First, We Listen
Let me hear what God the LORD will speak,
for God will speak peace to the people,
to God’s faithful,
to those who turn to God in their hearts.
Surely God’s salvation is at hand ...
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
Adapted from Psalm 85
As someone who came of age in the late 1960s into the 1970s, I confess I have often bristled at the word “obedience.” I was not quite old enough to be caught up in the protests for civil rights or those against the Vietnam war, yet the cultural milieu of civil disobedience for change in those times still affected me. So did the early women’s liberation movement. I read Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem as a high school senior, wondering if someone headed to Oklahoma Baptist University, a conservative liberal arts college, would have the courage to fully embrace their radical ideas of feminism. Growing up under these influences, obedience was implicitly connected to a duty forced upon one by cultural norms that did not offer everyone the same opportunities in life. I stubbornly stuck to my Christian faith AND I always deeply questioned the “be an obedient doormat for Jesus” brand of Christianity that I encountered in some conservative circles.
Since that young time I have learned to understand obedience in relation to its Latin root word. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the English word “obey” comes from the Latin, obedire, meaning literally "listen to," from ob "to" + audire "listen, hear." This changes our perception of obedience from mindless duty or simply following the rules to“paying attention.” Obedient actions grow out of listening. The prophets of the Hebrew scriptures were charged with listening to God, and with proclaiming God’s word to God’s people (who were not listening to and observing God’s ways).
Prophetic listening leads to the protest of injustice resulting in some strange prophetic actions. The prophet, Hosea, listened and was led to go against the grain of culture and marry a wife of questionable repute. Hosea, following God’s word, marries the woman named Gomer, has children with her, and takes her back when she is claimed by another man (Hosea 1:2-10). None of these actions would have been easy. Listening to God seems to lead to acts of steadfast love that take strength of character and will, as well as counter-cultural persistence.
There is a Japanese folktale titled, “The Magic Listening Cap,” that illuminates obedience as listening. It seems there was an old man who was very poor and very faithful. Everyday he went to the shrine of his god to give gifts of thankfulness and to pray. One day he had nothing to give because in his poverty there was no food in his house. He went to the shrine and simply offered himself expecting to lose his life and die. But his god gave him a gift in exchange for his faithfulness. It was a magic listening cap. With the cap on the old man could hear the voices of creation, the conversation of the trees, the wind in their leaves, the intimate talk of the birds and animals. To make a longer story shorter, with this cap and its gift of deep listening to creation, the kind old man saved the life of a dying cypress tree, which was connected to the life of a dying man. The man he saved happened to be wealthy and he was very generous in rewarding the kind old man. The old man was never in want again and, not a being greedy man, put his magic listening cap away, never using it for indiscriminate gain. Every day he brought gifts and prayers to the shrine of his god, giving thanks for how his life had been preserved. (Click on the link above and you can hear the whole story on YouTube.)
Listening to our God involves faithful, everyday practice. We enter the shrines of our hearts to seek God’s presence. We offer ourselves as gifts. We wait to see what prophetic action we might be called to do. It might be a simple one of acknowledging someone who is “outcast” in our society--the homeless, the immigrant, the disabled, the mentally ill--with a smile, a direct look of respect, a greeting of kindness. Or it might be a larger action of advocating for justice, for housing for all, for medical care for all, for asylum and legal human rights for all. Or it could be the largest action of all action: working side by side with those our culture puts on the margins, befriending them, learning from them as fellow human beings.
Our actions all begin with listening to the prompting of the Spirit. When the action takes us to the unfamiliar and hard places, we listen again; for God will be there with stamina and strength and steadfast love.
Blessings on the journey,
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Read more