A Pagan-Christian dialogue about Halloween and All Souls

Just as Christian's are trying in places to shine light into and build relationships with Muslims, should Christian's not also be seeking a more accurate understanding of the Pagan faith?
Just as Christian’s are trying in places to shine light into and build relationships with Muslims, should Christian’s not also be seeking a more accurate understanding of the Pagan faith?

Last week a pagan friend sent me this from ACT Assoc of Christian Teachers – ABP3 Halloween2_May 2010_ , and asked a simple question: what do I make of it?

Jane, my pagan friend, only made one introductory comment to me, and that was that the comments on modern pagans ‘stuck in her craw’. Frankly, I’m not surprised.

Whilst neither of us have an issue with the historic background detailed in this paper, the associations made between pagans and illegal, violent acts on page 2 (paragraph c) is a miss-representation of the truth, and in my view falls into the category if ‘dangerous sweeping generalisation’. A more accurate generalisation would I think be to say that most pagans are no more or less likely to harm you physically or psychologically than any other person, Christian, agnostic or atheist. There are however a few, including a ex-witch I once knew and all sorts of others totally unconnected with the occult, who have done some pretty grim things to other people. In the churches I’ve been in over the years I have witnessed mind-less vandalism and terror visited upon people by those who called themselves pagan – yet I know that in real pagan understanding, that which you wish on others is believed to come back to you three-fold, so their behaviour wasn’t authentic to their beliefs! As Jane put it to me; ‘pagans are people, no more good or bad than any other people, and like Christians, we have to strive to be the best people we can be.’

What as a trainee minister worries me still further, is that the document goes on to in my view mis-represent, ‘Diocesan exorcists’. I’m no expert, but my understanding is that places do have memories and histories that can freak people out (battles, burial grounds, the previous occupants of homes, all sorts), and people can find that their past practices, or the past practices of their close family, can have a disturbing effect on their psychology and/or Christian faith. Yes, most diocese have at least one minister who can be called on to help and advise on such issues, who has a range of skills in what I think they would prefer was known as a ‘deliverance ministry’, plus where possible including in medical psychotherapy. This is not a ‘renewed belief in the the reality of demons’, it is a ministry of specifically Christian healing that involves discernment of the real issues, recognition of a variety of medical, generational and other phenomenon, and often a journey through repentance for a person, and or release for a place. That smattering of understanding I got from college day last year with Revd Dr Russ Parker of the Acorn Christian Healing Foundation, and with the book which touches on related matters called ‘Healing Death’s Wounds’ which he wrote with Michael Mitton and he led me to believe he’s hoping to revise. The situations he spoke of were incredibly varied, and often without ‘evil’ at their root.

I was intrigued to discover from my friend, that pagans recognise the end of October as a spiritually thin point in the year, where ‘the borders between the living and the dead are at their thinnest’ and ‘messages of love and remembrance for those we have lost are more powerful.’ So as Christian’s celebrate All Souls with services of Remembrance and Thanksgiving, pagans too use the time to remember their loved ones, especially those they have lost in the previous year. This is why one church I know was able to come together last year with a local study centre to celebrate ‘Life and Lives Lived’.

I also discovered in our conversation that pagan’s have a need for exorcism too, something she herself has been involved with, and I wonder what the spiritual background to such situations are? She suggests that this is a ‘cosmic cleaning job, [where she thinks a] dustpan and brush would be more useful than bell book and candle’!

Halloween is a tricky one to know how to handle as a Christian/Church. Churches often have light-parties, which have many of the fun and games, and simply avoid the undertone of evil that some feel pervades much halloween imagery. But, is this creating fear where their need be none, avoidance where education and understanding should stand in it’s place?

Other churches I’ve heard of have hosted a fellowship evening for those who live alone and/or fear the trick-or-treat visits. In the past I’ve made a Christian cross in a pumpkin & taken it to a men’s prison to preach about All Souls, and when my son was little, we handed out candle’s with a message about Jesus on the holder at my doorstep when the trick-or-treaters came. Most trick-or-treaters I suspect have a much understanding of the imagery behind modern-halloween, as they do of the imagery behind the nativity at Christmas, and it is just that, imagery. Of itself, I’m not convinced it does any harm, just like a nativity scene does no good, unless you’re willing to accept the message behind it.

I agree with Jane’s view that ‘no one should be forced to celebrate what they don’t agree with’ and indeed she doesn’t agree with the modern Halloween either. But her greatest concern is one which I think as Christian’s we also need to connect with. She wrote to me that this style of mis-representation can cause the

children of pagan parents to be demonised and vilified in schools. In fact it seems to be encouraging teachers to tell them they are wrong. There have been cases where primary school children have come home in tears because their teacher has told them their parents are going to hell. It isn’t right IMO to scare children in your care because you disagree with their parents faith and you get the feeling its regarded as OK if their pagan whereas it would not be OK if they were Muslim.

However strong their belief that Christ is the light who has, and continues to, break the power of evil in the world, should Christian’s really be mis-representing those of another faith to the extent that children fear for their parents eternal well-being, and causing the sort of psychological damage that ACT are accusing pagans of in the document that started this conversation?

Personally I don’t think so. I think as Christian’s we need to do better at educating ourselves about what pagan’s really do and believe, and understand that they too have a healthy regard both for the need to remember loved ones who gone before them, and the fact that people and places have histories that can linger into the future and need spiritual healing. The focus of that healing I’m sure differs, but as Christian’s lets not bring fear into the lives of others ourselves where there need be none.

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Two sermons for harvest – Deut 26v1-11 and Luke 7v36-50

St. Peter's Mill End, Rickmansworth
St. Peter’s Mill End, Rickmansworth

Today has seen the conclusion of my parish placement which has been a significant encouragement to me as I enter this second and last year of ordination training. I am hugely grateful to the warm welcome and hospitality provided by Revd. Simon Cutmore, his family and the parish of Mill End and Heronsgate with West Hyde. I am going to miss these lovely congregations a lot.

Last week and this, I have preaching for two of their harvest services. Both sermons were based on the same passages, and designed to be part of the St. Alban’s Diocesan Harvest Appeal .

Honey cakes decorated in their activity during my sermon with St. Thomas's West Hyde at Maple Cross School - I got to eat one later!
Honey cakes decorated in their activity during my sermon with St. Thomas’s West Hyde at Maple Cross School – I got to eat one later!

BUT, last week’s harvest service at Maple Cross School was a sermon for an adult congregation while the children had their own activities, whilst this week the sermon at St. Peter’s Mill End was for a harvest parade service, where a congregation of more than 150 included the children of the local uniformed organisations. So, the actual sermons needed to be very different in style and delivery, even though they needed to contain basically the same message.

I’ll let you be the judge of whether I managed it or not!

Sermon for Harvest at West Hyde and Maple Cross last week can be downloaded here: Harvest 2013 Luke 7 and Deut 26 What have you done?

The activity and talk for this weeks sermon is below, and I am indebted to my new colleague at college @tweet_too_woo for sourcing me a bee-keepers protective head gear and a frame from a bee-hive!

Activity

This years harvest appeal in St. Alban’s Diocese is focused on bees and bee-keeping.

It talks about a man called Geji, who lives in Ethiopia in eastern Africa, who is now in his 70s. All his life he’s worked really hard to try and keep him and his family alive in his really hot, dry country, and he’s done this harvesting honey that the wild bees produce. But he’s never really had the right equipment to keep bees properly.

Until recently. He’s been given some presents. Do you want to see what one of them is? (Seek volunteer from congregation.)

The first thing that Geji has been given is a bee-keepers ‘veil’ (place on volunteer) – Why does he need those? So he doesn’t get stung – buzz, buzz, buzz! (Sit fluffy bee on the hat!)

He’s also been given a proper hive, with frames in it that bees like to build their honeycomb in, and from which the honey is easier to harvest. (Show a frame.) 

Then, he and some bee-keeping friends have been given a present to share, a really important present that makes their lives much easier. It’s an honey extractor – describe briefly how it works.

So now Geji has lots of honey. And he can sell more honey – honey to hold – and get more money for his honey – money to hold.

So what do you think Geji is doing with all his money he’s getting for his honey? (Get 4 volunteers and give them the following).

Now he’s able to pay for

  • his family to have three proper meals a day, which they’ve never had before – breakfast/lunch/dinner paper plates
  • his children to go to school, because school isn’t paid for out of the money the government have collected like happens in this country –  paper/pens and pencils
  • he’s got enough money to buy his family and himself some better clothes for when he’s not wearing his bee-keeping outfit – pop a nice jacket on another child
  • and… he’s got enough honey left over that his grandchildren can have some for themselves… another jar of honey to last volunteer!

So, not only has Geji had lots of things given to him to help his bee-keeping, but as a result he’s been able to share the results with his family.

He had done nothing special to deserve receiving these gifts, but he has used them wisely, and the ‘fruit’ of those gifts, is that lots of people have benefited.

As the service goes on we’re going to hear about other people who have been given things, and we’re going to think about

  • what they’ve done with those gifts,
  • what they’d done to deserve them,
  • and what that might teach us today.

Get back all those props, and leave them at the front to remind us as the service goes on about what we’re talking about.

Talk

So Geji who we heard about at the beginning of our service, was given a whole load of bee-keeping equipment for no particular reason other than to harvest honey. He used the money he made with the larger quantities of honey he had, to make life better for his family. There will be a collection this morning to raise funds for similar bee-keeping equipment to be sent to Ethiopia to change more lives in this way.

In our Old Testament reading this morning, we heard about a group of people who were given something. The people were the people of Israel, and if you were listening carefully, you might be able to tell me what had the people had been given?

Tricky, adults can help, who read the lesson…. the Promised Land.

The people of Israel had been kept in captivity as slaves in Egypt, they had been freed by God with some miracles, and then they had been wandering in the wilderness for many years because they kept getting things wrong, making mistakes and disobeying God.

Finally, they were in the land that God had promised them, un-originally known to us as the Promised Land. It was a place where they could finally settle down with their sheep, goats and cattle. The soil was fairly good, so they could also grow crops, and harvest what the local trees produced. It was a land where they had a deep sense of belonging.

They had done nothing to deserve all this productivity and good living, it was God’s gift to them, as God’s chosen people. So, as a way of saying thank you to God, they brought a sample of all their harvest goods, the first-fruits of that land, and placed these before God at the altar. They also celebrated the wonderful things they had been given in the way they ate their meals at home, not just on special thanksgiving days, but all the time.

 

The Nave Altar at St. Peter's Mill End, Rickmansworth, with all the harvest gifts that were brought up and some talk props!
The Nave Altar at St. Peter’s Mill End, Rickmansworth, with all the harvest gifts that were brought up and some talk props!

Now, most of us have done something very similar this morning, we’ve brought up goods and put them in front of the altar. I haven’t had a chance to do that yet, so who would like to see what I’ve brought from my little garden at home?

Volunteers, to place my items in front of the altar – pears, tomatoes, carrots, flowers

There’s lots of food here because people have been incredibly generous, so why have we done that?

Answers: so we can help people, so other people who need it can eat.

Now, do we know who is going to be given all these things in front of the altar?

Answer: Catholic Worker Farm and the Rickmansworth Food Bank.

Hopefully it’s not just because we were told to. This is an important part of our harvest celebrations,we’re giving away things that we have, to others who don’t have enough right at the moment.

So, what happened in our second reading this morning. The one about a woman who gate-crashed a private dinner party. WHAT was that all about, hey?! Don’t hear of any baskets of vegetables, or packets of rice, or jars of honey, in that story, did you?!

So, what did the lady in that story, bring and do to Jesus?

Who can remember? Hands up… tears, hair, ointment – anointed Jesus feet.

Does this seem like normal behaviour to you? Do strangers normally walk into your house, have a fit of hysterics all over your feet, dry them with their hair and then rub nice smelling oil into your feet afterwards?

No? Thought not!

The woman in our Gospel story this morning, also wanted to say thank you to God for something she knew she had received, and those tears and that nice smelling oil that she put on Jesus feet, were her way of doing just that. She had received something so special that she wanted to say thank you to God for it, even though she had done nothing to deserve it. She recognised that Jesus was God’s Son, living and walking here on earth, even though he might have looked just like an ordinary man at a dinner party!

The woman had received something sooooooooo special that she celebrated it with the first-fruits of her life, which happened to be tears and precious oils. They were what she had to show for the change inside her that was happening now she understood herself to be forgiven for all of the bad things she’d done in her past. Suddenly she was valued for who she was. She hadn’t received honey, nor a promised land on which to grow fruit and veg, but forgiveness. Jesus recognised what was happening in her, and when she had finished he blessed her with these words:

Your sins are forgiven… Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

 

Harvest gifts given before the service had been placed in all the Nave windows at St. Peter's Mill End
Harvest gifts given before the service had been placed in all the Nave windows at St. Peter’s Mill End

This morning, whilst we’re busy giving away food and money to those that need it and asking God to bless those gifts and those receiving them, what we all need to think about, young and old alike, is this:

What is the precious gift that we have received from God, that we want to thank him for?

  • It might be that you know yourself to be loved by God. All of us are, I hope and pray we know that.
  • It might be that we are starting to understand what it means to be forgiven.

  • It might be that we’re starting to understand what it means to have faith, to believe in Jesus despite all that the world and the trials of life do to stop us believing that.
  • It might be that you are beginning to feel a deep peace within you, that gives you mental, emotional space to consider other things.

I don’t know what it is you personally have received, all I can do is give you a reminder to keep you thinking about what God has given you. It had to be something simple that I could give to everyone, to remind you of the stories we’ve heard this morning. So it’s a piece of cloth with flowers printed on it, that we’ve poured a scent over.

  • The cloth is to remind us of the clothes that Geji bought with the money he made from the extra honey he sold.
  • The flower pattern is to remind us of the flowers the bees need, and also the first-fruits and flowers of the Promised Land that the people of Israel received from God.
  • The scented is to remind us of the precious oil that the woman rubbed into Jesus feet when she realised that she had received forgiveness from God.

If you’re not sure whether you have received a precious gift from God, talk to someone else here, talk to Simon, or me, or some other Christian you trust, or trying praying, just talking to God. Don’t ignore the prompting. Think about it, and once you’re certain, share what you’re discovering with someone else.

So, with some help, I’ve got 200 little bits of scented, flowery cloth here – please take one, think about what you’ve received from God, and what you want to thank him for.

 

Gates, stiles and openings… as prayer stations

A New Forest gate, well padlocked. A familiar part of my youth.
A New Forest gate, well padlocked. A familiar part of my youth.

I grew up opening gates, unlocking barriers, and sometimes climbing over fences that had no other means of being navigated.

That was part of life as the daughter of a Head Keeper in the New Forest, at any chance I had to go out to work with him, and even when we just went because we love being out in the natural world.

When we went out looking at wildlife, or some other excitement, I was given ‘the’ key and spent much of our travelling time behind the scenes of that wonderful place, hopping in and out of the land-rover/van unlocking and opening gates and barriers, and then closing them again once Dad had driven the vehicle through. They all (mostly) had the same lock and many were from a limited range of designs. These days, I’m often the one driving if we’re out on the forest with him, so others get to do this.

A narrow way: above Askrigg in the Yorkshire Dales near Mill Gill, August 2013 (Note the appears to be a steep drop on the far side, and a choice of directions!)
A narrow way: above Askrigg in the Yorkshire Dales near Mill Gill, August 2013 (Note the appears to be a steep drop on the far side, and a choice of directions!)

On holiday in the Yorkshire Dales this summer, I was reminded of this, as I clambered, pushed, wormed and struggled my way over or through the most amazing selection of gates, stiles and other passageways I have ever seen. I became utterly fascinated by their variety and how they spoke to me with regard to my circumstances, faith and journey in ministry. Several weeks on, I find myself returning to the photographs I took, and regarding some of them as prayer stations. In fact as I prepare some ideas for an act of worship based on Psalm 84, I am struck by the fact that a montage of such photo’s as these might prove something people might use as a focus for their reflections:

Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
the Lord bestows favour and honour;
no good thing does he withhold
from those whose walk is blameless.
(Psalm 84:10-11)

St. Oswald's, Askrigg viewed from a narrow gateway on the walk down from Mill Gill, August 2013
St. Oswald’s, Askrigg viewed from a narrow gateway on the walk down from Mill Gill, August 2013

The image that speaks most clearly of my own circumstances at the moment is one of a narrow gateway, in a rather awkward field corner which was hidden when viewed from any distance, looking across to a village church. I know where the church is in this photo, but in the reality of my developing ministry that isn’t the case. Some of the reason for my sporadic blogging at present is the journey of discerning where I will serve my ‘Title Post’, or ‘Curacy’ as it may be better known. This is done under the guidance of my Diocesan Director of Ordinands, Bishops’ and others, and it isn’t a process that can be shared publicly, but suffice to say I’m waiting on “Plan B” and trying hard to learn something about patience.

In the meantime, I shall keep seeking prayerful inspiration from my photos – and I think I might be able to put together a montage that would fit Psalm 84:3 too, but that would involve nests, rather than gates!