Gardens, Grandma, and Gamblers: What I’ve Learned About Holiness
“We just love your garden.”
I’ll admit, I have yet to tire of appreciation for our horticultural efforts. Our garden is perpetually in a state of chaotic, beautiful transition – creating new planting areas, dividing and transplanting, incorporating the plants given to us by friends, sharing our plants back with them.
We aren’t the only ones who take pride in our yard, of course. We all know friends and neighbors who chemically eliminate every weed that dares to protrude into their precisely manicured lawn.
Between these two approaches, whose yard would you say is “perfect?” Truth be told, our yard is filled with imperfections – bare patches in the lawn, dandelions, clover, chickweed, goose grass, and crab grass; Lordy, the crab grass! Those who express appreciation for what happens in our yard don’t see the imperfections because the beauty is – at least, I hope – overwhelming. Day by day, year by year, our garden grows a little fuller. A little more beautiful. A little more perfect.
“Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
The grace-soaked process of becoming holy as God is holy is both path and goal of the life of faith. We have different terms, of course: “Sanctification,” “Holiness of heart and life,” “going on to perfection.”
I grew up in a different branch of the Methodist family, one that proudly staked out its territory in the holiness tradition. I learned that holiness meant different things within our own small denomination. In the church of my childhood, with my Dad in the pulpit, God was big, loving, forgiving, generous, well-humored, creative, welcoming; and holiness meant becoming like God in those ways.
Grandma described the church of her childhood, in the same denomination a few hundred miles away, as “dictatorship,” where the list of rules was lengthy and precise, lest any member of the church fall off the path of sinless holiness. They were forbade from roller rinks because of the rock music, bowling alleys because of the bar in the back, and it was well-known that a seemingly harmless game of “Old Maid” or “Go, Fish!” would set you on a path to being a riverboat gambler (riverboat gambling must have been a more significant threat to the people of rural Western Pennsylvania than we might think. Grandma and her six sisters were allowed by their mom to play their card games on the floor, rather than at the table in front of the window where anyone driving by could see and report them to the church leadership. Grandma turned 90 this year, and has yet to pursue the life of a riverboat gambler, though it is too early to tell, for sure)
The rationale: purgation of all sinful thought, word, and deed was the only chance of entering the presence of a holy God.
“The Pharisees and teachers of the law grumbled, saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).
The impulse to define holiness as the active stamping out of every imperfection is as old as religion itself. Let us call this impulse by its rightful name: moralism.
Perfection does not mean “free from error, blemish, spot, or wrinkle,” and it is not accomplished by Rambo-style sin assassination missions like our Round-up wielding, weed-killing friends.
In our garden, rather than actively seeking to eliminate every blemish, we put a whole bunch of good-looking stuff in the ground, and see what makes it. Over the years, I’ve noticed that the more good stuff we plant and grow and nurture and spread, the more it crowds out the undesirable stuff. The more we seek and cultivate a life of love, the more sin is crowded out. So sin may remain, but it doesn’t reign.
Does this make us soft on sin? Hardly. It means we take sin seriously enough to use a method against it that’s actually effective.
The Round-up approach to holiness leaves us with a landscape that is scorched and sterile in which nothing grows. Sure, sin doesn’t get a good foothold in such conditions, but neither does love. Holiness in this life is practice and preparation for the life to come; the Bible’s descriptions of heaven are not of barren, lifeless, sterility, but where the abundance of a lush and unimaginably beautiful garden fills the table to overflowing.
Are you going on to perfection? By the grace of God, I hope so. Be perfected in love. May your life so flourish with God’s love, there is little room for anything else.
Rev. A.J. Thomas serves as the Founding Director of Joyful Giving Group, LLC, where he is dedicated to cultivating a culture of generosity.