(Not sure why you attend a United Methodist church? Want to know more about what the UMC believes and practices? Visit this link for more blog posts in the “Why I am United Methodist” series. This post was originally published on umclead.com. Please visit there for more of my writings and thoughts.)
“Holiness is right,” a saying that anyone who knew my recently deceased grandmother had heard her say countless times. I grew up Bapticostal, a fusion of my mother’s Baptist church and my dad’s holiness one. My paternal grandmother was a holiness minister and though I remember most often the language of holiness from her tradition, my Baptist experience didn’t go light on “living right” either. The real measure of authentic Christian faith was how you lived more than what you believed, that your life spoke more to the unsaved the message of Jesus than any words you might speak. “Be ye holy, for I am holy!” Holiness was the measure of Christian discipleship, because God is holy. I learned that holiness was the Christian’s way to be separate from the world, to strive to be pure and blameless, like God.
Somehow this rich theology didn’t translate for me into practice. I struggled to hear anything beyond what holiness told me not to do. No pants and makeup for women, no going to the movies, no swearing, no drinking, no listening to secular music, no dancing – unless you’re dancing for the Lord! – and especially no premarital sex. This list was always odd to me. As a kid I’d wonder to myself: “God wears skirts?” To be fair, I also learned that practicing holiness meant reading your bible, praying, fasting and going to church. What I was never quite sure of was what motivated holiness. How could the Christian sustain a holy life? I certainly enjoyed the community of church, and one can never complain that black church worship is boring. But I must say that it got pretty old spending the majority of my time with church folks. On top of that I remember regularly feeling guilt, resentment, and fear because I could never seem to pass the holiness test.
I suspect that I was a minority in my experience with holiness. Many of my family members and friends continued in the Bapticostal traditions that raised me. They are men and women of deep faith that I admire. It was my understanding, though, that needed to be worked through. I needed to rethink what it meant to be Christian if I were going to stay signed up. I stumbled for a while in college while wrestling with bouts of depression and doubt. During my searching I developed a passion for leadership, community and social justice. Internally I was still insecure, still feeling like there was nothing I could do to measure up to God’s holy standards. I wasn’t sure how to bring my developing passions and my interior life into sync, but I knew that they needed to be reconciled.
Three significant African American Christian men came into my life that guided my journey of healing and wholeness. They were all Methodist pastors. They welcomed my insecurities and doubts. They affirmed my passions and calling. They spoke the language of holiness, but in a different dialect, with a new register. I didn’t fully understand. But I was curious because their lives were so contagious. They enjoyed praying. They knew Scripture. They loved the church. They stood for justice. They led in their families and communities. They were what I was looking for, what I wanted to embody. To do this, though, I needed to do more than admire their lives. I needed literacy, to learn the language of holiness anew.
What I discovered was John Wesley’s theology of holiness. Wesley’s marriage of personal and social holiness opened for me a harmony between my passions for community and social justice and my interior life. There is no longer a distance between my work for peace and justice in the world and my commitment to prayer and church. Still, what makes Wesley’s understanding of holiness complete for me is its rootedness in grace and concern for happiness: “true religion, or a heart right toward God and man, implies happiness as well as holiness. For it is not only righteousness, but also ‘peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.’” Holiness is the image of God restored in me and others through the grace and love of Jesus. And yet this is only sustained and animated by a joy “that the world can’t give or take away,” as my grandmother used to say. There is no test to pass. There is no reason to fear. Jesus joins me in pursuing holiness. Wesley’s theology of holiness formed those men’s lives and spoke to me in the midst of some of the darkest and lowest points of my life. My call to ministry has become more firm through its voice.
I am United Methodist because of holiness and happiness. I’ve learned to speak the language of holiness again, but with a United Methodist twist!