One of the most talked about books in recent years is Sheryl Sandberg's bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Sandberg is a Harvard Business School grad, a former assistant to the Secretary of the Treasury, and currently the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook. A few years ago, Forbes magazine named her the 5th most powerful woman in America, one spot ahead of Michelle Obama!
In her book Sandberg calls on women to reach their full potential as women, as human beings, and as leaders in society. During her years in government and the marketplace she has discovered that all too often women hold themselves back; they stifle their dreams, their ambitions, their careers, and even their personal lives. They do that because they're afraid.
They're afraid that if they are too smart or powerful or capable they will intimidate the men in their lives. They're afraid that in order to have a successful career they have to give up on a happy family life, or vice versa. They're afraid they might fail, or look foolish, or disappoint someone else's expectation of them. So Sandberg calls women out and challenges them to "lean in" to their ambitions, their dreams, and their talents. To take risks, to stretch themselves, to try something new. "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" she asks her readers.
As you might expect, her book has stirred a lot of conversation and a bit of controversy. An equally accomplished woman named Rosa Brooks, a professor at Georgetown Law, argues that the problem isn't with women but with society, which continues to expect women to bear the brunt of household responsibilities and child rearing even as they pursue their careers and dreams. Her recommendation is for women to "lean back," and put their feet up! She says women need to resist these unreasonable expectations in the workplace and the home by refusing to just "work harder." "Women of the world," she says, "Recline!"
Whatever direction you're inclined to lean, it's safe to say that Sheryl Sandberg is on to something. She has tapped into a pervasive and deep-seated tension many women feel just when it comes to juggling work, home, and personal life. They just don't know how to do it all. Now along comes the church telling them on top of all that to "live on mission"—to do their part to save the world and restore this fallen planet. It's enough to make a person want to "lay down" and give up! Is it possible to do these everyday tasks in a way that actually helps us to accomplish our mission?
That's what we're going to consider this morning as we look into a rather infamous passage of Proverbs 31. In many Bibles this section is entitled, "The Wife of Noble Character." Many people, women in particular, have a love-hate relationship with this passage. On the one hand it extols the virtues of godly womanhood, on the other hand it has often been used to reinforce stereotypes that aren't always helpful. While this particular text highlights a woman, we're going to find it applies to men as well.
Now this is the final chapter of the book of Proverbs, which is a book of wisdom. This final section profiles for us a person of wisdom—someone who embodies all the instruction that's been given in the first 30 chapters. Throughout the book Wisdom is often personified as a woman—so it's a fitting way to conclude the book.
In fact, the word "wife" here in verse 10 could simply be translated "woman," it just happens to be written from a married woman's perspective. It's actually a mother's advice, given to her son, as she teaches him what to look for in a woman. The word "noble" includes the ideas of strength, character, and competence. Because of her strength and character and competence, her husband is well-off. She provides him with what he needs for a good and productive life. Notice that she does this for him every day—"all the days of her life."
Even though this verse speaks about a wife and husband, it has much broader application. We all have people in our lives for whom we have the opportunity to "do good" everyday—if not spouses, then parents, children, siblings, nieces, nephews, neighbors, roommates. As we're going to find out, when we do those things, and do them well, it matters; it sets them and us up for good and meaningful lives.
Now they say "a good man is hard to find." But it turns out the same could be said of a good woman. In the verses that follow, the writer describes what a good woman—or a good person—looks like in everyday life.
Before we look at that I thought I'd share something I came across in my research this week. This is called The Good Wife's Guide, and it comes from Housekeeping Monthly back on May 13, 1965.
Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious dinner ready when your husband gets home from work. This is a way of letting him know you have been thinking about him and are concerned with his needs … Prepare yourself. Put on some make-up, put a ribbon in your hair, and be fresh-looking. He's been with a lot of work-weary people. Prepare the children. Take a few minutes to wash them up, brush their hair, and change their clothes if needed. Remember, they are little treasures and he would like to see them playing the part … Have a cool or warm drink for him, and arrange his pillow and take off his shoes … Over the cooler months you should prepare and light a fire for him to unwind by. After all, catering to his comfort will bring you immense satisfaction … Let him talk first. Remember that his topics of conversation are more important than yours … Never complain if he comes home late or goes out to dinner or entertainment without you. Instead try to understand his world of strain and pressure and his need to relax.
Obviously, times have changed. The irony is that there really is some wisdom here—it's just buried under layers of stereotype and patriarchy. There really is something good and noble about doing these simple, everyday tasks for another person—meeting their needs, making them comfortable, putting them first, listening to their concerns, and bringing them joy. It's just that it was never meant to flow just one way—from wife to husband, or from woman to man. In the New Testament, Paul tells us all to serve one another, to defer to one another, to submit to one another—not just in the home but in all our relationships. He tells husbands to love their wives, to care for their wives as they care for themselves, and to lay down their lives for their wives. So once again, the verses that follow, while they're addressed to women, apply to all of us, and to the everyday tasks and relationships that occupy so many hours of our lives.
So let's see what some of these everyday tasks and responsibilities are.
She selects wool and flax/and works with eager hands.
The first thing she does is clothe her family. She selects the appropriate fabrics and fashions them into garments that are comfortable, attractive, and appropriate for the climate and the culture. Mothers and fathers spend a lot of time and energy each week clothing their children. Most of us aren't making clothes any more, but we're shopping for them, washing them, folding them, ironing them, laying them out, and then fighting over them when our kids don't want to wear them! While it can be tedious and time-consuming, you get the sense that this woman clothes her family not just with wool and flax, but with love and care. She wants them to be comfortable, attractive, and appropriate.
She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.
We picture this woman going back and forth across the marketplace—from stall to stall—looking over the produce, haggling for a better price. Compare it to running errands today. How many hours a week do we spend in the car—running from store to store, driving the car pool, commuting to work, heading to soccer games, doctor's appointments, and meetings on the other side of town. How do you spend those hours? What do you think about? Have you ever tried praying as you drive, or listening for God's voice? How do you treat the people you encounter along the way—receptionists, cashiers, other drivers? Riding in the car can be a great time to talk to somebody—your kids especially, when they don't have to look you in the eye.
She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family/and portions for her servant girls.
How many hours a week are spent feeding the people we care about—planning menus, making lists, and running from Stop and Shop to Whole Foods to Costco in search of just the right thing at just the right price? Then unpacking the food, storing it, preparing it, and serving it—only to clean it up and put it all away a few minutes later. How many meals does the typical woman prepare in her lifetime? It's a scary thought! Can anyone remember what they had for dinner last Tuesday? Probably not—but that dinner kept you going for another day. It takes hours a week to feed people, but that's what you do when you love them.
She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
Apparently this woman works outside the home, as well. Flipping fields, perhaps? Running a small business—maybe a microbrewery? They tell us that on average a woman spends about 21 hours a week at a paying job these days, compared with 8 hours a week in 1965. Women bring in about 45% of family income. It's a real juggling act for women and men today—to stay on top of things at work and at home, but we do it to provide a quality of life for the people we love.
She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.
This gal can show off her arms, but not because she's been to the gym. Many of our everyday tasks involve manual labor—cleaning, fixing, painting, raking, mowing, mulching, etc. I bet quite of few of us have blisters on our thumbs from yard work this weekend.
She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.
Now she's managing money. Making trades on-line, paying bills, balancing the checkbook, filling out FAFSA forms, or doing the taxes. How often do we do that kind of work at night—when the house is finally quiet and we can work uninterrupted? We work hard for that money. We spend it carefully. We invest it wisely. Why? To be sure that the people we love and care for will have what they need—not just food and clothes but health care, a good education, and a secure retirement.
When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
In verse 21 we see that it snows even in Jerusalem sometimes. How many of our everyday hours are spent dealing with the weather? We probably spend an hour a day just tracking the weather on our tablets and TV's. But consider how many conversations get started each day with some comment about the weather? How many neighbors have you connected with while digging out after a blizzard or battening down the hatches for a nor-easter?
She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
Here's a woman making herself and her home beautiful for the people she loves. They didn't even have HGTV back then! We bless people when we provide them with beautiful spaces; when we revive their spirits with a surprising touch of color, form, or fragrance.
She opens her arms to the poor/and extends her hands to the needy.
A noble woman not only cares for her family, she extends herself to those in need around her. Visiting a sick friend, perhaps. Preparing a meal for someone. Opening her home to someone. Volunteering in the community. Sponsoring a child overseas. Sitting on the board of a non-profit. Who knows how many lives are blessed or improved because of those hours invested each week?
It adds up!
You can see where this is headed. All these hours, these ordinary days, these everyday chores, they add up to something; they make a difference in the lives of people around us. Look at the next few verses.
Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
Because of this woman's faithful work—her everyday work—her husband has become a man of influence. He makes decisions that shape the life of that community. I was going to say that's how it worked in those days—"behind every good man was a good woman"—but that's how it works these days, too. Behind every successful woman you're likely to find a supportive husband, father, or friend. Behind every student, athlete, or musician you'll find a parent or mentor who drove them around, paid for their lessons, and kept them healthy so they could do their best.
She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.
Sheryl Sandberg would be impressed. This woman's not afraid of anything. She's strong. She's invincible. She is woman! These daily tasks and weekly chores have not only strengthened her arms, they've strengthened her character and given her confidence. She can face the future—whatever it holds.
Parents, can I let you in on a secret. We think we build our child's self-esteem by telling them they're wonderful and giving them awards just for showing up. But you know what really builds a child's self-esteem? Accomplishing something. Starting something, and finishing it. Being given a job, and doing it. Every time a child makes a bed or washes the dishes or cleans the bathroom or mows the lawn—they gain a sense of competence and confidence. Chores matter. Sorry, kids—you'll thank me someday.
She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
Everything you need to know your mother probably told you first! Most of those pearls of wisdom were probably spoken in the course of everyday life—sitting around the dinner table or heading out the door to school. Karen's favorite was, "If you've got a job to do, do it now!" The kids really appreciated when she said that.
Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her.
When we faithfully fulfill our everyday roles and responsibilities, the people around us become the people they were meant to be. How many times have we heard Olympic athletes and Academy Award winners thank their parents and their spouses for all the sacrifices that allowed them to fulfill their dreams?
Many women do noble things, her husband says, but you surpass them all.
Do you see what this woman has become? A person of influence. A person of character. A person of wisdom. A person who's made her mark on the world, not only by her own accomplishments, but through all the people whose lives she has touched and made better, simply by fulfilling her everyday tasks and responsibilities.
For many years the musical Rent was the most popular show on Broadway. It followed the lives of young artists struggling to make it in NYC in the days when the AIDS crisis was claiming many young lives. One of the enduring songs from the musical is "Seasons of Love."
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.
How do you measure, measure a year?
Five hundred twenty five thousand journeys to plan.
How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
How do you measure a year in the life?
How about love?
How about love?
Measure in love."
The song reminds us that lives are measured in days, and days are measured in moments, and moments add up to something when they're offered in love to the people around us. Living on mission is about recognizing those moments; seizing them, making the most of them, because they matter!
A diaper changed or not changed. It matters, doesn't it? A tree planted, or not planted. It matters, doesn't it? A meal served, or missed, matters to someone who's hungry. A phone call made, or unmade, matters to the person who's waiting for it. An act of kindness done, or undone, matters to the person who needs help. A word spoken, or left unsaid. A smile offered, or withheld. A check written, or held back. An invitation to church ventured, or stifled. A conversation begun, or never had. These things matter. There's a person on the other end of these transactions. There's a relationship that's either nurtured or stifled. A life or a community that's being enriched or diminished. These everyday tasks are central to our mission.
Some time ago we had a Bible study with some of our neighbors. Three couples who live on our street; from different church backgrounds and different places on their journey. For some of them it was the first time they had ever read the Bible for themselves and talked about it. It was a bit scary to extend that invitation, and a bit awkward at first. But we ended up having a great time. It was great to see Scripture come alive for them, and their fresh eyes helped me to see things I hadn't really seen before. Our conversations and relationships went to places they never have before. It was a great experience.
It never would have happened without 14 years of living on the same street in a suburban neighborhood. Talking at the end of the driveway, waiting together for the school bus, driving each other's kids to practice, walking home from open school nights, trick-or-treating, graduation parties, keeping an eye on each other's houses—all the everyday activities that go along with having a home and raising a family and living in a neighborhood. After 14 years of "everyday matters," we found the courage to offer a Bible study, and they found the courage to say "Yes." That's five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes, 14 times! That's a lot of ordinary moments, but they add up to something when you lean into them; when you live them with love.
It's not just about leaning in. Take a look at the last couple of verses. "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate."
Where does this woman find the courage to seize these moments, the strength to follow through on these tasks, the wisdom to recognize these golden opportunities? She finds these things, in God. She "fears" God. She lives every day of her life knowing there's a God who loves her; a God who is for her; a God who created her for good works and who placed her on this earth in a time and a place to fulfill a mission only she can fulfill. Because she fears God, she need not fear anyone or anything else.
So it's not just about leaning in. It's about leaning up. It's about living every day in an upward direction; in answer to God's upward call on our lives.
For most of us, our mission is more likely to take us across town than across the ocean. The most dangerous thing most of us will have to do is risk our reputation or comfort. Living on mission isn't usually about doing something bold, heroic, or dramatic. It's more often an everyday matter, doing what needs to be done, in the moment, for the people we love and live with. Those every day moments add up to something; a life of influence, a legacy of love.
If there's someone like that in your life—someone whose everyday life has made your life better—a mom, perhaps, or someone else; praise that woman or man today; give them the thanks they deserve. Let their example inspire you to live every day of your life on mission, too, because every day matters.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.