I'd like to explore a word that comes to us loaded with baggage. Or maybe the word doesn't have baggage; maybe we do.
I remember hearing the word in church growing up and in chapels at my Christian college. We would sing the scene from Revelation where the angels are all shouting: 'Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty!" Preachers would hammer the concept, get all worked up about it, not shut up about it.
Sometimes when we sang it, it felt powerful and deep, like our temporal lives were connected to something eternal. It was a talisman, endowed with the power to transform those moments from dirt and flesh into light and spirit.
But sometimes, especially when I heard the word preached, it felt condemning. It made me afraid. In those moments the word came from a dark and complicated place, or it made me aware of the dark and complicated places in me. It created a confusing uneasiness that I wanted to ignore.
The thing is, I wasn't really sure what it meant. Holy. It's all over the Bible. Littered in our songs. But I wasn't sure what it meant. I would hear definitions like "set apart", or "pure", but those didn't help me much.
As I grew older, the power I felt when we sang began to trouble me because I didn't want to participate in some merely emotional frenzy around a word whose meaning was opaque. And the condemnation I felt when preachers talked about it made me think that holiness is a shorthand for a lot of bad news about God and us.
In spite of the frustration, though, the word continues to stir something important in me. When you say that God is holy, or when you recognize that something you're experiencing is holy, or when you encounter someone who can't be described with any word other than holy, it seems like there's something unavoidable, consequential, about that word.
So I'd like to explore this word for the next few weeks. It'll set us up for another discussion during Lent that I'm stoked about. (Yes. Stoked about Lent. Don't make fun of me. I think you will be, too, when you see what we're up to.)
To begin this exploration, I wonder if you can pause for a second and see what comes to mind when you read the word holy.
Do you think of church?
Do you think of something you long for?
Do you think of moments when you've felt holiness around you or in you?
Do you think of God?
Do you think of legalism?
Puritanical, fundamentalistic fear-mongering?
Manipulation before an altar moment?
Or are you simply disinterested?
If I try to strip away all the baggage and distill the essence of how I understood holiness growing up, it would look something like this:
Bottom line: the more you abstain from, the holier you are. If you say no to all the scintillating entertainment of modern media, if you resist the delicious taste of swear words in your mouth, if you somehow overcome all the stuff your body wants to you to do and feel, you'll end up holy. And since none of us is very good at that, we're all screwed.
I've drawn a continuum there, but it begs the question: where is the boundary? At what point on that continuum does an act cross over from holy to unholy? At what point do we cross over from holy to unholy?
That point alone demonstrates the problematic nature of this construct of holiness. There are other problems, too. The biggest one is (to put it bluntly), Jesus. On this scale of holiness, it's possible for me to be holier than Jesus. I can certainly abstain from things that Jesus indulged in. Like a good party, for example. If we're working with a construct of holiness in which it's possible to be holier than Jesus, then something is wrong.
(Notice that I drew this part in pencil. Always a good idea when committing to paper the possibility that you're holier than Jesus.)
There's a scene from the Gospels where Jesus emphasizes the tension created by this abstinence - indulgence paradigm. (It shows up in Matthew and Luke. Here we'll quote Luke.)
Jesus is speaking to a crowd about the connection between John's ministry and his. The question on the table is whether they're part of the same thing. Whether they're a part of God's thing. Are their lives an expression of God's life? And are they connected to each other?
If God is all about holiness, and holiness is reflected in the construct we're working with here, there's virtually no way John and Jesus are part of the same God-thing. John was as straight-laced as they come. He would have made a good pilgrim. No alcohol. No nice clothes. Life in the wilderness eating bugs. Jesus was known for showing up at a good party, enjoying a good feast. And the crowds had found fault in both of them.
John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
If we plot John and Jesus on our holiness chart, it looks like this:
But see what Jesus says next:
"Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children."
Wisdom in the Bible is tightly linked to God, and John and Jesus are both her children. Both part of a God-thing. And if it's a God-thing, it's a holy-thing.
So apparently holiness doesn't work on a strict, simple continuum between indulgence and abstinence.
More next week...