Revisionist Christians

Westminster Presbyterian Church

The June 25 sermon, “Revisionist Christians,” by Associate Pastor for Congregational Life, Rev. Sarah Brouwer, at Minneapolis Westminster Presbyterian Church discussed the need for Christians constantly to consider revising, reforming, seeking again and again the plans God has for a future for us as individuals and for all people.[1]

Preparing for the Word

In “Preparing for the Word,” the initial part of the service, we all joined in the following Prayer of Confession: “We confess, O God, we live in extremes. We need you only when things go wrong, but forget you in times of joy. When we have enough, it’s because we did it, and when we have nothing at all, we blame you. We value individualism until we require the help of community. Forgive us, we pray. Nurture peace in our frenetic lives. Help us to cultivate gratitude. Remind us to receive your abundance, and share it with others. We pray, O God, to be grounded in your infinite grace and mercy.” (Emphasis added.)

Listening for the Word

The central part of the service, “Listening for the Word,” sets forth the Scripture reading for the day followed by the sermon.

Scripture Reading

 The Old Testament reading was Jeremiah 29:11-14 (NRSV):

  • For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Emphasis added.)

The New Testament reading was Paul’s letter to the Philippians 4: 1-17 (NRSV):

  • “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.”
  • “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”
  • Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
  • “Finally, beloved, 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. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
  • “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.”
  • “You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.” (Emphases added.)

The Sermon

Rev. Sarah Brouw

Revisionist History, a podcast by New York Times bestselling author, Malcolm Gladwell, is a ‘journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood. Every episode re-examines something from the distant or recent past—an event, a story, a person, an idea—and asks whether we got it right the first time.’”

One of the episodes, Generous Orthodoxy, has “deep theological connections” that builds upon the work of German-American theologian, Hans Frei, who first coined the phrase. “In this episode, Gladwell interviews Chester Menger, “a 96 year old man who has lived his entire life in the Mennonite community and [who] until recently had been a well-known retired clergy. In the last few years, “Menger became famous in the Mennonite world for a challenging letter he wrote to the church after he married his gay son and subsequently had his ordination renounced. As you listen to the story, you become not only enthralled by the stance he took, but also by the love this man continues to have for his church.”

“For Mennonites, community and reconciliation are two essential tenants. The word community, for them, is not just a term they use to describe a religious group; they live it out in grand gestures of support for one another–especially when someone in the community is in need or has been harmed. It’s for this very reason that when Menger’s son came to him and told him he was gay, albeit after a bit of time, he came to wholeheartedly accept the fact–and not just from a personal perspective, but a theological one, too. His church, however, did not.”

“And for Menger, the excommunication of his son from the church flew in the face of everything Mennonites stood for–community and reconciliation. I can only imagine trying to stay in a church that rejects your child, but, according to Menger, leaving also would have flown in the face of what he believed. So, he decided to write a letter–really a statement of faith–to the church he loved. He writes,

  • ‘I am profoundly reluctant to write this letter because I know there are those it will wound deeply. But I have also come to the conviction that I can no longer hide the light the Lord has lit within me, under a bushel. I want to share with you what the Lord has been telling me and my dear life companion…. We invite the church to courageously stake out new territory, much as the early church did. We invite the church to embrace the missional opportunity to extend the church’s blessing of marriage to our homosexual children who desire to live in accountable, covenanted ways. We know that while many of us hear different things from the Scriptures, God’s deepest desire, as made known in Jesus Christ, is “to seek and to save that which was lost.’”

“The letter quotes the Apostle Paul a number of times, and in the interview with Gladwell, Menger notes one verse in particular from Romans 1:16 (NRSV): ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone.’” (Emphasis added.)

“The story is remarkable, and told so well. I found myself envious of this man’s simultaneous ability to love his son and the church that didn’t love his son, a generous orthodoxy on his part, to be sure. Menger was able to maintain respect and reverence for tradition, while also seeing the need to reform and revise with abundant grace and hope for the future. I wondered if I could be so open and willing. The truth is, Menger made it seem easy, as though holding these two things in the balance was exactly what his faith and church had prepared him his whole life to do. Was he worried, that after spending over 70 years as an ordained minister in the church he loved, he would have his ordination taken from him in one fell swoop? No. He laughed when Gladwell asked him.”

’Rejoice in the Lord, always, again I will say rejoice,’ this is what the Apostle Paul writes in the letter to the Philippians. In it I also discovered a sense of awe for what Paul, the author, was able to do–exactly what it seemed he had been preparing his whole life for. It’s Paul’s charge to the Philippians, and comes at the end, written to them, we think, while Paul is in prison. Much like Chester Menger, Paul maintains strength, purpose, humility, and lack of fear for the future–proclaiming his faith even after being arrested and jailed for it; preaching the abundance of the Gospel even from a place of scarcity.” (Emphasis added.)

“Paul, as you may remember, was formerly Saul of Tarsus, who was traveling one day on the road to Damascus, doing his duty to persecute early Christians when suddenly he saw Jesus in a great light and was struck blind. Three days later Ananias restored his sight and from thereafter his life was dedicated to spreading the good news of the Gospel. Paul knew from his own experience what it meant to be a follower of Jesus; he had been made new. He respected the Jewish traditions from which he had come, but knew the message of Jesus was for everyone, and that certain things had to be left behind, or change, in order to welcome all people. As Paul writes, ‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.’ Paul not only knew the Gospel was for everyone, but because he was in the trenches with these early Christians he also knew they had to make the church their own, to adapt if it was going to survive. He tells the Philippians, don’t worry, guard your hearts with Christ, keep on doing what is right. He is not more prescriptive than that.” (Emphasis added.)

The good news of the Gospel is that every day is a chance to be transformed, to make things new again- a chance to adapt. The old life has gone away, Paul says, and a new life has begun. [The] most helpful part of worship, in my opinion, is the prayer of confession and assurance of pardon. It always feels like such a relief each week to bring before God all that keeps us from being fully who we are, as a world, as a community, and as individuals. We approach a God who has already forgiven us, we offer up all the ways we fall short, and then we are assured of that forgiveness, again. We hear it from the pulpit and we say it to one another: . . . all of us are forgiven. Alleluia. Amen. It feels like the worship equivalent of Revisionist History, our own generous orthodoxy.” (Emphases added.)

“Hans Frei originally said, ‘Orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness; generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty.’ God has been so generous with us, why would we limit how the church can revise and rethink and retell its story? Tradition is important, yes, orthodoxy makes meaning for us, it is part of our history and foundation, but it’s not all we are. Paul knew that, our reformer forebears knew it, and now as we stand at the precipice of a new era in our life together at Westminster we must know it, too. We are Revisionist Christians. Generous. Open. Adaptable. Transforming. People who examine what God is doing in the world and try to follow; as Chester Menger would say, ‘to seek and save that which is lost.’” (Emphases added.)

“At Westminster I think we do understand what it means to be Revisionist Christians. This congregation is in constant motion, ‘keeping on,’ as Paul charges the Philippians. And we are guided by Paul’s admonition to them, ‘whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just… think about these things.’ But there will always be opportunities to revise. And we know that’s true because we believe in a God who is active. As the prophet Jeremiah writes, ‘I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord.’ Yes, God has plans for us, and it is reassuring to hear in that often referred to verse. But do you remember what comes after it? God says, ‘when you call upon me, and pray to me… if you seek me with all your heart.’ Revisionist Christians seek out God’s plans, they seek the lost, they seek to be generous, and open to the future, even as they remember what they are revising from. To be sure, revising doesn’t mean forgetting. It means appreciating, analyzing, lifting out that which was forgotten or left behind, and pulling it into the future in truth. We must revise with hope, as Menger said, not hiding our light under a bushel.” (Emphases added.)

[Last week’s verdict in the trial following the death of Philandro Castile] should make us all wonder how we can “leverage [our] privilege and give voice to injustice. For me it begins, at least, by coming here, and confessing how far I have fallen short. And when I do that I’m reminded I can’t do it alone- none of us can. We need this community to help us remember that being Christian means being Revisionist Christians. We gather here to tell the truth about what has been lost, and say that black lives matter. And then we make plans to dialogue and act, and stand in solidarity… And God promises to be with us in it, and we make promises in return, and week by week we come back, re-promising, revising, reforming, seeking again and again the plans God has for a future for all people… every one… I trust God is working to make all things new. And, what is always true is that, thankfully, God is revising us. We are being made new, each and every one of us.” (Emphases added.)

“I can only hope to have the same kind of faith or joyful determination as Chester Menger or the Apostle Paul- the kind that is willing to change in such profound ways. But, what I do know is that this community has changed me. Westminster has revised me and my call. And that means now I, too, hold in the balance not only a love for us, but a deep love for the world outside. And I have a call to not only to be changed by you, but by whoever is beyond our doors, and whatever they need. We are God’s people, and we exist to be revised; for our own sake, and for the sake of others. My hope and prayer is that it will be your call, too, to let the light that is lit within you shine.” (Emphasis added.)

Affirmation of Faith

 In the “Responding to the Word” final  portion of the service after the sermon, we all joined in the Affirmation of Faith with the following words from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s “A Brief Statement of Faith” of 1983:[2]

  • “We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere the giver and renewer of life. The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith, sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor, and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church. In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Conclusion

This sermon was especially moving to me because it emphasizes that we believe in a God who is active. The good news of the Gospel is that every day is a chance to be transformed, to make things new again–a chance to adapt. We are God’s people, and we exist to be revised; for our own sake, and for the sake of others, what is always true is that, thankfully, God is revising us. We are being made new, each and every one of us.

A more frequent formulation of this idea for Presbyterians and others in the Reformed tradition is “Reformed, and Always Reforming.”

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[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website.

[2] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Book of Confessions at 307-18.

U.S. Reactions to Trump Reversals of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies                                                                   

On June 16, as noted in a prior post, President Donald Trump announced a reversal of some aspects of the Cuba normalization policies that had been instituted by his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

Now we look at U.S. reactions to this change of policy. Subsequent posts will examine Cuban reactions and conclude with this blogger’s opinions on the subject.

 Overall Assessment of Changes[1]

As many sources have pointed out, the announced changes do not affect most of the important elements of Obama’s normalization policies. The U.S. will continue to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba and operate the U.S. Embassy in Havana (while Cuba continues to operate its Embassy in Washington). U.S. airlines and cruise ships will continue service to the island. Cuban-Americans can still send money (remittances) to relatives and travel to the island without restriction. U.S. farmers can continue selling their crops to the Cuban government (with restrictions against credit for sales). There was no change to next year’s budget for the State Department that eliminated the undercover or covert “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The U.S. will continue to reject the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which once let most Cuban migrants stay if they made it to U.S. soil “with dry feet,” but was terminated late last year by President Obama; Trump’s speech endorsed this termination as designed to protect Cubans who were exposed to dangerous journeys by land to the U.S. Various bilateral arrangements facilitating cooperation on multiple issues were not mentioned and, therefore, are not directly affected by this announcement. Nor did the announcement say that the U.S. would reinstate its designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

The prohibition of U.S. businesses having interactions with Cuban businesses owned or controlled by the Cuban government or military presents more of a problem because such entities are involved in all sectors of the economy. According to Cuban economists, the government conglomerate (GAESA) boasts dozens of companies that control anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of the Caribbean island’s foreign exchange earnings.

U.S. Businesses Reactions[2]

Many U.S. businesses opposed the changes. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, typically supportive of GOP presidents, predicted the changes would limit prospects for “positive change on the island.” Others with similar views include ENGAGECuba, the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba, National Farmers Union and the National Foreign Trade Council.

These business opponents were supported by non-business groups, including the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the Latin America Working Group, the Washington Office of Latin America, Church World Service and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The changes will have negative impacts on U.S. jobs and income. The increase in U.S. trips to Cuba has helped the U.S. hospitality industry with Delta Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue and others flying to at least six Cuban cities daily and Carnival cruise lines taking American citizens to port in Havana. All told, the group Engage Cuba estimates that restricting the rights of United States citizens to travel and invest in Cuba would cost the American economy $6.6 billion and affect 12,295 American jobs.

U.S. hotel businesses also expressed concern about the potential impact of the change on the island’s hotels.  The Gran Hotel Manzana, for example is managed by a Swiss company (Kempinski Hotels) but owned by Gaviota, a Cuban military-run company. An U.S. company, Marriott International, through its subsidiary Starwood runs the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in the Havana suburb of Miramar. Would they be off-limits for American travelers or would they fall under a vaguely promised grandfather clause for existing deals? Or would the change force American travelers to Cuban hotels run by civilian tour organizations, including Gran Caribe and Cubanacan? There is even speculation that the change economically benefited Mr. Trump by neutralizing rival hotel companies’ ability to gain an early advantage over the Trump hotels, which previously had expressed interest in developing hotels on the island.

Congressional Reactions[3]

Many members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, have expressed opposition to the changes.

Representative Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), who’s been one of Trump’s most enthusiastic backers on Capitol Hill while also being the author of a bill to end the embargo (H.R.442—Cuba Trade Act of 2017), said Trump’s new Cuba policy “will hurt the United States economically, making it harder for our nation’s farmers to access new markets and cutting the knees out from under our travel and manufacturing industries.” Emmer also said the new policy will not keep the American homeland safe and could threaten new bilateral agreements with Havana to combat human trafficking, illicit drugs and cyber crimes.

Representative Rick Crawford, (Rep., AR), the author of a bill to promote U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba (H.R.525—Cuba Agricultural Exports Act), said Trump’s shift is more than just a missed opportunity for rural America, which would benefit from greater access to Cuba’s agricultural import market. He said Trump’s policy may put U.S. national security at risk as strategic competitors move to fill the vacuum the uncoupling could create. “Further U.S. disengagement opens up opportunities for countries like Iran, Russia, North Korea and China to gain influence on an island 90 miles off our coast,” Crawford said.

Senator Jeff Flake, (Rep., AZ), a frequent critic of Trump and the author with 54 cosponsors of a bill to facilitate Americans travel to Cuba (S.127 Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act), stated that any policy change “that diminishes the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba is not in the best interests of the United States or the Cuban people.” Therefore, Flake called for the Senate’s GOP leadership to allow a vote on this bill. Flake also warned that returning to a “get tough” policy hurts everyday Cubans whose livelihoods are increasingly rooted in travel and tourism.

Senator Jerry Moran (Rep., KS), the author of a bill to end the embargo (S.472—Cuba Trade Act of 2017), said that “putting America first means exporting what we produce to countries across the globe.” He said he remains focused on finding ways to “increase trade with Cuba rather than cut off relationships that have the potential to create new jobs, bring in revenue and boost our national economy.”

Senator John Boozman (Rep., AR) said Trump’s policy moves the U.S. backward.” It would be more effective to continue an open line of communication and working relationship with a government in need of democratic assistance, instead of shutting them out,” Boozman said under the latter approach, “we not only trade goods, but ideas.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN), the author of a bill to end the embargo (S.1286– Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2017), said the new policy was “a setback in U.S. – Cuba relations at a time when 73 percent of Americans want more engagement with Cuba, not less. These changes will disadvantage our businesses and undermine American tourism, which will also hurt the Cuban people. Earlier today I joined Minnesota officials and business leaders who are traveling to Cuba next week to send the message that America wants to continue doing business in Cuba. We need to build on the bipartisan momentum we have created by restoring relations with Cuba, not make it harder for Americans to travel and do business there.”

The five-day Minnesota trip referenced by Senator Klobuchar is being led by its Lieutenant Governor, Tina Smith, accompanied by various state government officials and leaders of agricultural groups. Their objectives are to build relationships with Cuba and promote Minnesota agricultural exports to the island.

In Cuba Lt. Gov. Smith said, “There is no denying the actions Trump took . . . [on June 16] are a real setback. But the important thing to me is that there is bipartisan support at the federal level for normalizing and modernizing our relationship.” In the meantime, she said she was glad to carry the message that there was still plenty of support for continuing to normalize relations. Minnesota’s government and businesses will continue to engage with Cuba in the areas they can, like agricultural trade. Cuba invited the Minnesota delegation to a trade show later in the year while Minnesota invited Cuban officials to visit.

Other Americans’ Reactions[4]

Many other Americans have expressed their opposition to the changes.

One is Rena Kraut, a substitute member of the Minnesota Orchestra, which visited Cuba in 2015.[5] She talked about the importance of encouraging Americans to visit Cuba and the “ability [of artists] to move the conversation to places corporations and politicians cannot or will not go, and to smooth the way for political change years before the document signings and handshakes.” Inspired by the Orchestra’s trip, she has founded Cayo, a non-profit that is organizing a youth orchestra for American and Cuban young people “to broaden horizons, provide youth with the highest level of artistic training, and shed light on that which can bring our neighboring countries together.”

Published letters to the Editor of the New York Times were generally critical of the change. Luis Suarez-Villa, professor emeritus at the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine, said, “American policy toward Cuba has been hijacked by a clique of Cuban-American politicians who have sold their support in Congress to President Trump.” Suarez-Villa also berated the “punishing, 55-year-old embargo perpetrated by the world’s most powerful nation — accompanied by innumerable acts of economic sabotage, espionage, attempted assassination and military aggression.” Stephen Gillespie of San Francisco, California wrote, “Mr. Trump seems to hate oppressive regimes that convert private property into public goods for the benefit of the people, but he loves oppressive regimes that convert public goods into private property for the benefit of a few rich friends.”

Miriam Pensack, an editorial assistant at The Intercept and a former researcher at Columbia University’s Center for Science and Society, wrote, “Carried out under the unlikely banner, for Trump, of human rights and democracy, the shift is instead more likely to re-impose hardships on ordinary Cubans — the very same people Trump, Rubio, and Diaz-Balart claim to champion.”

William LeoGrande, who teaches government at American University and co-authored the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, observed, “When Americans go down there, a lot of them stay in private homes, they eat in private restaurants, they take private taxis, and they pay private tour guides that guide them around the city. That’s money directly into the hands of ordinary Cubans.” He added, ““It’s hard to believe that human rights are really anything more than just an excuse. This is really more a matter of political horse trading than it is a matter of foreign policy.”

A contrary view in the New York Times’ collection of letters came from Medford, New York’s Eugene Dunn, who stated, “Kudos to President Trump for demanding that Cuba finally turn over a parade of criminals who have sought sanctuary on the Communist island for decades. Finally we have a titanium-spined president who isn’t afraid to use America’s military and economic might as leverage over these tin-pot dictators who under previous administrations made us the laughingstock of the world.”

The Cuban-Americans at the president’s event in Little Havana are enthusiastic supporters of the new policy as are many other Republican voters in the U.S.

Editorialists’ Reactions[6]

 The New York Times’ editorial condemned the Trump Administration’s approach. The Times said it was “the latest chapter in a spiteful political crusade to overturn crucial elements of his predecessor’s legacy” and was likely to cause “Cuban-American relations . . . to revert to a more adversarial Cold War footing, undermining Washington’s standing in Latin America.” Moreover, Trump’s stated concern for Cuban human rights was especially galling from a “president [who] has been so disdainful of these rights . . . [and who has] embraced so lovingly authoritarians who abuse their people, like Vladimir Putin of Russia and the Saudi royal family.”

The editorial from the Los Angeles Times was similar. It stated that the new policy was “based on a disingenuous argument. The putative reason for the change is that Cuba still violates the human rights of its own people, including jailing dissidents and independent journalists. But hasn’t the Trump administration been moving the U.S. away from its focus on human rights around the world?” Instead, said the Los Angeles newspaper, “What’s really happening is that Trump has let the anti-Castro sect in Congress take the wheel on this issue, no doubt for cynical political reasons. Remember that Trump broke with his Republican rivals during the campaign and supported Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba. Then he flipped and disparaged the policy as a bad deal, and pledged to undo it unless Cuba met fresh demands on human rights, including the ‘freeing of political prisoners.’”

An editorial from the Washington Post, however, gave the change a weak endorsement. It said, it was “little more than a policy tweak” and “a little more impatience about democracy [in Cuba with the Trump policy] isn’t such a bad thing.”

Although the Wall Street Journal has not offered an editorial on this change, its columnist on Latin American issues and a critic of normalization, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, welcomed Trump’s changes to U.S. policy regarding Cuba even though it was only “an important symbolic change . . . [whose] effects are likely to be minimal.” Instead she argues that Cuba needs a “high-profile truth project” to take “ an honest look at the historical record that acknowledges the regime’s many crimes against humanity.” She refers to the Cuba Archive Truth and Memory Project that has documented 934 executions mostly in the Escambray” Mountains, circa 1959-1964, in addition to 607 executions of political prisoners, most of whom are believed to have been captured in the Escambray. This Project is the work of the Free Society Project, Inc., a Washington, D.C. non-profit organization with a board of Cuban-Americans.

Minnesota’s leading newspaper, the StarTribune, opined that Trump was “unraveling years of work to build ties with a strategically placed neighbor. Instead, he’s choosing a misguided return to strict embargos on travel and trade that failed to achieve U.S. aims for more than half a century.” The editorial endorsed the efforts to promote Cuba normalization by Minnesota’s U.S. Senator, Amy Klobuchar (Dem.) and Representative Tom Emmer (Rep.) while commenting that Cuba “holds a strategic allure” for other nations “that could threaten American security.”

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[1] Assoc. Press, AP FACT CHECK: Not Much New in Trump’s Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017); Assoc. Press, Trump Rolls Back Some, Not All, Changes in US-Cuba Relations, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017).

[2] Burnett, Travel Industry Scrambles After New Cuba Restrictions, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Reuters, Cuban Military’s Tentacles Reach Deep Into Economy, N.Y. Times (June 15, 2017); Harwell & O’Connell, With shift on Cuba, Trump could undercut his company’s hotel-industry rivals, Wash. Post (June 15, 2017); Sabatini, Trump’s Imminent Cuba Problem, N.Y. Times (June 15, 2017).

 

[3] Assoc. Press, Republicans Divided as Trump Reverses Some Obama Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017); Press Release: Emmer: President’s Misguided Cuba Directive Undercuts Human Rights & Threatens National Security (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Crawford Opposes Cuba Policy Shift (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Flake Statement on Renewed Restrictions on U.S. Travel to Cuba (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Sen. Moran Statement on Administration’s Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Boozman, Statement on President Trump’s Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Klobuchar Statement on Changes to Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Golden, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to lead Minnesota trade trip to Cuba, StarTribune (June 16, 2017); Assoc. Press, Minnesota lieutenant governor visits Cuba, StarTribune (June 20, 2017); Reuters, Minnesota Will Still Engage With Cuba Despite Trump Setback, N.Y. Times (June 22, 2017)

[4] Kraut, Trump Is Wrong to Pull Back from Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Letters to Editor, Trump’s reversal of U.S. Policy on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 19, 2017); Pensack, Trump To Reverse Obama Openings to Cuba Under the False Flag of Human Rights, The Intercept (June 16, 2017).

[5] Previous posts about the Minnesota Orchestra’s trip to Cuba are listed in the “Cuba & Minnesota” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[6] Editorial, A Cynical Reversal on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Editorial, Trump just reopened the Cold War with Cuba. His excuse is disingenuous, L.A. Times (June 16, 2017); Editorial, Don’t get too worked up over Trump’s Cuba shift, It’s just a policy tweak, Wash. Post (June 17, 2017); Editorial, Trump’s Cuba retreat hurts U.S. and Minnesota, StarTribune (June 19, 2017); O’Grady, Cubans Need a Truth Commission, W.S.J. (June 18, 2017).

God’s Restlessness at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church                                                   

“God’s Restlessness” was the title of the moving May 28 sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by Rev. Sarah Brouwer, Associate Pastor for Congregational Life. It was preceded by a meaningful Prayer of Confession by Rev. Brennan Blue, Associate Pastor for Families, Youth and Children, and by the reading of passages of Holy Scripture.[1] Below are photographs of Westminster’s Sanctuary and Revs. Brouwer and Blue:

The Prayer of Confession

Here is the Prayer of Confession (emphases added):

“All: God of grace, we gather in worship to come home to you. Like sheep without a shepherd, you bring us back to the fold; you search for us until we are found.

One: O God, do you ever tire of looking for us?

All: God of compassion, your rest comes when all your people are as one, when justice and peace reign among us.

One: O God, we confess we grow weary of a world in need; will you still call on us to serve?

All: God of mercy, you do not fatigue; you are not exhausted by the needs of the world. Remind us that you have called each one of us to work alongside you. We are not alone.

One: O God, will you help us to trust in you?

All: God of forgiveness, we pray that you would search for us, find us, call on us, and help us to trust in your unending love.

One: O God, who will show us the way?

All: God of new life, in Jesus Christ you show us grace, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and love. We pray to be Christ’s people, gathered and sent into your world to serve.”

Readings from Holy Scripture

The readings were Psalm 89: 20-37 (NRSV) and  Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56 (NRSV), Here is the text of the latter:

  • “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
  • “When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”

Sermon

“I expect the disciples in our story today were learning about their own limits, as well as the challenges that came along with the joys of following Jesus. As we meet them here in Mark’s Gospel, we see they are coming back together after having been dispersed to go do ministry throughout Galilee. If we peak a bit further back through Mark, we can tell the disciples and Jesus really have been going non-stop, traveling by foot, relying on the hospitality of strangers, healing and teaching, teaching and healing. They’ve also faced what appears to be their first bout of rejection- in Jesus’ hometown, no less. And while rejection is common in almost any line of work, it doesn’t do much for morale.”

“They’re also just hungry. And, if they’re anything like me they’re probably ‘hangry’- it’s when you’re so hungry you get a little angry? So while they do approach Jesus eager to report on and debrief about all they had done, like any good pastor, Jesus recognizes they need a break.”

“Mark’s Gospel says Jesus tells the disciples to come away to a deserted place and rest awhile, and so they all get in the boat and begin to cross a small portion of the Sea of Galilee. I’m confident this journey signals a shift in the story- the literal crossing lets us know of a figurative change. But, the crossing over isn’t our only hint that something is about to happen- the second clue we are given is Jesus’ suggestion to go somewhere deserted. Deserted, desert, it indicates the disciples are entering a period of their ministry that might feel a bit like the wilderness- a time that can be difficult, but during which much can be learned. In Mark’s Gospel, in particular, Jesus reveals things to the disciples bit by bit, peeling back layers. It’s as if they are learning right alongside the folks who gather on the shore to hear Jesus teach. Those who appear to be the insiders- a/k/a the disciples- turn into the outsiders. The ones who should know the full story, really know only a piece of what Jesus is up to.”

“As they start to come ashore the disciples realize they’ve been found out- whoever saw them leaving in the boat recognized Jesus, and a large group hurried around the edge of the water to greet them when they landed.”

“I can only imagine the disciples’ chagrin, as they approached the so-called deserted place, and saw the crowd forming. Any one of us knows this feeling. You’re trying to get out of town for vacation and someone from work, or school, or church, catches you with a last minute request and you just can’t get away fast enough. I can almost hear the collective groan among the disciples as they saw the mob of needy people- so much for some down time and a hearty meal of freshly caught fish.”

“But, here comes the rub. We know Jesus got out of the boat at this point; we don’t know if the disciples did. The text says, ‘As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.’”

“This may seem like a small point. Who cares if the disciples go with him or not? Preacher John Buchanan [2] says this, ‘Jesus looks at the crowd and has compassion. The agenda is set aside instantaneously. The disciples see an unwanted, unwelcome interruption. Jesus sees lost sheep needing a shepherd. Compassion trumps the disciples’ . . . exhaustion Jesus sees need and drops everything to attend to it. But, the disciples, I assume, hang back. The desire of the folks who have rushed to meet them is not met by the same level of urgency.’”

“Jesus, again, seems to welcome this interruption. Anyone in ministry must, at some point, come to understand that interruptions are one of the gifts of the work, not the burden. But, the disciples haven’t quite gotten it. In verses we didn’t read today, we learn the disciples want Jesus to send the crowds away to find their own food. They figure there must be a time and place for ministry to happen, and this is not it- not when they are tired and hungry. Clearly, the disciples, the insiders we presume would know, are still figuring out what Jesus is capable of. Jesus is not indefatigable, he does take time away to rest and pray, to eat and celebrate with friends. There is, however, a restlessness to him that makes him different. A level of compassion he possesses the disciples do not. It’s probably even a nod to justice. No one gets to rest, until all get to rest.”

“But, if you sense the same tension [here that] I do, . . . you know this doesn’t make the disciples happy. They are still discovering where their ministry ends and God’s continues. There are some things only Jesus can do, and that is a difficult lesson to learn. And, for those of us who like to be in control, and I suspect there are a few of us in the room, one of the hardest parts of following Jesus is actually just following. There’s that saying, ‘Remember you are not God, and thank God you don’t have to be.’ But, for some of us it’s not that comforting.”

“Letting Jesus be our shepherd is actually not as idyllic as all the lyrics and paintings of this image make it look like. And navigating these boundaries is not something that happens once, but again and again- for the disciples, and for us. . . . ”

“When Jesus got out of the boat alone that day, he was able to show the crowd compassion and love the disciples could not. Oddly enough, the word for compassion in the Greek is related to the word for guts. It sounds a little gross, but what it means is not. God’s compassion is up close and personal, it gets inside us, down to the deepest, neediest, sometimes ugliest parts of us. Theologian Douglas John Hall [[3]] says that ‘compassion is unlike pity, which you can manage from afar.’ I’m guessing the disciples weren’t without pity, but they were tired, and couldn’t muster the energy to saddle up to a needy crowd. And frankly, the crowd didn’t need what they had to offer. That may sound harsh, but other times in scripture when God steps in as the shepherd figure, rather than say, a king, it’s because human beings have failed one another. We can’t do what God can do. We aren’t restless for people as God is restless for people. . . . ”

“The reason those people gathered on the beach that day in ancient Israel was not because they recognized Jesus’ face, or could quote his teachings. They had come to know him as one who heals. The disciples, of course, were still trying to figure out how to do it, and that’s okay- we all are. We can’t do it all, and we can’t do an exhaustive job, either. Only God can handle that kind of compassion.”

“But, we are followers. We are the ones who have been healed at some point along the way, otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting in these pews. And whether we like it or not people see that in us–they recognize it. And recognition creates responsibility, and as spiritual leaders–and now I’m really just including all of you because you’re all capable of it–as spiritual leaders we are called to learn from what happened on this day so long ago. The world needed a shepherd then, and it still does. It’s our job, at the very least, to point him out.”

“After Jesus had performed two miracles, and finally went away for a while to pray, he got back in the boat with the disciples and headed over to Gennesaret. I’m guessing it was a quiet ride, as the disciples sorted out what had happened. I imagine they might have been overwhelmed, wondering if they had made the right choice to follow Jesus. Was it always going to be this exhausting? Of course, we can only guess, but here’s what could also be true. As they docked the boat and saw the crowds once again, gathering, waiting just to brush against the fringe of Jesus’ cloak, I wonder if their hearts swelled with beauty at the sight?  With pride that they were insiders, and gratitude for being invited to learn alongside this compassionate man?  What if that was the moment it all began to make sense for them? The story says, all who touched Jesus that day were healed, and maybe the disciples were, too.”

“These few verses in Mark’s Gospel, which seem rather inconsequential on first read, really encompass the reality of the Christian life. The push and pull of going with Jesus, but not getting out of the boat, of seeing his power among people, but being too tired to or unsure of how to follow. This story reminds us that even though we might consider ourselves insiders, just like the disciples, there is always room for us to be surprised by the depth of God’s love for others, and wonderfully, for us, as well. We too are healed by simply this: we have a God who cares, a God of compassion, a God who is restless until we know it is true. Thanks be to God. Amen.”

Conclusion

The Prayer of Confession was especially meaningful to me for I now sense that God was searching for me until I was found in 1981. The prayer reminded me of the weariness I often feel about the world in need. The last line of the prayer also struck a chord in my heart: “God of new life, in Jesus Christ you show us grace, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and love.”

The sermon put me and other members of the church in the shoes of the tired and hungry disciples, anxious to rest and eat, and not eager to engage in further ministry. The sermon also made us realize that the disciples continued to learn about Jesus and his message throughout their time together. I also was reminded that no one individual can do all that needs to be done in the world, that what each individual does to meet the needs of the world does not have to be perfect or complete, but that each individual needs to do something to help others.

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[1] The Bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website. Other blog posts about Westminster with links established by computer in reverse chronological order of posting is on the website along with a more logical listing of same (without links).

[2] Rev. Buchanan is the retired pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, the second largest congregation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (my denomination), a former leader (Moderator) of that denomination and the editor and publisher of The Christian Century. Information about him is found in Facebook and Wikipedia.

[3] Douglas John Hall is emeritus professor of theology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and the author of many acclaimed and popular works about Christianity.

The Confession of Belhar Is Adopted by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

PCUSA

On June 23, 2016, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) overwhelmingly voted (540 to 33) to include in its Book of Confessions the 1986 Confession of Belhar from South Africa.

Let us examine that Confession, its adoption by the PC(USA)’s General Assembly, the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions and the recent use of the Belhar Confession at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, a member of the PC(USA).

 The Confession of Belhar[1]

The Belhar Confession emerged from the era of apartheid in South Africa, 1948-1994. That doctrine and practice of racial segregation was embraced by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa (DRC) for whites and imposed upon its racially segregated offshoots: the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC) for colored or mixed-race people, the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa for blacks and the Reformed Church in Africa for people of Indian descent.

After the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, the 1964 convictions and imprisonments of anti-apartheid activists Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, the 1976 Soweto Uprising and the 1976 condemnation of South Africa and apartheid by the United Nations, the Synod of the DRMC in 1978 concluded that apartheid was anti-evangelical and a structural and institutional sin.

Eight years later, in 1986, another Synod of the DRMC met in Belhar, a colored suburb of Capetown, South Africa, and adopted the Confession of Belhar. It has the following primary confessional statements:

  1. “We believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who gathers, protects and cares for the church through Word and Spirit. This, God has done since the beginning of the world and will do to the end.”
  2. “We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family.”
  3. “We believe that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
  4. “We believe that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people.”
  5. “We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.”

Three of these statements also set forth additional detailed belief statements and rejections of any doctrine and ideology which:

  • “absolutizes  natural diversity or the sinful separation of people;”
  • “explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any other human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the church;”
  • “sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race or color;”
  • “would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.”

The PC(USA)’s Adoption of the Belhar Confession [2]

As previously noted, on June 23, 2016 (30 years after the DRMC adoption of the Confession of Belhar), the General Assembly of the PC(USA) voted to add that Confession to the U.S. church’s Book of Confessions.

Rev. Godfrey Betha
Rev. Godfrey Betha

Immediately after the vote, the General Assembly was addressed by Rev. Godfrey Betha, the Vice Moderator of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, which was formed by the DRMC and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa for blacks. Betha told the General Assembly, “It is important to seek solidarity with South Africa. We’ve come a long way with the PC(USA). We are grateful to have you as partners in service to the Lord. Today we offer gratitude, we salute you as the PC(USA) for your historic decision to adopt the Belhar Confession as a standard of faith for your church. I bow in humility to God and thankfulness to you … I’ll never forget this date.”

Betha added: “Your decision affirms that, like those other historic standards of faith, the Belhar Confession transcends its historic circumstances as a standard for faith in all places and times. Your decision affirms that Belhar does speak against ideological and theological attempts to justify specific historical forms of injustice. Your decision affirms to your church, [and] to all, when you come looking for the demon of racism, don’t come to us.”

Rev. Allan Boesak
Rev. Allan Boesak

Also present at the General Assembly was Rev. Allan Boesak, a co-author of the Confession of Belhar and the moderator of the DRMC when it was adopted in 1986. He said, “I thank God for what happened here tonight. I thank God for your faithfulness. I thank God for your acknowledgement of our common humanity in doing this … I thank God, and I thank you, and because of Jesus and because of God’s faithfulness, we shall overcome.”

Rev. Denise Anderson
Rev. T. Denise Anderson

At that point the commissioners linked hands throughout the plenary hall and spontaneously broke into “We Shall Overcome,” the famous song of the U.S. African-American civil rights movement, led by the General Assembly’s Co- Moderator, Rev. T. Denise Anderson, Pastor, Unity Presbyterian Church, Temple Hills, MD.

Earlier that same day, and before the General Assembly action, Boesak had addressed a breakfast meeting at the General Assembly. He said the Belhar Confession “stirs us, humbles us, and inspires us … It’s a unifying document. We cannot yet foresee the consequences of the Confession. No other Confession has been so clear in its intentions: not only unity, but its foundationality; not just reconciliation, but its inescapability; not only justice, but its indivisibility.”

“Today is a defining moment for the PC(USA), as it was for the Dutch Reformed Mission Church 30 years ago as we finally adopted the Belhar Confession,” Boesak continued. “But the defining moment  was  not  just  the  adoption  of  the confession, as stunning as it was. In the years between 1982 and 1986, my friend and colleague and co-author Jaap Durand offered crucial prophetic insights that inspired and haunted the church in ways we couldn’t imagine in 1982, saying, ‘A  confession does not and cannot engage in mere trivialities. It can only be an extension of the ancient confession that Christ is Lord… I’m convinced that the Confession of Belhar will outlive apartheid and the heresy that formed it.’”

Recalling the struggles of black South Africans to remain faithful and pursue unity in light of terrible oppression, mass detention and cruel policies, Bosack said: “The church became directly involved in the efforts of freedom and justice in South Africa. The Jesus we worship and confess as Lord in the sanctuary is the Jesus we take into the street. Our people were slaughtered. Everyone was touched in one way or another.”

“By 1986 we saw no sense in, and had no desire for, unity with the white church, or with white people in general,” he said of the general despair that afflicted the DRMC. “But we had Belhar, [which] . . . understood [John] Calvin as he spoke of Holy Communion. ‘Christ has only one body of which he makes us all partakers.’”

Calling the unity of the church both a gift and command, Boesak said it was difficult in those years to find points of unity or reconciliation with those who were actively opposing the rights of black South Africans. The Belhar Confession, however, understood from Isaiah that God is not only a God of justice, but that God is a God of indivisible justice,” he said. “So against our self-absorbed instinct for self-absorbed victimhood, the black church confessed God as a God who wants to bring forth peace and justice in the world, and that God calls the church to follow in this, that the church must stand next to people in any form of need or injustice.”

This teaching of Belfar also challenged the DRMC when it faced the issue of the rights of LGBTQI and eventually affirmed those rights. Boesak said his denomination had “to face the consequences, not only with the white Dutch Reformed Church, but within itself.”

“In following Christ, the church must fight against those who use their privilege to oppress and put down any people,” he said. In asking the PC(USA) to “witness against any form of injustice,” Boesak turned his attention to Palestine, asking the denomination to support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – similar to those used to end apartheid – to place economic pressure on Israel to end the occupation and expansion of territories. “Kairos Palestine is a cry from the heart of suffering,” he said. “Unless it rolls down for Palestinians, it will not roll down for others. Indivisible. Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.”

In conclusion, Boesak said of Belhar and its broader implications: “It is a confession that stirs us, humbles us, and inspires us … It’s a unifying document.”

The PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions

The Book of Confessions is a collection of confessions and creeds that declare to the church’s “members and to the world who and what [the church] is, what it believes and what it resolves to do.” Prior to the addition of the Belhar Confession, the Book contained 11 confessions and creeds starting with the Nicene Creed of 325 and ending with A Brief Statement of Faith– Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) of 1983.[3]

According to the church’s Book of Order, These creeds and confessions are “subordinate standards . . . subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him” that “identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions,” that “guide the church in its study and interpretation of the Scriptures,” that “summarize the essence of Christian tradition,” that “direct the church in maintaining sound doctrines” and that “equip the church for its work of proclamation.” They also give “witness to the faith of the church catholic” while identifying “with the affirmations of the Protestant Reformation:” “grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone.”[4]

Westminster’s Recent Use of the Belhar Confession

One of Belhar Confession’s central themes was adapted for use by Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church as its July 17, 2016, Call to Worship (in call and response mode):[5]

  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God longs to bring justice and peace among all people.
  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God teaches the church to do what is good and to seek the right.
  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God sees a day when all people – black, white, red, yellow, and brown – will live together in harmony.
  • One: This we believe.
  • All: God calls the church to follow Jesus, to lift up the poor, to heal those who hurt, to feed those who hunger, and to comfort those who grieve.”

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[1] PCUSA, Confession of Belhar (English translation); PCUSA, The Belhar Confession (paper about the history of the Confession); PCUSA, 30 Days with the Belhar Confession: Reflections on Unity, Reconciliation and Justice (this book weaves together Scripture passages and the Confession’s timely themes of unity, reconciliation and justice; it is written by a diverse collection of scholars, theologians and church leaders and is a great resource for individuals, study groups or entire congregations wanting to familiarize themselves with the Confession through prayer and reflection; the Confession itself is included).

[2] PCUSA, Allan Boesak commends Belhar Confession (June 23, 2016); PCUSA, Belhar added to PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions (June 23, 2016); Duffield, Adopting Belhar, the 222nd General Assembly Makes History, Presbyterian Outlook (June 23, 2016). The Confession previously had been adopted by Namibia’s Evangelical Reformed Church in Africa, Belgium’s United Protestant Church, the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church of North America. The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, however, has not adopted the Confession in a manner acceptable to the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa and, therefore, has not merged into the latter.

[3] PCUSA, Book of Confessions.

[4] PCUSA, Book of Order, Ch. II (1983-85 edition).

[5] Westminster, Worship Bulletin (July 17, 2016).

 

 

Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Connections with Cuba

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota has connections with Cuba that go back to the late 19th century. For most of this period (1890—2000), the connection has been indirect through our denomination (now the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)). The direct connections have been since 2001.

 Indirect Connections, 1890-1966

 In 1890 Cuban Presbyterianism started when a Cuban layman (Evaristo Collazo) asked the U.S. church’s Board of Foreign Missions for counsel and oversight for the school and worship services he and his wife Magdalena were holding in their home in Havana. That Board responded by sending Rev. Antonio Graybill, who held services, baptized forty adults, organized a congregation, ordained two Elders for the Session, and then ordained Callazo to the ministry and installed him as pastor. [1]

In 1904 the U.S. church organized the Presbytery of Havana with five pastors and seven congregations under the jurisdiction of the Synod of New Jersey. In 1930 it became the Presbytery of Cuba, but still as part of the Synod of New Jersey.

In 1946, the Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed Church joined with the Cuban Methodist and Episcopal churches to create the Evangelical Theological Seminary (Seminario Evangelico de Teologia or SET) in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of the island about 90 miles east of Havana. (In 2006 the Methodists withdrew from SET in order to establish their own seminary in Havana.)

In 1966 (five years after the Cuban Revolution), the overall governing body (the General Assembly) of the U.S. church approved an overture or motion by the Cuban Presbytery to be dismissed from the U.S. church in order to become an independent church. This overture came from the Cuban church’s recognition that it had to face on its own Cuba’s “new political, social and economic situation.” Cuba was now “socialist, shaken by a Revolution which left nothing untouched by its transformation,” and the Cuban church “had the responsibility of interpreting the Christian faith in its own environment.” One of Westminster’s former members, John Sinclair, then the U.S. church’s secretary for Latin America and the Caribbean, played a key role in this change.

Indirect Connections, 1967-2000

At the inception of the independent Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed church, it had 3,082 members in 30 churches.

Immediately following its independence, the Cuban church adopted the U.S. church’s Confession of 1967 for its guidance, but started to develop its own theological reflection. The “Word of God became something nearer, more urgent, more vivid and more dramatic. The Church realized that God himself was involved in that revolutionary process which . . . led to the creation of a new society of greater justice for the people and of peace for society. The Gospel of ‘good news for the poor,’ of ‘freedom for the oppressed,’ and ‘sight for the blind’ came down upon us with all its prophetic implications.”

Ten years later, in 1977, the Cuban church adopted its own Confession of Faith to speak to Cubans’ contemporary situation. This Confession starts with “The Centrality of the Human Being Given in Jesus Christ.” It asserts that the “human being [is] the center of interest and concern of God” and, therefore, “of the Church of Jesus Christ.” The human being is an “econome” or steward of all things on behalf of God. “The human being is a social being and a free person. History is seen as “the Integrating Reconstruction of the Human Being, since the Human Being is being disintegrated by sin. . . . [and] the Kingdom of God [is] the Fulfillment of History.”

During this period, Westminster’s connections with Cuba continued to be indirect via its denomination. Here are some of the highlights of these events:

  • In 1985 the Presbytery of Long Island and the Presbytery of South Louisiana established contact and began visits to Cuban congregations in the Presbytery of Havana and the Presbytery of Matanzas respectively.
  • Also in 1985 the Cuban church invited agencies of the  PC(USA) to a consultation in Havana. They drafted a Mutual Mission Agreement that included procedures for forming ties between governing bodies of the two churches. The agreement was adopted by both General Assemblies in 1986.
  • In 1990 the Cuban church celebrated the Centennial of Presbyterianism in Cuba. Attending was a  Presbyterian delegation from the U.S.  Protestant Church leaders meet with Fidel Castro to discuss church-state relations. Castro asserts that religious groups were providing important support for the Cuban people in a time of great stress and should be respected. 
  • In 1995 the first Partnership Consultation was held in Havana, bringing together leaders of the Cuban church with staff of the U.S. denomination and representatives of the then four partner presbyteries: Long Island, Santa Fe, South Louisiana and Transylvania.
  • In 1996 the U.S. Presbyterian Cuba Connection was founded as an unofficial network of Presbyterians for interpretation, advocacy, and financial support of the life and mission of the Cuban church. That same year the leader of the U.S. church visited the Cuban church, participating in the October Conventions of the latter’s presbyteries.
  • In 1999 the Cuban Evangelical Celebration united the great majority of Cuba’s 49 Protestant Churches in a series of 19 municipal and four national public rallies, culminating on June 20 in the Jose Marti Revolution Plaza in Havana in a three-hour program of hymns, prayers, music, dance and a sermon attended by 100,000 persons, including President Fidel Castro and a number of government leaders.
  • In 2000 the Celebration of Mission Partnership in the New Millennium was held in Cuba bringing together  representatives of the U.S. church with an equal number of representatives of the Cuban church. A joint declaration of intention and commitment was adopted.

 Direct Connections, 2001- Present

During this period indirect connections similar to the ones previously mentioned continue, but now Westminster developed and strengthened its own direct connections.

In 2001 Westminster formed its Cuba Task Force to explore whether and how our congregation could have a more direct connection with the Cuban Church. (I was a member of this Task Force.) After a couple of exploratory trips to the island, we established a partnership in 2002 with Versalles Presbyterian-Reformed Church in the city of Matanzas. In our written Covenant Agreement, for a set period of time, each congregation covenanted to pray for and with each other, to engage in Bible study together, to share our personal stories, to visit each other and to stand together against all that is unjust in solidarity as brothers and sisters in Christ. (This Covenant Agreement has been renewed several times.)

Since 2002, every year Westminster members have visited our partner congregation under several licenses from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Our visits typically include Sunday worship together, sometimes with our Spanish-speaking pastors delivering the sermon; attending meetings of its governing body (the Session); enjoying a fiesta at the church; having meals at the church and in the homes of members; visiting a school and medical clinic near the church; and staying in the church’s dormitory. The church also has printing equipment that prints materials for many of the Protestant churches on the island. (I have been on three such trips.) In more recent years some of Westminster’s high-school and college students have gone to our partner congregation to assist in conducting a Vacation Bible School for its young people and others from the neighborhood. (Our next trip to Cuba is this February.)

We also have hosted visits by Cubans from our partner and other Cuban churches and often helped defray the costs of their travel to the U.S. This coming June we are expecting the visit of a female member of the Cuban church to attend a national meeting of Presbyterian Women. In addition, last March we hosted a meeting of various churches and other organizations interested in Cuba with the First Secretary of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. and in October with its Chief of Mission (or de facto Cuban Ambassador to the U.S.)

In 2002 we also formed a similar partnership with the governing body for the whole Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba. In 2007, as part of its Sesquicentennial Capital Campaign, Westminster committed to make a substantial monetary grant over five years to the Cuban Synod to assist its education and development of ordained and lay leaders. These gifts have been made through the U.S. Treasury Department’s license to our denomination that permits certain transfers of money to Cuba.

Although Westminster does not have a formal partnership with SET (the ecumenical seminary) in Matanzas, we do have a close informal relationship. Today SET is an ecumenical institution for basic and advanced theological training of pastors and lay leaders of Cuban and other Latin American churches. It also is the home of the history of Cuban Protestantism and of the Ecumenical Movement in Cuba. In addition, SET is engaged in exchange programs with institutions in the U.S., Europe and the rest of Latin America. Situated on a hill overlooking Matanzas’ bay, it is one of the most beautiful places on the island with soft breezes usually flowing from the bay.

Since SET is in the same city as our partner congregation, our travelers to Cuba always visit the Seminary, and some of our financial grants to the Cuban Synod have subsequently gone to SET to assist in its education of church leaders. In addition, the current head of SET, Rev. Dr. Reinerio Arce, has visited Westminster several times and has delivered the Sunday sermon on at least one occasion. (This coming May or June he plans to visit us again with his yet unnamed successor as head of the seminary.)

Another way that Westminster carries out its Cuban ministry is keeping all members informed of our various activities on the island. All who go on mission trips, for example, commit to sharing their experiences with other church members. In addition, our church library now has many books about Cuba.

All of these direct connections with Cuba have prompted Westminster to become an active member of the Presbyterian Cuba Partners Network, a group of U.S. churches with Cuba partners. So too is Westminster an active member of the Presbyterian Cuba Connection that provides funds to the Cuban church under a general license from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

As a result of this involvement, some members, including this blogger, have learned a lot about Cuba and its relations with the U.S. and have become advocates for improving those relations.

Nachito Herrera Concert at Westminster

As mentioned in a prior post, another example of our Cuba connections occurred this January 11th with a free concert at the church by Cuban-American jazz pianist Nachito Herrera.

Congressman Ellison
Congressman Ellison

Before the start of the concert itself, Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison from the Twin Cities made brief remarks.[2] He said that President Obama’s December 17th announcement of the historic changes in the relationship of the two countries demonstrated the importance of persistence and hope for all who have been urging such changes for many years, as had most of the people in the audience. He congratulated us for having this persistence and hope. This lesson also was demonstrated, he said, by the current movie, “Selma,” which the Congressman recently had seen with his children. His parting injunction to us all: now we all need to keep the pressure on Congress to end the embargo and support the reconciliation.

Hart-Andersen & Herrera
Hart-Andersen & Herrera
Concert audience
Concert audience

 

Nachito was introduced by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, our Senior Pastor, who said our church has had a partnership with Nachito. We take things to his family in Cuba on some of our mission trips, and Nachito plays music at our church. Implicitly Tim was saying the church had the better part of that understanding.

To a capacity-crowd in our Great Hall, Nachito played Cuban music with great passion. He also told us that he was surprised and overjoyed by the December 17th news of the historic change in the two countries’ relationship and wanted to celebrate this important change by sharing his music with Westminster, which he regarded as part of his family. He also was very happy with the U.S. release from prison of the remaining three members of the Cuban Five, and in recognition of this event he returned his “Free the Cuban Five” button to two members of the Minnesota Cuba Committee.

Prof. August Nimtz, Jr., Aurora Gonzalez, Frank Curbelo & Nachito
Prof. August Nimtz, Jr., Aurora Gonzalez, Frank Curbelo & Nachito

Nachito concluded the concert by saying that he and his wife (Aurora Gonzalez) recently had become U.S. citizens and by playing a beautiful jazzy rendition of “America the Beautiful.”

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[1] This historical sketch of Presbyterianism in Cuba is  based on a summary of that history by Dean Lewis, a Presbyterian minister with long involvement with Cuba.

[2] Ellison is the Co-Chair of the House’s Progressive Caucus, which on December 17th released a statement that said the following: “Congress must lift the trade embargo and normalize travel between our two nations, which are only 90 miles apart. The Congressional Progressive Caucus looks forward to working with President Obama and members of Congress who want to stabilize relations between the U.S. and Cuba.”

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.

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[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.

A Presbyterian’s Musings about Saints

My recent investigation and writing of a post about the Roman Catholic Church’s process for the beatification and canonization of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero prompt these musings about blesseds and saints in that church and their absence in my own church, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, and its denomination, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The Roman Catholic Church[1]

According to a Catholic secondary source (“Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma”), a saint is “…a member of the Church [who] has been assumed into eternal bliss and may be the object of general veneration. A saint is also a person of remarkable holiness who lived a life of heroic virtue, assisted by the Church, during their pilgrimage on earth. They are as varied and exceptional as only God could create them, and each has his own distinct story.”

The veneration of saints (in Latin, cultus, or the “cult of the saints”) describes a particular popular devotion or abandonment to a particular saint or saints. Although the term “worship” of the saints is sometimes used, it is intended to mean honor or give respect. According to the Catholic Church, Divine Worship is properly reserved only for God and never to the saints.  They can be asked to intercede or pray for those still on earth, just as one can ask someone on earth to pray for them.

A saint may be designated as a patron saint of a particular cause or profession, or invoked against specific illnesses or disasters, sometimes by popular custom and sometimes by official statements. Saints are not thought to have power of their own, but only that granted by God.

Apparently under canon law, before beatification, the body of the candidate must be exhumed and authenticated and relics taken for veneration. This has produced disputes, some of which have been resolved by dividing the body. For example, St. Catherine of Sienna is entombed in Rome, but her head is revered in a Sienna basilica. Now the beatification and canonization of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen is being delayed because of a dispute whether his corpse should remain in a crypt in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City or be moved to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, Illinois, where he was ordained.[2]

Relics of saints are respected in a similar manner to holy images and icons. The practice of past centuries in venerating relics of saints for healing is taken from the early Church. Once a person has been declared a saint, the body of the saint is considered holy. The remains of saints are called holy relics and are usually used in churches. Saints’ personal belongings may also be used as relics. Some of the saints have a symbol that represents their life.

In 993, Pope John XV was the first pope to proclaim a saint, but it was not until the papacy of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) that the Pope claimed an exclusive monopoly on the canonization of saints. In 1983, Pope John Paul II made sweeping changes in the canonization procedure for Catholics whom are generally regarded as holy with the local bishop first investigating a deceased candidate’s life and writings for heroic virtue (or martyrdom) and orthodoxy of doctrine. Then a panel of theologians at the Vatican evaluates the candidate. After approval by the panel and cardinals of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the pope proclaims the candidate “venerable.”

Beatification

The next step, beatification, requires evidence of one miracle (except in the case of martyrs). Since miracles are considered proof that the person is in heaven and can intercede for us, the miracle must take place after the candidate’s death and as a result of a specific petition to the candidate. When the pope proclaims the candidate beatified or “blessed,” the person can be venerated by a particular region or group of people with whom the person holds special importance.

Although I do not know the total number of “blessed” in the Roman Catholic Church, the last three Popes have beatified 2,860 (Pope John Paul II, 1,342; Pope Benedict XVI, 843; and Pope Francis, 675 (including 124 Korean Martyrs on his recent trip to South Korea).)

Canonization

The Roman Catholic Church has over 10,000 named saints (or over 27 for every day of a normal year).

Only after one more miracle will the pope canonize the saint (this includes martyrs as well). The title of saint tells us that the person lived a holy life, is in heaven, and is to be honored by the universal Church. Canonization does not “make” a person a saint; it recognizes what God has already done.

The last three Popes have canonized 1,355 saints: Pope John Paul II, 482; Pope Benedict XVI, 45; and Pope Francis, 828. A source says that Pope Francis’ 828 in the first 18 months of his papacy is more than all the Popes of the last three centuries.

Westminster and the PCUSA

sermon

The PCUSA and Westminster do not have a roster of designated blesseds and saints. As a result, Westminster does not have statues or paintings of such individuals in our Sanctuary.Instead, most of Westminster’s Sanctuary’s beautiful stained-glass windows from the 1950s and 60s, made by Willet Studios, primarily depict images of the life of Jesus like the one to the right for His Sermon on the Mount that is on the north side of the main floor of the Sanctuary. Earlier windows feature Victorian and early 20th century stylized organic and geometric designs. Here below, for example, is a photograph of the large Rose Window that was installed at the back of the balcony in 1897 with the construction of our Sanctuary.

RoseWindow

Westminster, however, at the back of the Sanctuary’s main floor does have four Gospel Windows (images of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the authors of the New Testament’s Gospels). Below is a photograph of these windows.

Saints Matthew & Mark
Saints Matthew & Mark
Saints Luke & John
Saints Luke & John

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition, there are two stained glass windows at the back of the Sanctuary’s balcony with images of prominent Protestants. One is called the “Reformation Window” with images of Protestant reformers Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Knox. The other is called the “Missionary Window” with images of four Protestant missionaries: William Carey (India), David Livingstone (Africa), Sheldon Jackson (Alaska) and Marcus Whitman (Northwest U.S.). Photographs of these windows are below. Finally, also in the balcony we have a window for unnamed Martyrs and another window for Jesus’ Disciples and Apostles (without names). (Thanks for the photographs to Dr. Rodney Allen Schwartz, Director of Westminster’s Gallery and Archives.)

Westminster's "Reformers' Window"
Westminster’s                            “Reformation Window”
Westminster's "Missionaries Window"
Westminster’s                         “Missionary Window”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to a comment on the PCUSA website, “In the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition, we have and always will acknowledge and honor saints. Our designation as saints comes from our rich inheritance of Christ’s righteousness.” This commentator then adds the following:

  • “In St. Paul’s understanding, the title ‘saint’ belongs to all those who have been united with Christ, those who have a share in the rich inheritance as Children of God (baptism). St. Paul routinely calls the members of his churches ‘saints’ because of who they are in Christ and not because of what they have accomplished.”
  • “Furthermore, based on the teachings of the Second Helvetic Confession, and the early church fathers, Presbyterians do not pray for the mediation of the saints. We pray to God through Christ alone, and only look to the saints, ordinary people who had extra-ordinary faith, as examples and role models.”
  • “Also, as John Calvin and the early church fathers taught in regard to the mystery of Holy Communion, we believe that when we gather at the Lord’s Table and partake of the sacrament in faith, by the work of the Holy Spirit we become united in Christ and in prayer with those gathered around the eternal throne of God (which the Lord’s Table also represents) in accordance to the vision of St. John in the Book of Revelation.”

The PCUSA website introduces the subject of All Saints Day by saying, “In early Christian tradition, saints’ days began as a way to mark the anniversary of a martyr’s death — his or her “birthday” as a saint. By the middle of the church’s first millennium, there were so many martyrs . . . that it was hard to give them all their due. All Saints’ Day was established as an opportunity to honor all the saints, known and unknown.”

The PCUSA website goes on to say, “All Saints’ Day has a rather different focus in the Reformed tradition. While we may give thanks for the lives of particular luminaries of ages past, the emphasis is on the ongoing sanctification of the whole people of God. Rather than putting saints on pedestals as holy people set apart in glory, we give glory to God for the ordinary, holy lives of the believers in this and every age. [All Saints Day for Presbyterians] . . . is an appropriate time to give thanks to members of the community of faith who have died in the past year. We also pray that we may be counted among the company of the faithful in God’s eternal realm.”

Bishop William Walsham How
Bishop William Walsham How
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams

At Westminster, All Saints Day is observed by reciting the names of our most recent saints, those church members who died during the prior year, and by singing the famous hymn “For All the Saints” with words by William Walsham How (1823-1897)[3] and beautiful music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).[4] The words of this hymn in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal go like this:

  1. “For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed, thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed. Alleluia, Alleluia!”
  1. “Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might; thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight; thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light. Alleluia, Alleluia!”
  1. “O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia, Alleluia!”
  1. “And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong. Alleluia, Alleluia!”
  1. “From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Alleluia, Alleluia!”

Interestingly this hymn originally had six other verses that probably were eliminated in our Hymnal to keep the hymn of reasonable length by contemporary standards. But three of those deleted verses specifically recognize the Apostles, the Evangelists and the Martyrs as saints and thereby may suggest that only they are saints.

We also must acknowledge that the names of some Presbyterian churches include the names of saints: the Apostles of Jesus (Peter (or Simon), Andrew, James, John, Philip, Thomas and Matthew), the authors of the synoptic Gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke and John), the first evangelist (Paul) and other Roman Catholic saints (Elmo (or Erasmus)), Stephen, Barnabus, Giles and Patrick).

 Observations

I recognize that all of us as sinners need all the help we can get in striving to live holy lives and that blesseds and saints undoubtedly provide such assistance to many people. Moreover, I believe it must be useful for many people to have blesseds and saints from their own country or ethnic group or era to connect with Jesus, who lived and died 2,000 years ago.

A church’s having blesseds and saints can also be seen as a way for the church to evangelize, i.e., to spread the Good News of the Bible. In secular terms, it is a way to market the faith. Pope Francis’ recent beatification of 124 Korean martyrs can be seen in this light.

Once a church decides that it will have blesseds and saints, it obviously needs a well-established set of rules and procedures for making such important decisions, and Pope John Paul II’s previously mentioned changes in that regard I see as a rational management response.

However, I do not understand why the beatification and canonization of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero can be seen as controversial or difficult when he had the courage to act, despite repeated death threats, as Jesus taught all of us to act (Love your neighbor as yourself).

As an outsider to the Catholic faith, I see the proliferation of blesseds and saints as perhaps interfering with Christianity’s focus on Jesus Christ and God. I also find it difficult to accept the miracles that are requirements for beatification (except for martyrs) and for canonization. According to the Catholic Church, to be deemed a miracle, it happens after the death of the candidate for beatification or canonization, and “a medical recovery must be instantaneous, not attributable to treatment, [and the medical problem] disappear for good.”

In the Presbyterian version of Christian faith as I have experienced at Minneapolis’ Westminster, on the other hand, we avoid having our focus on Jesus interrupted by statues and references to the blesseds and the saints. Moreover, our sermons frequently use the faith and actions of contemporary people to illustrate important points of Scripture. In this way we help to see how Jesus’ teachings can be important in our lives today.

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[1] This account of the history and practices of the Roman Catholic Church’s blessed and saints is based upon the following secondary sources in addition to those that are hyperlinked above: http://catholicism.about.com/od/holydaysandholidays/p/All_Saints_Day.htm; http://www.catholic.org/saints/faq.php; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_saints; http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201310/how-many-saints-are-there-28027. I welcome amplification and corrections by those with more knowledge of the Catholic history and practice of beatification and canonization.

[2] Otterman, Tug of War Between Dioceses Halts a Bishop’s Beatification, N.Y. Times (Sept. 14, 2014.)

[3] How was an Anglican priest who served as Bishop of Wakefield in northern England and as Bishop of Bedford in the East End of London. He also was a poet and author of the lyrics for other hymns.

[4] Williams, who was Welsh-English, was a composer of symphonies, operas, chamber and choral music and film scores.