Fridays with Godfather:
“Holiness,” Conversion & Restoration
Ever since my confessor, Staretz Varlaam, joined the “cloud of witnesses” in February 2020, my dear godfather, David Goa, has generously stepped into that gaping breach to spend an hour each week with me on the phone. I share my struggles, look for his input, and we enjoy conversation together. It’s one of the most enriching mentoring experiences I’ve experienced.
Gratefully, David also speaks slowly, carefully pondering the best way to impart his reflections. If I’m at my laptop, I can usually take notes verbatim. Unfortunately, I could only record the following conversation with one thumb on my smartphone in abbreviated code, so I can’t vouch for the same accuracy. Still, when I read the following to Eden, she said, “It’s so beautiful that I want to cry,” so maybe it will strike others as helpful, too.
David, when you use the word ‘holiness,’ I don’t hear any moralizing or perfectionism. You relate it to wholeness. But I want to be sure I’m understanding you. How might you define holiness?
Holiness is the disposition where your mind, your heart, and your preoccupations no longer exist in your response to Someone who is wholly/holy Other (both God and neighbor)—when we are truly freed from our passions, presumptions, and idolatry that turn the person into an it, an object of our fears and desires.
Such passions are a kind of suffering that needs healing… including suffering from our limited and limiting ideas of what constitutes the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, when we turn the other into some thing. Instead of recognizing God as transcendent—the One we can’t know in any instrumental way—we reduce God to our forms of belief, to doctrines and dogma. We reduce the Good to what we see as good, what we treasure and regard as life-giving. And in so doing, we inevitably commit the same sin with respect to our neighbor.
We regularly identify the Good and the Beautiful with whatever beautiful things shimmer for us, wherever life causes us to see its wonder. And that’s not all bad. But we can also end up sliding into presumption, closing ourselves off to presence, rather than staying attentive to what’s in front of us, unfolding in its own way. But to the degree that we can stay attentive, it is good.
Holiness lies beyond all our presumptions and calculations—it is the disposition of presence. We can’t know pure holiness—again, if we do, we’ve certainly turned into some thing.
To be “in the holy” is to remove our shoes and leave our hat behind, and to step into only apprehension, regard, attentiveness—into presence—and we do not and must not and cannot contain it. In that space—that holy ground—the Holy Spirit makes all things whole, all things one, without division. It is transfiguration.
Framed that way, I don’t hear an agenda for “conversion.” At one time, “conversion” was probably a very good word for the transformation that happens when we turn to the Light of Divine Love. But in the era of modern “evangelism,” it somehow began to shrink to a recruiting term and sales pitch to join our club. Intuitively, something feels off. I think, for example, about how shallow it seems for an Abbotsford Christian to attempt to convert a Sikh—to try to recruit them away from their faith community, their religious practices, and their culture into mine. And it doesn’t work anyway. Not because the ‘ground is hard,’ but because proselytizing in that way is futile and probably wrong-headed (and we know it, because who among us even tries?).
But at the same time, letting go of an “evangelistic strategy” (even if I know it would uproot and alienate others from who they are) also feels worrisome to a “cradle Evangelical” like me. What about the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28:18-20 or Jesus’ words in Mark 16:16: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” We are haunted by fears that one day, Jesus will say to us, “…whoever is ashamed of me and my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory” (Luke 9:26). So if the Great Commission of Jesus Christ is not an “evangelistic crusade,” then what does it mean to “be my witnesses … to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8)?
I wish there were a way to retrieve a word like “convert” and what it once meant. But today, we’re probably better off contrasting “conversion” (as we’ve come to understand it) with a word like “restoration.” When Christ met the woman at the well, the Canaanite woman, and the woman caught in adultery, he did not try to convert them in the crass sense (though the encounter did transform them). Rather, those encounters were about restoration. Christ restores us to the deep meaning of the faith—which is the presence of God’s grace—being present to grace and as grace in all our encounters. The existential gravity in those encounters of presence helped them know the part of their own hearts that they didn’t yet know or no longer knew.
All such gospel encounters are stories of restoration. They teach us that we don’t convert anyone. The Holy Spirit does that. So, yes, go into the world and preach the gospel. Preach Jesus’ gospel. His gospel was not about learning a secret name invoked through the right prayer formula as a password into an exclusive remnant. That’s not just mistaken—it’s probably blasphemy. Rather, Jesus’ gospel is what you had always heard: John 3:16 – that God loves the world,…
… and that Christ came to be that love and tell them of that love. And that Jesus calls us to be that love and share that love. To be those who follow him in the ministry of restoration.
Yes, he came for those (like us), captives to a dark vision—those who see the world through death and the fear of death, who experience life through the prism of alienation. We’re not wrestling people into something… rather, where God (and they) provide opportunity, we too can be the presence of love and grace.
This then is our “conversion” in the real sense. That we would be increasingly inclined and disposed to the Mystery of God’s love revealed in Jesus and let go of the impulse to presume or pretend. And given the opportunity, to see God’s grace “enlarged” as we share (both in giving and receiving) healing words of wisdom, comfort, and compassion.
“Converting” others in the religious recruitment sense is just the opposite of presence in communion (which is the kingdom of God). It can become a way of not regarding them, not restoring them, or even reinforcing and deepening their alienation. The grave danger is, once again, in presuming that: (1) they need something I have, and (2) they don’t have it, and (3) it’s my job to convince them they don’t have it, (4) so I can sell it to them.
Now, we can spin this as, “I see their thirst and just want to share the living water—the grace—I’ve been given.” Hopefully, that’s what we’re really doing.
Yes, But what if, instead, we’re acting the part of the Serpent in the Eden of that relationship? That involves a serious deception (of myself and of them).
How much better if I’m attentive—present to—the presence of the kingdom and its unfolding (in me, in them, in us), awake to and in the presence of God’s grace.
Now there’s a great commission!
—to follow the Way of Jesus as Spirit-empowered witnesses to God’s love revealed in Christ, experienced together in moments of encounter, presence, and grace that overcomes alienation and restores communion (with God, self, neighbor, and stranger).