A Capable Wife? A Woman of Valor? Who are you becoming?

“A capable wife, who can find?” I confess, when I read this, I laughed to myself a little bit, maybe you did too. As your pastor, who happens to be happily married to a capable husband, I thought, “a capable wife, who needs her?” I don’t know how you reacted when you heard this poem, praising the capable wife, or better translated, “the woman of valor.” For me, the patriarchy is a bit strong in this poem.

The patriarchy poem is a bit much, but like much in the Bible, if you adjust for context there’s a message within that I think is important for our day, for women and for men. I think this poem, and the letter from James, and the Gospel, all hold the same question: who are you becoming?

Who are you becoming? In Scripture, this is a question that is constant. Jesus and his disciples are always on the road, walking toward who they will be next. Ours is a faith of nomads, of pilgrims, of journeyers. Christianity is a way for those who are becoming. And the question is constant for us today. In a business community that feeds on competition, in a world plagued by violence, in a political culture that encourages deceit, who are you becoming? In the midst of this world are you able to accept the invitation in Scripture to become gentle, loving, and wise? Who are you becoming?

Our culture pretends identity is static. Here’s what I mean by “we pretend identity is static.” I spent a few years in Washington where the constant question at cocktail parties was: “what do you do?” I guess this is a usual conversation starter. “I’m a lawyer.” “I’m a congressional staffer.” There was always an exchange here. Washington is a pretty political place, and people always wanted to know if they could network. Then they’d ask me: “I’m an Episcopal priest.” I’d reply. I’d get some pretty odd looks. People don’t know what to do with “a priest.” We like to pretend identity is static. You are what you do.

In St. Louis, in some ways, we like to pretend: “you are where you went to high school.” There are assumptions about who someone is based on whether they went to Clayton, UCity, Priory, or Crossroads. Am I wrong? At our worst we think, now that I know where you came from, I know who you ARE…

But that phrase “who you are” it’s too static for the Christian faith. No profession, no high school, no address defines a human being in the eyes of Scripture, because human beings are never finished products. Until you are eulogized, the story of your life is still being written.

So who are you becoming?

There’s a tension between Jesus and his disciples this morning. The disciples don’t understand Jesus’ words, yet they’ve been walking the road, arguing about who is the greatest. Jesus stops them. “You don’t get it,” he says, “in order to be first, you have to be last.” He explains to his followers that we are not in the business of becoming “the greatest.” There is a sense of resistance to his words. Then he places a child among them.

Jesus is often depicted, in Scripture and in Art, on the road.
Jesus is often depicted, in Scripture and in Art, on the road.

Now, to understand the radical character of Jesus’ words about children, we have to know the historic context. In Jesus’ time, children were not valued. There are many reasons behind the lack of value, but children were seen as “not-yet people.” Some say it is because the childhood mortality rates were so high, it was dangerous for parents to get too attached. Children were likely to die. In any case, no one but no one would have held up children as an example. But Jesus did. He stood against the values of his day, to say, “my followers look up to little children.”

Many of the greatest works in literature are “coming of age” stories. Somehow our imagination seems to be captured by stories about growing up. There’s a particular coming of age scene in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s controversial book which many scholars claim as the greatest American novel. Throughout the novel, Huck worries about whether he should turn in his friend Jim, an escaped slave. The angst for Huck has some theological weight. The churches of Huck’s time were teaching that it was a moral obligation to turn in an escaped slave. Slavery was ordained by God, these so-called Christian churches taught. Huck was sinning by not turning in Jim. Huck worries what helping Jim will do to the state of his soul. In a moment that is seen as his coming of age, finally Huck lays aside the worry. “I’ll go to hell,” he says, and he steps into his own. Mark Twain has his protagonist make an unpopular choice. Huck makes his own decision about what is right, and what is wrong.

Because he values his friendship with Jim, because he sees Jim’s humanity, Huck chooses to become an abolitionist, an identity that was damnable in his own time. Jesus invites his disciples to choose to become like little children, to be open, receptive, and vulnerable. Growing up is about choosing who you will become, choosing the practices that shape you, making moral decisions that form your response to the wider society.

I think these “coming of age” stories are popular because we really never do grow up. We don’t ever arrive at a point of static identity. I know folks in their 80s and 90s who still are talking about what they will be when they grow up. We always have decisions to make that will shape who we are becoming.

So how do you become the “capable wife?” How do you become the woman of valor?

Rachel Held-Evans is an Episcopalian blogger. If you haven’t read anything written by Rachel, I’d encourage you to find her online or in the book store. She began as an Evangelical, and her decision to embrace the Episcopal tradition has been an fascinating journey.

Rachel’s book entitled “A year of Biblical Womanhood” launched her onto the New York Times best seller list. The book is a memoir of taking different themes from the Bible and living them out month by month. Rachel camps out in the front yard when she has her period. She covers her hair with a scarf. She calls her husband master. It’s an odd book, but she was an Evangelical at the time and trying to figure out how to live as a Biblical woman. Luckily she has a sense of humor about the endeavor.

Rachel Held-Evans wrote a piece on this passage from Proverbs, and I want to share a few selections with you. In her analysis:

The bad news for the domestically-challenged among us is that the life of the Proverbs 31 woman is like a Pinterest board [or an issue of Better Homes and Gardens] 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.)

Rachel goes on:

I started by attempting to turn the poem into a to-do list, which should never be done, and 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”)

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 Rachel asked an Orthodox Jewish friend whether she also found the “to-do” list of Proverbs 31 exhausting. For the Jews Proverbs is also scripture. Her friend explained to her that in Jewish households, this scripture is understood not as a list of tasks, but as a poem that praises women for their strength, for their valor. She says that every sabbath her husband sings the poem to her, and it is special because she knows that know matter what she does, or fails to do, during the week, she will be praised for blessing her family.

So how do we get to that place of being blessed? How do we become the spiritual people we want to become? I think if you’re looking for a series of check boxes, for a list of tasks you’re in trouble. If the spiritual life looks like checkboxes to you, watch out. The best advice I know comes from the writer Anne Lammot who says: “You have to learn to be gentle with yourself. The world is hard enough on you. Be gentle with yourself.” Spirituality is about learning gentleness.

In the Hebrew-speaking world of today, the first words Eshet Chayil—“Woman of Valor” are used to celebrate women for any accomplishment, from battling cancer to acts of mercy and justice. It’s equivalent to saying “you go girl.”

So who are you becoming? Are you becoming a woman (or man, or child) of valor? Are you blessing others with your creativity? Are you clothing the naked, and feeding the hungry? Are you bringing gentleness to a workplace filled with competition? Are you being kind to other students in a school that can be filled with bullies and rudeness? Who are you becoming each day?

It’s funny I’m not really looking for “A capable wife.” I think “a capable wife” really needs a better translation for our day, because we all need some “women of valor” around us. We all need women and men who show us how to become better Christians, how to be gentle with ourselves We need women like Rachel Held Evans and heroes like Huck Finn who teach us how to become better human beings. How to make difficult decisions. We all need people who stand up for the little ones among us. We all need examples of gentleness. Because, we are all always working on who we will be when we grow up. Who are you becoming?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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