[Click below to listen to Remy’s prayer in two parts…you won’t be sorry. Note: 1.) Gavin and Ben lost Brandon’s hammer in the woods and had one day to find it until they had to pay the piper, and 2.) part of the Elm Grove Elementary Leadership Curriculum includes the concept of being “proactive” which will become apparent to you in two minutes.]
Sound byte: Brandon and I are speaking at two marriage conferences this spring, and we sat down to hammer out material, looked at each other and said, “Um. Who thought we were good candidates for this?” Parenting? I can’t even talk about it except to tell you that as my kids left for school Tuesday, these were my parting words: “If you come home fighting, I will turn this house into a monastery and every one of you will be forbidden to speak until tomorrow. Not one word. Have a good day!” Fitness? I can only hope my unused gym membership at the YMCA is somehow going to feed orphans or whatever it is the Young Christian Men do with my cash.
And then my friend Kristen convinced me to join Pinterest.
Now it’s confirmed: I am a failure, because evidently I haven’t taken a fall picture in my size zero skinny jeans and haphazard scarf standing on railroad tracks, I haven’t chalkboard painted mason jars to organize my Arborio rice and lentils, I clearly don’t know how to do eye makeup, and I’ve never cut my children’s sandwiches and apples and carrots into a whimsical seascape. Nor have I made this craft with my kids, but it is only because I love them:
No, I need something different this year. We all do.
I came across some profound teaching by my friend, Rachel Held Evans, that I can only deduce was divinely timed. After I read it the first time, I literally thought about it for weeks. It was so liberating, so refreshing, so carefully examined and studied in Scripture. She took a biblical passage that women have used as a battering ram – on themselves – for far too long, and it’s high time we begin to change the banner we wave over one another, over ourselves.
Actually, that may be an understatement. Truth be told, I secretly hated her.
The subject of a twenty-two line acrostic poem found in the last chapter of the book of Proverbs, the “wife of noble character” is cited at nearly every Christian women’s conference as the ideal to which all godly women must strive. The bad news for the domestically-challenged among us is that the life of the Proverbs 31 woman is like a Pinterest board come to life: She rises before dawn each day, provides exotic food for her children, runs a profitable textile business, invests in real estate, cares for the poor, spends hours at the loom making clothes and coverings for her bed, and crafts holiday wreaths out of coffee filters. (Okay, so that last one was straight from Pinterest, but you get the idea.)
Growing up in the Church, I sat through many a sermon explaining how domestic exploits like these represented the essence of true womanhood, and over time, I began to see myself as less-than, falling short of God’s ideal each time I turned to Sara Lee for dessert or called my mom to help me hem my own slacks.
So when I decided to commit one year of my life to studying (and at times, practicing) everything the Bible says about women as part of my “Year of Biblical Womanhood,” I knew I’d have to come face-to-face with the Proverbs 31 Woman in a way I hadn’t before.
I started by attempting to turn the poem into a to-do list, which resulted in a 16-item list that included everything from lifting weights each morning (“she girds herself with strength and makes her arms strong”), to making a purple dress to wear (“she makes coverings for herself; her clothing is fine linen and purple”), to knitting scarves for my husband (“when it snows, she has no fear for her household, for all of them are clothed in scarlet”), to making a homemade sign and literally praising my husband at the city gate (“her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land”).
I had a bit of fun with that last one, but the rest proved exhausting. Within a few weeks, I’d started and unraveled at least two scarves, broken the old second-hand sewing machine I’d dug out of my closet, cursed at the picture of Martha Stewart smiling glibly from the cover of my cookbook, and embarrassed myself at Hobby Lobby by crying in the fabric aisle.
Finally, I consulted Ahava, an Orthodox Jewish woman I had befriended during the project.
“So do Jewish women struggle with this passage as much as Christian women?” I asked.
Ahava seemed a bit bewildered.
“Not at all!” she said. “In my culture, Proverbs 31 is a blessing.”
Ahava repeated a finding I’d discovered in my research, that the first line of the Proverbs 31 poem—“a virtuous woman who can find?”—is best translated, “a woman of valor who can find?” In fact, the structure and diction employed in the poem closely resembles that of a heroic poem celebrating the exploits of a warrior.
“I get called an eshet chayil (woman of valor) all the time,” Ahava explained. “Make your own challah instead of buying? Eshet chayil! Work to earn some extra money for the family? Eshet chayil! Get promoted at your work? Eshet chayil! Make balloon animals for the kids at a party? Eshet chayil! Every week at the Sabbath table, my husband sings the Proverbs 31 poem to me. It’s special because I know that no matter what I do or don’t do, he praises me for blessing the family with my energy and creativity. All women can do that in their own way. I bet you do as well.”
I looked into this, and sure enough, in Jewish culture it is not the women who memorize Proverbs 31, but the men. Husband commit each line of the poem to memory, so they can recite it to their wives at the Sabbath meal, usually in a song. (The astute reader will notice that the only actual instruction found in the entire poem is that a husband celebrate his wife for “all her hands have done.”) The praise is meant to be unconditional.
But the blessing goes beyond the family. Ahava explained that her Jewish friends cheer one another on with the blessing, celebrating everything from promotions, to pregnancies, to acts of mercy and justice, to battles with cancer with a hearty “eshet chayil!”—woman of valor.
The biblical heroine Ruth is called an “eshet chayil,” in fact. And she is called that at a time when her life looked nothing like the life of the Proverbs 31 woman, when she was a poor, childless, widow, who, far from exchanging fine linens with the merchants, spent her days gleaning leftover grain from the fields.
“All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character (eshet chayil),” Boaz says to her.
I liked it.
No, I loved it.
So I set aside my to-do list and began using Proverbs 31 as it was meant to be used—not as yet another impossible standard by which to measure our failures, but as a celebration of what we’ve already accomplished as women of valor. When my friend Tiffany’s pharmacy aced its accreditation, I congratulated her with “eshet chayil!” When my sister beat out about a million applicants for the job she wanted in North Carolina, I called her up and shouted “woman of valor!” When my mom overcame breast cancer, I made a card that said “eshet chayil” on the front. When I learned that three women had won the Nobel Peace Prize, I shared the new with my readers in a blog post entitled, “Meet Three Women of Valor.”
As I saw how powerful and affirming this ancient blessing could be, I decided it was time for Christian women to take back Proverbs 31. Somewhere along the way, we surrendered it to the same people who invented airbrushing and Auto-Tune. We abandoned the meaning of the poem by focusing on the specifics, and it became just another impossible standard by which to measure our failures. We turned an anthem into an assignment, a poem into a job description.
But according to Ahava, the woman described in Proverbs 31 is not some ideal that exists out there; she is present in each one of us when we do even the smallest things with valor.
And that’s worth celebrating…with or without a Pinterest board.
Rachel Held Evans is a popular blogger and the author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which recently released. She has recently been featured in Christianity Today, NPR, The Huffington Post, Slate, The Today Show, People Magazine, and The View.
AMEN, Rachel. Thank you for this profound teaching that has so liberated me from yet another list I cannot conquer. Women, as we tie up 2012 and head into 2013, may we call forth the best in one another, the best in ourselves. Rather than listening to the voices that assure us we are failing, lacking, losing, let’s celebrate moments of honor and valor with a loud, strong “eshet chayil!” For we are indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and we strengthen each other when we name the goodness we see, when we cheer one another on. Let’s take back Proverbs 31 indeed.
Mamas raising the littles and toddlers and babies…eshet chayil!
Women working so hard, using your gifts…eshet chayil!
Wives committed to their marriages, digging deep…eshet chayil!
Those of you teaching your children of Jesus this Christmas…eshet chayil!
To those who care so much and serve so beautifully…eshet chayil!
Women of valor, I HONOR YOU. So proud to be your sister.
Who can we honor together today? Tell us about the women of valor in your life, and let us speak “eshet chayil!” over their lives. Who has loved you? Inspired you? Moved you? Cared for you? Done something worth celebrating? Done something worth celebrating that would never ordinarily be celebrated? May this feed turn into a cheering section, because I think we can all agree the ugly, critical voices have gone on long enough.