That’s my one word for 2017.
I started hearing God whisper the word to me a few weeks ago. (He’s known for a while now that I don’t respond well to subtle, so the word obedience showed up on my heart like a billboard.)
Now, obedience is not a popular word these days, and it hasn’t been for a good while. I remember thirty years ago when friends who were getting married began taking it out of their wedding vows because they were offended by its implications.
But when I began to search the Bible for the word “obedience” in the Hebrew and the Greek (y’all knew I was a big nerd, and I absolutely love word study), I was convicted of not only its importance, but of its beauty as a follower of Jesus.
The word for obedience in Hebrew is shâmaʻ, defined as, “to hear intelligently (often with implication of attention, obedience, etc.; causatively, to tell, etc.):—× attentively, call (gather) together, × carefully, × certainly, consent, consider, be content, declare, × diligently, discern, give ear, (cause to, let, make to) hear(-ken, tell), ×indeed, listen, make (a) noise, (be) obedient, obey, perceive, (make a) proclaim(-ation), publish, regard, report, shew (forth), (make a) sound, × surely, tell, understand, whosoever (heareth), witness.
Shâmaʻ occurs 1,161 times in 1,072 verses in the Old Testament, and not only in stories where the man or woman was called to action. Interestingly, it is used many times to describe how the Lord hears the cries of His people. This is why I love the original language, because a word like obedience is blown wide open, far beyond the action of doing something.
It seems to me obedience means leaning into the will of God with a palms-up posture of careful attention and diligence.
Always listening for Him.
And if I can’t hear Him, then trusting what He says in His Word.
Because shâmaʻ indicates–incredibly–that the Lord is in fact listening attentively to us.
And even more incredible than that, this seems to imply that obedience isn’t about a distant, unapproachable being putting the smack-down on humans, but rather a relationship, a back-and-forth, the result of a real and active and compelling love.
The verse in the Old Testament containing shâmaʻ that stuck out to me personally is Zechariah 6:15:
“And those who are far off shall come and help to build the temple of the LORD. And you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. And this shall come to pass, if you will diligently obey the voice of the LORD your God.” (Zechariah 6:15)
In the Greek, the word obedience is hypakoē, defined as, “attentive hearkening, i.e. (by implication) compliance or submission:—obedience, (make) obedient, obey(-ing).”
Hypakoē occurs 15 times in the New Testament, and again, I was struck with the fact that by this definition, obedience is more than an act.
Obedience is first and foremost paying attention, making the act of obedience a response to what my attention has discerned.
The verse containing hypakoē that again stuck out to me personally is 2 Corinthians 10:5:
“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” (2 Corinthians 10:5)
I don’t know what tomorrow, let alone all of 2017 will hold for me. But I can be sure that if I listen for Him with my whole heart, He will surely and gently guide my steps.
The beloved Eugene Peterson wrote an entire book about obedience (one of my all-time favorites) called A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. In it, Peterson writes:
“There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.”
Another very favorite book of mine is Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner, in which she describes her path from Orthodox Judaism to Christianity and how those religious practices and shape her faith. In chapter three she talks about Judaism and mourning, how the congregation through specific practices simply will not allow a grieving person to be alone. More than that, Winner describes the practice of mourner’s saying a prayer called the Kaddish:
“Not only is the community present for one’s mourning, God is present too. God is ubiquitous in Jewish bereavement because of the Kaddish…a curious mourner’s prayer because it says nothing about mourning…It is not a prayer of rent garments and commemoration, but rather simply four verses of praise to God…Even in the pit, even in depression and loss and nonsense, still we respond to God with praise. This is not to say that the mourner should not feel what he feels–anger, disbelief, hatred. He can feel those things (and shout them to God; God can take it). You do not have to feel praise in the intense moments of mourning, but the praise is still true, and insisting upon it over and over, twice a day every day, ensures that eventually you will come to remember the truth of those praises.” ~Lauren Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath
Let that sink in:
“You do not have to feel praise,” she writes, “…but the praise is still true, and insisting upon it over and over, twice a day every day, ensures that eventually you will come to remember the truth of those praises.”
Really, obedience is about trust, then, right?
Hearing when I don’t want to hear.
Doing when I don’t want to do.
Believing when I don’t want to believe.
And yes, praising when I don’t want to praise.
This made more sense to me during a recent conversation I had with Dad. We were talking about my Grandpa and his hobby work as a lapidarist, polishing rocks and designing and cutting gemstones. Grandpa’s work was a large part of the inspiration behind my novel, Then Sings My Soul, as was the heritage of our ancestors on that side of the family, who were by all accounts Jewish refugees in the late 1800s.
The facets of gemstones are so small and so precise, and I was remembering how Grandpa wore pretty thick glasses.
“How in the world did he do such minute, precise work?” I asked.
Dad explained that Grandpa had a special magnifying glass he could move over the top of his machinery to see, and that he used a loupe.
“But really,” Dad explained, “he trusted the measurements.”
That’s it, I thought.
Grandpa had hundreds and hundreds of gemstone designs full of numbers and graphs and measurements. By setting the machine with those carefully calculated measurements, even when he couldn’t see the surface he could (and did) create hundreds and hundreds of beautiful gemstones and cabochons.
So many times I feel blind to where I am going, to what I am doing. So many times I feel so inadequate–or like a straight-up failure–to love, to parent, to forgive, to work, to write, to trust.
But if I trust the measurements–the Word of God and the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit which are there not to brow beat me into modern culture’s view of obedience, but to love me and tenderly shepherd me into green pastures–then my heart will always return to Him.
Below are some of the hand-written measurements and designs Grandpa used, including the ones for the Star of David cut used on the stone that graces the cover of Then Sings My Soul. (Click here to read more about that in a previous post.)
Here is that stone in real-size:
And here are the measurements Grandpa used to create it:
And here is an extraordinary photograph of the same stone (courtesy of B. Vukovich):
The Mary Jane Design is a cut Grandpa created, and then named after my grandmother (also published in the December, 1991, issue of Lapidary Journal).
Here is the stone:
And here are Grandpa’s measurements:
Obedience might not be your word for 2017, but maybe you’re intrigued by it.
Maybe like me, you struggle with it.
Jakob, the main character in Then Sings My Soul, he struggles with faith and obedience, too. You might like to add this book to your 2017 reading list.
In the meantime, what’s your word for 2017?
Let us know in the comments section below.