It’s Halloween, and I’m Confused

*Sigh* It’s Halloween, and I’m confused. Maybe conflicted would be a better word.

On the one hand: It’s Halloween and I want to belong. It’s the one day of the year when our neighbors open their doors to us, and knock on our door in return. It’s our annual opportunity to pound the pavement with our community: to admire cute littles, to exchange names and pleasantries.

I’m all about chocolate, and believe me – I’m all about dress-up.

A very pregnant Halloween. And yes, that's body paint.

Yes, that is body paint. I LOVE imagination, fancy dress, and I love community. I don’t want our kids to be the ones who say “sorry, we don’t do that”, or to skip a day of school in protest. In general, I’m one who looks for opportunities to engage with people and culture: to do so with love, grace and wisdom. But I’m a little lacking on wisdom on this one.

Because for all that I want us to use this opportunity to connect with our community, Halloween is also something I really don’t want to belong to. The decorations are grizzly: bats, witches, spiders webs, zombies and graveyards. Blood, slime and skeletons. They ALL fail the Philippians 4:8 test of things that are lovely, admirable, excellent, honorable and praiseworthy.

More than just unpleasant and unlovely, the themes are downright terrifying. My children are not yet at the age where they want to go to Halloween parties where the threat of horror movies looms large, but already they think Finding Nemo is scary because the kid loses his mother and then gets chased by a shark. Just a casual walk down our street trick-or-treating with the neighbors brings us across all sorts of decorative horrors, and I am not ready to talk explain zombies and ghosts with them. It’s awful. Truly, awful. That which is make-believe about Halloween is creativity designed to frighten, that which is true about Halloween is a realm of spirituality I’m deeply wary of. Satan and his minions are real and I don’t want to mess with that by making evil “approachable”.

So what to do? What to do? Can we accept the good without the bad? Is there a way of engaging positively and redemptively with this most awful of celebrations and escaping its evils?

In principal, the answer should be yes. After all, we celebrate Christmas and choose to embrace the telling of the Christ-story and the joy of giving, while eschewing the pagan solstice background and also hoping our children will miss the lethal spiritual lessons of materialism and greed which underlie our Western celebration of the day.

We celebrate Valentines day and choose to celebrate friendship and love, while distancing ourselves from the lies about romantic love which “completes us” and averting our eyes from the love=sex undertones which pervade so much of the adult Valentines day mania.

If we think that the materialism of Christmas or the erotica of Valentines Day are any less dangerous to our souls, perhaps we’re underestimating their power.

But all that being said – I’m still not sure about Halloween. I’m not sure what to think about it, and not sure what to do about it. Do we withdraw? Do we engage, but with all our conservative “I’m here but I’m not really loving it” vibes escorting us down the road? Do we seek to engage fully with our own Christian version of the themes: “Boo! Jesus loves you!”, or “There will be a day of the dead! And on that day, Jesus will rescue those who belong to him! Happy Halloween, and don’t eat too much candy!” Do we dress our kids as Lazarus and hope that someone asks us to give a reason for the “hope we have” (1 Peter 3:15)? Do we carve redemptive pumpkins?

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My children want the candy and the adventure. They want to be like their friends. One of them wants to dress up as a spider, the other as a mermaid. Part of me bristles at the thought of the spider (because, ew!) and adores the idea of the mermaid – but then again, God created spiders but did not create mermaids. So what is this Christian mama to do?

As I said: it’s Halloween and I’m confused.

This is the second-to-last post in the 31 Day writing challenge. I chose the topic of Belonging. To see what other random thoughts this topic has generated in my little brain, click here.

Photo credit: Marci Lapan on Pinterest

The Illustrated Guide to Justification


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I’ve been wanting to write this post for nearly a year now. In fact, the reason I chose the topic “31 Days of Belonging” was because I wanted to include a mini-series on Justification. Thinking through this topic has arguably been the most rewarding thing I’ve learned from the Bible in several years. I hope and pray it is true to the Scripture, and helpful to you. If you just want the pictures part, please feel free to scroll down past the introduction.

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but it is not true that all words are created equal. Some words are more important than others, and for people of faith, JUSTIFICATION is one of those words.

The early church, persecuted and condemned by the courts of Rome, clung to the truth that they were justified by the court of God.

1700 years later, the course of Western Civilization changed because of the reformation rallying cry of “justification by faith”.

Blood has been spilled over this issue. It’s important to understand it.

After three years at seminary, I thought I had a fairly good grip on what justification meant. I had studied church history and soteriology and (good grief!) even translated Romans from the original Greek into English. So when I started preparing a series of conference talks on the big words used to describe what Jesus accomplished on the cross (redemption, justification, adoption), I thought I would just be brushing up on my bible college notes. I could not have been more wrong.

In my studies, I discovered that in the dozen or so years since I finished seminary, some of my theological heroes have been fencing with ink over what justification means. NT Wright and John Piper, in particular, have both written books on the topic in the last few years: publicly, heatedly, passionately disagreeing with each other – and both appealing to the Bible for support. I was beginning to appreciate why my friend Dan Seitz had said he believed “justification was the biggest issue facing the church today.”

I hit the books. The conference date was coming up and I was panicking. When I read Piper, I totally understood what he was saying. But when I read Wright, I found myself nodding and underlining and agreeing with him too. Weeks of wrestling later, I found myself trying to wrangle these big ideas into sentences. I felt like I was trying to capture wild tigers running loose in my head. I labored with words as I labored with the Word.

I sifted through ideas, and landed up with a series of annotated illustrations which, to me, were an “aha!!!” moment in understanding. What follows is my attempt to understand what the Bible teaches about justification – incorporating both Piper’s insistence that it means our complete pardon by God due to the merits of Christ, and also Wright’s insistence that we explain justification with reference to the wider Biblical context, and particularly, with reference to Father Abraham, whose name appears in every New Testament passage dealing with justification.

Before we get to the pictures, there are two brief things to note:

1) Justification is a LEGAL word. It is the opposite of condemnation, one of two possible verdicts which can be given in a legal trial. When the Bible talks about justification, it is a courtroom image – where a contract (particularly, a relational contract, or COVENANT) is being adjudicated by God the judge.

2) Justification and righteousness are WORD BUDDIES. In both Hebrew and Greek, righteousness, justice, and justification are all different forms of the same word. It would be theologically correct (but linguistically awkward) to think of justification as “righteoussifying”, or righteousness as “being legally considered to be JUST, or exonerated, or declared to be in the right, by God”.

But now… on to the pictures.

-The Illustrated Guide to Justification-

Way back when, in a hot middle eastern land, God bound himself up in a relationship with a man named Abram. Just like marriage covenants are created by making vows, so God initiated a (wonderful, intimate) binding legal relationship by making vows to Abram. Renaming him Abraham, God vowed that he would bless Abraham: he would give him a land, many descendants, an honored name and a world impact. Most importantly, he promised himself to Abraham. “I am your very great reward,” God said (Genesis 12:1-3).

Genesis 15 tells us what Abraham’s profound response was: he believed God.

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Abraham believed God, and God “credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). In other words: God JUSTIFIED Abraham, or gave him a legal stamp of approval.

Here is my attempt to depict what this relationship looked like: against the backdrop of Genesis 1-11 and the sin of the whole world, culminating in the tower of Babel, God created a sphere of blessing and started a new relationship with people. He would be Abraham’s God, and Abe would be his person. Abraham believed God (in other words, he had faith).

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Now when a contract is contested in court, the judge’s job is to determine whether the parties have performed their side of the contract. Each party is judged according to what they promised to do. If the court finds that they have performed properly, they would receive a verdict of “justified”. If they don’t, they would be “condemned”.

So at this point, if Abraham and God’s covenant (or contract relationship) was to be scrutinized, in order to be “justified”, each of them would need to keep their promises. God would need to keep his promises to bless Abraham, and Abraham had to believe it. And the verdict? Abraham was “justified by faith”. This does not mean that Abraham was sinless, but it does mean he was within the sphere of blessing. He was relating rightly to God, and was one of His people.

400 years later, God had a “vow renewal ceremony” with his people, this time at Mt Sinai with Moses and some angels officiating. This time, God was making a covenant with Abraham’s descendants (whom we call Israel). Exodus and Deuteronomy record God’s “I will” promises. Specifically, he promised to keep his promises to Abraham. He promised again to be their God, and have Israel be His people. And He gave them the law, to show them how to live.

This time, however, Israel made vows too. “We will do everything you say in the law,” they promised. As God’s people, Israel had to choose how they would behave in this relationship. If they were faithful and obeyed the house rules, things would go well for them and they would receive blessing upon blessing. (Just like in marriage, if you are faithful, you reap blessings!) However, if they were unfaithful to Him and rebelled, there would be sanctions and curses (to use the language of Deuteronomy.

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It is important to realize this about the covenant between God and Israel: he KNEW they were not perfect people, and so within the law He made provision for sins to be confessed, paid for and forgiven through the sacrificial system. The “sphere of blessing” included provision for dealing with sin. This is crucial because we often confuse “righteousness” with “sinlessness”, but they are not the same. Abraham wasn’t sinless. He sinned aplenty, but his heart was orineted towards God. Israel wasn’t sinless either. To say that you needed to be “sinless” to be justified (or found righteous) means that God set Israel up for failure from the start, which cannot be true.

To be found “righteous” or “justified”, Israel didn’t have to be sinless, but they did have to have their sins DEALT with. God gave them the substitutionary sacrificial system and called Israel to confess their sins and have FAITH (just like Abraham did), that their sins were dealt with. Sinful Israel could still, by faith, be in God’s “sphere of blessing”, and if that’s where they were then they could get God’s judicial stamp of approval, or justified. Being righteous doesn’t mean being sinless, it means being in a RIGHT-RELATIONSHIP according to the covenant (while that covenant provides for forgiveness).

Consider how Romans 4 explains David’s understanding of justification under the Mosaic Covenant:

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.  And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,  just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;

blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Romans 4:4-8 ESV)

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The law given at the “vow renewal ceremony” highlighted one big problem: sin. Israel had hearts that were “prone to wander”: their sinful hearts were always pulling them away from God. The law put into words what already lurked beneath: their tendency was to drift away, to distrust and disbelieve God, and by walking towards the nations – they walked out of the sphere of blessing.  The Old Testament recounts God sending prophet after prophet with the message “Come back! Come back to me! Come back because I love you, and come back because if you move away from me your sins can’t and won’t be dealt with!” But Israel kept wandering.

What, then, shall we say of the “verdicts” on God and Israel’s promise-keeping on their covenant? The prayer on Nehemiah’s lips towards the end of Israel’s history is very revealing:

“You are the LORD, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him a covenant to give his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous. ” (Nehemiah 9:7-8)

“Nevertheless, Israel was disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies.” (Nehemiah 9:26)

“Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us, upon our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers, and all your people, since the time of the kings of Assyria until this day. Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly. (Nehemiah 9:32-33 ESV)

Verdict on Israel? Condemned. Unrighteous.

Verdict on God? Righteous. But…. uh oh. Here was a problem. God had a covenant conundrum.

To be found righteous according to the covenant, God had to keep ALL the promises he had made to Israel, which included a promises to:

1) BLESS Abraham’s descendants and the whole world through them (Genesis 12), and yet he had also promised to

2) PUNISH them for breaking the covenant.

What to do? What to do?

Well, the New Testament is very clear that the brilliant and wise way God kept his promise was by initiating a new covenant through Jesus, the promised Messiah. The original covenant had been with Abraham, the vow renewal with Abraham’s descendants, but the new covenant would be with Abraham’s descendant . Galatians 3 makes a big deal of pointing out that God had promised to bless the world through Abraham’s descendant (singular), not descendants (plural). Jesus, Abraham’s descendant, would live as the perfect, righteous and faithful Israelite. He would make vows back to God: “Here I am,” he said, “I have come to do your will.”

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Finally, there was perfect covenant performance. Jesus completely kept God’s covenant. He was completely faithful, completely obedience, completely sinless (thus earning ALL the blessings of the Mosaic covenant for doing it right). However, in his death he offered a full and perfect sacrifice for the sins of sinful people (thus paying for ALL the curses of the Mosaic covenant for sin).

So how did this covenant do in court?

Jesus – was declared completely righteous. He was justified. He checked all the boxes.

And God? was justified too, in that He kept EVERY promise he had made in the former covenants by fulfilling them in Jesus.

Jesus alone stood in and created a new “sphere of blessing” in the covenant he sealed with his blood. He ALONE was justified as the covenant keeper. He ALONE earned the right to be one of God’s people, and to have God be His God.

The good news of the gospel, though, is that while all of us by nature are in the blue zone of judgment for sin, if we have FAITH in Jesus, we will be “IN CHRIST”. By faith, we can literally move into Jesus’ sphere of blessing – NOT because of our own works, but because of Jesus. We can be legally declared to be “one of God’s people”, “justified”, “in the right with Him”, with our sins having been dealt with.

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Justification means more than just having our guilty verdicts removed. In light of the promises with Abraham, it includes our judicial pardon, but it also speaks to our inclusion in God’s people by faith – just as Abraham, David, Moses, Rahab, Ruth, Anna and Simeon were.

Consider the following verses:

Christ died for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (1Peter 3:18)

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26 ESV)

I understand the last two verses to be saying “see how God has solved the covenant conundrum!” God’s surprise ending in Jesus was not foreseen by Israel, but in hindsight the pattern was there all along (“the law and the prophets bore witness to it”)

“For as many are the promises of God, in Him (that is, Jesus) they are YES!” (2 Corinthians 1:19-20)

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No-one deserves to be in a covenant relationship with God. Abraham didn’t, Israel didn’t, you and I don’t. However, God wanted to be in a relationship with us, and made a way to do that through Christ. The pattern of how he would do it legally (through a covenant) was there from the beginning, and the pattern of how he would deal with sin (through a covenant) was foreshadowed too – but the final “ta daaaaa!” of his plan was only revealed in Jesus.

Justification means being legally declared to be right with God.

Sins forgiven. Included in God’s covenant. One of His people.

Always and forever, because of Jesus.

All it takes to be in God’s sphere of blessing is to believe in Jesus. Stand in the circle, friends. Stand in the circle. There’s nowhere better in the whole world (Romans 5:1-5).

This is day 8 of 31 Days of Belonging. Over the next few days I’ll be sharing some thoughts of the practical implications of justification: “If we belong to God, then what?” Stay tuned. 

On Finding Aslan

If ever there was a thrilling way to read the Chronicles of Narnia, it is this: reading it aloud to your children. Snuggled up on the couch, reading it with my years of faith behind me and my daughter’s fresh pair of ears and vivid imagination – it is a wild ride of joy and discovery.

This is not the first time I am reading the Narnia series. Far from it. But this time I am experiencing a new, raw emotion as I read. As we journey through the pages and the drama, with enemies closing in, betrayal all around and the future unclear, I keep finding myself holding my breath: I just can’t wait for the lion to show up.

I find myself aching for Aslan’s arrival. Why does he not come sooner? Can’t he see the children are in trouble? I remember the stories generally well enough to know that he does always turn up, and that in hindsight it was always exactly the right moment – but as we read I find I’m LONGING for it. I’m flipping the pages, desperate for the narrative to declare his arrival.

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My heart literally beats faster when he finally arrives. I am struck once again at how unexpectedly wise, how disarmingly discerning, how powerful, how playful, how loving, how tender, how stern he is. He is breathtaking. I know it isn’t just me, either, because my 5-year old’s face shines with joyous awe when we get to the Aslan parts. She is my little Lucy incarnate, and I love her all the more for it.

My daughter and I were both misty-eyed when we got to the end of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader last week, where Aslan tells Lucy that this is their last Narnian goodbye. Lucy is heartbroken:

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are -are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

“Do you know Aslan’s other name in our world?” I asked my daughter.

“Jesus,” she whispered back, all fierceness-and-devotion in her voice.

Reading Narnia with my daughter has made me think long and deep again. By knowing Aslan there for a little, I am to know him better here. This is the very reason Lewis brought us to Narnia.

But why, then, do I long for Aslan in a way that I haven’t longed for Jesus for a while? Why have I not found myself praying Maranatha – COME Lord Jesus as the early church did?

I wondered about this for a while and then forgot about it. And then one evening, while reading through the gospel of Luke with my small group, all of a sudden, I felt the Lion show up. My heart rate literally sped up, because there on the pages of Luke, He had arrived. And I found I had forgotten how unexpectedly wise, how disarmingly discerning, how powerful, how playful, how loving, how tender, how stern he is. Jesus is breathtaking.

I had forgotten. It’s been a while since I’ve read the gospels.

CS Lewis’s Aslan is 100% proof positive that he was a diligent student of the gospels. The Aslan he wrote of was Jesus in every way: the one who grows bigger the more we know him, the one who gave his life for his betrayers, the one who never explains what “could have” have happened but gives grace enough for the next step. He is disarming, delightful, terrifying, hilarious. He is not a tame lion.

There are perhaps more people who have read Narnia than have read one of the gospels in the past 25 years. Friends, if you loved Aslan (even as a child), and you haven’t read Matthew, Mark, Luke or John in a while – do yourself a favor:

Read a gospel.

Watch this 3 minute video by NT Wright if you need an incentive. And if I can offer one tip while reading, it would be this: don’t read it waiting for the “take away nugget”. Read it as if you were one of the crowd, one of the Pevensie children, meeting him for the first time.

And I’ll eat my hat if, while reading the gospels, you don’t find that the Lion shows up.

A shoot and a stump

This morning I decided to forgo exercising at the gym, and instead turn my attention to my horridly overgrown garden. As it turned out, I got a full upper-body workout. I also got a workout for my soul when I came across this, hiding under the leaves of the too-big-for-its-britches fan palm:

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I don’t know that I have ever seen a shoot come straight out of a stump before. But there it was, hiding in the shade of my garden: an object lesson for my quiet-time-avoiding-self.

Immediately this verse came to mind:

Isaiah 11:1 – A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;

from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

2The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—

the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

the Spirit of counsel and of might,

the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord

3and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

The Jews must have been feeling stumped 2000 years ago. God had made all these lavish promises about how the Son of David, the son of Jesse, would come and rule with an eternal, glorious Kingdom. But there they were under Roman rule, with no promising royalty having been born for several hundred years. No little Prince George standing third in line for the exalted throne. In contrast, David’s line seemed to have suffered a similar fate to the tree in my front garden: felled. stumped.

But tucked away in a sleepy town in Galilee, Luke 3 tells us, Jesus was born. In the most humble and surprising of circumstances, there came Jesus, the son of David, the son of Jesse, the son of Abraham, the son of Adam, the son of God (Luke 3).

Out of the stump will come a shoot. Right in the middle of what seemed to be the dead-end will come a new beginning.

I wandered through the garden and wondered: where else have I felt “stumped” by situations and relationships? Or felt that dreams or hopes had been felled?

Perhaps God will yet give life: He excels at producing fruitful shoots from abandoned stumps.

Click here for other posts you might like:  Corny reflections or God-thoughts while weeding…..

Truth in the details

P1010065“Mom, can I have a quesadilla?”

Instead of my usual retorts (“No, it’s 4:30pm and I’m serving dinner soon”, “Sorry, quesadillas aren’t on the menu tonight”, “It’s may I have a quesadilla, not can I” – Yes, I am a grammar nazi), this time I LEAPT out of my chair and started rummaging in the fridge for tortillas and cheese.

Why? Because it’s the first time in four days she has wanted to eat. It’s the first sign that she’s starting to feel better. And so quesadillas it is, my precious girl.

You know sick kids are better when they want a snack.

It’s little details like this that bring the gospels to life for me and remind me that they are eye-witness accounts of things that really happened: After Jesus healed Jairus’ daughter, the first thing she did was have something to eat (Mark 5:43). Yup. That’s exactly what a recovering child does. And after Peter’s mother-in-law was healed, the first thing she does is get up and work in the kitchen (Matthew 8:14). Yup, that’s exactly what I do.

It’s little details like being told that when Jesus calmed the storm, the disciples had to wake him up; since he was sleeping in the stern of the boat, on pillow (Mark 4:38). Two little details, included in the story because that’s just how they remember finding him.

Like John the fisherman telling of that amazing day when they came across the resurrected Jesus and he told them to throw their nets to the other side so they’d pull in a large haul of fish. The fisherman-narrator tells us that that they pulled in not just a large number of fish, but 153 of them. I wouldn’t have counted the number of fish (John 21:11). John did, and the detail smacks of truth.

They say the “devil’s in the details”. But for me, I see the ring of truth there.