The Cuba Chronicles: Day 2, Part 2

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. Read more: “Introduction” here. Find Day 1 here and Day 2, Part 1 here.

We visited Iglesia Bautista Ebenezer on the outskirts of Havana.  It is a thriving church and home to the Martin Luther King, Jr., heritage center, a non-profit recognized by the Cuban government.  (That the church is named “Ebenezer,” the same as MLK’s church in Atlanta, was coincidental.)

Aside from the heritage center, the church hosts on-going professional development for adults and training camps for youth and college students interested in learning about social justice, non-violent civic engagement, and community reconciliation.  After-school programs and other ministries, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, also bolster the congregation’s ministry.  Visiting professors from around the world come to stay at a campus apartment to teach theology to clergy and lay leaders in week-long intensive courses.

Ebenezer exemplifies what some theologians call “leaven”-style missions, recalling Jesus’ parable in which he likens the Kingdom of God to a woman who subversively sneaks leaven into a batch of bread.  The church hopes that the Gospel infiltrates their neighborhood and, from efforts in education, in reaching communities for Jesus Christ across the island.

This is a fundamental part in Ebenezer’s history: As one of three original churches (another being Pastor Maykel’s church, Iglesia Bautista El Jordan) to found the Fraternity of Baptists, its previous pastor worked with the government to soften religious tensions.  This work, which began some 25 years ago, attracted the ire of other Baptist churches, and the three churches were accused of promoting communism.  The atheist government, meanwhile, was weary of the Christian influence.  The Fraternity formed as a result of this schism.

Ebenezer’s work with the government became an asset not only to Christians in Cuba, but to the entire population in the mid-1990s.  At the time, the Soviet Union collapsed and resources were scarce. Cuba entered a time of hardship and famine.  Churches, especially those working close with the government and non-profits in the area, became hubs for emergency relief.  This leverage led to further dialogue, and Ebenezer was able to seat the first Christian senator in Parliament since the advent of Communism.  We met the senator, who remains influential throughout Havana.

Ebenezer is a flagship church in the Fraternity as it seeks to raise up a new generation of Christian business and government leaders who seek to be on mission in Cuba.  The leadership is made up of three pastors, one devoted to the work of the Heritage Center and training; another to developing, writing, and producing Cuban Christian liturgy, disseminated to the rest of the Christian churches in Cuba (indigenous liturgy is extremely important in the Fraternity); and a third engaged in pastoral care and programming.  The pastors rotate in preaching and church leadership.  They want to model the type of egalitarian community they believe reflects God’s kingdom.  Every year, each pastor takes a different category of ministry, so the energy and creativity stays fresh and vibrant.  (To me, this church mirrors the kind of leadership model and good work you can find at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.)

Ebenezer is one of eight churches in the Fraternity that have free-standing buildings.  The rest are home churches that rely on the resources and training that churches like Ebenezer provide — Pastor Maykel calls it “divine resourcing,” which reminded me of my own ideas on “creative resourcing” we’ve been implementing at First Baptist.  (I like Maykel’s term better, as it assumes that God is in charge of the agenda rather than our own limited brains!)

Pastor Maykel, Pastor Corita (whom we met earlier), and the three pastors at Ebenezer believe that they are reaping the harvest of seeds sown so many years earlier with visionary pastors who were willing to dialogue with what were once sworn enemies of Christendom.  Through their hard work, they now have a chance to be a part of the governing process–its the slow work that affirms Martin Luther King, Jr’s admission that the “arc of history bends towards justice.”

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.

A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns: The Shape of Liturgical Action

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.

I fear that some people see hymns only as a nostalgic remnants from the church of yesteryear, that hymns are only useful to pass the time at funerals or revival services.  Hymns, however, play more of a role than that, and research suggests that hymns contribute to our theology and vision of the world just as much as scripture, prayer, and sermons do on a weekly basis.

Hymns are not the stuff of a stuffy church; rather, they shape beliefs and have the power to inspire ministry and missions with an ever creative God who gives us a song to sing.

I have come to appreciate a group of contemporary hymns (that’s not an oxymoron, people–yes, liturgical artists still write hymns for the church!) that empower and engage congregations, craft theology, and embody God’s mission for the world.  Some are better than others, and most rely on well-known tunes, but they contribute something fresh to a church still in need of a “new song” to sing (Psalm 98:1).

These hymns have in common the theme of justice.  Primarily published in closing pages of the Celebrating Grace hymnal, they speak of God, our relationship to God, and our fundamental Christian concern for God’s world and our neighbors.  They call us to believe, to decide, and to act.

One hymn is Show Us How to Stand for Justice, authored by Martin Leckebusch and copyrighted in 2000.  Set to the tune of “Pleading Savior,” it contains themes that clearly define the hopes and dreams of churches that stand on the cusp of a new century.

The first verse addresses the need for collaboration among Christians in order to reflect an inclusive and grace-filled Gospel.  We “work for what is right” and “walk within the light.”  We admonish each other to share with neighbors and fight against the greed that defined economic bubbles sweeping the late 1990s.  It is collaborative, but pro-life; hesitant with success, but rich with mercy.

The second verse deals with our hearts and minds, knowing all too well that our motives must match the sincerity of our actions.  It places the very essence of justice in the life and sacrifice of Jesus our Savior.

The third verse intends to send out a congregation on mission, mindful that our lifestyles not just at church, but Monday through Saturday, should reflect the love, compassion and grace of the very God we worship on Sunday.  It is not something we do alone, but with the “Spirit’s gracious prompting.”  The theology of this song is not introverted or insular — it assumes that the Spirit is at work in the world, and we are to join God out there.

Another hymn is Let Truth and Mercy Find Here by Ken Medema. I’ve had the privilege of worshiping with Mr. Medema at the helm.  He is a songwriter and musician who, though blind at the very young age, offers music both insightful and full of vision for sacred liturgy.

One of the most powerful ideas in this hymn is its insistence that, by sharing together in the love of Christ, congregations and the church at large have the power to turn strangers into friends.  Whereas “scheming darkness and evil power” may manipulate people, communities, and nations for its own sake, Christ’s “peace and justice” is a mighty stream that can cut through the harshest environments and pave a way for a united, dreaming community.

God’s truth is a “flame” that is “blazing,” one that draws people towards the Gospel, but then enacts the truths of Pentecost.  Spirit-filled people have visions, dream dreams, and prophesy on behalf of others, for the sake of Christ’s compassion, and for the salvation of a world still in need of redemption.  This is not an individual task only–it is the fundamental calling of the church in the 21st century, born out of the need to be Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation.

Hymnody that celebrates God’s provision and encourages God’s people to act justly are nothing new.  These are gems in the mines of a sacred church called from one generation to another to serve the world which “God so loved” and, by doing so, bring justice to bear in season and out.  The words may be new and tunes familiar, but it is a theme that shapes our theology of place, time, and sacred space all the same.