I don't remember the first time that I found Karissa on the internet, but we had Thailand and ESL and heartbreak in common, and her writing resonated with me. In this piece, I think she picks up on a theme I'm seeing a lot among evangelical women - a movement from adolescent desire to be radical and on fire to adult understanding of the deep, deep love of God.
When Holiness Is A Piece of Red Yarn
During my sophomore year of high school I went with some friends to a youth service in downtown Nashville. We were in a large room in the basement of a building. The lights in the room were dimmed, but there were disco balls, strobe lights, and the hot white stage lights on the band in the front of the room. There were a bunch of other Christian teenagers there, and everyone was singing and dancing to the bands’ music. I looked around and saw hands raised high into the air, swaying to the beat. I saw faces scrunched in expressions of intense worship: eyes closed, brows furrowed, lips moving in whispered praise. Suddenly a blonde-haired boy in the front row collapsed. Several people around him knelt to catch him before his head hit the floor. He lay there, in a white-and-gray striped shirt, his eyes closed, breathing hard. “Is he okay?” I asked.
One of my friends leaned in. “He’s slain in the spirit,” she said. “You’ve never seen that before?” I shook my head. I’d heard of such things, but I’d never seen them in person.
But as I watched the scene, I realized: I wanted it. I wanted that euphoria. I wanted the Holy Spirit to hit me so hard I couldn’t stand up. I wanted God’s presence to be so strong it overwhelmed me. I wanted to be like these kids, who seemed so cool, so with-it, such Jesus Freaks. I lifted my hand in the air and waved it, just like some of the older people at church did when they got blessed and started shouting “Amens!” in the middle of a service.
I closed my eyes and let the music wash over me. God, send your presence to us now. Let us feel you here with us, I prayed. And he did. I could almost see Jesus himself standing there in under the strobe lights, swaying to the music. I sank to my knees and sat on that cold, hard floor with tears running down my face, thanking Jesus for his faithfulness. My friends knelt to surround me on the floor. “Karissa, are you okay?” one of them asked.
“Yes,” I said dramatically. “Yes! I’m more than okay!”
So it wasn’t being slain in the spirit. But it was close enough to what I wanted: To feel God so much I’d be literally brought to my knees.
* * *
I grew up in a holiness denomination. We believed in a second work of grace called entire sanctification, which involved a deeper commitment to God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in you. It often felt like holiness was a kind of perfection in which my earthly self would be eradicated and covered up by a selfless, humble spiritual self. I felt like being human meant I was evil, and only through that deeper movement of the Holy Spirit in me could I become good again. I think I prayed to be sanctified three or four times, never sure if the time before really “took.”
Once when I was attending chapel at college, I was particularly moved by a praise chorus and made my way down to the altar to pray. A campus employee came to pray with me, encouraging me to “fully commit” myself to God. I kindly told her that I’d already been entirely sanctified, but that I just wanted to come pray, that was all. She wouldn’t let it go, though. “You can ask the Holy Spirit to fill you and make you holy,” she said. I couldn’t get her to understand that that wasn’t what I’d come to the altar for.
After that, I began questioning things like altar calls and emotional praise choruses repeated over and over. Had the altar just become a numbers game? Had the music just become a way to manipulate worshippers into a false sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence? How many times had I been convinced that I’d felt God, when really it might have been the chorus of Just as I Am and the worship pastor’s whispering voice persuading me into believing God was speaking to me?
I began to doubt the legitimacy of such emotion-heavy worship, and to wonder if holiness was real, or if it was simply lip service given to a worn-out dogma. The girl who had once longed for a euphoric sense of the Holy Spirit now shrunk from anything that seemed designed to trigger an emotional response to him.
* * *
Years later, that questioning would land me in Eastern Orthodoxy. Each week, I enter my church to be greeted by the aroma of incense, the glimmer of candlelight, and the beautiful, silent icons. There is an icon of the Annunciation high on the front wall of my church. Archangel Gabriel holds his staff in his left hand, which is a sign that he is a messenger from God. His right hand is raised in greeting, perhaps also in blessing. Mary is seated and looks at Gabriel, listening to his message. In her left hand, she holds a spool of red yarn. My priest has explained that that red yarn symbolizes humanity. It reminds us of the Incarnation, of God becoming man, and of Mary giving that god-man a place to grow within her human body, literally threading humanity into his divinity.
Right above the Annunciation is the icon of the Ascension. Jesus is floating in the midst of clouds, while several disciples and followers look up at him from the ground. In his left hand, Jesus holds that same spool of red yarn. What that means is that when Jesus returned to heaven, he took his humanity with him. Orthodox theology says that Jesus remains completely divine and completely human today.
I had never heard that before. I had always assumed that when Jesus ascended back into heaven, he just went back to being divine and left his human side behind. Instead, he treasured his humanity so much that he refused to discard it. That tells me that we are not just a sinful, depraved race. There is something good and beautiful in us.
This new knowledge has challenged my former definition of holiness, which felt much more like ditching humanity for divinity. Yet maybe holiness is simply wholeness, and maybe Jesus is where we can look to see that: fully human and fully God. He experienced every human fear and joy. He got angry, he felt frightened, and he mourned the death of a friend. He dined with friends, rejoiced at weddings, and loved children. Yet he also embodied divine love: he offered forgiveness, lifted up the lowly, and had tenderness toward the underdogs.
It seems strange to simply redefine something on my own. Yet there is a prayer in one of my Orthodox prayer books that begins, “O Lord, you have honoured us with your own image and give us free will.” I wonder if that is what holiness is: the blending of divine and human, godly and worldly. Maybe holiness isn’t covering up our humanity with God; maybe it’s a perfect joining of our free, earthy human selves and God’s loving image and energies.
While I wonder, I keep a piece of red yarn on my memo board above my writing desk, just to remind me that God didn’t cast off his humanity.