“From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedly beasties, and things that go bump in the night: good Lord, deliver us.”
This quaint old children’s prayer is appropriate for this time of the year as we approach All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints’ Day. This season is somewhat reflective of the challenges before us as Christians and the strategic role of the American Anglican Council.
All Hallow’s Eve, more popularly known today as Halloween, is an example of the subtle but drastic changes that have already taken place in Western society. Halloween has so many cultural layers placed upon it these days that it’s hard to recognize the original version. One of the great examples of the metamorphosis of Halloween is portrayed in that profound theological presentation, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” First produced in 1966, this classic animated film by Charles Schulz tells the story of the ever-faithful Linus awaiting the coming of the Great Pumpkin on Halloween night. Here is a mysterious and captivating spirituality that presents a spirit-world inhabiting the plant kingdom, especially of the gourd family. While this seems rather silly, I would remind you that just last month students from Union Theological Seminary in New York “confessed” to various potted plants as an act of worship. While Linus’ naïveté is humorous, the actions of seminary students at one of the leading seminaries of the country are a bit more telling… and ominous.
Not only is Linus awaiting the Great Pumpkin, but he also awaits the candy, toys and other goodies the Great Pumpkin will award the faithful who await his arrival on Halloween night. Here we have the confluence of a misinformed spirituality with materialistic consumerism! And how true it is: from sources I could gather, Americans will purchase over 300,000 tons of candy for the season, and total Halloween costs for candy, greeting cards, costumes and decorations will approach 9 billion dollars. Animal costumes alone will approach 300 million dollars.
I wonder of Charles Schulz, a Christian, was poking fun at America for its gross distortion of what once was a profound religious commemoration. After all, Linus discovers in the end that the Great Pumpkin is no more than Snoopy slowly arising from the pumpkin patch, bathed in eerie moonlight.
But the church took All Hallow’s Eve more seriously. Though there is no history of a consistent observance, and some observances certainly included a festival or carnival atmosphere, the teaching of All Hallow’s Eve presented three things:
First, there is a reality we cannot apprehend with just the human senses. The Creeds call us to believe in “all things, visible and invisible,” and All Hallow’s Eve reminds us of the spiritual reality that is in, under and through the world we live in.
Second, the reality of the spiritual world is found in the context of a moral universe, where good and evil exist. The ebb and flow of good and evil can be attributed to us being sinners and living in a fallen universe, but the backdrop is the reality that there is good and evil, not some vague, self-defined moral framework.
Third and finally, All Hallow’s Eve is integrally connected with All Saints’ Day, the glorious celebration of the victory of Jesus Christ over death and hell itself, and the recognition that all who put their trust in Him are claimed as His own, “saints” – those set apart as servants of the risen Christ (which is all of us believers, by the way).
So, why all this talk about Halloween? What does this have to do with the mission of the American Anglican Council?
Christianity around the world is besieged by three great forces: The disintegrating dynamics of the West, the violent destruction of radical religions, especially Islam (but other religions as well), and a pseudo-spirituality that feeds off of both of these dynamics like a parasite. These dynamics are found around the world as well as the U.S., and they present a formidable challenge for Christians. At the same time, they offer one of the most promising opportunities for mission the Church as encountered in half a millennia – but such mission will demand courage and mature resolve.
The American Anglican Council is the one ministry I know that addresses these three forces with faith and vigor. Let me address them each briefly.
Rod Dreher, in his New York Times best-selling book, The Benedict Option, cites Alasdair MacIntyre’s description of American society as a post-value world, which is where we are today. The hallmarks of such a society are as follows:
- Objective moral standards are abandoned
- There is no religious or culturally bonding narrative that originates outside of one’s own personal opinion
- The memory of the past, be it history or tradition, is irrelevant
- There are no binding obligations to either the local community or greater society
According to Dreher (and I quote), “This state of mind approximates the condition known as barbarism.” He goes on to say, “Our barbarians have exchanged the animal pelts and spears of the past for designer suits and smartphones” (page 17).
While it may be startling to re-think barbarism in this way, we as Christians need to recognize the importance of the swift disintegration of Western culture from a nominally Judeo-Christian society to a tolerant secular society to an increasingly intolerant pagan society. Until the Church understands this, we will keep relying on categories and tactics of the past generation while watching the Church become increasingly ineffective and superficial. The days before us demand a robust, mature and resolved Christianity. The American Anglican Council gets it. Today’s culture will not only fail to affirm the faith that is in us (for example, playing Christmas carols in the mall during shopping season), but will increasingly oppose us (try putting up a crèche in front of City Hall – something easily done a generation ago). Christian formation can no longer be assumed. Instead, we as Christians need to tackle tough issues, wrestle with difficult passages of the Bible, become more open and honest with ourselves and one another, and discover the value of endurance and perseverance – two virtues often overlooked in Scripture. Again, the American Anglican Council gets it. Superficial, “paperback” Christians will not be able to bear the weight of living in a post-value, pagan society. We must be made of sterner stuff, and the resources for such training and formation are coming out of the American Anglican Council when they are needed most.
Every major religion has its radical elements which are an embarrassment to its orthodoxy. The ascendency of radical Islam is a direct threat to Christians throughout the world, and one cannot review world news today without coming across the heart-breaking stories of the persecution of Christians throughout the world. Anglican world leaders find themselves penned in by the materialism and greed of the West on one side and the violence and destruction of radical Islam on the other. Such persecution is not limited to Islam. Radical Hindus and Buddhists have raised pressure on Christian minorities in their respective nations and cultures. In today’s world, Christians who hide behind the notion that “those problems are way over there” are not only naive in their thinking but also disobedient in their discipleship. As Christians, we need to be informed, prayerful and supportive in faithful ways to encourage our brothers and sisters throughout the world. The American Anglican Council gets it. Training Christian leaders throughout the world is paramount. Even more strategic is building relationships of mutual love and trust, where these overwhelming issues can be hashed out in honest and safe environments. Otherwise, Satan himself will isolate Christian leaders one by one, exhausting them and wearing them down to ineffectiveness.
The recent New Wineskins conference on Anglican mission held at Ridgecrest, North Carolina, brought on-the-ground, eye-witness reports of persecution. A number of those reporting could not be filmed and their names could not be publicized for their own safety. This seems alarming to us in the West, but it is standard protocol in a number of countries in the world. We who enjoy safety and comfort in the West cannot continue with business as usual. Equipping our fellow Christians for the battle is part of our calling, not only for their sake, but also for ours, for no one knows when the day may arrive at our own doorstep.
Finally, there is this insidious pseudo-spirituality that is seeping its way into today’s culture. It has many faces, but its origins are essentially the same. Whether it be the return of New Age spirituality or the self-care movement or the curiosity with tarot cards, crystals, or witchcraft, or even the reasonable-sounding but hollow religious language of the so-called “mainstream denominations” of the U.S., a sizeable portion of our seemingly sophisticated society is enamored with what may account for little more than modern day fluff. The increase in what many call “spirituality,” coupled with the decline in institutional Christianity, tells us that the attractiveness of modern spirituality is the ability of the individual to create his or her own religion. Much like a religious buffet, in today’s world you can take a spoonful of this and a couple of those, and sprinkle some Eastern this or some Native-American that on top an viola: your own self-made religion. The funny thing is, this religion, if not satisfactory, can be easily changed, because you created it to begin with. These “boutique” religions of the self are just that, a religion of the self, which is not an answer to any of today’s critical questions of society. Instead, they contribute to the confusion, frustration and inadequacy of us moderns to figure anything out at all, apart from God’s grace.
Again, enter the American Anglican Council. The need to be faithful, deliberate and intentional with one’s faith has always been critical, but now more than ever. When teenagers ask us tough questions about sex or science or truth, we can’t ignore them, neither can we simply say, “Go ask the priest.” Young people are leaving the church in droves because their concerns, their questions, their deep, troubling problems are not being taken seriously by adults in the church who profess Christ as Lord. And I’m guessing we can’t take such concerns seriously because we feel inadequate to the task. The American Anglican Council is one of the best equipping organizations for such a challenge. From clergy to lay leadership to entire parishes, the mission of the AAC continues to be to strengthen and renew the church. “Renewal” in today’s world cannot be reduced to songs we all loved to sing with guitars back in the 70’s and 80’s. “Renewal” today must face the fundamental identity issues of the Western world. No, you don’t have to go get a PhD in philosophy to help, but you do need to know what you believe and why you believe it and be prepared to give an answer. I think the American Anglican Council is one of the best resources for that very task.
It’s time to close: All that I have said to date has been somewhat abstract and theoretical. But I want to close with a few personal words.
Most of you probably know our story: We are the oldest church in Georgia, with John Wesley and George Whitefield as former rectors. We have a substantial history, but history that does not inform and define you in the present and call you to grow into the future is not helpful. By God’s grace, our history remains a part of our present and an element of our future.
When we realized that Biblical, Trinitarian, Creedal Christianity was no longer to be the standard of The Episcopal Church, we as a congregation chose to remain with the historic Orthodox Christian Faith. As a result, our vestry voted unanimously in September of 2007 to leave The Episcopal Church and come under the Ecclesiastical Authority of the Anglican Province of Uganda. This was not an easy decision, nor was it a quick one. Over several years, we studied the theological developments from the Enlightenment to the changes in post World War II seminaries in America, struggling to understand the philosophical, cultural and theological changes that were taking place without our knowing it. It was a long, hard, prayerful struggle, but our parish is healthier for it. We have a sense of spiritual depth we did not have before. With that depth comes a sense of stability and confidence. All of this comes by God’s grace as He worked in and among us through the Holy Spirit. We are not a perfect parish by any means. But we are a healthy one. We have come through the fire more refined and hardened, but not without compassion. The friendship, guidance and support of the American Anglican Council were enormously helpful through it all.
At the first shockwaves of understanding the depth of our denomination’s departure from the Faith, David Anderson and his staff were there for us. David provided wise pastoral guidance and practical support. Once we were sued by The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Georgia, the American Anglican Council gave us helpful advice and constantly provided us with the bigger picture of things. While the loss of all of our material possessions was a difficult pill to swallow, we now see the amazing providence of God in steering us away from our original site and putting us in a new place of promising ministry.
Our three and a half years of homelessness was an amazing testimony of ecumenical cooperation, as we were hosted by Independent Presbyterian Church for that entire time. While we gave them a monthly thank-offering for their hospitality, IPC did not charge us one red cent. Their generosity, based solely on our common faith in the historic Gospel, continues to be an encouragement to us and a witness to many. During that time of transition, the American Anglican Council prayed for us, encouraged us, and kept us in touch with Anglicans throughout the world. When you lose all you have, the temptation is to go into survival mode, to shut the doors and windows, and try to save what little remains. Phil Ashey challenged us to continue our mission, to keep our eyes on Christ, and to trust God’s unfailing provision. By keeping us in touch with other Anglicans who were suffering alongside of us, the AAC gave us a perspective that kept our spiritual equilibrium.
We felt called to stay in the city, so our search for city property had its own challenges. We purchased a Victorian home with the idea of moving it and building a new church building on the site. God had other plans, as the costs for such an endeavor far exceeded our financial ability. While we continued looking, other dynamics were taking place.
I had a twenty-year relationship with an African American pastor, the Rev. Freddie Hebron, who oversaw the Christian Revival Center, a predominantly African American Pentecostal congregation in Savannah. Pastor Freddie sadly and unexpectedly died of a stroke, leaving his wife and widow, Kim, to lead the congregation. Freddie died on a Monday, was buried on a Thursday, and Kim was in the pulpit that Sunday, trying to lead a wounded congregation while grieving herself. I would drop by to see Kim from time to time as she grieved. I’d pray with her, encourage her and bring donuts to the volunteers who tried to help her keep the congregation afloat. Eventually, it came to me that perhaps God was calling us to purchase the building that housed the Christian Revival Center. This would resolve a number of financial challenges for Kim and give us a home. We prayed that both congregations might come together as one. During this complex time, the AAC was a good sounding board for me and Phil was a solid, steady and wise counselor.
I asked Kim if she might be interested in selling the church building to us. “Thank you Jesus!” she replied. “I wondered how long it would take you to ask!” Two of her daughters were in the hallway, as the three of them were getting ready to go to lunch in celebration of one of the daughter’s birthday. “Girls, get in here! Pastor Marc wants to buy the church building. All in favor say, ‘Hallelujah!’” To which both young ladies duly responded. “It is done!” Kim said. “The Lord is good!”
“Hold on just a minute,” I said. “I’m glad you are interested in selling, but we need to take care of a few matters first!” After that, we began the process of purchasing the Christian Revival Center, which soon became our new home. Ironically, the Christian Revival Center was formerly Hull Presbyterian Church, which won its case to own its property when challenged back in the late 70’s by the United Presbyterian Church.
I am glad to report that a number of members of the Christian Revival Center still worship with us, and the Christian Revival Center, Inc., has an office in our building and continues to do mission trips to Haiti.
Now that we have settled in a new place, in a new and rapidly-developing part of the city, the parish leadership has worked hard on a fresh Parish Vision. Mark Eldridge of the AAC has been a great source of affirmation and guidance as we seek to live out this vision in practical ways. Mark has met twice this year with our Vestry and key lay leaders, giving us encouragement and direction as we seek to be salt and light in our new location.
All of this is of God. I know that Phil and Mark would both agree that anything profitable that has come from our relationship with one another has been born of the Holy Spirit and sustained by God’s grace. Nevertheless, the willingness Mark and Phil have shown in taking on the responsibilities of guarding and spreading the Gospel has made the American Anglican Council the only ministry I know that pursues an integrated mission both locally, regionally and internationally. Its breadth of vision, its depth of commitment and its spirit of joyful service is rarely to be found.
I can certainly say, “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night,” our Lord Jesus has indeed delivered us. And the American Anglican Council has been there for us every step of the way.
I’m glad to answer any questions you may have at this time…