Did I scare you? October 31st looms on the calendar only three days away; and the autumn eve claims to be the most frightening time of the year.

Pumpkin questionThe church doesn’t quite know what to do with Halloween. Some believe it is a demonic observation that accentuates the occult. Others think it is a nothing more than a harmless fall festival. However, a deeper meaning makes the holiday a holy day for Christians.

“Halloween” is a contraction of the words “All Hallow’s Eve.” “Hallow” means to make holy. “Hallows” names God’s holy ones or saints. In the church calendar, October 31st is the evening before “All Saints Day” when the church honors God’s faithful dead.

Like many Christian holidays, the church co-opted a pagan holiday and baptized it with new meaning. The ancient Celtic people observed “Samhain” (SAH-win) on October 31-November 1. The festival celebrated the harvest and recognized the division between the “light” and “dark” halves of the year. It combined Thanksgiving and New Year’s in the Celtic calendar.

During this time, the Celts believed that the line between this world and the next—between the living and the dead—thinned. Spirts could cross the weakened boundary freely. So frightened people lit bonfires, carved gourds, and wore masks to frighten or confuse any harmful spirits. Many of our Halloween traditions reflect these Celtic practices.

Little wonder that Halloween so confuses the church. It blends piety and paganism, the profound and profane, the sacred and secular. Some devout believers see the occult disguised in costumes. Others dismiss the day as a harmless folk festival. A few recall the deeper meaning of “All Hallow’s Eve.”

On Saturday, fear and faith symbolically face off against one another. Halloween sports the traditional colors of black and orange. Black represents the darkness of night. Orange symbolizes the light of fire. The black dark of doubt challenges the orange fire of faith.

In my office, I possess a copy of a 16th century prayer from A Peasants’ Cornish Litany which reads:

From ghoulies

What frightens you? What threatens to scare your faith to death? Jesus Christ calls us from fear to faith. We can become fearless!

An inverse correlation exists between faith and fear. The greater our faith, the less our fear. The greater our fear, the less our faith. They mix like oil and water. Faith drives out fear. Fear drives out faith.

I am not attempting to minimize the soul-searing, terrifying moments of life that we all face. In a scary, fallen world, it is natural to be afraid. And there are times when we weakly pray, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” However, God’s children are called to let our fear drive us to faith; then our faith can drive out our fear.

David’s words in Psalm 23:4 claim God’s presence even in the darkest parts of life: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me. A contemporary Christian song declares: When the shadows close in, Lord, still I will say: Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Fear nothing this Halloween. Fear nothing in this world. Fear nothing in life. Fear nothing in death. We serve the Creator of the heavens and the earth, and nothing can overcome us in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Ageless Ministry

Call to ministry

I experienced God’s call to the ministry in my early teens. Although I flirted with other vocational ambitions during adolescence, I never drifted too far off the course. After high school, I double-majored in religion and history at Berry College—both highly marketable and profitable degrees!

The United Methodist Church certified me as a candidate for ministry during college. Then I attended “License to Preach School.” I graduated from Candler School of Theology with a lofty-sounding Master of Divinity degree. The North Georgia Conference ordained me as a deacon and two years later as an elder.

After seminary, Bishop McDavid appointed me as pastor-in-charge of a two point circuit outside Newnan, Georgia. I entered the full-time ministry with all the cockiness of a 24 year old who knew it all. Looking back, I knew just enough to be dangerous.

People encountering me for the first time often said, “You look too young to be a minister!” Back in the day, the comment sounded like a veiled insult. Three decades later, I feel otherwise! Next June I will mark 34 years in the ministry. Don’t bother with the math—I’m 57 currently.

Today I serve a county seat church with a wonderful staff family. However, I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon: the ministers around me are growing increasingly YOUNGER. Some associate pastors on staff are young enough to be my children. The church recently hired a student minister who is my daughter’s age.

I’m serving with staff members who don’t recognize Creedence Clearwater Revival on the radio. They studied the space race and the Vietnam War in history class. They’ve never used a rotary phone. They’ve always filled up with unleaded gas. They never watched M*A*S*H on primetime TV—and some of them have never seen an episode at all.

During seminary, I worked as the assistant pastor at Kennesaw United Methodist Church. Bill Edwards served as the senior pastor, and he has been one of my mentors over the years. However, I considered him OLD even back then. I just looked it up, and Bill was in his mid-forties at the time—TEN YEARS YOUNGER THAN I AM NOW!

So I don’t know how the younger staff members see the SENIOR pastor; and believe me, I have no plans to ask. I recall a song by Garth Brooks (for our younger readers, he was a country-western star in the old days) entitled: I’m Much Too Young to Feel this D*mn Old (See what I did there? I put the * in place of the “a” to disguise the scatological language.) Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.

However, I love serving with young(er) staff members. They bring an excitement and enthusiasm about ministry that reminds me of my youth. In the face of society that grows increasingly secular, they dare to boldly proclaim the living Word of God. They experience the ministry as a fresh calling rather than a timeworn vocation.

On my best days, I hope to impart to them some hard-won wisdom about serving in a local church. On my worst days, they remind me what ministry is all about. Ministers may grow older, but the call never grows old.

Turns out you’re never too young—and never too old—to look like a minister.

The Gospel according to Dr. Seuss

The New Testament contains four gospels that tell the story of Jesus’ life. In Greek, gospel literally means good news. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are evangelists who proclaim the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Their entire goal is to invite their readers to accept Jesus as Savior and Lord.

Over the centuries, others have retold the gospel story in a rich variety of ways. Jesus’ life has been portrayed through paintings, sculptures, frescoes, stained glass, operas, musicals, theological books, novels, and even animated cartoons. Although the medium might change, the message remains eternal.

In our post-modern world, Christian authors continue to seek fresh new ways to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love. Contemporary books include The Gospel according to Peanuts, The Gospel according to J. R. R. Tolkien, The Gospel according to Harry Potter, and even The Gospel according to the Simpsons!

Gospel according to Dr SeussIn 2004, James W. Kemp published The Gospel according to Dr. Seuss. At the time, the Reverend Kemp was a retired United Methodist minister living in Kentucky. In the Introduction, the pastor wrote:

Dr. Seuss remains my favorite theologian. When I was a pastor, I found that I could find no better illustrations for biblical principles than I found in Dr. Seuss’s stories. His themes help us to understand what is truly important in life. His messages cause us to think about ourselves in new ways.

Dr. Seuss was born as Theodor Seuss Geisel on March 2, 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts. He graduated from Dartmouth College and pursued a career in advertising. In his late twenties, Geisel had time on his hands. His contract with Standard Oil prevented him from working on other ad campaigns. However, it did not prohibit writing children’s books.

So in 1938 he published And to Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street. He used his middle name as a pseudonym because he planned to write “serious” books under his real name. He added the title of “Doctor” because his father had always hoped he would be a physician!

Geisel went on to write over fifty children’s books under the names of Dr. Seuss, Theo LeSeig, and Rosetta Stone. During his career, he received three Oscars, two Emmys, and one Pulitzer Prize. He died in California at 86 years of age in 1991.

In 1957, Geisel published a book featuring a fantastical creature who became the symbol of all things Seussian. In an era of Dick and Jane school books, a publisher at Random House Books challenged Ted Geisel to write something new. Using 223 words from the basic Dolch Reading List, Geisel created a whimsical tale about a cat in a floppy top hat. The Cat in the Hat sparked a revolution in beginning readers’ books.

The author of The Gospel according to Dr. Seuss, James Kemp, wrote that the Cat in the Hat was one of his favorite characters. In an interview, he said: Through him we see that something good can come out of bad circumstances; we are never hopeless.

Kemp’s statement is all the more remarkable when you know his life story. After fifteen years as a United Methodist minister, James was forced to take early retirement due to severe multiple sclerosis. In his mid-forties, he became a quadriplegic. He dictated his writing to his mother, and his wife handled interviews.

Reverend Kemp died in 2006 after battling MS for 20 years. Just before his death, he told his family that he wanted them to “put the fun back into funeral” for his memorial service.

This is the same man who said with absolute conviction: There is always hope in the unlimited richness of God. Most of our problems are trivial. What a lived out affirmation of faith that witnessed to how a Christian lives  . . . and dies.

Indeed, there is always hope in God’s grace and love. No matter how big a mess we have made of life, our Lord can clean us up and forgive us for the past. He provides order in the midst of chaos and purpose in the face of meaninglessness. Then Christ restores us to right relationship with self, others, and God.

It is not Seussian rhyme, but another poet put it this way:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me,

I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.

Cheeseburger is Paradise

I recently visited a local restaurant that specializes in hamburgers. I pretended to peruse the menu for healthy alternatives like salmon or salad, but my taste buds already knew how THAT internal debate would end.

CheeseburgerAfter delivering water and bread, the waitress asked for my order. Without hesitation, I ordered a medium burger with the works—topped with American cheese, sautéed mushrooms, and grilled bacon. A side of crisp fries completed the gourmand repast.

Twenty minutes later my heart-attack-on-a-plate arrived. I poured ketchup on the meat and fries before slathering the bun with mayonnaise and mustard. I gripped the burger with two hands and anticipated the first bite with carnivoristic delight.

My Food Conscience picked that inopportune moment to make an appearance. The imaginary figure—nicknamed “Mac” in my mind—plays the role of Jiminy Cricket to my Pinocchio, reminding me of dietary rights and wrongs. For older readers, Mac looks like a pint-sized Jack LaLanne in his peak years before he started hawking juicers.

Grease dripped down my fingers as I brought the burger to my lips. “Ahem,” Mac interrupted. “Are you REALLY planning on eating a MEDIUM cooked hamburger? You remember all those articles about Mad Cow Disease, don’t you?”

I attempted to ignore his words while staring at the pink hamburger. “And another thing,” my Food Conscience continued. “You’re about to eat half a pound of red meat. Just how long do you suppose it will reside in your digestive tract?”

“To make matters worse, you ordered a Cheeseburger. You KNOW that you’re lactose intolerant. The processed cheese will keep us both up all night.”

“And don’t even get me started on the three strips of bacon that came with the order. Meat-on-meat—what WILL they think of next? Do I need to remind you of your cholesterol numbers? You’re north of 200, big boy, and just courting an all-expense-paid-trip to the Coronary Intensive Care Unit.”

He didn’t stop there. “I couldn’t help but notice the hamburger bun. White bread? What happened to your New Year’s resolution about multigrain?”

I quickly changed the topic, pointing out that the meal came with healthy toppings like lettuce, tomatoes, and mushrooms. Lettuce certainly counted as a vegetable, but I’ve never been quite sure about tomatoes . . . fruit . . . vegetable . . . who knows? Mushrooms actually come from the fungus family, but I figured the FDA might include them somewhere among the vegetable family.

Mac snorted in disgust. “Great choices, friend. Did you know that salmonella bacteria are found more on leafy vegetables than in ground meat? No telling where that slab of Iceberg lettuce has been.”

“Tomatoes are dandy—and they are considered to be a fruit and not a vegetable, genius! However, the ketchup covering your plate is actually red-colored sugar.”

“Don’t try to kid me about the mushrooms. The cook barely wiped the dirt off those fungi before sautéing the toadstools in a pound of butter.”

I pushed the mushrooms to the side of the plate and picked up a handful of fries. “Hellllooo!” Mac called. “Ever hear of high blood pressure? Those fries have enough grease and salt to dry up your blood. Dredge them through the ketchup, and you have the perfect combination of mega salt and sugar.”

I pointed out that I had self-righteously ordered a diet drink rather than carbonated candy. My Food Conscience shook his head in disgust. “Here’s a rule of thumb,” he announced. “Never eat or drink anything that you cannot pronounce or grow. Can you say ‘aspartame?’ When was the last time you picked some good old potassium benzoate off a tree?”

I sighed, wondering why the good Lord created bad food that tasted so great. In mid-reverie, I absentmindedly took a sip of water while Mac asked, “And did you see the latest reports on water quality?”

Enough was enough—I banished my Food Conscience back to wherever he lived when I was a teenager and could eat whatever I pleased. Alone again, I cleaned my plate without guilt or remorse. When no one looked, I sopped up the greasy remains with some white bread.

I sat back in sated bliss, convinced that I could not eat another bite. Then the waitress walked over and asked, “Did you save room for something sweet?”

After a moment’s hesitation, I decided it would be rude if I didn’t at least glance at the dessert menu.