Friday, October 24, 2008

Can a Christian Celebrate Halloween?

Of course. However, many contemporary Christians are concerned about Halloween. Given the rise in the practice of witchcraft, the occult, and satanic worship, coupled with the fact that the deepest roots of the Halloween tradition come from an ancient pagan Celtic festival which pre-dates Christian faith, I believe that it is important that every parent have an awareness of what lies behind the Halloween tradition. Many of us will celebrate the fun and frolic this year, and how we practice and teach this cultural tradition to our children needs to be an informed decision.

There is a lot written on the subject of a Christian response to Halloween from a variety of sources, ranging from the most belligerent and judgmental to the most academic in nature. Some Christian criticism of Halloween is erroneous and inaccurate when compared with the actual roots of the festival. So here's my attempt to offer an accurate assessment of the origins of Halloween. I hope it helps Christian families make a decision on their acknowledgement of the holiday.

Origins of Halloween

Contrary to some Christian criticism, Halloween did not originate as a satanic festival but as religious in nature (though it was the Celtic faith of ancient Druids rather than Christianity). This is an important distinction, for any association between Halloween and satanic worship is a modern phenomenon. In Celtic faith, there was no real concept of heaven or hell. Some fundamentalist sources have called Halloween a festival worshipping the devil or a “demonic god of death”, which is not accurate. Halloween is a descendant of the ancient Celtic new year festival of Samhain, a feast of the dead signaling the close of the harvest and the initiation of winter. There is no evidence that Samhain was considered a deity as claimed. The Celts believed that when people died, they went to a land of eternal happiness called Tir nan Og. It was believed that at Samhain, the turn of the new year, the separation between Tir nan Og and our world was at its thinnest, and the living could communicate with their beloved dead.

The origins of what we call "trick or treating" come from the most ancient form of the festival. Celts did not have demons and devils in their belief system. But they did imagine that fairies, neither bad nor good, would roam the lands between the worlds of the living and peaceful dead (in a sort of "purgatory"). Resentful of humans moving about their lands, they would try to trick them. Bonfires were lit to ward off the mythical figures. Humans would cause mischief and imitate or dress up like these fairies, going from house to house begging for treats, which usually amounted to food or milk. The people who roamed abroad would sometimes carry turnips carved with faces with a candle inside to scare away the "real" fairies and also light their way. This is the origin of the Jack-o-Lantern.

Little else is known about the festival, except that it was an important transition into the new year, with party-like fervor like modern new year celebrations. It is true that in its most ancient practice there was probably animal and possibly human sacrifice, not unlike other pagan religious practice of the ancient world. There is also evidence of divination and playful fortune telling practices, which is the origin of "bobbing for apples" (the first to bite was the next to get married, like the modern toss of the wedding bouquet).

While there is historical evidence of ancient occult practice and what we now call witchcraft in the origins of Halloween, these practices were consistent with ancient pagan religious life according to their world-view. In recent decades, satanic and cultic groups have claimed Halloween as a "holy day,” but Christian accusations concerning demonism or satanic worship in the ancient festival are simply not accurate.

All Saints' Day - a Day of the Church

One of the most wonderful things we can do in the church is use the occasion of Halloween to teach about All Saints' Day. The Church practice of All Saints Day developed in the seventh century A.D. It was originally called the Feast of the Holy Martyrs and developed independently of Samhain to praise God and honor the deceased of the Christian faith. Yet centuries later (the A.D. 800's), the day was assigned to November 1 to coincide with, yet by no means adopt, what had continued as a local harvest festival. This sort of dating was not unusual. Christmas, for example, was set on December 25 to coincide with and alter the meaning of a pagan holiday celebrated as the winter solstice Festival of the Unconquered Sun. Even the English word "Easter" reflects the name of a pagan cultural festival originally associated with the season.

Modern churches practice All Saints' and All Saints' Sunday (the first Sunday after November 1) and remember all those who have gone before us in the faith and our spiritual connection between all the "saints" of earth and those that have gone to heaven. We celebrate in the spirit of the book of Hebrews 11 and 12 and remember the "cloud of witnesses" that give us energy to carry on the work of the gospel.

An interesting twist on all this is that the name "Halloween" is actually derived from its later association with All Saints, formerly called "All Hallows" during Medieval times. October 31 became called "All Hallows Eve" and the name was later shortened to "Halloween."

The Christian and Halloween

You and your family can decide what is appropriate for you as Halloween is celebrated in our culture, and I don't propose a singular solution. You may want to consider alternatives, some of which may be subtle (dressing up in "good character" costumes not associated with evil, displaying harvest pumpkins, or having family parties). I would certainly suggest using the holiday to teach children about the triumph in Christ of good over evil and the joy and celebration of All Saints. Churches, too, could consider some form of an alternative witness through festivals, food drives, or trunk parties rather than participating in the darker side of Halloween. In any case, it is always important for God's people to resist all serious association with the scary, the superstitious, and anything that gives credence to the occult.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Comparison of Political Party Platforms and the United Methodist Church

Methodists are a diverse people. Wesley is well known for saying “we may not all think alike, but can we not all love alike?” Even though we see things in different ways, as a whole we take seriously our Christian calling when it comes to good citizenship. Did you know there are more Methodists in congress than any other denomination? Yet the fact that both Hillary Clinton and George Bush are members of the United Methodist Church might tell you something about our diversity of viewpoint.

With the election coming, it's important for Christians be prepared to vote based on our faith's heart leadings and in light of the complex issues of our day. I would like to share with you a helpful document from the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church. It encourages thoughtful voting and is intended as a discernment tool to help evaluate potential leaders and political agendas as they relate to the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. Check out the Comparison of Political Party Platforms and The United Methodist Church.

Friday, October 17, 2008

May God Bless You with Discomfort

Here is a Franciscan Blessing I recently shared in worship. I found it to be powerful. What do you think?

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain in to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Last Lecture

On Sunday, I shared about Randy Pausch's inspiring "last lecture" while considering our theme "Journey to a Grateful Heart." Facing death from pancreatic cancer (which transpired 3 months ago), he delivered this lecture to his students a year ago on "Achieving Your Childhood Dreams." He had found such a place of deep gratitude about life. I long to be at such peace and perspective. Here it is:

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mysticism as Encountering the Divine

I recently heard a brief and fascinating interview given by Carl McColman. He finds a way to clarify what mysticism is in his interview on mysticism. Check it out!

Here is what I wrote on his blog in response:

Thank you so much for this. Your basic premise, that a mystic is one who finds a way into direct contact with God, is one I really resonate with. By that definition, there are certainly mystics in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I have experienced, by grace, “mystical moments” along my journey, powerful moments when I felt a deep sense of oneness with God, often in the midst of intense struggle or searching. They were serendipitous and completely transformative. For me, they are a means of grace, gifts given me for a moment in time but for a meaning that transcends momentary time. It is not that I long for some kind of permanent and complete union with God while still on earth, nor is that even possible. But there are “thin places” along the journey of life and ministry that I relish.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Word for Each Decade of Life

Have you ever pondered each decade of your life as you look back? I suppose this would only work for those who have lived a few! Someone once defined spirituality as "poring over the stuff of life." This summer, I spent some time at Lake Junaluska, a pristine retreat setting in the Carolina mountains. I walked the beautiful two mile lake walk, and about 1/2 way around I saw the most gorgeous sunset shimmer over the water. I sat for a long, pregnant time of quiet. I am 43 years old. I could very well be at the 1/2 way point of my life, and what a shimmering place it seems to be for me. I am ready for the next chapter of my journey, whatever life brings.

Considering that I was at Junaluska on a mission of leadership that is new for me, I pondered what one word might describe each decade of my life to this point, and what one word might describe the season I am in now. What an exercise. I concluded that the first decade of my life was about GROWING. The second decade of my life was about BECOMING, discovering who I was and setting the basic direction of my life. The third decade was about STRIVING, about pushing to find my way, setting up career and family. The fourth decade was about LEARNING, and there were some very hard lessons to learn, too. What would be the decade I am in? Perhaps it's about MATURING. I hope so. I am in a new place and we'll see what it will be like to look back on it.

What single word might describe each decade of your life?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Voting Your Faith

My old high school friend, Greg, is the youth minister at a Catholic church near me. In this week's GregCast, he encourages people to "vote your faith" through a humorous, absurd journey through the world of stereotyping. He drives from store to store trying to ask people who they are voting for. It's silly and thoughtful at the same time. He asks really good questions about why we are afraid to talk about our beliefs. Check it out.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Music and Arts Week at Sumatanga

Many summers of my adult life, I have been a part of the leadership team of Music and Arts Week at Sumatanga. It is one of the "thin places" in my life where I have found a deeper sense of God's presence and I sense the Spirit moving pervasively as adults, youth, and children discover their gifts that can be used to glorify God.

There is now a video to promote Music and Arts Week, made by last year's videography class. Check out the Music and Arts Week Video!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Thoughts on the Bailout

I wouldn't dream of suggesting how our nation should address this economic crisis. I try to be a thoughtful voter as a part of my Christian spirituality and I seek responsible citizenship, but I'm certainly no economist. I will have to trust others on this one.

But I am intrigued by the huge sum that is being proposed to bail out Wall Street, and so suddenly. I saw a quote by the well known rock star Bono that has left me prayerfully mulling over how this experience is a real look in the mirror concerning our values. He says,

"It's extraordinary to me that the United States can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G8 can't find $25 billion dollars to save 25,000 children who die every day from preventable diseases."

G8 (the "Group of Eight") is an unofficial summit of leaders from the richest nations of the world. I don't understand the politics of Bono's statement, really, but I do understand the tragic truth in what he is observing.

Lord Jesus, help us. Cleanse and make new your people of the earth. Nudge us into the realization that we can touch the world by being good stewards of that which you have given us. This is not a world of scarcity but a world of bounty. There is enough for your children. There is enough.