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.


Spiritual Practice…For Times Like These
March 24, 2012, 11:24 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

“A spiritual practice for times like these,” reads the introductory sub-title in a book I’ve been steeping in, again. It’s entitled The Seven Whispers: Listening to the Voice of Spirit, written by Christina Baldwin back in 2002. Just that much suggests “times like these” means “post-9-11,” at least. Listening to the voice of Spirit seems a good description of a spiritual practice, in one sense. Practices come in all shapes and sizes, fit for persons of similarly varying temperaments and proclivities. Many engaged activities intend a deeper awareness, an awakening to voices within us deeper than the incessant ego-drives we live with every day. Drives that have us constantly comparing ourselves with others, assessing the love or intentions of others, judging behaviors as fit or unfit, etc. So a spiritual practice that frees us from ego-voices through listening to the voice of Spirit—defined for now as Person of the Triune God, a life-giving Force for good within and beyond us and nature—seems attractive, even compelling. But “seven whispers”? How are they a practice? Speaking them daily? Leaning on them in times dry and ecstatic? Thinking of them while engaging other activities like meditation, prayer, service, and the like?

I don’t know the answer to such questions for others, but for myself, I do know that the seven whispers of Christina Baldwin offer one of the most fruitful and rigorous ways to pray I’ve ever received. Speaking as a life-long Presbyterian, though now a wisdom-walker with more adjectives than I care to name, the seven whispers enter into then depart my life with a regularity that suggests tenable wisdom, durable practice, consistency of purpose. So I offer them (and her work) for a bit of invitation during this next season of life, whether one understands it as Lent or preparation for Easter or Passover or simply “what’s next.”

The whispers go like this:

  • Maintain peace of mind.
  • Move at the pace of guidance.
  • Practice certainty of purpose.
  • Surrender to surprise.
  • Ask for what you need and offer what you can.
  • Love the folks in front of you.
  • Return to the world.

 Seven imperative verbs—action-oriented invitations. Short sentences for memory’s sake. Each of them a practice unto itself, to be sure, but taken together, a holistic, ecumenical or inter-traditional path of listening.

Baldwin offers the narrative in which the whispers arrived, were given to her, in the book by this name. Each chapter offers prose, stories, questions to deepen one’s understanding of the whisper in question. Her writing style is familiar, but encouraging; revealing but bounded. Just what a good spiritual teacher offers, in other words.

For myself, I sometimes ruminate or mediate on only the verbs. Maintain. Move. Practice. Surrender. Ask & Offer. Love. Return. These speak a rootedness or groundedness in what has been given before, where one has been planted before. Maintain. But anything not moving or changing is dying or dead, so movement is necessary, unavoidable. Practice. Nothing grows or strengthens without consistent intention, activity, mistakes and missteps, then recovery and balance. Practice. Then the age-old resistant one: surrender. Not as imposed obedience. Not as power-over. But welcomed-within. Liberation from being in charge or having to know it all. Freedom to be who one is, without qualification or clarification. Surrender. The final three, thankfully, complete what is essentially a relational process from the very beginning with overt relational imperatives: ask, offer; love; return. Few of us learn easily to ask for what we need. More of us offer ourselves, but few offer only what we can, healthily and from abundance. More likely it’s offering what they need, regardless of whether one actually can do so from abundance, and asking for what one (in a starved imagination) think one might deserve, which is always less than Grace desires. Then love. Not out of need, but out of delight. And return, knowing that when one’s own needs are stewarded, it’s so giddy to return to the world, one can hardly stand it.

So, a spiritual practice for times like these. Begin the day with the whispers, even if you can’t remember them all. At the midday, repeat the imperative verbs, and listen for what Spirit might invite you to hear. And ask what Baldwin asked of God, to discern her own contribution for the world:

 What is it that you want me to do? How do I need to change in order to do it?

 Amen, Amen, Amen…and a little woman. 

A Glimpse In…from the Academic Outside
November 7, 2011, 12:18 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

All’s been ‘quiet’ here on the Artisanal Front, as the writing energies flowed in an unexpected direction…toward the church. How about that. So, for conversation and consideration, on your leadership-development path, I offer “an open letter” to a branch of the Body of Christ. It’s length means that this represents a couple weeks’ worth of posting. (Not to worry–I noticed and will continue to honor that in your schedule.) Given the commonalities in this Body, across denomination and tradition, I suspect there might be some good food for thought for your own context, your own discipleship. May it be so.


The Rev. Lisa M. Hess, PhD

Literature, Stories, and ‘Magicians’
October 9, 2011, 10:00 pm
Filed under: identity, Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

Sometimes those who ‘authorize’ transformation are authors themselves. Let me share a story of one of my own…

I have been frightened of ‘literature’ since I was fifteen. The word conjures up images of poetry recitation and the public humiliation of my 9th-grade self, by the teacher, no less. ‘Literature’ unearths self-induced fears of incompetence and artistic ignorance. In my experience, the classics of English or American literature tend to be those poems, novels, and short stories whose metaphors I rarely perceive correctly, whose prose lacks the drive of today’s more familiar, media-saturated plots & pacing, and whose overall contribution to human culture continues to be a point of debate between specialists. Call something a classic of literature—English, American, Turkish, whatever—and I’m sure to find a way to avoid reading it. Until I ‘met’ my magician, Azar Nafisi.

Nafisi is an Iranian-born, university professor specializing in Western (& Persian) literature and now Iranian politics. She’s most well-known for her “memoir in books,” Reading Lolita in Tehran (RandomHouse, 2003), which shares truths and fiction across several years of her life in Iran, before-during-and-after the Revolution. As of 2008, Nafisi became an American citizen and now teaches and writes as a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. I call her my ‘magician’ relying upon her own sense of the word, with reference to an elusive fellow she first names Professor R, then ‘her magician’ forever afterward.

‘He’ was a fine arts/drama professor and writer who resigned his teaching-post in protest of Revolutionary curricular reform. He was elusive figure, welcoming her every week or so for tea and chocolates, but always aloof, unpredictable, challenging. For Nafisi, he was this kind of companion who welcomed, accompanied and challenged her very best self as teacher, artist, and writer. She didn’t always know he was shaping her, nor was she aware of how she was inviting and shaping him. They simply met to talk about their lives, ideas…and drink tea, eat chocolates. I have been blessed with several figures in my life who remind me of Professor R and Azar Nafisi. For our purposes, her magic has been to open my eyes and mind to ‘literature’ and its unsuspecting power to transform our minds, ears, spirits.

Apparent in the very title, Reading Lolita in Tehran posits from the start that context matters, even changes the work of literature, for any reading of a so-called ‘classic.’ Tehran marks the place on the planet where a novella is being read. Gone is Nabokov’s ‘classic’ as a reified, objective thing, guarded and legitimated by experts and those allowed within their coteries. Nabokov’s Lolita, in this case, has also become Nafisi’s Lolita, hers and her students’ Lolita, the reading(s) of Nabokov’s text within a poignant setting of Tehran, Iran, amidst the Revolution and afterwards.  In other words, every ‘classic’ needs its reader to exist anew, off the shelf, as a continuing ‘voice’ in the project of a vibrant humanity. For the first time, I heard that ‘literature’ could need me and my imagination if it wanted to say what it had to say.

Nafisi’s chosen genre of writing—memoir—complements the first observation about context. Organized around works and themes of four different authors or characters—Nabokov, Gatsby, James, and Austen—Reading Lolita in Tehran illustrates on every page the intimate learning possible when literature breathes life into a person’s narrative or story. No longer is literature an aloof voice of ages past with its imagery and artistry impossible to decipher correctly. Literature becomes the intimate marriage of an author’s and characters’ voices-in-situation, experienced by a reader in her communities, and then—if one does the reflective work—given transformative significance hospitable to others beyond the specific author.

Nafisi has done the reflective work, and with her tutelage, I began to see symbols, themes, images within her chosen classics come to life in my own narrative. I devoured Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby while reading Nafisi’s volume. It made portions of my narrative come to mind, newly sensitized to implications and connections with my own steeped history of a decade ago, in an institution of material privilege and relational poverty. I’m learning to listen in ‘literature’ for legitimate touchstones between author’s/characters/situations and my own life.

I suspect many more learnings could be articulated, if time were taken for such things. For now, this page-prose offers a bit of one of my own ‘authorizers.’ Nafisi’s ‘magic’ of renewal and recovery in my spirit was no mean feat, given my long ambivalence and avoidance of anything internally or externally professed as a classic of literature. As she notes herself, though, such magic is never solely the magician’s, but signals an avid learner open to being evoked or conjured anew. “Does every magician, every genuine one,” she asks, “…evoke the hidden conjurer in us all, bringing out the magical possibilities and potentials we did not know existed?” (p. 337).

I tender my heartfelt thanksgiving here for the voice and vocation of Azar Nafisi, an author whose voice challenges my own, and a teacher who showed it is possible to teach transformative living amidst the delights and discomforts of ‘literature.’ I also smile with appreciation for the wisdom to receive her teaching and the challenge for my narrative & writing.  Perhaps even my 9th-grade self will have new learnings to share in the days, months, and years to come.

Will yours, as you read and listen to the ‘classics,’ in print and those living in your journey?