A “capable wife,” who can find her? I’ll admit, I get a bit uncomfortable when we turn to this particular page of the Bible. For starters, as a man who happens to be married to a very capable husband, I think “a capable wife, who needs her?” This passage makes all of my alarm bells ring around gender.
A capable wife might sound like a thing, a marker a good man is meant to possess. The passage brings to mind that old saying, “behind every great man, is a great woman.” The words were once thought to be endearing, used to honor the role women have played in supporting, enabling, lifting up leaders. But we have reached 2019. Why are we still imagining women walking behind the men? When will we ask the men for their support, to get behind a great woman.
Christianity, and the Bible, have treated women as second class citizens, as support staff, as possessions, and so I find this passage difficult. I say these words as the son of a woman who was a priest. I followed my mom into the family business. Honestly I also find Mother’s Day difficult. I have a great mom, but I know too many folks who aren’t in the same boat. Not everyone can celebrate this day with brunch and a Hallmark card. Not everyone is close to their mother. A lot of folks have already buried their moms. For some of us Mother’s Day comes with acute pain. For others, it is the dull ache of long held grief.
I have a hard time with Hallmark Holidays because they don’t make room for the complexities of life, for difficulties or loss in a relationship. The same must be said of faith. I also have a hard time with a particular kind of Christianity. I know a great deal of churches where Mother’s Day will be celebrated with great gusto. Moms will be presented with roses, or carnations (because what church has a budget for roses for all the moms). If receiving flowers on Mothers Day has been meaningful in the past for you, I don’t want to take that away. But we won’t be giving mothers flowers at Holy Communion.
We won’t give out carnations because I worry that emphasizing motherhood in church this way leans into our culture’s limited expectations of women. When the church holds up a very particular kind of womanhood as the ideal, by default that church lines out, limits, excludes folks who don’t live up to that ideal, who have no interest in that ideal, for whom that vision of personhood has never resonated. When we hold up a particular image of motherhood, we exclude those who haven’t known that kind of mother. And we exclude the women and men, the people who might not be our biological mothers, but who have shown us a nurturing, mothering love. I don’t want anyone feeling left out on Mothers’ day.
At its best, our faith tells stories that challenge our society’s limited vision. At its best, our faith teaches us about a God who blesses all sorts of surprising women, women who challenge the status quo. At its best the church makes room to embrace the blessing of very diverse ways of living our our call to be women, to be men, to be people who serve as leaders and supporters. If we believe in a God who is greater than ourselves, surely our faith should inspire us to move beyond our own preconceptions.
The church lost two of our best voices this week, two of the writers and teachers who helped inspire their small corners of the faith: Jean Vanier and Rachel Held-Evans.
You may not have heard of Jean Vanier. He would have been delighted if you hadn’t. Jean was a humble Canadian. After serving in World War II and earning a PhD in Philosophy, he left behind a career in the academy. Vanier bought a small house in the North of France, and invited two men with intellectual disabilities to come and live with him, moving them out of the asylum and into his home. The community they founded, called L’Arche has grown into an international movement. There are L’Arche communities in 35 countries. There’s one right here in St. Louis.
Vanier did not simply pioneer a new way of caring for people with disabilities. Rather, he believed that all of us have a great deal to learn from those who have so called “disabilities.” He called those with intellectual difference the “core members” of the community, and those we usually call “abled bodied” he called “assistants.” In an interview with Krista Tippet just a few years ago, he spelled out the hope his little L’Arche community held for him in our troubled times.
What has happened, what I sense for the future of our poor little world, with all its ecological difficulties and financial difficulties, that maybe the big thing that’s going to happen is that little lights of love will spread over the country. Little places where people love each other and welcome the poor and the broken. Where we give to each other their gifts and have these little, little places, and that the world is — we’ll never hit the headlines, but we’ll be creating these little lamps. And if there are sufficient number of little, little lamps in each village or each city and parts of the city, well then the glow will be a little bit greater.
Jean Vanier did not imagine a movement that would try and take over the world. He started a community that has grown, that has breathed life into relationships, where people learn together, where the disabled are teachers, and neighbors, where those who were not treated with love are brought to the center. You may have never heard of Jean Vanier, but the world glows a little brighter because of his life.
You’re more likely to have heard of Rachel Held-Evans. She also held up a lamp. Rachel was one of the early bloggers. She was a force on Twitter. She wrote of a Christian faith that was generous, that embraced LGBTQ+ people, that lifted up women’s voices. And Rachel practiced what she wrote. She amplified the voices of other women, of queer Christians, and people of color. This week the hashtag #BecauseofRHE trended, and several Christian leaders I admire, priests in our own denomination, wrote how Rachel inspired them to seek ordination, to see themselves as capable of leadership.
Held Evan’s first major book “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, including this description of Proverbs 31. Rachel tried to live as the “capable wife” for a month. Here’s how she describes the project,
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”), [and] knitting scarves for my husband (“when it snows, she has no fear for her household, for all of them are clothed in scarlet”)
She said she had quite a bit of fun with the one about her husband at the city gate. She made a homemade sign, and praised her husband at the city gate.But after two weeks, she found herself exhausted.
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. Her friend explained to her that in Jewish households, this scripture is understood not as a to do list, but as a poem that praises women for their strength. 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 as a blessing to her family.
Inspired by her conversation, Rachel re-translated Proverbs 31. This idea of the “capable wife” comes from the King James version. Sometimes King James gets it just right, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” But sometimes King James got it wrong. Sometimes our faith needs new translation. So Rachel Held Evans re-translated the Hebrew Words “eshet chayil” as “A Woman of Valor.” Changes the tone of the whole passage doesn’t it? Rachel’s version is closer to the original. “A Woman of valor, who can find her? She is to be praised!”
Rachel’s is a voice who will be missed, but because of Rachel Held Evans, a whole generation of women and men a people of valor have found their voices, have risen to be preachers, and leaders, writers, and yes mothers who care for their families. She wrote and organized and made room for folks of all genders to see themselves as capable, to see themselves as brave, to see themselves as nurturers, and to challenge the status quo. Like Jean Vanier, Rachel Held Evans lifted a lamp and made the world just a little brighter.
Today we give thanks for a woman of valor. We give thanks for her courage, for her witness, for her laughter. Today we give thanks for all who have mothered and midwifed our faith. We give thanks for those who have taught kindness, who have clothed themselves with strength and dignity. We give thanks for the women and men and folks of valor who have made room for us in this crazy faith. We give thanks for folks who have had the courage to translate sometimes oppressive traditions into new ways of being, and who have made room for more. We mourn their loss, yes. In the church we make room for grief. But we also give thanks, we give thanks even in the midst of grief. We give thanks for the vision they’ve shared with us.
Today, I want to give Rachel Held Evans the last word. Here it is:
“Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.”