BBC News’ Africa page has a gem of a moral resource. It offers almost every day an African proverb.
For example, a recent proverb from the Ashanti people, many of whom live in Ghana, read, “One who climbs a good tree always gets a good push.”
Simple. Insightful. Truthful. Profitable.
Another African proverb reads: “The firewood gathered when you are healthy warms you when you are sick.”
A third one says, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”
The first proverb underscores one’s dependence on others for success. The second speaks to the truth about preparing in good times for bad times. The third highlights the need for community for long-term forward movement.
Proverbs are wisdom sayings that keep us grounded, give us insights into wise living, and help us make good decisions. They may be secular; they may be religious.
Proverbs comprise one of several sources of moral teachings for people of faith. Virtues and vices are another source. The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount are especially important sources of moral guidance for Christians.
For more than 20 years, I have reminded myself of an African proverb that isn’t really moral, other than truth. It is, however, useful.
It has kept me going in the good years and drought years when seeking to underwrite the financial work of the Baptist Center for Ethics: “Drop by drop the bucket fills.” Every drop, every gift, no matter the size, contributes to the goal of underwriting the organization’s mission.
Regrettably, some folk have apologized for making a gift smaller than what they wish they could make. Yet from my perspective – informed by this proverb – I know that their gift adds to the financial bucket.
Proverbs need not be explicitly religious or moral to be exceedingly helpful for Christian living.
Another one of my favorite proverbs comes from the ancient Celtic Christian tradition: “We drink from wells we did not dig; we warm ourselves on fires we did not build.”
Perhaps one of the greatest needs in the American culture of autonomy, of distorted self-sufficiency, of radical self-reliance is the wise word that we are dependent on what others have done for us in the past.
I have referenced this Celtic proverb in an editorial that challenges the myth of the bootstrap – as in the false claim, “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps.” I used it again in an editorial on the culture of autonomy.
This Celtic Christian proverb echoes a Mosaic word found in Deuteronomy 6:11-12.
Moses told the people of Israel to remember their dependence on God when they entered the Promised Land. There they would find “houses full of good things, which you did not fill, and cisterns hewn out, which you did not hew, and vineyards and olive trees, which you did not plant…take heed lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
We are a dependent people – dependent on God, dependent on others – who would do well to remember that the well being of those in the future depends on what we do.
Indeed, do we behave in such a way that we will leave the environment in better shape than when we inherited it from an earlier generation? Do we live modestly in order that our children will live more securely? Do we work constructively to leave our churches and organizations in healthier, stronger, more dynamic conditions for the next generation?
Proverbs help us live wisely and well.
That, in fact, is the title of one of our online, undated curriculum units: Living Wisely, Living Well: Lessons from The Proverbs.
Studying Proverbs and learning proverbs are important moral building blocks.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.