Sunday, May 10, 2015

UPDATED: Mother's Day Talk - Eshet Chayil

(this is the updated version of my talk - after being crunched for time and incorporating feedback from others FYI)

Exactly eleven years ago my husband and I sat in the doctor's office as he told us our test results: unexplained infertility. He said the chances were less than 1 in 1000 that we would ever be able to have a child on our own. That Mother’s Day was not a easy day for me. Mother’s day is the source of pain for a lot of people, and not just the people who can’t have children; it was a difficult day for my foster kids as well and I know there are complicated feelings from my relatives whose mother is serving time in prison. It's even family legend that my grandmother with seven children came home from every Mother's Day sacrament meeting locked herself in her bedroom, cried, and wouldn't come out. There are so many ways for people to hurt on this day.  So I decided I wanted to talk about what I think is the highest and holiest calling we have: discipleship. I wanted to share two experiences that have helped shape my own path.

Rewind to 2002.   It's been six months of waiting for a baby and every month we buy those pregnancy tests: so excited!!!  Just kidding, false alarm!  I'm working as the receptionist at Pres. Bednar's Office on BYU-Idaho campus.  One Tuesday Elder Grow came for devotional and spoke a little about what a blessing it has been for his family to follow the prophet and have his wife stay home with the children and not work.  There are MANY working mothers in the admin building that I see every day on the second floor.  I observed as many of these women (some had to work, single moms etc) turned off the devotional or slammed their office doors as not to hear the radio, and some blatantly stand there and criticize his words, i.e. "He has no idea what he's talking about.  Ricks College would shrivel up and die if all of the mothers went to stay home with their children." etc.  I was getting a little riled up because at this point I would have given my left arm to be able to get pregnant and stay home with a baby and I literally wanted to stand up and tell them all, "the guilty taketh the truth to be hard!".  I wrote Pres. Bednar an email and explained the situation and asked him how you know when you should bite your tongue and how you know when to make a stand and let people know they are wrong.  Thirty minutes after coming back to the office from devotional Pres. Bednar asks Betty to have me come in to his office.  (Can I just add as a 10-year postscript after being a SAHM, part-time worker, and full-time working mother -- this issue is just a little more complex than my 20 yo mind could grasp).

Here I sit, a 20 year-old, lowly receptionist in front of Pres. Bednar.  And I will be grateful until the day I die that he took the time from his schedule to teach me a little about life.  First of all he asked how long we'd been waiting for a baby.  I told him, "Six months."  The man literally laughed in my face and said, "Well first of all maybe you need to learn some patience!"  His son and wife had been trying for over 3 years, he tells me.  One day he was alone with Elder Eyring and his son's problems had been weighing on him and he asked Elder Eyring about it.  What do you say to the couple who has done everything right, who has prepared themselves their whole lives for the day when they can build a family and raise children up unto the Lord, and they remain childless?  Elder Eyring told him that the Lord doesn't send children for us to teach them, the Lord sends children for them to teach us.  The point of this life is for us to learn how to become like Him.  Sometimes that is accomplished by having children.  And sometimes the Lord determines that is accomplished by NOT having children.  Do parents learn patience, long-suffering, service, and humility from having children?  Yes.  Do couples learn the same things from NOT having children?  Yes.  So the point is for us to submit our will to the Lord's to become all that he wants us to be - no matter the path He gives us to get there.

This lesson in becoming reminds me of one of Elder Oaks’ landmark GC addresses from October 2000 The Challenge to become
The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.  In contrast to the institutions of the world, which teach us to know something, the gospel of Jesus Christ challenges us to become something.

We qualify for eternal life through a process of conversion. As used here, this word of many meanings signifies not just a convincing and knowledge but a profound change of nature.
I have mentioned earlier that I felt I had a faith transition; I had an answer to prayer that I wasn't supposed to be a mother again and it shook my foundation pretty hard because I'd always believed the purpose of womanhood was motherhood. I started rebuilding the foundation of my faith, and instead of building it on motherhood - I built it on Christ. I tested that foundation and it was solid, something that would never change. About this same time I found a excerpt from a book written by an evangelical woman who wrote about biblical womanhood and it helped me see a path forward for me:

Proverbs 31 is a well known poem about a housewife: "who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies". It goes on to describe the life of the perfect housewife. For a long time this passage has been seen as instructions on how to be the ultimate homemaker and a woman of God. This is understandable; in a culture that often downplays the significance of a housewife, it makes sense to do all you can to restore dignity to this thankless position.

Would it surprise you to know that Christian congregations may be misinterpreting this passage? This poem was originally written in Hebrew, and Jews have a different understanding of it. An evangelical woman wrote a book about biblical womanhood and she asked her Jewish friend about this chapter during her research. Her friend explained [1]:
    “[Proverbs 31 is] packed with hyperbolic imagery, the poem is an acrostic, so the first word of each verse begins with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet in succession. This communicates a sense of totality as the poet praises the everyday achievements of an upper-class Jewish wife, a woman who keeps her household functioning day and night by buying, trading, investing, planting, sewing, spindling, managing servants, extending charity, providing food for the family, and preparing for each season. Like any good poem, the purpose of this one is to draw attention to the often-overlooked glory of the everyday.”
This woman in Hebrew is described as an “Eshet chayil,” [eshet kile]  or woman of valor —
    “The only instructive language it contains is directed toward men, with the admonition that a thankful husband should honor his wife “for all that her hands have done.” In the Jewish tradition, it is the men who memorize Proverbs 31, so they know how to honor their wives. But often it is no longer presented as a song through which a man offers his wife praise, Proverbs 31 is presented as a task list through which a woman earns it. (In fact if you search for “Proverbs 31 woman” on amazon you’ll find dozens of Christian self-help books for women.) The details of the passage have taken precedent over the message of the passage, and somehow, through the centuries, we’ve managed to turn a poem into a job description.”
 It isn’t the woman’s household accomplishments that earn her honor and praise, but her virtues of wisdom and valor. There’s another woman in the Hebrew bible that is described as an “Eshet chayil.”  She was a foreign immigrant and manual laborer. She was single and barren, and she was dirt poor. She seems the opposite of the Proverbs 31 woman. Despite all this, Ruth is described as an “eshet chayil” before becoming the wealthy, influential wife of Boaz.

Clearly it is not what you do that makes you a woman of God, it is your character. It is your discipleship. As we all strive to “become” in our discipleship, I hope we can remember and honor the men and women of character who have influenced us. I especially hope that today we can all find a way to honor the “eshet chayil,” the Women of Valor in our lives who have influenced us.

My mother is an eshet chayil - she’s taught me a lot of valuable things. She’s taught me that my voice matters, to be brave, and to not care what other people think. She taught me to challenge myself, have goals, and do the best I can every day. Above all this, my mother is an example of discipleship. 

I was once at a stake conference where the Stake Pres described parents as archers and children as arrows. It is the duty of parents to sharpen their aim (develop their own discipleship) to enable them to point their children towards the target (Christ). I remember thinking that this perfectly described my mother. Her aim has always been steady and true in her path towards bringing her children to Christ. Isn’t this the ultimate goal of every mother in the Church? To bring others to Christ?

I hope we can all find a way today to honor the "eshet chayil"- women of valor - in our own lives that have brought us closer to Christ as we move forward in our own discipleship
[1] Rachel Held Evans, Women of Valor

6 comments:

  1. Good thoughts! I assume that you posted your draft for some constructive feedback, and so in that spirit, here are a few thoughts.

    1) The woman in proverbs was described as a business woman, a working woman who essentially "did it all'- the quintessential Molly Mormon of the Old Testament. She's not a housewife. She was a super-mom who had a household of servants, and ran several international/tribal trading businesses and sat on the city council. Sorry, she's a working woman, plain and simple. Although there are many spiritual comparisons and even literal spiritual nuggets in the proverb, it is also a sexist literal economic calculation of a woman's contribution to a household- her property or chattel price if you will. (Essentially, she is an eight-cow-wife.) I used to be really into the proverb when I was a teenager, but nowadays it isn't my favorite "go-to" scripture about women.

    2) Don't start off telling your painful story as a way to illustrate what you are NOT going to talk about. Instead, spend the precious time JUST TALKING about it! (The un-example doesn't illustrate the other meaningful topics which need more time and attention. You have some unique thoughts and points that are overlooked 9 times out of 10, so . . . don't waste time complaining about the fact that they aren't or peeling back the scabs of fresh wounds . . . just dive into them!) A simple sentence telling your audience that you have prayed to be sensitive to many diverse situations and backgrounds and that our Faith is that our Heavenly Parents are there for us - is sufficient.

    3) Have you read this article about ALL the amazing references and scriptures about Heavenly Mother (resources for your talk) collected in this article- (It's hyperlinked on Wikipedia's entry for Heavenly Mother- LDS). Don't forget to mention Heavenly Parents and Heavenly Mother whenever possible!

    Paulsen, David L.; Pulido, Martin (2011), "'A Mother There': A Survey of Historical Teachings About Mother in Heaven", BYU Studies 50 (1): 70–97.

    4) What about highlighting the mothering and nurturing attributes of the Savior that we should all be emulating (e.g. HE gathers us under his wing like a mother chicken with her chicks, spends time with and teaching children, was the one to organize food (fish and bread) for everyone, teaches the gospel, is a healer, takes time for people, etc.) Sometimes in our artificial world, men are acculturated to believe that these aren't masculine traits and not part of their roles as fathers and macho men. We divide up our work and roles in an artificial way- saying this is what mothers do- this is what fathers do, emulating Leave It To Beaver instead of the Savior.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hello, it's your Twitter follower here :) I love this talk and wish I could pass copies out in my ward on Sunday. I am going to disagree with point 2 of the commenter above. I remember giving a lesson a few years back about motherhood, and afterward a pair of sisters approached me and said I couldn't possibly know how difficult a few different aspects of motherhood could be, that my lesson was invalid because Mother's Day wasn't hard for me. So I told them I had lost a twin pregnancy over Mother's Day weekend and it was always a hard holiday for me. They said they wished I had shared that during the lesson because it would have helped them accept the council in my lesson. So the takeaway here is, I need to be a better teacher (seriously), but also that I think sharing some personal truth to establish context, or create some vulnerability, can help people be more open or willing listeners.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hell Jenny, interesting point. I agree that personalization and vulnerability draw listeners in and that we should be likening the scriptures to our lives and sharing how principles apply personally to us. There is just a gap between the first and second paragraph. If you go there, then you have to stay there and talk about how discipleship works in your life without natural-born children, not go to other women of valour- unless you use them as examples that bolster specific parts of your life in dealing with that trial. It just seems like you are saying "ouch" without telling us whether or not you got a band-aid and how you put it on.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I am totally going to steal parts of this if I have to give a talk on mother's day ever!

    ReplyDelete
  5. @ Anonymous, did you mean to write "Hell Jenny?" HAHA, I sort of hope so. Anyway, I don't think the gap between the 1st and 2nd paragraph is that large. I think she could cross out, "Since it is Mother's Day," and put, "With that in mind," and it would effectively fix the problem. Especially because the talk isn't about finding the bandaid and solving the problem of a bad Mother's Day, but rather acknowledging that a traditional talk could be hurtful as a way of explaining why a traditional talk is not forthcoming, then launching right into the nontraditional talk. PS, Anonymous, I do love your point #4.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I wish you had spoken in my ward on Mother's Day. This was beautiful--a talk about parenthood and the atonement. Instead, I got treated to a talk which included a quote from E. Christofferson about how when women have abortions of convenience they lose all moral authority. WTH??

    ReplyDelete

................