Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ When Holy Love Is Like a Laser
If you or I think of a laser, we probably have a mental image of what we might colloquially call a concentrated beam of light, whether it’s used recreationally like in laser tag or a laser light show, or practically like in an eye surgery or in cutting material. You might even picture the powerful ray from the Death Star in Star Wars or a light saber from the same series (though sadly, according to a television special I saw once, a light saber would be almost impossible to construct from the actual current scientific standpoint). One classic James Bond film includes a memorable scene in which the famous spy has a close encounter with a shining laser beam slowly inching towards him as he is tethered helplessly on a table.
In other words, while some lasers are more powerful than others, their narrow beams continue to fascinate us and new applications will probably be explored for decades or centuries to come.
Which leads us to holy love.
At the recent New Room Conference (a place you need to be next September), I picked up a slight, pocket-sized Seedbed Seedling volume by Dr. Joseph Dongell simply titled Sola Sancta Caritas (“only holy love”), available digitally for free here or in a handy little hard copy here. (The Seedling’s diminutive size makes them perfect for a church resource table or kiosk.) Dr. Dongell is a longstanding biblical and Greek scholar and professor. In Sola Sancta Caritas he offers a masterful survey of the Wesleyan holiness movement’s outcomes, the nature of Wesleyanism, robust examples of the centrality of the notion and practice of holy love in Wesley’s writings, and what holy love does and does not encompass.
Not bad for a thin pocket volume 45 pages long.
While Dongell examines the trends or waves of Wesleyan thought and scholarship, he draws his own startling conclusions from a full immersion into Wesley’s sermons, journals and letters (found on page 15).
In reading through Wesley for myself, it seemed to me that love rushed through all fourteen volumes like a tsunami. My handwritten index tracking substantive references to love in each volume had taken the appearance of a dense forest. It seemed that Wesley was standing on his head and shouting to draw attention to love.
Among other well-chosen quotes, Dongell highlights this one from Wesley’s sermon On Patience:
From the moment we are justified, till we give up our spirits to God, love is the sum of Christian sanctification; it is the one kind of holiness [there is, the degrees of which are simply differences] in the degree of love.
Love is the sum of Christian sanctification? This, Dongell concludes, stands in contrast with the revivalist upbringing he cherishes but of which he acknowledges the limitations. In the North American 20th century holiness movement, it was purity and power emphasized as the effects of sanctification.
By appreciating the full impact of Wesley’s emphasis on holy love, Dongell redirects our Wesleyan Methodist attention into sharp, concentrated focus: holy love is narrow yet far-reaching, both penetrating and illuminating, something that can be familiar and safe or deadly in its aim.
Holy love is like a laser. It is anything but saccharine or weak. It is anything but flimsy or peripheral. It is not an addendum, not an afterthought. Holy love, laser-like, may appear powerful and pure, but those are descriptors, not its essence. Holy love, Dongell clarifies, is not, “general human intuition.” Neither, he stipulates, is it good works. Holy love finds its origins not in humans, but in God. Holy love will not pop up automatically from our own nature; Dongell ensures our awareness that it is the gift of God. And, “the infusion of God’s love within us produces holiness as its natural outcome.” Again, we see that we are called to be more than we are able, we can receive what we need to be able, and that being like Christ through an infusion of God’s love will produce the side effect of holiness.
So what makes a laser a laser? Why isn’t like other light, shining gently from a lamp? The very briefest and most basic description asserts that a laser, “emits light coherently. Spatial coherence enables a laser to focus to a tight spot.” As far as this non-physicist can tell, coherence has to do with correlation between waves.
Now of all his activities, of all his travels and writing and busyness, one thing could easily describe Wesley: his focus. In fact his focus was so severe that one may quickly surmise an armchair diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Weighing your food intake at every meal aside, what Dongell hits on is Wesley’s laser-like focus. Sola Sancta Caritas – “only holy love” – is what Wesley’s methodology, his theology, his ecclesiology boil down to.
Miners don’t go to church? Take your preaching into the fields to them: holy love.
People don’t have access to rudimentary health care? Publish a common-sense pamphlet: holy love.
Christians floundering in their zeal for their faith? Band them together with likeminded Christians, like the Moravians did: holy love.
How often should Methodists take the Eucharist – that tangible reminder of the embodiment of Christ’s love? As often as possible: holy love.
Methodists on the American frontier not getting the Eucharist? Ordain your own ministers and send them: holy love.
Someone dragging down a group by willfully neglecting the guidelines for covenant together? Suspend them: holy love.
Like a laser.
Now the question remains: how well are we known for our focus? For our laser-like intensity? Should Methodists be the most undistracted people on the planet?
Whether the topic is famine relief or preaching, criminal justice reform or small group programs, funeral dinners or church landscaping choices, what must characterize it all, if it is to be distinctly Wesleyan Methodist?
Leave out holy love and you may have solid humanitarian work, efficient discipleship programs, even biblically shaped sermons, but you won’t be a Christian following Jesus in the company of the Wesleys. The fullest picture we have of holy love is the life of Jesus Christ. No wonder Wesley emphasized the Eucharist over and over again: to live like Christ is to live holy love. We need the holy love of Christ through Holy Communion, to taste it and mull over it, to hear, “the Body of Christ, broken for you.”
A laser can encompass a great deal. Part of the scientist’s protest against the idea of constructing an actual light saber was not that it couldn’t be built, but that it would be impossible to limit the laser to a specific field: imagine turning on a light saber and having the “blade” extend all the way out to the moon and beyond. Nonetheless, as noted above, a laser is inherently limited. Its internal coherence focuses it (again, speaking as a layperson, not a physicist). And so there are some things lasers will always encompass and some things lasers will never encompass.
How like sanctification.
We lose our way if we focus on result instead of source. We lose our way if we get distracted with one program or topic at the loss of our most basic reason.
Recently I spoke on just this subject with a camp meeting preacher. Would it be a healthy corrective, I suggested, if the message of holiness was always tied back to the Second Person of the Trinity? In many Wesleyan holiness contexts holiness is preached in the context of the Third Person of the Trinity. Rightly so. But the Holy Spirit does not just infill humans as a kind of sanctified cul-de-sac, detached from the revelation of Christ. The Holy Spirit always witnesses back to Christ, revealing Christ, empowering Christlikeness. The Holy Spirit tells the story of Christlikeness through us. This distinction finds its shape in systematic theology but we see Dongell illustrate the distinction well through the contrast of power and purity and holy love.
It is not the Holy Spirit’s job to make us pure and powerful. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to make us like Jesus. As it happens, Jesus is pure and powerful. But the Spirit is constantly in a dance to reveal Christ, to shape us into “little Christs.” In this sense, C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity made a wonderful Methodist:
Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this: that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ. If we do, we shall then be sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always existed and always will exist. Christ is the Son of God. If we share in this kind of life we also shall be sons of God. We shall love the Father as He does and the Holy Ghost will arise in us. He came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other men the kind of life He has — by what I call “good infection.” Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.
If you are a Wesleyan Methodist, are you known for your laser-like focus on holy love? On the kind of love that may cauterize and burn, may illumine and dance, may direct and heal? What would it look like if you brought every church activity under the microscope of holy love? Maybe all of the programs would stay the same, maybe not. Maybe the only thing that would change is the way in which they are carried out – and why.
Through the Holy Spirit, God, make us like Jesus: and empower our focus to be stark and laser-like, so that we are known as people with internal coherence. May our waves find their correlation in you. And let us shine like lasers.