About a year ago I read a book with the title “Struggling to be Holy”. The author’s name is Judy Hirst – and reading that book is one of the first significant steps I took on the road of considering how to engage with the United Reformed Church’s move into promoting more intentional missional discipleship under the banner headline of ‘walking the way’ and with the sub-title ‘living the life of Jesus today’.
Christian discipleship is nothing new. It started when Jesus said to four fishermen on the shore of Lake Galilee ‘come and follow me’. Because that is all Christian discipleship is – following Jesus. We have all engaged in discipleship in different ways, and continue to do so. But sometimes it is worth just thinking about what we are doing. Sometimes it is worth challenging ourselves – and I find the notion of holy habits very helpful in that.
However, I also need to admit, and I suspect you may need to also, that I frequently struggle to be holy – and that is why I identify with the title of Judy Hirst’s book, ‘Struggling to be Holy’ – but, more than that, as I read the book, I found a lot of what she said really helpful. I have come across plenty of books where I have liked the title, and felt it said something to me, but then discovered that the content, in my opinion at least, didn’t live up to the promise I saw in the title. But that was not the case here – and so I would like to explore a little of what she says with you.
First, a comment on holiness itself - “Holiness is about God being present and our being present to God. The more we can be in honest relationship with God, the holier we will become. Some Christians behave as if the task is to persuade God to be with them, but the delightful truth is that he is already present in the relationship. The problem is to be present ourselves. God is there but where are we?”
I think it is really helpful to remember that holiness is not about our trying to do it – because we won’t. We can’t. It’s about our connection with God. It is a bit like the now fairly well-known saying that, I think, came from Rowan Williams – ‘Mission is a matter of finding what God is doing and joining in.’ Now, of course, it is important that we respond to God’s call. That is what discipleship is. But it is important to remember that God was there first, if I can put it that way. I can’t do stuff that will make me holy, no matter how hard I try. I can do all sorts of good things. I can create or enter a context which is helpful to a holy approach. But in the end, my connection with holiness comes because of what God does. It is God who is holy. And God is there for us. And God wants to relate to us. That is why we are called. But it is also important to remember that God takes us just as we are. Of course, there are times when it would be good if we did things in a better way. But there is no exam to pass. There is no grade to reach. And sometimes it is worth remembering that God loves and values us, and that is us as we are. Hirst reminds us of the important that can be played by the things in us that can be difficult. She writes: “if I could jettison the parts of me I found troublesome I would also lose parts of myself which I valued. We are complex realities and we need to learn to love what we are, both delightful and damaged, and put it all into the hands of the master potter to form into something unique and beautiful.” Or, rather more simply, she also puts it like this, talking about the times when she has come to God and simply said, “Here I am, what a mess.”
I don’t know about you, but I find it really reassuring to be reminded that I can come to God with that kind of approach. I like to get things right. We all do. But I certainly don’t always manage it. And I find it helpful to be reminded of the conversation that the risen Jesus had with Peter just after they had shared breakfast beside the lake, the ‘do you love me?’ conversation, significant not least because of the question being asked three times, mirroring the threefold denial that Peter had uttered just before the crucifixion.
Let me read a slightly longer passage from Judy Hirst’s book, which expands on this thinking: “So very often people in a mess (and that’s most of us most of the time) feel they can’t pray because they can’t say the words that they think God wants to hear. We fear that we can only pray by giving God the right answers. In fact, the biggest danger is simply not to pray, to fail to be in conversation with the God who loves us. Far better to say to God, if it is your truth, that for example, …. you really want to forgive this person for what they have done, but you also want to hate them forever! Trust God with the mess and inconsistency! The response God wants is the response we can make even if the stuff of our response is sometimes contradiction, confusion and irrationality. Invite him to be part of the resolution, to help you to begin to grow into the person whom he yearns for you to become. I am always helped in this by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed as he felt. He longed that God would take the cup from him. He asked God for what he wanted, inviting him into the mess, but none the less was able to say ‘Yet not my will but yours be done.’ He was able, in these hugely terrifying circumstances, to trust himself absolutely to the God whom he knew loved him. God doesn’t want us to pretend. We don’t need to protect him from the truth.”
As she also says, rather more briefly: “God can live with the reality that we are still sinners even if we find it hard to do so!”
You might not expect me to say this, but sometimes our problem is that we try too hard. It’s not that it’s wrong to try. But it is wrong to not trust God. And sometimes we need to learn to leave things in God’s capable hands.
Let me offer just one more quote from Judy Hirst which reminds us of how challenging it is to be holy, and yet, at the same time, how easy it is, if only we will let God do God’s bit - I am reminded of a Peanuts cartoon ….. Charlie Brown comes to visit Lucy at her 5 cent psychiatrist booth. Lucy says to Charlie Brown that life is like a cruise liner. Some people put their deckchairs up at the back of the liner and like to look back to where they have come from. Others like to pitch their deckchair at the front and look ahead to where they are going. What about you, Charlie Brown? Where do you put your deck chair on the cruise liner of life? There is a long, sad, bemused pause. ‘Heck,’ Charlie Brown says, ‘I don’t even know how to put my deck chair up!’” Hirst adds: “Believe you me, having listened in depth to the lives of many people; it seems to me this is the reality for most of us! The challenge is to learn to pray as we are and this is closely linked to our ability to accept ourselves as we are and not as the idealised people we might imagine ourselves to be.”
[Part of an address given to the Colchester & Tendring Area Partnership within the Eastern Synod of the United Reformed Church at Plume Avenue URC, Colchester on 1st November 2018.]