Happy Halloween?

This time of year always throws up the question of how Christians should approach Halloween.


In the first instance we should approach Halloween the same way as we approach anything else – with love, grace and truth in happy balance. Putting aside how we believe halloween should or should not be marked, it is blindi
ngly obvious that even if we disagree fully with someone else’s opinion on any matter we should do so without resorting to name calling, insults or any expression of hatred. To give a biblical perspective or your own opinion on an issue like Halloween is fine, but to wish damnation upon someone who disagrees is simply wrong. Whatever our argument, it should be proposed from a posture of love. Our aim as followers of Jesus is to point people to God, it is not ours to condemn but to love. If we cannot argue from that position then we are in no position to argue and should stop because we are simply doing more damage.
Now on to Halloween itself and it is fair to say that it has grown exponentially in the UK to become a multimillion pound industry. The well respected Reverend J John gives the figures in an article printed last year in the Daily Mirror as £300 million PA.  That said it is not up there with the US in terms of how much money people spend and how they mark the occasion. I am unable to comment directly on the American way of doing things since I have no direct experience, so my thoughts are offered from the perspective of a Christian father of two in the UK.
I have read several opinion pieces from Christians who believe Halloween to be an exclusively evil event that celebrates darkness and promotes demonic power. I have also read pieces that suggest it has its foundations around All Hallows Eve and is a Christian celebration superimposed over the pagan Samhain festival. In this second iteration it is understood that far from celebrating evil it is being mocked and the costumes are being worn to scare away demons in the same manner that gargoyles adorn Gothic cathedrals. I’m not sure what to make of these claims but it seems apparent that whatever it’s origins we need to consider our response to what it has become, and how we as Christians mark the occ
asion if indeed we should mark it all.
I don’t presume to suggest you should agree with me but here I offer some thoughts for consideration. I want to start by pointing out that some elements of Halloween are unquestionably designed for evil – using Ouija boards to summon demons for example – but most Christians know to steer clear from those sorts of things. For the most part in the UK Halloween is marked by the wearing of a fancy dress costume of some kind, perhaps a party or a disco and a spot of trick or treating. I am commenting on how we respond to this common way of marking halloween. Is participating in these sorts of things OK? Should we allow our children to go to a ‘spooky’ disco at the school? What about trick or treating?
So I will respond to J John’s article point by point. It is available to read online here.
J John’s first claim is that because children and grown ups get dressed up in ‘evil’ costumes, including chainsaw killers or gunshot victims then this is inherently harmful. He suggests that allowing children to wear these sorts of things sends out a mixed message about what is and isn’t right and that Halloween thus is a celebration of evil. It is not a view without merit, but to counter I would add that my children dress up in all manner of costumes all the time. Some of these costumes have violent or magical connotations like a Knight’s costume (sword and all!) or a fairy outfit with a wand. Does this send the message that chopping people with a sword or (rather more lightheartedly) turning them into frogs is OK? Simply because a child wears a psycho-butcher outfit (as inappropriate as that may be) does not mean that she doesn’t know that raving people into chops is wrong. I’m not convinced that the solution is to ban costumes that we deem evil, because I am similarly unconvinced about the ‘mixed message’ argument. In fact, how will our children even begin to understand evil if we hide all references to it from them? It surely comes down to what we use Halloween for – it can only celebrate evil if that is how we intend it.
Another mixed message which worries J John is the impact of allowing our children one day a year when it is OK to knock on a stranger’s door and ask for sweets. For the most part, he argues, we instruct our children to avoid strangers but on this day we break the rules and send a mixed message. This, to my mind, is a scaremongering tactic. Children will realise that this is out of the ordinary and we will be able to talk to them about it. Additionally I am less than convinced that behind every door is a sinister person wishing to do our children harm – there is practically zero risk from the person behind the door if our children are accompanied by us as they go trick or treating.  As a parent you must decide if your child needs to be accompanied – or of you let them go trick or treating at all. But my instinct is that if your children are still young enough to go trick or treating then they are too young to do it by themselves. Would you let your child out alone after dark at any other time of year to knock on a stranger’s door? Why would this be any different? An alternative suggestion that I have read is to use Halloween as an opportunity to interact with your neighbours, perhaps beforehand, and ask if they would mind someone knocking on their door and anticipating sweets. Perhaps you’ll get to know your neighbours a bit better!
Halloween, claims J John, also trivialises bad things and that Halloween again breaks an unwritten rule and allows us to think that death, deformity and injury are mere kids play. On the flip side to this argument I have always found that kids play helps children to process the world around them. For example, my son has a disability and his younger able-bodied sister often pretends that her legs don’t work either.  She sometimes jumps in his wheelchair or walker and pretends that she has some of the symptoms of Spina Bifida like her brother. I see this as simply role play that enables my daughter and her brother to make sense of his disability. Much better this than to pretend these things don’t happen. We live in a particularly sanitised era and culture. I have seen three dead people up close in my life and it wouldn’t surprise me if that was two or three more than most because we are simply not confronted with the immediacy of death very often. Hence, and I don’t use this example lightly, when pictures of a drowned child circulate in the news, we are shocked into action. I am glad that we were moved by this image but I doubt it would have had the same effect in other eras or cultures where death was and is more apparent. Alongside this there is also the prevalent idea in our culture that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are subjective. Halloween provides an opportunity to help us all, children included, to understand these things, to process death, deformity or disability and ask pertinent questions about right and wrong and evil. Ignoring or shunning Halloween removes this opportunity.
According to J John Halloween is also offensive to those who have disfigurements, scarring or disability. It is probably worth considering what costume you wear or allow your child to wear, but I would counter J John by suggesting that it is usually the people least affected by an issue who take greatest offence on behalf of those who are affected. For example, may son is not offended by his sister pretending she has a disability and neither am I, but someone else who does not know our family at al might be. Should I stop my daughter’s behaviour because there is a fourth party who is offended even though we are not offended in the least? In fact there was an item on the BBC news this week about a child with a disability who used Halloween as an opportunity to decorate his wheelchair and become whoever he wanted to be for the day. He was not offended by other people dressing up either. I remember as a child I used to walk with a limp to mimic (not mock) a family friend who had arthritis – he always found that amusing rather than offensive. Things like this only become offensive if they are accompanied by a ‘yuk’ or a ‘ha ha’, or even worse a society that pretends these things don’t happen and hides them away. I don’t think halloween costumes offend many disabled or disfigured people – in fact I have certainly seen some people with deformities join in as it is the one time of the year that, to our shame, they fit in. The greater offence in this is a society that usually ignores disability and deformity. Certainly causing offence is not on the minds of those who participate in Halloween, most are simply fascinated by goriness of any kind and most often with no hint of malice, simply inquisitiveness and that is no bad thing!
J John then purports that Halloween is getting nastier each year and suggests that if we don’t like the way it is going then maybe it is time to stop celebrating it at all. This is a point I find to be very weak and have a hard time agreeing with. If we follow this logic we would celebrate neither Christmas nor Easter either because of the increased commercialisation and focus on chocolate! Far from banning, condemning  or ignoring Halloween, maybe it is time that we worked to reclaim it? If it is true that Halloween used to be a celebration of good triumphing over evil then maybe we should seek ways to mark it in that fashion. I know that ‘light’ parties have become increasingly popular and while I agree that celebrating the light is good, we shouldn’t ignore darkness altogether. It needs to be in the mix somewhere so that we know why it is we are celebrating the light!
The final point J John makes is that Halloween allows evil a victory because the costumes just go back to the fancy dress shop or to the back of our cupboard instead of being destroyed as they were in ages past. That evil simply slips away unchallenged in the current mode of celebration is perhaps true, but does that mean we shouldn’t mark Halloween at all? Evil may be unchallenged, but at least it isn’t ignored. The danger of doing away with Halloween altogether is that in doing so we remove one of the few cultural opportunities Christians have to talk directly about evil and death. These things are real and shouldn’t be hidden away. If we allow Halloween to slip away into darkness and away from the Christian calendar and don’t reclaim it in some way with the attendant message of light and goodness and hope, are we not allowing evil an even bigger victory?
Our response to Halloween, in my opinion, is the same as it should be to anything – we reclaim it and redeem it for good. Much how earlier Christians Christianised pagan Holidays (such as the date used to celebrate Christmas and Easter and Halloween), maybe we should seek to re-Christianize Halloween. We could do this by throwing light parties or handing out gospel tracts to those who come to our door or handing them out to the doors we knock on during trick or treat. There is nothing wrong with any of those things, but what I propose runs a little deeper. I want to suggest a more open posture that allows our children – and society in general – a way to process death. I suggest we use Halloween as an opportunity to talk about evil and to pronounce in some way a message of hope in darkness. If we shut ourselves away from Halloween we deny ourselves the opportunity to do those things – all of which are good.
Whether you allow your child to go trick or treating is up to you (as a child our parents wouldn’t let my brother and me go because they saw it as begging, but that’s another story!) there inso direct biblical prohibition. But if you do let them go, be sensible and go with them. Maybe go as part of a larger group.  Engage your neighbours beforehand and get to know them and ask if it is OK to come knocking! Don’t let your children do any inappropriate ’tricks’-  if you allow them to do any at all – and certainly don’t allow any damage to property or people or something which may cause harassment, alarm or distress – that’d be illegal! Whether you allow fancy dress or not is also up to you and what is an appropriate outfit is down to your discretion. My advice would be that if you wouldn’t want your child to see what you are dressing them in on TV or in their dreams then choose a more tame outfit. It is also apparent that you can’t control what other people dress up as, so be careful if you are going to a party.
I agree with J John that we should avoid mixed messages that say evil is ‘OK’ and I think we need to be clear on the lesson that they need to learning the things they need to process. As awkward as it might be, it’s a good thing to talk about what happens after we die (especially if you have the hope of the Gospel!). Halloween should be marked somehow as a way of processing death, perhaps grieving for those we have lost whilst contemplating our own. It should give us an opportunity to consider evil – as a force, as a reality and as something we have all to some degree embraced in sin but we need to ensure it is accompanied by the message of holiness, hope and redemption.
One final word of warning – do not ‘do’ Halloween if it is tempting to you in some way . Just as it would be ill-advised for an alcoholic to spend time in a bar so you should avoid Halloween if it is causing you to sin in some way. Flee temptation. Similarly if it is not an issue for you be careful the exercise of your rights does not become stumbling block to others.
We come full circle to conclude that however we approach Halloween we do it with good intention and, as Paul writes to the Corinthian church, ‘be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. And do everything in love.’


Are we a Christian Country?

Much has been said recently of the comments made by David Cameron regarding our status as a Christian country. Are we one or not? A group of eminent atheists disagree and have written an open letter proclaiming that we are not and that the UK was a largely non-religious society.
What to make of all this? As someone who follows Jesus it may surprise you that it makes me glad that Church attendance is falling. In years gone by the Church sat next to the Pub as a place where people made friendships and connections – both were societal hubs. Just as fewer and fewer people are attending pubs – leading to closures, fewer and fewer people are attending Church for traditional reasons and so church attendance is in decline.
Why does that please me?
It is not the fact that fewer people are attending church that pleases me, but that those who continue to attend are there to worship God, not out of a sense of duty, societal pressure or obligation. It also means that we as a church can no longer sit on our haunches and expect the masses to come to us. It is great to hear the gospel preached from the pulpit, but often it is now only being preached to the converted. It is much better for those who attend church to have genuine conversations with others in the day to day world than expecting the clergy or the experts to witness on their behalf on a Sunday morning.
The Church is being forced to look outwards and engage with the world as the world is no longer walking through the doors. We can no longer rely on programmes and initiatives within the church, but must speak up in the world, each of us bearing personal witness to what God has done in our lives. We must stand up against injustice and engage with the world rather than retreat to our pews and hold on tight until Jesus returns and we have an opportunity to stand out – to be the people of God in the places where people can see us, to have a community that is demonstrably different to the society around us and to necessarily rely on God to perform miracles and wonders among us.
This makes for more genuine relationships, a more relevant church and a greater reliance on Jesus. Are we a Christian country? If we are, it is less and less so. But that is not a point to despair; the end of Christendom can only mean that there is a vacuum for God to move in to. Bring it on, I say.

I’m looking at the man in the mirror…


Last Sunday night I visited a church in Ashington. It was a different experience to what we are used to at Heaton – some might have labelled it more ‘charismatic!’
The demographic of the congregation was different, the style of worship was less self conscious (a good thing perhaps) and the preach was more testimonial – a witness to how God is at work today. The call to come forward to receive prayer was answered by many who recognise their need to be touched by and blessed by God.
It felt more chaotic, messier. It felt more honest, if I’m honest.
I don’t want to question the way we do church, and I am not questioning your integrity, but I do think we should all question how we ‘do’ church.
Is there part of me that comes to a worship service to be entertained, to see a slick error free performance from the band (formerly called worship leaders) and a cerebral, well thought out presentation replete with memorable power point slides? Do I come to church for a pick-me-up at the end of a hard week or to be amused for an hour or so before I get on with the rest of my life? Does Church feel like going to the theatre where I am the audience?
And this brings me to the crux of my ramblings: am I at church for what I can get out of it or am I there for what I can put in to it?
Church is for the audience of One. And that is not me.
Church is where I come to spend myself sacrificially in worship, through the sung part and other ‘bits’ of the service.
Church is where I come to participate, not scrutinise.
Church is where I come to be the most honest I’ve been all week.
Church is where I come to be abandon myself and become wholly God-conscious.
A little bit of the ‘charismatic’, the chaotic, an admission of the messy reality of life is no bad thing. Thankfully, we don’t need to go to all the way to Ashington for God to be at work!
The question I’m asking of me is, could there be room in the way that I ‘do’ church for a little bit more of God and a little bit less of me? Sometimes it takes a good look in the mirror to become less self conscious.
I’ll leave you to ponder that one!

Lessons from the Surf

A number of years ago I was in South Africa and decided that given the wonderfully sunny weather a dip in the sea would be splendid. My wife and I decided to go body boarding in the Indian Ocean. I’ve since learned that the sea I’d grown up with is quite different to an Ocean. I’d never been into an Ocean. I’d been in the North Sea, I’d been in the Irish Sea but I’d never been in an Ocean. Oceans are bigger, the currents are stronger the waves are more powerful. Until you’ve experienced it, you don’t appreciate it. So here I was on the beach, ready to go body boarding with my wife. We strolled confidently to the edge of the Abyss. In the first instance I couldn’t even get into the ocean. I couldn’t get beyond the first break – it kept spitting me back out on the beach. That should have served as a warning that really I wasn’t up to this. Jo on the other hand was happily paddling around in the water catching waves and having a great time. Driven on by pride eventually I got beyond the first wave. At some point prior to this I really should have considered that as well as having never swum in an Ocean, I’d never been body boarding either. So having struggled to get in to the water I then proceeded to try and get back out of the water; to catch a wave. Anyone ever tried that? It’s not impossible to do as other people have proved. But given my inexperience with a)Oceans b) body boards and c) swimming of any nature, I couldn’t do it. I was stuck. I was wondering how on earthI was going to get myself out of this embarrassing predicament. I started swimming harder. As mentioned, I’m not the world’s best swimmer and I quickly became really quite tired. My efforts weren’t really moving me any further to my goal. After a minute or so, my shoulders cried ‘enough’ and any hopes of forward propulsion were dashed. It was at this wonderful point that waves began to break on my head. Unbeknown and unseen to me I had drifted rather perilously to a lovely rocky outcrop and the waves were pounding them quite strongly. Spurred into action I started paddling once more, but with the waves now relentlessly ducking me under, fatigue and panic setting in I was in a no hope situation. Me and the rocks were soon to be united. I started taking in water and coughing and spluttering with the salt as it burned my throat and eyes. I was gasping for breath and in a lot of trouble.
Two lifeguards were in the water already and one came paddling over. Are you OK? He asked. Do you know what I said as I could barely keep my head above the water, hanging on for dear life to my body board? Do you know what I said? I said, ‘Yeah, I’m alright’. I wasn’t. But even when I was struggling here, possibly not an awful lot of time left before I got totally swamped and drowned, my pride would not allow me to admit my predicament. To say, ‘No, actually, I’m drowning. Could you possibly see your way clear to helping me get back to the beach?’ would have been the sensible option. But pride can do that to us – although the real peril of a situation is apparent, to admit it would be to admit fallibility. Thankfully he was persistent and along with his lifeguard buddy eventually pulled me to safety and the crushing realisation that I am not as self sufficient as I supposed before my foray into the briny froth.
Even in this perilous situation, part of me thought I could get out of it myself. Looking back it wasn’t going to happen – there was nothing in and of myself that could have saved me. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

The Other side of the Christmas Story

In this season of Advent, as we anticipate that most monumental moment in history when the Son of God was born in Bethlehem, it is a good thing to reflect on the whole story. Yes, it is a story containing wonder, angelic visitations, incredible miracles and great joy. Matthew and Luke’s accounts continue to amaze with the high drama of the great event.
If you study the birth narratives closely you will see on a number of occasions how Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled. How Jesus was born, where Jesus was born, who visited Jesus, even the gifts brought to Jesus, weren’t just co-incidental, but the culmination of a variety of messianic prophecies. One such is Jeremiah’s prophecy, in Jeremiah 31:15 quoted in Matthew 2:18, where Herod orders the slaughter of all the male infants in Bethlehem. We are, no doubt, familiar with the way the visiting Magi , having been warned in a dream, do not let Herod know where the Christ has been born. What then results, as a result of Herod’s jealousy and ruthlessness, is one of the most terrifying aspects of the Christmas story which rarely finds its way into our cosy Christmassy mindset. We should never forget that the story of the first advent has a dark side: jealousy, terror, brutality and slaughter. Herod was far worse than a pantomime villain. But the narrative also contains examples of great courage: The Magi ignoring Herod; and especially Joseph leading his young family in their flight to an unknown and inhospitable country, only to return after Herod’s death. It is also a fulfilment of prophecy that they returned to Nazareth (Matt 2:23), originally intending to return to Judah, then realising Herod’s son Archelaus ruled, and through a combination of fear and a dream, only then headed north back to Nazareth.
As we approach Christmas and enjoy all that accompanies it we should remember not just its wonder but its terror; not just its joy but its pain. As we make room in our hearts for the Christ who is the Saviour of the world we do well to remember the place he has in his heart for the least, the last and the lost.

Mark Elder

The Idol of Intellect

When I were a lad being intelligent or intellectual were qualities that people scorned. Swot, geek or nerd were names no one wished to be called. That may well still be the case in some circles however I see a different pattern emerging. Most of us rather admire and even aspire to intellectual greatness. Perhaps this has something to do with the vast billions people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have amassed through their swotgeeknerdiness (or as others put it, business acumen!). The acquisition of knowledge is seen as a mark of cleverness and the ability to reason the zenith of intellect. I am not denying the usefulness of these qualities – knowledge and reason (perhaps when added together make wisdom?) are not to be scorned or wasted. I am questioning though, when it comes to matters of faith, are these qualities enough?

There are quantum physicists and evolutionary biologists aplenty who have weighed the evidence for the existence of God and come down firmly against – some to the point of militant or active atheism. But then there are others with equal academic credentials who have similarly weighed the evidence and come out in favour. Similarly for other key issues in Christianity – the resurrection for example – some noted scientists and historians after careful considerations are against the notion and others are for. The evidence is the same in both cases but opposite conclusions drawn. This is why I think reason and intellect – although key in our understanding of faith – can never be used solely as a basis for it. There must be more than this.

I think of Saul the Pharisee as an example. He was a zealous man, a scholar, someone undoubtedly clever, well reasoned and intellectual. His first response to news of the resurrection of Jesus was unbelief and indignation. The evidence, to his well reasoned mind, took him to a place of anger that anyone would even suggest Jesus had risen from the dead and his subsequent persecution of those in the early church confirmed his ire.

But what later became of Saul the Pharisee? He became Paul the apostle. His knowledge and reason fell to the wayside when he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. What he thought he knew and how he had applied his knowledge were obliterated with a question uttered from heaven ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’. I suspect had he been asked by another scholar of the day; ‘Saul, why are you beating up on the Christians?’ he would have been able to give a very reasoned answer. But here, his intellect was not enough and his reason had no answer.

If we raise the standard of intellect and reason highest, as if this is our only goal as humans, we miss out on so much that makes us human. Spontaneity is not rational. Spock would never do anything spur of the moment; it’s not logical. Smoking is bad for us, but millions of people ignore the evidence and happily, deliberately inhale poison up to 40 times a day. Sometimes these people are scientists! I drink fizzy drinks even though I know they are bad for me in so many ways. There is way more to being human than intellect, knowledge, rationale, reason and logic. As a primary goal in life, pursuit of intellect will cause us to lose sight of what it means to be human; we would lose sight of what we are, who we are and of who God is.

We can’t know God through our intellect. We can know about Him, just like Saul did, but knowing Him has a different quality. Before I became a Christian I knew a lot about God and my intellect said that on the balance of probability Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. I thought this way because it doesn’t happen all the time. People don’t come back from the dead three days after they died; it is not just improbable, it’s impossible. That’s what science says and my day to day experience said (and still says)the same thing. The historical evidence for the resurrection is more convincing to me and yet others remain unconvinced. If we left it there I would be an agnostic, the evidence in front of me could be taken either way. But I’m not an agnostic, anymore than Saul/Paul remained a Pharisee. The reason for this is that I encountered and continue to encounter God’s finger on my life. Against my experience of dead people I believe Jesus came back from the dead because I encountered Him on May the 5th 1999. This was certainly less dramatic than Saul’s encounter, but I believe that Jesus was speaking to me through His Word. I’ll save that story for another time.

My faith is not based on my intellect but on a relationship. Who I am, what I am is defined by this relationship. Atheists might hear the words coming out of my mouth when I say that but I’ve never encountered one who understood – no matter how intellectual or knowledgeable they may be! In brief, knowing stuff is important and reasoning stuff through is important but these should never solely be how we define our world. I had a lot of the evidence before that day in 1999 but it wasn’t until I encountered Jesus that I believed. Be an intellectual, by all means, but don’t lose out on being truly human in the process.