You may be put off by the patriarchal frame of this scripture passage—I know! The husband pats the good wife on the head. It’s hard for us, with our 21st-century lens, to stomach this reading, and I never thought I would preach on it. But get over it. Let’s look deeper: this woman is smart, capable, a hard worker, creative, industrious, organized, a good supervisor, loving, compassionate, and wise. “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” Her children rise up and call her blessed (not “happy,” as the New Revised Standard Version says—how is that theirs to decide?). Blessed. For those of us who have or had good relationships with our parents, this sounds like the best possible eulogy.
The commentary in my Bible says, “Woman is the humanized counterpart of personified Wisdom, whose efforts are those of human women; but the combination is one that no human being can maintain.” [Elizabeth Huwiler, in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 928.] So this is the ideal woman, something we can aspire to but never fully embody.
We look to our elders for wisdom on how to live our lives, for affirmation, for love. I heard a radio story recently in which a child was getting in trouble at elementary school for having male genitalia but insisting on using the girls’ bathroom because this child already knew at a young age that she was meant to be a girl. As an adult, she came out as trans, but this was a lifelong process, and the road was not easy. One person who just loved her as she was, was her grandmother. And having that love and affirmation was a rock to cling to in the midst of all the other pushback that this young person was experiencing. So sometimes our elders are wise enough just to love us however we are.
In our Monday evening Bible study group, we talked about elders who had made a difference in our lives. One person talked about an elder who was charming, romantic, a storyteller. Another spoke of an uncle whose motto was “Go with the flow.” One person hung out with both grandfathers, who helped each other out with the harvest, cared for their community; one of them ended up being a caretaker for his wife and was always cheerful. Another person had several men in his life who taught him patience, faith, the power of a good attitude and a sense of humor, and to be aware of what’s going on around you. Those are great gifts.
Some of the things we pick up from our elders are trivial. From my grandmother I learned not to say “between he and I” and always to pack clean underwear in my carryon, in case my suitcase went astray. These are certainly small things, but I think of her every time they come up, and I am grateful to my grandmother for passing along these little nuggets of wisdom.
My grandmother played a huge role in my life up until she died, when I was in my thirties. She loved my sister and me and did all sorts of nice things for us that, as kids, we just took for granted. She gave my parents breaks by having Molly and me for overnights at her house. She made breakfast an adventure by cutting our toast into strips that turned into log cabins—who knew that your grandmother would teach you to play with your food? She read to us, rubbed our feet, told us stories, bought us school clothes, and much more.
When she was near the end, at age 94, I went down to Horizon House, where she lived, just to tell her how grateful I was to have her in my life. She was sitting in a wheelchair in a hallway of the infirmary. I crouched down next to her. Some kind nurse brought me a chair. I couldn’t tell whether my grandmother could hear me or not—her gaze was fixed on some invisible distant point—but I needed to say some things. I talked about all the times we visited her house. She would greet us at the door and say, “Now, there are Oreos and chocolate eclairs and three kinds of homemade jam and ice cream and chocolate cake with seven-minute frosting and candied orange slices and Wrigley’s gum.” And my mother said, “Who is this woman? This is not how she was when I was growing up.” My grandmother had Legos and Spirograph for us in the den, and a dollhouse in the basement. In the fall, she would give us a big paper bag and send us up to shake down apples from her trees. She made great apple pies.
I was remembering all these things as I sat with my grandmother in that hallway at Horizon House. At this point she said, “I did make great apple pies.” So then I knew she had heard every word.
A few nights later I came to see her again, knowing that her time was very close. I stroked her face and her hair, sang her a lullaby. She died during the night.
What a gift. How blessed I was to have such an elder in my life.
Many of us now are the elders. Kia Sams decided to interview some of the elders in our own congregation. We have snippets of four interviews to share with you: Carolyn Urban, Jackie Mampel, Roland Holloway, and Art Mampel. Zoom makes the video a little jerky, and the camera moves a bit sometimes, but the words should come through clearly. Kia asked people a variety of questions: What’s your favorite food? What is so cute you can hardly stand it? If you have a hard job and an easy job, which do you do first? What wisdom do you want to share with the next generation?
So here are snippets from these four interviews. First up is Carolyn Urban with some advice for us.
[She invites us to enjoy life; enjoy every day.]
Jackie Mampel answered in a similar way.
[Life is good: sunsets, beautiful flowers, grandchildren.]
Roland Holloway made me hungry, but then had some wisdom of his own to share.
[Collard greens with ham hocks. Listen to what is said and also to what is not said.]
And finally, Art Mampel shared a poem about his dog Cleve.
Enjoy every day. Life is good: savor sunsets, flowers, and grandchildren. Listen to what people say and don’t say. And throw in a good poem or ten.
When you think about some of the elders who were in your life growing up, what gifts are you grateful for?
[What people said:
My grandfather said “Every dog has his day.”
My grandmother introduced me to bread pudding.
My elders gave me attention and love, saw me for who I was, flaws and all.
All the elder women in my family were smarter than the men. When I graduated from high school, my grandfather asked me what came next. I said college. “More school?!” he said.
My grandfather taught me the value of comfort in a good hug.
Dad was always interested in what people did. But he told us, “Do what you love. If you can’t get a job doing that thing you love, then get a job that you don’t hate, and make sure to keep doing what you love on your own time.
My grandparents brought me up and never hinted at the sacrifices they made to do so. They dropped everything to take care of me at a time when their lives should have been easier. My grandmother planted a garden to make sure I would eat my vegetables. They made enormous sacrifices. And they taught me how to value and affirm my own children.
My mother gave me a journal and taught me how to manage money.
I grew up on a small farm, where we had to do chores. My mother taught school. I learned how important it was to be on time.
I am grateful for my mother’s sense of humor.
My mom fostered a love of classical music, and my dad played the piano. When I fell in love with classical music, I realized that they knew music and could support me in this way.]
And when you think about being an elder, what wisdom do you want to share with people coming up in the next generations?
[What people said:
Everything changes; things don’t last forever. Everyone has their own perspective, so don’t judge, because you may not understand where they’re coming from.
Life is life. We get old. Searching for wisdom is fruitless. Life is full of experiences and adventure.
Be kind in all situations.
Enjoy what you’re doing.
Listen instead of talking; try not to judge.
Try to love, accept, and value the younger generation.]
Thank you all for sharing in this meditation on the wisdom of our elders. I invite you to savor the wisdom handed down to you by your elders. And then think about the wisdom we have shared today. The only time we have is right now. Are we stopping to savor the sunsets, the flowers, the grandchildren? Are we listening to each other—to what is said and not said—and trying not to judge? Are we affirming those children who may be having struggles that we don’t even understand, like the grandmother with the trans grandchild? Are we spreading love wherever we go? We haven’t mentioned God or Jesus much in this service, but if we hang onto such wisdom, we are walking the talk of Jesus, loving our neighbors in all shapes and sizes and ages. We may not be as wise, capable, compassionate, industrious, organized, and loving as the ideal woman described in Proverbs, but if we’re lucky, our children will rise up and call us blessed. May it be so. Amen.