There are Ghosts Watching
A Reflection on Hallowtide
Stanford White was an illustrious Manhattan architect. Builder of expansive Fifth Avenue mansions for the Astors and the Vanderbilts, White was famous for designing the 2nd Madison Square Garden (demolished and rebuilt in 1925) and the triumphant arch in Midtown’s George Washington Park. But what makes him most famous was his salacious love affair with the original American sex symbol: Evelyn Nesbit.
At the turn of the century, everyone knew Evelyn Nesbit: the cover of magazines, newspaper advertisements, souvenirs and pinup calendars… one could argue that she created the shape that Marilyn Monroe, Madonna and Kim Kardashian would one day fill. She was the wife of famed multimillionaire Harry K. Thaw, the hot-tempered and hard-partying heir to the Thaw railroad dynasty.
As the story goes, Nesbit was having a very public affair with the architect, White. On the night of June 25th, Nesbit and her husband (the sweaty-toothed madman, Shaw) were enjoying the show at Madison Square Garden’s rooftop theater. Unplanned, Standford White was just down the way in the rooftop restaurant, Martin’s, enjoying the magnificence of his creation. As the 2nd act of the show climaxed to the tune of “I Could Love A Million Girls,” Shaw left his wife’s side, stormed across the garden rooftop and shot his wife’s lover square in the face, killing him instantly.
Months later, a jury found Harry Shaw innocent of murder by reasons of insanity in what was labeled, “The Crime of the Century!” It was only 1906, and there were 94 years to go.*
The Fierce Foolishness of Now
What made this crime so important? Was it the media frenzy? The drama of prominent Manhattanites caught up in affairs of the heart? Was it Evelyn’s masterful grasp of hysterics and melodrama whipping the public into a frothy frenzy of lust, rage, and possibly even envy? It is no stretch to say that given the Evelyn’s universal exposure, there were men from one end of the country to the other who would have gladly been shot in the face for a night with Ms. Nesbit-Shaw.
The lusts of the eyes, the incredible winsomeness of power, the drama of stories which weren’t their own, the willingness to outsource the meaning of our days to another, grabbed the attention of American public by the throat and would not let go. In the same century that would include World Wars, the murder of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the O.J. Simpson trial… the people of 1900s America were certain that the fierce reality of their time would define the high-watermark above all others, how wrong they were.
It’s not hard to see the parallels between the story of Stanford White and today. We, too, are in a media-hyped frenzy, often wrapped around the volatile activities of a New York billionaire. We have Twitter now to add to the fever, making us believe that the echo chamber of our chosen shouters accurately reflects the reality of our time. Everything seems loud going on louder, and we are easily convinced that nothing so important has ever happened than what is happening now.
This is a complex problem. On one hand, now is the only time we get. Our presentness to this reality, to each other, to God’s activity through His Spirit in the waves of history of this moment is our only option. As is so often said, we cannot live in the past, and—apparently—the future is ours to make. This is, no doubt, our one moment in time (sorry for the song in your head for the rest of the day). But is the moment as important as we’d like to make it out to be? Is this the “historic election” we are being sold? Is the violence of our day “the worst its ever been”? Are Americans more divided now than ever?
And more importantly, does all this extreme rhetoric help us live in this present moment? Does our imagination of our important our problems are, or significant our vote, or unique our opportunities actually help us settle in?
I am certain they do not. The pressure of importance, significance and largess pulls us out of the reliable flow of time, and more importantly out of the ability to humbly receive from this moment and the God who incarnates it. The flight to superlative living (biggest, best, highest, important…est) is a nine-course meal for the ego, and our egos hate reality. Our true selves—the ones that love and connect and educate and give and receive, cry and pray—subsist only on a steady diet of normalcy, the rise and fall of troubles and small joys, personal hardships and dinner with good friends. This tendency of every age to claim its importance in the pantheon of history is a distraction from the real lives we live. A temptation to believe that the drama of Kanye West, or the pronouncements of Glennon Doyle, or the pomposity of a Senate campaign are reliable stand-ins for our real lives.
They aren’t, and they never have been.
Now is full of inherent foolishness and blindness, much of it we will never have the eternal perspective to see. We stand firmly trapped in the myopia of our time, a truth that should lead us to humility, not to a sense of over-importance. Over-dramatizing today is particularly acute on matters of faith. Evangelicalism is being torn in half over its political poles, spread to the point of destruction like cold butter on day-old bread (or so we are told). Pontificators are convinced that what is happening to the American church is so significant now, that we all must rally ourselves to fight on ideological lines, or the future hangs in the balance. We get really fired up about figuring out “Church,” in part so we can stop dealing with the problems of our church—the one with budget shortfalls, not enough people to help with Sunday School, and rows full of hurts putting on a good face and figuring out how their vote validates or invalidates their spiritual superiority.
I am among the worst of these. I have lived at the margins of church-going for many years, maximizing my unique skill to extract universal themes from arbitrary experiences, too often trafficking in big ideas about implications and trend lines, intellectualizing problems and their “historic significance.” I, like you, have always found this easier than drawing near to those people and humanizing the problems we pontificate so easily about. The foolishness of now is laid bare in our ability to say big things about future days we’ll never get to see. We are all trying to “Find our Why” and “Make our Mark” and “Dream Big,” when the whats and whos of life, the pain that already marks us and others, and the smallness we feel inside, is passing by every day.
A History Without Sides
In the face of all of this now-ness is the upcoming liturgical holy days of Hallowtide (the Christian holy season including Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day, October 31-November 2). Modern Christianity has very little time for the liturgical calendar (unless you go to one of those cool, hipster, liturgical churches). We believe we are far better off finding the significance of today based on current events versus some outwardly enforced calendar from times-gone-by. As I’ve said, the over-importance of now masks a better and deeper reality. The rhythm of a church calendar forces us to release our tantalizing grasp of this moment’s importance and believe that something larger is afoot than what the headlines can contain.
I have read many a tweet that said, “If your pastor isn’t preaching on X (super-important headline topic) this Sunday, then you should stop going to that church.” The subject of X is always trapped in the current moment, loaded down with its biases, unreflected-upon assumptions, and temporary grandeur. The fierce urgency of now makes fools of us, as we believe that our attentive ranting and raving about current events makes us important, too, lest we be that frightful thing: “on the wrong side of history.”
What the church calendar offers us is a history without sides. It is a circular history, where we revisit the same truths and the same hopes annually, regardless of how we feel, who is the President, or what dramas permeate our headlines. One of the unsung heroes of this calendar is Hallowtide. The word, an unfamiliar one, literally means “Saint Season,” a time for remembering those who have lived out our faith in the past.
All Saints (Hallows) Day and its predecessor All Hallows Eve (Halloween) celebrate the great spiritual giants of the past, reminding us of the courage, faith and humility that others have exhibited in the face of their own fierce nows. While Protestants have no official “saints,” we have always looked back and remembered those whose love for Jesus and faithfulness to the Gospel inspires us to deeper living. This year, the loss of spiritual giants feels even more poignant with the recent passing of Eugene Peterson, author of The Message and often called America’s Pastor, and Thomas Keating, leading teacher of Centering Prayer in America. Their passing is an immediate reminder of the temporality of things and of how dependent our faith is on the long shadow those who have gone before.
The lesser known holiday of Hallowtide is All Souls Day, November 2, which celebrates Jesus followers of no renown or remembered importance who stand beside us in what Hebrews calls “the great cloud of witnesses.” What are they witness to? Well certainly, and most importantly, they are witnesses to Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, the Finisher of Faith. They are witnesses to the surety of surrender, the reliability of hope, and the temporality of our troubles. But if Scripture is to be believed (and I think that it is) they are also witnesses to us, to our foolishness and grandeur, to our fierce demands of the importance of our time, to our rejection of realities simpler truths.
These ghosts of the past see us, and in us they likely see themselves. Men and women who exclaimed that the troubles of their times were “the Crime of the Century!” and that the actions of their times were the hope of the future. I hope they giggle at us as we chant that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” with no requisite sense of irony.
Any time we elevate our present circumstances to the point of timeless consequence, the joke is on us. Any time we fail to see the cloud of unnamed witnesses around us, those faithful folks from centuries gone by and nations and cultures far from our own, we forget that our troubles and our successes are so local, so personal, so intimate, and so inherently now.
Now is all we’ve got, but we can’t let that slip into the belief that now is all there is. We are temporary, like dust. God help us if the Messiah we are waiting for is ourselves, if that Messiah is draped on the tomfoolery of now, if that Messiah is obsessed with the rhetoric and drama of our day. We desperately need a Savior from out of time. A Savior whose application was as true for a 7th century African as a 21st Century American. In this world we will have trouble, but He has overcome the world.
What world? That evil culture out there? Those people who don’t agree with our politics? The media? Hollywood? Antifa or the Aryan Nations? No, the world overcome is as timeless as the One who overcomes it. It cannot be contained by the labels which overrun our Twitter feeds. For today, perhaps it is enough to say, that world which wishes you and I to armor up in superlatives, take sides in the Crimes of this Century, abandon the simplicity of our Sunday afternoons, and convince ourselves our Towers of Babel are the only ones that ought never fall—the Kingdom of this egoic world is the one overcome.
The kingdoms of this world that will fall, Scripture tells us, are all the kingdoms, save one. The kingdoms we like and those that we don’t. The ones that are important and the ones unimportant. The ones which we share arms deals with and the ones we bomb, and even, believe it or not, the democratized ones in which we live. In the end, all our kingdoms fall.
When we join the crowd of witnesses, all that will remain, outside of time, is the Kingdom of God and of His Messiah, Jesus. And He shall reign forever and ever. (Revelation 11:14) The foolishness of this world, of our now and all the others, will fade, but the wisdom of God in the humility of Jesus will last forever.
Any minute now, your heart or your phone or your neighbor or that political sign on the road is going to tell you that what is happening now is the most important thing. But it’s not. The cross of Jesus frees us from the fierce foolishness of now, and liberates us to rest in the unforced rhythms of forever. So next week, as Hallowtide and election season collide, one will tell you how important now is, and the other will tell you how temporary it is. To which will you trust your heart?
Happy Hallowtide, we can have no fear because everywhere we look, the ghosts are watching.
Much gratitude to Ahrens and Flaherty for teaching me about Stanford White, and for the turn of phrase, “it was only 1906 and there were 94 years to go,” from their musical play, Ragtime.