One word for 2017

Obedience.

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.

img_7153This 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.

Shâmaʻ

Hypakoē.

Obedience.

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:

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And here are the measurements Grandpa used to create it:

And here is an extraordinary photograph of the same stone (courtesy of B. Vukovich):

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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:

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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.

And have a blessed, happy New Year!

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Fear not, O Israel.

Because the yearly dates of Hanukkah are based on the Hebrew calendar, it’s not every year that Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve.

Tonight, Jews will light the first candle of their celebration after sundown, and at the same time Christians will light candles of their own at masses and sing Silent Night.

I can’t help but marvel at the significance.

To realize this, you might need to brush up on a little history (as I had to). In a nutshell, and although accounts vary, most of the sources I read agree that around 200 B.C. Jews in the land of Israel were not allowed to celebrate and practice their faith because of the tyrannical rule of Antiochus III The Great and his successor, Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

Thousands were massacred, and the temple was desecrated.

Jews lived in terror and were forced to worship false gods until a band of warriors led by Judah Maccabbee, the son of a Jewish priest, rose up and drove the Syrians out. They restored the temple, and menorah lamps were lit.

And the best part: Though there was only enough oil on hand to keep the sacred lights burning for one night, the oil miraculously lasted for eight days, and as such the Jewish people have celebrated the miracle ever since with Hanukkah. 

The significance is that the Lord accomplished two pivotal things then which still link our faith today:

1. He was faithful.

He delivered the Jewish people and their land from their enemies. As such, they were free to celebrate when just a little more than a century later Jesus was born, and he celebrated Hanukkah as an adult.

2. He kept His promise.

In Jeremiah 31:35-37 and many other places, G-d promises to bless Israel and that He will never allow them be wiped out. His call and mercy on believers are irrevocable, as it says in Romans 11:29.

At a time when Judeo-Christian values are increasingly under attack–and the land belonging to Israel continues to be threatened as yesterday’s news demonstrates–faith in ancient promises can seem imprudent. 

And yet, over and over and over again history shows times like these are precisely when G-d shows up.

***

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As I mentioned in an earlier post this month, G-d works best when there’s not enough, through imperfect people, and at impossible moments to free and redeem.

“Fear not, O Israel,” G-d says over and over and over.

“I will strengthen you,” He says.

“I will help you,” He breathes.

“I will uphold you, because I have chosen you and you are mine,” He promises.

When G-d makes a covenant, He keeps it.

Not only that, He longs to show us mercy.

Tender mercy.

And to give a light to our dark and weary paths.

If ever there was a time when Jews and Christians need to realize their shared history, it is now. And though some say it might be a coincidence that Hanukkah and Christmas begin on the same night this year,

I don’t believe there are any coincidences with G-d.

When you light your candles during these holy celebrations, think about how the people might have felt who lit the first menorah after they took back the temple, or who ignited the first lantern in the pitch black stable in Bethlehem. Think about how much they had to overcome to keep trusting in G-d in each of those impossible situations.

Now think about your impossible situation.

You know the one. The thing you won’t talk about at the holiday dinner table. That one big failure. Your broken heart. Your overwhelming loss.

Don’t be afraid, He whispers. I’ve got this.

Better than that, He’s got you.

Because the same promises that were for the Jews in 168 B.C. are for us today.

The same promises that were for the Jews first, and then by His grace the Gentiles, when Jesus was born in the City of David are for us, too.

Promises to redeem us.

One to free us.

Break the silence.

Make a way.

Heal the broken.

Restore us.

Emmanuel.

Here’s a beautiful song by Michael W. Smith which talks about these promises. I hope you can find a few quiet moments to listen to it this weekend, and that we can all celebrate the One G-d who is always faithful to all His people, and even and especially to you.

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah, dear friends.

***

“Fear not, oh, Israel for there is peace still to come

A word to break the silence, a promise set to bloom

The promise to redeem us, one to free us

Break this silence in the violence in our lives

Emmanuel is sure to find us soon

The mighty rule to Jesse’s star of truth

And bring us unto glory, tell His story

Heal the broken and restore thee to His name…”

~Michael W. Smith – The Promise

Maybe they’re right. Skip church this Christmas.

Yep.

You read that right.

Go ahead and skip church this Christmas.

But not for the reasons you might think, and certainly not for the reasons the American Atheists group are pushing in their new billboard campaign.

Here’s the thing: if you’re looking for a Savior exalted by trees and tradition and carols and stage lights and ground fog and Silent Night with candle wax dripping onto your hand, you might miss Him.

Oh, I know what some are thinking.

How could I, a Christian (and more than that, a Jesus-follower) propose people skip church on Christmas? Why, people might be there the first time in their lives! They might be saved then and there! Am I a heretic or a blasphemer? Am I a fraud? A troublemaker? Am I just plain nuts?

Maybe (and I welcome the accusations).

But I’ve been troubled for a while now by what mankind has made of religion.

I know from firsthand experience if a person goes to church, they may be mesmerized, captivated, and swept off their emotional feet by all the shine and shimmer, but eventually the church will disappoint them.

Because the church is not what saves us.

Of course the church and clergy and the ministry have been (and yes, I believe continue to be) wonderful messengers of The Gospel, and well-oiled machines in many cases. Heck, I consider my writing to be a ministry, and I pray through every word as I write my novels. But men and machines (and writers), they break. And if we put our trust and expectations in them, we will break too.

So yeah, skip church this Christmas if you’re looking for Jesus.

After all, the folks who were looking for the Messiah 2,000 years ago expected a warrior…a sword-wielding, emotionally captivating, shiny and larger-than-life solution to their problems. They never considered the G-d of the universe would show up insignificant and wailing in a filthy stable to an outcast and out-of-wedlock teenager, and from the Tribe of Judah to boot–not the expected, revered, proper Tribe of Levi. All the priests and the powerful and respected and legitimate came from the Tribe of Levi, after all. The Tribe of Judah, well, it was a *little* lackluster, by comparison. 

Wouldn’t it make sense, then, that if one is really looking for the Savior today, He might not be apparent in the worldly ways we’re attracted to?

I don’t begrudge the church. I don’t. I absolutely adore the particular brick-and-mortar one that we attend. I believe the church is where Christians must go to learn to be disciples and to be accountable and to be encouraged and strengthened–as well as to encourage and strengthen. I believe church is a place where the lost can go to find Him, through the love of other believers. 

It’s just that if Jesus were here today, I’m quite sure He would not be at a pulpit or on a stage. He would be among out-of-wedlock teenagers and doubters and homeless and aged and forgotten. He would be in the hospital rooms of patients who never have visitors, and the alleyways where prostitutes weep while shivering and waiting for another john. He would be sitting at the table with the man who smells abominable at the soup kitchen. He would be with the shopper out buying *one more thing* to attempt to make a *perfect* Christmas and with the atheists busying themselves with blasphemous billboards, because He loves them, too, and maybe even more because He is the Hound of Heaven after those who are most lost.

If we believe Jesus is unchanging as He says, then we have to recognize He still appears to us in the tsa’arצָעִיר , the Hebrew word used in Micah’s prophecy to describe the small, the ignoble, the unlikely and the overlooked.

So where should we go?

And where should we look for Him?

Try the old man with the walker you push past while reaching for a can of cranberry sauce at the grocery. Consider the lonely girl at the coffee shop trying to hide her tears behind a cup of latte. Maybe the handicapped young man who talks too much while he’s bagging your groceries. Soup kitchens and homeless shelters, women’s shelters, jails. Look for Him in the single mom and the neighbor who lost her spouse and the man with the sunken eyes working at the gas station on Christmas Eve.

Look for Him where no one else is looking.

We might just be surprised by what we find.

 

“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
    from ancient days.” ~Micah 5:2 (ESV)

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