Saturday, 31 October 2015

Halloween: its Pagan So Get Over It.

Halloween, and we have spent the afternoon with family in Mumbles. A leisurely walk along the front to Verdi’s, ice cream cones, and a stroll back to the car. We saw witches, zombies, and monsters, none more than four feet tall, bless them, and a husky dog dressed as a witch, complete with pointy hat, cloak, and bat wings. Shop workers were getting ‘into the spirit of things,’ suitably daubed with blood, and as we arrived home in the early dusk, parents were walking out with their kids ready to trick-or-treat.

Here in the UK, Halloween has a patchy history and receives a mixed reception. You won’t need to look far to find someone who will tell you, ‘We never had Halloween when I was growing up.’ Its true enough for a certain generation, although it goes back further than people imagine, as far as the 16th century at least. I never went trick-or-treating. In my childhood the day passed unremarked as we looked forward to November 5th and the opportunity to burn an effigy of a Catholic (C’mon, you know that’s what it is). Brits of a certain age will complain about its alien nature, ‘another American import,’ and about the commercialisation.

The younger generation, however, don’t appear to have a problem. They have grown up in a world that sells them, whether Halloween, Christmas, Easter, Diwali, Samhain, Thanksgiving, Hannukah, you name it, and for them Halloween has always been – hasn’t it?

In the United States it seems to be an institution and Christians here have puzzled over how it could sit so easily with so many American Christians. Yet, here we are, facing the same challenge; what do Christians do with Halloween?

You will recognise the word ‘hallow’ perhaps from the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Hallowed be your name.’ We’ll come back to that. To hallow something is to honour it as holy. The plural, hallows, means ‘saints’ and Halloween is short for ‘All Hallows Eve,’ All Saints Eve, and is celebrated on 31 October in a number of countries. It marks a time when, in some Christian traditions, the dead are remembered, including saints and martyrs.

How is it celebrated? Well, Christians in some places will go to church, sometimes abstention from meat is involved, eating certain fruits and vegetables helping to keep the vigil, hence the tradition of bobbing for apples. But, lets be frank, the Halloween I saw today, the one we fret about as Christians is anything but Christian in its content and culture. This is because this is a Pagan holiday, Samhain, that has been ‘baptised’ into the Christian Church in much the same way as Christmas. The latter might be said to be a successful ‘conversion’ inasmuch as people do identify it with Christ, even if their celebrations are worldly and commercial. The latter has failed to catch people’s imagination and is marked with involvement in the occult and divination, from the relatively harmless trick-or-treating, to the more serious celebrations held by Pagans across the world.

The picture (right) is called Snap-Apple Night painted by Irish artist Daniel Maclise in 1833. It was inspired by a Halloween party he attended in Blarney, Ireland, in 1832. The caption reads:Snap-Apple_Night_globalphilosophy

There Peggy was dancing with Dan
While Maureen the lead was melting,
To prove how their fortunes ran
With the Cards could Nancy dealt in;
There was Kate, and her sweet-heart Will,
In nuts their true-love burning,
And poor Norah, though smiling still
She'd missed the snap-apple turning.


It is a festival associated in people’s minds with ghosts, ghouls, witches, divination, tricks, and customs that far pre-date Christianity and have nothing to do with the Christian faith. For genuine Pagans it is as much a part of their calendar as is Easter for Christians, or Diwali for Hindus. For Christians there are clear warnings in Scripture against calling up the dead, divination, fortune-telling, and other occult practices. On the other hand, it is part of this world, and Christians are in this world, though we should not be of this world. It is a Pagan festival marked with distinctly Pagan symbolism and we are not Pagans, so why do Christians Celebrate Halloween? Indeed, we are to Hallow the name of God, and that means having no gods before him. We are a holy people, meaning set apart for service to God.

Christians are meant to be a light in a dark world and so we shouldn’t be surprised by the darkness, or that the world embraces the world’s own ways. Nor should we shake our fist at the darkness, which just looks silly. Its dark, get over it. We are not of this world and, while we pray for the world, witness to the world, and hope for the world, we should know that this world will pass away. Meanwhile, surely it is better to light one candle than curse Pagans for doing what Pagans do. How you do that will be different for different people, but we can’t be a light if we don’t stand in stark contrast to the darkness, and whatever we do must, surely, Hallow the name of God.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Fishers of Men, Makers of Disciples

When Jesus called James and John, he said, ‘Follow me , and I will make you become fishers of men.’ (Mark 1:17)

Have you ever been fishing? You should go. You can learn a lot from fishing. My older cousin took me fishing when I was a teenager. I learned to cast a line, draw in a fish, kill it, clean it, and cook it. The first time he went fishing he literally cut a pole from a tree, tied some twine to it, hung a safety pin and bait on the end and waited for the fish to bite; very Huckleberry Finn. He quickly learned the importance of good equipment, the right bait, and the value of patience.Discipleship costs

You have to have a good rod and line, ideally more than one, depending on whether you are fly fishing, using a spinning lure, or sticking a worm on your hook. Your equipment will be determined by what you will be fishing for, river trout, salmon, bream, carp, etc. and that will determine where and when you fish. You need a lot of patience, you see the fish don’t want to be caught. But it is all worth it when you land a decent trout, prepare it, cook it and put it on a plate in front of someone you care for.

If you went to the fish market with a fishing rod and announced you had come to fish, people would think you mad. The fish here are already caught, killed, and fresh ready for the table. In the fish market and kitchen you need a completely different set of skills and tools. What you will buy will depend on how confident you are, although fish are always pretty easy to cook. You will need to have kitchen implements instead of rod and line, condiments have to be carefully chosen, a cooking method decided upon, steaming, grilling, frying, etc. and something like vegetables, or salad and suchlike, to complement the meal.

Evangelism and discipleship are like that. When you evangelise you need a particular set of tools and skills, depending on who you will want to reach out to – children, students, adults, neighbours – and you need a lot of patience because, you see, they don’t want to get caught either. People don’t wake up one day thinking, ‘I hope a Christian comes by today and evangelises me.’ We need to test our methods, ask if our message is clear, whether we are speaking to the heart of their questions, and we need to persevere.

Before ascending back to the Father, Jesus charged his disciples:

‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me, Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And, behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Mt.28:17-20)

When people become Christians, they are meant to be as committed as those fish in the fish market, dead to their old lives and environment; there is no going back. The difference is, the fish remain dead, but Christians are born again into a new reality. The tools we need to deal with the saved are different from those we use to reach the lost. To make converts we need tools that bid them come, to make disciples we need tools that bid them grow. To the lost we unpack the bad news of their lost state, and bring the good news of Christ. To the saved we unpack the good news of their saved state and bring the challenge of kingdom living.

Too often I see the tools of evangelism brought to the task of discipleship. It does no good to use a lure to win your congregation to the church programme, to encourage engagement. Such a course produces a people who feel they must be convinced all the time, won over to the work of the kingdom. But they are already committed in becoming Christians and if they don’t understand that something is wrong. It only confuses, even robs people, to treat them as though still needing to be persuaded. A church is ill-served that is served the milk and not the meat of the gospel. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, ‘Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual, but as worldly – mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready for it.’ (1 Cor.3:1-2)

There is a sense of frustration here that, with the passing of time, there is still a singular lack of maturity where Paul looked for it. The writer to the Hebrews strikes the same vexed tone:

‘We have much to say…but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food. Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.’ (Heb.5:11-14)

Paul sees the fault in a church that fails to respond and grow. Today, I wonder how many churches are in that place because leaders are evangelising the saved, and not discipling them, chiding congregations for not getting involved, when those congregations are ill-prepared for involvement because not discipled. Used to being evangelised, ‘Why should we do this?’ they ask, expecting to be continually persuaded and convinced of the worth of kingdom living before launching out on the course set before them. Such people, to use a sporting analogy, may know the rules of the game, be familiar with the ideas of evangelism, discipleship, worship, and sacrifice, but don’t know the game. They are on the field of play, but have no instinct for what they are meant to do when the whistle blows. Such instinct comes from the discipline of training, learning it, and doing it until it becomes second nature to think and act like a disciple.

I spoke recently to an old friend I hadn’t seen in some time. He told me that his church was doing alright but that people ‘come and go.’ Its a common enough experience as Evangelical Christians across the city, and no doubt across the country, jump from bandwagon to bandwagon, following the crowd to the latest excitement and commotion. Of course, there will always be those spiritual gypsies who wander from place to place, whatever provision a church makes. But what of those who ‘move on’ because where they are simply isn’t meeting their need for discipleship. People have an instinct for growth, for asking ‘what happens now?’ and what are they to do when it appears to be ‘happening’ over there and not where they are?

The greatest obstacle to a church’s growth and development is not the challenges it faces, but the challenges it is protected from. Challenge people in discipleship and they will grow to be the people God intended them to be.

Cost of Discipleship David Platt

Saturday, 10 October 2015

The First Commandment Ever

When we talk about ‘the first commandment’ we think about Exodus 20 verse 3, ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ This is, of course, the first commandment in the Decalogue and is a reminder to God’s newly redeemed people that God alone is God. It seems that God’s people have always needed reminding of this. In Genesis God gave man the most privileged status in creation; made in the image and likeness of God, with god-like dominion over and responsibility for the whole created order (Gen.1:26) charged with stewarding the earth as would God were he to take direct control. This is illustrated in the story of Adam naming the animals in Genesis 2:19-20.Giovanni Battista Foggini (?). 'The Fall of Man,' ca. 1650-1700. bronze. Walters Art Museum (54.676): Acquired by Henry Walters, 1903.

There is only one commandment to regulate them; ‘Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’ (Gen.2:17 ESV) Everything else is instruction to the stewarding of the creation. ‘Knowledge of good and evil’ is popularly understood as moral discrimination, often involving sexual awareness. This makes little sense in light of the fact that a) the man and the woman were instructed to procreate -‘multiply and fill the earth’ Gen.1:28 and b) given a moral choice regarding this tree, which would make no sense if they had no moral compass.

Knowledge of good and evil’ is a literary device called a merism. A merism expresses totality by reference to polarity. Examples are heaven and hell, east and west, near and far. When Jesus declares, ‘people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God,’ (Luke 13:29) he means people will come from everywhere. The points of the compass are the polarities, and everything in between is everywhere. When Paul writes of preaching peace ‘to you who were far off and peace to those who are near’ (Eph.2:17) he means preaching peace to everyone, far, near and in between.

The knowledge of good and evil is knowledge of everything, from the greatest good, to the greatest evil. One act of man, of course, cannot automatically endow him with omniscience. He doesn’t come to know all things in an instant, this doesn’t mean simple perception of abstracts. Reaching for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents man seeking a creaturely source of discernment, an independence from God, a ‘knowing’ that doesn’t involve God. We see this in Genesis 3 where Eve acted independently of God’s command. At the serpent’s prompting Eve, having clearly understood God’s injunction that eating this fruit would be a bad thing, decided, ‘I’ll be the judge of that!’  In his book, Remaking a Broken World, Christopher Ash describes how man’s disobedience made man ‘a rival to God.’

At the centre of the garden are trees representing life and knowledge, the kind of life (eternal) and knowledge (omniscient) that God alone has. If we want life it is to him we must go, and God’s provision of life depends on man’s dependence on God. If we want knowledge it is to God we must go, and man’s seeking to ‘know’ as only God can know is man’s attempt to put himself at the centre. This first command is God reminding man that he is a creature, that his privileged position, his god-like status, should not blind him to the fact that he is not God. ‘Do not make yourself the judge of what is good and what is evil.’

Not only were the Hebrews of the Exodus reminded that God alone is God, in the New Testament we find the exact same command. Jesus, ‘in whom was life’ (John 12:4) and to whom all judgement is given (John 5:24-27) re-enacts this episode as he begins to initiate the new creation saying, ‘Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged’ (Matthew 7:1-2) Jesus is not talking about our every day value judgements, how we decide the course and company of our lives. Just as Adam was given god-like discernment to wisely steward the earth, so we are to be discerning in the conduct of our lives (Mt.6:1,5,16 c.f.) What we are not to do is put ourselves in the place of God, to judge one another, to ‘know’ good and evil as only God is able to do.

Charity, Mercy, and Scapegoats

In a recent Bible study we looked at Romans 9:1-29, a passage about God’s sovereignty. I put this scenario to the group:

Ten people are guilty of exactly the same crime. The judge decides to show mercy to and pardon all but one, who serves the full sentence. How would you evaluate the judge’s decision?  (Life-builder Series, Romans, Jack Kuhatschek)

Everyone thought this unjust. ‘If one is punished, all should be punished!’ they insisted, ‘If nine are freed all should be freed!’ One declared, ‘If that was my husband I would not call that justice.’ Some speculated that perhaps the judge knew things we didn’t, even though I had said all were guilty of exactly the same crime. Others thought the judgement achieved something in making the one pay the price as an example, even suggesting this one was a scapegoat. I reminded them that the man was guilty, while the only thing the scapegoat was guilty of was being a goat.

What fascinated me was that the question was put in terms of mercy, while the discussion revolved entirely around justice. We are not God, to know good and evil. I told the story of a refugee family we knew whose daughters were high achievers but their family could not afford to send them to university. The local newspaper picked up the story and charitable provision was forthcoming to send them to Oxford. Typically, some people were not happy with this, insisting that ‘home-grown’ students must surely be more deserving of this charity. Just as in the discussion about the merciful judge, people completely missed the point that it is in the nature of charity that it is undeserved.

As we worked through those 29 verses we began to see that it is God’s sovereign choice that decides who benefits from the promises of God. That human descent is not the deciding factor. That, in choosing Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, God is exercising mercy and sovereignty, a mercy that culminates in Christ, in whom all, Jew and Gentile, may come to know the riches of his mercy (Romans 9:24)

‘Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved,’ And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called, ‘sons of the living God.’ (Romans 9:25-26)

Mankind has god-like qualities, attributes of God that God himself has graciously gifted to us. Hamlet soliloquises:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals!

This is heady stuff and the very first command ever reminds us of our creaturely nature. And when man forgets who he is before the one true God neither mercy, nor justice are served.