Meditation on Proverbs 31:10-31
Pastor Karen Crawford
The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, Ohio
May 10, 2020
Happy Mother’s Day, friends!
The rain was relentless on Friday. It wasn’t a nice, gentle drizzle, splashing from the sky. It poured down on the mourners at Memory Gardens huddled under umbrellas around the grave of Johnalee Hebron. It seeped through my black boots and drenched my socks until I could no longer feel my toes, they were so cold.
But the mourners were truly celebrating the life of someone who gave birth to two sons—but mothered everyone. They SANG with joy and praise to recorded music at the grave, “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and “Amazing Grace.”
Children, grandchildren, cousins, and friends stood under, outside, and beyond the flapping canopy and beside parked cars snaking around the cemetery road. I stood by Johnalee’s casket, a little taller than the rest on the raised platform. “The Lord be with you!” I said. And it came louder than I wanted it to be through the wireless microphone the funeral director had given me. This was the first microphone I have ever worn for a graveside funeral. I think the people in Columbus could hear me.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” I said, quoting John 11:25-26. “Whoever believes in me, though they may die, will live. And whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” And someone yelled, “Amen!”
I couldn’t stop smiling after that. Though the rain was relentless. And my feet were freezing, that is, when I could feel them at all. Someone read Philippians 4:4-7, “Rejoice in the Lord…and again I say, rejoice” and the joy just kept on building from there.
I told the story of Johnalee, the girl from Fresno who married the boy from Warsaw, the first man she ever dated. He was too shy to ask her out himself, so he asked her through a friend. They got married in 1953. He got a job with Edmont, who sent him in 1964 to sell coated gloves in the big city of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
But you could never take the country out of the girl, they said of the one nicknamed Johnny. Her florist father had wanted a boy, hence the name—John-a-lee. She was the kind who knocked on neighbor’s doors to introduce herself and gave elegant dinner parties, with 14 hors d’oeuvre. She was the one who made everything beautiful, said daughter-in- law, Mary. A gift from the Lord.
She suffered much when her and Louie’s youngest child, Kyle, was born with spina bifida. She suffered more when he died at only 18 months. But she wasn’t the type to sit around and feel sorry for herself. She used her grief to help other sick children, volunteering as a play lady at a hospital in Grand Rapids. She brought a suitcase full of tricks and toys and was so engaging that when it was time for them to go home, the children wanted to stay with Johnny.
She was the kind of person who transformed an ordinary yard into Candyland for her grandchildren—planting lollipops in the ground and dangling sweets from shrubs and trees. She painted trees and fountains on interior walls and knew how to turn a blah room into fabulous with just a few small changes. She was the kind of woman who turned a child’s tea party into a Mary Poppins-like experience, sewing the girls’ special outfits with matching hats and serving up tiny petit fours. The kind of person who never met a stranger. She loved human beings and all God’s creation. Growing up in her father’s greenhouse business, she could make anything grow. She fed birds and squirrels out of her hand. And, oh, she could make you laugh, without even trying. The funny things that would come out of her mouth and the unpredictable things she might do. You just never knew with Johnny.
One young woman, who, like the other 10 or so who shared memories at this graveside service, said that she went out to lunch with Johnny on a warm day. Johnny was wearing pantyhose. She was hot. She took off her pantyhose right at the table, rolled them up and plopped them on the waiter’s tray, telling him to take them away and throw them out.
She was a character, but then, most mothers are. But she was also hardworking, creative, smart, faithful, funny, gentle, generous, and, most of all, loving. Her children and grandchildren and her husband, though the rain poured down and the wind did blow, were all rising up to praise her and call her happy and blessed.
She was like the woman of Proverbs 31. “A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.”
Here on Mother’s Day, when we honor women and give thanks for our mothers, I find myself wondering if the person who wrote Proverbs 31 really had one person in mind. I don’t think so. No one could do EVERYTHING this woman did. She was a superhero, this one, if she was. She managed a household and took care of every detail—even spinning the wool and flax into thread before making her family’s clothes. She was also a businesswoman, selling her own fine linens for a profit, considering a field and buying it, and planting a vineyard with her own hands, though she had servants to help her with the work, mind you!
Is your curiosity stirred when you read how she was able to find food for her household from far away—like the ships of merchants? Where did she go? What exotic foods did they eat? Not just local fare. This was a sophisticated, resourceful woman, a busy, smart woman, never “eating the bread of idleness.” Don’t you love that turn of phrase? She didn’t get much sleep either, if she burned the lamp all night and rose early, while it was still dark.
Apart from the many things she did, it was her character that the writer emphasized. She was someone who opened her hand to the poor and spoke words of wisdom and kindness. She was strong physically—girding her arms. She was strong emotionally and spiritually, too. She laughed with joy at the thought of tomorrow; this is not a woman who let anxiety and fear rule in her heart.
What’s also wonderful about this passage is the picture of her relationship with her husband. He trusts her. He knows she would never hurt him. And he praises her! We all need praise and encouragement to be our best selves. The husband is a respected leader in their community. He is, “known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land.” Not only does he praise her at home, her good works are praised at these very same city gates, where important information is shared and decisions are made.
The author of Proverbs 31, who might have been King Solomon himself, holds his key theological statement until verse 30 of his 31-verse poem. I want you to understand that the ideal woman bears much fruit and is able to be a blessing to others, not just because she was a hard worker and tried to be a good person. We all do that, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. The ideal woman is to be praised because of her faith; she fears the Lord, which, according to Proverbs 9:10, “is the beginning of wisdom.”
Her husband and children call her happy or blessed! She is far more precious than jewels.
“I can almost see her now,” I said of Johnalee at her graveside service on Friday. I imagined her in God’s beautiful garden, with Jesus and all God’s creatures, planting and arranging flowers and feeding birds and squirrels from her hand. I imagine she is making paradise even more lovely and beautiful, perhaps painting rainbows in the sky, sewing clothes for the lilies of the field, and making hors d’oeuvre for the banquet feast. No doubt, the woman who sang in the choir at John Knox Presbyterian Church is singing God’s praise for all of her days. She has joined her son, Kyle, in the Great Cloud of Witnesses, now watching over us and cheering us on as we run the race.
On this day that we honor our mothers, this is my hope for you, my dear sisters in the Lord:
May you feel loved and appreciated not just for all the good things you do, but for WHO you are—a beloved child of God, forgiven, freed, and redeemed! May you be emptied of fear and worry and filled with hope and joy when you think of tomorrow. May you grow in your faith, in the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom. May the Spirit grant you a heart of compassion so that you open your hand to the poor. May you eat not the bread of idleness, but also be granted peace and rest. You deserve it! May your husband and children rise up to praise you and call you blessed.
A capable woman, who can find? YOU are far more precious than jewels!
Let us pray.
Holy One, who is both Mother and Father to all of us, we thank you for creating us for love. Bless our earthly mothers, Lord, and all women. Help us to trust in you and to fear you as the Proverbs 31 woman did, which is the beginning of wisdom. Lord, teach us to appreciate our loved ones more—to rise up and praise them and call them happy and blessed. Comfort and lift up those who are mourning their mothers on this day. Grant the women in our lives peace and rest, for they are busy people, never eating the bread of idleness. Encourage them that they are doing enough. Strengthen our faith so that we, like Solomon’s ideal woman, will be emptied of anxiety about tomorrow and filled with hope and joy—enough to laugh. For you will be there with us, your beloved children—forgiven, freed and redeemed—forevermore. Amen.