THE ART OF HOLINESS
Instead of hardcore doctrine in legalese, holiness seems to me more like art
TRYING HARD TO BE HOLY. I grew up with lots of preaching about being holy. Holiness was not something left to God or saints of the past. It was pressed upon us as a spiritual state and behavior that is possible, expected, and normal in life—here and now. According to the doctrine, anything less than living to the glory of God—that is, living to please only God with integrity, honesty, love for all, and in avoidance of sin—was abnormal. It was to make us holy and to make holy living normal that Jesus Christ was born, crucified and resurrected, we were told. And the folks in our church and circles tried hard to be holy. They took it very seriously and their seriousness often translated into stifling sternness, rigidity, misplaced judgment, and an obsession for perfection.
INVITING SONG. I have since thought that the value of holiness teaching is not missed at the point of attempting, but at the point of the heaviness most attempting foments. One of the scriptures we were frequently quoted was, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 96:9). That oft-repeated verse, and others like it, came off like a heavy-handed warning, like a command that thundered from above. But, in fact, the phrase is taken from poetry. It is one line of an exuberant, inviting song. Even the phrase “beauty of holiness” suggests something very different from the stifling and restricting context out of which holiness was preached.
LEGALESE OR POETRY? “The beauty of holiness.” What an interesting phrase. It sounds like a work of art by the mind and hand of an artist. Could it be that holiness is not the domain of miter-hatted teachers, nor the terrain of linear-thinking dogmatists, but the milieu of heart-longing, soul-searching artists? Is holiness the language of legalese or the tongue of poetry? Is it historical genre or avant-garde? Is holiness best defined or described? Is it requirement or reflection?
IMAGINATION AND PLAYFULNESS. As a doctrine, holiness lacks imagination and playfulness. It is heavy and solemn when it might be light and whimsical. If one would be holy, contemplate the actions and attributes of the Holy One. The first act of God is to create. A mere walk in the woods reveals that God is first of all creative with a diversity beyond our wildest imaginations. If God is holy, then holiness includes beauty, creativity, imagination, variety, humor, music-making, dance and drama. God is jester in God’s own court.
UNCAPTURED CREATEDNESS. The saints in my childhood church were led to believe their goodness rested in their assent to holiness doctrine and the suspicion-guided restrictions by which they abided. But I believe their goodness rested in their createdness and the part of their being no doctrine can capture. For all their austerity and solemnity, they could not help but occasionally be playful and exuberant. Grace breaks through even to those who do their best to douse it.
MAKING THE CASE. To me, the most compelling case for living in reflection of the holiness of God is found in the music of holiness folk. Songs reflecting heart-felt experiences of sojourners linger with the soul long after preaching is forgotten and doctrinal dictums dismissed. Wesleyan songs sing spiritedly and in amazement of a grace that reaches deeper than the stain of sin has gone. They reflect hope for hurting, longing hearts—hope that realizes its source and fulfillment in the mercy and grace of God in Christ. So, Charles Wesley sings:
Plenteous grace with Thee is found,
Grace to cover all my sin.
Let the healing streams abound;
Make me and keep me pure within.
Thou of life the Fountain art;
Freely let me take of Thee.
Spring Thou up within my heart;
Rise to all eternity.