What Even Is Holiness?

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.


A Tale Of Two Mountains

It is easy when people speak about “holiness” and “righteousness” for people to interpret the message as a demand of perfection, unattainable and futile, frustrating and infuriating.  It’s easy to interpret it that way. It’s wrong, but I can see how one would hear the message that way, because I used to hear the message that way.

In the past few years I have learned that holiness and righteousness are not about adhering to a list of demands from an unfeeling master, but rather about relying solely and fully on the only one who is truly holy and righteous.

Hebrews 12 speaks to me to that point more than any other passage in the Bible. It begins with a heavy portion of the chapter addressing how we behave, instructing us to press on, to focus on Jesus, to expect ridicule and attack, to endure discipline as a blessing, to strengthen your spiritual self, to refuse to fall short, to reject anything that might cause you to reject Christ, because in unrighteousness is incredible and terrible consequence.

Alright, seriously though, how do you read that and not think again that this holiness thing is simply about behaving better? This is how. You don’t stop there. You read on, because in the second half of the chapter, following some of the strictest admonishment in the New Testament of how to live our individual faith lives, comes some of the most freeing, sweetest breath of life and hope kind of words that I have read.

Add suYou have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those

Moses climbed the mountain to receive the law, but there were strict boundaries placed which limited the Israelites from drawing near this event. Exodus 19 recounts this story and makes it clear that to attempt approaching the holiness of God by climbing the mountain would result in death. Hebrews sends us back to that moment, to remind the listeners of the familiar story, Moses going up the mountain to receive the 10 commandments. These commands and the law were given to God’s people so they would be set apart from the rest of the world,

But the writer makes such a strong statement saying “You have not come.” You have not come to the kind of mountain where law is given as a method of setting you apart, of making you holy. At Mount Sinai, Moses had to consecrate himself and follow strict guidelines and then he still had to wait for the trumpet blast in order to approach God there.

When I didn’t understand holiness, this is how I thought of it. That it is marked rightly as burning with fire, darkness, gloom and storm. That it is about consecrating yourself, following those rules and regulations, and then waiting for a trumpet blast to tell me that I’ve been good enough to come to God. However, Paul makes it clear with those 4 words “You have not come…”

So if we are not approaching the mountain of the law, what do we approach?

you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstb

There it is. “You have come.” The other mountain, the mountain of God, where the first indicator is one that points at worship, thousands of angels in joyful assembly. And then “You have come” again, this time, not to a place, but to Him, to God. It is this path that ends in communion with our holy God.

How is this accomplished? By the word of The Word Made Flesh, which speaks better than all of the condemnation laid out from the first condemnation, that of Adam.

But it doesn’t end there! It goes on…

See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from

Just before Moses stepped onto that mountain, it shook violently. These details would have been so familiar to the Hebrews receiving Paul’s letter here, that to connect the shaking of Mount Sinai before Moses went to receive the law would translate so sensibly to what is experienced when the Holy Spirit came to the new believers in those days.

The writing of the shaking mountains moves into the consuming fire, this Holy Spirit symbol that we still recognize today, thinking of those tongues of flame that rested on the apostles as the Holy Spirit came upon them. It connects to Exodus 19 as the mountain shook, it was covered in smoke “because the Lord descended on it in fire.” Paul connects the power of holiness on the mountain to the fire witnessed at Pentecost to explain the power now available to us through His Spirit.

Before we are ready to allow the Holy Spirit into our lives, to experience him not like the nation of witnesses kept at bay down at the foot of the mountain, but to experience Him in full at the mountain top, we will find a shaking away. Just as God shook the mountains and arrived in fire, just as the Spirit arrived with rushing wind and fire on Pentecost, so to will He come to us in an experience unlike any other.

When my shaking time was on me, a friend heard a song and gave me a lyric from it which says “You’re world’s not falling apart, it’s falling into place.” My friend, there is deep truth in that. I ran those words through my mind as things seemed to go from bad to worse. I found myself, at last, at a point where I was out of options and out of ideas on how to fix the mess all around me. I sat there in the sanctuary with what sounded like thousands of angels singing around me and in front of me I saw two empty hands with up turned palms. “Those are my hands,” I thought “I have nothing to offer. I have no more ideas. I have nothing.” Then into those empty hands slipped another pair of hands, filling them, curving around their edges, the meaning clear. Now that I had empty hands, they were ready to be filled by His. Now that I had nothing to give, He could give to me. Now that I had no more ideas, He could use me.

When you feel control is slipping through your grasp, don’t clench your fists. Let things fall around you, leaving your hands open so that what is of this world shakes away. Let His hands fill yours so that instead of you trying to grapple and grasp on to whatever you can grab to hold as the world breaks around you, He can hold on to you.

Why We Hate Holiness

       Holiness. Surely it’s antiquated and weird, something for out of touch snake stomping weirdos who can’t function in today’s society.

A few years ago, back in Ohio, Pastor Bruce shared a sermon series while the book of the month was The Hole In Our Holiness. He began presenting the premise that even among Christians in a holiness church, many take the attitude that holiness is akin to polka music; fine for those people, but not for me.

In those days I listened, quizzically, understanding holiness at the shrug level. Sure,   Pastor Bruce, that’s interesting, and sure I believe God wants us to live a holy life, but this passion you have about it, this excitement and this notion that it is somehow better than what I’ve got now, that’s fine for you, but it’s not for me. At best I was apathetic about the whole holiness thing.

This past Monday I sat in a room enjoying the privilege of hearing more preached about holiness at my church at Sack Supper Saturation. It is an amazing experience each month to go and wonder if Pastor Kerry will ever get to the other end of the binder he brings in with his notes about holiness. Or if he will ever get to Hebrews 12, because that to me is the height and depth and width, the beauty and the breath of holiness, and dagnabit I want to hear a message on it!

This time, Pastor Kerry shared out of Genesis 22, and then put out the pondering statement of (loosely quoted) “You have a Holy God, the Holy Bible, the Holy Spirit, but people don’t want holiness? I don’t understand it!” And I know he grasps the sad concept as to why people shy from it, but there in Genesis 22, I really believe the hard answer stares us in the face.
                                                            We hate holiness. 

Our fallen sinful nature can not stand to be next to it and fights against it tooth and nail.

There are those who turn completely away from anything to do with holiness, but so many of us stand and sing songs about the Holy Spirit, listen to sermons about a Holy God, and then walk out into the world and miss so much. Why?

                                                          Holy God demands holiness.

                                                         It is not God’s way to be ONE OF.
                                                      It is God’s way to be ONE AND ONLY.

The story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac, to put him on the altar and offer him as a human sacrifice, and then at the last moment the angel of the Lord stays Abraham’s hand and  God provides a ram in place of Isaac. Abraham names the place “The Lord Will Provide” and the angel of the Lord says “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” When he is at the foot of the mountain Isaac asks where is the lamb and Abraham tells him that God will provide. It’s true, but how surely does Abraham know it?

It’s a powerful story and there is much to be used there about God teaching Abraham that he is not to engage in human sacrifice like other religions of the day and the comparison to the sacrifice of Jesus and God providing the lamb for the ultimate sacrifice. And even though we see that God does not ask Abraham to do something He is unwilling to do himself….this story still carries a bitter taste.       

     Because why did he ask such a cruel thing of Abraham and Isaac? Imagine how scarred Isaac had to walk out of that experience. Imagine the sickness and the terror that Abraham had to push through to put one foot in front of the other. What kind of God would ask that of a person? People do not like this story. How could God do that? It is vile and cruel. It is detestable. I find myself apologizing for God and promising that He is loving and pointing again and again to the fact that He provided the ram. Refocus. Look away from what God demanded of Abraham.

                              But the fact of the matter is that IS what God demands of us. 

         Holiness is living in the very center of one and only. But in order to arrive at the center of one and only, one must climb the mountain with Abraham, leading the child of promise, Isaac and carrying the sacrificing blade. We must arrive at the altar and lay down everything we’ve worked so hard to drag along behind us. We’ve grown attached to what is in the sack and in our hands, but you must unload everything, your marriage, your children, your possessions, your job, your passion, your hopes, your dreams, your plans and your future and prepare for them to be irrevocably cut out of your life. And after all the laying down is complete and the blade is in the air, a Holy God asks you to climb atop the pile, lay down and wait for the blade to fall.

    And there tangled up in the bush is the ram, the provision of God, His best offered to you in the place of your all, your everything.

         But to get there you have to stand at the foot of the mountain and drag all of your life up a mountain, and deep down, if we’re brave enough to admit it, we’re not quite sure that we like a God who asks us to do this. And we don’t know how to explain a world watching and disgusted at the demand and boggled by our agreement to walk into it. Can we convince Isaac to believe that God will provide the sacrifice? Can we convince ourselves?

Holiness is expensive and we have had a whisper in our ear our whole life that God and is enough. God and family. God and work. God and things. Even the best ands, God and our holy passion. God and our calling. God and our promised future. Surely God doesn’t want us to lay down the good things He’s blessed us with and the places He’s called us to. But He does, because if there is one thing He is clear about, He is and only. The only acceptable AND to God is this. God and only God.

The deeper I fall in love with holiness, the greater truth I see in the words I heard from Pastor Bruce years ago….

“Here’s my fear as a pastor… in a holiness church… watching the current Christians in our community… We all jump and shout when we talk about what Christ has saved us from… but we grow deaf and dumb when the conversation shifts to what He saved us to.”

And follow it with the concept presented last month by Pastor Kerry, that in answer to those who argue that we can not experience holiness until we get to heaven, Jesus offers us eternal life…starting today, not in the vague unknown time of when we reach eternity. Certainly this is a beautiful depiction of holiness, to live and enjoy fully grasping the eternal life that Jesus offers.

But how to speak louder than the scream of “It’s not fair?” How to offer the sweet taste of holiness to someone still choking back on the sour taste of the demand? I wish I knew more. In this moment the best I can do, I suppose is run back down the mountain and tell about the ram, and help bear the weight of the load of my brothers and sisters as they ascend. All I can do is tell them over and over, like Abraham, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”

Let’s go.