There's an elderly couple in my church. I think they are both hard of hearing. They strain to hear each other too. Reminiscing on a lifetime spent together they lean their heads together as if whispering, looking deeply into each others' faces. Then they almost shout to each other, holding their hands to their ears to focus the sound. It seems clear that the most important thing for both of them is to hear the voice of the one they love. These days I know quite a bit about their marriage and their fondest memories. I love them.
I wait patiently to hear from those I love. I long to hear the thoughts of my friends and family. My heart tends towards them. It waits to hear what they have to say. This is all the more important when there has been a misunderstanding. Or when there is important news to learn. Or just when it has been a long time.
I say all of this because I have been reading about an unpopular word: obedience. Sometimes, in usage it sounds as though people associate obedience with megalomania. As if it signifies a relationship between someone who barks orders, and another who jumps into line: think obedience school for dogs, army discipline, power hungry authoritarian leaders, fear, suppression, repression. If this is what it does mean, it is indeed an ugly word. However, I do not think obedience is an ugly word.
Of all the qualities I value in others, and long to cultivate in myself, a willingness to listen is paramount. I long to be the sort of teacher of whom pupils might say, 'she listens'. Of course, I hope I am always there to listen to my friends. I aspire to have patience to listen to the politics of those who govern. I wish for the humility to listen out for, accept, understand and, when appropriate, act upon advice from others. Looking for a name for this quality of active 'listening', the theological word that emerges is 'obedience'.
In the Hebrew Old Testament, shama, means, quite literally, 'hear'. Hence, we have the translation of Deuteronomy 6:4: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord you God is one....'. In the New Testament the Greek word hupakouo is also rendered 'to listen'. Here it often associated with 'seeing' a situation 'as it really is' rather than a physical sense of hearing. A person can 'listen' to themselves, their reason, their thoughts. Jesus is 'obedient' unto death - He listens to the voice of God within himself. We are called to listen to (obey) the law 'written in our hearts' (Heb. 8:10; 10:16). In Latin oboedire means, quite literally, to hear or listen towards (ob = towards; oedire = to hear).
Obedience then, is the grace of a 'tending heart', a heart that leans into another, strains to hear their voice above the din of noise and distraction all around; obedience has that sense of leaning inwards to hear with clarity, waiting for a complete explanation. Obedience, in this sense, is rooted in love and care; it is a process, a relationship; it takes time, patience and practise. To play with language, obedience is to 'attend' (give attention to) and 'tend' (care with love). It is, in every sense, a virtue.
Why this post today? Why now? Well, I have been re-reading some of my scribbles from my undergraduate degree, and amongst those I found the makings of this post. Looking back it is clear to see that re-evaluating my thoughts on 'obedience' profoundly changed my attitude to all those most difficult things in faith, the Bible, Church Teaching, controversial debate, interpersonal relationships, etc . I'll not bore you with all the details of that now, but I thought the scribbled notes worth a look.