Secretary Pompeo: The Imperfect Christian Leader

On October 11, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo delivered a speech at the 2019 American Association of Christian Counselors World Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. He titled his remarks, “Being a Christian Leader.” [1] Below are the key parts of that speech followed by comments on ways in which he has not been such a leader.

Pompeo’s Speech

“We [all] talk to people through hard times.  We find ourselves in the middle of disputes and we seek to mediate them and try and identify their root causes.  We try to keep conflict minimized, at bay. . .  [T]he missions that you all have, it sounds a lot like the diplomacy that we at the    State Department and my team engage in every day.  .  . we’re both appealing to the hearts and minds to change behaviors.  As believers, we draw on the wisdom of God to help us get it right, to be a force for good in the life of human beings.” (Emphasis added.)

“ I want to . . . [talk] about what it means to be . . . a Christian leader in three areas.” (Emphasis added.)

“Disposition. [W]hat’s the attitude with which we approach each of these challenges? . . . How you carry yourself is the first area of Christian leadership.” Scripture calls us to be ‘transformed by the renewing of [our] minds.’  . . . I try every morning to try and get in a little bit of time with the [Bible].  I need my mind renewed with truth each day.  And part of that truth . . . is to be humble.  Proverbs says, ‘With the humble is wisdom.’” [Prov. 11:2.] (Emphasis added.)

“Every day, as Secretary of State, I get a real chance to be humble, because I get to see the great work that my team is doing . . . [and] am also confronted with highly complex problem sets, and I need wisdom to try and make the right calls.  I need to admit what I don’t know and try to learn it, to ask the questions that others might find obvious and be unembarrassed, and to accept conclusions when the facts are presented that might go against whatever preconceived notion that I might have had. Every day, as Secretary of State, I get a real chance to be humble, because I get to see the great work that my team is doing. . . [and] am also confronted with highly complex problem sets, and I need wisdom to try and make the right calls.  I need to admit what I don’t know and try to learn it, to ask the questions that others might find obvious and be unembarrassed, and to accept conclusions when the facts are presented that might go against whatever preconceived notion that I might have had. . . . wisdom comes from a humble disposition.” (Emphases added.)

Forgiveness is also important facet of disposition. We should all remember that we are imperfect servants serving a perfect God who constantly forgives us each and every day.  He keeps using us . . . to do a higher work.  And my work at the State Department, as it is for those who work alongside of me, is to serve America each and every day.” (Emphasis added.)

“Dialogue—how we speak with others– is also an important part of being a Christian leader. As the Book of James says: “’Everyone should be quick to listen, and slow to speak.’”

Speaking with foreign leaders reminds me “that sound relationships absolutely depend on open ears.  Good listening means more than just hearing; it means not rushing to judgment before you hear every side of a particular fact set.  This comes through so clearly in Proverbs, which say, ‘The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.’  Let’s make sure we understand the facts.  When we have that, we can begin to move forward and heal and solve problems.” (Emphasis added.)

After I’ve collected data, I . . . begin to speak fundamental basic, simple, small “t” truths.  Colossians talks about this.  It says, ‘Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer to each person.’” [Col. 4:6] (Emphasis added.)

Truth telling [is] what I try to do publicly as we lay down President Trump’s foreign policy to keep Americans safe and secure.” (Emphasis added.)

And I’m especially telling the truth about the dire condition of religious freedom around the world. America has a proud history of religious freedom, and we want jealously to guard it here.  But around the world, more than 80% of mankind lives in areas where religious freedom is suppressed or denied in its entirety.” (Emphasis added.)

The Secretary then commented on the absence of religious freedom in China, Iran, northern Iraq and bragged about the State Department’s Second Ministerial on International Religious Freedom.

“Making Decisions. The Bible calls us to be faithful in our stewardship of whatever it is that we have been privileged to hold onto, no matter how much or how little.  We have to be faithful in every single circumstance.” (Emphasis added.)

“International organizations will try, from time to time, to sneak language into their documents claiming that abortion is a human right.  And we’ll never accept that.”

“I pray you’ll help hurting people stay immersed in God’s Word.  By remaining humble.  By showing forgiveness.  By listening intently and carefully and thoughtfully.  By not rushing to judgment in complicated matters.  By being a faithful steward. By using your time with intentionally.”

“And I pray you’ll do these things not out of your own strength, but by relying on, as Paul says, ‘Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we are able to ask or to imagine.’”

Comments

These words are thoughtful and inspiring. But Pompeo as Secretary of State has failed to live up to his own words.

One instance, pointed out in a prior post, is his unceasing criticism of Cuba. Other such failures are his recent implicit disavowal of his May 2017 Senate testimony that Russian hackers working for the Putin government had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign; Pompeo’s initial feigned ignorance of the infamous phone call between President Trump and the new President of Ukraine when Pompeo had actually participated in the call, as he subsequently was forced to admit; Pompeo’s implicit acceptance of the President’s illegally soliciting foreign investigation of a political rival; Pompeo’s implicit acceptance of the President’s insertion of Rudolph Giuliani as an actor in U.S. foreign policy; and Pompeo’s attempts to prevent State Department personnel from testifying in the House’s impeachment inquiry.[2]

Another failure is Pompeo’s lack of integrity, as Tom Friedman, the New York Times’ columnist, discussed in a recent column. This conclusion was justified by Friedman “because Pompeo has just violated one of the cardinal rules of American military ethics and command: You look out for your soldiers, you don’t leave your wounded on the battlefield and you certainly don’t stand mute when you know a junior officer is being railroaded by a more senior commander, if not outright shot in her back.”

That cardinal rule was violated by Pompeo’s “cowardly, slimy behavior as the leader of the State Department.” This was especially true in his failure to speak up and defend the excellent U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. As John Sullivan, the current Deputy Secretary of State, stated at his October 30 Senate confirmation hearing to become the next U.S. Ambassador to Russia, that she had served “admirably and capably” as Ambassador to Ukraine and that he believed  that Giuliani had been “seeking to smear Ambassador Yovanovitch or have her removed.”

Pompeo, however, never said that. Instead he let her “be stabbed in the back with a Twitter knife, wielded by the president, “rather than tell Trump: ‘Sorry, Mr. President, if you fire her, I will resign. Because to do otherwise would be unjust and against my values and character — and because I would lose the loyalty of all my diplomats if I silently went along with such a travesty of justice against a distinguished 33-year veteran of the foreign service.’”

Friedman buttressed this opinion by referring to recent comments by “two now retired, longtime State Department diplomats, Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky, . . . [when they said,] ‘At the very least, Pompeo enabled the smear campaign to go unchallenged, acquiesced in the Giuliani back channel effort with Ukraine and failed to say a word in defense of Bill Taylor, George Kent or Marie Yovanovitch. These are breathtaking acts of craven political cowardice and beneath the dignity of any secretary of state.’”[3]

At a November 18 press conference, a journalist challenged Pompeo on this issue: “There are a lot of questions about why you have not chosen to speak up publicly in defense of your employees, including those who testified before the impeachment inquiry.  Can you explain why you haven’t chosen to make comments in their support?” Pompeo gave the following demonstrably false response: “I always defend State Department employees.  It’s the greatest diplomatic corps in the history of the world.  Very proud of the team.”

Pompeo at this press conference also dodged pointed questions about specific foreign service officers. One asked for his opinion on President Trump’s tweet about Ambassador Yovanovitch during her testimony at the impeachment inquiry; Pompeo’s  response: “I’ll defer to the White House about particular statements and the like.  I don’t have anything else to say about the Democrats’ impeachment proceeding.” Another question was whether he thinks “Ambassador Taylor  has been an effective envoy of . . . [Ukraine] policy and if he is going to remain in his job, or if the President has lost confidence in him.” The response: “State Department’s doing a fantastic job.”[4]

Friedman believes the basic reason for this Pompeo failure to support foreign service officers is his desire “to run for president after Trump — and did not want to risk alienating Trump.” Pompeo, the self-proclaimed Christian, thereby failed to heed the warning of Mark 8:36:  “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, but lose his soul?”

Therefore, this blogger joins Friedman’s conclusion: “So it’s now clear that Pompeo had not taken an oath to defend and protect the Constitution. [Instead he] took an oath to defend and protect Donald J. Trump and Pompeo’s own future political career — above all else — and that’s exactly what he’s been doing. Shame on him.”

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

[1] State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo: Being a Christian Leader (Oct. 11, 2019);  Pompeo faces criticism for giving speech on being a ‘Christian leader,’ The Christian Post (Oct. 15, 2019).

[2] Jakes, Pompeo Defends Trump’s Ukraine Conspiracy Theory, N.Y. Times (Oct. 5, 2019); Fandos, Barnes & Shear,  Former Top State Dept. Aide Tells Impeachment Investigators He Quit Over Ukraine, N.Y. Times (Oct. 16, 2019); Horowitz & Pérez-Peña, Pompeo Confirms He Listened to Trump’s Call to Ukraine President, N.Y. Times (Oct. 2, 2019); Wong & Sanger, Pompeo Faces Political Peril and Diplomats’ Revolt in Impeachment Inquiry, N.Y. Times (Nov. 6, 2019).

[3] Friedman, Mike Pompeo: Last in His Class at West Point in Integrity, N.Y. Times (Nov. 18, 2019); Miller & Sokolsky, Marie Yovanovitch got smeared, Where was Mike Pompeo?, CNN.com (Nov. 16, 2019).

[4] State Dep’t, Secretary Michael R. Pompeo Remarks to the Press (Nov. 18, 2019).

 

Secretary Pompeo Reiterates U.S. Hostility Towards Cuba

On or about November 16, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo reiterated U.S. hostility towards Cuba in an interview by Carlos Alberto Montaner, an exiled Cuban author now living in Spain. Here are the key points of that interview. [1]

“Cuba is a foreign policy priority for the Trump Administration. The President’s National Security Memorandum of June 2017, which established our policy to support the Cuban people, while holding the Cuban regime accountable both for its human rights abuses in the country and for its destabilizing interference in other parts of the region, . . . was only the beginning. Since then, we have imposed more sanctions on the Cuban regime, including the elimination of an authorization for ‘fraternization’ group trips, the impediment of US passenger and recreational vessels, such as cruise ships, yachts and private planes, to travel to Cuba, and finish the scheduled American air transport service to all Cuban airports except Havana.”

“We take these measures because the Cuban people do not benefit greatly from such exchanges, the regime does. All these actions are designed to prevent US dollars from filling the pockets of the Cuban military, the same people who repress the Cuban people in the country, support Maduro in Venezuela and are aligned with Putin in Russia.”

“Cuba’s interference in Venezuela and other countries in the region is totally unacceptable. Particularly appalling is the participation of the Cuban military and intelligence services that support the despot Maduro, in exchange for shipments of Venezuelan oil. This oil belongs to the Venezuelan people, who are suffering greatly under the economic, political and humanitarian crisis that created Maduro’s corruption and mismanagement.”

“Maduro’s use of oil to pay for the intrusion and abuse of Cuba is a large-scale robbery and is illegal under Venezuelan law.”

“We continue to look for new ways to limit this illegal exchange. The United States is currently focusing on the tools of diplomacy and sanctions to generate pressure in order to achieve a democratic transition in Venezuela. We have made more than 200 designations related to Venezuela since 2017, under the Law on the Designation of Foreign Drug Trafficking Chiefs (Kingpin Act) and several presidential orders. These actions prevent Maduro’s illegitimate regime from using the US financial system for its corrupt and socially destructive economic practices, and impose a cost on the regime for its illicit practices, human rights violations and corruption.”

“The Cuban regime has made it clear that it not only supports, but is responsible for the power abuses of the Maduro regime. The United States remains determined to actively support a peaceful transition to democracy, freedom and the rule of law in Venezuela. President Trump has said that all options are on the table in Venezuela, including the military option, but in the State Department we are currently focused on deploying all our diplomatic and economic options to support the interim president Guaidó and the National Assembly in a peaceful restoration of democracy, freedom and the rule of law.”

“Certainly, the Cuban presence can be felt throughout the region. Ecuador recently expressed concern that Cubans were interfering in its sovereign territory, and we have seen how the Cuban regime has historically interfered in Nicaragua, Bolivia and Venezuela.”

Conclusion

Cuba, like every country in the world including the U.S., is legitimately subject to criticism on some of its actions and policies. But Cuba does not deserve this unceasing criticism from the U.S. Secretary of State.

Moreover, the Secretary fails to acknowledge that hostile policies and rhetoric by the much more powerful U.S. have forced Cuba to take certain actions to protect itself, like its increasing connections with Russia. The Secretary, who claims to be a Christian, should remember, and act in accordance with, these words from the Gospel of Matthew (7: 1-5 (NRSV):

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

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

[1] Montaner, Pompeo: Washington seeks ‘new ways to limit illegal exchange’ between the regimes of Cuba and Venezuela, Diario de Cuba (Nov. 16, 2019).

 

 

Secretary of State Pompeo Delivers Speech at the Holy See

On October 2, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo delivered a speech in Rome at the Holy See’s Symposium on Working with Faith-Based Organizations. He also met with Pope Francis and with two Vatican officials.

Pompeo’s Speech [1]

After mentioning some of the main points of last week’s session on religious freedom at the U.N. that was organized by the U.S., the Secretary recalled, “Then-Pope – now Saint – John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan combined the moral authority of the Holy See with the prosperity and example of the United States, the freest nation on earth, to fight the evil empire [the Soviet Union].  Through patience and unity of purpose, they prevailed. Their words and deeds helped save – helped leave the Soviet leviathan on that ash heap of history.”

“More than 80 percent of mankind [now] lives in places where religious freedom is threatened or entirely denied.  Approximately 71 million people around the world are displaced as refugees.  Roughly 25 million people are caught in human trafficking situations.”

“And it’s no coincidence that it has happened as unfree societies have proliferated. Because when the state rules absolutely, God becomes an absolute threat to authority.  That’s why Cuba cancelled National Catholic Youth Day back in August.”(Emphasis added.) He also had negative words about violations of religious freedom in China, Syria, Iran and Burma.

“We must recognize the roots of religious repression.  Authoritarian regimes and autocrats will never accept a power higher than their own.  And that causes all sorts of assaults on human dignity.

On “the issues most fundamental, on the issues of human dignity and religious freedom, these issues that transcend everyday politics, on the enduring struggle of the individual’s right to believe and worship, we [the Holy See and the U.S.] must – and I know we will – march together.”

The Secretary then discussed the Second U.S. Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the U.S.-led gathering on religious freedom at the U.N. last week and the U.S.-initiated Religious Freedom Alliance.[2]

Meeting with Pope Francis [3]

The State Department’s initial statement merely said that Secretary Pompeo had “a private audience with His Holiness Pope Francis.” A subsequent statement adced this summary: “The Pope and the Secretary “reaffirmed the United States and Holy See commitment to advancing religious freedom around the world, and in particular, protecting Christian communities in the Middle East.  The Secretary and Pope Francis also discussed the continued efforts of the United States and the Holy See to promote democracy and human rights globally.”

The Vatican, on the other hand, merely confirmed the meeting’s having taken place, but offered no details. The Associated Press added, “There was no indication that Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, sought any type of spiritual solace from Pope Francis during their meeting.”

Pompeo along with the  U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Callista Gingrich (wife of Newt Gingrich, former Republican Congressman), also met with the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher. According to the State Department, “Secretary Pompeo thanked Cardinal Parolin and Archbishop Gallagher for the Vatican’s efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and end the suffering of the Venezuelan people. They also discussed the importance of preventing trafficking in persons and advancing international religious freedom. On the Middle East, the Secretary noted U.S. efforts to support Christian minorities, and emphasized the importance of continued calls from the United States and the Vatican to end the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.”

Conclusion

 Once again, the Secretary had lofty words about religious freedom, an honorable cause. But it mainly was a political promotion for things that the current administration is doing. without any mention of working with faith-based organizations, which was the apparent theme of the Holy See’s Symposium.  There was no humbly walking with God as Micah 6:8 reminds us: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8 (NRSV)(emphasis added).)

And the Secretary could not let this speech occur without an unnecessary and misleading negative word about Cuba. Yes, the Office of Religious Affairs of the Cuban Communist Party did not allow most public celebrations this year of National Catholic Youth Day, except they were permitted in the city of Santiago de Cuba at the eastern end of the island and such celebrations also took place in the premises of the church’s eleven dioceses. Moreover, the cancelation of the other celebrations could have been prompted by Cuba’s current energy shortages, a substanal cause of which is the U.S. sanctions against Venezuela’s shipping oil to the island. [4]

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

[1] State Dep’t, Human Dignity and Faith in Free Societies (Oct. 2, 2019).

[2]  E.g., U.S. State Department’s Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (July 21, 2019); U.S. at U.N. Global Call To Protect Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 24, 2019).

3] State Dep’t, Travel to Italy, the Holy See, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Greece, October 1-6, 2019; State Dep’t, Secretary Michael R. Pompeo’s Meeting with Pope Francis (Oct. 3, 2019); State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo’s Meeting with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher (Oct. 3, 2019); Lee (Assoc. Press), Pompeo Meets Pope francis as impeachment roils Washington, Wash. Post (Oct. 3, 2019) Assoc. Press, Pompeo Meets Pope francis as Impeachment Roils Washington, N.Y. Times (Oct. 3, 2019).

[4] Catholic public youth day celebrations cancelled in Cuba, Christian Telegraph (Aug. 6, 2019); Bordoni, Pope encourages young Cuban Catholics to become missionary disciples, Vatican News (Aug. 1, 2019); Lopez, Be Transformed ‘Into Missionary Disciples,’ Says Pope in His Message for Cuba’s National Youth Day, Zenit (Aug. 2, 2019).

 

 

Examination of the Actions of EchoCuba (a U.S. Nonprofit)

The Evangelical Christian Humanitarian Outreach for Cuba (ECHO Cuba), a U.S. nonprofit organization, has emerged as one that calls for close examination by U.S. citizens interested in U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation. EchoCuba is active in Cuba, including successful public opposition to a provision of the then proposed new Cuban constitution and commenting on other controversial Cuban issues. It has received significant financial support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Finally EchoCuba has been used by the State Department as one of only two primary sources for the department’s most recent (and critical) annual report on Cuban religious freedom. These activities have not yet received the serious attention that they deserve. This blog post endeavors to start that examination.

ECHOCuba’s Background [1]

The organization was founded in 1994 by Cuban-American Teo Babún. Soon thereafter it was denounced in the Cuban TV news series “Razones de Cuba” for promoting subversion on the island, with funding from the U.S. government, by publishing counterrevolutionary blogs and printed propaganda and by hosting public events.

Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, has reported that Senor Babún and his family before the triumph of the Revolution “owned the second largest sugarmill in the eastern part of [Cuba]; the Diamante construction company; a cement factory; the Sevilla estate; and the Santiago de Cuba ship line.” After 1959, however, he and his family left the island for Miami, where he made connections with the “annexionist” mafia [Cuban exiles], supported the U.S.-organized mercenary invasion of Play Girón [Bay of Pigs in 1961] and a subsequent terrorist attack on the coastal town of Boca de Samá in 1971.

A noted Cuban intellectual and historian, Nestor Garcia Iturbe, added that Senor Babún is (or was) the executive director of Americas Humanitarian Relief Logistics Team, Inc. (ART) , which says that it “provides aid to hurting people in the Americas” and “disaster response assistance throughout the Americas” as well as partnering with the U.S. Navy’s Southern Command and with “USAID and UN/OCHA through the U.N. Humanitarian System.” Indeed, Garcia says this organization also is a recipient of USAID fund. Another organization created by Babún was the Claims Register Assistance to aid persons who wanted to file claims in the 1960s with the U.S. Department of Justice for their Cuban properties that had been expropriated by the Fidel Castro regime.

The current website for EchoCuba states that its mission is “to equip and strengthen the independent evangelical churches of Cuba through theological education and leadership training of their existing and future pastors. . . . Since the early 1990s, . . . [it] has existed to advocate faith and freedoms in Cuba through a vast network of mostly . . . Protestant and Roman Catholic churches who have promoted Christian education, humanitarian aid, and small business initiatives.”

EchoCuba says in 2002 it “cooperated with different foundations and organizations  in distributing humanitarian assistance and training manuals on carrying out social and human services, such as caring for the elderly, disabled, and malnourished children. It also has aided in reaching out to the most marginalized pockets of Cuba’s populations, including the families of those persecuted by the communist regime for their beliefs and ideals.”

“Today [date not specified] we embark on a new chapter . . . [to focus on] the development of effective Christian leadership to promote Biblical truth while transforming communities. . . [and empowering] the in We collaborate with local leaders, seminaries and communities in the island to bring the Gospel to the masses.”

Yet another of its activities is “faith-based advocacy.” It correctly notes that Cuba was an “atheist state” and that during that period Christians suffered. It also claims that freedom of religion today on the island is “not fully available, and persecution of those who publicly profess a creed exists today.” [This statement is true for the period 1959-1992], but misleading on the years since then.]

EchoCuba also participates in the First Frontier Cuba Network, which “serves as a convening platform, which stewards and directs the investment of North American resources, time, energy and manpower wisely to directly respond to the continuing needs of the Cuban Church. [This Network] has been created to provide consultation and leadership to catalyze the right kind of change in Cuba, without harm, confusion, and fragmentation; and to be the voice of Cuban missiology that guides ministry action towards long-term and productive change for the Kingdom of God.”

The final activity listed on its website is “fighting Biblical poverty.” It claims in the last two decades, “Christianity has grown in Cuba in an unprecedented rate. With a population of 11 million, and only 10%-20% of that population being active Christians, the demand for Bibles is unlike any other point in history. For most Christians in Cuba, they feel isolated from the world. The government and its last of freedom restrict the ability of Christians to access the outside world through literature, internet, television even the distribution of Christian material including the Sword of God [the Bible]. In Cuba there are no places to buy or print Bibles on the island. However God always opens doors. Recently, easing of tensions between the United States and Cuba [with President Obama’s December 2014 opening to Cuba] after fifty years offers an unprecedented opportunity for the Church to receive bibles from international organizations like EchoCuba. Now, you can help Cubans discover the life and love of Jesus found in God’s Word. EchoCuba has vowed to bring the Gospel any way it can to God’s faithful servants in Cuba.”

The website also claims that “Churches in Cuba are not legally allowed to be constructed, [thereby forcing] God’s people . . . to operate through house churches, which hold no legal recognition from the government. Cuba has over 25,000 house churches on the island. The average house church holds an average of 20 to 40 members, on average only 5-10 bibles are available for the entire congregation. We believe that by providing Church leaders and seminarians with Bible and Scripture resources, even more people will experience the transformative power of God’s love for all of us. Our 2015 goal is to provide 5,000 bibles to Churches in Cuba.”

EchoCuba also is a member, since November 2007, of EFCA, which “provides accreditation to leading Christian nonprofit organizations that faithfully demonstrate compliance with established standards for financial accountability.”

EchoCuba’s Financial Support by USAID [2]

Although it is not mentioned on EchoCuba’s website, USAID, for fiscal 2009-2017, paid $2,302,464 to EchoCuba. Of this total, $1,033,582 was “for a three-year program entitled ‘Empowering Civil Society by Strengthening Economic Independence.’” Another $1,179,066 was for the Cuba Humanitarian Support Network, which was “aimed at providing “humanitarian aid to Cuba’s vulnerable religious leaders” and creating a “humanitarian network for the sustainable delivery of essential food and health supplies to marginalized Cubans and their family members.” In addition, EchoCuba to date has received at least $1,003,674 from USAID during the Trump presidency.

ECHOCuba’s Recent Activities in Cuba [3]

In late 2018, some Cuban evangelical churches, encouraged by EchoCuba and other U.S. conservative evangelical churches and organizations, registered strong objections to a provision of the proposed new Cuban Constitution that would have legalized same-sex marriage. According to Andrew Chestnut, Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, ““Both the moral and financial support of U.S. Evangelical denominations and agencies has been crucial to backing Cuban Evangelicals in their campaign to oppose gay marriage on the island.”

In response, in December 2018, the Cuban government withdrew that provision before the new constitution was approved in a national referendum.

This year, Cuban evangelical churches and groups, with the support of similar groups in the U.S., objected to Cuba’s version of a gay pride parade in May, resulting in its cancelation by the organizers of the event.

In July 2019, EchoCuba was involved in the creation of the Evangelical Alliance of Cuban Churches  as separate from the longstanding Cuban Council of Churches (CIC) on the ground that the latter did not represent their beliefs, including opposition to same-sex marriage. According to Elaine Saralegui Caraballo, a lesbian pastor and founder of a Cuban division of the Metropolitan Community Church, said, “The creation of this Alliance fosters a space of unity, from which the whole economic, spiritual, religious, and political force of the Christian fundamentalist churches will be deployed” and that the Alliance’s goal was to promote “Christian supremacy” with the guidance of the U.S. far right, in a similar manner as has occurred in other Latin American countries.”

EchoCuba as Source for State Department on Cuban Religious Freedom [4]

The latest State Department’s report on international religious freedom that was released in June 2019 contained many adverse allegations about that freedom in Cuba with only two principal stated sources, one of which was EchoCuba (without any disclosure about its funding by USAID).

That report contained the following statements about the evangelical or apostolic churches:

  • “There are approximately 4,000 followers of 50 Apostolic churches (an unregistered loosely affiliated network of Protestant churches, also known as the Apostolic Movement) and a separate New Apostolic Church associated with the New Apostolic Church International.  According to some Christian leaders, there is a marked growth of evangelical Protestant groups in the country.”
  • “According to EchoCuba, the ORA [Communist Party’s’ Office of Religious Affairs] approved some registration applications, but it took as many as two to three years from the date of the application.  Other applications received no response or were denied without explanation, while some groups continued to wait for up to 25 years for a response.  EchoCuba said Apostolic churches repeatedly had their attempts to register denied, forcing these churches to operate without legal status.”
  • “In October leaders of Apostolic churches including Bernardo de Quesada, Alain Toledanos, and Marco Antonio Perdomo, issued an official statement on behalf of non-registered groups, which they said are ‘in practice discriminated against,’ urging the government to establish a new statute formally defining and granting the right to, and laying out procedures for, legal registration of religious organizations by the MOJ [Ministry of Justice].  The ORA and the MOJ did not announce any progress on revising the law on associations, announced in August 2017.”
  • “In March the New Apostolic Church, not affiliated with the many loosely affiliated Apostolic churches, registered with the MOJ.”
  • “According to EchoCuba, the government continued to apply its system of rewarding churches that were obedient and sympathetic to “revolutionary values and ideals” and penalizing those that were not.  Similarly, the government continued to reward religious leaders who were cooperative with the government and threatened revocation of those rights for noncooperative religious leaders.  EchoCuba reported that, in exchange for their cooperation with the government, CCC members continued to receive benefits other non-member churches did not always receive, including building permits, international donations of clothing and medicine, and exit visas for pastors to travel abroad.  EchoCuba said individual churches and denominations or religious groups also experienced different levels of consideration by the government depending on the leadership of those groups and their relationship with the government.”
  • “According to EchoCuba, the government continued to single out religious groups critical of the government, such as the unregistered Apostolic Movement, for particularly severe persecution, destroying their churches, confiscating properties, and banning travel of their pastors.  In contrast, the government allowed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also unregistered, to operate with little intervention because the Church continued to maintain a close relationship with the government and did not question the country’s laws.  Some religious leaders said the government continued to grant permits to buy properties for use as house churches, including in some cases when the titleholder to the property did not plan to live there.  Other religious groups said securing permission for the purchase or construction of new buildings remained difficult, if not impossible.”
  • “According to EchoCuba, government agencies regularly refused to recognize a change in residence for pastors and other church leaders assigned to a new church or parish.  A decree continued to place restrictions on internal movement and migration, making it difficult, if not impossible, for pastors and their families to register their new place of residence if they transferred to a church that lost its pastor due to death or retirement.  To engage with even the smallest of bureaucratic details, pastors refused the right to reregister needed to travel to wherever they were officially registered and submit the paperwork there.  Legal restrictions on travel within the country also limited itinerant ministry, a central component of some religious groups.  According to EchoCuba, the application of the decree to religious groups was likely part of the general pattern of government efforts to control their activities.  Some religious leaders said the decree was also used to block church leaders from travelling within the country to attend special events or meetings.  Church leaders associated with the Apostolic churches regularly reported they were prevented, sometimes through short-term detention, from travelling to attend church events or carry out ministry work.”

As pointed out in a prior post, this State Department report made only the following reference to the Cuban Council of Churches (CIC): ““Embassy officials met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches, a government-registered organization with close ties to the government composed mostly of Protestant groups and associated with the World Council of Churches, to discuss its operations and programs.” (Exec. Summary.)

Criticism of U.S. Report on Cuban Religious Freedom [5]

This report’s ever so brief reference to the CIC, in this blogger’s judgment, is a major flaw in the U.S. report as the CIC was founded in 1941 and describes itself as “an ecumenical fellowship of churches and other Cuban Christian institutions, which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior, in accordance with the Scriptures and seek to realize their common vocation for the Glory of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The CIC promotes spaces for encounter, celebration, reflection, formation and joint actions of the churches and other Christian institutions, for the service to our people, as a visible expression of the ecumenism to which we are called by God in Jesus Christ.” Today the CIC’s membership includes 28 denominations, 10 fraternal associations and 14 ecumenical movements and centers.

Relevant here is CIC’s statement (on or about July 17, 2019) in response to the announced intent to create the previously mentioned Evangelical Alliance if Cuban Churches. “We want to reiterate to our people and their churches that the . . . [CIC], as it affirms in its Constitution, works under its motto ‘United to Serve‘ which states:

  • ‘We are a fellowship of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions that confess the Lord Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior, according to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and seek to realize their common vocation, the glory of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’
  • ‘Our mission is to provide spaces for meeting, celebration, reflection and formation of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions, as a visible expression of the unity to which God calls us in Jesus Christ, in the service of our people.’
  • ‘Encouraging the study, consultation and different areas of service in accordance with its purposes and functions; the cooperation of Christians in order to strengthen fraternal relations; enrich Christian life and witness; develop a sense of social responsibility and encourage participation in tasks of common interest for the evangelizing mission of the Church.’
  • ‘The Council, without authority over its members to determine issues of doctrine, government or worship, could be a mediating instance, provided that peace and goodness of the Body of Christ is sought, based on the best testimony to the world: the unity of the believers.’

Therefore, the CIC statement continued, “It is not for the [CIC], to rule on doctrinal issues that have been put on the public stage, nor to represent on this or any other issue, before the Cuban people and its authorities, the churches and organizations , members or not.” It then added the following:

  • “In Cuba all denominations enjoy religious freedom and are equal before the law, therefore each church or religious organization establishes the relations it deems with the authorities, and gives testimony before them and the Cuban people as understood from their understanding of the Faith.” (Emphasis added.)
  • “The Council of Churches, in adherence to the values ​​that its Constitution proclaims and in its vocation of service, has carried out mediating efforts since its foundation. And it has done so by sovereign decision of its members, from its governing bodies, without supplanting it, any rights of others.”
  • “On the contrary, in most cases, these efforts have benefited not only the churches and member organizations of the CIC, and in some, all the religious denominations and their practitioners on the island. Suffice it to mention the import and distribution of Bibles, and in the early 90s, their decisive contribution in the cessation of all forms of religious discrimination in Cuba.”
  • “God calls for unity in Christ our Lord, to serve and bear witness to the Gospel. Since its foundation 78 years ago, the . . . [CIC] has shown its fidelity to this call. Our fidelity is only to Jesus Christ, our Lord. There is no other Lord, neither here in our beloved Homeland, nor outside it, to which we MUST serve and adore.”
  • “The . . . [CIC] reaffirms its commitment to continue working for the unity of the churches. Serving the people and the nation, seeking together and together the paths of peace, faith and hope, the dignity of the people and the care of Creation, that help us to build and live the signs of the Kingdom of God: equality and love for all and all in the midst of our beloved country.”

Personal Testimony [6]

As a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, which for the last 17 years has had a partnership with a sister church in Cuba, I have been on three mission trips to the island to visit our partner and other churches and the office of the CIC. I also have welcomed Cuban visitors to our church in Minneapolis, have discussed other members’ trips to the island, have read widely about many aspects of Cuban-U.S. history and have written many blog posts criticizing hostile U.S. policies and actions against Cuba and encouraging reconciliation and normalization of relations. As a result I now have many Cuban-Presbyterian friends and can testify that these churches and members as well as the CIC enjoy many aspects of religious freedom and embrace a warm and loving Christian faith.

Therefore, it is totally illegitimate for the State Department virtually to ignore the faith and work of these churches and members and of the CIC. It also is illegitimate for the Department and others in the U.S. government implicitly to assume that some U.S. notions of religious freedom should apply to Cuba without considering the vast differences in economic circumstances. This especially is true with respect to building new church buildings. Like the U.S., construction permits are needed in Cuba for new buildings, religious and otherwise. That does not make such construction illegal, as is claimed in the previously mentioned State Department report. Moreover, the granting of such permits in Cuba is inhibited by limitations on the island’s financial resources.

Although I did not visit Cuba during the period of its close relationship with the Soviet Union, until 1992, it is true that Christians and other religious people were discriminated against. However, Cuba did not assassinate or disappear religious opponents of the regime as was done by the right-wing government of El Salvador in the 1980’s. On one of my trips to our partner church on the island, one of the members told me that she had not been brave enough to have been a Christian during those prior years. Another member told me that he had been in seminary with the pastor of our partner, but he had left the Cuban church in order to become a public school teacher. Now that he was retired, he again freely could attend church.

After the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba adopted a more conciliatory position towards religion and lessened its promotion of atheism. In November 1991 the Communist Party began to allow believers into its ranks, and in July 1992, the constitution was amended to remove the definition of Cuba as being a state based on Marxism–Leninism, and article 42 was added, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of religious belief. Another important change after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the increased acceptance of religion in Cuba, several Protestant pastors became members of the National Assembly, two of whom I have met: Rev. Sergio Arce, a Presbyterian-Reformed pastor, and Rev. Raúl Suarez, a Baptist pastor.[ii]

In 2004 the first Greek Orthodox Cathedral opened in Havana; shortly thereafter I visited the island and saw flags welcoming Greek Orthodox Archbishop Bartholomew to the city while my Presbyterian delegation delivered an icon to the new Cathedral from a Minneapolis’ Greek Orthodox Church. Four years later, in 2008, the first Russian Orthodox Church was opened in Havana during an official ceremony attended by then President Raúl Castro. Three Popes have visited the island: Pope John Paul II (1998), Pope Benedict XVI (2012) and Pope Francis (2015).[iii]

Nevertheless, it must be noted that upon the recent appointment of Monsignor Juan de la Caridad as the new Roman Catholic Archbishop of Havana, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba lamented that the Catholic Church on the island does not have schools, universities, newspapers, radio stations or welfare centers while less than 3% of the population attends Sunday Mass even though at least half confess being of that faith.[iv]

The recent State Department report on Cuban religious freedom also blindly accepts assertions by EchoCuba and Christian Solidarity Worldwide about alleged Cuban discrimination and persecution of various evangelical churches, especially when at least EchoCuba receives USAID funds. The U.S. government should not forget or ignore that the State Department and USAID over the years have helped finance so-called U.S. “democracy promotion” efforts on the island that in reality were efforts at “regime change.” As a result, it is reasonable for Cuba to exercise close surveillance of the activities of such organizations.

Conclusion [7]

As someone who strives to follow Jesus as a member of a Presbyterian Church, I am glad to see the U.S. emphasizing the importance of religious freedom around the world. However, given the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election and the support for Trump in the last election by many U.S. evangelical leaders and groups, one has to wonder whether current U.S. hostility towards Cuba and the Trump Administration programs like the new U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights and the first two of promised annual Ministerials on International Religious Freedom are really designed to solidify that U.S. domestic political support for the re-election of Donald Trump.

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

[1] EchoCuba; Castro Morales, Who is Teo Babún and why is he going after Cuba? Granma (Feb. 21, 2019); Sanchez, The ‘charity’ made in Miami and the strange faith of ECHOCuba, The Insomniac Pupil (April 18, 2011).

[2] Eaton, God, USAID and Cuba, Cuba Money Project (Nov. 20, 2018); Eaton, Cuba spending under Trump, Cuba Money Project (June 17, 2019); Eaton, Lawmakers want $20 million for Cuba projects in 2020, Cuba Money Project (June 21, 2019;); AmericasReliefTeam, Cuban Humanitarian Support Network. The Cuba Money Project is a U.S. “journalism initiative aimed at reporting stories about U.S. government programs and projects related to Cuba” that is operated by Tracey Eaton, a journalist and former Havana bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.

[3] Bodenheimer, How American Evangelicals Helped Stop Same-Sex Marriage in Cuba, VICE (April 20, 2019)

[4] State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cuba (June 21, 2019); State Department’s Latest Report on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (June 25, 2019); U.S. State Department Unfairly Criticizes Cuban Religious Freedom, dwkcommenaries.com (July 18, 2019).

[5] Background on the Cuban Council of Churches; World Council of Churches, Cuban Council of Churches; Joint Statement of the Cuban Council of Churches and the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (Apr. 25, 2019); Larkman, Cuba contingent hopes to further partnership between U.S., Cuban churches (Nov. 13, 2017); Reformed Presbyterian Church in Cuba, Wikipedia

[6] E.g., Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation, dwkcommentareis.com (Dec. 22, 2014); The Cuban Revolution and Religion, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 30, 2011); posts listed in the “Pope Francis Visits to Cuba & U.S., 2015” section of List of Post to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA; Bishops lament that the Catholic church lacks a ‘massive social presence in Cuba,’ Diario de Cuba (Sept. 3, 2019).

[7] See posts  to dwkcommentaries about the Commission on Unalienable Rights; U.S. State Department’s First Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom, dwkcommentries.com  (July 7, 2019); U.S. State Department’s Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom , dwkcommentaries.com(July 21, 2019); Realpolitik Analysis of U.S. Ministerial To Advance Religious Liberty and U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 23, 2019).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

[1] Castro Morales, Who is Teo Babún and why is he going after Cuba?, Granma (Feb. 21, 2019); Sanchez, The ‘charity’ made in Miami and the strange faith of ECHOCuba, The Insomniac Pupil (April 18, 2011); EchoCuba, About US; ECFA, ECHOCuba.

[2] Eaton, God, USAID and Cuba, Cuba Money Project (Nov. 20, 2018); Eaton, Cuba spending under Trump, Cuba Money Project (June 17, 2019); Eaton, Lawmakers want $20 million for Cuba projects in 2020, Cuba Money Project (June 21, 2019); AmericasReliefTeam, Cuban Humanitarian Support Network. The Cuba Money Project is a U.S. “journalism initiative aimed at reporting stories about U.S. government programs and projects related to Cuba” that is operated by Tracey Eaton, a journalist and former Havana bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.

[3] Bodenheimer, How American Evangelicals Helped Stop Same-Sex Marriage in Cuba, VICE (April 20, 2019).

 

 

 

 

U.S. and Cuban Churches Denounce U.S. Embargo and Recent Additional U.S. Actions Against Cuba

On April 26 the National Council of  the Churches of Christ in the USA and the Cuban Council of Churches issued the following Joint Statement. [1]

“Today, Friday, April 26, the fifth day after Easter Sunday, we come together once again as two Christian ecumenical councils to affirm our faith and love in Jesus Christ. Like the disciples walking to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), we desire to walk together with the resurrected Christ and share with him the bread that he has blessed with us and for us.”

“Our Councils have prayed, walked and worked together for many years. We have done so not only to witness to all the blessings we have received from God as a fruit of our unity in love, faith, and hope, but also to testify to the power of the Holy Spirit in all times of challenge to our dream of bringing our peoples and nations together. We have stood for peace when many cried for war. We have taken a stand for family unity when others tried to divide our families.”

“Since 1968, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has called for normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, for the removal of the economic blockade [embargo] imposed on Cuba, and for removal of travel restrictions.”

“Today, after our two nations began to make significant progress toward normalized relations, we are facing a critical moment that threatens to erase the gains already made.  We, therefore, reaffirm our solidarity in Christ and stand together to:

  • Work together to end the blockade — rejected by the vast majority of United Nations member countries — which has an extraterritorial effect, and for normal relations between our people and nations;
  • Express our opposition to the Trump Administration’s addition of new restrictions on travel between Cuba and the United States;
  • Express our opposition to the decision by the Trump Administration to no longer maintain the suspension of Title III of the Helms-Burton legislation, an action that will further hinder the quality of life of the Cuban people and will create enormous and unnecessary legal problems worldwide;
  • Express our opposition to the limitation and restriction of family remittances from the United States to Cuba;
  • Advocate for the reopening and normalization of consular services between the two countries, on a humanitarian basis, since it will facilitate the access to visas and the normalization of relations among families and between our peoples.”

“Finally, these recent actions by the Trump Administration will hinder us as we pursue together God’s mission and will be another obstacle to develop further our relations, partnerships, and the spiritual growth of the churches in the United States and Cuba. We, therefore, call on the churches in our countries along with all our partner ecumenical bodies, faith-based organizations, and all people of good will in our region and around the world to join us in our advocacy, solidarity, and action for a better present and future for our two countries, churches and people.”

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ,
and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is,
in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,
not counting their trespasses against them, and
entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” 

– Corinthians 5:18-19 NRSV”

The National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, which was formally organized in 1950,  has 38 member communions with 45 million people in over 100,000 congregations.

The Cuban Council of Churches (CIC), which was founded in 1941, is the leading institution of the ecumenical movement in Cuba, with 52 churches and Christian institutions as members, including Protestants, Reformists, Evangelists, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, and Orthodox; in addition to other ecumenical institutions and associate members.

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

[1] National Council of Churches, Joint Statement: Facing a Critical Moment (April 26, 2019); Council of Churches of Christ of the United States and the Council of Churches of Cuba pronounce themselves against the blockade, Granma (April 28, 2019).

 

“What Is Your Call Story?”

This was the title of the moving February 17 sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen.

As mentioned in previous posts, Westminster’s worship services are divided into three parts: Preparing for the Word; Listening for the Word; and Responding to the Word. After looking at the main points of the first part of the service, this post will quote the main parts of the second section: the sermon and its Biblical texts. The post will conclude with attention to the main parts of the third part of the service while my personal response to the sermon and Biblical texts will be set forth in a subsequent post.

Preparing for the Word

The Prelude was J.S. Bach’s Duet for Violin and Viola, as played by Becca Hanson and Jim Hanson, in memory of Lois Hanson (Jim’s mother and Becca’s grandmother) with Melanie Ohnstad, piano.

Then the congregation sang the Processional Hymn, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” by William Williams, Wales’ most famous hymn writer (1717-1791), followed by Associate Pastor, Rev. David Shinn, leading the congregation in the following Prayer of Confession:

  • “Almighty God, you love us, but we have not loved you. You call, but we have not listened. We walk away from neighbors in need, wrapped in our own concerns. We condone evil, prejudice, warfare, and greed. God of grace, help us to admit our sin, so that as you come to us in mercy, we may repent, turn to you, and receive forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our redeemer.”

The Assurance of Forgiveness was then spoken by Rev. Shinn.

Listening for the Word

The Biblical Texts

Isaiah 6: 1-8 (RSV) 

“In the year that King Uzzi′ah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’”

“And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’”

“Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.’ And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.’”

Luke 19: 1-10 (RSV)  

“[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchae’us; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchae′us, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it they all murmured, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’ And Zacchae′us stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.’”

The Sermon

“Our biblical texts this morning introduce us to two very different persons. One, a powerful prophet of God born in the 8th century before the Common Era, the other a local tax collector in the time of Jesus. Each is summoned by God, called by the voice of God, and each responds positively.”

“Isaiah has a vision of a wild and smoky room, where the Lord is seated high and mighty, on a throne. Winged seraphim and cherubim are flying around. There’s fire and noise and holy cacophony. It’s like a scene out of a Steven Spielberg movie, and it terrifies Isaiah, who suddenly feels tiny and helpless and woefully inadequate – and he says so. But one of the winged creatures flies to him and cleanses his lips with a burning coal, which emboldens him.”

“A little fire, some smoke, flying creatures and burning coals. Just another day at the office for an 8th century prophet of God.”

“When a voice booms out asking, ‘Who will go for us? Whom shall I send?’ the suddenly brave Isaiah replies, ‘Here am I. Send me.’”

“At the other end of the call spectrum we have Zacchaeus, a wealthy little man in the town of Jericho, made rich by his tax collecting job. His neighbors don’t care much for him; he takes from them on behalf of the Romans, the occupying empire, and makes out like a thief. This is no prophet of God.”

When Jesus and his entourage come to town one day, everyone wants to see the renowned teacher and healer. Because of [Zacchaeus’] small stature and also, I suspect, because it kept him out of reach of his hostile neighbors, [he] climbs a sycamore tree to watch the parade.”

“Our Westminster travel group was in Jericho three weeks ago. Our bus did a drive-by viewing of the Greek Orthodox church built as a shrine over the old stump of the ‘actual tree.’ There, or near there, Zacchaeus had his leafy encounter with Jesus.”

“It’s a more mundane call story than Isaiah’s, but it does have some drama. Imagine Jesus and a crowd coming into town, something like the Palm Sunday procession. All of a sudden Jesus stops, and all eyes are on him. Everyone else stops. He looks up. Everyone else looks up. And there, perched in the branches of that sycamore tree, sits everyone’s favorite tax collector to hate. To everyone’s surprise, Jesus calls out to Zacchaeus and tells him to hurry and come down because he’s going to stay at his home. The crowd is shocked. The most despised man in town, the one colluding with the Romans, is the one Jesus chooses to favor?”

“‘Why would he go to the house of a sinner?’ they ask.”

“In the course of the visit with Jesus at his home, Zacchaeus announces he will change how he collects taxes. If he has defrauded anyone he will pay them back fourfold – and why would he say that if he had not already cheated someone? And he makes a commitment to give half of his wealth to support the poor. Zacchaeus is a transformed man.”

“That happens when God calls, and we respond. Just ask Hannah in the older testament when God calls, she responds, and Samuel is born…or Sarah when Isaac was born or Elizabeth when John was born or Mary when Jesus is born. When God calls, wonderful, transformative things happen.”

“A thread runs through these two call stories. Neither Isaiah nor Zacchaeus nor those women in scripture assumed they were the ones God would choose. None expected to be summoned by God. And yet they all listened and said yes – and with that yes came a change in the direction of their lives. That happens when God calls, and we respond.”

What’s your call story? It doesn’t have to be dramatic. It doesn’t mean you have to run off to seminary because only clergy are truly called. Zacchaeus kept on collecting taxes; he just did it now with honesty and integrity. James and John, Andrew and Simon, the fishermen summoned by Jesus, went on fishing, only this time for people – and I suspect they didn’t entirely leave their nets behind.”

“I grew up in a family where the description of ‘being called’ was quite common. I suppose that’s how it should be in a Presbyterian minister’s household. Calling, or vocation, has always been important in our tradition. John Calvin, writing in 16th century Geneva, argued that God’s calling was essential for anyone wanting to find their way through life.”

“‘The Lord bids each one of us,’ Calvin wrote, ‘In all life’s actions to look for God’s calling.’ (All quotes from Calvin are taken from his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, chapter X, section 6 [Philadelphia: John Knox Press, 1960], p. 724)”

“Then sounding like a critic of multi-tasking, he goes on to say,

  • ‘For God knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambitions long to embrace various things at once. Therefore, lest everything…be turned topsy-turvy, God has appointed duties for everyone in a particular way of life.’”

“Sixteenth-century advice, sound advice, for a 21st century world: slow down, center yourself, find your purpose, and focus your life.”

“Calvin then says, ‘God has named these various kinds of living ‘callings.’”

What’s your call story? What gives your life meaning?”

“Each individual,” Calvin continues,

  • ‘Has their own kind of living assigned to them by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that they may not heedlessly wander about through life.’”

“To discern our calling is to have the foundation we need to live sound and healthy lives. To find our calling means to discover our life purpose.”

“ . . . . Calvin was trying to help believers come to see that how they live vocationally can – and in the best of circumstances will – reflect the love and life of God. And that brings profound contentment in life, not so much victory or triumph, but, rather, gladness, and gratitude.”

“When we say, as we Christians do, ‘The peace of Christ be with you,’ we mean may you find deep satisfaction and fulfillment in your life. May you find your calling in life, because then you will have found the peace of Christ.”

“My father spoke often of his being called to ministry. It was commonly assumed around our house that each of us was called; of the four children in our family, he would say, one was called to teach, one to practice law, one to ministry, and one to banking.”

“When my father reached retirement he faced a deep challenge – an existential crisis not unlike many who reach that milestone: what to ‘do’ with one’s life now that the purpose is gone?”

“My dad struggled for a full year after retirement from the last church he served. He’d always had a specific calling to fulfill, to one church or another. And then that calling was gone. He wondered if his life was coming to an end because it no longer had purpose. During that first traumatic year he slowly came to understand that retirement itself could be a vocation. He discerned a ‘call to retire,’ wrote a paper about it, and went on a mini-speaking tour to describe his discovery – all the retirees loved it. He dubbed it ‘the penultimate call.’” [2]

“I had a conversation recently with a retired business executive. He had been invited to serve on a community board and wanted to talk about whether he should do it. In the course of the our conversation he began to speak about the board role as offering him a chance to make a difference, to focus on something that mattered. He was making the decision on the basis of direction and purpose. We didn’t use ‘called’ language in that conversation, but that’s what we were talking about.”

“What’s your call story?”

“Most of us reflexively leave the notion of ‘being called’ to the clergy, thinking that only they receive a summons to a vocation. We reserve the terminology for clergy; we ‘call’ them to serve. They have terms of call. When they leave the church the congregation dissolves the call.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t use such language with other vocations. Why not try it? Try speaking of your job –working or retirement – with that language. If someone asks, ‘When did you start teaching at that school?’ trying answering, ‘I was called there four years ago.’”

“‘When did you start working for Target?’ [Response:] “I was called there two years ago.”

“‘What kind of job are you looking for?’”

“‘I feel called to a retail clothing sales position…or called to be a mail carrier…or called to be a car mechanic…or called to do social work…or called to be a doula…or called to run for public office…or called to make music… Try using that language the next chance you get, when talking about your work, your vocation, what it is you do that gives you meaning in life.”

“Martin Luther King referred to our calling as our blueprint for life. He used to speak with school children and explain how builders use blueprints in order to follow the architect’s design. Then King would ask the school children, ‘What’s your life’s blueprint?’”

“Yesterday more than a thousand people gathered in this room to celebrate the life of Jim Dayton, who died unexpectedly on Wednesday. An awful loss. He was a person who clearly had found his calling, his life’s blueprint, in design and architecture. We see that every time we enter the new wing he created. In his life he produced blueprints for human community. Thanks be to God for his life.” [3]

“Without a blueprint we run the risk of having no direction in life. We lose our way. That’s what had happened to Isaiah. Remember when God summons him through all that smoke and noise, and he says he’s not up to it: ‘Woe is me, for I am lost. I don’t know where I’m going. I have no direction. I have no focus. I’m lost. How could you be calling me, God?’”

“The same thing had happened in Zacchaeus’ life, and it’s why Jesus called to him in that sycamore tree. When the people of Jericho complain about Jesus choosing to go to the home of a tax collector and, therefore, a sinner in their eyes, Jesus replies, ‘The Son of humankind came to seek and to save the lost.’”

“Zacchaeus had lost his way. Doesn’t that describe many of us on our worst, purpose-less days – as being lost?”

“‘Wandering about heedlessly through life,’ in Calvin’s terms? No sense of calling, no purpose, no focus in life?”

“Jesus came for people like us. And like Zacchaeus, and Hannah, and Sarah, and Isaiah, and Mary.”

“At the heart of the ministry of Jesus was his desire to help people find their calling – their way – our way – of serving God in life. He knew that once we find our calling, we are fulfilled, and begin to live as people transformed. We become part of the unfolding reign of God, which we are all in together.”

“In a moment we will baptize little Elsie Anne and Evelyn Marie. Baptism is the beginning of Christian vocation. It’s the first sign of a calling in life. It happens there, in the water. We make the promise, essentially, to help those being baptized find their purpose in life, their calling.”

“Calvin summed it up this way: ‘The Lord’s calling is in everything the beginning and foundation of well-being.’”

“So when God calls, let us be prepared to come down from that sycamore tree and respond by saying, ‘Here am I. Send me.’”

“Thanks be to God.”

“Amen.”

Responding to the Word

Following the Sacrament of Baptism of two children, the congregation stated their Affirmation of Faith with the following words from the United Church of Canada:

  • “We are not alone, we live in God’s world. We believe in God: who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others by the Spirit. We trust in God. We are called to be the Church: to celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in Creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”

Associate Pastor Sarah Brouwer then gave the Pastoral Prayer and led the congregation in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

The Offertory, accompanying the taking of the offering, was “Greater Love Hath No Man” by English composer and music teacher, John Ireland  (1879-1962).

The congregation also sang two hymns: “Child of Blessing, Child of Promise” by contemporary American composer Ronald S. Cole-Turner and “Will You Come and Follow Me” by John L. Bell, a contemporary Church of Scotland minister and member of the Iona Community. 

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

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

[2] See In Memoriam: Rev. Dr. Henry William Andersen, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 29, 2012).

[3] Rev. Hart-Andersen’s Meditation at Jim Dayton’s Memorial service is also on the church’s website.  An obituary for Jim.appeared in the StarTribune

Blogging About Westminster Presbyterian Church

Attending worship services at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church usually is an enriching experience for me. I especially appreciate our service’s being divided into three parts: Preparing for the Word, Listening for the Word and Responding to the Word with the reading of the Scripture and the sermon in the center section of the service. That structure helps me and, I assume, others at the service or watching on livestream to focus on the central message of the day from Scriptures and the sermon.

Moreover, I often have discovered that being present at the service is not enough. Afterwards when the text of the sermon is available in hard copy or on the church’s website, I frequently read the Scriptures for that day plus the sermon and the prayers printed in the bulletin as well as occasionally conducting independent research on the topics.

I then write an essay about all of this. In the process I deepen my knowledge of, and appreciation for, the sermon and the issues it explores. This research and writing process usually takes several hours. Typically I then leave that draft on my computer overnight and revise and add other thoughts the next day or so.

I then publish these essays on my blog to share my thoughts with whomever in the world follows my blog or finds them on the web. I hope that they provoke thoughts by others, which when shared by commenting on the blog’s website will stimulate additional reflections by me and others.

For example, an especially meaningful service for me was on November 18, 2018, with the tale of Ruth and Naomi in Ruth 1: 1-18 and the sermon “Whose People Will Be Our People?” by Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen. I, therefore, wrote and published a post with the title of that sermon. After quoting the Prayer of Confession, the Scripture and the entire text of the sermon, I entered my Reflections, which was my way of Responding to the Word.

In addition, I write other blog posts about different aspects of Westminster’s life to share the good news. I see all of these blog messages as my way of doing evangelism.