Thursday, October 24, 2019

Death & Life on Halloween

One of my daughter’s closest friends was killed in a hit-and-run accident on Halloween night in 2001. Brandi was struck by a drunk driver as she was walking along the side of a road with two friends. The collision threw her body fifty yards, (yes, yards, not feet) and then the vehicle sped away. She was taken off life support twelve days later and died at the age of 19. The driver served only five years in prison for this callous killing. This sweet girl was a core member of our youth group in the church that I pastored in Massachusetts. She is the reason I think about death on Halloween.

On October 31, Americans take a break from their daily routine to symbolically interact with death. Halloween is populated by deathly creatures: ghosts, skeletons, zombies, vampires and other undead beings. Fake tombstones sprout from front lawns, strange creatures wander the streets and knock on our doors, and haunted houses try to scare the willikers out of people.

It is the way our society has developed to cope with the specter of death and thumb our noses at our own mortality. Halloween is rooted in the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain, which marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the leaner and darker half of the year. In the 4th century Christians baptized the holiday into the new faith of the Roman Empire but retained many of its earlier elements.

Christians call it All Saints Day and All Souls Day and use the days to remember those who have died. Many churches have a time in their service to remember loved ones, especially those who have died in the past year. Often it involves the lighting of candles. Such ceremonies can be very meaningful, as they celebrate the “communion of saints” and our ongoing emotional and spiritual connection to those who have died.

Protestant churches observe Reformation Day on October 31, or Reformation Sunday on the previous Sunday. This year marks the 502nd anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which was the beginning of the process of Protestants splitting from the Roman Catholic Church. There was a big celebration two years ago for the 500th anniversary. Did you miss it?

Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, thereby starting the ecclesiastical schism. Luther was protesting – in part – the Catholic practice of selling indulgences, which was a way for Christians to get their deceased loved ones released from purgatory early, while at the same time raising money for the church.

A nearby church is advertising that they will celebrate Reformation Sunday this Sunday, explaining that this was “when the Word of God came out of the darkness into light.” The pastor’s sermon is entitled "Biblical Faith Defined - True faith = Changed life” and adding, “Who or what do you put your trust in for eternity?” In other words this church is focusing on the fate of the individual’s soul after death.

At the Sandwich Fair there was a booth manned by a fundamentalist group proclaiming a similar message. We were handed a tract by a young girl explaining that all religions besides their brand of Christianity are lies of the devil. According to them, nearly everyone (except them) is headed for hell. It is just another way to scare the willikers out of people. (What are “willikers” anyway? Gee willikers!) Again it is all about death and what comes afterward.

It is interesting how death-related holidays fascinate people at this time of year, as winter begins its descent on the northern hemisphere. Perhaps that is because so many people used to die during the winter. That still happens. As a pastor I have had to deal with death and people’s attitudes toward death all the time. I had to soothe people’s fear of dying and field questions about afterlife.

Personally I have dealt with the issue by embracing the ancient wisdom to “die before you die.” The New Testament is filled with this teaching. “Reckon yourself dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it.” These verses teach us to experience the reality of our death now, so that we can truly live.

That is what these holidays seek to do in different ways. Too many Americans live in dread of dying, which translates into fear of disease, injury and human enemies. We obsess over protecting ourselves from harm and prolonging our lives at all costs. It fuels the gun control and healthcare debates in our country. It has resulted in a society that hoards weapons, glamorizes violence, and created a dysfunctional pharmaceutical and medical industry.

There is nothing to fear but fear itself. The ghosts and monsters are only smiling children in disguise. Death cannot hurt us. It only destroys the body. You are safe. Dying is a momentary suffering that opens into eternity. The death of the material body awakens us to our spiritual nature.

Awaken to that true nature now and get it over with. Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” What he meant was: “Before the universe was, I am.”  Abide in what you were before the birth of the universe. That is what we are. Then, as Jesus constantly reminded his followers, “Do not fear.”

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