Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween is Christian - Wonderfully So!

While some Christians object to the observance of Halloween as Satanic, and others say that it's misogynistic and racist, I'd like to share the thoughts on this day from one of my dear friends and former presbyterial colleagues who now serves as the Bishop Coadjutor of Virginia: the Rt. Rev. Shannon Johnston. While serving as rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Tupelo, Mississippi, here's what Shannon wrote for the Pastor's Page in the All Saints' parish newsletter. I cannot possibly give it a more hearty AMEN!!


When I was a child, I loved Halloween. All of my family participated enthusiastically, decorating our house with witches, devils, black cats, and ghosts. It was innocent fun, filled with imagination and creativity. Looking back, what made Halloween so great for this child was its contrast of silliness and fright, the supernatural and the known, the permitted and the forbidden, the secretive and the public. Halloween was unique; no other occasion was anything like it.

As an adult - and as a priest - I still love Halloween. And I do mean HALLOWEEN, not a “Fall Festival” or the like. Every year, I carve two pumpkins – one playfully smiling and the other “very scary.” I love seeing the children’s costumes and making a big fuss over them. How sad now that Halloween is being spoiled and even taken away from us by the absolutely outrageous ideas that it is “satanic,” pagan, or of the occult. Such notions are poorly informed, terribly misguided, and absolutely untrue. There are many materials circulating these days, all pretending some sort of scholarly knowledge and/or religious authority, that strive to show that Halloween is “really” celebrating the powers of darkness. In response, I must be absolutely clear: pretenses of authority notwithstanding, these materials are at great odds with centuries of commonly accepted theology, not to mention scholarship with proven accreditation. The so-called “exposure” of Halloween is nothing more than a skewed, self-serving agenda from various churches that make up only a tiny minority of Christianity, indeed a minority within Protestantism.

Of course I am aware that satanists, Wiccans, and other occult groups are indeed active on October 31. It is also true that some pseudo-spiritualists and some plain ole’ nut-cases use Halloween as an excuse to act out. NONE OF THIS CHANGES WHAT HALLOWEEN ACTUALLY IS OR WHAT IT MEANS IN THE CHURCH’S LIFE AND WITNESS. Much of the occult association with the day arose long after the Church’s observances began in the mid 300's. Our answer to those Christians who bristle at the celebration of Halloween is that we will not allow occultists to steal it away from God’s Church. Moreover, several Christian observances have pre-Christian ancestry or pagan parallels (the date of Christmas, for example). Whatever the case, the fact is that the Christian truths proclaimed on such days are not affected.

A big part of the problem here comes from the people who do not understand the Liturgical Year because their churches do not follow it. It’s hard to keep a clear perspective on something so rooted in history and tradition if you belong to a church that has no such roots, or to one that rejects as irrelevant or “suspect” the ancient practices from the earliest Christian centuries.

The bottom line is Halloween’s relationship to All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1), one of the Church’s seven “Principal Feasts.” The celebration of any Principal Feast may begin on the evening before - thus, Christmas Eve, Twelfth Night (before Epiphany), Easter Eve (the Great Vigil), etc. Halloween is simply the eve of All Saints’ Day, which is also a baptismal feast. The great truth behind Halloween’s revels is that which we declare at every baptism: “YOU ARE SEALED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT IN BAPTISM AND ARE MARKED AS CHRIST’S OWN FOREVER.”

The most important thing to remember is this: Halloween is the time when Christians proclaim and celebrate the fact that Satan and the occult have no power over us and cannot disrupt our relationship with our Lord and Redeemer, as long as we live faithfully to Christ. We show this by making fun of such pretenders, lampooning them in their face. This is why our costumes and decorations certainly should be witches, devils, and ghosts. In the victory of Christ, Christians are privileged to do this and we must not be timid about it!

Ours is not a fearful faith, cowering from the prospect of falling unawares into Satan’s grasp. In God’s grace and your faithfulness, you ARE Christ’s own forever. Nothing supersedes that fact. Halloween is therefore one of the boldest Christian witnesses, precisely because of its highly public, graphic, and lampooning nature. Personally, I suspect that those who cannot embrace this are living a fear-driven and even insecure faith. If so, they have bigger problems than the highjinks of Halloween.

In Christ,

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Back from Pilgrimage

After more than 24 hours of travel time from Jerusalem to Jackson, I'm back home from a two week pilgrimage in Israel. I expect that it will take a lot of time for me to process the experience.

The Holy Land is strikingly beautiful. I was particularly mesmerized by the Sea of Galilee. And traveling through the Judean wilderness was like being on the moon. Jerusalem is frantic, with throngs of people crowding the holy sites, including people doing everything they can to make a buck. Even just feet from the Western Wall, you're likely to get hit up for money. Everywhere we went, I was struck by beauty, paradox, and contradiction.

It was interesting that so few of our fellow pilgrims were English-speaking. We were definitely in the minority, being outnumbered by people from eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Italy. I take this as yet another sign that the "center of gravity" for Christianity is shifting more and more away from North American and Western Europe.

Being an introvert in the midst of the clamoring masses, and also being a bit skeptical of some of the claims made about certain holy sites ("This is exactly where it happened!"), I often found it challenging to simply be present and receptive to the Spirit. Frankly, I was envious of the pilgrims from other countries who could so readily fall to their knees, prostrating themselves and sometimes weeping in the presence of the holy. I received much help when one of my fellow pilgrims shared these lines from T. S. Eliot's "Little Gidding" with the group:

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

Another of my colleagues put it this way: "It may not have happened right here, but you could probably see it happening from here."

Over the coming days and weeks, I'll post more pictures.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Pilgrimage to Israel

I'm taking a break from blogging for the next two weeks. Tomorrow morning I begin the long journey to Israel. A slightly adapted version of the letter I sent out to my parishioners (with an itinerary) is reprinted below. Prayers are much appreciated!

Dear People of God,

On Tuesday, October 14, I will meet a group of 20 clergy in Atlanta. Together we will fly to Tel Aviv to begin a two-week pilgrimage in the Holy Land.

Most of us are Episcopal priests, but there are also several Methodist pastors, a Disciples of Christ pastor, a Lutheran pastor, a Baptist pastor, and an Assemblies of God pastor. About half are women, two are African American, one is Korean, and two are Hispanic. And while most of us are from the south, one is from Washington State and another is from Minnesota. I feel humbled and blessed to be one of the 20 that were selected out of a pool of 97 applicants for this opportunity.The pilgrimage – officially called the 2008 Holy Land Pastoral Renewal Program – is sponsored by The School of Theology in Sewanee, Tennessee.

The Cousins Foundation (located in Atlanta) that is funding this pilgrimage has done the same for other pastors through other seminaries. If I remember correctly, the Foundation hopes to send as many as 10 groups of 20 pastors to the Holy Land per year. There are no strings attached. Tom Cousins (a Presbyterian) wants to provide this gift to pastors from all denominations for rest, community building, and spiritual renewal. In fact, we were told that if we did not take several naps while we were in the Holy Land, the Foundation would be disappointed!

We spend the first week in Galilee and the second week in Jerusalem. Our days are intentionally planned to maximize opportunities for rest, prayer and reflection. Along the way, we will see and learn about some of the most significant Christian (as well as other important) sites.

I have come to believe that the confluence of events putting me in this group for this pilgrimage at this particular time is providential. There really couldn't be a better time for me than now. I'm not sure what it all means, but I feel like this is a pivotal time in my life and that this trip - which at so many levels is a sheer gift – could be one of the most important chapters in my spiritual journey. For me, the bottom line is this: to simply see and be in the places where Jesus lived, taught, died, and was raised to new life. Wow!

We have been strongly encouraged to "leave home," meaning (among other things) resisting the temptation to call friends and family, or even use the internet to stay in touch via e-mail. It's amazing how much anxiety that creates. The very idea of even thinking about giving up phones and computers - how radical and unsettling! And yet, to really be on pilgrimage means letting go of direct contact with the outside world. It means trusting that important things will be handled by others and that loved ones will be okay. It means letting go and letting God.

Prayer will be the primary means by which we all stay connected. An itinerary of our pilgrimage is listed below. I will be so appreciative if you will print it out and keep me and the other pilgrims in your prayers on a daily basis. Please also keep Julie, Mary Emerson, and Hobson in your prayers. And know that I plan to keep you all in my prayers while traveling in the Holy Land.

It will be a joyful time when I return home from this journey and am reunited with friends and family. I'm sure I'll have many stories and photographs. I can't wait to share them.

Christ's peace,


The Rev. Bryan Owen, Ph.D.
Canon for Parish Ministry
St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral

OCTOBER 14-28, 2008

Oct. 14: Depart Atlanta 5:55 p.m. on Lufthansa flight LH 445.

Oct. 15: Change planes in Frankfurt and continue on to Israel. Arrive at Lod Airport 2:10 p.m. Drive directly to Galilee (Tiberias) and check into the Scots Hotel. The drive will take approximately two hours and a half.

Oct. 16: Morning excursion: Walk a trail to the top of the Cliff of Arbel for a panoramic view of the Sea of Galilee. Visible in the distance are the Plane of Gennesaret, Capernaum, Mount of Beatitudes and Tabgha. Descend the trail and drive to Capernaum.

Oct. 17: Morning excursion: Mount of Beatitudes, Tabgha (traditional site of Jesus' appearance to the disciples while they were fishing: "cast your nets on the other side").

Oct. 18: Morning excursion: Drive through Galilee to Zipori (Sepphoris) and Nazareth. Return by a different route that offers a better view of Mount Tabor (traditional Mount of Transfiguration).

Oct. 19: Morning excursion: Boat ride across the Sea of Galilee and visit to other sites around the sea.

Oct. 20: Morning excursion: Drive north to Banias (Caesarea Philippi) and the foothills of Mount Hermon. Along the way, pass el-Qedah, site of ancient Hazor.

Oct. 21: No scheduled excursion. A day to rest, journal and reflect.

Oct. 22: Drive from Galilee to Jerusalem and check into the Notre Dame Hostel. The drive itself is approximately three hours, but there are two important places to visit along the way: Megiddo (Armageddon) and Caesarea Maritima.

Oct. 23: Morning excursion: Begin exploring Jerusalem, starting with a panoramic view of the Old City from the Mount of Olives. Continue on foot to the Garden of Gethsemane, Church of Saint Anne, Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Oct. 24: Morning excursion: Full day excursion to the Dead Sea (including Masada, Qumran and Jericho).

Oct. 25: Morning excursion: Bethlehem.

Oct. 26: Morning visit to the "Garden Tomb" followed by worship at St. George's Cathedral.

Oct. 27: No scheduled excursion. Last minute shopping and rest for the long flight home.

Oct. 28: Depart the hotel at approximately 1:30 a.m. for a 5:30 a.m. flight. Lufthansa flight LH 691 to Frankfurt; LH 444 on to Atlanta. Arrive in Atlanta 3:40 p.m.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Bashing the Creed

I've previously posted two pieces on the Rev. John Beverly Butcher's letters in Episcopal Life calling for abandoning the use of the Nicene Creed in our liturgy. Today, I read two letters in Episcopal Life extolling the virtues of Butcher's position. Here's what these two persons have to say about "the sufficient statement of the Christian faith" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 877).

The Rev. John Beverley Butcher ("Creeds are lacking") is not alone in sensing the creed's complete exclusion of Jesus' life and ministry, mentioning only his birth and death and nothing in between. In the flow of the liturgy, Scripture, passing the peace, prayers of the people, the sermon and the Eucharist, Jesus Christ's ministry and gospel are present. The creed, instituted by Roman decree more than three centuries after the Resurrection, leaves out both entirely. The Council of Nicea's purpose was to institutionalize Roman power and authority.

We are Episcopalians and have been open to the Holy Spirit to help us in the evolution of our worship from the beginning. In the Nag Hammadi discoveries, we are now fortunate to have the gospels of Thomas, Philip and Mary Magdalene to read. None of the four original Gospels nor these new findings contain the creed.

Women also have sensed the irony of referring to the Holy Spirit as "he" when it is a feminine word in both Hebrew and Greek and would best be translated as "she." Patriarchal language is problematic in a church with a woman presiding bishop.

Grateful thanks to the Rev. John B. Butcher's ("Creeds Are Lacking" comments. The creeds are metaphysical abstract statements, probably relevant in the fourth century to philosophical arguing, but not understandable for Christian living or to anything Jesus lived and taught. What really does any of that speculative conjecture loved by theologians mean to the average person, those to whom Jesus ministered then and now?

If the creeds are sacrosanct and cannot be replaced, could an alternative be given as an option? Jesus' summary of the law to love God and love your neighbor is mentioned several times in Scripture, the Old and New Testaments. Why isn't that our creed, easily understood and a guide for living? It also seems to me to be truly the Great Commission from Jesus, not Matthew 28:19, which is mentioned only once and never was called the great commission by Jesus; that probably was the label put on by some Bible scholar when the Bible was able to be printed.

As a life-long Episcopalian, I am heartened by the Rev. Butcher's letters the past two issues and appreciate his bravery in speaking out.

I was so disheartened by these two displays of anomic Anglicanism and how they represent ways in which we Episcopalians are failing Christianity that I was initially at a loss for words. How do you respond to persons who think that the treasure hidden in a field is so worthless as to be tossed out with the rubbish?

Fortunately, my friend and clergy colleague Greg Jones has responded to the first letter in a posting over at "The Anglican Centrist." He doesn't mince words when he writes: "Honestly, when will it stop? When will people in a supposedly educated denomination actually do some historical reading? These statements are sophomoric and reflect a lack of any historical depth or sense." Good questions and an accurate assessment.

Then there's the second letter's sweeping assertion that the Creed trades in "speculative conjecture loved by theologians" but is "not understandable for Christian living or to anything Jesus lived or taught." A thorough reading of a book cited on this blog many times - Luke Timothy Johnson's The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters - easily and definitively refutes such shallow reasoning. (If it's helpful, check out these PowerPoint presentations of the book.)

Reading these two letters, I once again find myself catching my breath at how quickly and easily some Episcopalians are willing to completely dismiss the faith, practice, and witness of the Church. Ignorance is no excuse for throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Stay With Us

Today I came across a gorgeous composition by Egil Hovland entitled "Stay With Us." The version I found is a recording of the Men and Girls Choir of Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green in Newhaven, CT. For me, it's a powerful example of how music and text can work together to proclaim the Gospel to the depths of our being.

You can listen to it here.

This is the text:

Stay with us, Lord Jesus, stay with us.
Stay with us, it soon is evening.
Stay with us, Lord Jesus, stay with us,
it soon is evening and night is falling.

Jesus Christ, the world's true light!
Shine so the darkness cannot overcome it!
Stay with us, Lord Jesus, it soon is evening.
Stay with us, Lord Jesus, for night is falling.
Let your light pierce the darkness
and fill your church with its glory.

Stay with us, Lord Jesus, stay with us.
Stay with us, it soon is evening.
Stay with us, Lord Jesus, stay with us,
it soon is evening and night is falling.

UPDATE: December 15, 2010

I just came across a different version today on YouTube. The words are slightly different, but it's still lovely.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Was Jesus Naive?

Back in 2005 (contrary to what the web link says), Gregory S. Clapper wrote a very powerful article for The Christian Century on his experience as a military chaplain entitled "Wounds of War." I strongly suggest reading it.

Precisely because I admire Clapper's article, I continue to struggle with his argument that "Sometimes the world makes us choose whom to love." Indeed, I found that comment so troubling that I wrote a letter to the editor in response (which was published in the October 5, 2005 edition of The Christian Century). Here's what I wrote:

I greatly appreciated Gregory S. Clapper's "Wounds of War" (June 28). With compassion for the trials and tribulations of men and women in the armed services, Clapper captures the difficulties of moral decision making for Christian soldiers in the maxim: "Sometimes the world makes us choose whom to love."

Clapper's maxim raises questions for Christians. For if the maxim is true and if it provides (an admittedly tragic) justification for Christians to kill, it suggests that the Jesus who says, "Do not resist an evildoer" (Matt. 7:12), "Love your enemies" (Matt. 5:44) and "Be kind to the ungrateful and the wicked" (Luke 6:35) is either naive or wrong. Either way, our Lord loses moral authority and credibility.

I still cannot neatly resolve the tension between the demands of Christian realism (so powerfully put forth by Reinhold Niebuhr) on the one hand, and the teachings and example of of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospels on the other hand.

Finding Common Ground

There's an interesting blog posting by Episcopal priest Scott Gunn over at "Seven Whole Days" entitled "815 can't have it both ways." Sparked by the ongoing lawsuits and depositions within The Episcopal Church, Scott (noting what The Anglican Curmudgeon has to say) cites problems with The Episcopal Church's recent canonical and legal arguments. Among other possible examples, the September 18 deposition of the Rt. Rev. Robert Duncan, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, is surely foremost in Scott's mind.

Given my own diatribes against clergy who violate their ordination vows with impunity (not to mention my thoughts on communing the unbaptized) , I was particularly struck when Scott wrote this:

We should be very firm in disciplining clergy who violate their ordination vows. Period. Once someone has violated them (as opposed to talking about it), we should precisely follow the canons and deal with the matter quickly and justly. This, by the way, should include people who disregard the worship of the church, not just those who reject our polity. To name one example, “open communion” is expressly forbidden by General Convention and canon. Yet it goes on undisciplined, all the time. (I’m conflicted on this one, but until the canons are changed, I must follow them.)

Phil Snyder (who blogs at "The Deacon's Slant") made this comment in response to Scott's posting:

... we have lost a common faith and common discipline. The HoB [House of Bishops] no longer cares what you believe, unless you act on a “conservative” belief. The only discipline left is power. To quote Voldemort: “There is not good or evil. There is only power….” The HoB had the power and the will to depose Duncan. They do not have the will to depose or discipline anyone on the progressive side for actions contrary to either the C&C (such as allowing or participating in Communion without Baptism) or the expressed will of the Church (as stated in either resolutions of General Convention or Lambeth or the ACC or the Primates’ meetings). While resolutions do not have enforcement measures, they do have moral authority and should be followed - particularly when the unity of the Church is at stake.

Thank you for standing up for the rule of law rather than the rule of power.

While I'm not 100% comfortable with the labels (such rhetoric always tends to obscure as much as it reveals), some would characterize Scott as a "progressive" and Phil as a "traditionalist." No doubt, there's much on which they disagree. And no doubt, there are many issues on which I disagree with each of them.

And yet, it is precisely for that reason that I take heart from this example of how Phil finds common ground with Scott on the norms of The Episcopal Church. To my mind, this exemplifies what it means to speak of "Anglican Centrism" and "Generous Orthodoxy."

I believe that it's exactly this kind of common ground we need to highlight, celebrate, and nurture. For without such common ground, we doom ourselves to endless partisan bickering, turf wars, unjust interpretation/application of canon law, and the undermining of the primary reason why we exist in the first place: to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that [Jesus has] commanded" (Matthew 28:19-20 NRSV).