Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Should Christians Celebrate Halloween?

My wife recently shopped at Hobby Lobby, and she asked the salesperson where the Halloween items were located. The shocked response was: “Oh No! We do not carry those!” We should have known. Hobby Lobby is owned by conservative Christians. They do not believe in promoting "pagan" holidays.

We recently had relatives visit us for the weekend. Again my wife asked if they were going to give out candy for Halloween. The answer was, “Oh no! We do not celebrate Halloween. That is Wicca!” Once again, we should have known. They belong to a conservative church that believes that demons are real and the earth is only 6000 years old.

As a Christian I have no problem celebrating Halloween. After all it is a Christian holiday. It is the night before All Saints Day (All Hallows Day) on November 1. It is a time to remember those we have lost to death. In worship we read the names of members of the congregation who have died during the past year. It is a healing time.

It is a time to celebrate eternal life. We usually sing one of my favorite hymns in church: “For All the Saints.” Sure, the date of Halloween has been adopted from the Celtic Samhain. That is not a deal-breaker. After all, the date for Christmas was adopted from the Roman Saturnalia. That doesn’t stop us from celebrating Christmas Eve, and I don’t see Hobby Lobby refusing to sell Christmas items.

So what if Wiccans celebrate Halloween? So what if the holiday has pre-Christian origins? That just shows that religions draw upon a common spiritual heritage and borrow from one another. That is also evident in the ubiquity of Flood myths in the world’s religions, not to mention virgin births, as well as dying and rising deities. Should we stop celebrating Easter because the name comes the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon deity, Eostre, the goddess of the dawn, who was celebrated at beginning of spring?

I like Halloween. It is a holiday that brings our subconscious fears into the open so we can play with them, poke fun at them, and laugh at them. It is a way of acknowledging the fear of death. We all die. Living in our death-denying American culture, it is healthy to be reminded of that fact. That is the reason for all those skeletons and tombstones. That is our fate, whether we admit it or not. “Alas, poor Yorick!”

I suspect the real reason many Christians reject Halloween is because they have not come to terms with their fear of death, in spite of worshipping a resurrected Savior. That fear is the unspoken source of the belief in the Rapture. It is a way conservative Christians hope to bypass death and get a pain-free trip to heaven.

Fear of death is why so many Christians cling to every possible minute of earthly life as tightly as any unbeliever. If Christians really yearned for heaven as much as they claim, they would be eager to get there – not trying to postpone paradise by every medical intervention available – usually accompanied with extended pain and exorbitant cost. 

So I celebrate Halloween as a Christian. We will be decorating our house and giving out goodies to youngsters at our house on Halloween. Our adult children will be bringing our grandchildren around their neighborhoods to trick-or-treat. I don’t do costumes, but I enjoy seeing the creativity of our neighbors’ costumes – both children and adults. So let me be the first to wish you a Happy Halloween and a holy and meaningful All Saints Day. 

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Does the Church Have a Future?

The headlines this week told the same old story: the American church is declining. This latest study, entitled 2020 Faith Communities Today, was done by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. It boasts of being the largest U.S. congregational survey ever conducted.

It confirms what Christians already knew - the American Church is hemorrhaging people. There are half as many people in church today as there were twenty years ago. The median worship attendance was 65 in 2020 compared to 137 in 2000. 

What will these churches look like in another twenty years? If the average age that I see in our churches is any indication, in twenty years most congregations will cease to exist. Those still in operation will be on life support provided by trust funds.

This survey indicates that churches declined across all denominations and theological persuasions. Mainline Protestants lost the most people, Catholics and Orthodox next, and Evangelicals least, but all are declining rapidly. As I have watched this decline I have been surprised at the lack of creative thinking in churches and denominations when addressing the decline.

For the most part they have responded by saying and doing the same old things and expecting different results. You know what Einstein said about that strategy! The Faith Communities Today survey concludes: “Traditional ways of worshipping, ministering to spiritual needs and organizing the business of congregations are no longer working adequately for many faith communities.”

As a Baptist I have been attentive to how Baptists have addressed the situation. The Southern Baptists in particular keep repeating the old mantra that the solution is more evangelism. Preach the gospel, plant more churches, give more money, and baptize more people. Just focus on the Great Commission and everything will be alright, they say. Not surprisingly the theme of the 2021 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention was “We Are Great Commission Baptists.”

No one stops to consider that maybe the gospel being preached is the problem. That is what I discovered when I deconstructed my evangelical Christianity a decade ago. I found that traditional Christianity bears little resemblance to the teachings of Jesus. Read only the words of Jesus in the New Testament – the so-called “red letters” – and you will discover that for yourself.

Christianity in America is a mishmash of American democracy, American culture, American politics, American prejudices, and American egotism. It is no wonder that conspiracy theories and Christian nationalism have become problems. Most churchgoers see very little difference between American values and Christian values. That is how the phenomenon of “Patriot Churches” emerged. Many Christians see no conflict between the cross and the flag.

When I read the gospels I see a man who was killed by the adherents of that type of religion. When I read the words of Jesus I see a man with direct, unmediated awareness of God. He spoke of a Kingdom of God that was not of this world, yet was also within us and around us. His experiential spirituality bears a strong resemblance to teachings found in other religious traditions of the world.

This ancient and perennial spirituality can save the declining church today. It would speak to people who have an interest in spirituality, but have been unable to find spirituality in Christian churches. If this gospel were recovered it could counter the festering anger, hate, bigotry, and intolerance that are so evident in social and political discourse today.

Yet it is unlikely the church will embrace this original gospel because that would mean the death of the present form of the church, with all its cultural and financial perks and privileges. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Only when the church is willing to die, will it live.

Jesus also said, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it.” The only way for the church to save itself is to lose itself. Only when the church stops trying to save itself and dies to self, can it be resurrected. Either way the old church is dead. Yet the true Church can never die. Long live the Church!



Thursday, October 14, 2021

Healing Light

I have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I have mentioned it before in this blog. I have had this condition all my life. Long before they had a name for it and before I was diagnosed by a physician, I can recall having the symptoms of SAD as a pre-teen. It is caused by a drop in serotonin levels in the brain due to a decrease in exposure to sunlight. It is the price I pay for living in the northern hemisphere.

Every autumn it creeps up on me as the days grow shorter. It is worst during the holidays as the winter solstice arrives.  This year it came on earlier than normal.  I could feel the effects of decreasing sunlight before Labor Day, while the weather was still very warm. Long before most people were thinking about winter, my emotions alerted me that I needed to address the situation.

My primary care physicians have prescribed Vitamin D and medication every fall and winter for years. A few years ago I started light therapy. It a full spectrum lamp which simulates sunlight and helps regulate the circadian rhythm. Every night when it gets dark I turn on a special lamp next to my chair as I read, write or watch television. It works wonders. The symptoms disappear in a few days, and stay gone as long as I remember to use the lamp every night.

Recently I have been thinking about the theological implications of light therapy. Light is a well-known symbol in spiritual traditions. Many religions find significance in the winter and summer solstices. Stonehenge gives archeological testimony of the antiquity of this practice. There is a reason spiritual awakening is called “enlightenment.” It is no accident that the original date for Christmas was the winter solstice and the definitive event of Christianity – the resurrection of Jesus – occurs at dawn.

Light is a fascinating phenomenon. It travels at the outer limit of speed. Nothing can move faster than light. As one approaches the speed of light, time slows down. Theoretically if one could travel at the speed of light, time would stop. That means that light is timeless – a fitting symbol for eternity.

“God is Light,” wrote the apostle John, “and in him/it there is no darkness at all.” “I am the Light of the World,” said Jesus. He made that statement immediately before healing a man blind since birth. Christ is healing light. Revelation describes the New Heavens and Earth as having no night. There is no need for the sun in the New Jerusalem for God is the Light.

Light includes all colors within it, which become visible when separated by a prism, producing a rainbow, another religious symbol. In that sense light is the One manifested as the Many. Light is the first of God’s creations according to the Genesis creation story. 

Light is healing for me. It physically bestows peace to me. It brings wholeness to mind and body. It restores me to who I am.  Because of its healing effect on me, light feels like home. Maybe that is the attraction of sunrises and sunsets. Nothing soothes my soul more than dawn at the lakeside, when the water is at perfect peace.

Light not only feels like home, it feels like who I am. Jesus said it: “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine!” This is more than a metaphor. He is talking about our original nature. Astronomer Carl Sagan famously remarked that humans are made of “star stuff.” He meant that the elements of our physical bodies were formed in the interior of stars.

We are more than star stuff. We are star light. That is what we essentially are. Jesus knew that about himself. That is what he meant when he said, “I am the Light of the world.” He was not speaking exclusively of himself. He said it was true of us as well. We are light. We were light before our sun was born. So let your light shine! 

Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Joy of Being Wrong

People are so certain they are right these days! This is the case in both politics and religion. People with strong opinions are certain that other people are wrong, and they are quick to point out exactly how wrong. They accuse others of being duped, deluded, brainwashed, deceived, misinformed and disinformed, without pausing to consider that this might be true of them as well.

They cannot imagine that they might be as wrong as their opponents. In fact it has become a sin to admit that we might be wrong. It is seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of conviction to admit we are wrong and change our mind. Changing one’s mind is seen as a character flaw. You are “flip-flopping.” Changing one’s political party or religion is the unforgiveable sin!

Strangely this standard is applied even to scientists, who are the most empirical of thinkers. If scientists change their mind on a matter – such as the COVID virus or vaccines - it is seen as a sign of conspiracy or incompetency. People no longer understand how science works. Scientific truth is not fixed. It is constantly changing. Scientific consensus is continually updated as new evidence is gathered. Something is wrong if scientists do NOT change their minds. Scientific truth evolves.

This is very different than religion or politics. Religion believes in unchangeable truths that were given “once for all” at some time in the past by a religious founder or reformer. (The reality is that religions also evolve, but they won’t admit it.) Political positions are based on “core values” and party loyalty that cannot be questioned or compromised. To question these principles is seen as betrayal. As the proverb says, true believers are “often wrong but never in doubt.”

I have come to realize that I am often wrong, and I seldom realize it until much later. Without a doubt I am wrong. (Yes, I recognize the contradiction and humor in that statement!) It is a joy to be freed from the burden of always being right! It is a blessing to realize that I am often wrong. Please do not believe anything I say without examining it for yourself!

The same goes for what you say to yourself, as you convince yourself of the rightness and righteousness of your positions. As I have often said to people in counseling sessions, “You do not have to believe the thoughts in your head.” Be as skeptical of your own opinions as you are of others’ opinions.

To be free from blindly believing our own thoughts is to be released from the tyranny of self. The autocratic self is far more dangerous to our freedoms than any president or political party. The self cannot tolerate being wrong, and for that reason is dangerous. Be especially wary of confirmation bias, which is the way we deceive ourselves while pretending to be open to new information. We are blind to our own blindness.

My awareness of my aptitude for wrongness came about during the deconstruction of my Christianity a decade ago. While ruthlessly examining my assumptions on matters of religion, I saw how wrong I was about so much … for so long. Once we see how easy it is to be wrong – and to be blissfully unaware of being wrong - we can never trust our thoughts so completely again.

Yet we must still make decisions about politics and religion and science, and we must act on our decisions. So let us do so carefully and humbly. Let us always (as a minister friend of mine used to pray) be “mindful of the faint but humbling possibility that we may be wrong.” 

May we have the courage to explore our doubts thoroughly. When we discover we are wrong, let us give thanks to God for the revelation and admit it joyfully! It means we are a little less wrong... hopefully. Unless I am wrong about that too!