Unwanted Holiness by Elizabeth Glass-Turner
As the United States screeches with discord and distrust, the people in pulpits and in pews are exhausted. Some had loved ones piloting evacuation flights out of Kabul. Others have spent long hours working in crowded ICUs, nurses or chaplains or doctors breaking down in tears. Firefighters on the West Coast have their pick of blazes incinerating once-lively trees to ash, and in some parts of the South, the power is beginning to blink back on. Who wants holiness if it looks like this?
Somewhere along the line, we get the idea that holiness requires energy. Sure, we know that sanctification is a gift of grace to be received. Naturally. Countless Christians in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition have experienced some kind of moment in which God comes to us to do something in our hearts that we are powerless to do ourselves. We know this. We know that works of piety and works of mercy – spiritual disciplines, caring for poor, broke, or incarcerated people -we know those actions don’t create holiness. They are a response to grace; they make room for the Holy Spirit to continue to work in us and through us. We know that sanctifying grace is a gift.
It is easy to get the idea that holiness requires energy.
How will you grow if you’re not getting yourself to a Bible study or small group? How will you foster the grace of Christ at work in you if you aren’t seeking out ways to serve others, at the food pantry or through the altar guild or volunteering with, heaven help them, the junior highers?
Of course churches need volunteers.
Of course you want to grow in holiness.
But the hundreds of pastors, church leaders, professors, and chaplains I know do not feel an overabundance of energy right now. Between executive function fatigue (decision fatigue) and constantly putting out fires and choosing between making 50 percent of people angry or the other 50 percent of people angry and attempting to construct any kind of planning or scheduling with a viral variant that’s 1,200 times more transmissible than the original COVID-19 strains, there are very few pastors with the energy they think they need to be holy. There are very few nurses, doctors, or nursing home workers with energy for anything other than showing up and doing what has to be done.
Can holiness look like this?
Can holiness look like exhaustion, burnout, panic attacks, depression, crisis intervention, peace-keeping – even numbness?
Can I tell you something?
Some of the holiest people I’ve seen in the past 18 months have looked just like that. Some of the sweetest anointing has enveloped leaders who are tired, grieving, exhausted, burned out, or even numb.
You do not have to have energy to be holy.
This is something elderly people in long-term care facilities already know. It’s just something most people don’t want to have to learn personally for ourselves – because energy is power; control; agency.
And if you’re asking, dear God, how can my numb trauma be holy? then I invite you to listen to an audio version of 1 Kings 18 and 19 – when Elijah the prophet is in a showdown with the prophets of Baal. God honors Elijah and sends fire from the sky. But afterward, Elijah’s life is on the line. He is exhausted. He runs. He curls up too tired to do anything to protect himself. Fed by divine intervention, he runs more, to take shelter in the mountain of God. And God does not come to Elijah in an impersonal show of force, in crashing theophany. God gently arrives in the still whispering rustle, and Elijah is safe to pour out his heart and his heartbreak. After he does, God quietly reminds him that as alone as he feels, he is not alone. And to relieve Elijah’s burden further, he directs him to Elisha.
It seems to me that one of the most tender moments in these two chapters comes in 18:30 – “Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come here to me.’ They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down.” The prophets of Baal had been frantic, mutilating themselves, calling on Baal. But when it is Elijah’s turn, there is a sense that this is an act of grief, a labor of love: rebuilding what had been torn down, taking 12 stones and building an altar “in the name of the Lord.” (v. 32) What do you rebuild? You rebuild what you love. Where there is grief in the ruins, there is hope in the rebuilding. But it is manual labor: hard work, smashed fingers, bruised thumbnails, a sore back. His hands must have been so tired, his muscles strained. What a beautiful labor of love. No frantic shrieking; just the loving repair of what had been in ruins.
What an offering to give to God: smashed fingers, bruised thumbnails, a sore back – an altar that had been desecrated, repaired.
If you believe holiness requires energy, it will be easy to believe you can detect when it is you are being or acting holy. But most genuine holiness, I am convinced, accompanies your lack of awareness of it. It is accidental – incidental. It happens behind your back, when you’re not looking. It shadows you on your off-days.
There is a holiness of proximity that has nothing to do with energy.
It is proximity to Christ, and it is proximity to the overlooked people Christ loves.
You do not have to have energy to be in close proximity to the quiet warmth of Jesus Christ.
Elijah collapsed and didn’t care if he lived or died, after running away. It was God who enabled him to travel: “the journey is too much for you.” (19:7) When he reached the mountain of God – he slept. (19:9) Only after he rested, did God ask him what brought him there. Elijah’s strained brain chemistry could not detect the presence of God in the overwhelming sensory stimuli of loud sounds or shaking ground or bright light; he did not have the energy for that. So God whispered.
The holiness of proximity is standing, sitting, or lying in the safe presence of God, however you feel, however you don’t have the energy to feel.
There is also a holiness of proximity when you draw near to people others are ignoring. Mother Teresa exemplified this well. The embodiment of the Beatitudes is a sacred thing to witness. Blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the merciful. When you care for sick bodies or cry with grief-stricken loved ones, you are in the proximity of the blessed ones; you are blessed when you are merciful to them.
You do not have to have energy to be holy. Your exhaustion, your grief, your numbness – none of those things keep you from being holy. Whether or not you feel the presence of God, you are so close to the side of Christ that you shine when your back is turned, when you’re not even aware of it.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
What are you doing here, Elijah?
Featured image courtesy Marek Piwnicki via Unsplash.