Monthly Archives: October 2011

The final part of my lunchbar on Halloween (see Part One and Part Two).

What has happened for centuries on All Saints’ Eve – or Halloween – is quite simple. God’s people act out a drama – a drama in which the demonic realm tries one last time to achieve victory, but is seen for what it really is. What is the means by which the demonic realm is seen for what it is? In a word: mockery. According to the Bible, the devil’s great sin (and our great sin) is pride. And so, to remind themselves of Satan and the evil realm’s ultimate defeat because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christians ridicule them. In fact, this is why the Medieval custom arose of portraying Satan in a ridiculous red suit with horns and a tail. Nobody thought that the devil really looked like this; indeed, the Bible teaches that he is a fallen arch-angel. Rather, the idea of portraying him in this way is to ridicule him because he has lost the battle with Jesus and he no longer has power over us.

Similarly, on Halloween, the custom arose of mocking the demonic realm by dressing children in costumes. Because the power of Satan has been broken once and for all, children can mock him by dressing up like ghosts, goblins, and witches. The fact that Christians dressed up their children in this way shows our supreme confidence in the utter defeat of Satan by Jesus Christ – there is no fear!

This same principle explains the emergence of another phenomenon. If you go up to old churches, you’ll often see gargoyles: grotesque little figures attached to the outside of the building. Again, there’s a lot of misunderstanding today about why gargoyles were originally included on these building. Again, they had the same meaning as the original meaning of Halloween. They symbolized God’s people ridiculing the enemy. They stick out their tongues and make faces at those who would assault God’s people. Gargoyles represent Christians ridiculing the defeated demonic army.

Some will know that 31st October not only marks Halloween but also Reformation Day. This is no accident. After all we have seen that the defeat of evil and of demonic powers is associated with Halloween. And it was for this reason that Martin Luther posted his 95 challenges to the wicked practices of the Church at the time to the bulletin board on the door of the Wittenberg chapel on Halloween. He picked his day with care, and ever since Halloween has also been Reformation Day.

It’s true that many articles in books, magazines, and encyclopedias would have a very different explanation of Halloween. But you need to note that these are written by secular humanists or even the pop-pagans of the so-called “New Age” movement. These people actively suppress the Christian associations of historic customs, and try to magnify the pagan associations. They have a strong agenda make paganism acceptable and to downplay Christianity. Thus Halloween, Christmas, Easter, etc., are said to have pagan origins. In fact, this is not true.

It is fair to say that the real meaning of Halloween has – somewhat like Christmas or Easter – been misunderstood, commercialized and absorbed beyond recognition into popular culture. We had a 3-year-old cyber man come trick-or-treating last year. I’m sure he had no idea about the real meaning behind Halloween. It’s also true that, like anything else, the custom of Halloween can be twisted. There have been times when “tricking” has involved really mean actions by teenagers and has led Halloween to even get banned in some towns. The popular rise of ‘designer paganism’ has further twisted the meaning of Halloween. Dabbling with evil is considered cool. I remember being at school and some lads choosing Halloween night to dabble in playing with a Ouija Board. The Bible says: steer clear of the occult – not only because the hopes it holds out are nonsense, but also because it is dangerous. Yes, there are quacks out there – but there is also a dangerous reality. And you potentially open yourself up to serious consequences by dabbling in these things.

For this reason, some Christians are uneasy with celebrating Halloween today. They know that evil is dangerous, that the devil hates them and is out to ruin them, and they don’t want to even give the impression that evil is worth dabbling with. And so they make a decisive break with Halloween. That’s their decision, and I believe it should be respected. But we should not forget that originally Halloween was a Christian custom, and we should not forget the claims that stand behind it.

We live in a world that is very obviously broken. It is a world of so much goodness – yet it is also very obviously broken. The Bible traces this brokenness at source to the evil in the human heart. That is what has left the world subject to disease, to evil, even to death. Some of us here know only too well just how evil a place the world can be, and how evil the human heart can be. The good news of the Bible is that God will not let evil have the last say in his Universe, yet he has made a way through Jesus of making it possible to enjoy life with him – even though we have added to this evil. Those that trust Jesus are not only forgiven of all their evil, but start a relationship with God that nothing – no evil power, not even death – can rob from them. One Bible verse puts it like this: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” As they mourned their dead friends and relatives but remembered that whilst dead these friends were safe, asleep in Jesus, no wonder the early Christians wanted celebrate the victory over the evil realm they had in Jesus. As we approach Halloween ourselves this year, may each of us have cause to reflect on Halloween’s original meaning and what it means for us.

Here’s Part 2 of my lunchbar on ‘Why God loves Halloween’. (Part 1 is here).

To how Jesus’ death and resurrection relate to the end of evil, we need to recognize that evil is not just ‘out there’ but in our hearts. We’ve seen, there is a devil in the world, yet each of us is complicit with him in what we love and the choices that we make. The devil hates God and his ways. And the Bible describes each of us as being willingly under his spell. Isn’t it true that we find ourselves doing horrific things? The pain that we’ve felt of others lying to us gives us an indication of how much pain we’ve caused others as we’ve lied to them. I sometimes scare myself through what I dream at night, giving an indication of the sort of thing that’s going on in my heart. And it gets even more subtle than that. The devil fools us into thinking that God does not have our best interests at heart, and that what he says can’t be trusted. And that leaves us in a position where – metaphorically speaking at least – we find ourselves chained up and hurting like the woman in the synagogue.

The Bible writer Paul writes that Jesus “disarmed the powers and authorities” by making “a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). Paul uses the word for a military parade: the winning general brings captured enemy soldiers in a victory parade. They are disarmed, humiliated, and put on display. Paul’s claim here is that on the cross, Jesus did this to our enemies. How did he do this?

What looked like a shameful death for Jesus was actually a glorious triumph for God’s plan, because it was at the cross that Jesus won victory over enemy powers, including Satan, sin and death. Their claim on each of us has been fully satisfied in the death of Jesus the innocent victim. Jesus claimed to live the life we should have lived, and then died the death we deserve. Satan cannot demand any more than what Jesus has already paid in our place. He has nothing further to threaten us with. “By his death,” we are told, Jesus was able to “destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8). Victory was won on the cross. And so Jesus claimed to free those who trust him from the grip of the devil. One day all evil will be wiped out and destroyed. The amazing thing is that people like us, with evil in our hearts, will not be wiped out at that moment.

Death, too, is defeated. It remains the ultimate statistic and what the Bible writer Paul calls ‘the last enemy’. And yet whilst death is a rupturing proof that we live in a broken world, yet because of what Jesus achieved Paul can go on to say in the same chapter that ‘death has lost its sting’.

Those of you who have wept at the graveside of a friend or relative will know just how much of a rupture it feels. Death feels unnatural. And the Biblical worldview underlines that what we feel is not wrong. The world was created with no death. And whilst the process of dying is horrible and fearsome, yet death in itself brings nothing to fear for the Christian. According to the Christian worldview, not even death can separate those who have died trusting Jesus from God. And they look forward to a day when the whole universe will be renewed and they will enjoy full human life – with human bodies on a renewed earth. And they will enjoy God’s love to its absolute maximum.

One of the most moving passages of the New Testament comes when a church has written to the Bible writer Paul asking what has happened to dead Christians. Have they forfeited their relationship with Jesus? Here’s what Paul writes in response:

‘We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.’ [1 Thessalonians 4:13-14]

And it’s that sentiment that lies at the original meaning of Halloween: that not even death can separate Jesus’ people from him. Jesus’ people are so bound up with Jesus that they are even said to have fallen asleep in him. And as he rose again on the third day, so his people will one day rise again. No evil power – and not even death – can threaten their life in Jesus.

The final section, Part 3, will follow.

Over the next few posts, I’ll be posting my notes from Durham CU’s lunchbar on ‘Why God loves Halloween’. Unfortunately the recording didn’t work, but here is my full script that I made notes from.

Parts of this talk might come to you like an episode of ‘QI’ – a lot of what is commonly believed about Halloween is far from being actually true. So be prepared for a siren and flashing lights to come to life – at least metaphorically speaking – as many of our assumptions about Halloween are actually far from true.

First of all, let’s dig into the roots of Halloween as a festival.

The word ‘Halloween’ is simply a shortening of All Hallows’ Eve’. The word ‘hallow’ means ‘saint’, in the sense that ‘hallow’ is just an alternative form of the word ‘holy’ (like the line from the Lord’s Prayer that some of you might know, ‘hallowed be your name’). ‘All Hallow’s Day’ or ‘All Saints’ Day’ has been celebrated on November 1st for several hundred years. Celebrating ‘All Saints’ Day’ started in the late 4th Century, but it was celebrated at different times of the year in different places. The date of All Saints’ Day was fixed for November 1st in the late 8th Century.

Now, in the Bible, each day begins at dusk – days are measured evening to evening, rather than morning to morning. And so, in the Church calendar, the eve of a day is the actual beginning of the festive day. Christmas Eve is perhaps most familiar to us. And similarly, All Saints’ Eve or Halloween – 31st October – precedes All Saints’ Day on 1st November.

The ancient roots of All Saints Day and of All Saints Eve in Christianity demonstrate that it has, in fact, nothing to do with Celtic druidism or the Church’s fight against druidism. Remember: All Saints Day has been celebrated since the late 4th Century. Celtic druidism emerged much later. It just happens that October 31st is also the date for the Celtic Samhain festival. It is a popular myth that Halloween has anything to do with Celtic druidism. And whilst Halloween is never mentioned in the Bible, and there’s no suggestion that it should ever be formally marked, the idea that it celebrates certainly is a key Biblical theme.

So why did celebration of All Hallows’ Day and All Hallows’ Eve emerge? What did they originally mean? In short, they were a celebration of the victory of those who trust in Jesus over the devil and over all evil. And in order to show you why early Christians thought this was so worth celebrating will require me to introduce you to the worldview of the Bible.

Christians have always believed that there are great distinctions between the Creator and his creation. The claim is that the God of the Bible is the loving and powerful Creator, and that he made everything – both the material and the spiritual. He gave both human beings and angelic beings free hearts, to love what they wanted. We’re told that Satan, the devil, was an angel created by God. He led an insurrection against God, and other angels followed him. And we’re told that all humans since have chosen to rebel with Satan against God – not to love him above all. It’s not that we’re all devil worshippers, but that each of us chooses to spurn God’s love for us and to love other things more than God. I can’t go into detail on this now – please do ask me questions – but all this accounts for the evil we see in the world today. Evil social structures, evil behaviour, evil diseases, death and evil spirits all root from the fact that we align ourselves with evil forces in the world today. We all complicitly play along with the devil’s lie and reject God and his love.

Now Jesus made it clear that he had come to bring an end to the grip of the evil realm. There are plenty of occasions in the gospel accounts where Jesus frees people from the effects of evil in the world. Here’s one account:

‘As Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath, a woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he said to her, “Woman, you are released from your disability.” Then he laid his hands on her, and instantly she was released and began to glorify God.’ [Luke 13:10-13]

Now I guess that the situation described here isn’t one that’s particularly familiar to us, though in Africa and Latin America, where there is more awareness of the spiritual realm, people might recognize this situation. Sometimes evil powers do manifest themselves in the material realm. We’re not sure exactly how this woman became crippled by this evil spirit. We do know is that she was now straight-jacketed and enslaved by this spirit. It’s as if the woman’s physical condition is a picture of the fact that she is ‘bowed’ by her affliction. She’s bowing down; it’s as if she’s constantly bowing to the demonic influence over her. She’s physically and spiritually chained. And here we see a sobering truth: aligning ourselves with the evil realm will always leave us chained up – occasionally physically, but certainly spiritually.

Jesus calls the woman forward. You can imagine the pause as she shuffles to the front. He speaks to her, “You are released.” No hocus pocus, and she stands up straight. No wonder that there was praise on her mouth as she straightened. I sometimes wonder what the immediate reaction was in the synagogue – a stunned silence, a whole load of shouts – we don’t know. What we do know is that the woman was free. She would have felt free for the first time in eighteen years. Jesus has come to bring an end to the reign of evil and to bring release from it. This woman’s experience was a bit like a taste from the cooking pot ahead of the banquet to come, where evil and all its effects will be done any with forever.

So according to the Bible, the ultimate end for the devil and evil powers will come. And Jesus claimed to ensure that this would happen through his own death and resurrection.

My friend Kevin Boyle has been missing for over a fortnight, having disappeared after leaving work in Putney one afternoon. There’s been quite an amount of media attention about his disappearance, particularly afterJamie Oliver, his friend, made an appeal for him to come home.

I knew Kevin from his time at university in Lancaster, where he was an active member of the Christian Union. He was a college group leader in my final year there. I have many happy memories of Kevin. In particular, he used his culinary expertise and background to good effect on CU weekends away. He once refused to make apple crumble using pre-pureed apples but made his cooking team get up at the crack of dawn to start from first principles!

I remember Kevin as someone who loved Jesus and knew he was accepted by him, despite his foibles, faults and fragility.

Many of us are extremely worried and distressed about Kevin following his disappearance. I keep praying that Kevin is alive and well, and that he’s able to make contact soon with his worried friends and family. Kevin is a dearly-loved and adopted son of God who is precious to him. It’s knowing that nothing can separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus that directs my prayers.

The website has more about the appeal to find Kevin.

I was listening to a football phone-in programme over the weekend, and heard a number of football fans using a word that you don’t hear very regularly in popular language: stewardship.

The calls on the programme were regarding foreign ownership of Premiership football teams. Callers were discussing whether foreign owners are a good thing for the game, and the cost that foreign ownership might bring to football clubs.

One caller put it particularly memorably: he said that each football club has existed for more than one hundred years and, more than likely, will still exist in one hundred years’ time. The caller went on to say that, although owners might be majority shareholders, the football club is not theirs to possess autocratically. Foreign owners should see themselves, he said, as stewards of something precious to pass on to future generations.

The Biblical teaching of stewardship struck me freshly as I listened to these callers. I was struck by how easy it is to start thinking of what we have as ours to exploit in whatever way we choose… without any thought for future generations, others around us now or the Giver who gave us what we have in the first place.

According to the Bible, everything that we possess has been entrusted to us, even down to our every breath. We are given everything to steward and enjoy as gifts from a generous God. How tempting it can be to treat all we’ve been given as our own – to be Roman Abramovichs of our own little world, with little regard for any other. Seeing our mortality and place in history – after all, none of us will be around in one hundred years either – reminded me of the wider context of all we have.

I’ve already written a series of posts on how a film night can be organised. In my opinion these work best in small numbers and in an intimate environment. Here’s an idea on how films can be used in larger events, that Sheffield Hallam CU used earlier in the year in a week’s worth of events.

As I met with the students, I suggested that they built the evenings of their mission week around food. As Tim Chester’s recent book demonstrates, food creates a brilliant opportunity to create community and to embody grace and generosity. Hallam is an institution which struggles for community and many students are lonely. We stumbled into their idea of conducting a survey of the university’s top four films. They did this a couple of months before the week of events.

The students worked to make a real experience of the evenings. We wanted the evenings to clearly demonstrate something of the generosity of the gospel, and that regardless of whether or not students agreed with what I was saying from the front, that they would experience something of the light and life the gospel brings. I encouraged the students to work hard on little details that would add to the overall effect of the evening. The Hallam students excelled here – we themed the decor and menus each night, complete with children’s toys everywhere for Toy Story 3 and spinning tops on the tables for Inception. Waiters and served food to the tables, dressed in white shirts and black trousers or skirts. Guests relaxed and I think this gave the gospel more of a hearing than they might have done otherwise.

We had a constant flow of input from the front throughout the evening:

  • 7pm: Advertised start of the evening; we welcomed people into the foyer with a drinks reception.
  • 7.20pm: We welcomed people into the main room and served the starter.
  • 7.35pm: Starter plates were collected. I was then introduced by a member of the CU; we showed the film trailer or a clip, and set people a couple of questions to discuss around tables as they ate their main course. (The idea here was to get people talking and start arousing thoughts and questions that I’d touch during the main talk).
  • 7.40pm: Main course was served.
  • 8.15pm: Main course plates were collected. I then gave my talk. Each time this included another clip. At the end of the talk, we put up a mobile phone number where students could text their thoughts, comments or questions.
  • 8.40pm: Dessert was served.
  • 8.55pm: I responded to the different texts we had received. On Thursday and Friday I offered a prayer. Students were encouraged to stay around and ask further questions over hot drinks, and to take books. Students could also indicate interest for a follow-up course by texting in.
  • 9.00pm: Formal close of the evening. In practice, many stayed around afterwards. They were asked to leave at about 9.45pm, although many then went to the pub.

For the talks (after the main course), after explaining what I loved about each film (fortunately the Hallam students voted for four genuinely good films!) I tried to focus on a main theme from the film and the seemingly innate desires they portrayed. Ultimately we believe every good desire is fulfilled in Jesus and this was the thrust of my messages:

  • On The Lion King, looking at the relationship between Simba and Mufasa, I spoke of how we love strong father-child relationships and – whether or not we had one – know what a relationship with a father should be like. Using Galatians 4:4-7, I explained that this was because we are made for a father-child relationship with God, which God offers us through Christ.
  • On Inception, I looked at the theme of Cobb’s search for catharsis over the death of his wife Mal. I used Psalm 32, posing the question ‘how can I know true freedom from guilt?’ and looking to the cross.
  • On Toy Story 3, we looked at the theme of leadership, comparing and contrasting Woody and Lotso. I then used this to do a response to the challenges of new atheism (that says God is like Lotso), using 1 John 4.
  • Finally, on the Shawshank Redemption, I asked what true freedom is. It’s not just freedom to do what I want – Brooks had that and committed suicide – but freedom for a relationship and a purpose (pictured in the way that Andy ‘redeems’ Red). I used Philippians 1 to show how our innate desire for freedom is met in Jesus, so that we can genuinely say ‘to live is Christ, to die is gain’.

Because the evenings were well-run and thoughtful and felt coherent, it never felt like we stopped the ‘fun bit’ and moved onto the ‘Christian bit’. I think this lack of ‘gear crunch’ added integrity to the evening and held people’s interest for longer. Including clips, I spoke for 25-30 minutes and this didn’t feel too long. I also got students to text questions, thoughts and comments off of the back of what I said and we had some thoughtful and deep questions asked.

Undoubtedly there are things that we could have done better,  but I was encouraged by the openness to the gospel the format allowed. I’m sure that similar events could work very effectively elsewhere.

Last night I spoke at Hull CU on Romans 2:1-16. There’s a lot going on in this passage, but one of the things that I think Paul is seeking to communicate is that religiosity, good works and – in the original audience – being part of the Jewish covenant community can blind people to their need for Jesus.

The reality is that not matter how good or religious or nice a person might be, they still need a saviour.

Last night I shared a conversation that I had recently with a lady. I explained that I worked for a Christian charity, telling people about Jesus. She then asked me which section of society I worked with. When I explained that it was with university students, the lady I was speaking with raised her eyebrows. She was obviously at least a little surprised and even appalled.

As we spoke on, it became clear that she believed that it was certain types of people that really need Jesus – the drug addicts, the prostitutes, the homeless. Of course, it is absolutely right that Christian ministry should and must embrace vulnerable and broken people and offer them the hope in Jesus. The good news about Jesus cannot stay in the middle classes. Yet the lady’s assumption was that the gospel essentially is a sort of therapy for the down-and-outs, rather than offering forgiveness and a fresh start. She assumed that most university students – because they are educated, nice and hard-working – don’t generally need the gospel. Sadly she also assumed that, because she was a nice person, she had no need for Jesus either.

The conversation was a reminder to me of how it’s possible to innoculate yourself to Jesus and his gospel through merely through being good and nice. As I work with students who desperately need to know Jesus and all he offers, many of whom are good and nice, I’m praying that what I offer is not understood to be merely therapy for sad people, but forgiveness, a fresh start and a relationship with the Father for all.