Should Christians Celebrate Halloween?

I’ll be honest right up front. I like Halloween. I like the costumes. I like most of the decorations. I like the tradition of trick-or-treating. I like seeing the excitement on my children’s faces, in part because it feeds an abiding nostalgia I feel for the holiday. I like judging candy quality with them, teaching them why a Fun-Size Snickers is better than a miniature 3 Musketeers, and watching with the same sense of anticipation as they open a miniature Starburst two-pack in hopes of scoring a pink or red (rather than the dreaded double-yellow).

I like walking neighborhood streets where neighbors actually speak socially and kindly with one another. I like fire pits set up in driveways and the smell of woodsmoke and burning leaves. I like the short-lived season of autumn, and I like to celebrate the fall harvest in spite of the fact that, not being a farmer, I do not actually participate in any harvesting activities.

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Fun gimmick, or lazy farmer?

I’m not ashamed to admit that I even like staying up late and watching scary movies. I’m not a fan of gore and ultra-violent horror flicks, but I do appreciate a good haunted house or monster movie, especially on Halloween.

So, a question like, “Should Christians celebrate Halloween?” strikes a major blow to what has become for me one of the most pleasant times of the entire year. At the same time, I completely understand the question, and the concern that lies behind it. It is a valid concern indeed, and one worth exploring no matter how I feel about the holiday.

Hallowing the Saints

Answering the question, “Should Christians celebrate Halloween?” requires at least some level of understanding of the holiday’s origins. And understanding the origins of Halloween needs to start with that word: “holiday.” The word derives from “holy day,” as in a special day of observance in the Christian liturgical year.

Now, for many Christians – including a growing number of evangelicals – the Christian year is a mostly foreign concept, save for a few holy days that have not faded from regular liturgical observance, such as Christmas, Palm Sunday, and Easter. Many modern-day Christians who make much of those holy “feast” days still may wrinkle their noses at others, like Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, and the feast of All Saints’, which is also known as All Hallows Day.

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Is there a Hallmark Card for “Happy Presentation of the Lord in the Temple Day”?

All Saints’ Day in particular is a big deal in several denominational traditions, including Roman-Catholics, Anglicans, and some Lutherans, but you may also encounter church communities from other traditions who observe the feast as well. All Saints’ is a day set aside to honor all the saints and martyrs who have contributed to the perseverance of the Church through the ages, including those individuals who have not been venerated or canonized. For many years, the Catholic Church offered Plenary indulgences for participation in All Saints’ Day practices, which included visiting church graveyards, lighting candles, and praying for (and to) those heroes of the faith who had passed away. The point of All Saints’ was for Christians to hallow the deaths of these faithful brothers and sisters, and express gratitude for the sacrificial lives they lived. It is similar to the American tradition of Memorial Day, albeit with a far greater spiritual weight.

Now, inherent to the traditions of these holy days was the keeping of a prepatory vigil the evening prior to the feast day. Worshippers would offer prayers or gather for worship in anticipation of the special commemoration taking place on the following day. Christmas Eve is perhaps the best known example, but there is also Shrove Tuesday, which traditionally precedes the holy day of repentance and fasting known as Ash Wednesday. On Shrove Tuesday, worshippers were supposed to clear their homes of flour and other goods in preparation for the Lenten fast. It is sometimes referred to as “Fat” Tuesday, due to the baking of cakes and other goods in order to use up all the flour. If you’ve ever had a Mardi Gras king cake, you’re eating one culture’s time-honored product of this practice.

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Ah, the long-established religious custom of choking on a plastic baby.

All this is to explain where Halloween gets its name. Over time, All Hallows Evening (i.e., the day preceding All Saints’) became “Hallows Evening,” which was shortened to “Hallows E’en,” which ended up as “Halloween.” Simple enough, really. However, it is not so much the name, but rather Halloween’s alleged origin, that unnerves a lot of believers.

Samhain, Pope Gregory, and Those Kooky Celts

Around the turn of the seventh century A.D., Pope Boniface IV commemorated St. Mary and the martyrs on May 13, alongside the rededication of the Pantheon in Rome. This also happened to be the same day as the Feast of Lemuria, an ancient Roman festival that focused on dispelling the evil spirits and ghosts of the dead. This is one example among many of the Christian Church re-appropriating pagan festivals and practices according to its theology. Some people today scoff at this concept; they are often the same people who can’t resist explaining that Christmas Day is totally not Christian at all but was actually the Roman holiday, Sol Invictus, a pagan sun god festival and so there what do you think about that, huh? I’ve found that rather than arguing with these people, it’s best to just smile and nod and let them enjoy the endorphine rush that comes from feeling smarter than everyone around them.

The truth is, whether or not some people today find the practice disingenuous, one of the key ways Christianity was spread across continents, Europe in particular, was through the “Christianization” of certain cultural holidays and festivals and the theologizing of annual observances. In the midst of their assimilation into the Christian faith, the Church would encourage (or, yes, force) pagan people to re-appropriate their spiritual beliefs according to a more biblical interpretation. That, or they would completely overhaul a holiday or spiritual ideology according to a new, Christological significance. This is one of the main reasons why, in the ninth century, Pope Gregory IV officially adjusted the hallowing of the saints and martyrs to November 1. For many regions of Europe, this date roughly marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, in which the days grew shorter, the nights stretched longer, and nature began its annual time of death. Leaves turned and fell. Fields sat in fallow furrows. The cold set in, eventually blanketing the world in a frigid blankness.

For the Celts, as well as several other nordic and Germanic people, this time of year was not only deeply symbolic of death and quiet remembrance. They also saw a liminal quality in this shriveling of the environment – that is, they held a belief that whatever unseen veil lay between the land of the living and the realm of the dead was at its thinnest during these cold, dark months. Back then, humans perceived the realm of death with greater reverence and disquiet than we often do today, and, like a sieve, death could sometimes leak through into the land of the living, or so they believed. The Gaelic festival of Samhain, one of four seasonal festivals, included many traditions that nurtured this idea, including the practice of “guising” to hide from those members of the Aos Sí (i.e., fairies, or nature spirits) who may have crossed over into the land of the living with more mischievous or malevolent agendas. Additionally, Samhain included the lighting of bonfires and other harvest-related activities, but, yes, there were also occasions for divination, which makes sense when you remember that the prevailing belief of most people was that this was the one brief time each year when you might truly encounter, or interact with, the spirits of the dead.

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If you lived in Mexico, your dog might turn out to be your rainbow-colored spirit animal. How cool is that?

To our post-Enlightenment, Western culture minds, it is easy to dismiss this belief as the dim bulb fantasies of uneducated barbarians. These days, we place our trust as securely with science and reason as the people of these so-called “Dark Ages” deposited their trust and daily conduct into a vast, enigmatic supernatural reality that, as far as they understood it, extended far above, below, and beyond their own. And yet, even if we are intellectually smarter than the people of that time, does that necessarily make us wiser than they?

Christians and the Spiritual Realm

Unfortunately, much of what many Christians believe about spiritual beings and the unseen, “supernatural” realm is based as much in pop-cultural renderings of these old traditions as they are in anything the Bible really has to communicate on the subject. And, in truth, the Bible is actually quite thin on information regarding the spiritual realm. References abound, but details are quite scarce. There are some standout stories, of course, such as King Saul visiting a witch to summon the spirit of Samuel (1 Samuel 28), Elisha being surrounded by supernatural chariots of fire (2 Kings 6), or Jesus encountering a man possessed by a legion of demonic powers (Mark 5).

For each story containing ambiguous pictures of a spiritual reality, there is never a shortage of interpretations. Some lean into what is presented, and they subsequently build an entire angelic-demonic hierarchical worldview based on these fleeting glimpses. Others, though, lean away from literal explanations and instead posit ideas like lucid dreaming or demon-possession as a pre-Enlightenment explanation for schizophrenia or manic disorders, nothing more.

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“The power of Christ compels you… to please take this Clozapine prescription.”

Say what you want about the tactics of the Holy Roman Church, but by Christianizing these holidays that bore deep spiritual significance, they forced pagan people to contend with a brand new element within the accepted realm of the supernatural: an all-powerful Creator God who has freely bestowed his power and authority unto his resurrected and ascended son, Jesus. The key word there is power. After all, when it came to the practices of divination or conjuring of the spirits, the two biggest motivators were security and power. People either wanted to ensure safety or protection from that which they could not control, or they wanted to gain control over that which they could not control.

For Christian monks, priests, and missionaries, the gospel message was best understood and expressed as a story of God’s power infiltrating and overwhelming the powers of evil both within and beyond our existence. It was a story of rescue not merely from sinful guilt, but of bondage to the malevolent whims of a nefarious, multi-faceted evil power at work in our world. The death and resurrection of Jesus signified the defeat of these dark, worldly powers, and summoned believers to posture their lives according to his truth and his ways. Whether or not the Holy Roman Church always exhibited this truth and those ways properly and graciously… hint: they didn’t… is beside the point.

Halloween, as we know it today, is indeed born of both light and darkness. Christianity and European paganism collided again and again, over several centuries, and eventually produced the hodgepodge offspring of beliefs, traditions, and activities recognized and accepted in our modern, Western society. Yes, there are elements of the holiday that bear a less than seemly origin, and the way some observers enjoy playing fast and loose with the concepts of ghosts, evil spirits, and “contacting” the dead is worrisome. Christians, after all, should recognize that such stuff is not mere child’s play.

And yet, there is much we as Christians can learn about Halloween. Much about how the Church – and, in particular, individual believers – should not fear the culture in which we find ourselves, nor the bulk of its well-meaning and meaningful practices, even if such traditions are ultimately ignorant of the gospel. It’s been said that Christians should never blame the dark for being dark, but rather live as a composed, confident, and compassionate light shining in the midst of that darkness.

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But, you know, let’s avoid embarrassing ourselves with overtly biblical costumes like this.

So, tomorrow I will walk the neighborhood streets and speak and laugh with neighbors. I will bless little children by complimenting their costumes, going so far as to feign fright at some. I will smile at creative jack o’lanterns, vigilantly search for the good Starbursts in my kids’ candy buckets, and breathe in the cool, autumn air that reminds me, even in its pleasantness, that life is fleeting.

I will be a bold and confident rock for my children. If and when they see something that unnerves them, I will assure them that while there are indeed things in this world that are frightening, we have placed our trust in a Power that has overcome the world. His is a far greater, and far kinder, power than any even the darkest of forces can conjure against us.

I know this, not only because the Bible says it, but because there have been those dear saints, unknown but not forgotten, who told me so as well. This Power reigns in my heart in part because of the lives those dearly departed ones lived before me, and the sacrifices of faith they left behind.

May the Lord of all creation bless, keep, and hallow each one of them.

Worldly Discipline and Dark Fire

I see, and smell, that even under wartime conditions the College cellar still has a few sound old vintage Pharisee. Well, well, well. This is like old times. Hold it beneath your nostrils for a moment, gentledevils. Hold it up to the light. Look at those fiery streaks that writhe and tangle in its dark heart, as if they were contending. As so they are. You know how this wine is blended? Different types of Pharisee have been harvested, trodden, and fermented together to produce its subtle flavour. Types that were most antagonistic to one another on earth. Some were all rules and relics and rosaries; others were all drab clothes, long faces, and petty traditional abstinences from wine or cards or the theatre. Both had in common their self-righteousness and the almost infinite distance between their actual outlook and anything the Enemy really is or commands… How they hated each other up there where the sun shone! How much more they hate each other now that they are forever conjoined but not reconciled. Their astonishment, their resentment, at the combination, the festering of their eternally impenitent spite, passing into our spiritual digestion, will work like fire. Dark fire.

– C.S. Lewis, from “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”

Over the past couple of months, my church endeavored to make several weighty decisions pertaining to the congregation’s bylaws and its budget. Now, being good, historical Baptists, in order to make these decisions we were obligated to provide opportunities for open discussion prior to conducting a church-wide vote. This is something I appreciate about the Baptist commitment to local church autonomy; it is up to our own congregation, and ours alone, to determine its way in the world. We commit to civil, democratic discussion before gathering together to cast our vote.

But that doesn’t mean those decisions always come easy.

During the weeks in which these issues were discussed, I engaged in a number of pleasant and eye-opening conversations with my fellow church members who voiced passionate concerns regarding the various sides and stances orbiting these decisions. These conversations were insightful and sharp-witted. We learned from one another, and were better for it. However, I also experienced what seemed an unusually high number of angry or bitter exchanges. So many, in fact, that at first I figured some of the changes being proposed must have unexpectedly touched on an emotional nerve much more raw than usual.

And yet, the more I listened to the people who were upset, and the more I listened to the people who were upset that those people were upset, the more I realized that the issues being discussed were not overly sensitive or precarious. No, the raw emotion was not a new occurrence in the lives of our congregants at all. I realized that even before these issues were presented or discussed, we had already been living on a razor’s edge. We had been carrying around anger, distrust, and suspicion everywhere we went, and – at least subconsciously – had been looking for an opportunity to act on these qualities.

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I can’t carry all this stuff forever!

The anger and bitterness that bubbled over in these conversations and group discussions was startling considering just how mild the level of disagreement amounted to regarding some of the issues in question. But rather that handling our differences of opinion with patience, kindness, and an enduring sense of trust in everyone’s better angels, many of us lashed out as if personally attacked. We accused those on the other side of ulterior motives and intentions, or we labeled those who did not see it our way as ignorant, no matter how genuine and well-reasoned their alternative viewpoint might be. We drew clear battle lines despite the fact that no one had declared war.

The Superhumanity of Christians

Certainly, there are times in church life when difficult decisions must be made, when differences of opinion can erupt into actual conflict and ill feelings. This is a natural byproduct of life together – even in the context of a community built on the hope of God’s kingdom. But I do not think it is out of line to state these times of contention should be very few and far between. Otherwise, what is the difference between a congregation of Christians and a PTA, or an HOA, or a country club, or the U.S. House of Representatives? When conflict, suspicion, and side-taking abound, what is the difference between the church and the world in which it operates?

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PICTURED: An artist’s depiction of last week’s Senate hearings.

Christians are human beings. We function according to the same conglomeration of emotions and survival instincts. We get angry. We feel offended, or betrayed. We react emotionally. We know full well the self-preserving convenience of lies and duplicity. And we get the same dopamine rush from building up our “side” of an issue while degrading the other. These are deeply rooted aspects of the human experience that are extremely difficult to resist or control.

But, in another manner of speaking, Christians are also more than human beings. We believe that we have been transformed inwardly, and that we now live unto a different standard of being.

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5:16-17, NRSV)

As such, the usual suspects of our emotions are no longer given free reign. We do not accept their unparalleled influence in our thoughts, words, and actions. If we did, then the transformation we claim has taken place in our life comes across as nothing more than wishful thinking (or pathetic delusion). “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free,” the Apostle Paul writes to the church in Galatia. “But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13, NIV).

Serve one another. An action that, time and again, is revealed as the exact opposite of the prevailing sentiment in our world. Look no further than the current political sphere and its glut of grandstanding, hyper-partisanship, and army of news pundits wagging fingers and prognosticating the depravity of the other side. There is very little interest in serving one another, or serving with one another. There is only jaw-clenching hostility and resentment.

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There are three more pointing back at you, bud.

And if you are watching and reading about all this and you don’t realize how deeply it is affecting you – that it is writing its own set of negative character qualities upon your own spirit – it is time to wake up and smell the bitterness.

Christians are called to transcend the pettiness of human conflict. Not that we never experience conflict, but rather that we approach each case of it with patience, wisdom, and a tenacious commitment to peace in the midst of contention.

And yet, looking around today, or scrolling for a mere sixty seconds on my Facebook feed, all I see is misdirected anger, mounting distrust, hand-wringing despair, and vitriolic insinuations about “the other side.” I read the status updates of friends who bless the Name of Jesus and petulantly belittle every Democrat in the same breath. Then I read linked articles from others who liken any and all Republicans to human garbage. It’s almost as if we think that, since the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention the concept of social media, Christians get a pass in that area.

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Oh yeah! Wait ’til I get on Twitter, bro. I’m gonna @ you so hard!

In reality, though, rather than embracing the way of Christ’s Spirit, and engaging the disciplines of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, far more often we immerse ourselves in the worldly disciplines of anger, distrust, cynicism, despair, suspicion, degradation, humiliation, discrimination, and favoritism. Not intentionally, of course. No one chases after these things overtly. But our world is good at serving us regular helpings of each through cable news talk shows, unbalanced op-eds, small-minded social media posts, and exceedingly unpresidential tweets.

A Higher Standard

At first I was surprised by the amount of bitterness and contentiousness I encountered in many of my conversations with church members about the upcoming church vote. But then, in my own life, I recognized how quickly I have jumped to suspicion, how naturally distrust and cynicism crops up in my decision-making. And I realized that while I may spend thirty minutes or even an hour a day in prayer, spiritual reflection, and reading Scripture, I usually spend three times that amount bathing in the collective acrimony of the moment. I’ve become much more adept at defending my opinion about the Russia probe, the Kavanaugh hearings, or the midterm elections than I have at anything related to God’s kingdom. More often than not, the badge of citizenship I wear on my shoulder is of the City of Man, not the Kingdom of God.

Pulpit-view

My name is King of kings and Lord of lords, and I alone approve this message.

It is one thing to hold an opinion, and to voice that opinion. It is one thing to disagree with a position or a proposal, and to make your disagreement known. But no matter how wrong or misguided you perceive the other side to be, as a Christian you are called to a higher standard – a much higher standard – of engagement with the conflicts and enmity of the day.

The eyes by which you view an issue are not your own. The mind with which you discern that viewpoint is not your own. The lips by which you speak your position are not your own. And the life that is shaped by these views you attest is not your own. You surrendered ownership to Jesus a long time ago.

Are you really sure you have a better idea than he how to think, speak, and act in this contentious, hurting world? Do you really possess the capacity to perceive how the ripples from the stones you’ve cast into society’s pond have affected the people in your own congregation? Because you don’t. You said so yourself when you tearfully confessed your selfishness, brokenness, and shame to the Savior and Redeemer of the world. Don’t worry, though. He wasn’t shocked. You weren’t telling him anything he didn’t already know.

Red Tide

The first thing you notice is the smell.

It is putrid, rancid – a sour stench that turns the stomach. It is the fetor of wet dog, a refrigerator thawed and spoiling in the summer heat. It rolls in from the shore, across the sand, through the weeds, born upon the usually pleasant inland breeze. And it hangs in the air. It soaks the palm branches and the leafy, green vines that color the shore. Step outside your door, and you catch the scent in seconds.

Aftermath of the red tide phenomenon in the west coast of Florida, Captiva, Usa - 03 Aug 2018

But the smell is not the worst of it. The smell is only fallout. It is the indicator of death, but it is not death itself. For that, you must go to the source. You must brave the stench and journey down the wood-planked pathway to the water’s edge. Here you find the culprit – one long, seemingly endless stretch of decay frames the shore. Where once had been only an adorning necklace of seaweed, and accumulated belts of colorful shells ringing the beach – the ever-present deposit of a teeming, vibrant world beneath the waves, a world that invited you to wade in and draw your fingers and toes along the ocean’s floor, feeling for suspicious lumps, spying the scuttling legs and mandibles that flail from within apertures of exquisite, swirled conchs, reaching down and lifting up sandpaper-like discs alive with tiny, wriggling tentacles, grasping hold of living stars the size of dinner platters with arms that curl around yours and kiss your skin for dear life until you finally release them again into the murky depths where they belong…

Now, before your bare feet can even sink into the wet sand at the water’s foaming edge, what you find is a sickening, grey-black mantle of corpses spread across the entire beach. A cataclysm encircles the entire island, like the leavings of some terrifying, occult ritual. Grouper, bonito, croaker, and redfish lay strewn like Antietam’s dead, lidless eyes staring up at white cumulus masses above. Anchovy, threadfins, and bluebacks bake in the shadeless tropical heat.

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You stand there, staring at the carnage, awestruck that so much life has been lost outside of your sight. Death stealthily spreads out across the gulf, infiltrating every bay, every cove, every canal. Each morning you awake to find a not-so-fresh stratum of the ocean’s dead expectorated upon dry land, as if the sea has engaged in some kind of macabre renovation project, its inhabitants continually tossing the dross and detritus off the edge of their world.

You peer into the tumbling breakers, intent on perceiving what you cannot really see. A scarlet bloom of sickness just beneath the surface – a billowing red cloud, like chum slopped overboard and spreading out into the glaucous blue. From where you stand, though, there is nothing to see but the aftermath. You behold the effects, but the cause remains veiled. This irrepressible algal contamination that has laid low so much life is invisible to you. It is difficult to fathom. How can so prolific a killer keep its executioner’s mask in place? How has the entire sea not turned both the color and viscosity of blood?

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For millennia, he who stood at the ocean’s edge, letting his feet slowly sink pleasantly into the gritty mud while gazing upon the endless ebb and flow of the waves, felt compelled to contemplate the vastness of human existence. Like the relentless creep and withdrawal of the tide, so our own lives reach out for safety, security, meaning, but then recoil in order to preserve a healthy amount of distance from everyone else. We are as numerous as the waves, and just as unique – each one of us determinedly roll in with our own unique size and strength until we finally break and collapse upon ourselves. Nothing lasts forever.

And, all that time, beneath those waves lies a whole other world. If you did not perceive it before, now that the dead of this world have been vomited up onto the border of our own, you realize it. So much life – so much existence – schooling and swarming and spreading out beneath the surface, and yet most people never give it any more than a passing, facile thought. We putter about in our little worlds, focused on our highly individualized concerns, and we glance up and beyond the stirred dust cloud of our ceaseless activities only long enough to briefly acknowledge an existence extending beyond our own. We give it no real thought, because we have no time to do so.

Standing at the edge of the sea, one is compelled to contemplate one’s place in the world. Standing at the periphery of a red tide, one is forced to consider one’s mortality – to be reminded that, short or long, life as we know it does indeed come to an end. That we who are finite are subject to the consequences of finitude.

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But you hope in Something else. Another place, another time. Another sea, another shore. Somewhere in which the finite are reborn infinite, and the waves roll forever, uncontaminated and teeming with glorious new life.

The Face in the Mirror

I just spent the last month telling people they were sinners.

It didn’t come across that blunt, of course. At least, I certainly hope it didn’t. But that was indeed the truth at the core of the four-week class I taught in my church’s annual Summer Institute, a two-month season in which our regular Sunday morning classes take a break and our staff offers a handful of specialized courses not usually on the Sunday School menu. Downstairs, my colleague Allen educated roughly one hundred folks on the history of the Bible’s composition and translation while a large carafe of coffee percolated in the corner. Across the hall, a trio of associate pastors took turns leading discussion with four dozen parents about strategies for effectively rearing one’s children in an often tumultuous culture. And in D-311/312/313, the old classroom partitions were accordioned away in order to accommodate fifty people who, for whatever reason, were willing to come hear me talk to them about their bad habits and psychological hang-ups.

Oh, the strange activities we Christians involve ourselves in on Sunday mornings…

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The doughnuts help.

Mine was an ambitious class. I knew that going in. In only four 50-minute sessions, my objective was to not only present a particular hermeneutic on Romans 7 and the spoiling influence of “the flesh,” but also to discuss a variety of teachings on the process of sanctification – that is, how we lowly sinners can actually become more like Christ by way of the Holy Spirit’s influence and transforming work in our inner life. I endeavored to talk about the Desert Fathers’ teachings on spiritual disciplines, the oft misunderstood “seven deadly sins” in Church doctrine, the threefold path of prayer and reflection, and, most directly, the Enneagram system of personality – a tool of spiritual direction that has helped me better understand the root fixations and self-preserving inclinations in my own life. So, yes, I might have been biting off more than I could chew with this course.

Nevertheless, it went as well as a pastor can hope when speaking specifically about sin for the better part of an hour for four straight weeks. But even from the very beginning of our first session, I experienced a pair of sobering realizations that stuck with me throughout the course, and have continued to chime in the back of my mind in the days since the class wrapped.

The first realization was that, for all the many Bible lessons I have taught in my (has it really been?) eighteen-year ministry career, and all the sermons I have preached, and all the panels I have sat on offering far larger sums than a mere two cents can buy, rarely have I found myself speaking explicitly about sin – the human struggle with it, and the Christian’s continual struggle against it. Oh, sure, the concept of sin – the reminder of it – is always there, darkening the edges of my lessons like an integral plot point in a film or novel you mustn’t forget about if the ending is going to make any sense.

I am a pastor who delights in speaking of the love of God and the atoning work of Jesus on the cross, but I am not so ensorcelled by this truth that I have completely done away with references to the effects of sin – its invasive influences and erosive effects. It does not escape me or the messages I preach that we live in a fallen world, that we are broken people in need of mending, and that it is somehow both necessary and futile to resist temptation. We are a people who stand in need, everyday, of salvation.

But aside from the occasional passage of Scripture that requires I address the issue of sin, as I dove into this latest lesson series I realized that my usual modus operandi is merely to dance around the idea of sin rather than look it full in the face. After all, nothing puts a damper on an enjoyable Bible study excursion than a self-selected detour through the swampy thicket of human wretchedness.

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If Bible studies were family dinners, teaching about sin would be the Brussel sprouts of the meal.

The second realization was that I am not alone in limiting my use of the ‘S’ word in my lessons. I cannot speak for all churches, of course, but I get the feeling that aside from a few denominational traditions out there that are customarily fixated on iniquitousness, the majority of Christians in the West are not well-versed in the specifics of the biblical witness regarding sin. This is not because we deny the problem of sin, but because we would rather hold it in our minds in a vague and generalized way, and then move right on past to the bits about love and salvation and faithfulness and a grace that is greater than all our sin.

And that’s understandable. The more sin can be that faceless, nebulous villain threatening the entire collected populace, the better we can function within the reality of its constant influence on our lives. It is only when I begin to consider just how guilefully and intricately its tentacles have entwined my own soul that I recall just how dire and desperate is this struggle.

Sin does not merely stunt spiritual growth, it creates a crippling drag on every motion in my life. And, worst of all, sin is a mirror that, when I dare to gaze into it, shows me not the face of some sinister outside invader, but myself. It reminds me that I am my own worst enemy.

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And that I look much cooler than I actually am…

The Apostle Paul was willing to look hard at this familiar face in the mirror, and then he conveyed his utter bewilderment with an equally bewildering description:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (Romans 7:15-20, NIV)

For the devoted Christian, this is the vexing mystery of sin. It is us, but it is also not us. Paul found this dilemma both infuriating and humbling. After all, no one enjoys looking in a mirror if they know something ugly is going to be staring back at them. We would much rather avert our eyes whenever that dark glass hoves into view. A few of us will go so far as to deny the mirror exists at all.

Thus, without noticing it, I had put together a course in which, over the span of four weeks, I forced both myself and the fifty people in the audience, to lock eyes with that gaunt and ghastly figure grinning back at them from their mirrors. And I was reminded of just how important (and yet terribly unpopular) an exercise this is for Christians. In the earlier days of the Church, this practice of constructively contemplating one’s sinfulness was known as mortification of the flesh. As an element of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life, mortification referred to willing meditation on the darkness and death that clings to the soul like June bugs on a T-shirt. It’s objective was the adoption of particular spiritual disciplines (e.g., fasting, chastity, solitary prayer) that would, little by little, purge from our souls the self-centeredness and deeply rooted compulsions which, as the Apostle Paul insisted, continually prevent us from living godly lives.

There is nothing fun about mortification of the flesh. Looking inward to identify our bad habits and behold our crippling wounds, even with the comforting guidance of God’s Spirit, is no picnic. It can be an arduous and uncomfortable process. If we forget the truth that Paul declared in Romans 8 (right on the heels of his personal lament about sin) – that there is no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ – we can easily sink into the murky depths of self-loathing and despair.

However, never has the ancient practice of mortification been more necessary than in our modern culture. This is an age in which people will rush to publicly shame someone who has violated or failed others, but will keep a tight-fisted hold on individualistic pride if and whenever their own shortcomings come to light. We have little trouble maligning others, but often refuse to admit our own shame. And while the Christian life is certainly not about shaming sinners – seriously, it is not about shaming sinners – it is absolutely concerned with how people come to identify, accept, and find forgiveness for their sins, which, contrary to popular worldly opinion, is the only way to really move on from them.

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And yet, knowing all of this, I still avoid looking in the mirror. As a minister, I too often preach the grace of God without taking the time to ponder its limitless depths. All the while, the masses continue their endless search for alternative, non-messy methods to overcome the rottenness they know lies at the core of their being.

All because we do not want to feel ashamed.

Thomas Merton identified this epidemic of denial in his journals:

“What (besides making lists of the vices of our age) are some of the greatest vices of our age? To begin with, people began to get self-conscious about the fact that their misconducted lives were going to pieces, so instead of ceasing to do the things that made them ashamed and unhappy, they made it a new rule that they must never be ashamed of the things they did. There was to be only one capital sin: to be ashamed. That was how they thought they could solve the problem of sin, by abolishing the term.

Oh, that we would brave the embarrassment and, yes, even the shame of our sin in order to find the way past it. If only we would learn that ignoring the plank in our own eye is responsible for far more disappointments in life than our neighbors’ specks could ever be. If only we would trust in the love and strength of the One who heals us – who called us out of the miserable grip of sin – and, in that source of confidence, level our gaze at the false self staring back at us in our mirrors.

As I told that gathered group of fellow sinners, if we are willing to do this – to bravely and honestly look inward and behold who we truly are – perhaps we will finally be able to see past the grim features and fiendish grin of the old, false self, and behold the truth that lies behind its leering eyes. Perhaps we would recognize the fear hidden beneath that gaze – that the old man in the mirror is dying, his power has been stripped away. He has been rendered nothing more than a fading shadow that now dissipates in the radiant light of the sun of righteousness.

Freedom breaks like the dawn, and, if we really look, within its rays we can indeed see the visage in the mirror slowly but surely being transformed from lowly sinner to soaring saint.

The Ridiculous Thought Experiment That May Save Your Life

I want to challenge you to contemplate something for the next few moments.

How would your life be different if you considered everything that happened to you – every situation or experience or person or, yes, even problem that came your way – as a gift? As something at least somewhat unexpected, and wholly unearned, undeserved?

What would change about the ways you carried yourself throughout your day-in-day-out routine if you disciplined yourselves to receive each question, each concern, each dilemma with a sense of wonder, of excitement at all the possibilities that lay in each moment?

Every long checkout line.

Every opportunity to help someone with directions.

Every bug-eyed kid peering at you over the back of the restaurant booth.

Every Facebook comment.

Every neighborhood dispute.

Every first episode of a new series on Netflix.

Every piece of music.

Every troubling news story.

Every parent-teacher conference when you suspect the report is going to be less than stellar.

To see all these things as gifts, to receive each little thing as groundwork for an utterly unique future – what would that do to your spirit? To your mood?

More importantly, what would become of the way you interacted with others? With your kids? Your spouse? Your parents and relatives? Your neighbors and coworkers?

Now, this may seem like an idealistic exercise, especially when we think about all the bad experiences that drift our way, sometimes daily. But all around us right now we can observe the trappings of the holiday season – a season that is marked by gift-giving. And I know well by now that not every gift I will receive this season is going to be enjoyable. From a friend, I’ll get a book I have no interest in reading. From a family member, I’ll get a shirt that is frightfully out-of-style, which I’ll have to slog to the mall in order to return. I’ll open the package from that relative who lives far away and it will be just as I suspected, another dog-ugly tie I can wear nowhere. (I don’t even wear ties!)

And yet, even in these disappointments, if I’m willing to look for it, I can find the potential for gladness and intimacy.

As a pastor, I talk often about the concepts of grace and forgiveness and gratitude. In Greek, the word for grace is charis, which means, “gift.” The word for forgiveness is apheses, which literally means, “release from bondage.” And the word for gratitude is eucharistia, “thankfulness.” Each word carries with it an air of unexpectedness – of hopeful surprise. Each word signals the opening of possibilities.

So, what would happen if everything was charis? Grace. A gift.

In everything we do, from going over the family budget, to keeping the house relatively clean, to disciplining our children, what if we looked carefully for the opportunities to issue apheses, a release from bondage, or remission of a penalty?

In this volatile day and age, it seems to me there are really only two kinds of people, but it isn’t the happy and the sad, and it isn’t the kind and the mean. It’s the thankful and the dissatisfied. What if you chose eucharistia – to be thankful in all things?

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. – Frederick Buechner, Now and Then

Christ the King

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the last day of the Christian Church calendar.

Depending on the tradition of the faith in which you worship, you may or may not observe this particular day. There are a lot of significant days and seasons within the Church year, and almost all denominations observe at least some of them (e.g., Christmas, Good Friday, Easter). If you are Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox, it is likely your worshipping community follows the Christian calendar very closely, including such focal observances as the Feasts of Epiphany, the Annunciation, and Pentecost, to name merely a few. The same is mostly true for more “high church” traditions like Anglicans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and some Methodists, in which it is not out of the norm to participate in special services like Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Trinity Sunday.

While it is less common in “low church” circles like the Baptists, Assemblies of God, and the majority of non-denomination communities to observe many aspects of this ancient Christian liturgy, the last decade or so has seen a resurgence of ancient traditions within modern contexts of church worship. Younger generations, including those that did not grow up within liturgically based systems, are beginning to reintegrate an increasing number of observances and practices once considered outdated or traditionalistic.

What makes Christ the King Sunday a valuable component of the Church calendar for all Christians, regardless of denominational tradition, is not simply the fact that it stands as the culminating observance of the whole year (which will begin anew next Sunday with the first week of Advent). It is what the central theme of this “feast” is concerned with, which is the crowning of Jesus Christ, in a devotional sense, as Messiah and ruler over every aspect of our lives. Having anticipated his incarnation during the season of Advent, celebrated his birth throughout the twelve days of Christmas, recognized within the season of his Epiphany the greatness of his mission, the genius of his teaching, and the glory of his wonders, followed him throughout Lent as he set his face toward Jerusalem, mourned his death on Good Friday, glorified him on Resurrection Sunday, and accepted his call to a revolutionary discipleship at Pentecost, we finally arrive at a moment of “completion” (Phil. 1:6) at the Feast of Christ the King.

While a relatively new observance within the liturgical year (it’s current placement on the calendar was established in 1925), I can think of no better way to culminate the Christian year than by crowning my Lord and Savior as king over every part of my life. As Pope Pius XI wrote upon the establishment of this feast day:

“If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.”

Or, consider how Frederick Buechner puts this concept of personal Lordship in his memoir, The Sacred Journey, as he recalls the sermon that finally moved him to a point of conversion, delivered by the renowned preacher, George Buttrick:

There came one particular sermon with one particular phrase in it that does not even appear in a transcript of his words… I can only assume that he must have dreamed it up at the last-minute and ad-libbed it and on just such foolish, tenuous, holy threads as that, I suppose, hang the destinies of us all. Jesus Christ refused the crown that Satan offered him in the wilderness, Buttrick said, but he is king nonetheless because again and again he is crowned in the heart of the people who believe in him. And that inward coronation takes place, Buttrick said, “among confession, and tears, and great laughter.” It was the phrase great laughter that did it, did whatever it was that I believe must have been hidden in the doing all the years of my journey up till then. It was not so much that a door opened as that I suddenly found that a door had been open all along which I had only just then stumbled upon.

On Christ the King Sunday, we shed every allegiance that, whether intentionally or not, sets itself up as contrary to the Kingdom of God and its principles. We worship the glory and splendor of the coming King, but we also take a long, sobering look at ourselves and the myriad ways we are so regularly disturbed by, and entangled in, the fleeting, finite affairs of a world that is constantly trying to save itself through its own limited ingenuity.

So, in a day and age when, through both news and social media outlets, we are subjected to the blustering bravado of self-centered, image-obsessed world leaders…

When, in search of a better life, we make the mistake of placing our hope in partisan platforms, legislative moralizing, and the dubious assurances of politicians who are well versed in the dog-whistle buzzwords of various faith-based groups…

When we so frequently trade the timeless spiritual disciplines of formative prayer and Scripture-reading for pop spirituality fads and self-help books that do our study of the Bible for us…

When we stray from the ancient way of humility, compassion, and forgiveness because we buy into a lie that certain people with certain hangups, or particular groups hailing from particularly nasty regions, have in some way crossed a line which allows us to withhold our kindness and leniency…

When we forego the call to bear an honest and persuasive witness to the Way of Jesus and instead give in to the instant satisfaction that comes by way of pithy soundbites and hashtag “prayers”…

Of these things, we repent.

For these things, we ask forgiveness.

From these things, we confess our need for deliverance.

Before the refrains of the Advent hymns and Christmas carols begin anew, we pause today to swear the only allegiance that will endure – to profess faithfulness and obedience to the one true and worthy King. We bow our knees, realizing that this is not only good and right to do, but it is also the very reason we were given knees at all, so they might bend before the perfect authority and unrivaled mercy of the One through whom all things live and move and have their very being.

The Veterans’ Day Lesson I Never Expected

I am the son of a veteran.

My father is a retired Air Force pilot. He flew missions in the Vietnam conflict as well as the Balkans. During Operation Desert Storm, he spoke to an assembly of my entire middle school student body about the reasons for the war and the United State’s objectives in aiding the Kuwaitis. Throughout his career, he flew everything from bombers to F-4 Phantoms to the A-10 Thunderbolt (a.k.a. the “Warthog”). I still remember occasionally looking up to the sky during afternoon soccer practice and seeing that funny-looking, green warplane, with its massive front cannon, gliding across the sky. It would suddenly bank to the side, circle around, and fly over again, this time dipping its wings back and forth. This, I knew, was my father returning to Bergstrom Air Force Base after a trip. He had adjusted his flight-path in order to say a quick hello to his son (while simultaneously solidifying his status, in the eyes of all my teammates, as the coolest dad in the world).

Growing up, I played with models of various airplanes – A-4 Skyhawks, F-14 Tomcats, F-15 Eagles, F-16 Falcons, the list goes on. I watched Top Gun so many times as a kid that to this day I can still quote the final air battle scene in its entirety. And I stood in awe at airshows watching jet pilots scream across the sky performing barrels rolls and synchronized maneuvers. More than anything, though, I loved watching that twin-engine monstrosity roar in low and reduce a targeting shack to a billion exploding splinters of debris.

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Eat your heart out, Tony Stark.

I am exceedingly proud of my father, for his service, for the career he chose, and for what he taught me about discipline, honor, and respect for our country. I do not take it lightly that people like him (not to mention his father and two of my cousins who served in the Marine Corps) have dedicated their lives to protecting this country and its interests. And while I realize not every modern military conflict is directly concerned with our personal freedom, I still recognize that the freedoms we enjoy in this country and the possibility for an even brighter future is what inspires men and women like my father to serve.

I did not choose the line of work my father did. A thousand Top Gun viewings notwithstanding, I was afraid of flying. I still am. I’m also terrible at math, which any jet pilot will tell you is an integral part of the job.

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Not the best place to run out of fuel because you forgot to carry the one.

Instead, I entered another form of service. I dedicated my life to preserving and furthering the freedom of a different kind of country – a freedom, I believe, that is far more precious than even the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. And, on this Veterans’ Day, I recognize that my father’s military service has helped me comprehend a much deeper truth about my own choice of career.

As a pastor, I am tasked with teaching the disciplines of this other country we call the Kingdom of God. It is my job to incite respect and encourage honor for the interests of our Creator and his people. And just as our commander-in-chief, Jesus the Son of God, laid down his life for the sake of every kingdom citizen, so must I be ready and willing to sacrifice my own for the sake of his gospel. This isn’t just a job. It’s a calling. A way of life. And I do not undertake this service merely because I am commanded to, but because, like a good soldier fighting to preserve the interest of the country he loves, I am irrevocably inspired by the freedom I have in Christ, and the promise of a bright, shining future.

Without realizing it, the dedication my father exhibited to his career in the Air Force was at the same time preparing me for my own career in the fields of our Lord. And for that, above everything else, I am abundantly grateful.

So, thank you, Dad, for the discipline, honor, and respect you taught me. Thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for the missions. Thank you for your life of service.

And thanks for those fly-bys over soccer practice. That was freaking awesome!