scared into heaven or laughing at hell?

Planning worship months ago now, it struck me that Halloween would fall this year on a Sunday, and I was intrigued—at the energy of the holiday—all the fun we have with it—at the Rodgers Forge Elementary School costume parade through the neighborhood this past Thursday, at Trunk or Treat yesterday in the front parking lot, and I don’t know how it will be later on today at your house, but in Rodger’s Forge, it’s mainly a family thing. The average age is young. There’s a big shindig at the Tot Lot at 4:00, and later in the evening, we’ll sit out on our front steps talking with our neighbors, sharing with them the candy we like best, seeing who managed to save a pumpkin from the squirrels, and one of us will take the girls to the houses of folks we know and then they’ll come back and help pass out candy, and kids will come up the walk to the house while parents wait on the sidewalk, and it’s a very community oriented celebration.

And it intrigues me how as children grow older, their costumes gravitate to scary and scarier—how halloween becomes so associated with horror and gore—with the ghoulish and demonic. And I thought about masks and about disguises and about what’s truly scary. I thought about fear and our response to fear. I thought about the way fear is used. Because that’s actually implicit in the celebration, isn’t it? Fear-based motivation … or threat-based: “Trick or treat. Give me something good to eat … or else!” And I thought about how Christianity has used fear as a motivating force … as if you could be scared into heaven, and about how my own sense of what is motivating about our faith is so very far removed from that. And it intrigues me that some draw battlelines between their understanding of our faith and this holiday while there are such strong historical religious and Christian associations with the holiday.

So let’s start there: a brief history of halloween which starts with tomorrow, actually, November 1, All Saints Day, a celebration going back some 1,400 years—also been known as All Hallows or Hallowmas. Traditionally a day to celebrate those who have died and are in heaven. Now, day after tomorrow, Tuesday, November 2, is All Souls Day. That celebration goes back just a little over a thousand years, and in our western tradition (shaped as it is by the Roman Catholic Church), All Souls Day is a day to remember those who have died and are not yet in heaven—those in purgatory. You all know purgatory? Generally speaking, a state after death for those not quite ready for heaven—a place of temporary punishment—of being made ready—prepared, and a state in which the prayers of those still living are beneficial. So those are the oldest celebrations of a time when the veil between the living and the dead is thin. We’ve talked about thin places … geography transparent to the reality of God? This is a thin time—dia de los muertos—the day or days of the dead.

And that brings us to Halloween. For if tomorrow is All Hallows, then today is All Hallows Evening or All Hallows Even or All Hallows E’en or Halloween. Its roots only go back some 450 years, but reach further back into the ancient celtic festival, Samhain (from old Irish, “summer’s end”)—a celebration of the final harvest, of the slaughter of livestock for winter’s fare, of the transition from the lighter time of the year to the darker—a thin time when both harmless and harmful spirits pass through the veil that separates the living and the dead. And it came to pass that people dressed up—disguised themselves—wore costumes and masks—to protect themselves—to confuse the spirits. It’s another originally pagan thin time claimed by Christians.

And if at this thin time, when the veil between living and dead can be crossed, there’s a day for those who died and are in heaven, and there’s a day for those who died and are in purgatory, then who’s left? the denizens of hell, right? hmmmm.

Okay, so back to worship planning. And I thought about how, within our tradition, the fear of hell has so often been used to try and drive people to heaven—scare people into heaven, and how that’s so different from what I feel. I regularly enjoy asking, “Would you be a Christian if there were no hell?” Because for me the answer is a definitive yes. And these juxtaposed perspectives became the sermon title: scared into heaven or laughing at hell—not because hell’s funny—far from it. But because laughing at hell was my attempt to phrase the opposite of being scared by hell into heaven. Laughing rather at hell’s pretensions—hell’s assumptions and presuppositions.

Then this past week actually rolled around, and I had to find Scripture for the worship—for the bulletin, and that turned out to be a little more complicated than I had thought it might be. It’s so much easier when the lectionary gives it to you!

So I read Jonathan Edwards famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”—some of which you find as meditations in your bulletin. And I found one of the texts he used, Psalm 73:18-19, “Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!” And because I had thought of fear only in juxtaposition with laughter, I had to find another Scripture, and with the fear of a slippery place from which to fall, I thought of that wonderful text from Habakkuk: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights” (Habakkuk 3:17-19). which led me to Psalm 18: “For who is God except the Lord? And who is a rock besides our God?—the God who girded me with strength, and made my way safe. He made my feet like the feet of a deer, and set me secure on the heights” (psalm 18:31-33).

It was about then in the whole worship preparing/sermon writing process that I began to wonder if I had gotten myself and us into more than I wanted to. Because it felt like I was juggling all sorts of diverse emphases and perspectives—all these completely different things I wasn’t sure fit together: fear based/threat based motivation—the fear of hell and then laughing at hell as some form of assurance or confidence, the whole Halloween history and tradition.

But I did notice in those psalms, the juxtaposition of those teetering in the heights, slipping, afraid, and those assured of their solid foundation on the high rock—I noticed in the two psalms—in the two images of those in the heights—such a clear juxtaposition between us and them.

We are those who love God and confess God as our strength—the rock on which we stand—our mighty fortress in whom we take refuge—our salvation. We are those who call upon the Lord—call upon God for help—who delivers us, supports us, delights in us, rewards us and our righteousness—the cleanness of our hands. for we are those who have kept the ways of the Lord and not wickedly departed from God. we are the blameless, the guiltless, the loyal, the pure, the humble. and so God girds us with strength, and makes our way safe—makes our feet like the feet of deer, and sets us secure on the heights (psalm 18).

And they are the arrogant and the wicked—prosperous, untroubled, unplagued, proud, violent, fat, foolish, scoffing with malice, threatening oppression, set against heaven, increasing in riches, but doomed, which I realized when “I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end. Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors” (Psalm 73 and Psalm 73:17-19)!

So they should be afraid, and we have our assurance because they’re the wicked, and we’re the righteous—because we’ll be rewarded, and they’ll be punished. And I’m just not so sure about that. Because my experience is not of such absolutes. Because who among us legitimately feel like we can always claim to be blameless and pure? Because while there are certainly times I feel solid and secure, there are times I feel so precariously balanced. Because perfect love, we read, casts out fear (1 John 4:18). And that verse from 1 John, by the way, rejects the fear of punishment (!) within the assurance of God’s love and the expectation of our own loving. So perfect love casts out fear, this we believe, and yet I know fear. Don’t you?

What’s scary to you? Wouldn’t we all affirm that there’s plenty enough of which to be afraid? Financial fears—scared of whether we have enough, scared of retirement, scared of college, scared of bills. Vocational fears—scared of losing a job, scared of what we might have to do to keep a job. Relational fears—scared for our parents, for our kids, for our families. Existential fears—what is my life? its meaning? its worth? When we lie awake in the dark early hours of the morning … scared … scared of being found out as a sham … a failure. Scared of stress.

We’re scared of pain. Scared of separation, loss, grief. Scared of the deep hurt beyond the physical. Scared of losing the best of what makes life so rich and wonder-filled. Scared of missing out on so much that’s so vital and important and beautiful. Scared of not being there for those who love us, whom we love—scared of them not being there for us. Scared of the tragic—the unexpected—the uncontrollable—the untreatable—the unbearable. Scared of the unknown. Scared of the dark. Scared of the love so profound that becomes the loss so deep. Scared we might feel hope, clung to, slip from our grasp and utterly dissolve.

We’re scared of cancer and alzheimers. Afraid of bed bugs (there was a sign at the rally yesterday, “bedbugs are the minions of Al Qaeda!). We’re afraid of extremists—in other countries and in ours—extremists of other faiths and of ours. We’re afraid of foolishness—short-sightedness—of those who make such important far-reaching decisions motivated by money or by power. We’re afraid of those who speak words with consequences we all have to live with—both those who confront our freedom with their words and those who abuse our freedom with their words.

I’m afraid for my daughters—our children. Afraid of what awaits girls and boys in our culture—all that stands between girls and boys maturing into women and men while, at the same time, as children, maturing into children of God. I’m afraid of our culture—it’s priorties and values. I’m afraid of what and who might hurt our precious ones. I’m scared of any possible way of losing them. Scared of letting them down.

And so on halloween, when it occurs to me to ask, “What’s scarier than someone’s scary mask?”—along with all the other answers I’ve come up with, another answer is the mask you don’t know they’re wearing—the mask I might not admit to wearing myself—the masks that hide truth. Masks that suggest it’s them who should be afraid and not me—that suggest I’m any different from them—that they’re any different from me—any mask that disguises our brothers and sisters as our brothers and sisters.

Because we all live with fear. We all, in fact, live with a lot of the same fears. And amidst all those very real fears, what I’m most scared of is the prospect of living scared. I’m terribly afraid of teaching my girls—our children—to live scared—terribly afraid of teaching them that circumstance determines who and how we are—and who and how they are.

Because, I believe, what we do have is a story—a compelling story—a story we revisit every week in Bible study and in worship. It takes different shapes. It’s told with different characters in different places. But it routinely takes circumstance and places it within the larger reality of relationship and love, community and communion—it takes any story of which we’re a part and places it, lovingly, within the story of God, a story that within all the fear—acknowledging—always acknowledging the fear—how scary it can all be, a story that proclaims it’s not about thin times or thin places, but about all times and about all places—not the story of us and them, but the story of of us—of all of us, God’s creation—God’s children—a story not about circumstance, but about the transcendent truth of relationship. It’s a story that reboots reality for us—every time we hear it—one that will shape what we see around us—that will focus our eyes and tune your ears.

Because the story tells us, over and over again—in poetry and song, prophecy and order, parable and epistle: there’s nothing not real about God’s anger—the incendiary intensity of divine wrath. But—but, there’s also nothing not real about the deep, deep love in which that anger burns. It’s the anger of the parent, the lover, the child. We’ve said it before. We all know it to be true: no one makes me angrier than the people I love. There are the circumstances, and then the transcendent truth beyond any and all circumstance—our relationship with God and God’s creation.

So what should you do this week because of this worship service? Enjoy this evening. Laugh with the ghouls and the goblins who come to your door. Share some of your candy with your neighbors as you all sit outside. In fact, get special candy to share with your neighbors! Offer silent prayers throughout the evening giving thanks for the faith you have—the story you’re a part of—that mean you don’t have to be afraid.

Then go vote. Tuesday. And I’m not at all interested in who you vote for—I have nothing to say to that. But I do say, go vote with your story in mind. How is your vote a reflection of your faith? How is your vote an expression of your beliefs and hopes and expectations of how we do life together? I pray you vote as a repudiation of fear—as a hope and an affirmation.

Most importantly, remind yourself again and again of the story in which you believe—in which you place your living. Look your fears in the face, and tell yourself another story—a bigger story. Look at living in fear and remind yourself that’s actually scarier than any threat.

Because our story would not have us live scared. We live with fears, but not scared. No, we live in anticipation with joy. Because within whatever we face—within whatever we will ever face—we find ourselves in the ever-unfolding story of God and God’s people, the ever-unfolding story of love and community.

“Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:17-21).

So go from here into the story you’ve been told, and love with abandon and live abundantly in the name of God’s word made story and song and holiday and flesh.


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