Last Saturday (January 18th), I had the privilege of being at 3 of my friends’ ordinations as priests in Vancouver. As part of the service, vows – promises of obedience were made.
Obedience. What an interesting word; a word that I find people often balk at and struggle with. It was something that certainly gave me pause as I prepared for my own ordination.
I wonder if some of our hesitancy and resistance around obedience is because we imagine that it is inextricable linked with force and coercion, because we believe that it is the antithesis – the ultimate suppression of individuality and choice.
However, in wrestling with and reflecting deeply on obedience, I have found that it can be a beautiful thing, in some ways the ultimate example of choice and individual expression. Obedience, freely given, can be liberating and empowering rather than oppressive.
Obedience does not mean conformity, or the removal of the ability to question and challenge authority. This was made very clear to me once by Archbishop Melissa Skelton – someone to whom I have sworn obedience. In a reflection on obedience, she went right back to the Latin root of the word, which at its core means, ‘to hear,’ ‘to listen.’
To what or to whom are you obedient? To what or to whom do you listen?
Maybe obedience isn’t all that bad. After all, Jesus was praised for his obedience, and it did not suppress his individuality, his ability to challenge and question – to rock the boat. Perhaps, it is even his obedience that made him even more fully who he was.
I would suggest that we are all obedient to something, even if we don’t always acknowledge it, probably even multiple somethings: our own needs, family, power, the disenfranchised, money, a career, a philosophy, a rule of law. However, these things will sometimes come into conflict – Jesus did say that you cannot serve two masters – you cannot be obedient to both God and money. And then we get to choose. Who, what will you be obedient to?
For me, as a member in the company of the baptized, I freely and joyfully pledge obedience to God, in the words of an old, well-known prayer, “whose service is perfect freedom.”
Thanks be to God!