FINDING HUMOR, FAITH & JOY IN UNEXPECTED PLACES

HALLOWEEN RE-POST: "Unmasking Halloween" ~ 10/29/09

This is a touchy time of year for many Christians.  And because it’s a touchy time for Christians, it’s automatically a touchy time for churches.  How should Christians act on a holiday I’ve heard referred to as “Satan’s Birthday?”  Should we let our kids go “trick-or-treating?” Should we let them dress up in costumes?  Should we let them out of the house at all on October 31st?  How much cooperation with this holiday does it take before we have compromised our status as“called apart ones?”

Ultimately, how your family chooses to treat this day is your own decision, and should be decided according to Scripture, but also conscience.  There were things mentioned by Paul in the New Testament that were okay for a Christian to do, but he pointed out there would always be Christians for whom certain things would continue to feel uncomfortable – their conscience did not allow them some freedoms. If that is you in regards to Halloween, please don’t go against that feeling -- but only you can decide if that applies to you. What follows below, however, is a brief history of the origins of Halloween, and the reasons why The Outpost office will be open Saturday night when the kids come calling.

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Here is a super condensed summary. “Halloween” is the name of the night before an official Church celebration called “All Saints Day” (Celebrated Nov. 1st).  All Saint’s Day was a celebration which began about 300 years after the life of Christ, to honor the many Christian martyrs, known and unknown, throughout the years.  It later came to include honoring ‘all saints,’ or all believers that the Church viewed as exceptional Christian examples. This celebration was also called ‘All-hallows’ or ‘All-hallowmas’ -- from Middle English ‘Alholowmesse’meaning “All Saints' Day”.  Just like Christmas Eve has become an important night before the actual Christmas day, so the night before “All Hallows Day” became important – and was called ‘All-hallows Eve,’ eventually, ‘Halloween.’ 

So that’s where the name comes from.  What about the costumes, the candy, the carved pumpkins? From all the sources I’ve looked at and studied, the prevailing consensus is that many of the external elements of our modern Halloween holiday have come to us through the Celts, later, the Irish.  Apparently they celebrated the end of their year on October 31st (Nov. 1 was their New Years Day) by lighting huge bonfires during a festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in).  On that night “it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth”(www.history.com) and that they caused trouble and damaged crops while there.  Some believe the Celtic priests and druids wore costumes made of dead animals and offered sacrifices during this festival, but there is disagreement on much of the details.

Those are clues about the “what” of Halloween, but what about the “how?”  How did these two celebrations get so mixed up together? Some have claimed the Church purposely changed its celebration date of All Saints Day (It did change the date, but for another reason) in order to take away the “devil’s monopoly” of that day. Whatever the reason, the facts show that having both major celebrations so close together started a slow-motion chain-reaction of syncretism.  This ‘merging’ of traditions started in Europe and was transplanted in colonial times in the Americas, but it reached critical mass during the large-scale imigrations of Irish to the U.S. in the second half of the nineteenth century. “These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing Ireland's potato famine of 1846, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally”(www.history.com).

'In what ways?,' you may wonder... Take, for instance, the origin of the “trick” in “trick-or treat.” Playing pranks and causing mischief on this night almost certainly comes from the Celtic belief of supernatural spirits roaming the earth on Oct. 31 and spreading trouble.  Interestingly however, the “treat” portion of the phrase seems to be repeatedly traced back, once again, to “All Saints Day,” when children and the poor would go “souling” from house to house, singing songs and praying for the dead.  At each home they would be given small round cakes called “souls.” “Each cake eaten would represent a soul being freed from Purgatory” (Wikepedia). Obviously not a doctrinally sound idea, but it’s still interesting to note this comes from a Church tradition. Incidentally, the first time these two words were put together as “trick or treat” in print was in 1927, during community-backed efforts to offer an alternative activity to the pranks which were becoming increasingly destructive in the United States. This alternative activity, at least in theory, now gave home-owners the opportunity to avoid a ‘trick’ by giving a ‘treat.’ All of which to say – “trick-or-treating” as it appears today is an American hybrid of mixed traditions.

There is nothing evil about a pumpkin, carved or otherwise (the Irish carved potatoes and turnips, not pumpkins… potatoes aren’t evil either).  Neither is there anything inherently evil about a date on a calendar, like Oct. 31st.  Bill mentioned this a couple sermons ago when he reminded us that what really matters is not the environment, but the invironment. So did Jesus.  In Mark chapter 7 Jesus defends his disciples from the legalistic Pharisees,  so externally oriented (works, actions, appearances) that they accuse Christ’s followers of sin because they aren’t performing the traditional ceremonial washing of their hands and utensils before they eat.  Listen to what Jesus says:

14 ”Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean."

Every day we Christians are exposed to objects, ideas, people and activities that are part of a fallen world.  And the truth about us, throughout all ages, has remained the same – we have been called, just like Jesus, to be “in” the world (Jn. 17). We don’t have to be afraid  to hijack our cultural traditions as tools to reach lost people; Halloween, like anything else in this world, has only as much power over us as we choose to give it, by the grace of God.  We are children of the King – and “..the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world”(1Jn. 4:4). We are not defined by what we come in contact with externally,  but by Him who lives in our hearts. To me, Halloween is just another day, just another opportunity to take advantage of in order to advance the Kingdom of God.  But that's me; you decide.

Surrounded By Grace,
Josh

GOD STILL ANSWERS PRAYER! ~ 10/22/09

As I write this, it is the night after a prayer meeting which we now know God has used to forever change our lives. Yesterday morning at our Neighborhood Church staff prayer meeting, I asked people to remember my 2 year old son Aaron in prayer. He has never walked more than 5 steps. Today at work, my wife Esther called me, nearly hysterical, because Aaron was suddenly walking all over the house! Here is some footage to encourage you that God still answers prayers, and to thank you for praying.

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HOW GOD'S OMNISCIENCE AFFECTS YOUR FORGIVENESS ~ 10/16/09

On Sunday nights when I (Josh) run the open gym ministry for our church called “Pick-up-Play,” I never allow captains to pick teams. Instead, we all line up at the free-throw line to let the common equalizer called physics + nerves sort out the teams for us. There’s a simple reason for this crude form of grace: Very good players occasionally miss free throws, and very poor players often make them, whereas when captains pick teams, people with less skill inevitably get picked last. The long version of the ‘captain method’ ends up looking like this:

1)    The two best players are chosen to be team captains.

2)    Based on past experience with individual players, these captains first pick those whom they know to be the ‘most valuable,’ based on skill level, consistency and size.

3)    The last players picked are the worst players, and everyone knows it. Or, if there are enough reasonably skilled players present, the worst players don’t play at all, until they need a third team to play the winners of the first game… which, let’s face it, is just plain cruel.

4)    The final result under this system of team selection is that it’s better to be an ‘unknown’ player than a weekly regular. Because knowledge is power, and a well-known reputation is often unforgiving.

If limited human, experiential knowledge can affect other human beings to such a marginalizing degree, what about the knowledge of God? “Well do I know how treacherous you are,God says to each of us—“you were called a rebel from birth(Isaiah 48:8). God not only knows the ‘real you,’ “God knows instantly and effortlessly all matter and all matters, all mind and every mind, all spirit and all spirits, all being and every being, all creaturehood and all creatures, every plurality and all pluralities, all law and every law, all relations, all causes, all thoughts, all mysteries, all enigmas, all feeling, all desires, every unuttered secret, all thrones and dominions, all personalities, all things visible and invisible in heaven and in earth, motion, space, time, life, death, good, evil, heaven and hell” (Tozer, 56  The Knowledge of The Holy). Proportionally, shouldn’t this kind of divine knowledge promise an even greater sort of marginalization for human beings? If ‘knowledge is power,’ this kind of absolute knowledge = absolute power, and the implications of a God who wields both should be absolutely terrifying for us!

But here’s the funny thing… there’ve been many times in my life I’ve looked at people in the Family of God, contemporaries and historical figures alike, and just known strongly that God hasn’t picked His team based on ‘skillful living.’ Just look at the twelve men hand-picked by Jesus in the gospels!— Just look in the mirror… there’ve been many times I’ve looked and concluded I must have been one of those unknown ‘walk-ons’ who got to play because God just didn’t know any better when He was picking. Because if God really knew me— I’d be permanently benched on the sidelines! 

Have you ever felt like that? I know you have because, like me, you’ve habitually tried to hide your dark side from God as long as possible. Like the first 3-6 months of a dating relationship, we’re always working overtime to put the best version of ourselves on display. Have you ever felt like that? I know you have because, just like me, once you’ve realized God knows the real you, you’ve then resorted to bribery in an attempt to convince Him to keep letting you play, you’ve made deals, made promises to work on your will power and do better next time, until in exasperation you accept that God’s not interested in being manipulated. Until in desperation you give up the charade, in exhaustion, give up trying to be good and in defeat take off the perfectionist mask, so that in your heart you finally blurt out— "'God, I just can’t live the way you want me to. I'm sorry I keep letting you down.' So that God can then remind you of something astonishing…

'How could you let me down?’ He says— ‘You were never holding me up! But I will uphold YOU with MY righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10)’” 

Somehow, God’s intimate and perfect knowledge of all we are and all we’ve done or will do does not keep Him from ‘picking us’ to be on His team. “He tells Peter of his denial, because He would have him know that all the weakness and the waywardness of that wayward heart were fully known to Him when first He called him from his fishing nets to be His servant” (Marcus Rainsford, 34  Our Lord Prays For His Own). But we forget. A lot. Every day we do. We fail and we beat ourselves up and then pray and then fail again and slowly begin to believe all over that the good first impression we originally conned God into must surely be wearing off by now. We slowly begin to believe the lie that every time we fail, God loses a little more confidence in us. We slowly begin to believe the lie that we’ve sinned so badly or so often that God will finally become so shocked and disillusioned He’ll toss us back into the faceless crowd like some undersized trout.

Someone has said, ‘we need to be reminded more than we need to be taught.’ Allow me to remind you of something fantastic— allow me to remind you of the real way God’s omniscience (absolute knowledge) affects your forgiveness…

 “And to us who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope that is set before us in the gospel, how unutterably sweet is the knowledge that our Heavenly Father knows us completely. No talebearer can inform on us, no enemy can make an accusation stick; no forgotten skeleton can come tumbling out of some hidden closet to abash us and expose our past; no unsuspected weakness in our characters can come to light to turn God away from us, since He knew us utterly before we knew Him and called us to Himself in the full knowledge of everything that was against us. ‘For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness (HESED, GRACE!) shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee (Isaiah 54:10).’” (A.W. Tozer, 57  The Pursuit of God

When you fail, God isn’t shocked. He’s saddened, and there will be natural consequences, but He’s not surprised; He saw that sin coming from eternity past. If you’re a Christian, you’re safely on God’s team, and you’re already forgiven— for every sin— even the ones not yet committed. ‘If I’m already forgiven then why am I told to ask for forgiveness?’ you might wonder. Because though we possess forgiveness objectively and positionally (Once Christians, we’d go to heaven if we died without asking forgiveness), God can withhold the experience of feeling forgiven – until we ask. So ask— prayer is writing the check, it’s the ATM card God has given you to access and experience the joy and peace of your forgiveness account! 

God saw all our sins from the vantage point of heaven, gathered them all to the tipping point of Calvary and paid for them all past the breaking point of Christ’s humanity. God’s omniscience means He already knows every wretched secret. His forgiveness means each one was knowingly paid for long ago.  Grace means He has lavished goodness on us in light of both.

Surrounded By Grace,

Josh

DEFINING "HOME" ~ 10/6/09

"'It seems to me,' I found myself observing carefully, 'that when the environment gets wilder, god seems more wild as well.' How wild is your God?"
That was the question I asked in a recent post. How did you react to that? How do you find yourself reacting to the concept of a God who's not "safe" in regards to personal comfort? To a God who does not live in a suit and tie or an air-conditioned house, but somehow and somewhere else, somewhere beyond, somewhere that has different standards for a 'good life,' different rules for defining 'fair' and 'right' and 'just' than perhaps we do?

For many people, this is an upsetting idea. It messes with the concept of a God who is out to give you health and wealth if you’ll just correctly follow the rules and formula’s you think control Him. And that’s the core of it really; control. We want the assurance and comfort that comes with control, and there is such a comfort available to us, but only when we are not the ones in charge. “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (Jn. 14:27) Nothing the world offers, whether self-help formulas for success or any other false sense of control over your destiny, will give you true peace. Only as we surrender and live by faith in the goodness and love of God, on His terms, can we receive this kind of peace. “Faith doesn’t judge God by circumstances” says Erwin Lutzer. Faith trusts that God is in control despite them— even when the circumstances are wild ones. “How wild is your God?”

I was wondering the other day if maybe the problem really lies in perception—ours. Maybe the challenge is not so much in coming to grips with a God who is ‘wild’ and ‘crazy;’ maybe the real perception struggle is that our view of ‘normal,’ our view of ‘home,’ and our view of ‘wildness’ or ‘wilderness’ are all mixed up. Maybe God only seems “wild” in a negative sense when our understanding of ‘wilderness’ is backwards as well. Let me try to explain… Let’s say “home” is a dwelling place intended for safety and comfort. And let’s say “wilderness” is any time and place where we are separated from the safety and comfort of that intended dwelling place. Now, on a larger scale, if we consider earth and this life on earth as ‘home,’ it is only natural that anything and anyone that threatens or attempts to separate us from the safety and comfort we expect it to provide will be looked at as a threat, as threatening. God becomes a “wild,” threatening being, out to make your life miserable. But consider, for a moment, what happens if you and I share Abraham’s perspective? If we look at ourselves as pilgrims only, and this earthly life as our pilgrimage, and “home” as being somewhere/something else? In that scenario, where is the wilderness? It’s earth. It’s this life.

Abraham’s perspective is sound; but just to be sure, can we cross-reference that perspective

with the life of Jesus? What did He expect life on earth to be like? How comfortable and ‘safe’did He expect to be? “Earth had been a wilderness to Him,” says Marcus Rainsford. Even for Jesus, life on earth seems to have been wild, unsafe. Even in God’s dealings with His own Son there were times when the will of the Father had to lovingly overrule the will of God the Son when it came to pain.

“Earth had been a wilderness to Him, and He was about to be trodden in its winepress; the baptism with which He was to be baptized, and of which His soul was straitened till it should be accomplished, was about to begin. ‘He lifted up his eyes to heaven’; His rest was there, His throne was there, His angels were there” (Marcus Rainsford, Our Lord Prays For His Own). Jesus had as hard a life as anyone who has ever lived. But He lived it ‘with His eyes lifted to heaven’— because that’s where and how He ultimately defined “home.”

How about you? Where and how do you define ‘home?’ This is an important question because you can call a spade a spade, but if God calls it a hamster, you’re in for a long day of gardening. What does God say about this world?

If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (Jn. 15:19) Christian, God does not hate you. The world does, and you are not of this world, it’s not your home! God is not the antagonist in your life story, trying to keep you from your potential, your best, your dreams; the “world” is— because this world is the wilderness, and heaven is your ultimate home. 

We can be grateful to God for all the safety and comfort given while on this journey through life, because these are good gifts of grace!— and we have permission to ask for them, and to do so boldly. Just remember that we ‘do not judge God by circumstances,’ but rather, like Jesus, and because of His power in us, we can live ‘with eyes lifted to heaven,’ trusting the promises of our Father that all things will one day be made right, and that the best is yet to come. 

Surrounded By Grace,
Josh

MOR(GU)E STORIES OVERHEARD IN THE OFFICE ~ 10/1/09

*(If you missed post #1 about "Stories Overheard in The Office," please first read the opening paragraphs of this)

The man in the passenger seat woke with a start. “Why are we in the carpool lane?” he asked groggily.

“Weeell,” the driver responded slowly, “The sign didn’t say anything about how many people in the car have to be alive…”

Vladic started laughing a slow, rusty laugh from his spot on the rickety antique deacon’s bench by my office window. Its aging wood creaked, hand-turned stretchers flexing as if to keep time with the man’s building guffaws. And that’s when I knew Franz the morgue worker was winding up for another wild story…

 

STORY #2: When The Dead Fight Back

“Let’s just say this one was of above average weight,” Franz offered, licking his lips nervously as he referenced the cadaver at the center of this particular tale.

“The body was a large one” I clarified.

“Yess,” Franz hissed impatiently, “Yes, large.”

“Go on,” I prompted.

It seems that after picking up and transporting the body of this particularly large woman, Franz was left alone at the morgue to deal with the personal effects and place her remains into cold storage. Apparently however, “placing” her remains anywhere was turning out to be quite the challenge.

The design of the room was simple and open, with the door to the walk-in freezer located on a far wall. “But the threshold of the freezer door wasn’t flush to the concrete floor,” explained Franz; “Not even close.” It seems the walk-in freezer door was, in point of fact, about six inches higher than the floor. But there was more. Running along the front length of the freezer face was a shallow ‘ditch,’ handy when the job required defrosting or cleaning the freezer instead of filling it. What was not so handy was that it doubled as an accomplice to the threshold elevation discrepancy in what could have been construed as a conspiracy to fend off would-be intruders. The ditch was doubling as a moat. So naturally, a drawbridge had been devised.

The drawbridge constructed to span the height difference over the moat that protected this miniature ice-Hoth kingdom turned out to be a half-inch thick piece of plywood.

“It was flexy,” remembered Franz. I asked him to elaborate.

“When there was weight on it—“ Franz said with exaggerated slowness, pausing sarcastically for effect—“it sagged like the back of an old horse.” As the story progressed, this turned out to be an unfortunate design flaw.

“So I pushed the [body-bearing] gurney over to the ramp leading into the freezer and maneuvered up onto it,” Franz continued. Due to the exceptional weight of the corpse, however, the flimsy ramp began sagging deeply in the middle, just as he had previously described. “It was flexing bad,” Franz repeated, twice, perhaps thinking this Biblical literary device might better impress on me the seriousness of the situation. I nodded both times, fascinated with the way his hands had suddenly begun circling each other as he talked, like two vultures bent on mutual annihilation.

“And then something got stuck,” Franz said, vultures pausing—“the front wheels of the gurney were getting hung up on the lip of the freezer door, and the more I sat there trying to heave the gurney up and over and into the freezer, the more the piece of plywood continued to sag. I was slowly drifting down and backwards, and I was pretty sure the ramp was going to break if I stayed on it. But then I had an idea.” I shuddered involuntarily.

The ‘idea,’ it turned out, was to get a running start from the far side of the open room so that momentum might triumph over gravity, as well as the nagging lip of that freezer threshold. Which is how it came to be that Franz, the gurney and the innocent, overweight cadaver all picked up speed one fine Autumn morning in a quiet morgue and hurtled faster and faster towards a walk-in freezer guarded by a moat of death. Into my head, unbidden, came the picture of Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, first senior officer of the U.S. Navy at the time of the American Civil War, pointing to the line of tethered mines in the water blocking the progress of his battleship fleet in August of 1864 and shouting-- with stoic courage-- “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

The vultures had revived and were now circling faster than ever, faster, even, than the whirling wheels of one ill-fated gurney.

“So I charged,” Franz said.

“And something bad happened?” I asked, leading the witness.

“You could say that,” he admitted reluctantly. When the stainless steel gurney hit the plywood ramp, he told me, weighed down by one exceptional body and drunk with speed, the ‘back of an old horse’ suddenly acted more like a trampoline, flipping up into the base of the gurney as the front wheels hit the lip of the freezer and rebounded backwards. The basic result was that the flying plywood ramp somehow caused the gurney to collapse.

“And that’s when she gave me the black eye” Franz confessed quietly. 

"Wait, who?" I asked, suddenly confused.

"The dead lady" he mumbled, a haunted look on his face as he said it. I asked if he would kindly repeat what he had just said, slower and louder.

“Well, I had gained some momentum too, see,” he continued, ignoring me, “but what I didn’t have was the benefit of a freezer lip to stop my forward motion.” As the gurney collapsed, the body of the large woman had fallen as well. So had Franz—directly on top of the cadaver. But in some bizarre way, the woman’s left leg had bent during the fall, so that as Franz's horrified face hurtled towards the tangled jumble of ditch, ramp, steel and corpse, its descent was stopped short by the knee of the dead woman. Abruptly. 

At the sound of the commotion, a door opened at the far end of the room to reveal Franz’s manager, standing stone-dead still as he slowly took in the grim scene.

“This is one for the books,” he supposedly muttered in bewilderment. Then he shook his head, walked back the way he had come and closed the door.

Later that night, Franz left the morgue and headed to the bar for his shift behind the counter.

“Woah, nice shiner” haggled a customer.

“You should see the other guy” Franz quipped weakly.

“Yeah, whatever,” needled the man, taking a sudden swig of his drink while scrutinizing him suspiciously— “it was probably a girl.”

Franz did not smile.

*Grace induces faith & Grace is obligated to faith ~ 
WE ARE SURROUNDED BY GRACE!