I hear lots of people say they hate street art. It just doesn’t hold their interest nor does it seem to be saying much. I’ve been there too. At a glance much of street art comes to us as random, with its strange mishmash of squiggles, colours, lines and ideas. But street art, when done well, can enliven boring walls, offer up intrigue, and portray a message. Like all art you just have to stay with it a little longer.
I’ve heard people say, too, they find it hard to read Proverbs. The short sayings come across as random and the chapters seem to lack in themes. Yet I am convinced that if you stay with it, you’ll find inspiration, intriguing meaning, and worthwhile advice. Yes, you’ll find all kinds of sayings not only to keep you on your toes and out of trouble, but you’ll find hard-earned wisdom and values that beautify human life!
As a young man I used to read a chapter of Proverbs a day corresponding with the date of the month. I’d highlight the verses that jumped out at me. Looking back now, I realize that the feeling I got when reading Proverbs was akin to enjoying a wall of random street art.
So let's get into this by pointing out a few sayings that resemble street art in Proverbs 16. I’ll start with one with obvious meaning that only becomes intriguing if we stay with it. “Good judgment proves that you are wise, and if you speak kindly, you can teach others.” (V. 21) It goes without saying that good judgment is a sign of wisdom. Right? But what is the connection between wisdom and kindness? Any teacher worth his salt knows that students learn best when their mistakes are safe. My father tried to teach me trumpet when I was a boy, but would get frustrated when I couldn’t get the notes right. It didn’t take me long to know I didn’t want to play trumpet. Had he been a little more kind and patient, I may have stuck with it a little longer and bragged about my gentle teacher-dad. Wisdom is gained and taught from experience. It is gentle, not judgmental, with others and with self, especially in times of mistakes.
I also saw a Proverb in chapter 16 tending to whimsical street art. “Gray hair is a glorious crown worn by those who have lived right.” It was a stroke of creativity to equate a crown of gray hair as a reward for good living. I get the image, but when I think of my brother who lost all of his hair in his twenties, I wonder if a little less creativity might have worked better! I will be 60 this year and I am still sporting dark brown hair on the top! If the writer was less whimsical, he might have simply said, “Live a good life and you’ll be elegant in your old age, bald or not.” However that would not have caught our attention so much.
I’ve also seen some street art that looked so wrong. Maybe the artist had a plan, but didn’t quite think it through enough. To me Proverbs 16:10 sounds like it misses the mark. “Rulers speak with authority and are never wrong.” As soon as I read that, I immediately chafe, “Like, what, what?” Let me guess, this was written by a ruler! And though he may have been the wisest of all, if he believes his own advertising he’s not as smart as he thinks!
I could go on, but there is something more that needs fleshing out; a theme. I’ve read chapter 16 quite a few times and am struck with the theme of trust that appears over and over. The opening verse creates the principal colors. “We humans make plans, but the Lord has the final word.”
You’ve probably heard it said that if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans! Good thing you’ve never tried to do this! Human plans, mine at least, rarely succeed as envisioned. Think of a street artist standing before his wall, planning out the space. Canisters of colours are chosen, ladders are leaning, and it starts. But by the end it may or may not have semblance to what he had in mind. My guess is there was a lot of flexibility and creative changes along the way. How human is that story!
A quick rundown of my big plans might make you chuckle. I planned to get married young with a perfect wife and have many ‘almost perfect’ kids. And I did manage to get the ‘married young’ part right! As for a marriage without struggle? Far from it. We also had five children, who all still love us, but oh the bumps along the way! We definitely wondered, “How could God trust us two enough to have allowed us to have children at all?”
Then as a young pastor I was sure if I prayed and preached well enough people would flock to hear my message and change the trajectory of their lives. However, I wore myself out performing and my performance was left wanting. None of the churches I pastored ever grew to over a hundred members.
Honestly, when I look at it, much of my life has not gone according to plan! I've exercised all my life only to find out in my 50th year I had a brain tumour and just this week I tested positive for Covid! So much for my plan to live healthy until death! And I envisioned the day we’d own a beautiful house. Surely this would be a reward for my years of serving others and serving God? But here we are near retirement without financial freedom, or any idea how or where we’ll live when we retire!
And yet, the picture of my life, if you splashed it on a wall, I believe would be beautiful in its tensions, colors, contrasts of styles and lines. If only we had more time to mention all the unique experiences I’ve had over the years.
Reading Proverbs 16 this week has reiterated to me once more that the wisest decision I made as a young man was to trust the mysterious one we call God. I’ve got to agree with Parker J. Palmer who wrote that much of our lives are “triple-wrapped in mystery.” It's too hard to predict with any precision what meaning our lives will bring or what the future will be, so it becomes a relief to trust the last word to God. This has nothing to do with being a human puppet on a string. The freedom to choose is ours all along, it’s God’s gift to all. Learning wisdom along our way however is not a given for all.
“Sometimes what seems right is really a road to death.” Proverbs 16:25 CEV
And this chapter mentions a few dead ends. Gossip is a road to friendship-death (V.28). Too much pride is a road that leads the ego to eventually swerve off the road and down the cliff (V.18)! Anger and violence will deaden your soul (V.29). Cheating in anything is a dead end street for marriages, businesses and ultimately your own life (v.11). “God's people avoid evil ways, and they protect themselves by watching where they go.” Proverbs 16:17 CEV
Today take time to probe your own inner motivations with regards to the plans you have set for yourself. What if it doesn’t turn out the way you want? Also, if you can, thank God for the mistakes you’ve made, for the hard trials faced and for the change in your plans; they rescued you from harm and taught you wisdom. And finally, and most of all, trust God with the last word in your life. Just as winter can’t hold back spring, nothing can foil the beauty that this genius of a street-artist-God is creating in your life.