• Craig Mueller

When Self-Help Isn't Enough

You know what a self-help book is, right? Some can be pretty ridiculous. Such as: Knitting with Dog Hair. Better a sweater from a dog you know and love than a sheep you’ve never met. Or: How to Get Your Husband to Talk to You. And this one from a Devotions for Teens series: Anyone Can Be Cool, but Awesome Takes Practice.

If the Bible were a bookstore—remember when there were bookstores—Proverbs would be the self-help section. For the next three Sundays we have readings from the book of Proverbs. It is filled with wisdom for life. A lot of it seems like good, old fashioned advice. It is not so much about theological things like divine revelation and salvation, but down to earth things.

The key verse: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Fear here doesn’t mean being afraid of God. It means reverence for God and seeking good rather than evil.

Think of proverbs as short, pithy sayings that pack a punch. Tweets have up to 240 characters. Proverbs are closer to 60-70.

Here are a few popular ones:

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray. There would be plenty of proverbs that teachers and parents could hand out to kids as a new school year begins.

Here are some more: A good name is better than riches. And in a time when there is greater economic disparity than ever, the poor and rich have this in common: God is the creator of all. Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity. Those who are generous are blessed.

Short, sweet and to the point. I guess we could do worse. Think of all the other slogans trying to get our attention. Advertisements—now customized to our personal tastes and buying habits. Posts and tweets preaching to the choir, berating the “other,” further dividing “us” and “them,” making us feel superior to others. Finally, consider how popular culture and our personal news sources shape our values.

There is a self-help book called Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Here is a sampling: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today. Set yourself in order before you criticize the world (yikes!). Assume the person you are listening to may know something you don’t (double yikes). And finally, pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

What about good, old-fashioned American proverbs like: A fool and his money are soon parted. Better to be poor and healthy than rich and sick. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open.

Or the little saying inside a fortune cookie: The early bird gets the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese. Nothing is so much to be feared as fear. The wise man is the one who makes you think he is dumb. The usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness.

Life is hard. Life is complicated. Who couldn’t use some help, some advice for life. Wouldn’t you love some of these sayings on a refrigerator magnet, embroidered on a hand towel, or on a calendar with a quote-a-day!

There’s wisdom in the book of James. The key verse sounds like a proverb: “faith without works is dead.” Favoritism and partiality have no place in our assemblies, James tells us. You can’t treat the well-dressed person better than the homeless person. Think of this as a how-to manual on loving our neighbor, especially those of a lower economic class, but it’s also wisdom for how we treat people with less social power such as refugees, people of color, those of other gender identities or sexual orientations.

I’ve read my share on self-help books that help me work on myself. Yet the endless search for happiness, health and wealth; the lifelong project of building a life; the never-ending self-betterment program can be exhausting. Will we ever be wise enough? Good enough? Fit enough? Spiritual enough? To be clear, all the striving is part of what it means to be human. It’s what keeps us going. It motivates us. It energizes us.

But we gather around a gospel in which God seeks us. And longs for the well-being not only of but all the world. For Christians, Christ is our wisdom—not only his teachings, but his essence.

There is no self-help for the nameless Gentile woman in Mark's gospel who seeks healing for her daughter. Jesus spouts what may have been a Jewish proverb of his time: “Let the children be fed first. It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” In a time when racism and xenophobia are on the rise in our world, hearing a racial slur from Jesus is unsettling to say the least. Yet as human, Jesus was a product of his time as we are ours. Who would have thought that this outsider woman would throw out a proverb that opens Jesus’ heart and expands his ministry: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

When Jesus heals the man with the speech impediment, he proclaims a one-word proverb, a pearl of wisdom: ephphatha. It means: be opened.

When there are too many words, too many proverbs, too many self-help books, too much advice, too many impediments, the living Christ meets us here with one word that melts us down, changes us, and remakes us in the divine image. Ephphatha. Be opened.

The word of grace opens our closed minds and our broken hearts. The bread of life and cup of salvation opens our lives to mercy and forgiveness. The person sitting next to us open us to a world beyond ourselves. The welcome in the place challenges us to open ourselves to people who don’t look like us, think like us, vote like us, or pray like us. The sending at the end of the liturgy opens us to our lifelong mission: to go in peace, serve the Lord, share the good news, and be signs of divine openness and grace.

Ephphatha. It is gift, it is gospel, it is grace. It’s the one-word proverb for today. Ephphatha. Be opened!

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© 2017 Craig Mueller