Creating Space for Community – Rethinking the Proverbs 31 Woman

I’ve begun speaking on a monthly basis for a non-traditional church service through the United Methodist Church.  The service, called Discover Depth, has committed itself to finding God in every aspect of life, especially the matters that affect us everyday.  We know that many churches are not discussing the burdens that afflict us, modern culture/politics and controversy or even the mundane, but we believe that God’s word has something to say whether it is directly stated or not. We might not have all the answers, but we are willing to ask the hard questions, search scripture together, ask experts in the field and rest in the mystery of God if the evidence is inconclusive.

I thought I would start sharing some of my rough notes to help others with understanding scripture or sermon prep.  Here is my introduction from our April service where I interviewed the owner of a local coffee shop that is making huge waves in our community by creating a safe and welcoming place that loves its neighbors well…

We have begun the evening a bit different.  Instead of our call to worship being a reading and response I wanted to share with you a song called, Eshet Ḥayil, that is traditionally sung in almost every Jewish community before the Friday night Shabbat meal to the woman of the house. (Search YouTube to find some amazing renditions.)  One Jewish woman describes it as a sign of respect and thanks for blessing their families with “energy and creativity”.  Before this week I had never heard this particular format of this very famous Bible passage, most likely because I’m not fluent in traditional Hebrew and I’m not Jewish.  I’m guessing that some of you here this evening are very familiar with it as well.  In the Western Christian church it is known as the Proverbs 31 woman and the Hebrew translation of Eshet Hayil is Woman of Valor.  Let me read it for you:

Who can find a virtuous and capable wife?
She is more precious than rubies.
Her husband can trust her,
and she will greatly enrich his life.
She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.
She finds wool and flax
and busily spins it.
She is like a merchant’s ship,
bringing her food from afar.
She gets up before dawn to prepare breakfast for her household
and plan the day’s work for her servant girls.
She goes to inspect a field and buys it;
with her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She is energetic and strong,
a hard worker.
She makes sure her dealings are profitable;
her lamp burns late into the night.
Her hands are busy spinning thread,
her fingers twisting fiber.
She extends a helping hand to the poor
and opens her arms to the needy.
She has no fear of winter for her household,
for everyone has warm clothes.
She makes her own bedspreads.
She dresses in fine linen and purple gowns.
Her husband is well known at the city gates,
where he sits with the other civic leaders.
She makes belted linen garments
and sashes to sell to the merchants.
She is clothed with strength and dignity,
and she laughs without fear of the future.
When she speaks, her words are wise,
and she gives instructions with kindness.
She carefully watches everything in her household
and suffers nothing from laziness.
Her children stand and bless her.
Her husband praises her:
“There are many virtuous and capable women in the world,
but you surpass them all!”
Charm is deceptive, and beauty does not last;
but a woman who fears the Lord will be greatly praised.
Reward her for all she has done.
Let her deeds publicly declare her praise.

In all honesty I do not know this evening’s guest very well.  We have met in person and have spoken a hand full of times and although just an acquaintance, she has such a hospitable personality that even after a brief encounter you leave feeling warm and as if you have a friend, someone to be on your side.  When I was thinking about how to introduce her, the thought of Proverbs 31 popped into my head because this woman is a Rockstar.  She seems to balance life well and if Proverbs 31 was a checklist, she seemingly would have every box checked.  Even though the passage was correct about her, I couldn’t figure out how to tie in this evening’s topic of Creating Space for Community or how to make it relevant to everyone else here tonight.  That was until I started looking into the meaning and context of Proverbs 31.  It then was no longer about a woman who was phenomenal and has her stuff together but was about the characteristic of valor. Valor is defined by as “boldness or determination in facing great danger, especially in battle; heroic courage; bravery”.  Valor.  That we could all strive for—male or female.  The byproduct of living a brave life is community!  It seemed like a win-win so bear with me for a few while I give you some insight on how I came to this conclusion.

You are going to need to be familiar with the book of the Bible that this passage comes from.  It’s obviously from the book of Proverbs.  It is considered a wisdom book of the Bible.  It’s main author is King Solomon with two other authors mentioned. The passage we have read tonight is attributed to King Lemuel whom some scholars believe was a pen name used by Solomon.  The purpose of this particular book Solomon says is to gain wisdom and to behave in ways that are just, right and fair. He writes it to his sons. In Chapter 1 and throughout the first part of the book a woman is spoken about.  Wisdom.  Was this an actual woman? No.  Solomon personified wisdom as a woman, most likely because the Hebrew language has grammatical gender unlike English.  So we are introduced to this woman, Wisdom, and according to King Solomon we should want to be around and she wants to be around us too, she is actually calling for us.  But then this other woman is introduced, the Adulterous Woman and she is calling to us as well, we are to avoid her because she is going to ruin our life, make no doubt about it.  The father instructs his son to cling instead to his Wife. Is the Adulterous Woman a real woman? No, she is meant to represent the pursuit of idolatry and sin. So then what does the Wife represent?  I believe that is answered at the end of the book. Proverbs takes a turn from its poetic prose and gives us some great chapters of pithy wisdom before ending in Chapter 31.  This chapter is claimed to be written by King Lemuel and is inspired by his mother words.  He starts off with warning against the woman who will derail you from your job and will only destroy you.  His mama-inspired words instead give great advice about staying the course and living a life that is just, right and fair like we heard in the first chapter.  She tells him to find a Woman of Valor and here we are…. Proverbs 31:10-31.  Although it doesn’t read like poetry in our English translations Eshet Ḥayil was in fact written as a poem.  In its original Hebrew it is written in the form of an acrostic, the twenty-two verses composing it each start with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The passage also contains the poetic device of chiasm, meaning it uses parallel lines that have corresponding themes.  The website Glory Books explains it this way: “The parallels are not one after the other; instead, the top line and the bottom line are parallel, then the second line and the next to last line are parallel, and so on.  The very middle line is the emphasis — the main focus of the poem.”  If you were to diagram this out with indentations it would look something like an arrowhead with the tip being the main takeaway.

So what is the main takeaway? I will have you wait a minute for the reveal. For years I have sat in a pew and heard this passage preached as an ideal goal for womanhood. I heard it read like an ancient Tinder profile for Christian men to seek out.  It boiled down in my mind: women, be the infamous Proverbs 31 woman; and men, go get chu one.  What I discovered is that some commentators do not believe that this woman of Valor was and actual person rather the personification of Valor.  Given what we just learned about Proverbs this makes sense!  Now I see this passage as a Word for all of us, female and male, to be and get. The ancient Torah reader would have immediately drawn parallels between the woman of Valor that Proverbs 31 is about and the female personification of wisdom and immorality in the beginning of the book.  Valor although personified as a wife and mother, is neither, rather it is a character trait to be clung to and loved as if it were one of these dear relationships.  The real-life practical example of a Woman of Valor would appear in another part of the Old Testament in the book of Ruth.  Ruth was a Moabite woman who lost it all; her husband died, her brother-in-law died, her father-in-law died. So in ancient culture they were pretty much doomed. It was just Ruth and a severely depressed Jewish mother-in-law that weren’t sure how they were going to survive.  Thankfully they did given their wisdom and valor.  Ruth greatly lacked the prestige and wealth of the proverbs 31 woman’s luxurious life, yet she is the only real-life woman ascribed this title in scripture–woman of valor. She cements the central lesson of Proverbs 31 with her story and exemplary character.  Interestingly enough, her future man Boaz is described as a Man of Valor as well in the book of Ruth.  If you have never read their love story take a look at the Book of Ruth.

Still with me?  Here is where I get a little Bible nerdy on you, okay, maybe a lit bit more Bible nerdy. The word valor or Chayil  in Hebrew is formed by three individual characters the first means “under strong leadership”; the second “performing a mighty work”; the third “providing a place of protection”.  We as women and men are to ascribe to the virtues personified in the book of Proverbs, both wisdom and valor.  Wise protectors doing mighty works under the authority of God.

So going back to the chiastic takeaway of Proverbs 31? To bring honor to her husband.  Before anyone gets upset over this main point, I want to remind you that this was written in and to a man dominated paternalistic culture.  I believe the Bible time and time again gives validity and approval to the work, gifts and contributions of women.  The Bible is a book that when read properly, demands a mutual respect of everyone to include and especially when it comes to marriage.  And as much as I love my husband Brian, and believe that together we are better, I do not believe that worth comes from marriage; after all Paul wrote that he wishes we all had the gift of celibacy.  So what to make of it? As a Christian with access to both Old and New Testaments and a knowledge of Jesus, when reading this my mind immediately goes to the symbolism Paul uses for the relationship between the church and Jesus which is marriage.  The ancient church was not a building, rather a strong interconnected community of individuals that believed in Christ and serving others.  Today, we here at Discover Depth, hold tightly to the belief that this building where we sit is just a facility and the church is each person individually and collectively serving and loving others from the overflow of God’s love for us.  So, If we use the symbolism of being married to Christ, then the main point of Proverbs 31, the tip of the Chiastic arrow for everyone, is to honor God.

Our guest tonight is an amazing Woman of Valor.  She has created a space for community within our town that I believe is a needed and mighty work.  Those that sit in the coziness of the café created by her family feel at home and protected.  Her kindness and concern for others radiates Jesus.  And her wisdom and discernment have helped her to create the number one coffee shop in all of Cecil County.  Please help me welcome wife, mama, entrepreneur and Rise n’ Grind owner Angelina Vanderhoef.

Angie and Erica


Want to read more on Biblical womanhood?  Read this by the late Rachel Held Evan’s: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

(The above is an affiliate link for Amazon, meaning I will receive a small percentage of the sale if you purchase through that link.  Rather just order it without an affiliate link? That’s cool, click here.)

Evangelism 101

*Love others well and the world will know you follow Jesus.

*Be patient and kind and the world will know you follow Jesus.

*Don’t demand others see your point of view, just live out your convictions and the world will know you follow Jesus.

*Don’t act rudely, be jealous, or brag about your accomplishments and belongings and the world will know you follow Jesus.

*Don’t hold grudges or be easily irritated and the world will know you follow Jesus.

*Rejoice when truth wins, not when injustice reigns and the world will know you follow Jesus.

*Don’t give up, don’t lose faith, and bear every hardship in life with the hope of better things to come and the world will know you follow Jesus.

Put away the tracts, love is always relevant. Love always wins.

The Sorting Process

Last night we watched the “The Good Lie” a film based on the true story of children from Sudan; their fleeing from their village after soliders came in and killed nearly everyone they loved and the opportunity to come to America after 13 years in a refugee camp.  It was a good movie with an overwhelming theme of selfless love.  As I watched I got teary-eyed quite a few times.

The tears continued after I got in bed and turned off the lights recounting the day.  I had spent time with my family, enjoyed lunch with a friend, helped Brian work on the chicken coop, ate leftovers for dinner in a warm house, watched a movie with the kids, and here I was in my soft comfortable bed–crying.  I’m glad Brian was asleep because I don’t know how to explain my sadness.  As much as I wish everyone had the blessings of my life, my tears weren’t for the displaced refugees we had just watched, or those stuck in poverty, as much as they were for me.  Sounds selfish, I know, but I can’t figure out the discrepency God allows between the lives of the poor and me.  I don’t know what to do with the chasm that spans the materially poor and the life I live, even with my ripped couches, discount groceries, and thrift store clothes, I should call it what it is–a life of luxury.  I have so much.  So very much.

My tears turned to sobbing this morning as I read Psalms that spoke of God’s justice and love for the oppressed and the poor.  I am unsure of what I am I supposed to do with this churning in my spirit.   My life of comfort has become uncomfortable as I continue to wrestle with justice and community.  I recognize that gratitude is not enough, that all that I have experienced or possess cannot be simply for me to say, “thanks, God.”


Here Comes the Bride…

BrideCommunity fellowship–I’m not sure if church can be as simple as that, but there is something in my heart that tells me it is; something telling me to stop going to church and start going after the church. I am so intimidated by these feelings, not to mention frustrated and hopeful too. I don’t want anyone to think the post I wrote or the ones to come, regardless of rantings, are church-bashing.  My goal in doing these posts is to wrestle out my thoughts and to figure out what my part is in the church. In doing so, I want to make sure that as I discuss church, that although frustrated by the church organizations the western world has created, I am respectful of the church as a whole. Why?  Because, the Bible tells us that the church is Christ’s bride and I don’t know any groom that likes someone talking smack about his bride.

In case you aren’t familiar with the bride/bridegroom imagery, here’s the back story:  The church is not a building, rather it is the people that have admitted that they are sinful (have sinned and continue to struggle with sin) and have asked Jesus to be their personal savior (a.k.a., asked him into their heart) and because of this will have eternal life.  In summary, church = people saved by grace (not a building that hosts Sunday services).  2 Corinthians 11:2 says we are made pure by him so that we can be presented as a bride to him.  Ephesians 5:25-27 goes on to tell us that Jesus loved the church and gave himself up for her (died) so that she could be holy and spotless.  Right now, this time in history, we are experiencing a physical separation period from Christ until he returns; it’s like the betrothal period from ancient times when the bride and groom were separated before the wedding (kind of like the day of the wedding for us).  When Jesus comes back, the second coming, (the first is when he was born in a manager) is when the church will meet her groom at a fantastic wedding celebration (Revelation 19:7-9).  In the meantime, the church’s job is to keep herself pure, church buildings could probably handle that, but unfortunately church people can’t.

Despite the church’s haggardness, her groom sees through to her beauty.  When you think about it, even with our crazy and our issues, the church is stunning; a group (not like five or six people; rather a ton) of believers; all nationalities, all ages, all sizes, all abilities, all worshiping the creator God, all trying to love like Jesus.

We Americans, innovators that we are, have introduced the entertainment factor to our church organizations. It’s like the bride of Christ getting her makeup done by Barnum & Bailey and hiring Lady Gaga to pick out her gown.  Here’s what I mean by that; church should be more simplistic.  The church’s beauty shines most when she is not trying to attract people to her, but when she simply seeks the Kingdom of God.  Jesus said #1 love God, #2 love people, #3 love yourself (Mark 12:30-31).  Simple.  Not easy, but simple.  The American church often seems to want to be loved rather than to love.  They dress up and apply make-up in an attempt to attract people to them with: worship experiences comparable to rock concerts; refreshments like a Parisian cafe; over-the-top events, i.e., the biggest egg hunt this side of the Mississippi and come pet the chickens who laid them.  Easy on the ears, delicious in the belly, and fun to attend. Yes!  But where is the love?  The new American church is focused more on Jesus’ #3 of love yourself than the top two.  Church organizations feel loved through numbers; attendance for services, number of programs established, money on the offering plate.  If the numbers are high, the bride of Christ is looking in the mirror thinking she is looking good.  Funny thing is, God isn’t concerned with our outward appearance.  He is all about the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).  How is the worship, our snacks, and our clucky hens showing love to God or people?  How is it seeking first the Kingdom of God?

Look, these things aren’t wrong, but when they become the priority of the bride and they are self-serving it’s hard for her to keep herself pure for her coming groom and that’s our job as Christ’s peeps.  We are going to fail, we are human and we always do, but we still need to try to love Him and others before self.  Seek the Kingdom first, not a church organization’s agenda.  Maybe instead special effects just short of pyrotechnics that accompany some worship bands we take that money and use it to love God by loving his people.  Colored lights don’t speak love, but paying for the medical needs of kids in third world countries does.  Want to have a cafe that encourages relationship among your parishioners?  Great!  But how about using the money from that endeavor to hire some single mamas from the neighborhood to work it.  Empower them by employing them and let then use the nursery during services as free childcare.  I’m seeing some love!  Event that is gargantuan for the entire community?  Fantastic!  (Not gonna lie, I still struggle with some of these events.)  Make sure you don’t have your whole congregation running an activity or executing “the plan,”  but have folks wandering around with the sole intent of talking and connecting with new faces and families.

Have you noticed the anticipation of a man waiting at the alter for his bride?  It always gets me.  When the music changes during the wedding ceremony and the doors are about to open to reveal the bride and everyone turns to see her enter in her splendor, I always look up front at the groom instead.  I love to see him standing there in disbelief that this is his beautiful bride walking to him.  The look of love is intense and no matter what has happened before this very moment is now obselote.  That’s what I want…for me…for us,his church. Because of his great love for us I want to do better.  Jesus is coming for his bride and despite our often selfish failings he has made us pure.  And for this reason alone, the wedding celebration is going to be OFF-THE-CHAIN.  (Does anyone even say that anymore?  Regardless, you get the point.)