KOH2RVA: Day 53

How do you bring heaven to earth on Halloween?

Here’s the Wikipedia entry: Halloween or Hallowe’en (a contraction of “All Hallows’ Evening”), also known as All Hallows’ Eve, is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on October 31, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows (or All Saints). According to many scholars, it was originally influenced by western European harvest festivals and festivals of the dead with possible pagan roots, particularly the Celtic Samhain. Others maintain that it originated independently of Samhain and has Christian roots. Typical festive Halloween activities include trick-or-treating (also known as “guising”), attending costume parties, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, visiting haunted attractions, playing pranks, telling scary stories, and watching horror films.

Again, how do you bring heaven to earth on a day that seems dedicated (quite literally) to “raising hell”? From the same Wikipedia article, here is a Christian perspective on the holiday.

Christian attitudes towards Halloween are diverse. In the Anglican Church, some dioceses have chosen to emphasize the Christian traditions associated with All Hallow’s Eve. Some of these practices include praying, fasting and attending worship services.

Other Protestant Christians also celebrate All Hallows’ Eve as Reformation Day, a day to remember the Protestant Reformation, alongside All Hallow’s Eve or independently from it. Often, “Harvest Festivals” or “Reformation Festivals” are held as well, in which children dress up as Bible characters or Reformers.

Father Gabriele Amorth, a Vatican-appointed exorcist in Rome, has said, “if English and American children like to dress up as witches and devils on one night of the year that is not a problem. If it is just a game, there is no harm in that.” In more recent years, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has organized a “Saint Fest” on Halloween. Similarly, many contemporary Protestant churches view Halloween as a fun event for children, holding events in their churches where children and their parents can dress up, play games, and get candy for free. Many Christians ascribe no negative significance to Halloween, treating it as a fun event devoted to “imaginary spooks” and handing out candy. To these Christians, Halloween holds no threat to the spiritual lives of children: being taught about death and mortality, and the ways of the Celtic ancestors actually being a valuable life lesson and a part of many of their parishioners’ heritage. In the Roman Catholic Church, Halloween’s Christian connection is sometimes cited, and Halloween celebrations are common in Catholic parochial schools throughout North America and in Ireland. Nevertheless, the Vatican has strongly condemned the traditions popularly associated with Halloween as being “pagan” and “anti-Christian”.

Some Christians feel concerned about the modern celebration of Halloween, and reject it because they feel it trivializes – or celebrates – paganism, the occult, or other practices and cultural phenomena deemed incompatible with their beliefs. A response among some fundamentalist and conservative evangelical churches in recent years has been the use of “Hell houses,” themed pamphlets, or comic-style tracts such as those created by Jack T. Chick in order to make use of Halloween’s popularity as an opportunity for evangelism. Some consider Halloween to be completely incompatible with the Christian faith, believing it to have originated as a pagan “Festival of the Dead.”

For my part, I’m not planning to host a “Hell house” or go to a horror movie. I probably won’t dress up like Martin Luther or bob for apples. But I will try to do the work of the Kingdom throughout the day, go to supper at church tonight, stick around for Bob Higgins’ study of the Parable of the Net from Matthew 13 (which is scary in its own way), and then go home to hand out treats at the front door to the few trick-or-treaters who come down my street. Maybe I could say a silent prayer for each one of them as they turn to go down the steps:

Lord, bless these children. Help them live the promises you give. And even though, on this night, they are dressed up like ghouls and goblins, may they—in the light of a new day—become saints. Amen.

KOH2RVA: Day 52

I’m looking at the latest news this morning, which says, “At least 16 dead after Sandy devastates New Jersey, swamps lower Manhattan.” Another headline reads: “50 homes destroyed as six-alarm blaze rips through Queens.”

It makes me feel even guiltier about the way I spent the day yesterday.

After making the decision to close the church offices I found myself with an unexpected day off. I dressed in my blue jeans and a warm sweater, lit a fire in the fireplace, poured another cup of coffee, put on some soothing Brazilian music, and began to read N. T. Wright’s latest book, Surprised by Hope, as the rain fell and the wind gusted outside. It was, as I confessed on Facebook, an “altogether pleasurable experience.”

But it didn’t last long.

The first pang of guilt stabbed me after only a few minutes. How could I be enjoying this day so much when some people were bracing for the worst, and fearing for their lives? And so I did the only thing I could think of to do in those circumstances: I prayed for them. Again and again throughout the day, whenever I felt a pang of guilt or looked at the latest news report, I prayed.

Did it do any good?

I believe that it did. I don’t mean that I believe my prayers changed the path of the storm or prevented the loss of life, but perhaps some of those who were fearful became a little less fearful. Maybe even in the midst of that storm they felt some of that peace that passes all understanding.

I’ve seen that happen.

When I offer to pray with someone who is about to undergo surgery I can often see the anxiety on his face. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen, doesn’t know if he’s going to pull through. But after the prayer that anxiety seems to have mostly disappeared. There may be tears on his cheeks, but his face is a picture of peace.

What happened?

Clinical studies have proven that people who are prayed for recover more quickly than those who don’t, even if they don’t know anyone is praying for them. There is something to this business of prayer. As people often say, “It works.” But I want to make it clear that it’s not me or my prayers that work. It’s God. My prayers are only the hair-thin connection between my powerlessness and his power. And so I pray, “God, be with those people who are in the path of this storm. Keep them safe. Give them peace. Help them cope.” And then I leave it up to him to answer that prayer in the way he sees fit. My hope is that he answers it in such a way that those people who were terrified only moments before feel a sudden peace wash over them, that even those who lost their lives in this storm were fearless in that moment, trusting a God who is bigger than a hurricane.

But I don’t know that.

In this morning’s devotional reading I found a long paragraph by C. S. Lewis on prayer. At the end of it he said, “Even if all the things that people prayed for happened, which they do not, this would not prove what Christians mean by the efficacy of prayer. For prayer is request. The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted.”

KOH2RVA: Day 51

It’s going to be a tough day to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

High wind warnings from Hurricane Sandy are in effect from Noon today until 6:00 a.m. tomorrow in Richmond.  Church Administrator Billy Burford and I made the decision at 6:30 this morning to close the church, at least for today.  The staff is dedicating itself to prayer for those who will be most directly affected by the storm.  I pray that you are not one of those.

But if you are, instead, one of those who is having a “snow day” today, delighted to find yourself with an unexpected day off and time on your hands, you might want to read the article below, forwarded to me by Gerry Ozmore, who thought it was relevant to our year-long, every-member mission trip right here in our own city.

Thanks, Gerry!




Downtown Seattle’s Daniels Recital Hall, with its soaring Beaux Arts dome, intricate woodwork and stained glass, is about to become a church again. The developer who saved it from the wrecking ball has signed a long-term lease with Mars Hill Downtown Seattle, a resolutely evangelical congregation that has been worshiping in a former nightclub since its founding in 2008. With 1,500 members, the congregation outgrew its old, less-than-ideal quarters, where for a time the congregants used exotic dancers’ cages as coat racks.

Christians in Seattle aren’t alone in wanting to reclaim the heart of their city as a place for worship. Though the American evangelical movement is often stereotyped as rural and provincial, it has actually had its greatest success in the suburbs and exurbs, where entrepreneurial pastors found cheap land and plentiful parking to build the “megachurches” of the past generation—think Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., seating capacity over 7,000.

But a new generation of church founders believes that city centers will be the beachhead of a new evangelization. While U.S. cities aren’t growing as fast as overseas metropolises like Lagos or Shanghai, their renaissance since the crime-ridden 1970s is one of the cultural headlines of the last generation, and it has been accompanied by burgeoning urban congregations. On a Sunday morning in any American city the signs of change come in literal form: placards on sidewalks and corners announcing church meetings.

The growth in city-center churches is in tune with the times, summed up by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser’s book “The Triumph of the City.” News outlets like National Public Radio have aired numerous stories on the boom in urban studies. And my own employer, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, has embarked on a two-year series of cover stories and documentary films about the urban Christian revival called “This Is Our City.”

New York City pastor and best-selling author Timothy J. Keller helped spearhead the movement more than two decades ago. In 1989, he moved from rural Virginia to Manhattan and founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church. With several thousand in worship every week, Redeemer Presbyterian is perhaps the most celebrated city-center church story of recent years.

“You go to the city to reach the culture,” Mr. Keller tells his congregation. This, he explains, is as old as religion itself, and points to what New Testament scholar Wayne Meeks called “the first urban Christians”—the first-century churches founded in provincial cities all over the Roman world, and very quickly in Rome itself.

From a missionary standpoint, cities have always been centers of cultural activity and potential congregations. Mr. Keller’s followers see the challenge to influence the culture as a neglected calling for evangelical churches that have become too complacent on their suburban campuses. And given the pervasive secularity and competing temptations of a city like New York, if Christians can make it there, they can make it anywhere.

Growing even faster than city-center churches are immigrant churches in places like Los Angeles and Brooklyn that serve new arrivals from all over the world. And urban ministry, targeted at the physical and social needs of residents (housing, recreation space, education and the like) has been an emphasis of U.S. churches—both Protestant and Catholic alike—for generations.

That emphasis continues in the new generation. Redeemer Presbyterian’s nonprofit affiliate, Hope for New York, gave more than $1.1 million in grants to community development, counseling and youth organizations in 2011.

But city-center pastors are starting to pay as much attention to the spiritual needs, and social influence, of residents of penthouses as those in public housing. This shift from “urban ministry” to what some call “metropolitan ministry” seeks opportunities to connect the up-and-in to the down-and-out.

Mars Hill Downtown Seattle, for instance, not only offers a wide range of services to the needy, but its pastor served a term as president of the neighborhood business association.

And like other new arrivals, evangelicals are finding that the city has more to offer than just the advancement of a cause. Jon Tyson, 36, founding pastor of Trinity Grace Church in New York, says the culturally strategic nature of New York was “the determining factor” that brought him there in 2005. Now, he says, “We wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Our children are thriving here. We love the city.”

As these city-center congregations expand and thrive—from San Francisco to Houston to Manhattan—expect a lot more sidewalk placards to turn into permanent signs at corners like Fifth and Marion, the new home of the Mars Hill Downtown Seattle congregation.

Mr. Crouch is an editor-at-large at Christianity Today and author of “Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling” (InterVarsity Press, 2008).

KOH2RVA: Day 49

Ben Campbell is an Episcopal priest, but when he starts talking about transportation he sounds like a Baptist evangelist.

Ben is the Pastoral Director at Richmond Hill, where I heard him speak on Thursday during a day-long clergy convocation on the challenges facing our city. Even though Thursday is my day off, I thought, “If First Baptist Church is serious about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, then its pastor needs to be at this convocation!” (I sometimes have to give myself little pep-talks like that).

We first heard from Mayor Dwight Jones, who introduced the report of his anti-poverty commission. And then we heard the report itself, which suggested that the very best way to get people out of poverty is to put them to work. And then Ben Campbell began to talk about how we could get poor people to the places where entry-level jobs could be found.

He talked about the need for a “Transportation Revival,” and started with a picture of a streetcar. He said that in 1887 Richmond was famous for being the first city in the world to have a large electric street railway system. Until 1955, metro Richmond’s public transportation system was excellent. But today Richmond ranks in the bottom 10 percent of America’s top 100 cities when it comes to access to jobs by public transportation. What happened? Ben explains it like this:

In 1951 Richmond’s authorities commissioned a plan that drove a commuter road through nearly every black neighborhood in town. Interstate 95 and the Downtown Expressway together destroyed more than 2,000 homes. Other roads mutilated Fulton, Shockoe Bottom, Jackson Ward. Many of the displaced residents moved to the near white suburbs. And the displaced white residents moved across the county lines to new suburbs in the three surrounding counties. The new highways enabled them to come in and out of town, but Richmond’s bus system stopped at the county lines.

But in the 1950s, most of the jobs were inside the city limits. Now 75 percent of the jobs are in the surrounding counties. At that time, most of the retail was downtown; but today it’s in suburban shopping centers. Sixty years ago, few people in the counties needed public transportation. Today there are many who don’t have cars.

Ben introduced a proposal that would put Richmond in the top 10 percent of American cities when it comes to access to jobs by public transportation, and it’s simple: extending the bus lines on Routes 1, 60, 250, and 360 would double the number of jobs accessible to more than 50 percent of the region’s population. And not only that, but the whole region would benefit. I could get to Short Pump on the bus and catch up on my reading along the way. I could take the Airport Express and save money on parking when I travel. My neighbor could take the bus to his job at the new Amazon.com facility in Chesterfield. And the whole project could be financed by adding a half cent to the sales tax.

Why haven’t we done it already? Ben puts it bluntly:

You could say that the absence of public transportation in metro Richmond is a brutal artifact of Virginia’s segregationist government in the middle of the 20th century. And you’d be right. The buses were stopped at the city line to keep the black population in the center city. Segregation by transportation.

But today, since we have renounced segregation and the heritage of racism, that could not be the reason we haven’t done this good thing. Today, when we know that metropolitan Richmond wants to be known for a decent life, economic health and racial justice, that cannot be the reason. Today, when we have a chance to show the world that Virginia is about liberty, not bigotry, that will not be the reason.

It is just possible that we’ll do the right thing; that we’ll all profit from it; and that, for once, we’ll have a right to be truly proud of what we’ve done. We will show ourselves that we can reverse course and surmount this alleged impossibility; that we can act as one people, as we have always known we were meant to be. We will have the power and wherewithal to build an excellent public transportation system — today.

So why not?


You can read Ben’s article in its entirety by clicking HERE