The Cuba Chronicles: Day 1

By Joe LaGuardia

On 6 November 2017, I embarked on a mission trip with a small group of clergy and lay leaders to Cuba through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  In partnership with the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba, the CBF has been nurturing mission opportunities over the past several years.  These are my diaries from the trip. Find the “Introduction” here.

A team of seven of us, made up of 3 lay leaders, 2 CBF personnel, and 2 clergymen, arrived in Havana around 10:30 AM.  Our first exposure to life in Cuba was in the airport: crowds of people, expecting family and huddled with tears of expectation.  Children passed the time at play.  One of the members from our team, a Cuban transplant, mentioned that the emotions have to do with the arrival of people who may not have seen each other for decades.  We waited for our whole team, then departed to lunch and our accommodations.

As we drove through the city, I was enamored with the cars, people, and architecture that told of a rich history somehow stuck in the past. It is as if someone came along in the 1950s and took a snapshot that exists in an historical loop. The Chevrolet coupes tell of a one-time thriving middle class who enjoyed grocery stores and plenty, of liberty and dignity.  The architecture is reminiscent of Frank Loyd Wright and the art deco I came to love when I once lived in Miami.

My emotions betray me.  It is beautiful, but it is an illusion.  The beauty is profound: If Cuba was to open fully to investment, travel, and tourism, I would argue that no new architecture would be needed, merely a facelift.  I could see people flocking from the United States in search of golden years lost in the past, an escape from the hyper-technology of the 21st Century.  Of course, if the U.S. were to lift its embargo, technology would come as swiftly as the visitors to these humble shores.

But it is an illusion: Havana is a charming place, but impoverished. Tourists who come here for inexpensive vacations only see what the communist regime wants them to see.  We spent $4.50 on lunch, for instance–and we raved of the low cost for fresh-to-table meat and vegetables–but, as I have mentioned in my own pulpit before, there is a high cost to low prices.  That amount, though small for us, makes up roughly six days of salary for the average Cuban.  Tourists roughly spend what amounts to two week’s worth of a Cuban’s salary for an alcoholic beverage.

After lunch, we went to our accommodations to rest. My apartment-mate, John (a lay leader) and I are staying on the second floor of Cuba’s version of an air-bnb. Our hostess showed us how to lock the doors.  She instructed us to shut off the lights when not in use, and only turn on the air conditioner–one per room–at night.   Electricity does not come cheap, and regardless of how the neighborhood appeared, once a bustling middle-class suburb of the city, both money and resources are hard to come by.  She needed cash up-front to insure that breakfast would be on the table the next morning and the length of our stay.

After settling in, we took a walk in the neighborhood.  We passed a school where children in uniforms shuffled in and out.  We walked through an old, walled cemetery.  We coughed our way through Havana’s pollution-laden streets until we came to a park that memorialized one of America’s fiercest foes, Ho Chi Minh.

I had several Hot Wheels cars in my pocket–trinkets from the U.S. I intend to give to children along the way–and I commented to John that I should have brought gifts for the adults too.  As a joke, I suggested cigarettes, like those who barter for better things as if in a prison.

“Jail on an island,” he quipped.  With all of the tears we experienced at the airport, solemn heads of passersby hung low, and many people rummaging around in second-hand clothing, John may not have been far from the truth.  Someone mentioned that it takes $800.00 for a Cuban to get a passport in order to travel off the island.  With that kind of price, it might as well be Rykers, Sing-sing, or Alcatraz.

Cubans are held captive in more ways than one.  Technology and access to the internet are limited.  No small masses of people huddle on random street corners where the government places wi-fi hotspots, regulated in both content and price.  It takes $2.00 an hour for people to Facetime loved ones or catch up on email or Facebook posts.  You can tell when people are communicating with loved ones who lives off-island because they weep.  People who debate in the park or not talking politics lest they speak too loudly around government moles; rather, they argue about topics that are safe–baseball, mostly.

****

Over dinner, one of our companions Marti told of her escape from Cuba in 1961.  She, along with two siblings, went to the United States as exiles from the “Peter Pan” program, a government-run child labor law in which children worked the fields.  Often, parents did not know where their children went–one day they brought them to school, and the next day they were gone.  The Catholic Church supported the program, so solace and protest were hard to come by.

It took all of the family’s savings to send Marti and her siblings to a friend in Miami.  She was young, scared, hurt and resentful for having to learn a new language, a new way of life.  It took two years for her mother to join them, and another two years for her father to do the same.  This, all before Castro finally ousted President Batista’s forces in 1965.

On the final day of our stay in Havana, all of us, including Marti, stopped by her childhood home.  She was nervous, and she cried.  We all cried, really.  She touched the wrought iron fence that was once her own.  She took a picture, and then she left it behind again.  Her job, children, and grandchildren, not to mention all of the children she serves at church, needed her back in Florida.  Like most Cuban Americans, home is not necessarily where the heart is–it is somewhere lost in time, space, and art deco.

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A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: God’s Promises

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

Every believer has seasons of doubt.  No matter how strong our faith or our relationship to Christ, hardship comes and discipleship wavers.  We wonder where God is, and we question the very possibility of salvation itself.  Perhaps that is why God is a God of promises.  From the earliest covenants that God made with Cain and Noah to the New Covenant in which Jesus’ sacrifice bridged the divide between God and us, God is unrelenting in pursuit of our hearts and souls.

Sacred music is a reassuring resource for a waning sense of faith.  Hymns can communicate God’s sure foundation as well as Jesus’ promise to never leave us nor forsake us.  It nurtures us in the church and surrounds us with songs both challenging and familiar to let us know that God is still with us even in the face of opposing evidence.

Many songs that communicate God’s promises come in the form of what many call the great “gospel hymns” of old.  These hymns, spanning the 18th to early-20th centuries are remarkable theological powerhouses that act as a balm to our deepest spiritual wounds.  They are not just for funerals, they also intend to play in our mind like earwigs when times get tough.

Fanny Crosby, author of thousands of hymns and poems, gifted us with one of the most meaningful of gospel hymns, Blessed Assurance.  It is a love song between Savior and saved, a promise that “Jesus is mine!”, a Jesus who whispers love and mercy in the midst of night.  Though times of distress, doubt, and hardship threaten to silence us, God’s promises give us a story to tell and a song to sing.  If nothing else, we can “praise our Savior all day long” even if it seems fanciful to those who have no belief at all.

A memorable hymn is Great is Thy Faithfulness, penned by pastor-turned-insurance salesman Thomas Chisholm.  For me, doubt does not exist throughout the year, but in waves and seasons.  At times, my faith crushes all doubt; at other times, my faith may exist as a mere flicker of light in a sea of darkness.  No matter, faith incorporates a seasonal rhythm of highs and lows, and Great is Thy Faithfulness affirms it as such: “Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest…join with all nature in manifold witness to Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love!”

There is another set of hymnody that reassures believers and expresses God’s promises. The great reformer Martin Luther penned A Mighty Fortress is Our God in times of trouble, arrest, and persecution.  His own bouts of depression and anxiety needed a poetic outlet, and “God’s truth abideth” seemed appropriate for a time of spiritual warfare.

Three similar songs include How Firm a Foundation, Rock of Ages, and The Solid RockHow Firm is an early hymn overshadowed by mystery.  The author is only known as “K” while the author of the tune FOUNDATION is also anonymous.  Perhaps that is intentional as it is God, not the author, who speaks to us in four of the five verses: “Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed.”

Rock of Ages has a livelier history, if not for content, then for author Augustus Toplady, who feuded with the Wesley brothers.  Several things catch my attention: (1) Augustus Toplady is, like, the coolest name ever, (2) who else would have the audacity to call John Wesley (founder of Methodism) the “most rancorous hater of the gospel”, and (3) there is a theory that Toplady plagiarized some of the lines of Rock of Ages from a poem that Charles Wesley wrote some three decades earlier. (All of this is recorded with no small drama in Kenneth Osbeck’s 101 Hymn Stories, pp. 215-217).  The dude had nerve.

And the last, The Solid Rock, is just a good song altogether.  Published in one of the only hymnals to be distributed during the Civil War, its clear and concise message summarizes everything these gospel hymns mean to me.  As a way to end, allow me to quote the first verse in full:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

Thank God for God’s promises!

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: Calls to Service

By Joe LaGuardia

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church.  By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul encouraged Christians to “live a life worthy of the calling to which you were called” (4:1).  Early in church history, many took this calling to mean the divine orders to which priests, bishops, and popes were commissioned.  After the Reformation, of which we celebrated 500 years this past October 31, the church preached that all the people of God are called.  It was Martin Luther who lifted up every believer, noting that even the least among us fulfill God’s call in our life when we live faithfully and obediently.

Our sacred hymnody has come from this vocational geography in the life of the church.  There are two types of songs that relate to calling: Our call to salvation, and our call to Christian service.  Both affirm that God offers us opportunities to choose Christ; worship–and the hymnody that makes up a part of that worship–is our response to God’s gifts and blessings in our life, a celebration of how we have experienced God from one week to the next.

Hymnody that communicates a call to salvation are vast and well-known.  In many churches, these are songs that we sing during a time of invitation, either after a lengthy music set or immediately following the sermon.  Hymns such as Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy, express our longing for God, our fragility as humans, and the vastness of God’s love.  The song, penned in the eighteenth century by Joseph Hart, assures us that in our call to God, God will “embrace us in His arms.”

Other invitation hymns include Have Thine Own Way, Lord, which echoes God’s prophecy to Jeremiah that God is indeed potter while we, God’s people, are clay to be molded and sculpted by our Lord.  I Surrender All is yet another hymn that acknowledges our choice to give all who we are to Christ Jesus, to “make me, Savior, wholly Thine.”

A beloved hymn, Softly and Tenderly, authored by Will Thompson became a fast favorite among revivals in Great Britain and the Americas.  The great evangelist, D. L. Moody was said to have favored this song above all others, befriending Thompson along the way.  Thompson held Moody’s hand on while Moody was on his deathbed (Kenneth Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories).

A second category of invitation hymns include the commitment to Christian service.  Come, All Christians, Be Committed and The Mission God Has Given (a more contemporary hymn) are among my favorites.   Both implore believers to “share the gospel with people near and far” and share our blessings with others.  Hymns that we sing around Thanksgiving, such as Because I Have Been Given Much, challenges us to give to others: “I cannot see another’s lack and I not share my glowing fire, my loaf of bread, my roof’s safe shelter overhead.”

Invitation and response are our responsibilities in meeting the Lord’s gift of grace and salvation in our life.  They do not uphold a works-based righteousness but recall James’ admonishment to Christian sojourners in the world, that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).  We need this reminder every week, and our time of invitation is a perfect incubator for a faith that upholds all our callings in Christ.