The Peace of Wild Things

Read: Psalm 104

You make darkness when it is night, when all the animals of the forest come creeping out. The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. When the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens (Psalm 104: 20-22, NRSV).

Over the years I have learned a lot from my cats.

Mrs. Whiskers taught me about the risks and rewards of self-sacrifice. (She ran herself ragged hunting for her well-fed kittens.) Magnificat taught me that if you open your mouth to brag, the bird will fly away. (Maggie was my last indoor/outdoor cat.) Teacup taught me how liberating it is when a bully leaves your life. (Her real life began the day the dog died.)

For lessons on how to enjoy life, however, Marmalade surpassed all her predecessors. I knew from the moment I met her that she was special. I had walked over to my neighbor’s house under the illusion that I was there to “interview” an abandoned kitten for possible adoption. I had no more than sat down before “herself” ran confidently across the room, jumped up on my lap, and started to purr. Marmalade had decided that I would be her human.

I’m sorry to be going on so about my cats, but there is biblical precedent for it. In Psalm 104 the psalmist goes on and on about all manner of creatures—including Marmalade’s wild cousins, the lions. And Psalm 104 is just a warm-up for Job 38-41, where God lets loose with a loving litany about all creatures great and small. Even Leviathan merits a mention in 41:1-5. God, evidently, has a special relationship with that mythical sea-monster, who speaks “soft words” to its creator and agrees to let God lead it around on a leash!

Creatures have a unique to ability delight, amuse, and amaze. True, we may not want to get too close to some of the scary ones, but we can’t help but be in awe of them. And while we sometimes put a lot of effort into teaching them to do tricks, it turns out that they may have some tricks to teach us as well.

I thought of this the other day when I stumbled on a poem by Ted Hughes.* It’s called simply, “Cat,” and it points out all the reasons we need our cat when we “slump down all tired and flat with too much town…with too much headache, video glow, and too many answers [we] never will know.” You can read the whole poem here, but the last few stanzas may be sufficient to make my point. They offer an important reminder of one of the ways we can seek shalom in these stressful times:

Then stroke the Cat

That warms your knee

You’ll find her purr

Is a battery

For into your hands

Will flow the powers

Of the beasts who ignore

These ways of ours

And you’ll be refreshed

Through the Cat on your lap

With a Leopard’s yawn

And a Tiger’s nap.

Cats, as it turns out, have a few things to teach us. Happy are those whom they choose as their humans.

Ponder this beautiful setting of Wendell Berry’s poem, The Peace of Wild Things. For the text of this poem and the option to hear it read by the author, see this link to the NPR program, On Being.

Pray: Help us to come into the peace of wild things. Lead us into the presence of still water. May we rest in the grace of the world and be free.

 

*”Cat” by Ted Hughes in Collected Poems for Children (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 19.

Peace Like a River

 

Read: Psalm 46

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High (Psalm 46:4, NRSV).

“We just need somebody to tell us it’s going to be all right.”

That was what a friend of mine said to me this week. It was at the end of a poignant conversation in which he asked me to pray for his wife, who had just been diagnosed with PTSD. She had thought she was having a heart attack, but it turned out to be acute anxiety. And no wonder. She is a caregiver at a residential home for people with disabilities. In the past two years she has lost one colleague and five resident friends to COVID.

Like so many people, she has had a hell of a pandemic. Misery has way too much company.

We just need somebody to tell us it’s going to be all right.

We all know what my friend means. On any given day we ricochet from disaster to disaster. If the pandemic doesn’t get us, then war, politics, and global warming will. And let’s not forget that dynamic duo: racism and sexism.

But will it be all right? That’s the question that makes our anxiety shoot through the roof. I suspect we’ve all balked when some well-meaning soul tells us that “it’s going to be all right” in situations where it clearly isn’t all right and it doesn’t show any sign of ever being all right. Loved ones die. Dreams are dashed. I, for one, want to tell them what they can do with their “it’s going to be all right.”

When I am in a “misery loves company” mood, I often turn to Psalm 46. It’s another one of those “hell in a handbasket” psalms. Everything is coming down around the psalmist’s ears. The mountains are slipping into the heart of the sea, and the sea for its part is roaring like a lion and foaming at the mouth. When we ricochet to the other end of the psalm, it’s politics that are the problem. Now it’s the kingdoms that are slipping and the nations that are roaring. Even if he’s speaking metaphorically, things clearly do not look like they are going to be “all right.”

Yet there is a refuge at the center of this psalm that calls to us across the centuries. “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,” the psalm says, and that city is nothing less that “the holy habitation of the Most High.” With shades of another famous psalm, this image beckons us to walk “beside the still waters” (Ps. 23:2). Even with all hell breaking loose around us, Psalm 46 promises peace like a river. Even in the midst of disasters both natural and political, the city of God will NOT slip. “God will help it when the morning dawns” (v. 5). It’s going to be all right. Really.

We are only human. We can’t explain how or why that statement can possibly be true. But Psalm 46 gives us a glimpse of our situation from God’s perspective. That glimpse reminds us that “the LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” That glimpse makes it possible to “be still, and know that I am God.” That glimpse assures us that it’s going to be all right.

Thanks, Psalm 46. That’s just what we need to hear.

Ponder: What tangible reminder might you find of the peace at the center of this psalm? How might it help you to “be still” in the midst of rising anxiety?

Pray: Dona nobis pacem. Grant us peace.

Pursuing Peace

Read: Psalm 34

Depart from evil and do good; seek peace, and pursue it (Psalm 34:14, NRSV).

Henry David Thoreau once went to jail for protesting an injustice. (He refused to pay a tax that he felt was funding an unjust war.) When his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, went to visit him in jail, Emerson asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, what are you doing out there?”

It was hard NOT to think of that story when I watched news about Marina Ovsyannikova this week. She was the employee of the widely watched Russian television news station who interrupted the news to protest the war in Ukraine. On the top and bottom of her sign she wrote: NO WAR and RUSSIANS AGAINST WAR in English. The Russian text in between translated as: “Don’t believe the propaganda. They’re lying to you here.”

The bravery of that act was breathtaking, especially in a place where just calling the Russian acts of aggression in Ukraine a war can get you fifteen years in prison…or worse.

It’s one thing to wish for peace. We may even pray for peace. But how many of us actively pursue peace, especially at significant risk to ourselves?

Psalm 34:14 suggests that peace is something we must actively pursue. The irony of that word choice is striking. The Hebrew word for pursue, radaph, is a word that is usually used in stories about war. There is a lot of “pursuing” in the book of Joshua, for instance. The word also features in some of the Old Testament’s most famous chase scenes, including the one where Joab’s little brother Asahel foolishly pursues Saul’s general, Abner (2 Samuel 2:18-28). It does not end well. There is a lot of blood and bad feelings.

But Psalm 34:14 commands us to pursue peace with the same single-minded focus that warriors use when they pursue an enemy in battle. What might that look like, I wonder—for nations, for political parties, for church factions, for families, for individuals?

Sometimes we talk about peace wistfully, as if it’s something that might drop into our lap like a bowl of popcorn thoughtfully delivered to us by a loved one as we sit passively in our favorite chair. This psalm seems to suggest that we need to take a more active approach.

What are you doing out there, Waldo?

Peace isn’t something that drops into our lap. We must pursue it.

Ponder this gem from Augustin’s Confessions: “For it is one thing to see the land of peace from a wooded ridge—another to tread the road that leads to it.”

Pray: Give us wisdom and courage, Prince of Peace, to know how to pursue peace. Guard and keep those who pursue it at great personal risk.

So Many Questions

Read: Psalm 13

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1, NRSV).

I am a reluctant convert to e-readers. One of the things I have learned to love about them, however, is the luxury of being able to tap on unfamiliar words and get instant definitions. I’ve grown so use to it that I’ve caught myself tapping on words in my old-fashioned books. Alas, they refuse to cooperate.

We live in an impatient age. We’ve come to expect quick answers to our questions. Yet so many of our questions defy easy answers. Here is one that’s been plaguing me for the last two weeks: Why is one snake-eyed psychopath able to hold the whole world hostage? It’s a simple question without a simple answer. So, the first question gives birth to a score of other questions. Some of these are quite ancient, which just proves that the ancients were just as impatient as we are about some things. Psalm 13 reads like it could have been written in March of 2022, especially if we paraphrase it in the plural. Imagine this as a prayer from and for the people of Ukraine:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget us forever?

    How long will you hide your face from us?

How long must we bear pain in our soul,

    and have sorrow in our heart all day long?

How long shall our enemy be exalted over us?

Consider and answer us, O LORD our God!

    Give light to our eyes, or we will sleep the sleep of death,

and our enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;

    our foes will rejoice because we are shaken.

Waiting is agony. Sometimes it seems as if God has all the time in the world, even when we do not. No one could blame us for asking the next question: Is God even listening? And then the next: Is there even a God?

So. Many. Questions.

Again I say: waiting is agony. But now another question springs to mind: What shall we do while we wait?

One thing I should probably do with regard to my “snake-eyed psychopath” question is to remind myself that Vladimir Putin is indeed a child of God. Granted, he’s a child of God who has a lot for which to answer, but nonetheless, he is a child of God. So, part of what I can do while I’m waiting is to pray for him. Pray for me trying to pray for him.

The author of Psalm 13 has some suggestions, too. While you are waiting, the psalmist implies in verses 5 and 6, remember God’s faithfulness in the past. Then try your best to trust that you will eventually rejoice and sing in the future. It may even imply that we should start singing now just to get a head start. 

At the end of one of her poems, Emily Dickinson looks forward to that day when all our questions will be answered. She describes it this way:

And bye and bye a Change

Called Heaven

Rapt Neighborhoods of Men

Just finding out what puzzled us

Without the lexicon!

Ponder: What questions do you have for God right now? What can you do for yourself and for others while you wait?

Pray: Hear our anguished questions, merciful God, and help us to trust you while we wait.

Hell in a Handbasket

 

Read: Psalm 2

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision (Psalm 2:1 & 4, NRSV).

Sometimes it seems like things are going to hell in a handbasket. That may be an old-fashioned phrase, but it’s an apt description of current reality.

Psalm 2 may seem like a strange place to turn for comfort. On the face of it, the comfort is hard to come by. Front and center are a set of conspiring kings who have sent the faithful running for cover. But God’s reaction is telling. God laughs. Old Testament scholar Pat Miller calls this “one of the most reassuring sounds in the psalter.” From God’s perspective, these upstart kings are like so many dogs conspiring to catch a car. They’re ridiculous. Laughable.

Have you caught the comfort yet? This psalm reassures us that God is in charge. That is a statement of faith of course, especially when most of the evidence is to the contrary. But there it is, nonetheless—a lifeline for the faithful of every age. God—and God’s anointed—are utterly in charge. If we’re reading this psalm from a Christian perspective, that anointed one (literally meshiach/messiah) is none other than Jesus Christ—the Prince of Peace.

So, take that, you conspiring kings. You are no match for this dynamic duo. Repent—or else.

Finally, at the very end of the psalm, comfort becomes explicit and peace becomes possible. “Happy are all who take refuge in him,” the psalmist says. It’s an invitation that’s big enough for everybody—even repentant conspirators. Even for those of us who are feeling like everything is going to hell in a handbasket.

That little benediction is huge, but it’s easy to miss amongst all the mayhem of Psalm 2. So, I was grateful when some of my students called my attention to another comforting verse from Isaiah this week. The verse is from Isaiah 41:13—For, I the LORD your God hold your right hand; It is I who say to you, “Do not fear, I will help you.”

Here is what my student, Nathanial Ryan, had to say about that verse:

The past few years have been anything but normal. Polarization, the global pandemic, and the war in Ukraine have disrupted living and induced uncertainty and worry. We are starkly reminded of the brokenness in our world. And yet, we have a God who not only allows us to complain, cry out, even accuse, but the LORD also hears, and responds with kindness. I was particularly struck by the image in 41:13, the LORD our God holds our right hand. I love this imagery, as it not only gives the picture of a parent leading a small child, but also the fact that the LORD is doing the work done by the dominant hand for us. And while the LORD’s off hand (if there is such a thing) is comforting, lifting and sustaining us, the LORD our God’s right hand is free, marking off the waters and measuring the heavens. 

That is an image I can cling to, even on days when it seems like everything is going to hell in a handbasket.

Ponder: What gives you comfort and courage in the midst of mayhem?

Pray: Bring peace to our troubled world, O God, and grant refuge to all who are displaced and afraid. Show us how to work for peace, and help us to trust that, “though the wrong seem oft so strong, you are the ruler yet.”*

*A line from the hymn “This Is My Father’s World” by Maltbie Babcock (1901).

Seeking Shalom Series

The Hebrew word shalom is about much more than the absence of conflict. Yes, shalom is about peace, but it’s also about health and wholeness. God knows we need all three—as individuals, as families, as neighborhoods, as churches, as nations, and as a world.

This series highlights a handful of psalms that seek shalom at every level. Often it is shalom that persists in situations that are anything but peaceful. But I hope that in some small way, these psalms will allow you to experience “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding”  (Philippians 4:7).

Carol M. Bechtel

At a Loss for Words

Read: Proverbs 25:11 & 20

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Like vinegar on a wound is one who sings songs to a heavy heart (Proverbs 25:11 & 20, NRSV).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of vinegar. It makes glassware and windowpanes sparkle. And if you are willing to spring for the fancy balsamic stuff, it can revolutionize your salads.

But vinegar has its place, as our proverb points out, and that place is not on wounds.

So it is with our words. Some perfectly fine words are beautiful in one context and brutal in another. Who of us has not cringed upon hearing a well-meaning friend tell us that our recently departed loved one is “in a better place”? While technically true, it douses our already broken heart with vinegar. As one grieving woman once said, “I know I’ll see my mother again someday. But I miss her NOW.”

All of us struggle to find the right words for certain situations. Sometimes we might do well to remember that the ministry of presence may be the best medicine for a heavy heart. It takes courage just to show up, after all, and that alone may be the most eloquent expression of our love and support. That said, there are times when we must speak even when we are at a loss for words.

There are a lot of proverbs that speak to the importance of a word well-spoken. This testifies to the fact that desperate “word searches” predate computers by several millennia. Being able to find the right words for specific situations is a sure sign of wisdom in the book of Proverbs.  Spouting ill-suited words is a sure symptom of folly.

So far, so obvious. What’s much less obvious is how we should acquire this knack for knowing what to say and when to say it. Some people just seem to have good instincts for this. But short of being jealous of them, is there anything we can do to cultivate this gift?

There’s probably no substitute for maturity. Yet, one of the qualities that we develop as we mature is empathy. What would happen if we were to mix, say, two parts empathy with one part patience? It might mean that when we ran into our recently bereaved neighbor we would first “stop before we blurt.” It doesn’t take long to pause and ask ourselves, “What part of what I’m feeling right now is my own discomfort?” If the answer is, “A lot!” then that split second is long enough to remind ourselves that it’s not about us. Then we might spend the next second or two imagining what our neighbor is feeling in that moment. What would you most need to hear in their situation? Maybe it’s simply, “I’m sorry.” It’s hard to go wrong with that.

So far we’ve got: good instincts and maturity (two parts empathy + one part patience). Let’s add experience to the mix.

I know someone who once attended a reception at which Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were present. He said, “You always knew where they were in the room because of the laughter.” Few of us will ever get as much experience as the royal couple in finding just the right word to say—often to perfect strangers. And perhaps some of us would never get the knack for it even if we did. Still, their story reminds us that this is something we can work at—and presumably get better at with practice.

There is one more thing worth mentioning, and the beauty of it is that it can be applied even if we have lousy instincts, little maturity, and no experience. I’m talking about prayer. That, in the end, may be the best word—and the best strategy—for such situations.

Ponder: What’s the worst thing anyone has ever said to you in a painful or joyful situation? What’s the best thing? What can you learn from both?

Pray: Guard our lips, O God, and give us words that heal and help. Grant a special measure of wisdom to world leaders working and speaking for peace.

In an Error State

Read: Proverbs 26:11

Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly (Proverbs 26:11, NRSV).

At least a couple of times per week my computer informs me that my printer is “in an error state.” I always receive this message with a sigh since my study is upstairs and the printer is down.

It makes me wonder whether God gets regular messages like this about me. “Carol is in an error state.” Then I imagine God sighing and saying, “Again?! I guess I’d better go down there and see what the problem is.”

It isn’t always obvious to us when we are in an “error state.” Still, even if we received the message, it’s unlikely that we would heed it. As today’s featured proverb observes, we foolish humans have a habit of returning to the same folly over and over again.

The proverbs are good at making memorable comparisons, and this one may win the prize in the “disgusting but accurate” category. Having said this, I’m sure someone will let me know that it is perfectly natural for dogs to eat their own vomit. Before you hit “send,” however, let me assure you that I am aware of this, having done some research in the process of writing this reflection. Dogs do indeed have more olfactory receptors than humans do, all of which tell them that there is still good food to be had such situations. While this does vindicate the dog, it does not vitiate the proverb. The proverb, after all, is designed for a human audience. If it were targeted toward a canine audience it might read, “As a human wastes perfectly good vomit is a fool who wastes the lessons of wisdom.”

I digress—although I wonder if there might be a market for re-writing the book of Proverbs for dogs. Alas, that is a challenge that will have to wait for another day. For today, let’s focus on why we are so quick to be disgusted by our dog’s behavior, but so slow to be disgusted by our own.

In short: why do we so often repeat the same sins—sometimes just after we have confessed them and promised to turn over a new leaf? I suspect this was what C.S. Lewis was getting at when he referred to his “harem of fondled hatreds.”* Or John Donne, who puns on his last name in this telling prayer:

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun

            A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?

                        When thou hast done, thou hast not done,

                                    For I have more.**

Like dogs, we are incorrigible. Or, to return to the less disgusting analogy with which we began, our capacity to be in an “error state” is infinite. Fortunately for us, so is God’s grace.

So, the next time you find yourself—yet again—in an error state, imagine God sighing patiently and saying, “I guess I’d better go down and see what the problem is.”

Ponder: What rings true about this proverb for you?

Pray: Thank you for your patience and your grace, O God. Help us to recognize our folly and make wiser choices.

*In Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (originally published in the UK by Geoffrey Bles, 1955)

**Here is a link to the whole poem, “A Hymn to God the Father” by John Donne.

In Praise of Limits

Read: Proverbs 23:13-14

Do not withhold discipline from your children; if you beat them with a rod, they will not die. If you beat them with the rod, you will save their lives from Sheol (Proverbs 23:13-14, NRSV).

It’s hard to know what to do with a proverb like this. No, check that. It’s not hard to know what to do with it. Choose your preferred option from this list: reject it, ignore it, and/or weep for all the anguish it has wrought over the millennia.

Before we consign this proverb to oblivion, however, it might be wise to ask whether there is still something to be salvaged from it. No, I’m not going to suggest that it’s ever appropriate to beat your children with a rod. I am going to suggest, however, that the essential impulse of the proverb—discipline—is worthy of serious consideration.

The book of Proverbs is full of comparisons, so perhaps an analogy or two would help here. A fire, for instance, is best enjoyed inside a fireplace. Food—no matter how delicious—is best enjoyed in moderation. A river is best when it stays inside its banks. (Having experienced a house fire, too much of my grandma’s fried chicken, and the Mississippi flood of 1965, I can personally attest to the truth of these examples.) “Everything in moderation” the ancient Greeks observed, and their point is well-taken even today. Although I can’t resist Oscar Wilde’s point as well: “Everything in moderation, even moderation.”

Without limits, life would be chaos. Rivers would overflow, stomachs would explode, fires would burn unchecked. If you have ever dealt with a child up past their bedtime, you know the truth of this, and this may be part of the “discipline” our proverb is pushing. Consistent limits, wisely and lovingly enforced, make for happier children, happier parents, and ultimately, for happier societies. God save us from people in power who have never learned to accept the word “no.”

There are two themes that are central to the whole book of Proverbs: wisdom and discipline. They are portrayed as a kind of matched pair that should never be “put asunder.” Wisdom without discipline makes no sense, since to have the former implies that you have the latter. Discipline without wisdom, on the other hand, can quickly turn demonic.

One of my favorite hymns meditates on how limits have been built into God’s design from the beginning. The hymn is called, “God Marked a Line and Told the Sea,” and the words are by Tom Troeger:

God marked a line and told the sea its surging tides and waves were free

to travel up the sloping strand, but not to overtake the land.

God set one limit in the glade where tempting, fruited branches swayed,

and that first limit stands behind the limits that the law defined.

The line, the limit and the law are patterns meant to help us draw

a bound between what life requires and all the things our heart desires.

But, discontent with finite powers, we reach to take what is not ours,

And then defend our claims by force and swerve from life’s intended course.

We are not free when we’re confined to every wish that sweeps the mind,

but free when freely we accept the sacred bounds that must be kept.

God, evidently, did not think it wise to withhold discipline from God’s children.

Ponder: What limits have made your life better? Worse? Why?

Pray: Help us to discipline wisely, and help us to accept wise discipline well.

Kindred Spirits

Read: Proverbs 27:19

Just as water reflects the face, so one human heart reflects another (Proverbs 27:19, NRSV).

Every now and then I have occasion to pass through Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. I’ll be walking along, hurrying to get to my departure gate when I see someone I recognize. “What an amazing coincidence,” I think. I smile. I wave. Sometimes I even call out their name. But then the puzzled expression on their face tells me that the recognition is not mutual, and I find myself issuing a non-verbal apology that can be understood in any language.

Maybe I’m a slow learner, but this game of Schiphol “gotcha” catches me off guard every time. When I realized that it only seems to happen to me in Amsterdam, I began to work out what was going on. I live in Holland, Michigan. Could genetics be behind my false sense of recognition? What if the person I think is my next door neighbor is actually a distant relative of my next door neighbor? Of course, I’ll never know, since I can’t very well run around asking perfect strangers for DNA samples. But it’s a theory.

I’m not sure there is any explanation for the kind of recognition described in Proverbs 27:19, however. Just as water reflects the face, so one human heart reflects another. We know it’s true. It’s a “thing.” But how it works is one of life’s most wonderful mysteries. Sometimes the connection we feel to another is instantaneous; sometimes it grows gradually over time. Sometimes it lasts a lifetime; sometimes only for a few minutes. But it is real, and this proverb testifies to the fact that it has been a thing for a very long time.

To be clear, I’m not talking about what people refer to as love at first sight. Maybe this phenomenon is related, but more often than not, love at first sight is three parts projection and one part connection. (We could quibble about percentages, but you get my point.) Especially in romantic situations, we tend to see what we want to see, and we discover our mistake later to our sorrow. Once in a while, however, if we are very, very fortunate, that initial sense of seeing and being seen proves to be absolutely spot on.

Some years ago I found myself at a small reception after a worship service. I had no great expectations of this event. As an introvert, such situations make me uncomfortable, and this was no exception. My plan was to make short work of my prosecco, pay my respects to the host, and beat a hasty retreat.

But then I saw someone sitting all alone by the fireplace, and compassion overcame my inner introvert. I walked over and introduced myself. Imagine my surprise when ten minutes later, I found myself deep in conversation with one of the most delightful people I had ever met. What’s more, it was not just a superficial conversation. In ten minutes it felt like we had covered more ground than some people cover in ten years. We might be talking still if our host had not interrupted and insisted on dragging me over to meet someone else. I left my new friend reluctantly, thinking, “Just as water reflects the face, so one human heart reflects another.”

What makes this story so unique is that I have had the opportunity to follow this person’s work over time. (He and his partner broadcast a morning prayer service that I “attend” every day.) It has given me a rare opportunity to confirm my first impressions. We really are what Anne of Green Gables would call, “kindred spirits.”

I don’t know how this works. I don’t know why it works. I only rejoice that in this weird and wonderful world, it does work. And when it does, it is pure gift.

Ponder: Have you ever experienced this kind of “kindred spirit” recognition with someone?

Pray:

For the joy of ear and eye, for the heart and mind’s delight,

For the mystic harmony linking sense to sound and sight:

Lord of all, to thee we raise this, our hymn of grateful praise.

For the joy of human love, brother, sister, parent, child,

Friends on earth, and friends above, for all gentle thoughts and mild,

Lord of all, to thee we raise this, our hymn of grateful praise.

 

From the hymn, “For the Beauty of the Earth”; words by Folliott S. Pierpont, 1864.

A Woman of Worth

Read: Proverbs 31

A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels (Proverbs 31:10, NRSV).

What is there about Proverbs 31 that brings out the weirdness in people? Whole ministries are founded on what people perceive to be its vision of “biblical womanhood.” It has even inspired its own line of merchandise featuring everything from t-shirts to tote bags. One wonders what King Lemuel and his mother would have made of it all (see v. 1).

To be honest, I can’t afford to be too critical. I have vivid memories of gathering around an open Bible with the other girls in my seventh grade Sunday school class. The Bible was open to Proverbs 31 which, because it has 31 verses, made the perfect playground for our romantic fantasies. (Cue much giggling.) To play the “Proverbs 31 Game,” each of us read the verse that corresponded with our birthday. The result was used to predict something about our future married life. This often produced a mixture of delight and consternation. What, for instance, was the girl born on the second day of the month supposed to make of “No, my son! No, son of my womb! No, son of my vows!” The girl born on the 28th, on the other hand, waved her verse around like a banner, celebrating the certainty that “her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her.”

Looking back, I find our game cringe-worthy for any number of reasons. For instance, I no longer recommend using the Bible as a Ouija board. (Though, to be fair, seventh grade girls could get up to worse things.) The assumption that marriage is the goal of every little girl also makes me wince. But I think what I object to the most is the popular assumption that Proverbs 31 offers us a picture of the “ideal wife,” at least in any conventional sense.

Professor Ellen Davis has been instrumental in helping me to reimagine the “valorous woman” who is praised in this poem. Far from being the epitome of a conservative male fantasy (June Cleaver on steroids), this is a woman to be reckoned with. As usual, translation makes a difference. “Capable” in verse 10 is a feeble choice for a Hebrew word that is more often used to convey physical strength and valor. (Yes, it’s used in military contexts!) More broadly, however, Davis points out that significant cultural differences make it dangerous to assume that the valorous woman of Proverbs 31 is the patron saint of June Cleaver.

According to Davis, we need to remember that when Proverbs 31 was written, the economy was based in the household. In other words, “the household was the primary economic unit, where most real goods were produced. Within this economic system, not only was the labor of women essential, but also their social, managerial, and even diplomatic skills, as the story of Abigail (1 Samuel 25) exemplifies.” What’s more, the home was the “central social and religious institution, the place where Israelite identity was established.”*

All of this is to say, the “worthy woman” of Proverbs 31 is a picture of someone who is strong, enterprising, courageous, kind, intelligent, generous, godly, and wise. Yes, she is a mother and a wife, but she is also a mover and shaker in her community. Oh, and did I mention that the chapter that describes her is “the most unambiguously flattering portrait of any individual, man or woman” in all of Hebrew scripture?*

I’m not sure all of that is going to fit on a t-shirt.

Ponder: Do you have any memories or experiences of this chapter? How have your views evolved?

Pray: Shape our ideas, our values, and our lives so that they reflect what is truly worthy.

*Quotes are from Ellen Davis’s commentary on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000) pp. 150-155.