Pray for holiness, not skill

Published 4:03am Wednesday, May 8, 2013

By Rev. Bob Henderson
Often people ask, “What does it mean for a person to be holy?”
That’s a difficulty question to answer. One reason is that we sometimes mistake skill for holiness. Skill is the ability to do a task well. We encounter skilled people in all walks of life, doctors, cabinetmakers, bakers, artists. Some of these skilled people have learned and practiced for years and years to develop their skills.
There are skilled people in the church too – skilled at teaching, preaching, making music, welcoming, listening, offering themselves and their love to others. Yet, oftentimes in the church, we think a person who is skilled at doing the things we believe a Christian should do is a holy person.
We forget that holiness is not something a person does, it is something they are.
I’m not sure I can define what it means to be a holy person, but I can describe some of what it looks like.
Holy people are not necessarily the people we see doing “good” things. Often, like Jesus, holy people act in ways which society, culture or current moral thinking condemn.
Holy people are transparent – so transparent that God’s love shines through them into the trash and dirt of a broken, sinful, fallen world and its people, finding the goodness that is there and delighting in it. Their holiness is so powerful, so striking, so inviting, so enticing, that often they can draw the goodness they find out into the light for all of us to see and delight in as well.
When we are around a holy person, we know it. Holy people exude holiness in a way that cannot be described with words – it is a feeling and a knowing. I once spent several days at a conference with Desmond Tutu. All of us crowded around him during free time, at meals, walking between workshops; not because of his “celebrity” status, but because of the holiness we could feel in him, around him and coming from him.
In this world there are many skilled people and very few holy ones. We admire skilled people, but sometimes we find ourselves becoming uneasy or even frightened around holy people. In the aura of holy people, we begin to see how sinful and “unholy” we really are – their holiness illumines our sinfulness and that makes us uncomfortable.
Holy people also make us uncomfortable because they challenge and change the world and the lives in it. Their holiness is so apparent that through them, we can begin seeing the world in a different way. Sometimes that will change us, certainly it will challenge us into different ways of thinking, acting or reacting.
Holy people are called through their holiness in such a unique and powerful way, that they do all of these things without conscious thought, effort or decision, just because of their holiness.
All of us have holy moments. For holy people, holiness is not a moment but a way of life. The rest of us have to content with those brief, unexpected moments when that which is holy in us, breaks through our skills and our selves, making us holy for a little while.
Seek then, and pray for holiness, not skill.

The Rev. Bob Henderson is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Wetumpka.

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