Hiding Under Halloween’s Bushel

Candle Piercing Darkness

Remember the song This Little Light of Mine that you sang as a kid in Sunday School?

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

As another Halloween was drawing to a close, I sat alone with a depleted bowl of candy on our front porch, waiting for any remaining neighborhood children to come by. It was quiet, almost too quiet. As I surveyed our street, I counted 7 consecutive houses next to us that were completely dark. No porch lights, no sidewalk lights, and no light spilling out from the front windows.

With no street lights in our neighborhood, that type of darkness is noticeable. Our street relies on the lights of each home to keep the neighborhood lit. And on any other night of the year, whether they’re home or away, these families do their part to illuminate the neighborhood. So why not on Halloween, when everyone knows there will be families with children out and about after dark?

Some of these families have told us they don’t do Halloween. They go away for the evening to avoid the Trick-or-Treaters, and make it a family outing. I understand they may not want their kids to have all that candy. Or maybe after being gone since 4:30 a.m. and commuting for a couple hours, they’re just not in the mood to come home and spend an evening dealing with (someone else’s) rude and ungrateful children. I get it, I do. But I suspect there are deeper reasons for their absence on this evening.

Of the families that chose to keep their homes dark, I know at least 5 of the 7 are Christians. To one degree or another, these families are intentional about sharing their faith through their words and actions. That outward expression of their faith on every other day of the year is a stark contrast from their absence and darkness on this night. Why the retreat on this one day?

The case can be made that Halloween, with its ghosts, goblins, and candy, is a secular holiday. But there is no corresponding boycott of Valentine’s Day, or the non-religious aspects of holidays such as Christmas. And how do I reconcile a spiritual justification for skipping Halloween when it’s countered with a celebration at church earlier in the week? There the children donned costumes, played games, and received candy and prizes. I don’t have a problem with churches using the holiday as an opportunity to engage the community, but then it seems the same effort should be made within our neighborhood on the night when people are willing to come to our homes and knock on the door.

We spend the other 364 days a year relying on God’s grace, striving to live an attractive life, looking for opportunities to share our faith with those around us. As neighbors came by on Halloween, I couldn’t help but wonder what message they receive from a home that has been intentionally darkened? How is it being perceived by those walking the streets? Do those who don’t share our faith understand the spiritual stand being taken, or is there a chance the avoidance of the neighborhood on only this one night of the year is feeding some Christian stereotypes? As one who shares your faith, I know I have found it hard to understand.

People close to me, that I love and respect, have made the decision to avoid the usual festivities of Halloween. I share these questions not out of judgement, but simply because I know I’m making some assumptions and I’d like to understand. I readily admit my life is full of inconsistencies. You won’t have to look hard to find a weak witness, or frequent failures in loving my neighbor, likely on all 365 days of the year. Is Halloween a modern day example of Romans 14 (regardless of which viewpoint is exhibiting the stronger faith)?

The second verse of This Little Light of Mine starts out with, “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine.” Personally, I enjoy an evening at home, alone with my family, more than you probably realize. I dream of opportunities to hunker down within the safe confines of our home and isolate myself from the world around me. But in a neighborhood where many homes have two working parents making long commutes, rarely is there a time when the neighborhood is intentional about being outside together.

For me, Halloween seems like a fabulous opportunity to get to know them and their children better, to build community, or at the very least to keep the light on for them. Your neighbors are out looking for you. Be engaged. Be visible. Redeem the night. Don’t hide under the Halloween bushel. Let your light shine.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

You need to read the book, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.” Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, SpyI was introduced to the book during a couple talks [1] [2] by the author, Eric Metaxas. Admittedly, I was a bit intimidated by such a lengthy, historical biography. But his stories and wit captured my interest, and thankfully he did not betray that style while writing the book.

Despite knowing the way Bonhoeffer’s life ended, I found myself eager to continue reading as the story of his life unfolded. This was due in part to the engaging writing of Metaxas, as well as the contagiousness of Bonhoeffer, himself, and the fascinating life he lived. My historical knowledge was enhanced, and my faith was immensely challenged.

From an historical perspective, I confess there were numerous aspects regarding Hitler and his ilk that I had not previously known. So, too, regarding the plots against his life by those determined to put an end to his tyrannical reign. It was sickening how the Nazis were able to use a bastardized version of “Christianity” as propaganda to win over believers in their cause.

Likewise, the helplessness of watching the church (both within Germany and without) struggle to be faithful and uncompromising was saddening, to say the least. I realize such an assessment comes from a safe distance afforded by historical perspective. Bonhoeffer was sickened by the rationalization of some leaders within the church to justify acceptance of, and in some cases support for, the Third Reich. Others within the church believed the church should avoid any involvement. Metaxas summarized Bonhoeffer’s frustration with that view when he wrote,

When the state is trying to encroach upon the church, this is a proper sphere of concern. But for Bonhoeffer, the idea of limiting the church’s actions to this sphere alone was absurd. The church had been instituted by God to exist for the whole world. It was to speak into the world and to be a voice in the world, so it had an obligation to speak out against things that did not affect it directly. (p. 280)

“At the end of the day I can only ask God to give a merciful judgement on today and all its decisions. It is now in his hand.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The prolific writing of people during Bonhoeffer’s lifetime enables us to get to know them far better than we often know people today. Sure, our generation often reveals far too much superficial information about ourselves online, but rarely do people have the discipline to express their innermost thoughts, longings, struggles, and emotions through the written word, as did Bonhoeffer and his contemporaries. Metaxas copiously integrates many of these letters into his story of Bonhoeffer’s life.

It’s hard to summarize how fervently Bonhoeffer lived his faith, and strived incessantly to know God more intimately. It wasn’t something he did, it was who he was. Studying Scripture and praying were not religious habits he strived to do on a regular basis, they were a way of life for him. Perhaps the best way to give a sense for Bonhoeffer himself is through his own words. I end with just a few of my favorite Bonhoeffer quotes from the book.

  • A Christian community either lives by the intercessory prayers of its members for one another, or the community will be destroyed. I can no longer condemn or hate other Christians for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble they cause me. In intercessory prayer the face that may have been strange and intolerable to me is transformed into the face of one for whom Christ died, the face of a pardoned sinner. That is a blessed discovery for the Christian who is beginning to offer intercessory prayer for others. As far as we are concerned, there is no dislike, no personal tension, no disunity or strife that cannot be overcome by intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer is the purifying bath into which the individual and the community must enter every day. (p. 90)
  • Where a people prays, there is the church, and where the church is, there is never loneliness. (p. 69)
  • Do not try to make the bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic…. Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it…. Trust to the Word. (p. 272)
  • … extemporaneous preaching can be done by anyone who really knows the Bible. (p. 272)
  • Theological work and real pastoral fellowship can only grow in a life which is governed by gathering round the Word morning and evening and by fixed times of prayer. (p. 271)
  • I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian (cf. Jer. 45!). How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind? (p. 484)
  • Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words. They should remain open. Our only comfort is the God of the resurrection, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who also was and is his God. (p. 349)
  • It is remarkable how I am never quite clear about the motives for any of my decisions. Is that a sign of confusion or inner dishonesty or is it a sign that we are guided without our knowing or is it both …The reasons one gives for an action to others and to one’s self are certainly inadequate. One can give a reason for everything. In the last resort one acts from a level which remains hidden from us. So one can only ask God to judge us and to forgive us…. At the end of the day I can only ask God to give a merciful judgement on today and all its decisions. It is now in his hand. (p. 336)

Talks By The Author

[1] Eric Metaxas at Family Research Council (October 2010)

[2] Eric Metaxas at Calvin College, January Series (January 9, 2012)

Forsaken: A Good Friday Reflection

(As part of the annual Good Friday service at our church, someone shares a short reflection on each of the Seven Last Words of Jesus. This year I was asked to share my thoughts on Matthew 27:46.)

“About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’—which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” —Matthew 27:46

Forsaken. It’s hard to imagine Christ feeling forsaken or abandoned. He is the Son of God, and yet at that moment on the cross, he felt forsaken by the Father; left alone. Was he really expecting an answer from the Father? Did he, the Son of God, not know the reason he must suffer this death alone?

When Jesus spoke these words on the cross, he was quoting Scripture. They are the very words that David used in Psalm 22. The psalm begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.” At his time of complete separation from God the Father, Jesus turned to Scripture.

In a way, we should not be surprised, as Jesus frequently quoted Scripture. It was the basis of his teaching. He used it in the wilderness to rebuke Satan. He even believed that Scripture was a more powerful witness than his miracles. And after his resurrection, the Gospel of Luke tells two stories where Jesus appeared to his disciples, and he used each occasion to point them back to Scripture.

On the road to Emmaus, Luke records, “… beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:7). And after Jesus departed, the disciples “… asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us’” (Luke 24:32)?

Likewise, when Jesus appeared to the Eleven and showed them his hands and feet he “… said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45). Jesus used those few precious moments after his resurrection to show them how his life tied back to the Scriptures now contained in the Old Testament, and how his life is the fulfillment of all of it.

When Jesus quoted Psalm 22 from the cross, I believe he intended to point us to Scripture. In fact, portions of Matthew’s account of the crucifixion seem to mirror the very psalm Jesus was quoting. The psalm talks about the insults heaped upon David, “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. ‘He trusts in the LORD,’ they say, ‘let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him’” (Psalm 22:7-8).

Listen to the similarities in how Matthew describes the crucifixion scene: “Those who passed by hurled insults at [Jesus], shaking their heads…. ‘He saved others’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God”’” (Matt. 27:39-43).

But David doesn’t end the psalm with abandonment or despair. Instead he sings God’s praises, and triumphantly declares his dominion over all nations, to the ends of the earth.

It’s easy to feel at times as if God has left us to fend for ourselves in today’s world. We can’t find a relationship that will last, or a consistent job to provide for our families. We pour our lives into raising our children, only to have them grow up and seemingly reject God. We finally gain the courage to share our beliefs about current events or politics with friends and co-workers, only to be thoroughly mocked for being out of touch. The church or denomination we’ve grown up in chooses what’s easy or acceptable to the world rather than the hard truth of Scripture. Sickness or a tragedy claims the life of a parent, a spouse, or a child. There are times we don’t feel God’s presence, and it seems we are alone, abandoned, forsaken.

It’s hard to imagine the extent to which Christ felt abandoned at that moment. It was apart from God the Father that he bore the burden of the world’s sins through an agonizing crucifixion. If we ignore Christ’s free gift of grace, if we do not admit our sin before God as well as our need for a Savior, we will spend eternity in hell, apart from God. But Christ willingly endured that separation on the cross so that we don’t have to.

When we feel abandoned, forsaken, look to the cross, follow the example of Christ, and turn to Scripture. For it’s in Scripture we find comfort that Christ “was not abandoned to the grave” (Acts 2:31). It’s in Scripture we are warned we will “experience persecution, but never abandonment” (2 Co. 4:9). It’s in Scripture that God promises, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).

No, if we accept God’s gift of salvation, we are never forsaken or alone. Christ was forsaken at that hour, so that we will never be.