Point blank, holiness is for weirdos.
The first time I heard “in the holiness tradition” I was pretty sure I just needed to pretend it hadn’t been said. If I were to repeat that phrase to most of my friends, they’d check my pockets for snakes and tell me to go find my big white tent.
It didn’t get any better either. “Entire sanctification,” they said. I mean, come on, guys. That is neither hip nor cool. Holy Spirit talk should be reserved for Pentecost. But Pentecost came and went, and these people were STILL talking about “the power of the Spirit that lives in us.”
In my youth, after Pentecost, we put away the banners with the felted tongues of fire and began to talk about what Youth Sunday would look like this year. Growing up in a church where we prayed corporately reading lines from the bulletin, I was happy to sticker the little flames over the disciples heads and talk about how they all spoke in different languages. I could list off the fruit of the Spirit but as far as this theology was concerned that was sort of it for me.
I listened through a few years of sermons which preached from this theology and just didn’t get it. Mostly I could make everything mesh with what I already believed and rewrite the messages I’d heard to suit my viewpoint. I could hang when they referred to it as “second blessing” which was comfortable in like a folksy, NPR phraseology sort of way, but every now and then someone would say “perfection” and I’d have to sigh quite deeply to drown that nonsense out.
I sat through conversation after conversation and explained how holiness is simply spiritual maturity. It is just learning to act like a decent human being. Sometimes I could badger people into agreeing with me and feel like a conversation winner, and sometimes they just looked at me like I had two heads. Life kept moving on, I behaved like a decent human being (for the most part) and I felt fine enough going to a church in the holiness tradition, because yo, check me out, I’m super spiritually mature.
There came a day where I finally had to have a conversation with myself. “Something has changed in me. I am waiting for it to go back to what it was, but it’s not going back. I know what these people would call this from the pulpit, but I am NOT using those theological terms and I am NOT ready to address the difference publicly. I might need to take a minute and think about, what even is holiness?”
I studied. I prayed. I engaged in conversations. I listened more carefully to the sermons being preached in my presences and I got online and dug into sermon archives to see what I’d missed the first time listening through. I beat my brains against the rock of this theology trying to see just how it could be so, how what I was experiencing could be what these words were describing.
And one day it came to me….
And for the friends I have who don’t really get what I’m talking about when I start talking about holiness, this is what I’m trying to say.
I pushed out to sea in a boat built for me by God sent to carry me across the ocean which separates here from eternity. The horizon stretched out beyond me, unimaginable that I’d ever reach it. I sat in that little boat, and watched as I drifted away from shore. I peeked over the edge and could see the bottom with shells and rocks and I dipped my arm in and tried to reach over the edge to grab a particularly pretty one, but my arm was not long enough.
“Strange,” thought I,”but this ocean seems deeper than I imagined.” And that thought began to needle at me. Because I understood what the water was. The water, that which held my little craft aloft, was grace. It was cool and it was shiny and it was constantly in motion.
It started out as a shallow curiosity, just how far below one might find the sea floor. Wasn’t it Paul who’d said, “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Paul wants me to figure out how deep the ocean is! Well, if anyone could figure it out, I am super smart AND super insightful, lots of people have said so.
I reached in my gear and pulled out a ruler. I’m even equipped to measure this! I reached my arm over the edge of the boat again and find that the boat has continued to pull towards the horizon. Deeper and deeper still the ocean grows and my silly little ruler is to short. The further out I traveled, the more this bothered me. This ocean…this bottomless well of His pardon….I should be able to grasp it’s depth, certainly! If thousands of years ago Paul could grasp it, surely I can with all my modern book learning.
I look up and see my Savior approaching, walking on the water towards me, and I know this may be my only opportunity. I call to Him, even when He is a long way off, “How deep is it?!?!” No reply. I draw breath in all the way to fill up my belly, “How deep is it?!!?” I bellow. He just continues to draw near.
Now all I want to do is figure it out before He reaches me. I scramble about the boat, looking for a yard stick, a fish finder, something, anything that I can use to measure better, but all I can come up with is this one limited little 12 inch ruler. It is obviously not enough, but it’s all I have. I drop my arm back in the water, stretching that ruler down as far as I can. I have to have an answer. I have to be able to properly thank Him for the depths of this ocean.
He reaches the boat and I sit up, dripping wet from all my leaning. He reaches a hand towards me, but we have a conversation to settle first and my hands are gripping that ruler tightly. It is my only means of measurement and if I let it go, I will have no way to solve this.
“It’s really deep,” I say, unable to look at Him, embarrassed that I couldn’t figure out the answer, ashamed of how stupid I must seem.
“Mm-hmm,” He replies, seeming almost uninterested in my intense theological quandary.
“I was pretty sure I could figure out how deep and how wide and how vast this ocean is, but this ruler is like, super short. I don’t want to complain about the gear in my boat, but I sort of fill unequipped to measure this.” I shifted uncomfortably on the boat bench.
“Mm-hmm,” He replies again.
“There is still time though. The horizon is still a long way off. Do you have anything with you that can help me? Sonar? One of those tiny submarines that I’ve seen on the Discovery Channel?” He looked at me quizzically and smiled. “I thought not,” I sighed.
He walks alongside of my boat while I consider my situation. After some time, minutes, hours, days, years, I don’t know which, I turn my face to Him again.
“It’s really deep, isn’t it?” I ask again.
He nods and smiles at me, “Mm-hmm.”
I look at my ruler and then at the ocean. I look at the face of my Savior and see His hand still out-stretched.
I reach once more over the edge of my boat…and release my little stick.
I don’t even notice it floating away as I place my hand in His hands, rise up, and step out of my boat. I have seen that the depths of the ocean of grace are not found by my limited understanding of measurement.
The depths of the ocean are found in walking on water in the company of my Savior towards a beautiful horizon.
There are no felted tongues of fire, no snakes, no tents. There is no hard to explain theological language to comprehend. Just me and Him, not worried about how strange it appears to see the two of us, wrapped up in conversation now, strolling further out to sea, foot to wave, together, hand in hand.
That, my friend…that is what even holiness is.