My first comment when administrative assistant Liz Bode unveiled our new blog on the district website was, “I really don’t care for the gray background to ‘Leading from the Heart’. Gray is not my color. And it reminds me of way too many gray and dreary days in Michigan.” Liz replied by saying that the gray template was only temporary, that once the web site was more refined, we’d be able to customize it.
If the truth be told, there is another reason that “gray” and I don’t always get along. The world in which I journey as a district superintendent is a gray world. Ethical dilemmas, “he said, she said” conflicts, balancing justice and mercy, caring for both pastors and churches, discerning with the cabinet when pastoral moves are needed and then making new appointments, helping congregations think through budget deficits: there are rarely clear cut solutions to the problems that come across my desk.
Of course, my world is no different than yours. Every day we are faced with decisions that, by their nature, can never be black or white. When cancer recurs, do we continue chemotherapy or decide to stop treatment? When is the right time to admit that we can no longer care for our Alzheimers spouse at home? How do we best parent a teenager who continually gets into trouble? How do we respond after accidentally discovering that our colleague has been embezzling money from the company? How do we change our lifestyle in response to the current recession? Do we comply when our boss asks us to do something we believe is unethical or even illegal?
As I travel through Lent this year, I have rediscovered a “gray” word that that has deep meaning for me: obedience. Obedience is not particularly popular today, for we associate obedience with negative words like obeying orders, submission and servitude. We don’t want to be obedient to anyone! Even in the liturgy of the marriage service, we wouldn’t think of asking brides to love, honor and obey their husbands unless we demanded the same of the groom.
I have always been a pretty compliant person and have been obedient to those in authority over me, including all four bishops who have appointed me over the years. (Check out Hebrews 13:17!) As I have been pondering the word “obedience” over the past weeks and how it relates to my ministry, however, I’ve discovered that root of obedience comes from the Latin word oboedire, which literally means to “listen deeply” or “pay attention”.
Being obedient, then, implies much more than blindly following a leader. Obedience means listening deeply to God, to others, and to our own heart. Imagine Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. No one wants to undergo great suffering, and Jesus was no exception. Yet, by listening deeply to God and to his heart, Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8)
I also wonder about Peter, the only disciple who did not desert Jesus after he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. His obedience led him to follow Jesus to the house of Caiaphas, yet when confronted, Peter 3 times denied that he knew Jesus. Was Peter simply a coward, or could his deep listening have led him to that decision, thus saving his own life so that he would eventually become the leader of the early church?
The most important thing I am learning about obedience is that when we pay attention, we get beneath the surface. And when we are willing to go deep, it gets muddy, murky and messy. Peter’s dilemma reminds me of the words in our United Methodist Social Principles about abortion, “We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion.” It is precisely in attempting to be obedient that we recognize that tension of complementary opposites which defines the gray way of Christian discipleship: faith and works, grace and sin, social holiness and personal holiness, losing and finding, foolishness and wisdom, weakness and strength, first and last, freedom and responsibility, good and evil, inclusive and exclusive.
It is because of the very nature of the gospel that disciples of Jesus Christ have to be obedient in order to engage the tragic conflicts of life with life. If every decision we had to make were clear cut, we would not need to listen deeply to God, engage one another in meaningful discernment and remain connected with our own heart.
In reading a recent newsletter of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Rev. Chandler Stokes referred to Eugene Peterson’s book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. The title of the book is based on a fascinating quote by Frederick Nietzsche, “The essential thing ‘in earth and heaven is’ … that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”
Note these words:
Essential: obedience is not optional but lies at the heart of the Christian faith.
On earth and heaven: every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Same direction: all life moves together toward the light, love and salvation of the kingdom of God, which is both here and not yet.
Long run: listening deeply to God, others and self is a life-long journey with peaks and valleys, suffering and joy, great clarity as well as seeing through a mirror dimly.
It makes life worth living: when we offer our lives completely to God and give our lives away in service to others, we find true joy in being obedient.
The tragic conflicts of life with life that define the grayness of our faith may lead us to respectfully differ with one another in the difficult decisions that we must make. I am convinced, though, that through the deep listening to one another that defines obedience, we move in the same direction and enlarge the borders of our existence.
- Are you and your congregation willing to embrace ambiguity?
- Are you committed to staying at the table together as you wrestle with difficult issues?
- Can you see truth emerge in the interplay of complementary opposites?
- Even when obedience is not comfortable or fun, can deep listening be imaginative, creative, rich, flexible and joyful at the same time?
- Will you honor the grayness, knowing that God is with us in the long run?
I am expecting that the background to the Leading from the Heart blog will eventually change from gray to something a little brighter. If it doesn’t, that will be okay, too, because the gray will be a constant reminder to listen deeply. May God grant us the grace to find the joy that prompts us to a long obedience in the same direction.