On a beautiful day in South Carolina, near where we lived and served as pastor, my family and I headed into the Blue Ridge foothills. As we drove, a little Christian store with "holiness" prominently displayed on its sign caught my attention. We pulled over and walked into the place. I observed the woman working there had on a long dress with uncut hair piled neatly on her head. I commented, "I couldn't help but notice the word 'holiness' on your sign. I'm a holiness pastor! In the Church of the Nazarene! One of the largest holiness denominations!" I was smiling broadly, expecting an equally broad smile in return as I explained about Nazarenes and our call throughout the world to holiness.
No such response. Her cold responding stare and furrowed expression troubled me. She replied, "I've never heard of that church." But she wasn't finished. She continued, "Besides, true holiness is never large. It's always small."
In all these years, I've never forgotten that conversation. It still bothers me and left me with a deeply troubled spirit that somehow John Wesley's message "for the whole world" and Phineas Bresee's, the denomination's first general superintendent, passion "for all peoples" is often distorted into a small, reactionary, narrow, secluded, and negative kind of doctrine, reserved only for the very few who think small enough and look different enough to qualify. Why is this so continually tempting to holiness people?
I think about it every time I get an insidious, divisive e-mail forwarded from a self-proclaimed arbiter of truth and judgment that pours out slanderous condemnation on Nazarene universities or certain Christian leaders because they've quoted someone deemed unholy or unorthodox.
I thought about all of that again when a well-meaning and sincere new member of my previous church in Illinois e-mailed me right after Easter. He had seen a TV program about 54 monks who isolated themselves from society and prayed continually in their waking hours, having no contact with the outside world. He used words like "amazed and extremely puzzled" in describing his reaction. But one sentence stood out in his message, "They referred to it as the closest example of heaven on earth."
Hmmm. Heaven on earth? Monks who have no connection to people, to sin outside their walls, to the heartbreaks and horrors of life in this fallen world. Is this heavenly, or holy? Are these monks indeed holier than the rest of us?
Jesus was heading to the cross. In the high priestly prayer of John 17, Jesus bared his soul, not only to his Father, but to us. The view is almost uncomfortable. In his most intimate prayer, referring to his most committed followers, Jesus prays in verse 15, "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one."
Keep them in the world, but protect them, Father.
Don't isolate them from the sin and people of this world, but protect them.
Indeed, in verse 17, "Sanctify them" while they're still in the world, but not of it!
Isn't it fascinating that our pursuit of holiness often tempts us to isolate, although Jesus prayed that we would be rather insulated from evil, instead of removed from it?
Stuck right in the middle of sin, but not sinning. Living in the midst of evil, but not caught up in it. Connected to the most sinful of people, but not influenced by them. In the center of a world anything but holy, but made holy in the midst of the mess!
That is what seems to be more holy, not less. That is what answers Jesus' most heartfelt prayer, not isolation. It would seem holiness is large then, not small! It is positive, not negative. It is embracing, not excluding. It is love, not hate. It is patience, not judgment. It is influencing, not influenced.
In my previous pastorate, when I originally thought about this topic, people in our congregation had won school board elections, worked hard on community issues, invited their neighbors to church for special services, shared their faith with coworkers and family, been involved in ministry that impacted thousands of people, prayed, worshiped, and made deeper surrenders to Jesus. One even felt God's call to lead a local effort to pack meals for starving children around the world, and before it was over, saw over $40,000 (USD) given, 200,000 meals packed and shipped, and over 700 volunteers involved in feeding hungry people thousands of miles away.
Somehow, I believe they've been pursuing God's kind of holiness, the kind Jesus prayed for, and the kind Jesus died for—the kind Jesus sanctified himself for so that we could be truly sanctified. The kind of holiness that precious lady on that mountainside knew little of or had never encountered.
I want my children to experience and live out true holiness: Inwardly and spiritually insulated, not isolated. Protected, not absent. Holy, answering Jesus' prayer. Lord, let it be among us today.
Kevin M. Ulmet is pastor of Nashville First Church of the Nazarene.
Holiness Today, Nov/Dec 2012