As a woman who has served her whole adult life in full-time pastoral ministry, I have made a habit of avoiding conversations around the concept of a “Proverbs 31 woman.” The typical implications that accompany this term, in my understanding, are that women should stay at home and do a whole lot of work to be considered “good” or “biblical” women. This simplistic characterization is problematic scripturally, theologically, and socially, since there are obviously many other models of virtuous women given throughout both Scripture and history. But lately I’ve come to think it’s not this ancient poem that is the problem but, rather, the way we’ve been reading it.

The opening words of Proverb 31 in Hebrew are eshet chayil—an honorific exclamation for a woman of valor and excellence. Then the rest of this ancient poem supplies a detailed definition of what this phrase means. Eshet chayil is a woman who is industrious, caring, and generous, who works hard to clothe and feed her family, who makes wise financial decisions, who leads her community, and who even opens her arms to the poor. The poem speaks of this woman in such lofty terms that it can feel impossible for one person to embody all of it, but the descriptions of the Proverbs 31 woman are actually a collection of routine, everyday tasks: shopping, feeding, buying, selling, cooking, and cleaning.

The ordinary quality of the tasks ascribed to the Proverbs 31 woman is why, when I first learned of my grandmother’s recent passing at the age of ninety-six, eshet chayil were the words that rang in my head. Grandma Ruth modeled for me and for everyone who knew her what a woman of valor could do. She was the mother of seven children, a grandmother of twenty-two, and a great-grandmother of twenty-four and counting. For more than forty years, she was a wife and ministry partner to my grandfather, Roger, who served as a pastor in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. I don’t know that she ever preached from the pulpit, but her very life has been a sermon.

She was a homemaker in the very best sense of the word: making a place of belonging, care, laughter, and love. For most of her married life, she shopped on a shoestring budget, making a meager pastor’s salary stretch to feed her family and then some. She cooked countless meals, not only for her seven children but also for any wanderer who found their way to the church. She spent years diapering, sewing, cleaning, shopping, and cooking, creating a place of spiritual nurture for my mom, my aunts and uncles, their neighbors, their parishioners, and eventually for me.

But I don’t want to give the impression that Ruth was only all about work. She was filled with an infectious joy that bubbled up into laughter even at the most unexpected times—on the side of the road with a flat tire, during family meal times, and even occasionally in church services. Everything she did was seasoned generously with love and joy, leaving no room for resentment or bitterness of any kind. And it was no secret where the joy and love within her originated because there was nothing private about Ruth’s relationship with Jesus. When I was a child she often invited me into her morning devotional time at the kitchen table, where she read Scripture aloud and offered fervent, honest prayers. She experienced Jesus as a real and life-giving presence in her life, and she talked about him to anyone and everyone. Jesus was the reason for her joy, for her love of life, and for her desire to love others.

But all these things that seem so boring and invisible in the day to day—these things that go unnoticed and often unthanked—have been sacred acts of love and faithfulness.

Nothing about my Grandma Ruth is spectacular. Her life would not have made a blockbuster movie. But all these things that seem so boring and invisible in the day to day—these things that go unnoticed and often unthanked—have been sacred acts of love and faithfulness. And maybe this is what we’ve missed about the truth of eshet chayil all along. This is the picture Proverbs 31 paints for us. We often imagine God as a good Father, but my Grandma Ruth and so many others like her help us imagine a God who is both perfect Father and perfect Mother—for surely this is holy work that began in the heart of God!

My family is full of pastors: men and women who have followed the call of God into vocational ministry, myself included. But our matriarch showed us that you do not have to be credentialed to be a spiritual leader. My grandma was a widow for most of the time that I knew her, so I can only imagine how she ministered as a pastor’s wife. But I saw how she gave herself to unceasing prayer for her family, led Bible studies, and visited neighbors, the homebound, and the hospitalized— even into her nineties.

In the months since her death, my grandmother’s life continues to teach me. I’ve been reminded that, even though I am a minister, the work of ministry belongs to all the saints. Her life bears witness to the beauty of a “long obedience in the same direction,” as Eugene Peterson has said. In her, I see that faithful living is not a sprint, and I’m invited to consider something other than a frantic urgency to get things done. But, perhaps most importantly, Grandma Ruth continues to remind me that my most significant work—the work that will live beyond me—is the work that never shows up in a job description.

Ruth Flemming is by no means the only example of eshet chayil. There are women of valor all around us, teaching us with their generosity, wisdom, humor, and unceasing self-sacrifice. I pray we have eyes to see and ears to hear the sermons their lives are preaching to us. May we—their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and friends and neighbors—rise up to call them blessed, and to articulate the ways we have been richly blessed by them. Who are the women of valor who have blessed you?