U.S. at U.N. Global Call To Protect Religious Freedom

On September 23, 2019, President Donald Trump did not speak at the U.N. Summit on Climate Change. Instead, after briefly attending that session, he chaired the U.N.’s Global Call To Protect Religious Freedom meeting that was organized by the U.S.[1] After Vice President Mike Pence’s introduction, the President delivered his remarks followed by comments from Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

 Vice President Pence’s Remarks[2]

“it is my great honor to be here today with the President of the United States to reaffirm America’s commitment to what the people of our nation have always believed: that every person is endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.  And Americans have always believed our first freedom is the freedom of religion.”

“And there’s no better time for a meeting like this on the world stage.  As we gather here at the United Nations, more than 80 percent of the world’s population live in nations where religious freedom is threatened or banned.”

“The regime in Iran brutally persecutes Christians, Sunnis, Bahai’i, and Jews. In Iraq, Iran-backed militias terrorize Christians and Yazidis who were nearly wiped out by ISIS’s recent campaign of genocide. The Communist Party in China has arrested Christian pastors, banned the sale of Bibles, demolished churches, and imprisoned more than a million Uighurs in the Muslim population.”

“In our hemisphere, the regime of Daniel Ortega is virtually waging war on the Catholic Church in Nicaragua.  And in Venezuela, the dictator Nicolás Maduro uses anti-hate laws to prosecute clergy, even as his media cronies spread anti-Semitism by trivializing the Holocaust.”

“Communities of faith across the wider world have also faced unspeakable acts of violence in places of worship, shocking the conscience of the world.”

“In October, 11 Jews were murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  In March, a gunman killed 51 Muslims at prayer in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.  And just a month later, suicide bombers murdered more than 300 Christians during Easter services at three Christian churches in Sri Lanka.”

“These attacks strike at the heart of everything free peoples hold sacred.  And the threats of religious freedom and the attacks on people of faith underscore why President Trump has taken such decisive action, since the very first days of our administration, to build and promote our nation’s proud tradition of advancing religious freedom.  And that continues today.”

“At the President’s direction, the United States created the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program, and we’ve provided more than $370 million to aid ethnic minorities in faith communities persecuted by ISIS in Iraq and throughout the region.”[3]

“Earlier this year, at the President’s direction, the Secretary of State held the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, inviting more than a thousand civil society and religious leaders, in 100 different nations, to the largest event of its kind in the world.”[4]

“And last year, at the inaugural ministerial, at the President’s direction, we established the International Religious Freedom Fund, which already has received nearly $5 million in pledges and given over 435 Rapid Response Grants to those persecuted for their deeply held beliefs.  And to date, this effort has helped some 2,000 victims of religious persecution around the world.”[5]

“As the President often says, America is a nation of faith, and we will always stand for the freedom of religion of every person, of every race and every creed, to live, to work, to worship according to the dictates of their conscience.

“And today, giving evidence of his passion for religious liberty, the President will announce additional steps that the United States will take to protect religious liberty and defend people of faith around the world.”

“Today, I ask all nations to join us in this urgent moral duty.  We ask the governments of the world to honor the eternal right of every person to follow their conscience, live by their faith, and give glory to God.  The United States has a vital role in this critical mission.”

“It is my high honor and distinct privilege to introduce to you a tireless champion of the freedom of religion and people of every faith in America and around the world, the 45th President of the United States of America, President Donald Trump.”

President Trump’s Message[6]

“The United States is founded on the principle that our rights do not come from government; they come from God.  This immortal truth is proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.  Our Founders understood that no right is more fundamental to a peaceful, prosperous, and virtuous society than the right to follow one’s religious convictions.”

“Regrettably, the religious freedom enjoyed by American citizens is rare in the world.  Approximately 80 percent of the world’s population live in countries where religious liberty is threatened, restricted, or even banned.”

“As we speak, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Yazidis, and many other people of faith are being jailed, sanctioned, tortured, and even murdered, often at the hands of their own government, simply for expressing their deeply held religious beliefs.”

“Today, with one clear voice, the United States of America calls upon the nations of the world to end religious persecution.”

“To stop the crimes against people of faith, release prisoners of conscience, repeal laws restricting freedom of religion and belief, protect the vulnerable, the defenseless, and the oppressed, America stands with believers in every country who ask only for the freedom to live according to the faith that is within their own hearts.”

“As President, protecting religious freedom is one of my highest priorities and always has been.  Last year, our Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, hosted the first-ever Ministerial to Advance International Religious Freedom. In this year’s ministerial, Secretary Pompeo announced plans to create the International Religious Freedom Alliance — an alliance of like-minded nations devoted to confronting religious persecution all around the world.[7]

“I’ve appointed a special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.  We’re standing up for almost 250 million Christians around the world who are persecuted for their faith.  It is estimated that 11 Christians are killed every day for . . . following the teachings of Christ.”[8]

After reviewing some of the recent violence against religious people and buildings, the President said, “These evil attacks are a wound on all humanity.  We must all work together to protect communities of every faith.  We’re also urging every nation to increase the prosecution and punishment of crimes against religious communities.  There can be no greater crime than that.  This includes measures to prevent the intentional destruction of religious sites and relics.  Today, the Trump administration will dedicate an additional $25 million to protect religious freedom and religious sites and relics.”

“The United States is forming a coalition of U.S. businesses for the protection of religious freedom.  This is the first time this has been done.  This initiative will encourage the private sector to protect people of all faiths in the workplace.  And the private sector has brilliant leadership.  And that’s why some of the people in this room are among the most successful men and women on Earth.  They know how things get done and they know how to take care of things.”

“ I want to once again thank all of the survivors in the room for their courage and resilience.  You’re an inspiration to the world.  You remind us that no force on Earth is stronger than the faith of religious believers.  The United States of America will forever remain at your side and the side of all who seek religious freedom.”

“Today, I ask all nations to join us in this urgent moral duty.  We ask the governments of the world to honor the eternal right of every person to follow their conscience, live by their faith, and give glory to God.  The United States has a vital role in this critical mission.”

“It is my high honor and distinct privilege to introduce to you a tireless champion of the freedom of religion and people of every faith in America and around the world, the 45th President of the United States of America, President Donald Trump.”

Secretary Pompeo’s Remarks[9]

After thanking the many world leaders at the meeting, Vice President Pence and President Trump, Pompeo said, “The Bible says that ‘Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise,  think about these things.’ [Bible, Philippians 4:8 (NRSV)]] And that’s what we are all doing here today.

“As you heard, religious freedom is under threat all around the world.” He then introduced  three individuals who talked about “their struggles on behalf of this first freedom, this important and unalienable right:” Dabrina Bet-Tamraz (Iran), rabbi Faiz Algaradi (Yemen) and Jewher Ilham (China).

Pompeo closed by mentioning “the International Religious Freedom Alliance the State Department announced in July. It is the most ambitious human rights project launched in a generation. We aim to bring together like-minded countries, faith leaders, civil society groups, and international organizations around the world to promote religious freedom in a more consistent, organized, and powerful way. The foundation of the alliance is Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which begins, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.’”

“So if you’re a country that takes human rights seriously, understanding its many benefits for peace, security, and prosperity, please come join us. If you’re a country that stands for human dignity and for freedom of conscience, please come join us. And if you’re a leader simply moved by the stories you’ve heard from these brave survivors today, come join us. Turn your sympathy for them into freedom for others. Please reach out to our Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback.”

“The United Nations is only as strong as its sovereign members determine it will be. Our belief in our principles is only as strong as our confidence to express them. I ask – indeed, I pray – that you will help be a voice for the voiceless by joining the International Religious Freedom Alliance. May God bless the survivors who are here with us today, may God bless the United States of America, and may God bless the nations who have gathered with us here this morning.”

Conclusion

Since the U.S. chose not to attend the U.N. Climate Change Summit, the U.S. possibly believed that it needed to organize another event at the U.N. that day so that it did not appear that the U.S. was avoiding the U.N. and instead that the U.S. had some positive news coverage. It also is another event consistent with the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights.

The basics of the Global Call To Protect Religious Freedom are laudable, and it also is true that there is religious persecution in the world today. However, the unspoken political motivation of this presidential administration—appealing to its evangelical Christian supporters—also is apparent, and Democrats need to be cautious in criticizing this event.

===================================

[1] Liptak, Trump will hold session on religious persecution instead of attending UN climate summit, CNN (Sept. 21, 2019).

[2] White House, Remarks by Vice President Pence at the United Nations Event on Religious Freedom/New York, NY (Sept. 23, 2019).

[3] White House, Remarks by Vice President Pence at Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 26, 2018).

[4] U.S. State Department’s Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (July 21, 2019).

[5]  State Department’s First Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (July 7, 2019).

[6] White House, Remarks by President Trump at the United Nations Event on Religious Freedom/New York, NY (Sept. 23, 2019).

[7] E.g., Banks, As religious freedom summit ends, State Department announces new alliance, sanctions, Nat’l Cath. Reporter (July 19, 2019)

[8]  State Dep’t, About Us—Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.

[9] State Dep’t, Secretary Michael R. Pompeo at the United Nations Event on Religious Freedom (Sept. 23, 2019). h

President Obama Welcomes New U.S. Citizens with Inspiring Challenge

As noted in prior posts, the final step for someone to become a naturalized U.S. citizen is to attend a ceremony in which the individual takes an oath of allegiance to the United States of America and officially is declared to be a U.S. citizen. This is after such an individual meets the requirements of U.S. law through submission of an application with various aspects of personal information and an interview for vetting that information.[1]

Such a ceremony took place on December 15, 2015, at Washington, D.C.’s Rotunda of the National Archives Museum, where the original Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights are permanently displayed. December 15 also was the 224th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

Obama

new citizens

 

 

 

 

On this occasion President Barack Obama provided inspiring words to welcome 31 new U.S. citizens. Above are photographs of the President giving his speech and of some of the new citizens. Here is what Obama said.[2]

“To my fellow Americans, our newest citizens. You are men and women from more than 25 countries, from Brazil to Uganda, from Iraq to the Philippines.  You may come from teeming cities or rural villages.  You don’t look alike.  You don’t worship the same way.  But here, surrounded by the very documents whose values bind us together as one people, you’ve raised your hand and sworn a sacred oath.  I’m proud to be among the first to greet you as “my fellow Americans.”

“What a remarkable journey all of you have made.  And as of today, your story is forever woven into the larger story of this nation. . . . [Y]ou still have a demanding and rewarding task ahead of you — and that is the hard work of active citizenship.  You have rights and you have responsibilities.”

“Just about every nation in the world, to some extent, admits immigrants.  But there’s something unique about America.  We don’t simply welcome new immigrants, we don’t simply welcome new arrivals — we are born of immigrants.  That is who we are.  Immigration is our origin story.  And for more than two centuries, it’s remained at the core of our national character; it’s our oldest tradition.  It’s who we are.  It’s part of what makes us exceptional.”

“[U]nless your family is Native American, one of the first Americans, all of our families come from someplace else.  The first refugees were the Pilgrims themselves — fleeing religious persecution, crossing the stormy Atlantic to reach a new world where they might live and pray freely.  Eight signers of the Declaration of Independence were immigrants.  And in those first decades after independence, English, German, and Scottish immigrants came over, huddled on creaky ships, seeking what Thomas Paine called ‘asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty.’”

“Down through the decades, Irish Catholics fleeing hunger, Italians fleeing poverty filled up our cities, rolled up their sleeves, built America.  Chinese laborers jammed in steerage under the decks of steamships, making their way to California to build the Central Pacific Railroad that would transform the West — and our nation.  Wave after wave of men, women, and children — from the Middle East and the Mediterranean, from Asia and Africa — poured into Ellis Island, or Angel Island, their trunks bursting with their most cherished possessions — maybe a photograph of the family they left behind, a family Bible, or a Torah, or a Koran.  A bag in one hand, maybe a child in the other, standing for hours in long lines.  New York and cities across America were transformed into a sort of global fashion show.  You had Dutch lace caps and the North African fezzes, stodgy tweed suits and colorful Caribbean dresses.”

“And perhaps, like some of you, these new arrivals might have had some moments of doubt, wondering if they had made a mistake in leaving everything and everyone they ever knew behind.  So life in America was not always easy.  It wasn’t always easy for new immigrants.  Certainly it wasn’t easy for those of African heritage who had not come here voluntarily, and yet in their own way were immigrants themselves.  There was discrimination and hardship and poverty.  But, like you, they no doubt found inspiration in all those who had come before them.  And they were able to muster faith that, here in America, they might build a better life and give their children something more.”

“Just as so many have come here in search of a dream, others sought shelter from nightmares.  Survivors of the Holocaust.  Soviet Refuseniks.  Refugees from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia.  Iraqis and Afghans fleeing war.  Mexicans, Cubans, Iranians leaving behind deadly revolutions.  Central American teenagers running from gang violence.  The Lost Boys of Sudan escaping civil war.  They’re people like Fulbert Florent Akoula from the Republic of Congo, who was granted asylum when his family was threatened by political violence.  And today, Fulbert is here, a proud American.”

“We can never say it often or loudly enough:  Immigrants and refugees revitalize and renew America.  Immigrants like you are more likely to start your own business.  Many of the Fortune 500 companies in this country were founded by immigrants or their children.  Many of the tech startups in Silicon Valley have at least one immigrant founder.”

“Immigrants are the teachers who inspire our children, and they’re the doctors who keep us healthy.  They’re the engineers who design our skylines, and the artists and the entertainers who touch our hearts.  Immigrants are soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen who protect us, often risking their lives for an America that isn’t even their own yet.  As an Iraqi, Mohammed Ibrahim Al Naib was the target of death threats for working with American forces.  He stood by his American comrades, and came to the U.S. as a refugee.  And today, we stand by him.  And we are proud to welcome Mohammed as a citizen of the country that he already helped to defend.”

“We celebrate this history, this heritage, as an immigrant nation.  And we are strong enough to acknowledge, as painful as it may be, that we haven’t always lived up to our own ideals.  We haven’t always lived up to these documents.”

From the start, Africans were brought here in chains against their will, and then toiled under the whip.  They also built America.  A century ago, New York City shops displayed those signs, “No Irish Need Apply.”  Catholics were targeted, their loyalty questioned — so much so that as recently as the 1950s and ‘60s, when JFK . . . [ran for office], he had to convince people that his allegiance wasn’t primarily to the Pope.”

“Chinese immigrants faced persecution and vicious stereotypes, and were, for a time, even banned from entering America.  During World War II, German and Italian residents were detained, and in one of the darkest chapters in our history, Japanese immigrants and even Japanese-American citizens were forced from their homes and imprisoned in camps.  We succumbed to fear.  We betrayed not only our fellow Americans, but our deepest values.  We betrayed these documents.  It’s happened before.”

“And the biggest irony of course is that those who betrayed these values were themselves the children of immigrants.  How quickly we forget.  One generation passes, two generation passes, and suddenly we don’t remember where we came from.  And we suggest that somehow there is ‘us’ and there is ‘them,’ not remembering we used to be ‘them.’”

“On days like today, we need to resolve never to repeat mistakes like that again.  We must resolve to always speak out against hatred and bigotry in all of its forms — whether taunts against the child of an immigrant farm worker or threats against a Muslim shopkeeper.  We are Americans.  Standing up for each other is what the values enshrined in the documents in this room compels us to do -– especially when it’s hard.  Especially when it’s not convenient.  That’s when it counts.  That’s when it matters — not when things are easy, but when things are hard.”

“The truth is, being an American is hard.  Being part of a democratic government is hard.  Being a citizen is hard.  It is a challenge.  It’s supposed to be.  There’s no respite from our ideals.  All of us are called to live up to our expectations for ourselves — not just when it’s convenient, but when it’s inconvenient.  When it’s tough.  When we’re afraid.  The tension throughout our history between welcoming or rejecting the stranger, it’s about more than just immigration.  It’s about the meaning of America, what kind of country do we want to be.  It’s about the capacity of each generation to honor the creed as old as our founding:  “E Pluribus Unum” — that out of many, we are one.”

“Scripture tells us, ‘For we are strangers before you, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.’ In the Mexican immigrant today, we see the Catholic immigrant of a century ago.  In the Syrian seeking refuge today, we should see the Jewish refugee of World War II.  In these new Americans, we see our own American stories — our parents, our grandparents, our aunts, our uncles, our cousins who packed up what they could and scraped together what they had.  And their paperwork wasn’t always in order.  And they set out for a place that was more than just a piece of land, but an idea.”

“America:  A place where we can be a part of something bigger.  A place where we can contribute our talents and fulfill our ambitions and secure new opportunity for ourselves and for others.  A place where we can retain pride in our heritage, but where we recognize that we have a common creed, a loyalty to these documents, a loyalty to our democracy; where we can criticize our government, but understand that we love it; where we agree to live together even when we don’t agree with each other; where we work through the democratic process, and not through violence or sectarianism to resolve disputes; where we live side by side as neighbors; and where our children know themselves to be a part of this nation, no longer strangers, but the bedrock of this nation, the essence of this nation.”

“More than 60 years ago, at a ceremony like this one, Senator John F. Kennedy said, ‘No form of government requires more of its citizens than does the American democracy.’  Our system of self-government depends on ordinary citizens doing the hard, frustrating but always essential work of citizenship — of being informed.  Of understanding that the government isn’t some distant thing, but is you.  Of speaking out when something is not right.  Of helping fellow citizens when they need a hand.  Of coming together to shape our country’s course.”

And that work gives purpose to every generation.  It belongs to me.  It belongs to the judge.  It belongs to you.  It belongs to you, all of us, as citizens.  To follow our laws, yes, but also to engage with your communities and to speak up for what you believe in.  And to vote — to not only exercise the rights that are now yours, but to stand up for the rights of others.

“Birtukan Gudeya is here [today] from Ethiopia.  She said, ‘The joy of being an American is the joy of freedom and opportunity.  We have been handed a work in progress, one that can evolve for the good of all Americans.’”

“That is what makes America great — not just the words on these founding documents, as precious and valuable as they are, but the progress that they’ve inspired.  If you ever wonder whether America is big enough to hold multitudes, strong enough to withstand the forces of change, brave enough to live up to our ideals even in times of trial, then look to the generations of ordinary citizens who have proven again and again that we are worthy of that.”

“That’s our great inheritance — what ordinary people have done to build this country and make these words live.  And it’s our generation’s task to follow their example in this journey — to keep building an America where no matter who we are or what we look like, or who we love or what we believe, we can make of our lives what we will.”

“You will not and should not forget your history and your past.  That adds to the richness of American life.  But you are now American.  You’ve got obligations as citizens.  And I’m absolutely confident you will meet them.  You’ll set a good example for all of us, because you know how precious this thing is.  It’s not something to take for granted.  It’s something to cherish and to fight for.”

“Thank you.  May God bless you.  May God bless the United States of America.”

And I say, thank you, Mr. President, for a necessary and inspiring message to us all. It echoes some of the points recently made by Minneapolis clergy that were discussed in a recent post.

=========================================================

[1] Minnesota Welcomes New Citizens (June 8, 2015); Naturalized U.S. Citizens: Important Contributors to U.S. Culture and Economy (June 7, 2015).

[2] White House, Remarks by the President at Naturalization Ceremony (Dec. 15, 2015); National Archives, Press Release: President Obama to Deliver Keynote Address at National Archives Naturalization Ceremony on December 15 (Dec.11, 2015); Harris & Goodstein, Obama Counters Anti-Muslim Talk by Welcoming New Citizens, N.Y. Times (Dec. 15, 2015).

 

 

 

Does the Church Control Salvation?

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster               Presbyterian Church

This was the title of the November 23rd sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by our Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen.[1]

The Scripture passages for the day were Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46.

The Sermon

“The newest members of our Congregation [who were welcomed that day] . . [are] a slice of 21st century American religious reality. Gay, straight, married, single, partnered, and divorced. People at the top of their profession and others who have been homeless or are without work. Former Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians from other congregations, immigrants and long-time Minnesotans. People who come with questions and doubts, others very much at home in Christian tradition. One has practiced Buddhism. Several were raised in non-Christian households. Two are becoming Christians today and will be baptized.”

“They’re here because their journey in faith brought them. For some the work of this church in the city drew them in, for others the desire to belong to a community, for others the education offered. For all of them worshipping God in this setting and with this people has given them a new spiritual home. This is the church in our time. Our journey now joins with theirs.”

“If the question is, ‘Does the Church control salvation?’ the answer needs to be offered carefully. We don’t want to try to deny other religious traditions their meaning, but at the same time we don’t want to water down our own convictions, especially on this final Sunday before Advent, when we celebrate Christ the King, the one who, in the words of Ephesians, is ‘above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.’ (Ephesians 1:21)”

“Long ago it was a basic article of faith that the Church did, in fact, control salvation. It was common knowledge that to gain God’s favor one had to be on good terms with the Church, because the saving work of Jesus Christ came through the Church. This gave the Church a lot of power over the spiritual lives of people. As in any situation with an imbalance of power, the temptation for abuse always hovered nearby.”

“The 16th century Protestant Reformation, we like to say, developed as an uprising against the abuse of power of the Roman clergy. They controlled access to God so tightly believers felt trapped on this side of heaven until they met the demands of the church. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus: no salvation outside the Church. The priest in every parish was a spiritual power-broker.”

“Lest we be too quick to speak ill of our Roman Catholic siblings, we should note that Protestant history is salted with similar declarations about who controls the gates of heaven. While Catholics placed that control in the hands of Rome and its priests, the Reformers used theological conformity as a way to maintain control over things divine. One passed heavenly muster only if one’s statement of faith met certain theological standards. It was a litmus test and we can still see it in use today in some churches.”

“That’s a Protestant version of no salvation outside the church. The continuing existence of so many Protestant denominations today is an ecclesiastical hangover from over indulgence in theological conformity among those convinced they have a lock on the truth.”

“Christians have always wanted to say who’s ‘in’ and who’s not, who’s ‘been saved’ and who has not. We would like the Church to be able to control salvation.”

“Then along comes the Final Judgment scene at the end of Matthew’s gospel, and things take on a different hue. Jesus says,‘Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matthew 25:34-36)

“There’s nothing in there about following a particular theological roadmap; nothing in the text about staying in the church’s good graces in order to curry favor with the Almighty. In fact, neither church nor theology is mentioned.”

“It turns out salvation belongs to God alone and has nothing to do with the exercise of ecclesiastical authority or with meeting a theological litmus test, and everything to do with how we treat the poor and those deemed unworthy by the world.”

“Jesus had said that love of God and love of neighbor are the greatest commandments, when asked what we must do to inherit eternal life. Now we see what that looks like on Judgment Day: ‘Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:37-40)

“All the theological grandstanding and all the church authority we can summon will not stand up to the clarity and power and simplicity of those words: as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me. It’s not what the Church thought long ago, not what it thought in the Reformation, and not what a lot of us in the Church think today, but this is what the reign of God looks like: loving others.”

“The Church does not control salvation; God does, which is a good thing, because the Almighty surely has a broader vision than any of us.”

“You and I will need to find ways to hold fast to Jesus Christ even as we respect the traditions of our neighbors, including those who have no faith at all.”

“And as far as the business of salvation, we can leave that to God.”

Conclusion

As I said in an earlier post, the first foundation of my Christian faith is Jesus’ encounter with a clever lawyer, who asked Jesus a trick question as to what the lawyer had to do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer did not really want to know the answer; instead, the lawyer wanted Jesus to give an answer that could be twisted to incriminate him. Jesus ducked the question and instead responded with another question: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The lawyer replied, “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus then said the lawyer had answered correctly and that he would live if he did exactly that. (Luke 10:25-37)

The passage from Matthew that was one of the texts for this sermon makes the same point.

I agree that this is the greatest commandment. It clearly is difficult, if not impossible, to follow this commandment all the time. But Jesus tells us in the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” (Luke 15: 11-31) that God forgives us, time and time again, for our failure to do what we should do and doing what we should not.

===========================================================

[1] Westminster’s website has links for an audio recording of the sermon and the church bulletin for the day.

Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation

God acting through people of Christian faith has been leading the U.S. and Cuba to reconciliation and promises to be with the people of both countries as they confront the many issues and challenges in achieving full reconciliation.

Roman Catholic Church

Principal agents for God have been and are the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis.The Vatican’s role predated Pope Francis. Two of his predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, visited Cuba in 1998 and 2012 respectively, and the church remains hugely influential among Cubans. The Obama administration first sought to enlist the Vatican’s support when Pope Benedict XVI was in office. It worked even more actively with the Vatican after Pope Francis came to the Vatican in 2013. The pope’s new secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, an Italian, had served as papal nuncio in Venezuela and was well versed in Latin America politics. Mr. Kerry was also in contact with the Cardinal, meeting him at the Vatican in June of this year and again a week ago.

Most significantly, as has been widely reported, Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church acted as a mediator to help the parties.[1]

This was verified in the Vatican’s Secretary of State’s December 17th statement, in which the Pope “wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.” The statement also provided the following details:

  • “In recent months, Pope Francis wrote letters to the President of the Republic of Cuba, His Excellency Mr Raúl Castro, and the President of the United States, The Honorable Barack H. Obama, and invited them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two Parties.”
  • “The Holy See received Delegations of the two countries in the Vatican last October and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both Parties.”
  • “The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens.”

President Obama in his December 17th televised speech announcing this important initiative acknowledged that “His Holiness Pope Francis” had supported these measures and thanked the Pope, “whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.” In particular, the President said, “His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuban President Raul Castro urging us to resolve Alan [Gross]’s case and to address Cuba’s interest in the release of three Cuban agents who have been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.”

Similarly Cuban President Raúl Castro in his televised remarks to the Cuban people said, “I wish to thank and acknowledge the support of the Vatican, most particularly the support of Pope Francisco, in the efforts for improving relations between Cuba and the United States.”

Subsequent reports and research reveals some of the details of the Pope Francis’ involvement.[2]

Obama & Pope
Obama & Pope

On March 27, 2014, the Vatican reported that President Obama “was received in audience by His Holiness Pope Francis, after which Obama met with His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States. During the cordial meetings, views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.” Presumably this was U.S.-Cuba relations.

Immediately after the Audience, at a joint news conference with Matteo Renzi, the prime minister of Italy, President Obama made comments that in retrospect might have alluded to conversations about Cuba. The President said the Pope and he “had a wide-ranging discussion.“[W]e spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world. . . . [W]e also touched on regions like Latin America, where there’s been tremendous progress in many countries, but there’s been less progress in others. . . . [T]he theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy — that that’s critical.  It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars.  It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets.  And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me.  And . . . [what has] created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.” The President added, “ I was extremely moved by his insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems and not simply thinking in terms of our own narrow self-interests.”

More recently a U.S. administration official said that at the Audience, President Obama spoke about Cuba with Pope Francis, who was “aware” that Obama was considering a change in the policy against Cuba and reached out to the President. Indeed, according to this official, Cuba was the at the center of the discussion.

Soon after the March Audience, Pope Francis sent the two presidents letters, appealing to both to keep pushing for an agreement. In June the Pope sent another letter to the two men calling on them to resolve the case of Alan Gross and the cases of the three Cubans who have been imprisoned here in the United States and also encouraging the United States and Cuba to pursue a closer relationship. . . . The letter from Pope Francis “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward. ” This appeal from the Pope was ‘very rare’ and unprecedented.

The Vatican then hosted the US and Cuban delegations in October when the parties were able to review the commitments that they to make on December 17th.” The Pope, U.S. officials said, acted as a “guarantor” that both sides would live up to the terms of a deal reached in secret.

According to a New York Times articleCardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, also happened to be in Rome on October 3 and met with Francis, according to Vatican records, raising the possibility that he, too, attended the secret October meeting that is credited with sealing the diplomatic deal.’Ortega has always pushed for a gradual reform of the regime, for opening up, but at the same time he has been a trustworthy partner for the government — and with the full support of John Paul II, Benedict and Francis,’ said Marco Politi, an author and veteran Vatican analyst.”

An article by Juan Arias in El Pais, Spain’s leading newspaper, said Pope Francis “is only and always in favor of dialogue and peace, promote respect for all. Rescue the true dignity of the human being who is the subject of respect, travel partner, defender of life, rather than exploited, a commodity at the mercy of all who pay for it. In the world, managing the common good and the fight against injustice will inevitably present policy questions.” .

In the same vein, a Vatican spokesman said, in a December 18th interview with a Fox News interview, the Vatican has a culture of encounter the says it is better to be talking, rather than not talking, with another individual or country in the Vatican tradition of confidential diplomacy. Such a practice does not solve everything, but it opens up relations.

Another overall evaluation of Pope Francis’s diplomacy from the New York Times starts with his comments on December 18th to a new corps of diplomats to the Vatican, ” The work of an ambassador lies in small steps, small things, but they always end up making peace, bringing closer the hearts of people, sowing brotherhood among people. This is your job, but with little things, tiny things.” On the other hand, Francis has a “vision of diplomatic boldness, a willingness to take risks and insert the Vatican into diplomatic disputes, especially where it can act as an independent broker.”

Francis Campbell, a former British ambassador to the Holy See, adds that Francis had embraced the bully pulpit provided by the papacy. “The papacy is one of the world’s great opinion formers. Whether people agree with it or disagree with it, it has a huge voice.”

Another change under Francis is “appointing diplomats to key posts elsewhere, most notably his second-in-command, Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, an Italian cardinal who has led delicate Vatican negotiations with Vietnam and served as apostolic nuncio, or ambassador, in Venezuela.” Moreover, Francis and Cardinal Parolin are seen as working in tandem — the charismatic pope and the methodical diplomat. . . .  Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert at La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper, added that Francis had quickly built a rapport with world leaders. ‘He establishes relationships very easily.”

Additional insight into Pope Francis’ mediation of this situation is prompted by the Associated Press’ rediscovery of his 1998 booklet, “Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro,” written while the Pope was still Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Soon to be named archbishop of Buenos Aires, he attended Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba.“In the booklet, Bergoglio harshly criticized socialism — and by extension Castro’s atheist revolution — for denying individuals their ‘transcendent dignity’ and putting them solely at the service of the state. At the same time, he denounced the U.S. embargo and economic isolation of Cuba that impoverished the island. ‘The Cuban people must overcome this isolation’. . . . [T]he first chapter titled ‘The value of dialogue’ . . . [says] that dialogue was the only way to end Cuba’s isolation and its hostility to the Catholic Church while promoting democracy.

This booklet was referenced by Austen Ivereigh in his new biography of Francis “The Great Reformer.” Ivereigh said Bergoglio “demonstrated an ‘incredibly evenhanded’ approach to the Cuban problem while outlining a future for the island that may well be more realistic now that the thaw has begun.” Pope Francis “sees Cuba’s future as being a democratic government rooted in the Christian, humanist values of the Cuban pueblo. It’s a kind of nationalist Catholic understanding of politics, neither left nor right, neither communism nor unadulterated market capitalism.”

Everyone in the world should be grateful that we have Pope Francis as a servant of God.

Presbyterian Church

As a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, which has had a partnership with a sister church in Cuba, I join in the declaration by my brothers and sisters of LA IGLESIA PRESBITERIANA-REFORMADA EN CUBA (the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba) regarding the historic launching of this path of reconciliation that was signed by Dr. Reinerio Arce Valentin, the Moderator and my personal friend; Rev. Daniel Izquierdo Hernández, Secretary-General; Rev. Francisco Marrero Gutiérrez, Council President; and Rev. Antonio (Tony) Aja, D. Min. They said:

  • “Today we witnessed the televised speeches by the Presidents of Cuba and the United States in which both rulers recognized the need to put an end to the hostility of more than half a century and to re-establish Diplomatic relations between our two countries, which hopefully will lead to the normalization of relations. It was also gratifying to hear the news of the release of Mr. Alan Gross and others imprisoned in Cuba, as well as the release of the three Cuban prisoners in the U.S. American, which allows family reunification.”
  • Our church “gives thanks to God and celebrates with joy these agreements. For decades we have been encouraged with the exchange of visits between Cuban and American churches. We are in deep gratitude to the evangelical ideal to seek peace and justice, and we raised Our Voice against the severe measures, both economic and commercial, that have been imposed by American policy on our peoples.“
  • “In the same way we have received such support from our sister church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and from resolutions and talks official with leaders of the U.S. Congress and representatives of the U.S. government.”
  • “We acknowledge the efforts of the Vatican, in the person of Pope Francis, as well as the government of Canada in the achievement of these agreements. We hope that we are closer to an era of peace between our nations, it is precisely on the eve of the celebration of the Christmas which reminds us of the divine purpose of peace and Goodwill in our land.
  • “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” (Luke 2:14. NRSV).

The Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) [PCUSA], Gradye Parsons, made a similar statement. He said, “we welcome the historic steps taken by President Obama on normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba.” The PCUSA ‘has been working for more than 30 years to help ease the hardships caused by the United States’ economic embargo on Cuba and to end the embargo itself.” We also have “emphasized [with the U.S. government] the humanitarian reasons for the release of Alan Gross and the three Cuban prisoners.” This set of decisions “also takes us closer to a day when our two peoples will have no impediments to full and flourishing relations. We rejoice along with the Cuban Council of Churches and the Presbyterian Church of Cuba for the good news that will further the cause of peace and human rights around the world.”

Another statement was issued by Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Director of PCUSA’s Office of Public Witness. He said, “The release of Alan Gross and the three Cuban prisoners is an example of how nations can find common ground.  When there is a will to live as true neighbors as Jesus Christ has taught us, we find a way towards justice and reconciliation.” The statement also noted that this Office “has organized religious delegations from Cuba, led a coalition of denominations and faith-based organizations calling for a change in policy towards Cuba, and organized meetings with members of congress and the administration urging an opening of relations between the two countries.”

I also believe that Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church has played a small role in these historic decisions. Our connections with Cuba, our members’ visits to the island, our Cuban brothers and sisters visiting us, our prayer partnerships with members of the Matanzas church, our installing four potable water systems in Cuban churches and our learning more about Cuba and its relations with our country have inspired many of us to urge our Government to change its policies toward the island.

Our potable water projects are part of the “Living Waters for the World” ministry of the PCUSA’s Synod of Living Waters for the States of Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. To date they have trained people from churches, primarily Presbyterian, all over the U.S. who have installed over 660 such systems in 25 other countries. Cuba has received 21 of the systems, four by my church.

The importance of such systems for the Cuban people and churches was noticed by a New York Times reporter on a visit to the 137,000-population city of Cardenas on the north coast of the island about 90 miles east of Havana. He says, “Many of the churches in Cardenas have become a moral and economic counterweight [to communism] . . . to help people survive, with food, water, and exercise classes, and by guiding their souls away from a focus on material things.” (Cave, Crucible of Cuban Zeal Redefines Revolutionary, N.Y. Times (Dec. 20, 2014).)

As an example, he cites El Fuerte Presbyterian Church which occupies a “religious campus” that used to house Escuela La Progressiva, a famous pre-revolutionary school. This church has become a “hub of activity for the community largely because of a sophisticated water filtration system carried into Cuba and installed in 2012 by members of St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Orleans.”

Other Religious Organizations

I know that other churches and synagogues in Minnesota and all around the U.S. have connections with Cuba and am confident that they too have had similar transformative experiences with our Cuban brothers and sisters. Others without overt religious motivation also have been God’s agents for these changes; here I think specifically of the support groups for the Cuban Five and for ending the U.S. embargo.

As the Bible says, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinth. 12:4-7)(NRSV)

We lift all of them up in our prayers of gratitude.

=============================================

[1] An August 2012 post included my public letter to President Obama suggesting, among other things,“Perhaps such negotiations would be assisted by having the two countries agree to the appointment of a respected international mediator/conciliator to supervise the negotiations.”

[2] The President’s Audience and press conference about this and other topics were discussed in a prior post.

New York Times Criticizes USAID’s Efforts To Promote Regime Change in Cuba

On November 10, 2014, the New York Times published its latest editorial in its series “Cuba: A New Start.”[1] Under the title, “In Cuba, Misadventures in Regime Change,” this editorial focuses on criticizing the efforts by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to promote regime change in Cuba and recommending “stronger [U.S.] diplomatic relations” with Cuba as a more productive way to try “to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society.”

The editorial also recommends that the U.S. “should find ways to empower ordinary Cubans by expanding study-abroad programs, professional exchanges and investment in the new small businesses cropping up around the island. [The U.S.] should continue to promote Internet connectivity, but realize that accomplishing that goal on a large scale will require coordination with the Cuban government.”

The editorial’s foundation is the following set of documented factual assertions:

  • In 1996, the U.S. enacted the Helms-Burton Act that spelled out “a strategy to overthrow the government in Havana and ‘assist the Cuban people in regaining their freedom.’”This statute “has served as the foundation for the $264 million the United States has spent in the last 18 years trying to instigate democratic reforms on the island.”
  • “During the final years of the Clinton administration, the [U.S.] spent relatively little on programs in Cuba under . . . [this statute].”
  • That changed when George W. Bush came to power in 2001 with an ambitious aim to bring freedom to oppressed people around the world.” USAID, “better known for its humanitarian work than cloak-and-dagger missions, became the primary vehicle for pro-democracy work in Cuba, where it is illegal.”
  • “In the early years of the [George W.] Bush administration, spending on initiatives to oust the [Cuban]government surged from a few million a year to more than $20 million in 2004. Most contracts were awarded, without much oversight, to newly formed Cuban-American groups. One used funds on a legally questionable global lobbying effort to persuade foreign governments to support America’s unpopular embargo. Other grantees sent loads of comic books to the American diplomatic mission in Havana, bewildering officials there. The money was also used to buy food and clothes, but there was no way to track how much reached relatives of political prisoners, the intended recipients.”
  • “According to a November 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office, one contractor used the pro-democracy money to buy ‘a gas chain saw, computer gaming equipment and software (including Nintendo Game Boys and Sony PlayStations), a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crab meat and Godiva chocolates,’ purchases . . . [the contractor] was unable to justify to auditors.”
  • “The G.A.O. probe led . . . [USAID] to start awarding more funds to established development organizations, including some that pitched bold initiatives. In 2008, Congress appropriated $45 million for the programs, a record amount.”
  • In December 2009 Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen, went on his fifth trip to the island posing as a tourist but acting on behalf of an USAID contractor to smuggle communications equipment to Jewish groups in Cuba. Gross was arrested, charged and convicted by a Cuban court for violating Cuban law and sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment.[2]
  • “At the time [of Gross’ arrest], many senior State Department officials were not fully aware of the scope and nature of the covert programs, . . . and some argued that the covert programs were counterproductive and should be stopped. But Cuban-American lawmakers fought vigorously to keep them alive.”
  • “After Mr. Gross’s arrest, [USAID] . . . stopped sending American [citizens] into Cuba, but it allowed its contractors to recruit Latin Americans for secret missions that were sometimes detected by the Cuban intelligence services.”
  • “An investigation by The Associated Press published in April [2014] revealed . . . [that between] 2009 and 2012, Creative Associates International, a Washington firm, built a rudimentary text messaging system similar to Twitter, known as ZunZuneo, Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet. It was supposed to provide Cubans with a platform to share messages with a mass audience, and ultimately be used to assemble ‘smart mobs.’” Although the contractor paid “text-messaging fees to the Cuban telecommunications company, [the contractor] never found a way to make the platform self-sustaining.”[3]
  • A second A.P. report revealed in August [2014] that U.S.A.I.D. had been sending young Latin Americans to Cuba to identify ‘potential social change actors,’ under the pretext of organizing gatherings like an H.I.V. prevention workshop. The contractors, also hired by Creative Associates, received quick pointers on how to evade Cuban intelligence and were paid as little as $5.41 an hour for work that could have easily landed them in prison.”[4]
  • Although the “American money has provided food and comfort to some relatives of political prisoners, and been used to build limited access to satellite-based Internet connections, . . . it has done more to stigmatize than to help dissidents.”
  • “Far from accomplishing . . . the goal [of instigating democratic reforms on the island], the initiatives have been largely counterproductive. The funds have been a magnet for charlatans, swindlers and good intentions gone awry. The stealthy programs have increased hostility between the two nations, provided Cuba with a trove of propaganda fodder and stymied opportunities to cooperate in areas of mutual interest.”

As previous posts to this blog have discussed, I concur in this editorial’s criticisms of the USAID covert efforts to promote regime change in Cuba and the editorial’s recommendations for changes in U.S. policies regarding the island nation.

I take exception, however, to the editorial’s unexamined assertion that Cuba has “one of the most repressive governments in the world.” Although I am confident that Cuba ideally should have a more open society and hope that it continues to move in that direction, all of us in the U.S. should try to put ourselves in the shoes of the Cubans.

For decades the immensely more powerful U.S. has openly engaged in hostile policies and actions against the small, poor and militarily weak island. This includes the U.S.-supported and unsuccessful 1961 “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba; the threatened U.S. bombing and invasion of Cuba in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis; the recently revealed 1976 military plans to “clobber” Cuba that were being prepared by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; the half-century U.S. embargo of Cuba; and the very USAID covert efforts to promote regime change in Cuba that are discussed in this editorial. If we in the U.S. were in this situation, we too would, I am confident, impose restrictions on an open society. Have we not done this very thing in our response to the 9/11 attacks and the threats of international terrorism?

As I said in an earlier post about U.S. policies regarding Cuba, all of us should remember that when the scribes and Pharisees confronted Jesus with a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery and asked Jesus what he had to say when the law of Moses said stone her, Jesus responded, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:3-7)

Likewise, the President and all of us should also remember these other words of Jesus (Matthew 7:1-5):

  • “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

======================================================

[1] Prior posts have discussed the recent Times’ editorials urging U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, commending Cuba’s efforts to combat Ebola in West Africa, recognizing changes in U.S. public opinion about Cuba and recommending an U.S.-Cuba prisoner exchange.

[2] An earlier Times editorial urged the U.S. and Cuba negotiate an exchange of Mr. Gross for three Cubans in U.S. prisons.

[3] Prior posts to this blog on April 4,  9 and 9, 2014, discussed the AP investigation of the USAID social media program.

[4] Prior posts (August 12, 13 and 14, 2014) examined the AP investigation of the USAID “use” of Latin Americans to open HIV-AIDS clinics in Cuba.

Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Men’s Retreat

This last weekend 29 men from Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church gathered for a retreat.

Westminster Men @ Clearwater
Westminster Men @ Clearwater
Clearwater Trees
Clearwater Trees
Clearwater Sunset
Clearwater Sunset

 

The setting was the Presbyterian Clearwater Forest Camp and Retreat Center, which is 120 miles north of Minneapolis near Deerwood, Minnesota. In a beautiful 1,106 acres overlooking Clearwater Lake, the Center’s mission is to provide faith-building Christian programming, to provide effective facilities and services to support conferencing, to nurture active Christian community and to be the faithful steward of God’s creation at Clearwater Forest.

Matt Skinner Leading
Matt Skinner Leading the Men

The program on Saturday was lead by Matt Skinner, a Westminster member and Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary of St. Paul, Minnesota. He invited small group discussion about different images of community in the following passages of the New Testament: first session (Acts 2: 42-47; Acts 4: 32-37; Romans 14: 1-23); second session (Galatians 4: 1-7; Philemon); and third session (1 Corinthians 12: 12- 31; and John 15:1-11).

The passages from Acts were most meaningful for me. They discuss the community life in Jerusalem of the Jews who believed that Jesus was their Messiah. After spending much time together in the temple, they gathered together in their homes breaking bread and eating “with glad and generous’ hearts.” They also sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds to those in need.

Initially these passages said to me that this community of the first Christians was a distinct minority and needed one another’s company and support, spiritually and materially. The passages also suggest that this was a financially diverse group, thus creating a need for financial support of the poorer ones by the more affluent ones.

I also was reminded by the Acts verses of our brothers and sisters at our partner Presbyterian-Reformed congregation in Matanzas, Cuba. They are survivors of a former period of persecution and share their limited possessions with one another. On one of my trips their pastor told us that when he was unable to buy any toilet paper for our visit, he asked the members of the congregation to share whatever “TP” they had. We also bring over-the-counter medications from the U.S. to give to our partner church, which then acts as a de facto dispensary for its members and others in the neighborhood. Although our partner has its own church building that was constructed before the Revolution of 1959, newer Christian communities that do not have the money for church buildings meet in homes and are known as “house churches.”

These passages also remind me of the various utopian communities that have existed in the U.S. They shared their material resources often for religious reasons. At their best, they exhibit the same virtues of the early Christian communities discussed in Acts, but they have not been able to sustain themselves as long-term communities. At their worst, they are organizations for the self-aggrandisement of the founders of cults.

The above reactions saw the verses as relating to other times and places. On further reflection, however, I see the passages from Acts speaking to Westminster and other contemporary U.S. churches Our churches provide space and times for people of faith to gather together to renew their faith and lives and to seek forgiveness for their many failures, both individual and corporate. Moreover, just by being together in worship helps remind us all that we are not in this endeavor alone as we combat the dominant cultural emphases on materialism and secularism. Yes, we too are a minority and need support and encouragement from one another. Although we do not own all of our possessions in common today, we do respond to various calls for financial support of those in need.

Finally the retreat itself was the intentional creation of a short-term community of men. Many of us car-pooled to extend our time together on the two-hour rides to and from the Center. In our meals and times of general conversation we got to know one another at a deeper level than is usually possible when we pass one another on a Sunday in a congregation of 3,000. For example, several years ago at another men’s retreat, I became acquainted with someone for the first time and thereafter we developed a friendship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Obama’s Response to This Blog’s Latest Post Urging Normalization of U.S.-Cuban Relations

On October 13th I posted an endorsement of the New York Times’ editorial urging normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations with an elaboration of why such normalization was in the economic interest of the U.S. The next day I sent an email with this blog post to President Barack Obama.

On October 16th I received the following email reply from the President:

  • “Thank you for writing.  Since the beginning of my Administration, I have tried to send a signal that the United States is open to a new relationship with Cuba.  However, the Cuban government must start opening up its country and allowing its people to determine their own destiny.”
  • “All of us who embrace core democratic values and principles seek a Cuba that fully respects the human rights and political and economic aspirations of all its citizens, and I am working to make that goal a reality.  To help reunite divided families, my Administration lifted all restrictions on family members traveling to Cuba.  To enhance contact with the Cuban people and support civil society, we adjusted the policies governing travel for religious, cultural, and educational purposes.  And to expand the economic independence of the Cuban people, I removed remittance restrictions so family members could more easily send money back to Cuba, and I eased the regulations on non‑family remittances.”
  • “We have made these and other changes to let the Cuban government know we are prepared to show flexibility and not stay stuck in an outdated Cold War mentality.  At the same time, we need to see signs from the Cuban government that it is prepared to lift its rigid restrictions on the freedoms of the Cuban people, such as releasing political prisoners, respecting freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and otherwise adhering to recognized human rights norms.  As long as I am President, I will always be prepared to modify our Cuba policy, including our embargo, if such changes will further the cause of liberty in Cuba.”
  • “Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts.  Please know my Administration will remain steadfast in our outreach to the Cuban people, in providing humanitarian assistance, and in seeking to advance Cubans’ legitimate desire to freely determine their country’s future.”

This response obviously is a canned document. It does not address the blog’s specific arguments for ending the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” or for ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba or for re-establishing normal relations with the island. Nor does it address the serious adverse economic consequences for the U.S. of continuing the obsolete, counterproductive and harmful policies regarding Cuba.

Yes, the Obama Administration has eased restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling there and remitting money to Cubans. But any U.S. concern about the civil rights of the Cuban people fails to recognize that positive changes have been happening on the island and that further progress on such issues can more effectively happen in respectful, bilateral negations between the two countries to resolve many problems that have arisen during this too-long period of hostility by the U.S. Moreover, the President’s attitude ignores the many problems of civil rights in the U.S., the recent USAID undercover efforts to promote regime change in Cuba and the universally condemned U.S. embargo of the island

As a result, the President and all of us should remember that when the scribes and Pharisees confronted Jesus with a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery and asked Jesus what he had to say when the law of Moses said stone her, Jesus responded, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:3-7)

Likewise, the President and all of us should also remember these other words of Jesus (Matthew 7:1-5):

  • “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baccalaureate Sunday

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster           Presbyterian Church

June 1st was Baccalaureate Sunday at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church to celebrate the university and high school graduations of some of our members.[1]

The Sermon

The sermon, “What’s Next for Me?” by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen was primarily addressed to the new graduates, but its message had meaning for everyone. He emphasized “the metaphor of journey, or pilgrimage, to understand Christian life.”

“The next steps you take on your pilgrimage through life do not have to be definitive. Lots of twists and turns lie ahead. Some will be delightful surprises; others, painful disappointments.”

Hart-Andersen, using his own life as an example, said, “Only after multiple false starts did I finally begin to pay attention to the nagging sense that God had other ideas for my life. It was, for me a matter of feeling ‘at home.’ That became a test for me: did I feel at home in a given occupation? Even if I was good at it, that didn’t prevent me from feeling like a stranger on a particular path. And if I felt like that, I moved on. Only later did I understand that God was at work in those twists and turns.”

“It may not always have been obvious to you, but God has been your companion along the way. Sometimes God may not have felt present to you, or maybe you went through times where you felt abandoned by God. But, the journey is long and we are people of faith. We believe God is the Guide. It may seem as if we’re on our own, but in this we trust: God is on the pilgrimage with us.”

“Scripture is replete with accounts of people trying to sort out which way their path is taking them. The Bible is the story of God’s people trying to find their way. Sometimes it’s clear; at other times, it’s not.”

“Think of the Israelites wandering forty years in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. That was one, long search for the way forward . . . . The dream of freedom turned into something that felt a lot like a nightmare. . . . They forgot about God’s promise; [instead] they made a new, little god they could manage, a golden calf. They were grasping at anything to find some sense of clarity in their lives.” [Exodus 32:1-9.]

“[W]hen Jesus ascends to heaven . . .[He] tells his followers to wait until the Holy Spirit descends on them. They return to Jerusalem, go into an upper room, and settle in together until the time is right. . . . [They wait.] Their waiting involves prayer. They’re not passive in their hope of the promise fulfilled. Prayer is active waiting in anticipation of divine response, active trusting that God is listening. Prayer helps on the journey. Their waiting involves watching. They pay attention to the signs around them, looking for glimmers of the promise, “the trailing wisps of glory.” Their waiting is done together, in community.” [Acts 1:1-14.]

“What’s next for me is a question aimed at vocation . . . . Every one of us ought to be asking the same question of our own pilgrimage in life: what’s next? Where do I go from here? What does God have in store for me at this point in my life?”[2]

“We Presbyterians are known to emphasize the vocation of each person. It begins with John Calvin who argues that everyone has a vocation, not only those called into ministry. Everyone has a role to play in the community, in business, in education or medicine or industry or technology or the military or science or public service or _____ – you fill in the blank.”

“Calvin views every occupation as an opportunity to excel, and in our excelling, we glorify God. All human work, Calvin writes, is capable of ‘appearing truly respectable and being considered highly important in the sight of God.’ . . . For Calvin it’s the person that matters, the person, not the job.”

“In his view, people are not called by God out of the world, in order not to sully themselves with ordinary life, but rather, people are called by God into the world, right into the mundane stuff by which we make our living. And there, right there, in the everyday challenges of the jobs we do, God is found, and God can be glorified in what we do, no matter what it is.”[3]

“The Israelites cowering in fear in the wilderness and the followers of Jesus huddled together in that upper room struggled with what was next for them. They wondered if God had given up on them; some of them gave up on God.”

“Each of us is tempted to wonder the same thing when the way forward is not clear, or when it’s littered with challenges that seem to overwhelm, or when it leads into darkness that offers little respite.”

“But those who wait for God’s promise, even if it takes forty years, will not be disappointed. Light will illumine the path. The way forward will be clear. We will find it together, trusting that the Spirit will meet us on the way. “

What’s next for me? We need only open our eyes, take a step in trust, and then another, and another, and another. We will discover what God’s future holds for us.”

Choir’s Anthem

The sermon’s emphasis on pilgrimage was echoed in the choir’s anthem for the day: The Road Not Taken with music by Randall Thompson and the words from Robert Frost’s poem by the same name:[4]

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

========================

[1] The bulletin for this worship service is available online.

[2]A number of posts to this blog have discussed the religious notion of vocation.

[3] The notion of God calling us into the world was also embraced by poet Christian Wiman.

[4]The Road Not Taken” is one of seven Frost poems in Frostiana: Seven Country Songs, a piece for mixed chorus and piano composed by Thompson in 1959 to commemorate the bicentennial of the Massachusetts town of Amherst, where Frost (1874-1963), who had known Thompson and admired his music, had lived for many years. Thompson (1899-1984) was an American composer, particularly noted for his choral works. A colleague said “Thompson’s choral works are a shining reflection of the joy and creative skill with which he taught musical craft—of Palestrina and Lasso, of Monteverdi and Schütz, of Bach and Handel. It has been his belief that music of this craft is timeless in its nature, and can form part of the basis of a composer’s working vocabulary without loss to his individual talent. In this he is a true classicist and an academic in the best sense.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mortality

Mortality was this year’s final Lenten theme at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1] This post will discuss the Scriptures and sermon for the theme and conclude with personal reflections.

The Scriptures

The Old Testament text was the familiar Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 (New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added):

  • “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
  • a time to be born, and a time to die;
    a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
    a time to kill, and a time to heal;
    a time to break down, and a time to build up;
    a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
    a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
    a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
    a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
    a time to seek, and a time to lose;
    a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
    a time to tear, and a time to sew;
    a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
    a time to love, and a time to hate;
    a time for war, and a time for peace.”

The New Testament text was from Chapter 15 of Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth: 1 Corinthians 15: 15-20, 35-38, 42-44, 50-55 (New Revised Standard Version:

  • “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
  • But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
  • So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.
  • What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”

 The Sermon

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s sermon reminded us, “We began our walk down the pathways of Lent weeks ago on Ash Wednesday. We marked ourselves with a smudge of mortality and stepped into the season. Now, as we near the cross and the crucifixion, the way inevitably brings us back to where we began. Death is never too distant.”

Yet, a “veil impenetrable by earth-bound vision shrouds . . . [death]. The event itself can be so covered over by the machinery of modern medicine and the whispered denial of our culture that sometimes it takes the power of a poem to carry us down to what the old Celtic folk called ‘the river hard to see.’”

[The poet of Ecclesiastes said it simply and powerfully: ‘For everything there is a season, And a time for every matter under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die….’]

“If we can acknowledge that death happens, that it will come to our loved ones, that it will come to each one of us, then we can see it not as mistake or failure or defeat, but, rather, as part of the rhythm into which we were born, the end of life as we know it.”

“Part of our job as people of faith is to demystify death, to help our world deal with it, to help others not be overwhelmed by it. In so doing, we help ourselves.”

“That sums up the proper approach of people of faith to death. We do not deny it. We do not look the other way. We recognize the pain it brings to those left behind. We name the sorrow of our grief. But we do not give it power over us. We are not afraid of the dark.”

“Our culture, on the other hand, is afraid of the darkness of death.”

“We are not afraid of the dark. We may not fully understand death, but we will not let it have the last word.”

“From Paul’s point of view we give up the physical body at death when, ‘in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be changed’ into what Paul calls a spiritual body that dwells with God in the life to come.”

“That may be all we can say about death. It may be enough: as a seed must die and fall to the ground in order to find new life, our lives must end in order to inherit what Paul calls the ‘mystery’ of eternity.”

Reflections

Ecclesiastes makes death explicit: there is a “time to die.” The rest of the passage also tells us that during our earthly lives there is “a time” for many other experiences, including mourning, and that each of these other experiences will not last. That is both a challenge and a comfort. It challenges us to embrace every moment of the pleasurable ones and comforts us during mourning and other unpleasant experiences.

The passages from First Corinthians help with the “mystery” of the promise of eternal life. The perishable physical body ends with death. At death we will be changed into imperishable spiritual bodies. For me, I do not need to worry about what happens after death.

In a prior post, I described my intimations of mortality from attending memorial services for former law partners and friends, from writing obituaries for deceased Grinnell College classmates and from preparing personal financial statements.

Those reminders of my own mortality continue along with others.

My wife and I have taken steps in recognition of our advancing years, the risks of deteriorating health and the certainty of death. Last year we downsized and moved into a one-level condo that provides many shopping, dining and entertainment options within walking distance. We also have consulted with an attorney to update our wills, trust documents, and health care directives. We have decided for cremation of our remains, instead of embalming. We have shared information about these documents, decisions and our financial situation with our two sons. We want to minimize the trauma they will experience when we die.

I reflect on visiting my parents in 1967 and receiving a desperate telephone call from my father, age 67, to come rescue him at his business. I did so and managed to carry him to a car and drive him to the hospital where on arrival he was pronounced dead of a heart attack. I still lament that the prior day he and I had an argument that was still unresolved when he died.

In 1992 I was with my mother, age 86, as she was dying of congestive heart failure at her nursing home. I was astounded that the moment of death was not instantaneously apparent. A few seconds had passed when I realized she was no longer breathing. It was a blessing to be with her in those final moments.

Recently I visited a college classmate in hospice care. Her eyes were closed, and she was non-communicative. But I said goodbye and conveyed the prayers and concerns of our classmates before she died the next day. There is a ministry of presence.

As is common with many people as they age, I regularly read the obituaries in our local newspaper (StarTribune) to see if anyone I know has died and take note of news of the deaths of famous people. They are constant reminders that fame, wealth and power do not make anyone immune from death.

As I read these obituaries, I notice that some of the deceased are older than I, and I quickly calculate how many more years I have if I live as long as they did. Surprise, that arithmetic exercise keeps producing smaller remainders! For example, if I live to age 85, which now sounds like a very old age, I only have about 10 more years. Yet I know several people in their 90’s who are mentally alert and active.

I have been doing genealogical and historical research and most of the individuals about whom I research and write have DOB (date of birth) and DOD (date of death) data. At some point a DOD statistic will be added to my name.

This research and writing have brought some of my ancestors, who lived long before I was born, closer to me.

This sentiment recently was expressed much more beautifully by Roger Cohen in a New York Times column entitled “From Death Into Life” about the amazing life of his Uncle Bert Cohen, who died last month at the age of 95. The columnist said he has “found my life consumed by his” and “[n]ow he lives in me. The living are the custodians of the souls of the dead, those stealthy migrants. Love bequeaths this responsibility.”

Roger Cohen finishes the column with a story about his uncle’s serving in Italy as a South African soldier in World War II. While his uncle was in Florence, a small bird settled on his shoulder for five days. This “caused Florentines to prostrate themselves, name Bert ‘Captain Uccellino’ (or ‘Little Bird’) and proclaim him a saint. He was far from that but he had about him something magical.”

Roger Cohen then concludes his column with these words: “Of that [his uncle’s magical quality] the days since his death have left no doubt. He is now that bird on my shoulder, reminding me to take care with my spelling and be aware that love alone redeems human affairs.”

I believe that every human being is made in the image of God, including the potential capacity to be a parent with children.  The only way this will work is to limit the physical lives of the human beings. Otherwise, the planet would be overrun with people. Yes, there is “a time to die.”

——————————————

[1] Prior posts have discussed this year’s other Lenten themes of mindfulness, humility, mercy and repentance.

 

 

Repentance

The fourth Lenten theme at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church is repentance.[1] This post will review the Scriptures and sermon for that theme and conclude with personal reflections.

The Scriptures

The Old Testament text was Jeremiah 31:15-21 (New Revised Standard Version, with emendations):

  • “Thus says the Lord:
  • A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.
    Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.
  • Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;
    for there is a reward for your work, they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, your children shall come back to their own country.
  • Indeed I heard Ephraim pleading:
  • ‘You disciplined me, and I took the discipline; I was like a calf untrained. Bring me back, let me come back, for you are the Lord my God. For after I had turned away, I repented; and after I was discovered, I struck my thigh; I was ashamed, and I was dismayed because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
  • Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in?
    As often as I speak against him, I still remember him.
    Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him.
  • Set up road markers for yourself// make yourself signposts;
    consider well the highway, the road by which you went.
    Return, O virgin Israel, return to these your cities.”

The New Testament text was Acts 28:23-28 (New Revised Standard Version, with emendations and emphasis added):

  • “After [the Jewish leaders in Rome] had set a day to meet with [Paul], they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers.
  • From morning until evening [Paul] explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets.
  • Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe. So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement:
  •  ‘The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah, ‘Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them.’
  • Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”

The Sermon

In the sermon Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen said that “changing direction is sometimes necessary. Making mid-course adjustments in life because we’ve gotten off track. Turning around. Finding a new way. . . .”

“Repentance is a common biblical term, found throughout Scripture. Whether in the Hebrew – the word is shuv – or in the Greek – metanoia – the Bible links repentance with a change of direction, a turning in life.”

The Acts’ passage about Paul’s meeting with Jewish leaders in Rome talks about the need for them to “[u]nderstand with their heart and turn. Repentance begins when the heart understands that it’s time to turn.”

That’s precisely what the prophet Jeremiah has in mind when he speaks to the Israelites in Babylonian captivity. From the “prophet’s perspective the people had lost their way. He tells them their hope lies in turning and finding the path back not only to the land of Israel, but finding their way back to God. That’s the core issue here; is it the same for us? They had forgotten their covenant with God; that’s what landed them in Babylon in the first place.”

“Exile can be a powerful way for us to understand our own circumstances. Some of us are in a Babylon of our own right now, maybe of our own making. Some of us feel far from home.”

“The next time we feel ourselves in exile or isolated or cut off, let’s look for the way markers, the guideposts that point toward home, and then find within us the courage to follow them.”

“‘Consider well the highway,’ Jeremiah says to them. Remember how you got here in the first place. Make an honest assessment. Consider ‘the road by which you went.’

It helps to know how we ended up where we are; it’s important to have some sense of what went wrong.”

“That’s repentance-talk. The prophet is exhorting them to find a different path, to change directions, to turn back toward God. That’s the work of every person of faith, eventually. All of us. Over and over again.”

Theologian “Gustavo Gutierrez . . . calls sin, ‘a breach of friendship with God and others.’”

“Maybe that can help us remember better what went wrong and why we need to repent, why we need to change direction: we’ve broken the bonds of friendship with God and others. In so doing, we have let ourselves down, as well. We have diminished our own humanity by breaching our relationships. That’s the story of the people of God throughout scripture; and it’s our story, too. The people turn away from God; God calls them back; God waits; the people stumble along and, if their eyes are open and their ears unstopped, they – we – finally turn back toward God.”

“It’s the repairing of brokenhearted love”.

“If the question this Lent is What Does the Way of the Cross Ask of Us? The response points toward a change of heart. It invites us to turn around. To go back. To find our way home.”

“Much of what passes as Christian faith today is little more than glorified self-help, a way to improve our lives. Christianity is not a self-help religion; in fact, it’s not centered on the self at all. Quite the opposite: our faith is other-centered. It begins with and is sustained by the desire for right relationship; first with God, and then with others.”

“At its best, the Church is that road sign for each of us – and for the world around us. Our witness in the world ought to help people find their way home, and lead us in that direction, too.”

“But to do so, to be that witness, to find our way, we will have to rediscover the gentle power of repentance, a turning of the heart that puts us on the path back to God.”

Reflections

In the Jeremiah passage, Ephraim confessed to God about his turning away from God and the disgrace of his youth. But Ephraim repented and asked God to let him come back. In response God says He is deeply moved for Ephraim and “will surely have mercy for him.”

This reminds me of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 10-32), where the younger of two brothers after leading a sinful life in another country “came to himself” and repented. He then returned to his home, and his father ran to embrace and forgive him and to celebrate the return of his son.

This Parable for me is one of the most powerful passages in all of Scripture and one of the foundations for my Christian faith. It reminds me of my repentance and returning to God in 1981 by joining Westminster after 24 years of religious and spiritual nothingness. Since then its worship services and adult education offerings have been signposts and road markers that help me maintain that faith.

Apostle Paul in the Acts passage obviously is annoyed with the Jewish leaders in Rome who would not change from their beliefs and ways to accept Jesus. Paul quotes Isaiah to condemn them and tops it off with a taunt that the Gentiles will listen and accept Jesus.

Paul, in my opinion, is too hasty and uncharitable in this response. Any kind of significant change by an individual is difficult, including a Jew’s changing from a traditional Jewish faith to one that puts Jesus at the center of that faith.

It takes courage to make such a change. This is recognized by Alcoholics Anonymous’ use of the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the courage to change the things that I can.”[2]

———————————–

[1] Prior posts discussed the following three themes: mindfulness, humility and mercy.

[2] A subsequent post will discuss several Jewish individuals who had the courage to change from Judaism to Christianity and those who did so out of fear of persecution.