St. Benedict's Rule has a lot to say about obedience; especially obedience to one's superior in the monastery. That's not a very popular word in our culture. Our mythology of complete independence from one another makes us want to deny that we need to be obedient to anyone .
In my first career I was a paramedic with the Chicago Fire Department. In such a para-military organization, obedience is demanded. It was drilled into us from the very first day we entered the Fire Academy. The reason for the Department's emphasis on obedience became quickly became clear. At the scene of an emergency incident someone needs to be in charge. Without obedience to one's superiors incidents could quickly become chaotic messes. And as such a mess increased in size and scope, the purpose of our job became harder to accomplish. The lack of obedience to our superiors could easily cost lives.
Over the years I rose to a rank where the percentage of people to whom I needed to be obedient became relatively small. I very seldom heard the word "no." When I entered my second career, the pastorate, that word once again became something I heard frequently. It was a bit of a shock! Sessions, which means "church boards" in Presbyterian speak, and congregations can be, to put it mildly, a bit unruly. And the actual power of a Presbyterian pastor is very limited. The concept of obedience often seemed totally unrelated to life in a congregation.
There are exceptions. Pastors must be obedient to the instructions of their local judicatory body, and to the rules of their denomination. And as Christians, we are called to be obedient to God. I must confess there have been times in my life where I have been less than totally obedient to the One I follow.
The concept of obedience is much in my mind this week. I'm on a five day religious arts retreat working with clay. For the past two days we've been using pottery wheels. The similarities been our obedience to God, and the clay's obedience to my hands are endless. When the clay becomes too wet or too dry it either slumps into a mess or flies off the wheel. When I become too " wet," that is too engrossed, in any one part of my life, I listen less and less to the way God calls me. Then I almost literally slump into a mess. In the same way, if I become too spiritually dry and shut off my connection with God, I too start to crumble.
I also find the way the clay behaves when its off center on the wheel is very much like the way I react when my life is not centered on God. If the clay is off center, and I try to raise the walls of a bowl or a cylinder, part of the wall falls down. All the rest of the piece I am creating remain intact. But when a part of a cylinder's walls fall, the cylinder becomes useless. When I am off center and ignore a part of my life I need to keep in balance, parts of my life fall. The rest of my being is still intact but I become much less useful in the work God calls me to do.
But when the clay remained together, becoming neither too wet or dry, and remained centered on the wheel, miracles seemed to occur under my hands. The clay formed itself into wonderful and useful shapes on the wheel.
In the same way when I remain centered in the Way and not be either drawn into neglect of any part of my life, or drawn away from my walk with God, then God can mold me into the person God wants me to become. Then I can be obedient to God. Then God can fully mold me and use me for God's purposes.
Perhaps the word obedience needs to be heard more frequently in our congregations. And the emphasis should not be on obedience to the pastor, but obedience to the path God calls us to walk. I, for one, am grateful for Father Benedict's words on obedience. And for the remainder of this week, I look forward to whatever lessons the clay continues to deliver.