Courting the Presence of God

Courting the Presence of God

Sitting in the shadow of New York, Bronx Bethany Church of the Nazarene ministers to hundreds of people each week, most of whom have ties to the West Indies. Since 2000, Samuel Vassel has pastored this congregation, which was founded 40 years ago by Seymour Cole. 

Through most of his life, Samuel Carl Winston Vassel knew little of the cityscapes of New York. Born and raised in Jamaica, Vassel is the son of Christian ministers. Both his father and mother were clergy in the Caribbean holiness movement, pastoring congregations in Jamaica. Vassal followed in his parents' footsteps.

His role as bishop of the Holiness Christian Church in Jamaica prepared him for God's direction and for leadership he eventually found in this metropolis. Vassel succeeded Seymour Cole, the founding pastor of Bronx Bethany Church of the Nazarene, a congregation that is now 90 percent Jamaican. There, he delights in emphasizing the holiness doctrine to his congregants, including many who have not heard this teaching.

HT: You are a strong proponent of a pure heart, of a focus on holy living. Tell us more.

SV: The concept of purity of heart is vital in our tradition. In this light, Peter described the work of God for the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15). The focal point of God's work among non-Jewish believers is summed up in Peter's conviction that God had purified the hearts of these believers by faith. The fullness of the Spirit was granted to these non-Jewish believers (Acts 15:8-9), just as the disciples had received the Spirit on the day of Pentecost in the Upper Room.

I believe the distinctive consequence of being filled with the Holy Spirit is rooted in a person's heart being purified by faith. Some, especially those in the Pentecostal tradition, say that speaking in tongues was the evidence that believers had truly been filled with the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostal and holiness traditions are brothers and sisters, or at least cousins. We in the holiness tradition have much to learn about the Spirit-filled life. We are too quick to try to control the Spirit.

Remember, Jesus told Nicodemus that we cannot control the wind. However, the concept of the pure heart, not the charisma, is the key evidence. Peter's address to the Jerusalem council focuses on the deeper reality that the Spirit had purified these believers' hearts. The writer of the Psalms asks, "Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart " (Psalm 24:3-4).

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) speak of the blessedness of those who have a pure heart (v. 8), for they are guaranteed the beautiful vision: They shall see God.

HT: How does having singleness of mind relate to purity of heart?

SV: In James 4, James boldly addresses the challenge of double-mindedness. He accuses his readers of being adulterers in the sense that while they profess to love God, they actually have another lover: the world. He says to them, "Wash your hands, you sinners" (James 4:8). In this straightforward manner, he asks them to repent, to mourn, as though the cleansing of the hands is particularly directed at sinfulness.

It is theologically significant that he continues, "And purify your hearts, you double minded" (James 4:8). The essential element of a purified heart is this singleness of mind. Singleness of mind comes as we are attracted to God. That contemplation of God's beauty totally captures the mind, leaving no room for sin and selfishness.

HT: How do you help your people grasp this ideal and live this truth?

SV: Our tradition is a preaching tradition. I believe this is one reason many of us emphasize the crisis nature of the experience of entire sanctification. Through preaching, the listener becomes aware of and learns spiritual truths. The Holy Spirit uses this to bring a paradigm shift. Many people, while listening to preaching, have grasped the idea of being able to love God completely, with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Coupled with this thought is the complementary idea of loving God exclusively, and loving people like you love yourself.

HT: What other methods help worshippers implement this message besides listening to preaching?

SV: The small group is vital. We must be linked together in the community of healing.

No one can experience purity of heart behind a facade. Accountability to the church community encourages transparency and vulnerability.

This community is also conducive to confession. James 5:16 reminds us to confess our faults to each other and pray for each other that we might be healed. You don't confess your faults to a large group of people. The small group or community knows you and cares for you and will pray for you. No one can experience purity of heart behind a facade. Accountability to the church community encourages transparency and vulnerability.

At Bronx Bethany Church, we have made a concerted effort to organize small groups of accountability and care. We are committed to compassionate involvement through substance abuse rehabilitation, youth enrichment, and other programs. We do not neglect our emphasis on worship. Indeed, through praise and worship and all the vital things we do, we endeavor to court the presence of God.

HT: What formative influences in your life impressed you and your own spiritual development?

SV: My parents were thoroughly immersed in the classical doctrines of holiness and committed to it. I saw holiness practiced as my father not only spoke about holiness, but also lived it by loving people. I saw my parents pray and pour over the Bible. So I breathed the atmosphere of the holy life and serving God by serving people.

HT: Your formal education brought you into contact with the Reformed tradition. How did you reconcile any differences between the Wesleyan-Holiness and Reformed traditions?

SV: My initial exposure created a sense of questioning. I saw the doctrine of sin in a new light. It just blew my mind that the Reformed view included the concept that you sinned even though you didn't know you were sinning. I would challenge certain positions such as the doctrine of irresistible grace; that a person has no free will to say "no" to God, that if God draws us, we cannot chose to be for Him or go our own way.

In my heart, I knew we could resist God's grace. I was always discussing such matters as these with my professors and with leaders in my own tradition. The experiences of those dialogues strengthened my own position while helping me to appreciate the depth of scholarship of others. I am personally committed to the Holiness tradition.

HT: Let's talk about holiness and social justice.

SV: I think social justice is vital to the Church. Social holiness and biblical holiness are inseparable. Old Testament pagans offered worship ceremonies that were disconnected from ethics. But Holiness people cannot disconnect the ideas of loving God exclusively and loving your neighbor as you love yourself. Holiness is social in the sense that we love God by loving people.

Too often, holiness is seen as a personal religious experience that does not emphasize the manifestation of God's will in the world.

HT: When it's time for you to pass the torch, how would you like others to remember you?

SV: I'd like people to think of me as a person who was real, who loved God, who courted His presence.

Holiness Today, July/August 2004