Not Your Typical Holiness

By Pastor Emily Carroll

On Friday November 30th a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked southcentral Alaska.  And I mean rocked… It sent me diving under the table, grasping onto my husband, and frantically wishing for the earth to stop moving as dishes crashed to the ground all around us.  Since then, the number of times I’ve recounted my own earthquake story and heard others’ earthquake stories is rapidly approaching the number of aftershocks that continue to rattle us around (I think we are over 6000 now…).  Soon after the “Big One,” I spoke with a friend who told me that she immediately dove under her desk and started to pray, “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus, please save us!” I have to admit this story gave me pause… Because I’m a pastor… And the words out of my mouth during the earthquake were more along the lines of “Oh shoot, shoot, shoot!” except I didn’t say shoot…

I had a professor in seminary who on the first day of class pointed us all to Isaiah 6, where Isaiah has a vision of God in the temple and divine beings wait on God, singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!”  And this seminary professor went on to describe how this is the first time this phrase had ever been written or spoken, and how no one really knows what it means. He then continued by insinuating that the best translation for “Holy! Holy! Holy!” might actually be “Shit! Shit! Shit!” as the human Isaiah stood terrified in the mighty presence of God.  

If you had asked me what “holy” meant sometime before Monday, January 14th, I probably would have said something along the lines of reverent, set-apart, having-to-do-with-God, righteous, clean, awed…  My version of Holy was That Which Rises Above, God in High Heavens, with Us Obediently Bowing Down. But on Monday, I experienced a different kind of Holy moment, as I sat with an 89-year-old woman as she transitioned from this life to the next.  As her labored breathing slowed and her muscles contracted in a final push of life, my heart leapt in fear as I realized there was nothing I could do but hold her hand, watch, and beg God to come. Afterwards I couldn’t describe the moment, no word seemed adequate enough to convey both the terror and the grace of this transition of life as God claims us in our death.  

The next morning as I recounted the story to Pastor Andy, he said “these moments are holy.”  And I paused, again, as I recognized both my deep desire to call this moment Holy, and my resistance to it… Because my sterilized, whitewashed, Sunday School definition of Holy did nothing to approach the breadth of the moment.  Holy is when the earth shakes and dishes crash and there is nothing to do but hold on and trust that God is holding you. Holy is when a loved-one’s labored breaths cease and there is nothing to do but hold on and trust that God is holding you.  Holy is when the magnitude of the experience is larger than you ever could be, when you have no control, and yet God still stands firm amidst the shaking earth, when God still wraps the dead in a shroud of love even as grief begins. Holy is not the kneeling, palms-together-in-prayer, head tilted, eyes closed, halo of righteousness around you, pale-blue Precious Moments Figurines.  Holy is the raw, unfiltered, wide-eyed and terrified, humble and scared, gasping for breath realness of life and death on earth. It is the jolt that takes you out of yourself and into another as you trust that God is holding you, whether you have the words to ask God to, or not.

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

The whole earth is full of his glory…”

May it be so.