom, thus, gives one insight into living, into the very best life to live. For that reason, it is a most precious book.
The next essay describes the people you'll meet in Proverbs.