Thursday, February 26, 2015

Let's Be Honest

I have some problems. We all do, of course, but I have some particular problems. I tend to be pretty obsessive-compulsive. I've not been diagnosed, mind you, but I'm sort of worried about the result were I to ask. Related to this, I've got a bit of a perfectionist streak. Sometimes these quirks can join forces to be a real problem, occasionally paralyzing.

If I think about a decision (and, boy do I think - it's taken me 18 months to replace a pair of shoes, and that is not at all an exaggeration), really mull it over and choose what I think it best, then I'm ok with failure. I might replay it over and over for a while to try and learn from the mistake for the future, but I'm generally ok. If I make the wrong choice without having spent time considering it, I will dwell on it for days - even something very simple.

There's a lot of guilt in my life. Mentally, intellectually, I completely understand it's unearned. I recognize people make mistakes and no one's perfect, and all that stuff. It just doesn't feel that way in the moment. I tend to respond with self-loathing or abject rage, at the very least a strong sense of embarrassment.

I've been seeing a counselor lately, to try and weed through these various threads connecting my past and my actions and my thoughts and emotions. It's been helpful. Of course this process also brings with it a fair bit of introspection. I've always spent a lot of time thinking about why I do things. Now I spend even more.

This week I've been thinking about the tension that exists growing up in the Church of the Nazarene and our particular ways of speaking about holiness. (For those who don't know, holiness is, pretty much, the reason our denomination exists.) My upbringing was pretty typical of an evangelical holiness tradition. We were taught people should be saved, basically intellectual assent to the idea of Jesus as God and savior of the world. Beyond that, though, there's also this thing called sanctification, a miracle working of God's Holy Spirit that cleanses one of a propensity to sin - not that you become perfect, but given a choice, you're capable of choosing good. This new life is called holiness.

There are a lot of intricacies that go into the explanation of this process for our tribe - something I have no desire or time to go into here - but this was the basic outline of my understanding of life and faith. This sanctification part was always kind of mysterious to me. I got that it didn't make you sinless or perfect, but that there was some real change wrought supernaturally in a person. Something noticeable and real.

I'm not sure I ever really bought into that kind of thing until it happened to me. Shortly after college I was pretty directionless. I'd never planned for my life after college and I felt pretty purposeless. I was listening to a band rehearsing some worship music and was simply struck by a feeling of hopelessness - an emotional/spiritual rock-bottom, as if my attempt to run my own life had finally and completely run its course. I spent close to an hour just weeping and admitting to myself and God that I could not do life on my own. I needed someone else to make the decisions. When the night was over, I felt different. I was changed. A lot of things changed. Parts of my personality were forever altered. I was different. I believe that.

But it wasn't the kind of different I expected from my upbringing. It was a different different.

Part of that experience, or shortly thereafter, was a calling to preach. Within 18 months, I'd gotten married and we'd moved to Kansas City where I was attending seminary. This was a great experience and a real chance to explore exactly what all of this meant. I got to reading scripture more closely. I got to read John Wesley (the guy from whom all of this particular take on holiness descends). I made a lot of discoveries.

Most importantly, I saw how John Wesley described "entire sanctification." It wasn't all that different from how I'd been taught. I found, however, that Wesley never claimed sanctification for himself; beyond that he guessed perhaps no more than a handful of people in all of England (where he lived) had ever been entirely sanctified, and, if so, they only maintained it for a few weeks. This was quite different from what I'd been taught. In fact, the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene, to this day, requires a testimony of entire sanctification even for service on a local congregational governing board.

Throughout the process of my schooling and training I underwent annual interviews for a minister's license and, ultimately, for ordination. I think there were eight interviews total. Holiness came up in a lot of them. I don't think I ever claimed to be sanctified (although early on I may have checked the box out of habit). I relayed pretty much everything I've included here and those boards were satisfied I met the requirement.

The more I look at it though, the more it seems my experience lines up much more with what Wesley called salvation. He was a long-time priest before he had what he called a salvation experience. Intellectual assent was not enough for him. This moment of transformation, when your heart and will are turned away from self-interest and towards God, Wesley called that becoming a Christian. That's pretty similar to the way it was described in my seminary theology classes, too. Dr. Tom Noble, one of the greatest and smartest men I've ever known, told us that if one's will is not aligned with God's, then you're probably not yet saved.

Dr. Nobel is also the only person I've met who was actually able to describe what a second work, beyond that salvation experience might look like. He knows what he believes about sanctification and how it differs from salvation. I'll be honest, I believe he knows what he's talking about, but I was never able to understand it - and I've spent a lot of time trying.

I've had that experience I was always taught I needed, but it certainly didn't feel like what they said. Oh, sure, there have been times, sometimes quite extended periods, where I've felt like I was supposed to - like I could make the right decision, even if it was difficult and succeed at doing it over and over again. But that hasn't been my experience at all times.

I'll admit it. Sometimes I know the good I ought to do and I don't do it. That's sin (almost word for word from the Bible).

While I'm fairly certain a few people can exist on that plane of holiness, the way I was taught, I'm fairly confident that most of the people in our denomination required to testify to that experience probably aren't - at least not all the time.

Don't get me wrong. I believe in holiness. I believe God can and does change us, as we allow, over time into people more like Christ, people who think less about themselves and more towards the needs of others, people who love unconditionally and are willing to suffer with those who suffer. It's part of this crisis/process debate we Nazarenes have been having for some time. It's not difficult to see the process and it's not difficult to see the crisis, but it's awfully difficult to see how this works out practically.

This standard of holiness is sort of used and not used when it's convenient. As adults we sort of understand the practical nature of grace and responsibility. Life is messy and things aren't always cut and dry. It makes sense rationally. But that rational part of my brain is having a hard time dealing with the part of my brain raised with the notion of perfection as the goal. We Nazarenes do a good job of clarifying our terminology - sin doesn't quite mean what most people take it to mean, and neither does perfection. I get that, too. But I didn't always get it. Those early lessons are hard to overcome.

Now I'm not blaming my psychological issues solely on theology - there is a lot of other personal stuff that goes along with it - at the same time, it sure doesn't help. If a person believes perfection is the expectation, then they are never good enough and always a failure. It seems as though people feel that way enough on their own, without (even unintentional) religious practice reinforcing it. The gospel really tells people the opposite: we are all good enough; we are all loved and valuable and important; even if we fail and fall short we are still loved.

That doesn't absolve us of responsibility or exempt us from facing the consequences of our actions, but it does speak to our fundamental value as people.

I'm not sure my tribe has done a very good job of forming ourselves around that idea. The very holiness we talk about so much is really only possible once we get over the notion that we can get it all right. We've always been very good about making that clear for people... until they're sanctified, then there's an expectation that those days are over. Like I said, it may very well work that way for some people - it hasn't for me, and I'm guessing I'm not alone.

It's strange that I've felt nervous writing this whole time. It's not a big deal to admit I'm not perfect, or at least it shouldn't be - but, as an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene, it sort of feels like it is. Even by that definition which exempts unintentional mistakes from perfection, I'm still not perfect. I choose selfishly all the time, to the detriment of my family and friends. I do so willingly, sometimes even knowing it's wrong when I do it.

I recognize how that fits theologically and I can put it within the framework outlines above. I know how it works within notions of holiness - I am definitely more Christ-like now than I was last week or last year, let alone a decade ago. I'm just not as good as I always believed I should be. I don't think I'm as good as the Manual of my denomination expects me to be.

I know we're often a gracious people. I've experienced it time and again. We're certainly better at dealing with people honestly than we've been in the past. But what we say, in writing, and what we do, in practice, don't really line up that well with each other. It's harmed me in the past. I know it's harmed others. I suspect this implied expectation of perfection has been behind a lot of trouble our denomination has had in recent years. We're just not able to cut each other slack because we've always held this notion of perfection up as right to rule - the most holy people are the ones in charge, so the ones in charge must, at least, appear holier than everyone else.

I know that's not who we are at our core, but it's sure who we appear to be.

I'm not sure if or how long it might take to get over these mental blocks in my head constantly telling me I need to be perfect, that preventable mistakes are wrong and make me less valuable. I doubt I'm alone in battling these lies. But perhaps it's time to just admit we're human.

When I tell people what exactly we mean by holiness, I often say we believe that we can live the kind of life God intends for us to live right here and right now - we don't have to wait for heaven. I believe that. I'm just less and less convinced that life looks like one without error. I suspect it's more likely a life in which love and grace can be expected at all times.

I know we don't live in a world where that's true, but perhaps we should be able to be part of a Church where it is.

1 comment:

Dave said...

Hi Ryan! Betsy here! I loved reading your thoughts!! Thank you for your honesty!