With gratitude to Jeri Cagle Vandiver, whose song once led me into the presence of God.
I met him while visiting a long-term care facility. He had lost a leg to diabetes and was sitting in his wheelchair, leaning slightly to the left.
“Hey, young man,” he said. (I was a young man!) “Come sit here a spell. Let’s talk.”
He had been a Nazarene pastor. He wanted to reminisce about old times and thought I might be interested.
“Wanna hear a funny story?”
“Sure,” I replied.
“We had a minister’s conference once and everyone went to it ready to fight. (Of course, we always had some issue, in every conference.) The issue that year was sanctification and whether it was instantaneous or gradual. Well, sir, the debate about sanctification got so hot that a few guys finally got out into the aisle shoutin’ at one other, faces red as beets. They got so furious and worked up. I thought sure they’d come t’ blows. But just when I thought they would have and honest t’ God fist fight, someone shouted out;
“Brothers! It doesn’t matter if sanctification is instantaneous or gradual. Ain’t none of us sanctified no how!”
“Bwahahaha,” the old man snorted. “I like that story.”
“I like it too,” I said.
“Don’t forget it,” he added.
After the American Civil War, millions of Americans became part of what we call the “holiness” movement. A blog doesn’t offer enough space to tell much about its history and theology. However, if you are a Pentecostal or any other kind of Wesleyan Christian, it would be well worth your time to read about it. It is enough here to say that holiness churches – Nazarenes, Pilgrim Holiness, the various kinds of Churches of God, nearly all Pentecostals – a huge percentage of American Evangelical groups -- are the products of American Methodism. That means of course that they are the spiritual children of John and Charles Wesley.
At various stages of their development, nearly all of these churches encouraged a radical separation from the world. Most of them were at first pacifists, then conscientious objectors. They were poor for the most part and profoundly conscious of their lower-class origins. That is evident in the gospel songs they wrote, and which many of us still sing but no longer believe. (“Though cabin or cottage, what should I care, they’re building a mansion for me over there.”)
Most importantly, the holiness movement taught that a believer’s dress, speech and behavior ought to clearly reveal that he or she was “sold out to God” and separated from the world. In time, it was these cultural markings that became most identified with the word “holiness.”
For one who grew up in the holiness movement, the verse, “without holiness no man shall see the Lord,” clearly means that unless we observe the distinctions of dress and behavior taught by our church we will not go to Heaven.
I love that verse, and all the passages that call us to holiness. However, they mean something quite different.
The word “holy” actually means “different, alien, other, and apart.” To experience holiness is to experience a profound otherness, a sense of something otherworldly, something beyond time and space. Holiness provokes something akin to terror. Holiness shakes the soul. It breaks up the encrusted toxic scar tissue of our hearts.
Holiness is an awareness of sacred things. It is a radical humility that leads to continual repentance. It is a sense of human dignity rooted in God’s promise that we will soon be different creatures than we are today. It is our first feeble steps into a new nature. It is stumbling toward the outstretched hands of an encouraging Father.
In short, holiness is the presence of God. Without it, no man shall see the Lord.
If we do not have times and spaces where we leave everyday life behind; times and spaces that evoke a different kind of behavior, speech and attitude; time and spaces in which we truly “come and bow down and rejoice in God our Savior;” will we ever experience “holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord?
Does what we now call worship lead us into holiness? And if not, to what does it lead us? If what we experience at church is not different than what we experience at the mall, concert or at Starbucks – all good places to be sure – where will we enter holiness?
Lest I be misunderstood, this is not a dig at contemporary worship. I have been in contemporary worship settings where God was very present. I have also been in traditional services that felt like an injection of spiritual Novocain. It’s not about either contemporary or traditional.
It is about what happens between our soul and God. It is about whether or not we ever enter into “the beauty of holiness.”
The holiness movement made a mistake in focusing too much on dress and other surface issues. That’s why the old preacher’s story is so funny. The fact is, if we encounter the presence of God, it is very likely that our values and tastes in all sorts of things will begin to change. We may indeed start dressing differently. We will stop using bad language and all other kinds of abusive speech. We will flee gossip as though it were a cobra. We will just quietly abandon the world’s values and set our hearts on things above.
But we will never mistake any of this for holiness once we have actually experienced holiness. And, we will not be consumed with the behavior of others, trying to force other people to conform to our way of life.
Instead we will be like the early followers of the holiness movement, who echoing the words of the Prophet sang this piercing invitation to life:
Ho! Every one that is thirsty in spirit,
Ho! Every one that is weary and sad;
Come to the fountain, there’s fullness in Jesus,
All that you’re longing for: come and be glad!
“I will pour water on him that is thirsty,
I will pour floods upon the dry ground;
Open your hearts for the gifts I am bringing;
While ye are seeking Me, I will be found.”
Child of the world, are you tired of your bondage?
Weary of earth joys, so false, so untrue?
Thirsting for God and His fullness of blessing?
List to the promise, a message for you!
Child of the kingdom, be filled with the Spirit!
Nothing but “fullness” thy longing can meet;
’Tis the enduement for life and for service;
Thine is the promise, so certain, so sweet.