Holiness has something to do with being alive. Sin reeks of death — the death of our bodies, the death of our souls, the death of whatever it is about us that gives us the capacity for integrated lives of flesh and spirit and love.
Dallas Willard was a philosopher and Christian thinker who, before he passed away last year, gave us a lot of deep, hard-won thinking about what God is up to and how we participate in it. A friend of mine sent me the manuscript to a talk he gave at Wheaton in 2009. In that talk Willard asked the question ‘what is life?:
"...observation will show that life is self‐initiating, self‐directing, self‐sustaining activity, of some kind and some degree. That is what distinguishes living things from non‐living things, and things that are still alive from things that have died. An important part of the activity that is life consists of the living thing’s interaction with its environment, and, indeed, the kind of life that is in a thing determines what counts as its environment. The life that is in a plant makes soil, water and sunlight the major factors of its environment, and when it dies it ceases to interact with those factors by appropriate activity. A kitten has a different kind of life in it and interacts with different types of things in different ways: small rubber balls, mice, and other kittens, for example. A dead kitten is totally indifferent to those things, as the plant is indifferent to them while it is alive. And so on through the scale of living things. A human being, in comparison to other living things, has a real or possible environment of fantastic proportions not yet revealed. (Isa. 64:4, 1 John 3:2)"
There’s a lot there, but I think it’s worth reading slowly, pondering.
Now there are things that can make us feel alive. But as Ryan Tedder from One Republic sings, “everything that kills me makes me feel alive.” (The stuff that makes you feel alive but can kill you is the stuff of both addiction and idolatry, by the way.) But I’m not talking about feeling alive. I’m talking about being alive.
We can BE alive. Overwhelmingly, abundantly alive. And we can also be dead. Again, Willard:
"The human being is by nature meant to function on the basis of interaction between itself and God at the very center of its life. The sufficiency of God to the human being (Romans 8:31‐39) is adequate to the "fantastic proportions" of human abilities and aspirations. To lose that central reality is what it means to be "dead in trespasses and sins." Life activity of a sort continues on in the human being for a while, but defined in terms of the reverse trinity of the world, the flesh and the devil. (Eph. 2:2‐3) But that activity draws from limited, chaotic and self‐destructive resources. Its condition of spiritual death ends in total death. (Rom. 8:5‐6)"
The interaction between us and God that is meant to be at the center of our lives requires a union with God. It requires us to be connected to God. And yet so much reflection, so many poems and stories have been told, so many songs sung, so many monuments built, to the disconnection with God that is so rampantly apparent in our experience.
Our dead-ness disconnects us from God, and our disconnection from God creates our dead-ness. To me these seem a little like the chicken and the egg, at least at this point in the story. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of brokenness that keeps us screwed.
So if we will be alive, if we will be holy, we need reunited with God somehow. We need a new connection to God that interrupts that cycle of death and disconnection and death and disconnection that makes us unholy.
There’s a word for things that are disconnected being brought back together, for things being made one again.
The word is at-one-ment. Atonement.
Which brings us to Lent.
On Ash Wednesday this week, many of us will attend services and be reminded that we are dust, and to dust we will return. We will look our death in the eye. We’ll acknowledge our disconnection. And we’ll begin a journey of intentional preparation toward the cross, where Christians believe God did an atoning work.
Throughout Lent, I’ll be writing my way through a number of ways of understanding what Jesus’s death has to do with all of this. It’s a mystery that grows deeper for me the more I ponder it. It’s not something I’ve been able to nail down, to be honest. It’s something I stand in front of, and it’s bigger than me, and I can’t see all of it from any one angle. But I hope the writing will help me, and I hope it will help you.
I’m excited to have you guys join me for it.