Any woman who has been part of organized women’s ministry knows that sooner or later you’re going to encounter Proverbs 31.
This passage is a mainstay for discussions about Christian womanhood; and in our consumer-driven culture, it graces everything from Bible covers
to refrigerator magnets.
But recently, several women have been challenging a typical approach to this text. At the recent Q
event, Women and Calling,
progressive blogger and author Rachel Held Evans reiterated her long-standing concern that we tend to misuse this passage, making it more of a “Pintrest page come to life” than the poem it is. Sarah Bessey makes the same point in the recently released Jesus Feminist.
She writes: Some evangelicals have turned Proverbs 31 into a woman’s job description instead of what it actually is: the blessing and affirmation of valor for the lives of women… It is meant as a celebration for the everyday moments of valor for everyday women, not as an impossible exhausting standard.
These women have a legitimate concern. How many Mother’s Day sermons or Bible studies have turned Proverbs 31 into a checklist? How many times have teachers used it to reinforce their private applications of gender? How many times have you felt defeated from just listening to such sermons? So let me go on record as saying that I agree with Evans and Bessey. With one caveat.
Proverbs 31 is intended as a blessing and affirmation, not of all women, but of a certain kind of woman: a wise one.
Because while Proverbs 31 isn’t prescriptive, it is
descriptive. It is designed to tell us the kind of woman who deserves honor and praise. In this sense, the poem is the culmination of an entire book whose main goal is to teach the difference between wisdom and foolishness. But as the beginning
of Proverbs point out, you don’t become wise via a checklist; you become wise by fearing the Lord.
To be fair, it’s easy to confuse prescriptive and descriptive passages. Obviously it happens in Proverbs 31, but it happens just as often in less controversial texts. The Beatitudes
or the Fruit of the Spirit
can quickly become metaphysical checklists if we divorce them from their Source and view them as goals to meet in our own strength.
Just be peaceful. Check.
Just be kind. Check.
Just be humble. Check.
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…
But while these passages are not intended as “To Do” lists, they are a kind of “field guide” given to describe what we will look like if our hearts are being changed by God. They describe the fruit and bark and leaves of the tree so you can know what kind of tree you’re looking at
. In the case of Proverbs 31, the poem shows how wisdom embodies itself in feminine form; so that in a beauty only God Himself could conceive, a book written primarily to young men doesn't climax with a description of a mature man but with a description of a mature woman.
Evans rightly pointed this out during the Q event. She noted that the original audience of Proverbs 31 was men, and joked, “Can you imagine a men's conference where that was the central text?“ (It was a pretty funny thought.) But even this isn’t the whole picture. The main audience of Proverbs 31 is men—true—but it’s given to men in order to teach them the kind of women they should celebrate. One of the assumed purposes is to distinguish wise women from foolish ones in order to help men “find”
a good wife.
Talk about sexist.
Or maybe not. Maybe this actually affirms a woman’s imago dei
. To understand what I mean, consider Proverbs as a whole. Throughout it, you’ll find this recurring theme: weak men can be ruined by strong men but strong men can be ruined by foolish… women. Yes, women.
And here’s why: Women are men’s spiritual equal.
Think about it. If a woman were not equal to a man, then her spiritual life would be of little consequence to him. She simply wouldn't be able to influence him for either good or bad. But if, as we are, equal image bearers, reigning as queens alongside earthly kings, then the kind of women we become is of supreme significance. We have intrinsic power that we can use for either great benefit or great destruction.
Because of this, Proverbs is intent on teaching young men to flee from foolish women in order to embrace and affirm wise women. This is why they are to avoid the adulteress
but to delight in the wife of their youth.
They are to avoid women who are quarrelsome
but to celebrate those who speak with kindness
. They are to avoid women who tear down their homes and to run to those who build them up. In other words, a wise woman can make a man; and a foolish one can break him
This assumption of a woman’s power is implicit in the description of the Proverbs 31 woman who wields influence over both her home and society. Because of her wisdom, her husband sits in the gates. Because of her wisdom, her household doesn’t fear the coming winter. Because of her wisdom, her children rise up and call her blessed.
In this sense, Proverbs 31 is both a song of affirmation AND a standard of what maturity looks like. We must not shy away from the descriptive principles simply because they have been misused. Apart from them—apart from knowing that a wise women “stretches out her hand to the needy”—we wouldn’t be able to distinguish her from a foolish one and we’d end up assuming that ALL women deserve praise when in reality, not all of us do.
To quote The Incredibles:
“When everyone’s super, no one is.”
Not all women are sacrificial.
Not all women work hard.
Not all women are kind.
Not all women are generous
Not all women are joyful.
Some women are selfish.
Some women are lazy.
Some women are mean.
Some women are stingy.
Some women are bitter.
But a woman who is wise, a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. She is such a rare find, so exceptionally valuable that Proverbs 31 describes her as more precious than a jewel. A beautiful, expensive, glittering jewel. So that just like light reflects and radiates through a diamond, the light of God’s nature reflects and radiates through her, bursting forth in resplendent glory. And for this kind of wise woman, wise men get up on their feet and cheer.
So, yes, please don’t reduce Proverbs 31 to a checklist or a Pintrest page come to life. But let’s also remember a harder truth. Wisdom doesn’t come naturally to any of us. Our only hope of being this kind of noble woman comes by looking into the face of the One who is Wisdom Himself and allowing Him to conform us to His own likeness. And when we do, He will make us the fully formed image bearers we are destined to be. He will make us women of kindness and grace and sacrifice and love and joy. He will make us like Himself.
Last month, this picture made it’s way around the internet and caused no small stir in the process. With over 16 million views, odds are you saw it yourself at one point. Perhaps it showed up in your FB feed or your read any of the numerous articles written in support or reaction to it. Maria Kang,
the woman in the photo, herself spoke in response to the public outcry,
insisting “I wanted to inspire people... I wanted to say, ‘I know you think you don’t have time if you have kids. But if I can do it, you can do it, too.’” (If you can’t make out the subtext it reads, “What’s your excuse?” and then lists the ages of her three young children.)
Now there are a lot of things that we could say about this. We could discuss the danger of equating “health” with a particular physique and body image. We could condemn portraying children as problems to overcome. We could analyze the shortsightedness of positioning our bodies as objects in themselves, of engaging in navel-gazing in the most literal sense. Or perhaps we could consider why Kim Clijsters' return to a No. 1 seed in professional tennis post-motherhood is far more inspiring than Maria Kang’s return to a size 2. We could ponder why this picture is so much more motivating than that one.
Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Yes, we could do all these things and more. But even if we did, there'd still be one angle missing from the discussion--one that is brought to us by Mma Ramotswe, the proprietor of Botswana’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
. After all, if anyone understands the tension of body image, public judgment, and the struggle to be comfortable in one’s own skin, it is a traditionally built woman. So, just for fun, here’s this bit from Alexander McCall Smith's Morality for Beautiful Girls:
[Mme Ramotswe] had a taste for sugar, however, and this meant that a doughnut or a cake might follow the sandwich. She was a traditionally built lady, after all, and she did not have to worry about dress size, unlike those poor, neurotic people who were always looking in mirrors and thinking that they were too big. What was too big, anyway? Who was to tell another person what size they should be? It was a form of dictatorship, by the thin, and she was not having any of it. If these thin people became any more insistent, then the more generously sized people would just have to sit on them. Yes, that would teach them! Hah!”
Nursing Mother by Pieter de Hooch (1659)
Yesterday, Jared Wilson posted a somewhat unlikely piece on his blog, The Gospel-Driven Church. Enlisting Paul’s description of ministry in I Thessalonians 2:7, Wilson encouraged his fellow pastors to engage their work with gentleness, “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children."
Before I go any further, let me express how much I appreciate Wilson’s writing. Like any public figure, he’s faced his times of being misunderstood, but those of us who regularly read him know that he is a man committed to Jesus and shepherding his people well. Barring his irrational attachment to the Patriots (Go Steelers!), I have nothing but good to say about him.
So my response to his post has less to do with what he wrote than with his being a man who has never nursed an infant a day in his life. (As my husband used to mumble to me during 3 o’clock feedings, “I’d love to help you, honey, but I’m simply not equipped.”) This kind of situation is Exhibit A of why I’m such a proponent of a female voice in the Church. There are things that men simply cannot know instinctively. Just as there are things that women cannot know. This interdependence is a good thing. In fact, God’s making us male and female is one of those design features that seems so obvious that it’s easy to forget its genius. So don’t think of this post as a contradiction to Wilson’s original post but an addendum. An “expert testimony” of sorts on what it means to be gentle like a nursing mother.
Among my generation of women, breastfeeding has made something of a comeback. With the American Academy of Pediatric’s recommendation to nurse infants to at least twelve months, many young mothers are choosing to breastfeed despite the fact that their own mothers often did not. Because of this, they are also learning the hard way about how unbelievably demanding it can be.
Nursing an infant is manual labor, folks.
Despite its resurgence, breastfeeding still exists under a bit of stigma, relegated to back rooms and behind closed doors. In my opinion, this sequestering of nursing mothers is as much a loss to society as it is to the mother and child, leaving us all a tad ignorant of what breastfeeding actually entails. We have a popular notion of nursing that is often worlds away from the reality.
So when we encounter Paul’s metaphor to engage in pastoral ministry with the “gentleness of a nursing mother,” it’s easy to conjure up an idyllic picture of mother and child blissfully settled in a rocking chair, complete with a vintage Instagram filter and soft edges. The perfect embodiment of domestic contentedness. (*sigh*) But let me warn you; if you try to apply this notion of gentleness to pastoral ministry, you’re in for a rude awakening.
And in order to understand this, all you have to do is read the rest of the text. Immediately following the metaphor of a nursing mother, Paul writes:So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.
When Paul describes the gentleness of a nursing mother, he’s not describing a passivity or assumed tenderness; he’s describing a gentleness that comes from a place of deep self-sacrifice, self-giving, and tireless commitment. Nursing an infant requires gutsy, down-in-the-trenches, hour-by-hour dedication. And it is motivated by the depth of love that a mother has for her child.
It is a gentleness that allows itself to be inconvenienced, to be awakened at odd hours of the night and interrupted at meal time.It is a gentleness that is vulnerable enough to freely offer the most private parts of oneself only to be bitten in return. It is a gentleness that is attentive, that calculates feedings and ounces gained, not as a way to keep score, but to be assured that her child is flourishing.It is a gentleness that has the faith to believe that the same God who daily provided manna in the wilderness will also provide the next round of nourishment for your little one.
I Thessalonians is not the only place that Scripture uses the metaphor of breastfeeding. In his first epistle, Peter writes that we are “like newborn infants, [who] long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good."
We’re not talking Similac or sippy cups here. We grow up into salvation as we partake of the very life-giving nature of Christ Himself. And this is where the application to pastoral ministry becomes even clearer. Pastors minister to their congregations, not through their personalities or their programs, but by offering them the life-giving milk of the Word as they themselves have received it.
As any nursing mother can tell you, your ability to nourish your child is directly tied to whether you yourself have been nourished. When a mother is under stress, when she has not consumed enough calories, when she has not rested properly, her milk supply drops. And suddenly what should be a rewarding experience for both mother and baby becomes a time of frustration and helplessness. When the milk won’t flow, everyone ends up in a big puddle of angry, messy tears.
Breastfeeding mothers are some of the most resilient people I know. Their gentleness is strong, powerful, and life-giving. They embody a gritty attentiveness that flows from a place of persistence and self-sacrifice. But is a gentleness that can only be sustained as she herself is sustained. So that ultimately, when Paul enlists the metaphor of ministering as a nursing mother, he is not simply speaking of gentleness in some abstract, idealized way. He is speaking of a gentleness that comes only by feeding on the One who is Gentleness Himself. By feeding on the One Who carries the lambs in His arms and gently leads those that are with young.
Last Saturday, a jury of six women declared George Zimmerman “not guilty” of 2nd degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin. As those words were spoken, the echo reverberated across the nation in the form of protests, opinions, and debates. And in the midst of all the noise, one man’s words have been looping in my head—the words of Johnny Cash.
In 1958, Cash released a single called “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.”
In it, he sings of a young cowboy named Billy Joe who heads to town for a bit of fun. Before he leaves, his mother begs, “Don’t take your guns to town, son,” but he assures her that he’s “a man” and that he would never harm anyone. Once in town, the inevitable happens; another cowboy mocks his manhood, and filled with rage, Billy Joe reaches for his gun. But the stranger fires first; and young Billy Joe falls to the ground.
Despite the title, Cash isn’t singing about concealed carry laws; he’s singing about the swagger of young manhood. He’s singing about how often young men feel the need to be respected and how quickly that can turn violent. He’s also singing about a mother who knows the danger and pleads with her son to stay away from it.
I hesitate to write about this case because I am white. And if I offer any other narrative than one of racial inequity, I am immediately suspect. So let me say this first:
I believe there is systemic racism in our society. When we subjugated an entire class of people, no amount of constitutional amendments or civil rights movements could be enough to reverse it. Only repentance and forgiveness can. I also believe that African-American men are disproportionately profiled and incarcerated. And when whites point a finger to the breakdown of the black family, we have three fingers pointing back at us because for hundreds of years we tore these same families apart. We tore babies from mothers, wives from husbands, and sons from fathers. And we sold them, telling them that their family was worth little more than a few coins in our pockets.
But I also believe that what happened that rainy night in Florida involved a lot more than race and to reduce it to race alone threatens to blind us to the actual tragedy—the violence that ultimately resulted in the loss of a human life. Because whatever may have contributed, it is not sufficient to explain the fact that two people actively engaged in a physical confrontation and only one walked away. As Joel J. Miller put it in this post
, “If man is made in the image of God, then taking a man’s life is a serious issue in all cases.
So I prickle when folks hail Zimmerman’s acquittal as a victory for the right of self-defense because self-defense that leads to death is never a victory.
But I also prickle when parents of African-American children claim greater ownership of this tragedy. This was not an African-American tragedy; this was a human tragedy.
Because as much as you see your son in Trayvon Martin, I want you to know that I see my son—my blue-eyed, blonde-haired son—in him as well. And what few of us are willing to admit is that we must also see our sons in George Zimmerman.
A telling thing happened during Zimmerman’s trial. Both prosecution and defense played a 911 call that recorded clear cries of help followed by a gunshot. When played to Sybrina Fulton, she was certain that it was her son Trayvon crying out for help. When played to Gladys Zimmerman, she was certain that it was her son George crying out for help. What neither mother could imagine was that her son might have been the one causing another human being to cry out in fear of his life.
And until we reach that point, until we are able to recognize the potential for violence in our own hearts, we will get nowhere. Even as we pursue the imago dei
equality of all people, we must also recognize the image of the First Adam in all people. We must recognize that we—our sons included--are each capable of ending the life of another human being.
We will never know exactly what happened that night. But we do know this:
Two people met.
There was an altercation.
Both resorted to force to solve it.
One took a life.
And when I look at it this way, my heart fears, not because of what could happen to my own sons, but because of what they could do to another person. Especially growing up in a culture that equates manhood with mixed martial arts, the ability to carry a gun, and the inability to retreat.
Our sons come to us factory set to resolve problems physically. And while I believe that God gives them their physical strength to protect the vulnerable, their selfish tendency is to use it to vent their own emotions—their fear, their anger, their anxiety. Case in point: when my older son recently lost to his brother in a game of hide-and-seek, his frustration boiled over and in typical male fashion he promised (and I quote), “I’m going to kick you in the wiener.”
(No, mother, he did not learn that language from us; we use anatomically correct terms.)
And it’s moments like this when I am most thankful for a husband who steps in to teach our sons what it means to be men. Who steps in to teach them about the necessity of self-control. Who steps in to teach them how and when to use their power. Because if we do not do this—if we do not teach our boys to use their strength to pursue peace--all the racial equality in the world will mean nothing. Because racism does not create violence; it only tells us where to direct the violence that is already in our hearts.
What we must not miss in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict is how quickly we rely on force to solve our problems. And part of that means teaching our boys when to step away from a fight. It means teaching them that there is such a thing as “false valor.” In C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle,
King Tirian is preparing to head into enemy territory with Jill and Eustace. He warns them not to take unnecessary risks, saying, “If I cry ‘Home,’ then fly for the Tower both of you. And let none try to fight on—not even one strike—after I have given the retreat: such false valor has spoiled many.”
And so sons—whether you are red or yellow or black or white—learn when to step down. Learn that there is no honor in bravado. There is no honor in violence. There is no honor in proving your manhood. There is only death.
Please, sons, don’t take your guns to town.
_______________________________________________________________________________________________Given the passion surrounding this case, I am closing comments on this post. Feel free to contact me via Facebook, Twitter (@sometimesalight), or the Guestbook here at Sometimesalight.com. Thank you for understanding.
This image has nothing to do with my post--I just love fall.
Over the weekend, our little house welcomed two extra adults and four extra children when family friends came to visit. That’s right, this brought the occupants to a grand total of four adults, seven children under the age of eleven, and 1.5 bathrooms. From the time they arrived on Friday until they left after lunch on Sunday, life in these four walls was a whirlwind of freckles, toothless smiles, pajama parties, and the unending attempt to fill hungry bellies.
My husband and I have known these friends since we were newlyweds in the same church. We started the cycle of family life together—the first anniversaries, the first pregnancies, the first homes, but work and out-of-state moves have taken us in very different directions over the last several years. And while we've kept up through Christmas cards and Facebook, our families have spent very little time together and our children hardly know each other. (I had to remind my children that we had
actually visited our friends before—they remembered once I described the toys in their playroom.)
So shortly before our friends arrived, in the middle of the final dusting and picking up, I had a moment of panic. Here we were, about to enter a weekend of very intimate circumstances with only our past friendship to carry us through. Who knew if the children would get along? What if the weekend turned out to be one extensive fighting match with the parents caught in the middle? What if we weren't as good friends as well as I had remembered?
As normal, my fears turned out to be unfounded. The children got along marvelously and so did the adults. But this wasn’t necessarily because we did everything the same way. I quickly noticed that we engaged our children differently and we had very different dynamics as husbands and wives. In fact, what struck me repeatedly throughout the weekend was how two families both pursuing the same things could go about it in distinct ways.
It’s easy for us to avoid people and families who function differently from us because when confronted with differences, we often feel threatened and uncertain about our own choices. One way we handle this is by doubling back, assuming a defensive position, and launching attacks to prove to ourselves (and others) that the opinions we hold are just as significant (if not more so) than anyone else’s. And some of us handle the uncertainty, not by fighting back, but by simply adopting every new philosophy and every new paradigm because we secretly fear that everyone else is obviously doing a better job than we are.
But a funny thing happened this weekend. Because I didn't feel threatened by our friends, because I knew I was loved by them, I was free to learn from the differences. I could observe their children’s politeness and academic success without feeling inferior. I could watch my friend mother with gentleness and strength without needing to be defensive about my own mothering. And I could evaluate our family’s decisions and remember why we had chosen certain things without thinking I had to change just because they had made different choices.
And amazingly, as I did, I could see the gaps. I could see areas where I needed to pick up my game and where they had been more successful. It wasn't that I compared my children to theirs or even that I compared my mothering to hers. It was simply that by being close enough and loved enough, I was free to be able see the areas where she did some things better than I do. And oddly enough, instead of being confronted, I was challenged. I was inspired. Inspired to take my children’s spiritual health more seriously. Inspired to take my own spiritual health more seriously.
A lot of times, we think of diversity in God’s kingdom as simply a way to get more accomplished—a.k.a., you work in your corner and I’ll work in mine. Or we think it's primarily about learning to exercise patience with each when we disagree (although that is part of it). But I think diversity serves another function. Diversity is a means by which God can change us, a way of challenging our presuppositions and pushing us past our comfort zones. After all, iron may sharpen iron
but not without resistance, friction, and the occasional sparks. And diversity offers us the opportunity to be sharpened. It offers us the chance to humbly evaluate our choices, to reflect on our own process, and to change when we see a better way of doing things.
But ultimately this requires humility—the humility to recognize that maybe, just possibly, we don’t have it all together. This requires grace—the grace to believe that despite our differences, God loves us each equally. And it requires remembering, when given over to His hands, our individual strengths and weaknesses coordinate together to fulfill His purposes, both in our own lives and for the sake of His kingdom.
This is not our family.
Last week, I wrote a post
that praised the new domesticity as a way for women to embrace the image of God in their lives, a way by which they could express and engage in being creative like He is creative. My basic premise was that this renewed interest in the domestic arts offers many women who are already choosing to stay at home an avenue to realize their own humanity. But I forgot something. I forgot that terms like “domesticity” and “home” and “motherhood” are value-laden words within our Christian subtext and unless clearly defined, they sit heavily on the lines, causing them to sag and leave great gaps.
Gaps the size you can read between.
So I want to write a follow-up post to tighten up those lines and explain some of my assumptions when I talk about motherhood and domesticity. And I figured one way to do that is to talk about being a SAHM myself. Let’s start off simply,
1. I stay at home with my kids because I can and I choose to.
It really is that basic. Sure there are values and opinions that undergird this choice, but in the end, it is a personal choice
that we have made as a family.
2. And the primary reason that I choose to this is because of the freedom it gives me.
Freedom to devote myself to my family’s well-being without the obligation of a boss or an office. Freedom to pursue without distraction the values that my husband and I want for our lives together. These values include not only supporting each other in our God-given callings, but also nurturing the gifts of every member of the family. For me, that means being at home; here, I am actually more capable of pursuing the things that I’ve been gifted to do--not only to love and care for those closest to me but also to write and study and dream.
3. At the same time, I understand that this freedom, that this liberty to be in control of my working hours, comes because I have been blessed.
In staying at home, I am giving up the extra income that some families need to accomplish these very same life goals. (Believe me, if your children are not warm and fed, it doesn’t matter how gifted they are—no amount of love and time will fill their bellies and help them become what they were created to be.) At times, this process has included sorting through our priorities, tightening our belts, even getting help when work wasn’t available; but always, in the end, it has been the result of abundance—an abundance that in this age is really only accessible to a certain class of people living in a certain western paradigm.
4. Because the truth is that not all women who want to be SAHMs can afford to be.
I’m thinking of the single mother whose has been abandoned by a man who, after bringing children into the world, has left her with no way of raising them. I’m thinking of my friend whose husband has suffered long-term illness and when work became available, they didn’t think twice about who did it—they were just thrilled that God sent it. I’m thinking of the immigrant family struggling along on (below) minimum-wage jobs, happy to have the opportunity to put food on the table and clothes on their backs in peace. I’m thinking of my sisters across the millennia that have been caught in slavery and have never imagined the possibility of being able to devote themselves exclusively to the interests of their families. And I’m thinking of the whole host of other individual circumstances to which I’ll never be privy.
5. And since staying at home is a privilege, it is also a gift that I am responsible to steward for the benefit of others
. I must be diligent to use my freedom to bless my husband and my children and my neighbors and my friends and even my enemies. And here’s a twist: I must use my ability to stay at home to serve others mothers who do not--whether that means helping them with their own children, making an extra meal so they don’t have to, or simply praying that God would give them the strength they need. You see, the danger for those of us who do stay at home is that we can very quickly use our independence for self-absorption instead of service. And like jewelry on a pig, selfishness looks worst on women who assume that they couldn’t possibly be, simply because of who they are or what they do.
Because ultimately, even as I stay at home, I’m not “at home”—not on this earth anyway. My mind and heart and emotions and gifts are all directed toward building that greater home, toward nurturing that larger family—a family that includes not only my own husband and children, but one that spans gender and age and race and time. A family where we are all brothers and sisters caring for each other simply because our Father has so generously cared for us. In this sense, I guess we’re all homemakers, we are all nurtures—it’s just that some us do it by picking up wooden train sets and making peanut butter sandwiches and spending our days quietly within our own four walls. And some of us do not.
One of the best things about living where we do is that we are within minutes of the Blue Ridge Parkway and some of the most beautiful country on the east coast. This last weekend we decided to take advantage of the break in humidity and take our kids hiking on a nearby trail. We got an early start—early for us anyway—and soon we were winding our way up the side of a mountain, absorbed in all the beauty and intricate detail of a September morning in western Virginia.
For the most part, it was pretty uneventful—the children’s initial enthusiasm cycled through the expected stages of hyperactivity to drooping shoulders to eventual pleading to be carried up the hills. For my part, I offered obligatory cautions about not getting too far ahead of us on the trail, not throwing sticks, and not eating acorns--although (“But, Mommy, did you know…”
) I've been informed that technically
We were walking along a particularly steep section of trail that ran just above a mountain stream when my daughter suddenly took off at breakneck speed. Apparently, despite my warnings, the sheer wonder of reaching the water below was too much for her. My maternal imagination kicked in with visions of her stumbling and careening over the edge, and I was just about to offer another warning when her six-year-old brother beat me to it.
“Sister, slow down! You’re going to fall. Just be patient
And suddenly my heart soared. Did I hear him correctly? Not only was he looking out for her, but he understood to connect her recklessness to a character quality! As far as parenting goes, this was a back-to-back win. Especially in light of the fact that we’ve spent the last three weeks working through a small book called Get Wisdom.
It's designed to teach children core Christian virtues like love, thankfulness, and yes, even patience. I think each lesson is meant to involve my reading through the associated Scripture and then engaging the children in meaningful dialogue about how the highlighted virtue plays out in their lives. In reality, I usually make it through the Scripture and our “meaningful” dialogue devolves into a discussion of the existential quality of boogers.
I wasn’t sure how much impact it was having.
So here, in this one blissful moment on a wooded trail in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains, my hope of actually rearing these three children to responsible adulthood was restored. And, like the well-read parent that I am, I knew that I needed to affirm this moment with my son.
“Buddy, that’s exactly right. Patience is exactly what we need right now. We’ll get down to the creek very soon, but if we’re impatient and run, we might fall and get hurt. Good job!”
His faced beamed and he gave me one of his signature lopsided grins.
“Thanks, Mommy. (pause) You know where I learned that?”
“From Get Wisdom
“Nope. I learned it from Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five
(the giant whooshing sound of my hopes evaporating)
“You didn’t learn it from Get Wisdom
“No, not really. I learned it from Kung Fu Panda”
Later, after we'd returned home, I was reliving this moment along with the beauty that had surrounded us--a beauty in which every branch and every rivulet seemed to speak His name—and I realized that maybe my view of God was too small. Because truthfully, God isn’t a God that can be contained. He is so big that He fills the mountains and the streams and the valleys and when you have eyes to see Him, He just starts popping everywhere! You can’t hold back His wisdom either. You can’t contain it in a book of virtues or ten-minute sessions at breakfast. No, this God, this marvelously transcendent God, is making Himself known throughout the world and displaying His character sometimes in things as inconsequential as a child’s DVD.
I wonder if this is part of the reason why the Scripture tells us to talk about Him to our children “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.”
It’s not that we must attempt to make every moment a “spiritual” one--it’s that every moment already is by the sheer magnitude of His presence.
And even while we faithfully teach our children about Him, we must also remember that He
is faithfully teaching our children as well. Because no matter where they go--no matter if they sit down or rise up or walk by the way or wade in a creek in the mountains of Virginia--there will be glimpses of Him everywhere.
And if you're lucky enough, and you're a six-year-old boy, and your momma lets you, you might just be able to see His wisdom in Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five
The other night, my eight-year-old daughter and I spent a considerable amount of time trying to put together an outfit that was--in her words--“dazzling enough” for the first day of school. And although we quickly learned that we don’t have the same fashion sense, we ended up doing a pretty good job of meeting her need for dazzle and my need to keep her as young as possible for as long as possible.
Since becoming her mother, I’ve gained a heightened awareness for the role that fashion and beauty play in forming a woman’s sense of worth. Some of it has been through my own struggles to come to terms with the physical changes that happen through pregnancy and aging—as much as I feel forever 21, no one told my body what my mind knows. Another part has come from watching my daughter develop her own sense of beauty. Even at eight, she has definite ideas about what “works” and what doesn’t. She loves flipping through my magazines and can put together a doll’s outfit like nobody’s business.
So I’ve been watching the industry with a wary eye and following the cultural conversation surrounding it. A lot of talk has centered on the inferiority that normal women feel when they compare themselves to air-brushed, tummy-tucked, photo-shopped and CGI enhanced models. Because while no one’s staging Occupy The Catwalk, beauty--in many ways--has become as exclusive as wealth, with the majority of it being held by the 1%.
In response, companies like Dove have launched “real beauty”
campaigns, supermodels themselves have begun talking about the pressures of the industry,
and the internet is full of memes contrasting a busty Marilyn Monroe with today’s waif-like fashionista. It seems like the solution to beauty inequality has been to promote inclusive beauty—everyone’s simply beautiful in their own way. Yet for all the discussion, for all the public service announcements, we don’t seem to have made much progress as a culture. And I think it’s simply because we’re not being honest with ourselves. We haven’t yet acknowledged what drives this industry--what drives us as human beings. We haven’t yet touched the darker side of our nature. Because false definitions of beauty aren’t the problem--jealousy, covetousness, and lust are.
Only this morning I was flipping through my latest edition of Real Simple—not an industry standard by any stretch—and interspersed among the typical “balance your life and achieve perfection ads” were a couple of ads that struck me because of their transparency. One was selling Jones New York jeans with the tagline, “Keeping Up with the Jones’ [sic]” and the other was a spread for Sephora skincare. Their tagline? “Skin So Bright You’ll Make Everyone Else Look Dull.”
Finally, here is the truth. Because if we are really honest, the fashion and beauty industry isn’t propelled so much by becoming a better me, as it’s propelled by becoming better than you.
You see, we human beings have a difficult relationship with beauty. It’s not enough for us to simply appreciate it from a distance. No, we must possess it, we must own it, we must have it exclusively. And so while a man may lust after a woman, desiring to physically possess her beauty, women just as quickly lust after each other’s beauty, desiring to possess it in our own bodies. It is not enough that we are all beautiful. I must be more beautiful. I must be better than you. I must have your beauty for my own.
And it’s all vaguely reminiscent of another beautiful creature
whose own beauty was not enough to content him.
For many of us, the solution is to teach our daughters that charm is deceitful and beauty is vain,
but even in this, I don’t think that we go deep enough. It’s not that beauty simply hides the truth of a person’s negative character or even the false corollary that plainness can actually reveal greater spirituality. No, the truth is that beauty and charm deceive us and drive us through our lust, jealousy, and pride to aggressively fight to overcome each other.
The answer to this can’t simply be that everyone is beautiful or even that beauty is unimportant. No, the answer must be modesty. And not a modesty defined by skirt length or a lack of fashion sense, but a true modesty—a heart of modesty, a heart of meekness and humility. A heart that doesn’t use fabric or cosmetics or diets or anything else as a way to one-up someone else. A heart that doesn’t judge itself superior or try to draw attention to itself. A heart that is more concerned with making others beautiful than making itself so.
Because this kind of heart will overflow into hands and feet and lips and bodies that go about bringing beauty and joy and peace to everything and everyone they touch. This kind of heart—this truly modest heart--will produce girls and women who love others and love well. And trust me darling, if you do that, you will be dazzling.
Yesterday I did something that I can’t remember having done (to my shame) in the nearly eight years I’ve been a mother—I took my daughter out for dinner and shopping.
Now before you brand me the world’s worst mother, let me say a few things in my defense. I spend a tremendous amount of time with my children, homeschooled my daughter for two years, and even let her sneak into my bed while my husband’s out of town. But as far as dedicated, one-on-one time, I have to admit to being pretty delinquent.
I think it’s a combination of her being the oldest, the most competent, and quite frankly a girl--in a world where the squeaky wheel gets the grease, her brothers definitely get my attention. But when she “squeaks,” my first response is usually to want her to buck up, dig deep, and be a strong woman. At seven.
I suppose it’s also that I never was much of a girly girl myself, so I hadn’t thought to incorporate something like diner and shopping into our relationship. (For me, shopping carries overtones of Inquisitional torture. Forget the rack or burning at the stake, simply put me in a strip mall, with limited funds, and the need to find the perfect dress for a wedding. Yeah, the Spanish had no idea.)
But over the last few weeks, I began to notice that I was saying “no” to her more often than “yes.”
Mommy, can we bake cookies?
Me: Not right now, honey… Mommy’s busy.
Her: Well, then can we watch a movie together?
Me: Tonight’s a school night.Her: What about a craft?Me: It would be too messy.Ad infinitum.
So with daddy out of town (and little brother with him), I decided I needed to finally make a date with my daughter. When I told her my plans, she melted and grinned from ear to ear in disbelief at her good fortune. I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t felt so guilty that it took so little to make her that happy.
So after school yesterday, we picked out our outfits, did our hair in hot rollers, and pulled out the Lip Smackers
. Once we dropped littlest brother of at a friend’s house, we were on our way. Now, I completely left the agenda and restaurant choice up to her, but to be honest, I did try to guide her to something a little more elegant than McDonalds. After significant discussion about the pros and cons of fast food, dine-in restaurants, and buffets, she solved our dilemma with one question: “Where can I get a hot dog?”
We ended up at Steak ‘n Shake.
This wasn’t what I had in mind. I’d have preferred someplace where I could have at least entertained the thought of a nutritionally balanced meal—if not for her, for myself. I wouldn’t call myself a whole foods freak, but after a breakfast of greek yogurt, fresh mango, and tea; a lunch of European multi-grain bread slathered in homemade hummus, cantaloupe, and a handful of raw almonds, my psyche wasn't exactly prepared for a double steak burger with a side of fries. But this was her choice. So we went.
Once we got there, she ended up picking the macaroni and cheese plate, baked beans and a chocolate-chip cookie dough milkshake. I resigned myself to a burger, arguing to my thighs and stomach that they shouldn’t hold it against me because I was doing it for the right reasons. I also promised them that I would feel guilty the whole time.
But the funny thing is that I didn’t.
I don’t know exactly when it happened, the moment when I let go of my food insecurities. Maybe it was when she asked me to help her with number #2 of the crossword puzzle on her place mat. (“What do you use to carry water and sand at the beach?—Mommy, I can’t figure it out--the word “pail” doesn’t fit. The word has to have a “U” for the second letter.) Or maybe it was when the waitress brought our food and she dove into her (obviously boxed) macaroni and cheese, declaring it the best thing she had ever tasted (“Oh, Mommy, you have to taste this *reaching across the table to put a forkful up to my mouth*—it’s just sooooo good!”)
But somewhere along the way, I decided to put aside my nutritional angst and receive that burger and fries with thanksgiving. Not because they were healthy for me, but because they enabled me to be with her. All that salt and fat and carbs—even those sips that I stole from her milkshake—allowed me to sit and experience joy with her. And in those moments, I finally understood how a simple prayer of thanksgiving can sanctify any food.
Because although it wasn't what I would have chosen, it was good for me. And it tasted good too--like love and joy and blessing. So I savored each bite the same way she savored her institutional mac and cheese.
Because it was just sooooo good.
I didn’t have a mother’s day post this last week because like most mothers I was busy… mothering. The funny thing about this holiday—especially when you have young children—is that you really don’t get a break. The funnier thing is that you can’t really imagine taking one.
Because mothering is the kind of work you celebrate by actually doing it.
It took me a while to figure this out, but I don’t think I’m alone in this. On Sunday, after I had fed, dressed, and dragged three children to church--only to have one of them wildly run down the hallway screaming “NOOOOO!!!!” as I tried to deposit him in the nursery--I found myself talking with two friends who are also mothers of young children. I asked what they had planned for the day and the first said she was hoping that the ground beef had thawed out because she was going home to make dinner; the other had a sick husband and child, was juggling two other children, and trying to figure out how to attend a family funeral over two hours away.
But no on seemed to care. None of us seemed put out that our Mother’s Day was spent mothering.
Don’t get me wrong—we were all tired. We would have loved to have had breakfast in bed, a spa retreat, or even the day to ourselves. But somewhere on the road to becoming the mothers we were, we had learned something. As wonderful as those things are, they really aren’t the point. You don’t mother to be praised, you don’t mother to be rewarded, you don’t mother for the recognition. You mother because you love.
But unlike common wisdom, this love doesn’t magically appear when you hold your first child. No, becoming a mother that loves happens incrementally, it happens through the sleepless nights, the temper tantrums (yours and theirs), and shared joys. It happens through the daily grind, from changing out winter wardrobes for spring, and extracting chewing gum from baby-fine hair. And through it all, motherhood changes you—in the sacrifices, you become braver and in the loving, you become kinder.
My sister-in-law and I were talking about this a couple days ago—we’ve been friends since college, friends before husbands, friends before children. So we’ve seen a lot of changes in each others lives, and we definitively, undeniably agreed that being a mother has been the most excruciating, most productive spiritual exercise either of us had ever experienced.
I think it's because mothering forces you to recognize things about yourself that you’d rather not have known: your helplessness, your inconsistency, you selfishness. All in one typical day, you discover that you can't make the fever break, you can’t make this child obey you, you are feeding them chicken nuggets while reading the blog post telling you how terrible chicken nuggets are, and you routinely think about all the things you’d rather be doing than cleaning up poop.
And in these moments, you have to cry out for something bigger and better than your own ability to be a “good’ mother. You have to cry out to Him. You have to find His strength and His patience and His love. You have to have His courage and His determination in order to parent like He does.
And that is what changes you. He changes you. He uses this temporary relationship with your children to produce eternal and lasting joy. He uses it to make us like Himself. So that in the end, I don’t know if I can guarantee my children will be better people because of my mothering. But I do know this—mothering them has made me a better one.