Obedience in the Light of Love
April 25, 2012, 10:58 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

In 1928, a young Ruth Berger, my grandmother, took the word ‘obedience’ out of her Brethren wedding vows. I know little about the service except it was a double wedding with Ruth and Ben alongside her sister and fiancé. Nonetheless, I have had a strange relationship with obedience ever since. 

Here is Grandma Ruth, who became Ruth Berger Hess upon her wedding.  

My father sent the picture to me because a ministry student asked whether I might be related to the Mrs. Hess who had taken her sister and her under the wing in a rough time. As she spoke the details of her Mrs. Hess—guidance counselor, son was a doctor, Northmont High—it became clear her Mrs. Hess was indeed my Grandma Ruth. We both laughed, enjoying the unexpected connection. The picture is for her, but I startled to see it again myself, newly aware of a deep yearning to know her like I never did, never could have. 

The corsage Mrs. Hess/Grandma is wearing signals that it’s Mother’s Day. Look closely and you’ll see four baby roses, one for each son born and borne. Her hair had gone gray fairly early in life, usually ascribed to these four. Boys, not roses. Her glasses were vintage 1980’s and if the composition allowed it, you’d see one hip slightly higher than the other. Scoliosis, we learned through various family inheritances of this diagnosis. Her eyes danced—one blue, one brown—even when she was severe. The “Little Red Riding Hood” doll she made for me when I was five mirrored these eyes. I still have it.

 I find myself wondering today whether she would be pleased with her granddaughter who yearns and writes. You see, we wounded one another when I was young. Without intention, of course, but I’m not sure we ever quite recovered. I remember it fairly clearly, which is unusual for me. Junior high was my world, and I wanted to spend time with friends on a Sunday evening. A Sabbath evening, I should say, for Grandma’s thinking. Mom and Dad were away on a business trip and she was shepherding the homestead. We loved it when she could. On this particular evening, Grandma refused my desire. “No, you cannot go. It’s Sunday,” she probably said.

Not prepared was she for the will of a confined adolescent girl more like her than she knew. Tempers flared. I probably slammed a door or two, perhaps even saying things I would regret, if I remembered saying them. The evening passed in an angry silence. Whatever else transpired in this desire to be with friends whose names I cannot recall today, my grandmother and I were wounded that night. A natural course of events between generations, of course, but painful and poignant all the same. I discovered years later from my father that she was wary of me from that point on. She feared her granddaughter didn’t love her, though I had obeyed. 

Love and obey. This is the combination historically spoken in wedding vows of old. This is the coupling Grandma Ruth uncoupled, with good reason. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians speaks of the wife’s obedience to the husband, “as the church is obedient to Christ,” or some such line. In most Pauline references, the task of the man’s obedience is often left implicit, unspoken, though it’s almost always written there too. Such texts have torqued relations for centuries, as men dehumanize themselves in the domination of women, and women dehumanize themselves in relinquishment of their own agency in relation to men. My grandmother reasserted her own agency. My grandfather was receptive to her—and his own—humanity. Yet she struggled to see them together all the same. Perhaps both my grandmother’s and my generation have steeped long enough in love as it was thought to be, avowed against  obedience as it has been. Perhaps love and obey can come alongside one another, when properly Referenced. 

Thomas Kelly’s essay “A Holy Obedience” marks the first life-giving words I received for obedience that is holy, what he calls “a life of absolute and complete and holy obedience to the voice of the Shepherd” whose accent falls completely upon God as initiator, aggressor, seeker, stirrer into life, ground, and giver of power (to us) to become children of God. (Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, p. 26). Holy obedience to the voice of the Shepherd. In a culture and overculture of multiple, conflicting voices, how is one to know this voice of the Shepherd? Especially if one is not Christian? 

Kelly notes that this voice offers a “serious, concrete program of life,” for one, wholly different from “mild, conventional religion.” He calls that “the first half.” Obedience that is holy, on the other hand, is the other half, the second half (as Meister Eckhart would and did say). It is observable in an insatiable God-hunger that drives one into a “passionate quest for the real whole-wheat Bread of Life.” (p. 28). It marks a life whose joys are ravishing, whose peace is profound, whose humility is deepest, whose power is world-shaking, whose love is enveloping, whose simplicity is that of a trusting child (p. 28). States of consciousness will fluctuate. Visions will fade. But this holy and listening and alert obedience will remain as “core and kernel of a God-intoxicated life, as the abiding pattern of sober, work-aday living.” (p. 32). Perhaps this arrives as a passive receptivity for some. 

Most of us, however, (says Kelly) must follow an active path to this obedience, wrestling “like Jacob of old… whose will was subjected bit by bit, piecemeal and progressively, to the divine Will.” (p. 32). The first step to this obedience of the second half comes, perhaps, in the “flaming vision of the wonder of such a life,” or in meditation on the life and death of Jesus, or through “a flash of illumination” or, in George Fox’s language, “a great opening.” However it comes, it comes as an “invading, urging, inviting, persuading work of the Eternal One,” wholly unaccountable to modern psychology. However the active path arrives, the second step to holy obedience becomes just this: “Begin where you are. Obey now. … Live this present moment, this present hour, in utter, utter submission and openness toward [God].” A third step then: “when you slip and stumble and forget God for an hour, and assert your old proud self…don’t spend too much time in anguished regrets and self-accusations but begin again, just where you are” (p. 34). Knowing well the American ear, he refines the way with yet a fourth step, “Don’t grit your teeth and clench your fists and say, “I will! I will!” Relax. Take hands off. … Learn to live in the passive voice—a hard saying for Americans—and let life be willed through you” (p. 34). 

Most of my life, I’ve gotten stuck on the popular collusion of God and religion. Loving and obeying God meant obeying a religious institution, or a community’s fundamentals whose norms spelled out what I knew in my own experience to be lifeless. Or at least not life-giving to me. Simultaneously, I have recognized what Gerald May spoke in his Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology: we yearn to surrender ourselves to something or someone larger than we are. Whether we find healthy or unhealthy ways to deal with this yearning remains a regular contemporary challenge. Material prosperity found yet empty, addictions, serial relationships, and more show a quest, a search for something of meaning or release. 

In my own life, I learned surrender in both a beautiful and painful way. I had found a teacher, I thought, and covenanted my surrender to her teaching. What life I received! What energy, drive, direction, and significance. Heady spiritual stuff, to be sure. Until she became human, just as she was, as she ought to be. I had surrendered with inaccurate reference. Beautiful. Painful. But I received a glimpse of the life that is possible when surrender—even submission—arrives with the only Referent healthily chosen. 

Kelly refers to this One as the Hound of Heaven. The One who never lets us go. The One whose love infuses all until light is all within all. He describes “a holy blindedness, like the blindedness of the one who looks steadily into the sun. For wherever he turns his eyes on earth, there he sees only the sun” (p. 36-7). This One does work in the church, in the religious institutions of historical traditions. This One also invites us into lives of devotion outside of these bounds too. I dare say I sense such Spirit in lives of atheists too, though I could never ascribe my language to their non-theist experience without misunderstanding and anachronism. 

In this Referent, love and obedience do go together. They promise a liveliness in life unmatched by any substitute. How did Kelly say it? “A life whose joys are ravishing, whose peace is profound, whose humility is deepest, whose power is world-shaking, whose love is enveloping, whose simplicity is that of a trusting child (p. 28). Part of me thinks my grandmother knew that well. In her final years, alone but divinely companioned, she knew this Referent as she cooked dinner, cared for friends and family, told her stories again and again. Her language had grown rigid, untenable to one of her loving granddaughters, but I know she knew. 

Perhaps someday I’ll learn more about Mrs. Hess as others knew her, but for now, I think Grandma Ruth would be pleased with the granddaughter who yearns and writes. We know so many of the same people after all, but especially, we know the One who pairs love and obedience into a freedom beyond reckoning. Regardless of worldly matters so often considered, each of us would see only the sun were we to gaze upon one another today.


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Well said for love and obedience. As was said at the Spiritual Directors International conference this past weekend compassion is the way to love and obedience by having the courage to see, the courage to feel and the courage to act. Those three principles are suggested by Hunn Suu Chi and icon of compassion. John Phillip Newell states that we need to learn how to listen to the heart beat of God as John the Beloved for obedience means to listen. When we are open we will listen to see, listen to feel and listen in order to act.

Comment by judy niday

This is such an eloquent, poetice and passionate piece of writing! I was deeply moved by the story of a granddaughter yearning to know her grandmother and the memories that surfaced from your unexpected connection with a student.
I was moved just as deeply by the exploration of love and obediance to God.

I think one of the things I appreciated most in this post is the idea of daily surrender leading to an all encompassing awareness, or focus on solely God’s call to us in whatever form it may come.

Blessings and Thank You,


Comment by afi

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: