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.”

 

 

 

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A Pastor appreciates the Hymns: Controversy!

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.

Hymns and hymnals have not been without controversy.  At times, controversy erupts when publishers change beloved verses in the hymns as a way to update the language.  Other times, the inclusion or exclusion of hymns can become a source of contention.

The most recent controversy involved the publication of the Glory to God Presbyterian hymnal in 2013, which centered on pushing variations (while limiting others) of the theological concept of atonement– one particular doctrine of atonement in which Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross was said to appease God’s wrath.

The exclusion of one such hymn that communicated this model of atonement, In Christ Alone, created strife.  Some thought the exclusion to be intentional, but editors indicated that they were unable to secure copyrights appropriate in changing the verse, “As Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied,” to “on that cross Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.”

The publisher argued that there were some songs included that spoke to this type of atonement, but they emphasized the importance of Jesus’ sacrifice as an atonement for sin rather than an appeasement of God’s wrath.

Controversies in our own Baptist tradition abound as well.  In one controversial publication, the 2008 Baptist hymnal failed to put “Holy, Holy, Holy” as the first hymnal (it was #2 in the 1991 hymnal, right behind a congregational litany).  Another debate ensued as to whether to include “I Come to the Garden Alone,” which some scholars argue is theologically inaccurate.

Other controversies focused on whether to include contemporary songs or choruses.  These are primarily theological: What songs or choruses reflect a biblical message and inspire hearts to soar heavenward while our knees bend towards Christ?  What songs are so individualistic that they do not express any community theology or serve a pedagogic function for the church whatsoever?

In my own ministry, I have not had a particular dog in the hymnal fight.  I have, however, been intrigued to hear how other, more interested parties have weighed in.  I knew one minister of music who thought that excluding “Holy, Holy, Holy” from the #1 spot in the Baptist hymnal was among the greatest sins in human history.  In conversation with another music minister, I learned that there is too much “white space” in the new Celebrating Grace hymnal–and why kill all of those trees when you can use a more effective typeset?

Conflicts surrounding hymns and hymnals will always surface as long as churches insist on having hymnals in the pews and of reading music as a crucial part of congregational worship.  Yet, debates over hymnody communicate an important truth: Hymns mean something to us because they stir emotions, nostalgic or otherwise.

Hymns mean something because they teach us things about who God is and who we are to God.  We link emotional expression and theological depth with the songs we sing–a peculiar hallmark of churches and of sacred music in general–so they become meaningful in more ways than one.  So when a publisher comes out with a hymnal and people begin to notice that The Old, Rugged Cross is nowhere to be found, then you’re certain to find yourself in the middle of a hymnal fight.  Watch out, it could get ugly!

 

 

A Pastor appreciates the Hymns: “God of Grace…”

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.

Most ministers I know pray for courage on a daily basis.  Ministry is a sacrificial act that requires risk, reconciliation, and intuition.  It is a craft that pastors shape over time, a vocation forged in the throes of experience and ever-evolving knowledge.  So goes the prayer in God of Grace and God of Glory in which the author, Harry Emerson Fosdick implores the Lord, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage.”

Penned soon after the First World War, God of Grace and God of Glory  was Fosdick’s confession of having supported the “War to end all Wars,” only to realize that violence only begot more violence (what one writer calls the postindustrial “liberal myth of progress”).  Like other progressives of his time, Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York, repented of his ideals and wrote this hymn in which he asked God to “cure thy children’s warring madness.”

Fosdick’s beloved hymn captures the spirit of historic progressivism in its lofty lilt, set to the music of John Hughes, while birthing notions of non-violence that shaped much of the progressive church into recent days.  In fact, after Fosdick, Riverside Church became a beacon for peace and non-violence. One of the church’s pastors, William Sloane Coffin, gained notoriety for preaching against the Vietnam War and nuclear proliferation in the 1970s Riverside pulpit.

It is this legacy that spurned controversy over Fosdick’s hymn in the first place.  If you look at hymnals from the Vietnam War era onward, notably hymns published in the 1970s, such as the 1975 Baptist Hymnal, many editors removed the third verse which asks God to undo a nation’s penchant for war.

Even moderate-leaning hymnals of late, including the Celebrating Grace hymnal published in Macon, Georgia, in 2010 excludes the verse in favor of asking God to “set our feet on lofty places.”  This contemporary spin is more a hymn for hikers than it is one that shapes theological engagement of peacekeepers for the 21st century.  (The 2008 Baptist hymnal by Lifeway does include the classic 3rd verse.)

I have grown to love the historic version of God of Grace and God of Glory for both its musical artistry and its message ever since my earliest years in seminary.  It was then that I studied Fosdick and his historic tenure at Riverside.  I learned how he moved his church into the “Christian century”, battled the shortfalls of religious fundamentalism, and gave rise to a new style of homiletics that inspired preachers to utilize sermons as “pastoral care on a group scale.”

I got a hold of Fosdick’s memoir, For the Living of These Days, and read about his own struggles in ministry.  For all his boldness in the public square–he had his own radio show and all–he had a fairly weak constitution that led to multiple nervous breakdowns.  He did not just preach God’s Word, he wrestled with God’s Word.  His movement from warmonger to non-violent activist evolved out of one such struggle.

Whenever I face difficult times in ministry, I often find myself praying Fosdick’s words.  It is comforting that hundreds of thousands of Christians have sung this song, and it is in the company of saints that I still sing (or pray!) to ask God to grant me wisdom and courage for the facing of difficult hours.  It is a prayer for the soul as well as the church, which is the womb of Christ’s budding story.

In a world that debates left versus right, liberal versus conservative, one political party versus another, Fosdick, his legacy, and his hymn remind me that all our Christian leanings, wielded over a hundred years, have all contributed greatly to a magnificent Church, a rich tapestry of worship, and an artistic depth to hymnody and liturgy that still wrestles with text and scripture even today; for, at the end of the day, God is still One who is both grace-filled and glorious!