Conversations on Holiness

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I want to begin by apologizing.  A few weeks ago, amid the chaos and stress of moving, I managed to put up a review of the book “Renovating Holiness.”  In that review, I promised to post a follow up.  The last two weeks have been so crazy that I have not yet had time to do so until now.  So I am sorry.

However, things have calmed a bit and I have had some time to think more about holiness and its renovation.

If you recall, I described the book “Renovating Holiness” as the introduction to conversations happening all over the world.  These conversations have been going on for decades  but “Renovating Holiness” gives you everything you need to know in order to enter these conversations intelligently.

As such, I encouraged people to not only read the essays but to use them to lead conversations in Sunday School classes, book studies, worship services and the like.

So, for the sake of follow up, here are some of the more crucial conversations that Renovating Holiness addresses which I think deserve priority.  Each one will also include a suggestion for where to discuss it.

1: What does the Bible really say about holiness?

Location: Sermons (and maybe Bible Studies)

Almost every Renovating Holiness essay dealt with exegetical frustration of some kind.  As a tradition, we have not always read Scripture well and the essays outline the ways we have fallen short.

Part of the confusion certainly flows from Leviticus where both eating pork and committing adultery are impure (so I can eat pork but not cheat on my wife? or can’t do either? or now can do both? or now cheat on my wife but not eat pork?).  Another part of the confusion comes from trying to figure out just what “baptism of the Holy Spirit” means and how and where Acts illustrates it.

With that said, pulpits are a great place to give a more honest and complex reading of the Bible.  For the pastor who ventures into it, the essays on the Bible in Renovating Holiness serve as great commentaries.

2: How should we preach and teach holiness?

Location: Colleges and Seminaries

After (or rather, as) you wade through the exegetical issues, you naturally will have to figure out what metaphors, language and logic structures to use from the pulpit.  Once again there are several essays that offer much guidance and they can serve as useful tools for those training for ministry.

3: How do we live holy lives?

Location: Everywhere a Holy church gets together.

Awhile back someone in a Facebook group asked, “what are the markers for a Holy life.  How do we really see someone is holy?”  The responses all fled to the abstract, things like “pure, love, merciful, righteous, kindness, gentleness.”  Those words are all well and good but they all beg the question, “okay, what does love look like?  What does mercy look like?  What does it mean to be kind?  How do we see it?”

These questions are at the very center of the doctrine of Holiness.  We should seek to answer them whenever we get together.  Does kindness involve recycling?  Does it involve abstaining from alcohol?  Does it involve reducing your carbon footprint or paying to repair your neighbor’s huge diesel truck?  Do I give 10% or 90?  What causes do I give too?  Who do I vote for in National elections?  Do I even vote at all?  These are the practical questions we must wrestle with constantly.

In that Spirit, I would recommend we stay away from paltry descriptions like, “finds a way to recycle dirty diapers.”  Instead we should maybe point to the very concrete examples of saints who have lived among us.  In those conversations we might not say, “Holiness is recycling,” but instead, “Holiness is my prayer warrior grandma.”  “Holiness is not abstaining from or drinking alcohol.  It is my uncle who was an abusive drunk but now buys his wife flowers every week.”

4: Do we really want a new legalism?

Location: Small group Bible studies

I have noticed that younger Christians tend to be more legalistic than their Baby boomer parents.  They aren’t legalistic about things like dancing and alcohol but if you eat meat around them they will assure you of your un-sanctified state.  If you don’t recycle they will cast you out of the “holy” community and if you drive your car when you could have walked get ready for the seat of judgment!

Holiness does have something to do with things like physical exercise and creation care.  However, these rather judgmental, bicycle riding, vegetarians pretend to hate legalism.  They loathe how legalistic their parents were and then they breathe out harsh and angry judgments in their very next breaths.  It is a little bit hypocritical.

And, not surprising, some of them wrote essays for Renovating Holiness.

I am certainly in favor of a return from “antinomianism” (a theological word for “no ethic at all”) to some sort of community covenant of conduct.  The conduct should include socially responsible practices and take into account the preservation of God’s gorgeous creation.

But as we talk about what “shalts” and “shalt nots” we commit too, I hope we can dial down our judgmental rhetoric and create an inclusive covenant that invites others in, instead of fencing them out, even if “they” are our Christian parents who drive SUVs, eat steak every night and hasn’t touched alcohol since they disinfected an open wound 10 years ago.

5: How do we move forward?

Location: Everywhere.

Recently a panel was formed to discuss the Church of the Nazarene’s stance on drinking alcohol.  It was caused in part by the complaints of Millenials about that legalistic and Biblically unsubstantiated claim from the 1950s that said alcohol contaminated the purity of the body of Christ.

The panel dealt with that concern, not by moving forward but by rewinding the clock even further to the 1890s.  The panelists reclaimed our social gospel ethic whereby we abstained for the benefit of the alcoholics among us.  We have a great historical reason for our stance on alcohol and today alcohol is still destroying many families but history is, well, history.

The problem isn’t that we stopped in the 1950s when we should have stopped in the 1890s.  The problem is that we stopped at all.  The conversations need to always be about how we move forward as a church and as a tradition, not back.  Therefore, the last section of essays in Renovating Holiness bring the book wonderfully home.

After all, by my reading of Revelation, the Holy People living in the Holy Jerusalem with our Holy God lies before us, not behind us.  Let us keep charging forward toward that city with our wonderful watch word and song, “Holiness Unto the Lord.”

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What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Renovating Holiness

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“That was the day we eradicated eradication.”

That line was the conclusion to a story a much older pastor was telling during a meeting I attended last Fall.  He was talking about a time when all the pastors on his district got together and talked about holiness, particularly the Nazarene doctrine of “entire sanctification.”

When he said, ” we eradicated eradication,” I thought, “They must have been thorough as I have no idea what eradication is!”  And I have both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree from Nazarene institutions and am a Senior Pastor.

Of course, I did some brain searching and with great effort remembered that day 10 years ago in “holiness class” where I was taught that “eradication” referred to the old Holiness Movement idea that upon receiving the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” God completely eradicated the sinful nature and made it possible to live a completely sinless life.

I will pause for a few moments while you laugh at that ridiculous idea……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..before pointing out that 50 to 100 years ago most Nazarenes believed it.  And now you probably can’t find more than 10 who do and they will all be over 70 years old.

This is just one example of the ways that the defining doctrine of the Church of the Nazarene, “Entire Sanctification” has been redefined over the last decades.  Its original formulation proved too high minded and optimistic for the pessimism that gripped the Western nations in the latter half of the 20th century.  Moreover, as the Church of the Nazarene globalized we struggled to articulate our ideas in different cultures.  It seems that the further away from California 1900 AD we got, the less sane our doctrine sounded.

Therefore over the last decades there have been countless conversations which sought to reexamine, redefine and reexplain holiness to a global church and a cynical constituency.  These conversations have happened everywhere from large auditoriums to tiny Sunday School classes and from as close as your local pulpit to as far away as an underground church in China.

The editors of “Renovating Holiness” sensed that these conversations are increasing in number so last year they set out to help the global conversation along by asking over 100 leaders from all the world areas to weigh in on their recent conclusions regarding holiness.  More than that, they are probably the first editors of their kind to prioritize younger voices over older ones.  The result is that the majority of essays are written by people under the age of 35.  (I should take this moment to note that I was one of them.)

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The project was nothing short of momentous and would not have been possible before the internet age.  Now for the first time voices from many world areas and many generations weigh in on why holiness is important and what vocabulary and conceptual changes need to be made in order to keep it viable.

Due to the sheer amount of contributors it is impossible to write a critique that would hold true for every essay.  For example, a few essays come dangerously close to saying nothing while a few others say entirely way too much.  Most though, are succinct and readable, adding their 1200 words to the conversation in an effective way.

The book is also hard to critique because its goal was not meant to finish a conversation or to posit timeless and unassailable theological truths.  Instead the essayists want to introduce readers to the conversations that are happening all across the world and to invite the readers to join them.

With that said, I do not entirely agree with every essay and opinion but it was those places of disagreement that proved the value of the book.  The reality is that I am not having the same conversations about holiness in Elgin, OR that some are having in inner city LA or a village in Africa.  Hearing those voices both agree and disagree with me is a great gift.

This makes “Renovating Holiness” a wonderful contribution to the church and a must read for anybody who wishes to discuss “holiness” as coherently and contextually as possible.

Therefore I would recommend not only reading the essays but using them to begin and lead discussions about Holiness wherever possible.

Hopefully within a week I will follow up this post with another one about what discussions are worth prioritizing and where the conversations should happen.

Until then, may God, God’s very self, the God of peace sanctify you through you and through and may your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless before the coming of our Lord.

Lessons Learned From Answering “Why?”

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My daughter turns 3 on Thursday.  This brings to a close a wonderful year full of growing and learning.  Last year she had mastered the words “no,” “daddy” and “mommy.”  Now she is an expert at the English language, even beginning to read it.

Last Summer we went through the “no” phase where every hour was littered with the infamous two letter “n” word.  During that phase she tried all kinds of tones and volumes, sometimes screaming, “NO!”, other times lengthening the word to “NNNNNOOOO!” and still other times whispering, “nah.”

Then we went through the “mine” phase where she laid claim to all the objects of our house.

After that her vocabulary broadened and she flled our days with, “let me do it!”

Then last November came, “why” and this phase is not going away.

“Can you please close the door?”

“Why?”

“It is time to go home.”

“Why?”

“Stop strangling your brother with a blanket!”

“Why?”

And so I am learning what every parent learns around this time, that a lot of our lives are not well philosophically thought out.  This has become evident during the 3rd round of “why” when I find myself resorting to a one word answer, “BECAUSE!”  Of course, that is not an answer at all, just a cop out.

It is unclear whether she is genuinely curious about why I do not want her to strangle her brother or if she just wants to keep doing it and knows that the one word, “why” will prolong the enjoyment.

At other times I try to figure out if she knows how annoying the question is and if she is asking it to infuriate me.  Regardless, 2 year olds do tend to be evil geniuses.

Still, I have become fascinated with how many times the answer to her “why?” lies in my personal comfort or preserving the comfort of others.

For example, earlier today we walked in our house and, with full hands, I said, “Can you please close the door for me?”

“Why?”

“Because if we don’t close the door it will let all the heat out and living in a cold house is uncomfortable.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t like the cold!”

A few days ago we had a similar conversation.

“Can you please clean up your toys?”

“Why?”

“Because I really don’t like messes.  They make me frustrated and uncomfortable and angry.”

“Why?  Why do I have to pick up my toys?”

“Because I told you I don’t like messes and also because your mom hates them as much as I do and I don’t like it when mommy gets mad.”

Or consider this conversation:

“Stop hitting your brother?”

“Why?”

“Because hitting people is mean.  It hurts them and we don’t like it when other people get oowies.”

“Why?”

I don’t know if there is actually anything lying under the surface of these conversations but thinking about them has made me wonder a lot about comfort.

Is the impetus of most of my actions the creation or preservation of comfort, either for myself or others?  Is this a bad thing?  Is the chief end of love providing for the comfort of others, or even yourself?

Be that as it may, my children are growing up in an incredibly comfortable world.  They have 3 times as many toys as the average child.  They have a warm house, good food and lots of hugs and kisses from relatives and church friends.  They have coats to keep them warm.  They have parks to play at and coats to wear if the temperature is below average.  They have warm beds and plenty of clothing.  More than that, through the internet, my wife and I have access to thousands of research studies that let us know just exactly how to increase and preserve the comfort of my children.

And I don’t know how much of this is a good thing.

Meanwhile I am reading a great book called “Renovating Holiness” that was just released this week.  The book is a compilation of essays that seek to begin new conversations on Christian Holiness.  Not surprisingly, the essays talk more about love than they do holiness because most of the contributors (myself included) believe holiness is rooted in the love of God, neighbor, enemy and all that is in between.

But I have been mindful as I read through the essays how much our theologies of love takes us back to comfort.  In the book there are upper class hipsters arguing that the 1st world hasn’t done enough to make the 3rd world comfortable.  There are internationals arguing against the evils of apartheid, slavery, terrorism and the like by making the case that those evils made people less comfortable.  And there is my essay on alcohol that considers drinking in light of how comfortable and uncomfortable alcohol makes people.  I argue that alcohol decreases comfort for addicts but for casual drinkers it increases it.  Then I call both to a holy community where their love for each other respect the comfort of both.  Now, I did not use the word comfort in my essay and I don’t think the word appears in the book.  Yet my daughter’s questions have made me realize comfort really is at the heart of the matter.

And I like comfort.  I am a big fan of warm blankets and soft beds and comfy couches.  I hate stuffy noses, headaches and sore muscles.  I like feeling water run down the back of my throat, especially first thing in the morning.  Hot showers are just short of heaven, especially after cold runs.  Caramel Brulee Lattes and Pumpkin Spice Lattes are even closer.

But is holiness really helping other people experience this level of comfort?  At its heart, is love really about forgoing a warm shower or an expensive latte so that someone else can have one?

I think, probably, yes.

But I am not quite so sure I could tell you “why?”