June 17, 2011

postmodern holiness

I have been having a discussion with some colleagues about what it means to be disciples and pastors in the world today. 

The question was raised about what it means to be holy and to seek after God's holiness... especially in the context of the postmodern world we live and move in.

Some of us find the dichotomy of holy/unholy something of a misnomer.  Modernism tended to place these things at opposite ends of a spectrum.   We could easily categorize something as good and bad, holy and unholy, do this and don't do that. 

Yet I think that postmodernism has helped us realize that this is a much more complex question.  Holiness and unholiness are not matters of morals, nor are they black and white categories. 

What is it that makes something holy?

Holiness comes about because something is set apart by and for God. 

We typically use that to mean that as pastors, we set ourselves apart from the ways of the world and demonstrate a certain way of being. In the modern era, this meant things like don't drink, don't smoke, don't lie or cheat, don't swear. Do wear suits and ties and below the knee skirts (for us women pastors out there).  Holiness becomes a check-list, standards for living, high expectations, a list of places you should not go.

But is that what biblical holiness is all about?

Didn't Jesus do crazy things like turn water into wine and eat with sinners and touch the unclean?  Didn't he get down and dirty and messy with his disciples?  Didn't he preach the good news in every day language and use images that ordinary people would understand?

Which brings me back to the question.  What makes something holy? Does our answer change in this post modern world?  Who decides the answer to that question? What if holiness in a postmodern world is more about how we use and redeem the things of this world, where they are, in order to speak the good news of God? 

I have been reading Elaine Heath's Mystic Way of Evangelism.  She shares the stories and experiences of these amazing saints of the faith who have shared their faith through deepening their relationship with God.  One of those people is Phoebe Palmer, who realized that
holiness is about a life given irrevocably to God, which then in union with Christ the Sanctifier is empowered to be in God's redemptive mission in the world... Christ is the altar, and whatever touches the altar is made holy
When things are given over to him.  When they are set apart, surrendered, turned over to our Lord, they become holy.  It is about God working in the midst of these things, not about us or the things themselves.

I did a funeral a little while ago and the family was not wanting to stand and speak, but had a few words they wanted me to share on their behalf. 

They especially wanted to include the phrase - "He may have been an asshole, but he was OUR asshole." 

I wrestled with what to do. 

If I'm completely honest with God and everyone, cuss words do occasionally come out of my mouth. Usually in the heat of the moment on the disc golf course when a drive goes about 5 feet and then hits a tree. 

Things that are said on the disc golf course are different from things said in the middle of the church sanctuary from the pulpit. Maybe this is a false dichotomy. Maybe as a pastor I shouldn't say those words even on the disc golf course... but I do.

If the me that God loves says those things out in open spaces... and if this family felt like they needed to say those words about their loved one... then I felt like I could take that language to God and make it a part of that time of worship and celebration.

So I said it.

I didn't leave it there, however. I used that phrase to talk about how we are not perfect people and a funeral is not a time to paint a rosy picture of someone's life - but to be honest and to celebrate who that person was in all of their fullness... and also to celebrate that God comes to each of us in our imperfection and loves us enough to save us.  

Like Jesus, I met them where they were. I also found an opportunity to transform the language they were familiar with and the experience we all had that day - to use their expression in order to speak the gospel.

It has taken me a while to write about that day, in part because I'm never quite sure what others might think.  But this week in conversations about holiness and being a pastor, I had to admit that it was one of the most powerful experiences of community and ministry I have experienced. And that means that it needs to be shared and celebrated and lifted up. 

Holiness is not something that I can pretend to have attained.  I am far from perfect, although I seek to be more Christ-like each and every day.

In the same book mentioned above, Bonaventure's understanding of the imago dei is lifted up.  He believes that
humanity is uniquely charged to image the second person of the Trinity, in that humans should mirror God as Jesus mirrors God, as beloved children of God.

I pray continually that through God's grace I might love as Jesus loved and who Jesus loved: the hurting, the broken, the alienated, the unclean, the grieving, the joyful, the sinners, the saints.

Maybe in this postmodern world the question to ask about holiness is not: is it in the rules for me to do this or not?  But will this better help me to love and serve this person?  Can this language/experience/person be brought to the altar of Christ? Is there an opportunity for the gospel to be heard right here and now?


  1. Really thoughtful engagement with the questions and issues.

    I find myself resisting some the naming of pre-postmodern holiness as rule-defined. I get the impression reading Augustine, a Kempis, Wesley, and others that they were much closer to your position than the one you find restricting or binding you. I need to think about that more.

  2. maybe instead of labeling it as modernism, we should talk more about 20th century thought? It does seem strange to lump centuries worth of thinking all together - although the tendencies do run together. I guess I'm not always sure what "it" is, but that I am ready to move "post" it.