Thursday was Halloween. It’s a hard holiday to ignore. Halloween has evolved into the second biggest commercial holiday of the year, with only Christmas making a bigger contribution to the economy. Most of us consider it a time for kids and for candy, a time for parties and good-natured fun. But if we look behind the masks and the costumes, we can see something primal and serious. Halloween originated as a way to cope with one of the most powerful forces in the human soul, our fear of death.
Its origins are in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pron. Sow-in). This was the day that marked the end of summer with its bounty of the life sustaining harvest and the arrival of the dark cold days of winter that were associated with death. The Celts believed that on this night the boundary between the living and the dead was blurred. The spirits of the dead were thought to be released from their graves to play tricks on the living and try to find a home – a haunt. For those ancient people there was something cathartic about confronting their deepest fear for a night, then waking the next morning safe and secure. Over the centuries Halloween has developed into a way to confront death in a lighthearted way. It lets us laugh at ghosts and goblins, skeletons and monsters. We jeer at death, play with it, pretend with it, and then we wake up on November 1 and say, “Whew!” We’ve confronted our fears and we’ve survived.
Halloween is the night we taunt death, but jeering at our mortal enemy is just a way to cope. It doesn’t change anything. Do you remember the movie Dead Poets Society? It’s about a teacher in a boys’ prep school. On the first day of the term he takes his students to the school’s trophy case. He has the class crowd around the pictures of the school’s sports teams from 100 years ago, yellowing photographs displayed alongside tarnishing trophies and aging footballs. The teacher says, “Look at them very carefully, boys. They’re just like you. Their hair is cut the same way, they’re full of vigor and ambition and hormones. They went on to be doctors and lawyers and bankers, just like you will. The world was their oyster. And do you know where they are now, boys? They’re all dead, every one of them, fertilizing daffodils.”
It was hard for those 17-year-old boys to conceive that life wouldn’t always be a limitless vista, offering them the possibility of anything they wanted to do. Death wasn’t something that ever troubled their minds. And yet, no matter how young or strong or healthy we are, one day, maybe tomorrow, maybe many years from now, we’re going to die. No matter how well you treat your body, it’s eventually going to return to the earth from which it was formed. Psalm 90 speaks the truth when it says, “[we] are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.”
It’s not so much the fact that we die that makes death so hard to take. If you think about it rationally and objectively, we need death. Where would all the people who have ever been born fit if we didn’t die? The earth couldn’t accommodate every human body that has ever been born. One generation has to make way for the next. What makes death so hard is the way it reminds us of our weaknesses, the way it puts a limit to our loves, our passions, our dreams. Death cuts us loose from those things that define us, the relationships that sustain us, from those things in which we find security and comfort and fulfillment.
The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden explains why we fear death. It tells us where death got its sting. In the Garden of Eden God gave Adam and Eve everything they needed. They had food. They had companionship, so intimate and guileless they could stand before each other naked and not be ashamed. They had a purpose in life. Their vocation was to be stewards of all the good things God created. The only limit on them was that they were not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were to trust God’s promise that God would provide for them. To eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge evil was to try to be like God. But you remember the story. They reached for the forbidden fruit, grasping for life on their terms, not God’s. Instead of trusting God, they tried to be God. They tried to find wisdom in their limited knowledge. They tried to find peace in their conflicted souls. They tried to find immortality in their dying bodies.
Whether you believe the story to be literally true doesn’t matter. You can’t deny that what it says about humankind – what it says about you and me – is true. Like Adam and Eve we desire to be like God, but we always fall short. The Psalmist says it for us: “Our precious lives, so important to us, are but fleeting shadows to you and they are so full of trouble and conflict, so marked by sin and failure…” (Psalms Now)
That’s what makes our physical death so fearsome. It marks the end of our efforts to find meaning and purpose. It reminds us of our weakness and our limitations. But that fear of death can also be what saves us. When we realize how limited we are, when it hits us that we are mortal and that one day we will die, that very fear can propel us back to God. When it dawns on us that we can’t do it on our own, that left to our own devices there’s no hope for us, we might realize that we’re lost. And we might notice that God is calling us home.
Robert Frost said, “Home is that place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Home is that place where you belong. Eastminster is partnering with other churches to build a Habitat for Humanity home. Many of the churches I’ve served have helped build Habitat homes. One of those homes belonged to Doris Fitch. Ms. Fitch was the mother of 8 and the grandmother of 24. At the dedication ceremony where she took possession of the house, she spoke of how hard it had been for her to raise a family without a home. Just as they got settled in one place, they had to pick up and move. Ms. Fitch got a new start in life when she moved into her Habitat for Humanity home, a home that she helped build, as do all Habitat clients. She testified how important it was to her family to have a place they finally call home. It was a place where her grandchildren could feel safe and comfortable, a place where they could grow and prosper.
Home is that place where what we’ve done counts for something, the place where we’re accepted for who we are. Several years ago I returned to my family’s old home place in Robeson County, North Carolina. It was my father’s 80th birthday, and my aunt who still lived on the farm where Dad grew up summoned the entire family – 54 people from 8 states. I hadn’t seen some of those cousins since we were children, when we played baseball in the front yard and didn’t have to worry about cars whizzing by at 60 miles per hour when we ran across the road after fly balls because the road wasn’t paved. One of those cousins wasn’t there. Laurie died of a brain tumor the previous winter, the first of my generation to go. It happened just months after she reached her life-long dream of becoming an elementary school principal. We’d all taken different paths over the years, but shared memories and our common bond held us together. After lunch we were all milling around the front yard while different permutations of family groupings were captured for posterity in photographs. I was standing near my cousin Don whom I overheard telling his 7 year old son about how we would spend Thanksgivings together. Don is a real outdoorsman. He teaches industrial arts in high school, but he lives for deer season. He told his son how we would go out in the yard after dinner and pick up pecans that fell from the trees our grandfather had planted when he moved there as a newly-wed in 1913. I looked up at the tree under which we were standing. I didn’t see any nuts forming on the branches. Trying to show that I’m still in touch with the land, I observed sagely, “Looks like there won’t be any pecans this year.” Don laughed and said, “Steve, that’s a white oak. The pecan trees are over there.” I blush every time I think about Don sitting in his deer stand telling his buddies about his cousin from the city who was looking for pecans on a white oak tree. But home is like that. They know who you are but they accept you anyway.
We’ll never all be together like that again, but for that afternoon we were home. Each of us, as different as we were, fit in. We weren’t defined by our failures or our shortcomings. We belonged because we were home.
In Jesus Christ God calls us home. God is our dwelling place in all generations. God is the place we began and the destination to which we’re headed. Our home is God who created the heavens and the earth, the God to whom a thousand years are as but a passing night. God, and God alone, is the one who blesses and prospers our efforts. God is the one who graciously takes who we are and what we do and gives it meaning and purpose. We still die, but death has lost its sting. We die to all those things that keep us from our eternal home. We die to everything false that claims to save us, and we take that final step toward home. God is our eternal home, and Jesus has prepared a place for us there. Forever.