Faith, Holiness, and Judgment Part 3: A Lighthouse

I once sang Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The historic hall sits on Woodward Ave., just north of downtown Detroit. The inside is beautiful ornaments of red and gold—the old wooden floor of the stage marked with scratches from the best musicians of the twentieth century. And most importantly, the sound is unique and warm and exposing. I’ve played under these warm lights before, shining blindingly down on a stage that amplifies every sound alike, wanted and unwanted. Its revealing nature can be intimidating.

Musicians are funny creatures. We sacrifice all for the sake of our art. If you don’t know Mahler’s second symphony, the choir basically sits around for an hour until the end, when we stand and sing solemnly of the deep beauty of resurrection. The combination of voice and string and breath is stunning. But on the first night, all I could think about was my immeasurable gratitude to finally be standing.

They had imprisoned us on risers that I suspect were used in some foreign war to torture criminals. The wooden bleachers were unforgiving and disgustingly cramped. On the front row, I sat still and tried to slowly work the knee of my colleague out of my back.

Don’t get me wrong: the experience was transcendental. The orchestra was superb and the music was some small piece of heaven itself.

Musicians treat music like a sacred relic. Noise is our enemy. We order sound and vibration to create a portrait that speaks of life, of beauty, of God. So the role of the choir, while we are awaiting our turn to sing, is to devote ourselves entirely to the piece and leave it undistracted. We perform by sitting silently in front of a packed hall. Cameras around the stage broadcast our faces to thousands of viewers. Every eye is on us: “Don’t scratch your nose,” our choir director told us in rehearsal.

I was just getting over a cold and had several emergency cough drops stashed in my tux pocket. I lasted the first show perfectly. But during the second, an insatiable urge to cough came over me. Musicians literally train ourselves to hold in coughs. My choir director talks of it like some masculine display of will power, speaking to his body: “I dare you to cough. Come on. Give me all you got!” I told you. We’re funny creatures. But the orchestra was playing quietly and I knew my duty. My eyes watered and my face turned red. But I held my ground. I pulled all the stops to increase my saliva production, to swallow, and to work my neck to scratch my throat. Finally, the orchestra turned up the volume and I allowed myself a cough, secretly pulling my emergency drop out of the inner pocket of my tux jacket. I did this so smoothly that the singer next to me said after the show that he had no idea I went through this ordeal.

In the classical world, music is sacred: don’t clap between movements, don’t cough loudly, don’t fall asleep, and for heaven’s sake, don’t allow your phone to go off. This last commandment is probably more important than your own salvation.

In our music history classes, our teachers tell us of long-forgotten performances when audiences used to eat and drink during concerts. Stravinsky’s premiere of Rite of Spring included a riot of concert goers screaming and yelling at the stage and at each other. These shows seemed more like modern jazz clubs than sacred concert halls.

I wonder if classical music has fused itself with a tradition from Western churches: that the stage is sacred ground.

Mahler 2 DSO WSU Choir

My pastor recently gave an incredible sermon on the paganization of Christianity, documenting our history to a time when a division of sanctity emerged in the Church. Cyprian’s invention of the Latin Catholic “Mass” in the third century AD birthed the performance-driven church as Christianity filled with sacred rituals that elevated some and excluded others from God’s call. This division between the Holy of Holies (sanctified) and the outer court (common folks) was indeed the precise divide that Jesus came to abolish.1 Instead, true holiness, I believe, is simplicity.

“Easter isn’t over,” says the title of a recent article by Sarah Thebarge. She’s my newest theological crush whose blog I’ve been persistently recommending to my friends: sarahthebarge.com. Though I may be late to the Easter discussion, the season couldn’t be more poignant to a conversation on holiness. I must pause here to confess that I have trouble relegating the central aspect of my faith—the crucified and risen Lord—to a single pagan holiday. In this, I sing Sarah’s beautiful tune: “Easter is not a past tense celebration; it is our present reality.”2 She says:

Easter is not a once-a-year high holy day. Easter is among us now, if we have the eyes to see. And every day, in ways big and small, we remind ourselves and each other that, in the words of the saints,

We are people of the resurrection. And Hallelujah is our song.

The distinctive quality of God’s people is this holiness. Our holiness is a separateness as presented in the Old Testament.3 The biblical idea of holiness isn’t an ethereal purity; it’s a bloody separation. It’s a sanctification that we see through animal sacrifice. Kay Arthur says, “The word holy means ‘sacred, set apart from the profane (unholy) and for God.’ Baker’s Encyclopedia of the Bible says, ‘The primary Old Testament word for holiness means ‘to cut or to separate.’ Fundamentally, holiness is a cutting off or separation from what is unclean, and a consecration to what is pure.’”4

In the New Testament, we find the Greek word hagios, which means sanctified or likeness of nature with the Lord (Strong #40). This is interesting because much of the New Testament portrays Christ as a sacrifice, like the animal sacrifices of the past: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”5 It’s a bloody holiness as Jesus takes on our sin, which separates him from the Father.6 But, if to be holy is to share in likeness of the nature of God, who is holy, and if Jesus on the cross is the quintessential revelation of God’s nature, I must conclude that God’s holiness is a holiness that bears our sin on the cross. His holiness is at home in crucifixion and resurrection.7

Sarah says that she used to view the antithesis of simplicity as clutter, as busyness, as accumulation. The purpose of Lent, naturally, is to rid oneself of this mess. Except it’s not. She says, “The opposite of simplicity is duplicity. It’s being about more than one thing, having competing desires, pursuing mutually exclusive goals. . . . And, if the Bible is clear on anything, it’s clear on this: that the one thing followers of Jesus are to be about is LOVE.”8

Jesus calls us to a singularly-focused simplicity that we’re to pursue with all our heart, soul, and mind. This is the hook we hang our hat and everything else on: the kind of love that Jesus displayed on the cross. This isn’t a revelation of God among others. This is the greatest revelation of God. It’s the foundation that the universe sits on. Everything else follows this.9

Our holiness, or distinctiveness, is our singularly-focused faith—our relationship with God. It’s our confession of love (“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”).10 That’s our unique characteristic. That’s what separates us, what makes us holy.

This distinctiveness is never ostracizing. Jesus’s holiness was attractive to the foolish, weak, and despised.11 He invariably spent his time with prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners alike, including his combative dealings with religious leadership. His message to the religious establishment was its destruction: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”12 Through Jesus, the vessel for God’s holiness shifted from brick and mortar to flesh and blood. Paul explains that we are the temple that hosts God’s presence.13

Naturally, that which is holy leaves in its wake judgment for the unholy. Both holiness and judgment are a kind of separation. And so, as I will argue in part four, our holiness directs our judgment.

In the end, I always fall back on this beautiful portrait Anne Lamott paints. She writes, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”14


End Notes:

[1] Consider the tearing of the veil during Jesus’s crucifixion, explained in this wonderful article: https://www.gotquestions.org/temple-veil-torn.html.
[2] http://sarahthebarge.com/2017/04/easter-isnt-over/.
[3] We see this reflected in 1 Chronicles 23:13 of Aaron being “set apart.”
[4] https://billygraham.org/decision-magazine/june-2007/what-is-holiness/.
[5] John 1:29.
[6] See Gregory Boyd, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 95.
[7] See http://reknew.org/2016/10/the-holy-alternative/.
[8] http://sarahthebarge.com/2017/04/simplicity-making-our-lives-about-one-thing/.
[9] See Matthew 22:36-40, cf. 1 John 3:16.
[10] John 13:35
[11] 1 Corinthians 1:27-29
[12] John 2:19 ESV
[13] See 1 Corinthians 3:16
[14] Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Random House, 1995), 236.

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