I told a couple friends recently how essential I think it is for us to recover the word “holy” and the notion of “holiness.” For years (the reasons why are another story), these words made me grimace. And it’s not lost on me that sometimes the people who use this language the most seem to know the least about it.
One friend replied, “So when you think of holiness, what do you think of?”
Here’s my answer:
I think of fire that burns so hot you crave to be near it – but you tremble too at its ferocity. I think of those stunning moments (at the edge of the Grand Canyon, at the birth of your child, in the terrible reckoning with how the pain you carry-and the pain you inflict-reveals wounded love) pierces you so profoundly that you know something deeper than you have ever known it before. And you have no words. But somehow in that strange, unspoken knowing, healing happens.
I think of becoming truly human, more alive as the fire burns, the piercing cuts, the balm heals.
And God is the fire, the one who pierces, and the balm.
I believe Christian faith engenders an inherent playfulness, a free-wheeling optimism drenched in the largess of God’s love, yielding great droughts of laughter, hope and a near-scandalous rejection of fear, narrow-mindedness and gloom. Some of us, saddled with a stilted, dour or unimaginative faith, need to encounter anew the Father who threw raucous parties for wayward sons and daughters, the Jesus who gathered children, scoundrels and outcasts like the pied piper.
However, to say that faith is playful is not at all to say that faith is frivolous. God’s wide and joyous welcome comes as a happy shock precisely because God is the Almighty, the Holy, the final judge, the One true mystery. When we encounter this God, we’re fools if there’s never any tremor in our voice, never any disoriented wobble in our step. Because of Jesus, we come to God joyfully assured of God’s lavish welcome, but something’s wrong if our vision of this welcoming God evokes runaway chatter and piles of self-confident schemes. Something’s wrong if we never go mute, are never dumbstruck by wonder or the weight of love or the gravity of this God who was and who is and who will be forever.
God’s welcome releases us to be free, to make mistakes, to forgive ourselves, to chuckle over our muddleheaded detours. But God’s holiness, God’s fierceness, God’s piercing otherness, reminds us that this welcome God gladly offers arrives as a stunning gift.