Monday, October 18, 2010

Fear or Faith? A Christian Understanding of Halloween

Pentecost 23, Proper 26, October 31, 2010, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore

Anthropological evidence suggests that the evergreen was a symbol of hope in the midst of the cold of winter for the ancient Germanic tribes from very long ago, from which we get the Christmas Tree. However, there is a more interesting story of its origin. St. Boniface was an Welsh missionary bishop to the Germans in the early 8th century. A story about Boniface tells us that a child was about to be sacrificed at the root of a large oak sacred to the Norse gods. The bishop cut down the tree to prevent the sacrifice and prove the power of Jesus Christ over the Norse gods. He noticed that a spruce tree sprang up among the roots of the felled oak. He used the tree as a teaching symbol to the Germans about the birth of hope. Thus, says the story, we get the Christmas Tree.

The two sources, Boniface and anthropology, are certainly not mutually exclusive. As with the Easter Egg and many other symbols we have lost, pre-Christian symbols were often "baptized" with Christian meanings in the missionary setting in order to help pre-Christian peoples understand the faith. The same thing goes on today. The men of the Tsachi people among whom I grew up used to die their hair with achiote die and Vaseline as a symbol of masculinity and dress. With contact from the outside the practice has died almost completely away...except for in the church where it has become a symbol of cultural pride that says, "As Christians we are confident enough to wear the achiote in spite of what the world may say about us because we know what God thinks of us."

Halloween from a Christian perspective has to do with love and faith vs. fear. Ancient Celtic peoples celebrated the fall equinox as the beginning of their new year. They called it "Samhain," and it was one of the four great feasts of the year coinciding with the equinoxes and the solstices. Feast days were understood by the ancient Celts to be a time when the veil between this life and the other life was thin. On the other side live the gods and the spirits, and also the souls of the dead. This one in particular was known to be prone to a mixing of the other world and this one. There existed the very real possibility that one could slip unawares into the other side, and this was uniformly a horrifying experience, but also the spirits and the souls of the dead would slip into our world and torment us. The only way to keep them at bay was to appease them with sweet things to eat. This was play-acted by people who would dress up as the dead and the spirits and go from house to house asking for treats, which is where we get trick-or-treating. But in the long run it was a day of solemnity and import, and also of great fear. There was fear one might be sucked into the horrific experience of the other side, and there was fear that if one did not appease the spirits that bad things would happen to them.

When Patrick and his friends began to preach the Gospel in Ireland they recognized several things right off the bat (being Celts themselves.) Samhain contained much error from the Christian standpoint, but also some truth. The truth is that the spirits of the faithful departed are not far away, the lie is in the motivation of fear. God has not given a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind.

The early Christian missionaries to Ireland could have used the precedent set by our Lord with Zacchaeus. (Recently I asked what link people could make between Zacchaeus and Halloween, and prize for the most creative answer has to go to the one who suggested that Zacchaeus would make a good Halloween costume for short people…unless you wanted to be the tree as well, and then it would work for tall people!) But I submit the following as a tad more helpful: Zacchaeus was far from a good man. He had lived many years under the power of greed, which is the devil's work. He had cheated his fellow Jews and sold out on the hope of Israel. And yet there was something worth redeeming in Zacchaeus. It turned out that his greed was merely his generous heart bound by fear. When the fear was defeated the generosity of a large soul made its appearance, and the Kingdom of God came near that home that day.

And so Patrick and his followers did what Christians have done around the world. They worked to defeat the fear. They baptized the practice and infused it with Christian meaning. The spirits of the dead are not to be feared, for they are in the hand of God. The spirits of the other world are not to be feared, for Christ has conquered their kingdom as well. Now we are free to share sweet things with those who have gone before (and their present actors) as an act of Christian generosity and love rather than fear.

We believe that generosity is more than its own reward, as all virtue is. Not only is it right and therefore pleasing, it builds community—in this case community with all God's saints, living and dead. The basis of Christian community is faith, not fear. Hence we place the celebration of the feast of All Saints on this date. Halloween is an abbreviation of All Hallows' Eve, or, the night before All Saints'. It is a day when we celebrate the communion of saints, living and dead, with acts of generosity and love born of faith.

I have often heard from Christian sources that Halloween should not be celebrated by Christians because it is the devil's day. I believe that statement is riddled with hidden faithlessness and fear. The Church won the day for the Kingdom 1500 years ago, and it is perfectly fitting to celebrate it in a Christian way by Christians. To call it the devil's day is to give it back to the enemy after we won it in fair fight with the divine weapons of faith and love and grace! It would make just as much sense to sign a soul back over to the enemy after winning it for Christ. It gives in to the fear that the conquering of the day overcame. It's just cowardly. (To substitute a "Fall Festival" in the church is to dishonor those saints who labored so long to make it what it is. A Fall Festival is an entirely different event, and we celebrate that on Thanksgiving.)

Have faith, my brothers and sisters, do not give in to fear in this or any place in your life. Do not fear the economic system of our day. Do not fear those who oppose your position politically. Do not fear those whose religious beliefs drive them to horrific acts against humanity. Do not fear those who know your heart and could ruin you. Instead, be generous. Give to those who take. Believe in those you don't agree with. Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you. Believe in the Zacchaeus in your life, be the holy fool, shining with the light of God's grace, know that knowledge is limited, but love is infinite, and share the incredible, irrefutable, and inexhaustible love of God in the world.

Hang in There!

Pentecost 21, Proper 24, October 17, 2010, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore

I have a very persistent dog. She believes that if she can just get close enough to one she can eat a cow. She believes that any dog on the block that is talking must be answered in like manner, only louder. She believes that absolutely no one should pass our house un-greeted, and she desperately believes that there is buried treasure in my woodpile. Nothing I have done to influence her has been much more than marginally successful.

We worship a God that is persistent. God makes my dog look like a roll-over washout of a wimp. God's persistence is inexorably present, it is unmovable and unstoppable, and nothing the human race has done in the whole history of existence has managed to deflect it. Today's readings illustrate persistence.

In today's first lesson Jacob is not exactly on the right path. Jacob has been in Haran at his uncle Laban's for last couple of decades. He went there ostensibly to find a wife, but the real reason is that he had tricked his older brother Esau out of his birthright (the lion's share of the inheritance) and he was running for his life. While in Haran Jacob has managed to take control of the household flocks and herds. With Laban less than happy with him, he steals away at night with two of Laban's daughters that are his wives, and the family idols. Now he is headed back to Canaan to his father's house. He gets word that Esau has not forgotten. He is coming with 400 armed men, and Jacob is terrified. The lesson says he wrestled with a man all night long. We find out in the morning that the man is an angel. But the wrestling is not with God as much as it is with his own self, and God is a player in that struggle. But he persists and the angel blesses him.

In the Epistle lesson Paul writes to Timothy, his protégé in Ephesus. He warns him about coming apostasy in the church, and he urges Timothy in several different ways to persevere in the face of adversity. "Be persistent, whether the time is favorable or unfavorable," he writes. Timothy needs a blessing, and like Jacob, he is going to have to wrestle for it.

In the Gospel Jesus tells the parable of the persistent widow. She has a case to bring before the judge, but the judge has the integrity of some of the judges in Williamson County. She is so persistent that she wears him down. He grants her justice, not because it is just, but because the woman won't leave him alone. If this is how the world works how much more eagerly will your heavenly Father grant us justice? Luke gives us the moral of the story before we begin: Prayer should be constant without losing heart.

Today, persistence is a spiritual virtue but a social vice. We live in an instant world. We want faster and faster internet connections, instant breakfast, instant oil changes, instant pictures, instant marriage and instant divorce. If it takes until tomorrow to get what I want I'll change what I want. Here is where our culture today is really quite broken.

God asks us to be persistent, not to change His mind, but to change ours. When we struggle for something and hang on through the dark nights of the soul until we emerge to a new day, something happens within us that can only happen that way. We are purged of our short-sighted impatience, and granted wisdom and blessings we cannot imagine. Cases in point: Jacob meets Esau and the meeting does not end in a bloodbath, but a reconciliation. Timothy hangs on and the church in Ephesus becomes one of the pillars of the ancient Christian world. The widow hangs on and gets justice. Jesus hangs on through the cross and the tomb to win for us abundant life—and this, ultimately, is the paradigm, the explaining model. Jesus conquers the sin and brokenness of our living by persistence through suffering, and so do we. Jesus is not teaching us to do something he has not already done in spades. He sets the example.

The example goes straight to the heart of God. Look at the whole trajectory of salvation. Adam and Eve have it good and mess it up, and God promises redemption. Think of Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, the kings, the return from exile, and finally, Jesus. The whole Bible can be read as a story of God's persistence in redeeming His fallen creation.

And think how many times God has called out to you, keeping you safe in adversity and danger, granting you people to love, work to inspire and challenges that bring out the best in you? And how many times will He forgive you when you turn to him in repentance? Michael Card has a song about Jacob called Asleep on Holy Ground. The chorus says it all:

He limped away on holy ground awakened from the dream,

Having learned his costly lesson from the way of the Nazarene;

That pain's the path to blessing, love will fight us to be found,

And God remains a dream to those who sleep on holy ground.

Love will fight us to be found, over and over and over again. Can we respond with anything less?

I recently read one of the earliest reliable sources we have about the ancient Celtic Saints. If there was anything in the life of Cuthbert that traces a golden thread through his days it was persistence. As a child he was always in front. He won in sports, in school and at play, he was the best and he knew it. So when God called him to a life of prayer he was naturally going to do it with all his heart. He would spend night after night in prayer, he would submerge himself in the icy waves all night long in order to calm the fire of his passions. When things got just too worldly around him he moved to the island of Farne to set up a hermitage. There he lived out his days in virtual isolation, spending the time in prayer. And the miracles attributed to his prayer include house-fires quenched, healings, evil men converted, crops saved from devastation, ships saved at sea, and a host of other things.

We're not persistent in order for God to grant us our selfish desires, no, we're persistent because God is persistent in loving the world, and we want to be the same.


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

So who is surprised?

Telemundo's Despierta America just launched a new program called Mira Quien Baila. It's kind of a take-off of Dancing with the Stars. One of the judges is known to have a rather caustic tongue, which has upset some of the dancers, and consequently, lent pathos to the program and gained viewers. It happened again, but this time the dancer got even.

The dancer is Cuban singer, dancer and erotic model Niuka Marcos, even while riding on the shoulder of her partner, shot the finger at the judge with both hands. Afterwards, as she left, she flipped up her skirt in the back at him. When questioned about it she said, "Those are natural human reactions."

She's right, they are, just like punching someone in the nose for stepping on my toe, and cutting someone off in traffic because they cut me off, or shooting someone at a red light because they flipped me off. Just because we have the reactions doesn't mean we act on them. The reactions promise a lot of things: a sense of satisfaction, supremacy over another, justice served, but too often they move us away from those goals instead of toward them. Human society serves many functions, and one of them is helping us to determine the proper behavior in light of a given inner reaction, one that is helpful rather than hurtful in the longest run.

I hear people say, "Follow your inner inclinations, for they always tell you the wisest path." "Your instincts will never let you down." "Your heart understands what your head does not." Joseph Campbell is famous for his phrase, "Follow your bliss." All of these statements are true on the deepest level to which you can take them. The reactions described above are rather superficial, and we get into trouble when our superficial reactions masquerade as deeper inclinations of the heart.

One of the functions of religious disciplines is to get us in touch with the deepest parts of ourselves so that we can learn to tell the difference. Maybe Ms. Marcos needs more church.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Listening to Wusses

When it comes to chips I am neither a connoisseur nor a major consumer. For me there are two categories of chips: Frito Scoops and all others. Fritos are delightfully and sinfully salty and greasy, and they hold a LOT of guacamole. The others are all pretty much the same, but less, and all chips in the final analysis are merely edible spoons by which to get guac or pico from the plate to the palate. And so, when we wanted to take chips to a function the other day I glanced up and down the interminable row at the grocery store, at the interminable variety of chips, grabbed the necessary Scoops, and then two other bags—Frito Lays in the new crinkly biodegradable bags. The fact that the bags were biodegradable was the only feature that made them stand above the masses.

So this morning I learned that Frito Lay is pulling the bags. They say people don't like the sound of the crinkly bags. Apparently there are some people out there that care more for their tender ears than the death of the planet…I guess when the planet explodes they won't have to listen to crinkly bags, or anything else, for that matter. This is major evidence of wuss-hood. These people are talking from somewhere else than their heads or even hearts, and that is a major issue, but there have always been wusses in the world. The bigger issue arises when leaders listen to them. Why in **** should the world be run by wusses?

Frito Lay could have turned it in their favor and done the earth one at the same time by running an ad: [crinkle, crinkle, crinkle] and a sexy girl croons in a soft British accent, "Love the sound of a healthy planet!"