A Theology of Halloween

by Chris TerryNelson

This talk is the second in a series on A Theology of the Holidays.

Last night we talked about Christmas – the holiday that celebrates God’s love of our humanity – all of it, warts and all.  And so the question is: if God can come down and be one of us and love us, will we also love ourselves this way?

This morning, I want to talk about Halloween.  Well, actually I guess I’d prefer not to talk about it.  You see, my parents came up with the worst costume idea ever.  They took a giant black trash bag, cut holes for arms and legs, and while I wore said trash bag, they proceeded to stuff it with leaves.  Then they taped rakes to my arms.  And they would hide behind a bush while I waddled up to the porch.  And when I say “waddled,” I’m talkin’ about the way a kid waddles when they know they’ve got somethin’ in their diaper.  And then I’d have to ring the door bell and say, “Trick or treat, I’m Leaf-man!”  Worst superhero ever.  At least attach leafblowers to my arms.  But no, just those cheap plastic rakes with broken… teeth, or whatever you call them.  They were on sale at Walmart.  The rakes, not the outfit.  No retailer would ever consider selling such a horrible outfit.  So yeah, from now on, you can call me Chris, Pastor Chris, or Leafman.

Why do we celebrate Halloween?  We dress up, pretend to be things we’re not.  Some of us actually do dress up like superheroes, and that’s all good and fun.  But what interests me about this time is the fact that we dress up as the things that scare us, that frighten us.  We dress as our fears and nightmares.  Even though God loves us, and even if we love ourselves, there are some pretty scary things out there, and as we grow up, we begin to learn about them as we grow older.  We learn that there are people who walk into schools and shoot kids for no reason other than pure hatred, or who bomb buildings to create a sense of terror.  We learn that there are natural disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and tsunamis.  We learn that there are car accidents, diseases that can’t be cured.  And we learn that some people just decide to pick on us, to make our lives miserable because they have nothing better to do.  In other words, we learn that, indeed, the world that we are born into, and the world that Jesus is born into, is not safe.

When Jesus comes into the world, as a baby, as a young boy, and as a man, the horrors of this world begin to appear.  Jesus, as a baby, escapes death as the first-born male while other children are slaughtered by Herod.  Jesus is tempted by the devil in the desert.  Jesus comes across demon-possessed people.  And we know the bloody and horrifying end he will meet with on the cross. 

Sometimes we talk about this realization of the horrors of this world as a “loss of innocence.”  You and I, when we were little kids, used to be innocent and naïve.  We just played and had a good time, and we did so because we thought we were safe.  Our parents probably have done as good a job as possible to make sure of that.  But word gets out.  And sometimes, horror comes knocking on our front door. 

When I was 12, my uncle called our house one last time.  He was an unemployed alcoholic who lived in Texas.  I remember building a computer with him, and that he was actually a very kind and gentle person.  But he suffered.  He called our house over and over, trying to talk to my mother.  And she was crying, telling him that he needed to seek help.  He never did.  A month later, the police called to say that he had overdosed on his drugs, combined with all the alcohol he’d been drinking.  The man who had just spent Christmas with me, building that computer, was gone.

This was the first time I began to question whether God even exists.  How could God allow such a thing to happen?  Why would God allow my uncle, who was also born as a little baby with needs (just like Jesus), to die in such a terrible way?  Why didn’t God answer his prayers and fix things?

What we find out in the Bible is that the world is full of monsters, and that sometimes we even have a little monster in us too.  One of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 88, describes just this feeling.  It’s a Psalm of lament, where the author allows himself to cry over the horrors of this world.

Psa. 88:0   

1          O LORD, God of my salvation,

                        when, at night, I cry out in your presence,

2          let my prayer come before you;

                        incline your ear to my cry.

Psa. 88:3            For my soul is full of troubles,

                        and my life draws near to Sheol.

4          I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;

                        I am like those who have no help,

5          like those forsaken among the dead,

                        like the slain that lie in the grave,

            like those whom you remember no more,

                        for they are cut off from your hand.

6          You have put me in the depths of the Pit,

                        in the regions dark and deep.

7          Your wrath lies heavy upon me,

                        and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah

Psa. 88:8            You have caused my companions to shun me;

                        you have made me a thing of horror to them.

            I am shut in so that I cannot escape;

9                      my eye grows dim through sorrow.

            Every day I call on you, O LORD;

                        I spread out my hands to you.

10        Do you work wonders for the dead?

                        Do the shades rise up to praise you? Selah

11        Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,

                        or your faithfulness in Abaddon?

12        Are your wonders known in the darkness,

                        or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

Psa. 88:13          But I, O LORD, cry out to you;

                        in the morning my prayer comes before you.

14        O LORD, why do you cast me off?

                        Why do you hide your face from me?

15        Wretched and close to death from my youth up,

                        I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.

16        Your wrath has swept over me;

                        your dread assaults destroy me.

17        They surround me like a flood all day long;

                        from all sides they close in on me.

18        You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;

                        my companions are in darkness. (NRSV)

The author makes no bones about this.  God is responsible for this world.  So why on earth would God create a world in which we could get hurt?  If you were God, would you do that?  And remember, God not only creates this world, but enters into it too! 

There is nothing about the Christian faith that magically takes away the things that threaten our lives.  I was talking to one guy who said he had been given these superpowers from God through prayer.  I asked him what he could do, and he said “When that lightbulb goes out, I don’t have to change it.  I just speak to it, and it turns on!  That’s the power of God!”  Then, he told me that there was a tornado heading towards his house.  And he spoke to the tornado, and it moved away.  What I didn’t ask him, but really wanted to ask him, was whether or not he made sure the tornado didn’t veer in the direction of someone else’s house.   Right?  I mean, no matter how many miraculous stories we all hear about survival, and it’s always tempting to say that “well I survived, so God must have some sort of special plan for me.”  WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER POOR FOLKS WHO JUST HAD THEIR HOUSE KNOCKED DOWN, BURNED DOWN, FLOODED OUT?  WHERE’S THE SPECIAL PLAN IN THAT? 

Just a note of caution: if your friend is suffering from something, an illness or some accident, don’t ever say anything like “Don’t worry, it’s all part of God’s plan.”

This world is not safe.  God does not give us special protection.  We just happen to live in a part of the world that is relatively safer than the other parts.  But we could have just as easily been born in Syria, and then we’d really be in a pickle. 

The other part of Halloween lies in recognizing that we are not just afraid of things out there, but we learn to become afraid of ourselves.  We don’t like being vulnerable in such an unsafe world, and so we put on masks.  We decide to become little superheroes, each with our own superpowers, because we want to protect ourselves.  The problem is, once you do that, you lose yourself.  People begin to think you ARE the superhero.  They mistake you for something you’re really not.  And then you feel trapped.  Maybe people think you’re nothing but the computer nerd, or the musician, or the athlete, or artist, or the film-maker, or maybe you’re just day-dreaming about what persona other people would like the most. 

So I have two questions for you to talk about in your groups:

1.)   Does it bother you that God allows terrible things to happen?

2.)   What mask do you hide behind to protect yourself?