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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Overcoming Moral Therapeutic Deism

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It should be of no secret to the 5 of you following this blog that I have spent the last few weeks studying, thinking and writing about why we bother with Sunday morning worship services.  It has been a fruitful journey for both my congregation and me (and I hope the 5 of you, including my mom).

One of my guiding presuppositions is that corporate worship results in our sanctification.  I am unashamed about being a Wesleyan-Holiness preacher and only a bit ashamed at my liturgical leanings, especially in such a free church, libertarian setting.  So I have been praying, reading Scripture and thinking about the elements of our worship and how God uses them to sanctify us.

I have sought to be as careful as possible in talking about sanctification.  I have clarified that sanctification is not necessarily for individuals but for the community who is “one body, worshiping one God with one faith.”  I have also defined “sanctification” as Christlikeness, which necessarily means more loving.  I have also reacted quite rigidly against the popular belief that when we sing praises, mobster god hears them and decides not to make us swim with concrete shoes.  But woe to us when we don’t praise Mobster god enough, especially if we do it reluctantly and with no joy and gladness.  I have also opposed the idea that the only thing God is up to in the world is getting people into heaven, because I always oppose that idea.

However, in all this tension another presupposition has been outed.  Somewhere over the past year I have begun to preach and believe that good religion is nothing but a self improvement project.  Certainly I have always clarified that we do not help ourselves but it is God improving us. Despite that I have been too fond of saying the only reason to worship God is so that God can make us nicer, more polite people.

I am very uncomfortable with that movement in my spirit.  It just sounds too much like, “Moral Therapeutic Deism” which is the belief that God is up in heaven working only to make us feel happy and help us become moral people, who maybe tip %16 instead of %15 and hold doors open for the elderly at the grocery store.

I think God does want us to be gracious and selfless and I certainly believe God aids us in that journey.  However, my sermons about worship and sanctification have become too reductionist.  In the spirit of rejecting “mobster god” and “low self esteem god” and “only powerful enough to let some people into heaven god” I had accidentally embraced, “helper god” who wanted nothing else but to “help” us.

This led to great and deep prayer and meditation.  I needed an alternative if I was to reject “helper god” and I eventually found that alternative in the glorious phrase, “mystical communion.”  

If the goal of worship is “mystical communion” this means we don’t get together on Sunday mornings to get help from God in our quests to become a happy, feel good, moralistic, nice guy (just like Jesus!).  Instead, we worship to become one with God.  The goal of worship is indeed sanctification but sanctification is not becoming a nicer person.  It is uniting with God.

God is the Spirit that hovers over the waters of all creation.  It is that same Spirit who at Pentecost was scattered to all the nations.  This means when our hearts align with God’s heart, they beat to the rhythm of all creation.  The goal of worship is unity.  We become one with a God who is reconciling all things to God’s self.  When we worship, we don’t just become a holier-than-thou community who is now able to stand above those less-than-thou sinners.  Instead our genuine worship is about humming along to the rhythm of God which reconciles us to all creation.  When that happens we do become nicer people.  We become a people at peace instead of at war and a people who love instead of hate.  We might even be a people who tip our waiters and waitresses a percent or two more and who patiently hold the door open for the elderly.  But when we speak of sanctification, we speak of nothing less than God reconciling us to all of creation.

It is fitting that I close with those wonderful words attributed to St. Francis of Assissi.  You can listen to them below.  The lyrics are below that.

All creatures of our God and King,
lift up your voices, let us sing:
Alleluia, alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beams,
thou silver moon that gently gleams,

O praise him, O praise him,
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Thou rushing wind that art so strong,
ye clouds that sail in heaven along,
O praise him, Alleluia!
Thou rising morn, in praise rejoice,
ye lights of evening, find a voice,

Thou flowing water, pure and clear,
make music for thy Lord to hear,
Alleluia, alleluia!
Thou fire so masterful and bright,
that givest man both warmth and light, (R)

Dear mother earth, who day by day
unfoldest blessings on our way,
O praise him, Alleluia!
The flowers and fruits that in thee grow,
let them his glory also show:

And all ye men of tender heart,
forgiving others, take your part,
O sing ye Alleluia!
Ye who long pain and sorrow bear,
praise God and on him cast your care: (R)

And thou, most kind and gentle death,
waiting to hush our latest breath,
O praise him, Alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God,
and Christ our Lord the way hath trod:

Let all things their Creator bless,
and worship him in humbleness,
O praise him, Alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son,
and praise the Spirit, Three in One: