Monday, November 1, 2010

Hope, Harvest, Heaven, & Halloween

Here we are – it’s Halloween.

I’ve loved this holiday for as long as I can remember. I love Halloween for its feeling, for its blend of fantasy & festivity, its feasting & fun.

Something in the human imagination loves to tap the ancient & archetypal impulse to mock the mundane of ordinary time & to masquerade &/or mirror aspects of ourselves that are otherwise latent or sleepy or repressed.

Something in our cultural & culinary DNA crafts with creativity the annual costume & ritual & craves with a healthy appetite: pumpkins & pumpkin seeds & pumpkin pie; apples, candied apples, & apple cider; sugar & more sugar & sweet treats of so many varieties.

Sometime, a long time ago, the ancient Celtic, pre-Christian holiday of Samhain blended with the Christian-Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day & All Souls Day as also in North America we remember the Mexican Day of the Dead to ultimately form Halloween, a deeply ecumenical & eclectic interspiritual occasion.

Just as our observance of Christmas is carefully timed to coincide to with the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere or our celebration of Easter arrives around the time of the Spring Equinox, the entire Christian calendar shares wide roots with the changing of the seasons, with the turning of the year, with the natural religious antecedents of the Jesus movements.

More than simple & quiet acknowledgement, just what might be our best understanding of Christianity’s connections with the spiritual & religious practices of our Native European ancestors?

The better aspects of these thematic unities tend to get untied as these threads don’t get talked about very much in Christian circles, but when they do get discussed by certain contemporary Christians, they tend to make folks very uncomfortable, especially around the holiday of Halloween.

Some folks prefer to see Halloween as a non-religious pop-culture observance, not unlike the Super Bowl or the World Series & probably most like Mardi Gras.

Some evangelicals harbor strong suspicions & hostilities towards Halloween & its alleged promotion of Witchcraft & Satanism. Some folks who cannot just ignore this time of year have reclaimed it as a de-fanged & demon-free “harvest festival.” Still others have re-framed the more traditional haunted house as the equally creepy “Hell House,” which, according to a documentary I’ve seen, literally scares the hell out of teenagers & spooks them into submitting to the doctrine of salvation.

While I do not place much stock in Hell Houses or harvest festivals purged of their interspiritual heritage, it’s not because I don’t believe in evil or the devil or monsters or bogeyman or am naïve about the dark side of the contemporary occult.

Rather, I think that the real demons are fear, hate, greed, prejudice, ignorance, and war. And if we are utterly honest – some of our Christian ancestors used fear, hate, greed, prejudice, ignorance, and war to punish & persecute so-called witches in very unchristian ways. These kinds of violent & vile legacies are not something contemporary Jesus-followers need to revive & promote with misguided anti-Halloween propaganda; rather, contemporary Christendom can & might repent from its present problem with some Jesus-followers who still insist on attacking the “other”—whether it’s folks who follow other religious paths to God or folks we deem unacceptable for other reasons, such as our gay/lesbian/bisexual/and transgendered brothers & sisters.

Christian participation in any & many pop-culture phenomenon seems inevitable today—& as long as these gestures are imbued with perspective, with a loving, humble, & gentle attitude, it’s hard for me to stomach the claim that there need be any inherently Satanic or demonic content or bent to pumpkin-carving, costume-wearing, candy-feasting, apple-cider-sipping celebrations.

If celebrating Halloween in the cultural sense brings joy & fosters community & entertains children & unites families, let’s celebrate it!

If we, like our ancestors, take time to honor the harvest & recognize the turning of the year & further the legacy of our loved-ones & ancestors, could this in any way harm our faith in God?

I must confess my sympathy & solidarity with the Catholic-Christian impulse to reclaim & recontextualize this time as sacred remembrance, recalling the death & eternal resurrection of loved ones & lost ones, ancestors & martyrs, parents & grandparents, siblings & children, best friends & spouses.

Friends of the 21st century-Jesus-movement, we need not fear Halloween or any day or any so-called force or spirit of darkness. As Christians, we follow the light that casts out all darkness, the love that casts out all fear, the life that triumphs over all death. Let’s remember today those we’ve lost this year & over the years with an amazing love, an amazing faith, a death-defying, Christ-following ethos of the utterly mysterious majesty of the marvelous: life everlasting & world without end!

In the memories of our friends today, let’s see the defeated cross & the risen Christ. In the New Testament, Paul’s letters percolate with the promise of paradise; his prose pulses with the profound proclamation of life & love’s power! Like the passage we read earlier from Romans, the “O Death Where Is Thy Sting” passage from I Corinthians is likewise comforting & clear:

“I need to emphasize, friends, that our natural, earthy lives don't in themselves lead us by their very nature into the kingdom of God. Their very "nature" is to die, so how could they "naturally" end up in the Life kingdom?

But let me tell you something wonderful, a mystery I'll probably never fully understand. We're not all going to die—but we are all going to be changed. You hear a blast to end all blasts from a trumpet, and in the time that you look up and blink your eyes—it's over. On signal from that trumpet from heaven, the dead will be up and out of their graves, beyond the reach of death, never to die again. At the same moment and in the same way, we'll all be changed. In the resurrection scheme of things, this has to happen: everything perishable taken off the shelves and replaced by the imperishable, this mortal replaced by the immortal. Then the saying will come true:

Death swallowed by triumphant Life!

Who got the last word, oh, Death?

Oh, Death, who's afraid of you now?

It was sin that made death so frightening and law-code guilt that gave sin its leverage, its destructive power. But now in a single victorious stroke of Life, all three—sin, guilt, death—are gone, the gift of our Master, Jesus Christ. Thank God!”

The religion editor at Newsweek, Lisa Miller recently gave the topic of eternal life a journalist’s treatment in her book Heaven. Among many fascinating aspects to the text, Miller discusses the intersection between science & so-called Near Death Experiences, leading her to encounter speculations like the claim “consciousness exists even after normal brain function ceases” or the question as to whether science could actually prove “that upon death people really go to another realm.”

Another tension in Miller’s book concerns the specific nature of the afterlife & diverging views about how we’ll experience it.

One amorphous and oceanic version might go like this: One’s immortal soul communes with the great cosmic life force that is, a mysterious and direct and eternal connectedness with the real and living God, an everlasting peace inside the Lord. Miller describes this as “One continual Sabbath”

Other versions are much more particular about the resurrection of your specific body in heaven. Miller’s journalistic journey to heaven relishes the tension with those that do or don’t believe in an actual body, actually resurrected body.

The appeal is obvious, as Miller wrote, for you the banquets, the gardens, the cities, the learning, and the loving “flow could any of this exist,” Miller asks, without—physical self to enjoy it?”

Do you know? I don’t…

Do you know whether you’ll experience resurrection in the bodily sense or whether eternal life is somehow simultaneously more brilliant and subtle, subsuming all previously known experiences into an extraordinary and ecstatic exhilaration? Could it be both—or even beyond approximation?

Do you know? I don’t….

Do you know whether your resurrected body will look like you? Or feel like you? Or experience sensations like hunger or thirst or soreness or pain or musical pleasure? I’ve heard it said that we’ll be unmarried and without gender in heaven. I’ve also heard that a happy, loving marriage is the closest thing to heaven on earth.

Do you know? I don’t….

Do you know whether your resurrected body, if it is a physical body, will it also have an ego, identity, and personality and whether that eternal personality in a resurrected physical body will meet other eternal personalities from your past in their resurrected bodies? Or whether upon meeting God, in all God’s glories, the physical bodies, egos, & personalities on this earth we’ve so enjoyed until now will suddenly seem inconsequential in resplendent infinity?

Do you know? I don’t…

We know some of our church fathers & theologians & philosophers & poets have imagined & articulated the unfathomable. We know what we know—that’s there’s nothing close to consensus—but can we know what we don’t know?

Do you know? I don’t…

Do you know how to get to heaven?

So much of the Christianity I learned as a youth deflected our attention from Christ’s teaching & onto the question of how to earn your ticket to heaven—the “learn so you don’t burn” school of summer camp theology.

Even if we love God & follow Jesus with all our hearts, souls, & minds, do we really have any business deciding for others the path to eternal life, or even worse, laying the paving stones on the path to hell, paved as it were with our good intentions or our greatest ideologies?

Here, I agree with Christian universalist Carlton Pearson when he warns that too much focus on the devil actually “glorifies the devil” & that too much focus on condemnation rather than salvation takes a “wise, moral, benevolent” God & makes God “weak, immoral, malevolent, even vulgar.”

Perhaps if we focus on the core tenets of Christ’s message, on the radical, unconditional love of our neighbors & on our unquenchable, unflinching love of God, might heaven take care of itself?

I do know that from her inter-religious and cross-cultural study of heaven, Lisa Miller concludes the common notion that heaven’s based on hope, what she calls radical hope—she writes:

“The heaven that will come at the end of the world is a radical reversal of the social & natural order. The first shall be last, the meek shall inherit the earth, the stars will fall from the sky. Heaven is not just love, it’s radical love; it’s not just a return to the perfection of Eden, but a radical return. This is no warm hug, no easy train ride. It’s radical because God is involved & God can do anything. Heaven [is] a radical concept, a place that embodies the best of everything—but beyond the best. A belief in heaven focuses our minds on the radical nature of what’s most beautiful, most loving, most just, & most true.”

I do know that I share Miller’s hope in what’s so good & beautiful that it’s beyond our comprehension, beyond even our belief of good & beautiful.

I do know that in my own brushes with mortality—near tragedies like a physical beating at the hand of anonymous & brutal assailants & terrifying automobile accidents—I’ve experienced an uncommon lightness & levity defiance of traditional gravity and the depths of spiritual gratitude.

I do know that in the dreams & visions I’ve had of a lost friend or grandfather have been strikingly vivid as have been their Christ-like contentions from the dreamspace that death is an illusion, a conspiracy, & that only love & life are real.

I do know that comfort that I take in the words of the apostle Paul:

“If we get included in Christ's sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection. We know that when Jesus was raised from the dead it was a signal of the end of death-as-the-end. Never again will death have the last word. When Jesus died, he took sin down with him, but alive he brings God down to us. From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God.”

With these words we remember the dead & we remember their lives & an unconditional love & an eternal life that words cannot describe.


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