Monday, October 20, 2014

Reflections on Cuba

I had the opportunity this past week to spend 8 days in Cuba with 11 fellow travelers.  Our primary purpose in going was to attend the 40th anniversary gathering of COEBAC (the English translation of the Spanish acrostic is the Coordination of Baptist Student Workers of Cuba).  All 4 Baptist entities on the island were invited to attend (Western Baptist Convention, Eastern Baptist Convention, Free Will Baptists, and the Fraternity of Baptists).  Representatives from the Eastern Convention and the Fraternity were present.  It seems that Baptist denominational politics has been extended even to Cuba as purportedly some of the Western Convention folks were coming (predominantly affiliated with Southern Baptists) until they learned who some of the program participants were from the Eastern Convention and the Fraternity, at which time they withdrew.

The theme of the meeting was exploring what it means to be a Baptist, guided by historical Baptist distinctives such as separation of church and state, religious liberty, liberty of conscience, and local church autonomy in the contemporary world.  I was asked to lead a breakout session on liberty of conscience and asked the pastor of the host church if it was okay in a Communist/socialist country to speak freely of those themes.  He assured me that it was and so I did.  There was a representative of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, head of the National Office of Attention to Religious Affairs, who also spoke to the gathering.  She recognized the importance of living by Christian values for the well-being of the country.

One of the key figures from the 1959 revolution mentioned in the meeting and by this official was Frank Pais, the son of a Baptist pastor.  Whereas Fidel Castro and Che Guevara led the revolution in the mountains, Frank Pais was the key figure in the urban centers--especially Santiago.  He was killed by police after being surrounded in what was supposedly a safe house, thereafter achieving the status of a revolutionary martyr. His favorite hymn was "Brighten the Corner where You Are" which we sang together.

We also later visited the Western Baptist Convention's seminary in Havana, meeting with its interim president and its rector, who explained the various degree programs and emphases of their theological training.

One of the unexpected sightings on the trip was a funnel cloud as we were returning to Havana from the COEBAC gathering in the city of Ciego de Avila.  We watched it out the left side of the bus for some 30 minutes, catching glimpses of it through the almost constant line of trees that bordered the side of the highway.

Classic car enthusiasts would have a heyday in Cuba.  There are literally hundreds if not thousands of 1950s model U.S. cars--Chevys, Fords, Pontiacs, Buicks, Dodges, Chryslers, Cadillacs, etc.  

I got to ride in the blue Caddy with 3 friends for an hour or so tour of the city on the way to dinner one evening.  It was quite the treat.

One of the lasting impressions I took away from the trip was the strong commitment of Cuban Baptists to reach their island nation for Christ with the gospel, while at the same time striving to improve the overall living conditions of their people.  We heard a lot of concern for justice and economic issues as well as a healthy interest in caring for the world that God has given us as good stewards of it.  These same Baptists also expressed a pronounced pride in their country and displayed patriotic fervor.  The worship services we attended contained joyful singing and solid preaching.  All in all, it was a memorable trip.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

You Can Never Go Home Again

There's an old adage that says you can never go home again.  The thought behind the saying is quite profound.  The idea is that both you and your childhood home will have changed so much in the intervening years that nothing will be quite the same as it once was.  There's a lot of truth in that adage.  This past week I had the opportunity of returning to the small south Texas town where I grew up--having lived there from the first grade to high school graduation.  I discovered that much about the town had indeed changed.  The high school I attended no longer exists, having been bulldozed to make room for a brand new facility completed just last year.  The old Rialto movie theater has been converted into a center for the performing arts.  The town has grown population-wise, as has the school.  Current population is 2520 whereas it was only about 2000 when I left there in 1971.  Many of the folks that I knew have moved away.  Only about 10 or so of our graduating class of 54 students showed up for the all-class reunion.  There were very few familiar faces at First Baptist Church on Sunday morning, though it was great to reconnect with a handful whom I remembered.

With all of the changes, some things remained the same.  Folks displayed lots of pride in the town's accomplishments as it celebrated 100 years of existence.  High school football still rules on Friday nights.  Small-town friendliness still characterizes George West as people waved at and greeted each other in passing or as they met at the various centennial gatherings.  South Texas barbecue still tastes great as well, though I'm not sure that it rivals Kansas City's version.

One thing going home prompted was lots of reflection about the folks who helped shape my life--my parents, grandparents, extended family, teachers, classmates, pastors, Sunday School teachers and other church leaders, coaches, and many others.  I found myself frequently pausing to thank God for their investment in my life.  I hope that you'll spend some time thinking in these days about those who helped shape your life as well and that you'll express thanksgiving to God for their part in helping make you who you are today.  If they're still living, a card or a phone call could be a wonderful means of catching up and encouraging them as you express thanks for their part in your formation.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Life Lesson from Benedict Arnold

Most of us are familiar with the name of Benedict Arnold, one of the most famous (or rather infamous) military figures in U.S. history.  Born in 1741, Arnold was a strong patriot and capable military leader and strategist in the early years of the American Revolution.  He led several successful military campaigns for the American forces against the British and as a result, George Washington appointed him as a military commander in Philadelphia.  There Arnold's loyalties began to shift.  He was passed over for promotion on several occasions by the Continental Congress and he viewed them as petty, bickering incompetents.  (Some might suggest at this point that history repeats itself, but I'm not going there). 

By 1779, Arnold became convinced that the best path forward was to rejoin the British Empire and he secretly aligned himself with the British loyalists.  In his role as a double agent, Arnold engaged in a conspiracy to allow the British troops to defeat the American forces under his command at West Point.  Before the plan could be enacted, Arnold's British contact was discovered and subsequently hanged.  Arnold fled to the British for safety and was made a brigadier general in their army, later leading an invasion of Virginia.  He served with the British until their defeat at Yorktown in 1781, at which point he moved to London.

Arnold is best remembered today as a famous traitor to the cause of American freedom.  A man with great potential and leadership capacity allowed perceived personal slights against him to sway his allegiance to his country.  The question arises as to whether we might also be guilty of harboring hurts and resentment regarding wrongs that we consider others have directed against us.  Practicing forgiveness and seeking reconciliation is a lot healthier course of action than growing embittered and forfeiting friendships.  May Arnold's negative behavior serve as an example for us to avoid as we live out our faith.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

There's Only One (Holy One)

I mentioned in a recent post about my trip to Farmington, MO for the annual meeting of Churchnet and commented that it was a long drive there.  Consequently, to pass the time, I pulled out a bunch of old Christian music CD's to provide some listening entertainment on the way.  One of the CD's I grabbed was the 2-album WOW 2007 collection of top Christian songs for that year.  Among those I really enjoyed listening to again after many years of not having heard it was the "There's Only One (Holy One) by Caedmon's Call. 

I absolutely love the imagery in a couple of the lines in the chorus of the song:

There's only One who never fails to beckon the morning light,
There's only One who sets loose the gales and ties the trees down tight,
When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay,
There's only One, only One, Holy One.

If you've never heard it before, here's a link to a YouTube version of it.

Enjoy it!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Friends

One of the challenges of serving as a minister to senior adults in a church in which this segment of the population is amply represented is that of having to say goodbye to them as they complete their earthly journey and are welcomed into God's presence.  Having served on the staff of our church now for ten and a half years, I've come to know, appreciate, and deeply love these wonderful folks who in many cases have been walking with the Lord for six or seven decades or even longer.  Today we'll celebrate the life of the third member in the last ten days to have moved from "pilgrim status" here in this world to being at home with the Lord in heaven.  Each one of them has left a huge hole in the lives of their families by their departure, as each touched countless lives by their kindness, acts of service, and love for God, their family, and others.

When I witness the peace with which these folks faced their approaching death, I'm reminded of a story told about John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church.  A man approached Wesley one day, asking him how he could become a Christian .  Wesley led him to profess his faith in Christ of course and to experience God's forgiveness through salvation.  Afterwards, Wesley asked the man why he had sought him out to ask how to be saved.  The man responded, "Because I've observed that your people die well."  

I'm reminded as well of a wonderful passage in Heb. 2:14-15 that speaks of one of the purposes of Christ's coming into the world and what He accomplished through His death on the cross.  The writer of Hebrews states, Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.  If there's one thing that characterizes the majority of those living who don't know Christ as Savior, it's an absolute, overwhelming fear of death.  For the believer who knows Jesus as Lord, death holds no such fear because Christ through His resurrection has forever vanquished this enemy.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Churchnet's Annual Meeting

I had a very enjoyable time this past Friday and Saturday at Churchnet's annual meeting, hosted by the First Baptist Church of Farmington, MO.  As you used to say in south Texas, Farmington is a "fer piece" from Lee's Summit where I live.  For those who don't speak "Texanese," that translates as a long distance.  It's right at 300 miles one way and there's no direct route from northwest to southeast Missouri.  I took I-70 across, skirting St. Louis to the southwest and then heading down to my final destination.

We kicked off the meeting as we have in recent years with our annual missions banquet.  The food was delicious and the program featured a verbal report and pictures from Andrij Pismenyuk, a Ukrainian church planter whom we help to financially support.  Next we heard from Ned Walsh about an upcoming opportunity in October to visit Cuba for a gathering of the four Baptist conventions on the island and to visit places where Missouri Baptists labored when Cuba was still under the work of the Home Mission Board prior to the revolution.  David and Susan Holman, both pharmacists and members of FBC Farmington, shared about their participation last summer with a medical missions team from our church to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.  Finally, I shared an update about our ongoing partnership with Guatemalan Baptists and the leadership training events that we host there twice each year in January and July.  A major component of the banquet each year is a missions offering that helps underwrite the expenses of the training events in Guatemala as well as facilitating other missions endeavors like the support for the Ukrainian church planter.  Almost $7000 was pledged or given at the meeting and we'll be contacting others on our mailing list to give them an opportunity to participate in this offering.

The worship experiences on Friday evening and Saturday morning were a wonderful mixture of musical styles with everything from a traditional robed choir to a contemporary praise band, an African American quartet from a St. Louis church, a Hispanic praise band composed of members from churches in California and Jeff City, and a trio of Filipino young ladies.  Jerry Cain did an outstanding job as always with his Bible study focus and a highlight was being able to hear Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, author of Strangers at My Door: A True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Guests.  Jonathan ministers at the Rutba House in North Carolina, a community of believers sharing life together.  He told the story of the origin of the name Rutba--the name for a village in Iraq where he and team members received shelter and medical assistance from a local Iraqi after a team member had suffered injuries when the car in which he was riding overturned after hitting a crater in the road which had been caused by a bomb blast.

We had the opportunity as well to attend some outstanding breakout sessions dealing with a wide diversity of topics.  We also heard from leaders of the many Baptist agencies that Churchnet partners with in Missouri including The Baptist Home, The Baptist Foundation, Word & Way, The Children's Home, Windermere, and the various Baptist universities.  It was great to see many friends from across the state and to make some new ones as well.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

An Internal GPS

Since the advent and growth in popularity of GPS devices, most of us no longer utilize what was once a standard item in a car for any road trip--a good old-fashioned map.  It was often our practice to pull into the visitors' center when you crossed over into a new state on a long trip to acquire the latest map of that state's highways.  Doing so provided a necessary break to stretch one's legs, visit the restroom facilities, and confirm with the new map that you were on the right course.  Nowadays, most of us simply punch an address into a dedicated GPS device or into our smartphones and we follow the verbal commands we are given until we arrive at our destination.

The new GPS systems are certainly handy and probably more accurate as a rule as well, given that they are constantly monitoring your progress along the journey via satellites that communicate with your device.  There's something nostalgic though about pulling out the good old road map and seeing at a glance where you'll be traveling--the cities you'll pass through, the major landmarks along the way, rivers and lakes that you'll encounter, etc. 

Deep down we all probably wish that God had given us a road map in advance for this journey called life--a map that highlighted every potential pitfall, danger, setback, and detour.  Rather than a map though, He's given us the opportunity to grow and mature in our faith as we follow Him one day at a time.  He gives us sufficient grace and strength for today alone, and He's given us His Word and the indwelling Spirit to provide guidance for our travels.  Come to think of it, we all have an internal GPS (God's Powerful Spirit).  Let Him direct your way.