Friday, November 6, 2009

Hallowing Halloween

October 31 has a glorious history: it is the day in 1517 when Martin Luther posted 95 theses which would shake the world. It's time we reclaim this day for God's glory.

My family's approach to Halloween has changed dramatically over the years. As a child, I enjoyed going to our church's Halloween-replacement event. Later, once my parents realized the pagan implications of Halloween, we ceased observing it altogether. We disabled the doorbell, turned the lights out, and went into a back room and spent time together playing games or reading. Then we heard Ray Comfort encourage Christians to view Halloween as a time to evangelize rather than retreat. "On what other night of the year do non-Christians come knocking on your door?"

But then we moved to a location in Rimrock where no one ever comes to our door on Halloween.

In 2005 Mom had a three hour doctor's appointment in the nearby town of Sedona on the afternoon of October 31. I got the idea to try to spend those three hours evangelizing in some way while Mom and Dad were at the doctor's office.

The morning of that October 31 I got dreadful news: my evangelism mentor Gordon Riffle had died as a result of complications from back surgery. At first I thought of it as a victory for Satan. How awful, I thought, to die on a day that celebrates evil and death. After I dropped Mom and Dad off at the doctor's office I almost chickened out. I had no idea where or how to find people to talk with. But something gripped my gut and I decided I would do my best in evangelizing in Sedona that evening, in honor of Gordon's investment in my life. (And, I didn't want to have to tell everyone who was praying for me that I'd backed down!) The story of how God guided me to Sedona's Halloween celebration that year is too long to tell here, but suffice it to say that it was one of the best evenings of my life.

We've gone back to Sedona for Halloween almost every year since then.

This year was a bit different: Mom was physically unable to come, and Dad stayed home to care for her. However, two leaders from church, Jim and Travis, joined me there for the first time.

I parked next to a car with a bumper sticker that read "Prayerfully Pro-choice". That epitomizes Sedona: spiritual, but lost.

Jim, Travis and I prayed together. There is nothing quite like the camaraderie of bowed heads on a street corner just before sharing Jesus.

We walked down the sidewalk, looking for people to talk with. I found a man just standing and watching the passersby. "Do you believe in ghosts?" I asked.

"I haven't seen any, so, no."

"Then where do you believe people's souls go when they die?"

"Do we even have souls?"

"So, you believe we're just chemicals?" I responded.

"No, I think we're just illusions."

"I'm talking to an illusion?" I asked.

"Well, you're an illusion too."

About then his wife came out from the shop behind him to see what I was doing to her husband. I said, "I asked your husband if he believed in ghosts and he told me that we're all illusions. I guess that means we're all ghosts, right?" We all laughed. She told me he was probably pulling my leg and then told him she had something to show him in the shop.

I caught up with Jim and Travis, who were watching from a distance. As we waited for the street light to change so we could cross, I started a conversation with a man and woman near us. They turned out to be from the Toronto area, and this was their first visit to Sedona. Jim jumped in boldly. "Do you believe in God?"

"She does," the man answered.

As we crossed the street, Jim asked her, "If you died tonight and God asked you why He should let you into heaven, what would you say?"

"I've been a good person!"

I moved away from the conversation (unfortunately, out of earshot) so as to avoid making the Canadians feel like we were ganging up on them.

Down the street, people were lining up to watch ghosts dance. I approached an older couple who had moved to Sedona recently from San Diego and repeated my starter questions. The man said he didn't know where people would go when they died. Unfortunately here I have a memory lapse: I don't recall exactly what happened to the conversation except that I gave up and moved on. I wish I had tried a little harder.

Next I met a man and woman who did believe in ghosts! The woman looked at me, dead serious, and said, "Definitely. I felt a cool breeze when my father died." And the man chimed in, "Yes, after my father died, I felt his hand on my shoulder as I drove across the country." I was surprised to meet someone who actually believed in ghosts. And I didn't want to seem insensitive to the loss of their fathers. They walked off before I thought of a good response. (Like, "How do you know that the ghost was your father?")

My next conversation was with a friendly store owner outside for a smoke break. He lightheartedly answered my first question with "I think ghosts might exist" but when I asked where he believes souls go when they die, his eyes narrowed and he said, "I think that's a personal question." I tried asking it slightly differently and got the same response. Alas, again my mind was dull. I could have kept the conversation going by saying, "It sounds like you've had people try to shove religion down your throat." Instead, I moved on.

I found a man sitting alone on a bench. He looked bored, and I told him so. We chuckled and we started talking. Amazingly, he was also from Toronto. "Where do you believe souls go when they die?"


"Even Hitler?" I asked.

"Did Hitler have a soul?"

I probed to find what standard he felt people must meet to enter heaven. "Do they need to be as good as Mother Teresa?"

"No. God is compassionate, He wouldn't send the majority of His children to hell. He knows that we all mess up. We must simply treat people fairly."

I kept probing, looking for his standard for morals. "You say that we should treat people fairly. Some say that an unborn baby is a person. Some say it's not. So, when you say we should treat people fairly, would you include unborn babies?"

"I'm a Catholic, so, yes, I would."

"I agree with you," I said, "But where are you getting your standard from?"

"Well, the Ten Commandments are a pretty good place to start."

"Have you kept them?"

"Pretty well."

When I went through a few of the commandments with him, he continued to justify himself as being a basically good person. I switched to a different approach. "Why do you believe that Jesus had to die?"

"Because the Jews didn't like Him," he answered.

"That's a reason why He died, true. But at the same time, God could have prevented them from killing Jesus. Instead, He allowed it. Why?"

He didn't seem to understand my question and said something about the Jews again. I decided to tell him the answer. "Because of the ways we have rebelled against God, we deserve judgment. He must punish sin, He can't just ignore it or grade on the curve. God gave Jesus the punishment we deserve. Jesus had to die because that was the only way God could forgive us and still be righteous."

About then his wife came up. He looked glad for an excuse to get away from me.

I moved on to a shop that sold dreamcatchers. I knew they were called dreamcatchers but I didn't know why. Here's a picture of one, in case you don't know what they look like.

"Why are they called dreamcatchers?" I asked.

"Because they catch bad dreams," the shop owner answered. Interestingly, he was white, not native American.

"Really, do they work for you?"

"Actually, I don't use one! I don't have many bad dreams," he chuckled. Pointing to the hole in the center of a dreamcatcher, he said, "The good dreams go through here."

"So good dreams are smaller?"

"Well, you might say good dreams are smarter. They find their way past the strings, but the bad dreams get stuck in them."

We had built up a great rapport through this goofy conversation, and I was preparing to ask my "ghost" question when a flock of children came to get candy from the store owner. The conversation interrupted, I decided to go find another person. (Now I wish I had stayed longer and just put up with the occasional trick-or-treaters.)

Suddenly my heart jumped for joy: Jim and Travis were talking with Woody! I have talked with Woody on two previous Halloweens. He is one of the most colorful characters I've met, and I had told Jim that I hoped he would get to meet Woody. I went up and greeted Woody. "Did you read the book I gave you last year?"

"No, but I got my logo done!"

I scrambled to remember what logo he was talking about. "Great!"

He pulled it out and showed it to us. "This came to me in a dream." Here it is (you can click it for a larger version):

Classic Woody. I left Jim and Travis with him, knowing that it could be a long conversation.

I next talked with a young man with a sore throat. He was surprisingly open and uncertain in his beliefs, and recognized his sinfulness fairly readily. But my words seemed to come out too slowly and foggily. Before I got to explaining the gospel, his friends came up and said, "Hey, are you coming with us, or do you want us to wait for you?" He opted to go with them.

All along, in between conversations, I had been handing out "Are You a Good Person" tracts to the adults and 10 Commandments Coins to the kids. I was doing this again after the young man left. A middle age woman with some kind of official badge saw me giving coins to kids and came up and asked what they were. I told her they were the 10 Commandments. She told me I couldn't give them out, because I wasn't a store owner. (The store owners along the road were giving out candy to the kids.) But she kind of gave herself away when she said something about, "If they weren't religious..."

"Isn't this public property?" I asked. She agreed that it was but then reiterated that I shouldn't be giving the tracts or coins away because I wasn't a store owner. By then I realized that she was basically expressing her own personal desire, not a legitimate law. Many police officers had already seen me distributing tracts that evening and had made no attempt to stop me. I thanked her for the information, got out of her sight, and kept on distributing tracts.

The next conversation I had was with a group of Goth teens. I asked them if they believed in ghosts, and one guy said, "Yes, I believe in everything." Trying to show him the absurdity of such a statement, I asked if he believed he was a pumpkin (I just pulled 'pumpkin' out of the blue, he was not dressed as a pumpkin). He said yes. Once again I gave up on the conversation and moved on.

A young couple from Yuma were waiting for the ghosts to start their next dance. When I asked where they believed souls go after death, the woman said, "Heaven".

"Everyone?" I asked.

"Well, if they believe."

"Believe what?"

"You know, in God, and that Jesus died on the cross for their sins."

"Did you just read that in the tract I gave you?"

"Yeah--and we're Catholics."

It was pretty obvious that they were not true followers of Jesus, but once again I was not quick enough to think of a response to deepen the conversation. Again I moved on, but that was essentially the last conversation I had before heading home.

Jim, Travis and I debriefed about our experiences. This was Travis' first time in street evangelism (hurrah!) so he accompanied Jim to learn the ropes. Jim had had a number of good conversations; the best was with a young man from Norway. Jim was also thoughtful enough to learn the names of everyone he shared with, so that he could pray for them by name afterward.

I felt badly that I had not been more "sharp" spiritually to get further in my conversations. At the same time, I praised God that I had any conversations. A few years ago, I was scared to talk to people about Jesus at all. As I drove home that night and thought about the hundreds of people that we had not had time to share with, I couldn't help but pray that God will send more Christians out to share the good news. May fear of man waste no more of our days!

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