Ode to Character and a Woman of Worth

September 23rd, 2012

Preacher: The Reverend Kate Wesch

Proverbs 31:10-31, Mark 9:30-37, James 3:13-4:3,7-8a

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A headline from the Wall Street Journal caught my eye the other day.  It read, “Opting Out of the ‘Rug Rat Race’.”  The article itself was adapted by Paul Tough, the author of a new book to summarize its main point, namely that modern parenting is structured to produce exceptional cognitive skills in children, but not character. The opening paragraph refers to parental anxiety a couple of times and the “belief, rarely spoken aloud but commonly held nonetheless, that success in the U.S. today depends more than anything else on cognitive skill – the kind of intelligence that gets measured on IQ tests –  and that the best way to develop those skills is to practice them as much as possible, beginning as early as possible.”  As a preschool board member, mother to a toddler, and daughter to a public school teacher, I often find myself surrounded by anxious parenting.

I hear parents wondering about their child’s learning style, worrying about private school applications, and fretting about whether or not their child is receiving the best possible academic preparation.  My daughter isn’t even two and I’m beginning to absorb the parental anxiety exuding all around me.  Tough summarizes the problem well.  “What matters most in a child’s development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years of life.  What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes: persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence.

Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us often think of them as character.”  In his sermon last week, Doyt told you that we would be talking about character because character matters and has an impact on the world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s character and Desmond Tutu’s character changed the world, as did the character of the people who had a formational influence on these extraordinary men.  In the kingdom of God, character has impact whether it can be measured or not.  Habits of the heart matter and we believe that character is formed one way or another, accidentally or intentionally.  The question is: are we managing our character formation or not?  What would society look like if parents’ focused all of their anxiety and energy towards developing their child’s character instead of cognitive skill acquisition?  While I agree with Tough’s premise and intend to read his book, our paths diverge at this point.  He says, “The most valuable thing that parents can do to help their children develop noncognitive skills – which is to say, to develop their character – may be to do nothing.”

And this is where I think he is wrong.  The most valuable thing we can do as parents is to pay particular attention to the formation and development of our children’s character.  That means leading by example, bringing them to church, setting high yet realistic expectations, and loving them when they fail. To be a parent, or a caregiver, or spouse, or son, or even a good friend, means being patient.  Because when our willfulness gets in the way and we are stubborn or resolute, relationship breaks down and the kingdom of God crumbles just a little bit.

Late last spring, my recurring migraines became much more frequent and debilitating.  In the midst of diagnosing my first “silent migraine,”   an episode of visual auras, vertigo, nausea, and mental confusion, a doctor I had just met said, “I’m going to guess that you are trying to go a million miles an hour and your body is telling you that you can only go a few thousand miles an hour.”  He was right.  I was trying to do too much, all the time, taking care of everyone around me, but neglecting myself.  I wasn’t eating enough or sleeping enough or pausing long enough to even catch my breath.

I was trying to be superwoman and I was failing because I am only human.  My study Bible has a heading for today’s reading from Proverbs and it says, “Ode to a Capable Wife.”  A quick look at the lesson generates a laundry list of admirable attributes for this proverbial “wife.”  Just to name a few, she is: trustworthy, resourceful, strong, charitable, joyful, wise, exceptional, faithful, and devout.  She is superwoman, more than capable, and she is not human.  She is Wisdom personified.  There are varying opinions on the role of Woman Wisdom in the Old Testament and especially in the book of Proverbs.  A Women’s Bible Commentary I am fond of has this to say, “The figure of Woman Wisdom may be a survival of goddess worship within the monotheistic structure of Israelite theology.  At the very least, Woman Wisdom represents a synopsis of all the positive roles played by wives and mothers in Israelite society.” (Fontaine, Carol, 154).  So, we know she is somewhere between idealized woman and goddess.

Interestingly enough, the Hebrew words for “woman” and “wife” are the same.  The words translated here as “capable wife” are perhaps more accurately read, “a woman of worth.”  However you choose to interpret this passage, it seems to me that all of us strive to achieve many of the commendable attributes on display, but come up short time and again due to our human frailty.  Despite my best intentions, I am not superwoman – which brings me back to patience and the development of character.  None of us is superman or superwoman and we all have our blind spots and our weaknesses.

In the forum today, Barbara Cairns talked about Thomas Merton – “his calling as a writer and his vocation as a monk, his charismatic gift for friendship and his need for solitude, his conscience as an advocate for peace and justice, and his longing for the deep silence of God.”  Thomas Merton’s childhood was characterized by loss.  His mother died when he was only six years old and his father when he was fifteen.  By the time he was a young adult, he was looking for something more in his life.

While reading the biography of the great English poet and Catholic, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Merton experienced the catalyst to his own conversion.  For Merton, the great turning point was the realization that he could ask for help.  You see, Merton had never asked for help.  It was as much a point of pride as it was a habit.  His profound theological and spiritual shift in perspective was the wake-up call that we all have to ask for help.  We can’t make it in this world alone because in the kingdom of God, relationship is primary where our character shapes and impacts the kingdom.  When we ask for help, we are forced to be patient, because that simple request is admittance that we can’t do it all alone.  I am not superwoman.  None of you are superman or superwoman, rather a human being dependent on the help of God mitigated and experienced in relationship.  This is what we must teach our children.  It’s not about whose child reads first or tests into the highest math class or gets accepted into the most exclusive school.

It’s about the steady and intentional formation of their character by instilling good habits of the heart and discipline into their rhythm of life.   Children learn this by example.  They learn by watching their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles.  It is a tall order, but an important one that is the great equalizer.  We must ask for help.  We must learn to be patient. Our character depends upon it.