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Food for Thought - Musings

"A Feather on the Breath of God" (Part 1)

“A feather on the breath of God”

The above quote was penned by Hildegaard of Bingen (1098 to 1179). Her words convey a lovely sentiment that seems to speak of freedom and ease when it comes to following Jesus. The phrase “a feather on the breath of God ” deeply resonates and reinforces the view of many who follow Jesus, namely, that there is little if any effort involved with following Jesus. It is easy to bring this same perspective of freedom and ease to biblical phrases such as; “the Spirit led Jesus,” “he calls his own by name and he leads them out,” “He leads me beside quiet waters," "follow me” to name a few. However, if we take time to ponder the phrase “a feather on the breath of God,” we may soon realize that there are deeper truths communicated by this image. The feather is not the master of its own destiny but rather one guided and directed solely by the breath of another. The feather is not free to chart its own course but is yielded to and dependent on the breath of God to guide and direct it. The winsome images of feather and breath are conveying a truth that many bristle against, namely, obedience.

The word “obey” has become a “four letter word” in many Christian circles. It is a word that often brings forth immediate resistance and even vitriolic outcries renouncing the very idea that obedience has a place in following Jesus. There seems to be a belief that an emphasis on obedience is diametrically opposed to and usurps the freedom and grace that are at the heart of the Gospel message. This visceral reaction is understandable, for there has been and still is, in some circles, the focus on external conformity as the key indicator of the level of one’s spiritual health and maturity with no real thought or consideration given to the transformation of the heart. The equating of external behavior with true God honorong obedience recalls to mind the old adage that says “if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, sounds like a duck, it must be a duck.” But this flies in the face of Jesus’ words; “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of (obeys) my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” Jesus’ words point out that obedience is important—even critical and that looking like a duck, walking like a duck, and sounding like a duck does not mean one is a duck. There is more to obedience than merely external behavior.

Now let us return to the biblical phrases mentioned above that seem to carry with them that sentiment of freedom and grace devoid of the corollary truth of obedience.

  • He leads me beside quiet waters
  • He calls his own by name and leads them out
  • The Spirit led Jesus (into the wilderness)
  • Follow me

Each of the above statements indicates a leader and a follower. The leader leads and the follower follows, obeying the teachings of the one they are following, going where they go, doing as they say. It is also important to note that in the phrase “He calls his own by name and leads them out” the implication is that those he calls hear him and follow him. The word “hear” in both the Old and New Testaments conveys not only perception of sounds but obedience. It is one’s obedience that demonstrates if one has truly heard. This is very similar to our usage of the word hear, at least in the familial setting. As a father, when I asked my children to do something--clean your room, get ready for dinner, turn off the TV--and they did not move a muscle, I would usually respond with the words “Didn’t you hear me?” The inference was that if they did hear me then they would act accordingly, they would obey, and since that was not the case they must not have heard me. This usage of the word hear/listen is found Matthew 18:17; “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” This is not referring to the inability of an individual to hear the words spoken to them but is concerned with the response of the individual to those spoken words. It is their obedience that will bear testimony whether they listened (heard) or not. In the Bible there is often no demarcation between hearing and obedience. These words form a seamless garment of a life of faith.

I hope you are beginning to see that obey is not a “four letter word” that should be shunned and stricken from our vocabulary, but in fact plays an important role in our spiritual formation, in our ability to partner with the work of the Spirit in us and through us. Dallas Willard, commenting on obedience writes, The missing note in evangelical life today is not in the first instance spirituality but rather obedience. We have generated a variety of religion to which obedience is not regarded as essential. . . . Life in Christ has to do with obedience to his teaching. If we don’t start there, we may as well forget about any distinctively Christian spirituality.” (p. 44, “The Great Omission”)

So our phrase “floating like a feather on the breath of God” does not convey a carefree life but a life guided and directed by God, a life of yielded-ness and obedience to God. Granted, this emphasis on obeying can deteriorate into an external form of adherence but that is not what we are talking about here, nor is it what Jesus had in mind. Next month the musing will focus on a critical component to this life of obedience that must be present for true obedience to actually occur, and which when employed can keep obedience from becoming an external façade of pseudo-spirituality devoid of the transforming power of God.

This month, I invite you to spend some time exploring your internal feelings toward the word obey/obedience using the following questions.

When you sit with the word obey what feelings stir within you?
What scenes, voices, from your past (childhood, adolescence, adult life, Church experience…) arise in your heart and mind as you ponder the word obey/obedience? What are the feelings associated with those scenes and voices?
What is the baggage that the word obey/obedience brings with it for you?
What makes it difficult for you to obey God?
What might help you to obey God?
Spend some time sharing your insights and feelings around the word obey/obdedience with Jesus.

Finally, if you would like to go a little farther with all this, Google the lyrics to the hymn “Trust and Obey”. Take time to read the lyrics through a few times, paying attention to which phrases you are drawn to, resistant toward? What are the truths conveyed by this hymn? What feelings do these truths stir within you?

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