Monday, November 28, 2016
As the world contemplates the death of one of the 20th century's most well-known dictators, Fidel Castro (dead at the age of 90), I wanted to share a brief snippet of how one of my family members interacted with Fidel Castro just as he was taking power in 1959.
It was the early Spring of 1959, and Fidel Castro had just marched into Havana and taken power from his predecessor, Fulgencio Batista. Wresting control of the government from the previous dictatorship, Castro promised a new era of peace and prosperity for the bourgeoning island nation. As doves were released at dawn, a hopeful symbol of the peace that would ensue, crowds cheered the new leader to loud shouts of; "Fidel, Fidel, Fidel!"
As it happened, right at that fateful juncture in history, my great-grandpa Jesse Baird, who was then President of San Francisco Theological Seminary, had been in Cuba on a visit to give advice to a struggling theological seminary named "Galicia Presbyterian Reformata Cuba". The seminary was trying to raise money to build some new classrooms, and dormitories, and Jesse, being very adept at fund raising, had been brought in to help with the effort. In 1959, international travel to third world countries was still less common than it is today, and Jesse would have stayed for up to a month or more of extended teaching time, and preaching time with the seminary and in the surrounding communities.
While in Cuba, Jesse had the rare chance to meet with the new leader of the country, Fidel Castro. My own memory still recalls letters that were written between Fidel Castro and my grandpa (though I cannot seem to locate them at this exact moment). The letters were filled with positive encomiums about a new relationship with Cuba and an exciting time for Christianity in that country. Other Christian leaders from other denominations were also very positive about the new era of peace and openness that would accompany this new administration.
Upon their meeting, Jesse was initially quite impressed with the young military leader, who was, as always, donning green military fatigues, wearing a tilted beret, and smoking Cuban cigars. Fidel Castro made promises to Jesse personally, that he would bring sweeping and positive change for this one time Caribbean back-water of a nation. In Jesse's own sentiments; "I thought that Fidel would help to feed his people, and bring Jesus Christ to the Cuban people."
Less than one year later, in 1960, Fidel Castro would totally abandon both his promises to take care of the Cuban nation in terms of social well-fare, as well as his promise made to Jesse personally that he would support Christian churches and seminaries like the one that Jesse was visiting. In fact, quite the opposite of his pledge to support budding seminaries and churches, Fidel Castro became a tyrant against all religious organizations. Ushering in a new Communist era, Castro led a movement to oppress religious efforts, eject priests, and even execute pastors and their families.
In 1961, the United States would, of course, lead a failed effort to assassinate Fidel Castro through the misguided mission we now know as the Bay of Pigs. Several subsequent United States Presidents after Kennedy, would try to lead equally unsuccessful assassination attempts. Castro would go on to outlive most of his adversaries and hold the record for being the longest sitting Western leader (other than Queen Elizabeth in England), in recent history.
Years later, in 1974, while on his deathbed, my grandpa Jesse would relate to my father, Don Baird, how much he had felt that he was personally betrayed by Fidel Castro, and how deeply disappointed he was in his fabrications. For Jesse, it wasn't just that Fidel Castro had lied to the United States, it was that Castro had lied to him. Castro had given Jesse his personal word that he would develop a positive climate for Christianity there. Still harboring an uncharacteristic level of bitterness toward the Cuban leader, Jesse looked at my father, as he leaned forward in bed and said, with steely determination and lingering resentment - "That man lied to me!"
Exactly what lessons can be gleaned from my grandpa's would-be encounter with Fidel Castro are hard to tell, and it is, no doubt, too early to say. It is a testament to the strength of Christianity, in general, however, that dictators like Fidel Castro have always tried, but never succeeded fully in snuffing out the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Dictators, potentates, kings, rulers and Caesars have literally pocked the pages of world history, but have always failed. Whether they were named Pharaoh, or Nebudcadnezzar, or Herod, or Marx or Castro, they have tried un-sucessfully to suppress the faith. Each time they have tried to stamp out the light of Christ, Christianity has come back even stronger.
And so it ever shall...
All For Now,
Monday, November 21, 2016
Now, bear with me for a moment, while you wonder to yourself whether Christians these days should possibly be given other names;
Those names are blogposst for another day:-)
From the beginning of the Bible to the end of the Bible there are consistent examples of people lifting up gratitude towards God. Here is a short-list:
· * When Abram is brought to Bethel, the place where his family would stop and build a life, the Bible says, Abram built an altar to God, and there he called on the name of the Lord (Gen. 13:4). Building an altar to God, was a way of saying THANK YOU to God.
· * When the Israelites had been in the wilderness for over 40 years, an entire generation, and then they finally crossed over the Jordan River, being led by a young leader named Joshua, Joshua commanded the people; Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder….In the future when your children ask you , ‘What do these stones mean?” tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. (Joshua, 4:6). And again, it may seem strange to us, but that pile of stones was a way of THANKING God for what He had done to deliver them.
· * King David, was probably the most prolific THANKER in the Old Testament. He wrote 150 Psalms or (songs), and almost every single one of these has the word or the sentiment of THANKS in it. Whenever in the Bible you see the words, PRAISE, or BLESS, it basically means thanks. Psalm 138 is my favorite Psalm of Thanks: I thank you Lord with all of my heart. I sing praise before you to the Gods. I face your Holy Temple and bow down and praise your name because of your constant love and faithfulness (Psalm 138).
· * The New Testament is no less replete with examples of THANKS. One of my favorites is right in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus builds several pieces of thanks right into the Lord’s Prayer. Our Father, who art in heaven, HALLOWED BE YOUR NAME. calling God Holy is a way of thanking him.
· * One of the last things that Jesus does before he is crucified is to have Passover meal. The entire Passover meal is really a meal of thanks to God for delivering the Israelites from slavery. But there is a part where Jesus adds an extra thanks, our communion Words of Institution: "And he took the bread and he GAVE THANKS, THANK YOU, and broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you, do this in remembrance of me.”
* If you come from a more liturgical tradition, then you know the song the DOXOLOGY. DOXOS is the Greek word for thanks. The Doxology is a song of thanks;
Praise God from who all Blessings Flow
Praise Him All creatures here Below
Praise Him Above the heavenly Hosts
Praise Father Son and Holy Ghost
Try changing this song from the word Praise to the word Thanks (eg: "Thank you God from whom all blessings flow. Thank you God from all creatures here below...").
Here are three things that we can all do to improve our general sense of "thankfulness" this Thanksgiving. They derive from the famous, "Prayer of Examen," a Spiritual Exercises book written by St. Ignatius Loyola who founded the Jesuit religious tradition;
What are things that God has done for you in the past that you can be thankful for? Here's an example letter of a pupil in school thanking a teacher and a teacher writing a thank-you note back to that pupil: "My Dear Willy, I can’t tell you how much your note meant to me. I am in my 80’s. living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely, and like the last leaf of autumn lingering behind. You’ll be interested to know that I taught in school for more than 50 years, and yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received. It came on a blue, cold morning, and it cheered me as nothing has done in many year." Thank backwards!
Thank In the Moment
What is happening right at this moment that you can be thankful for? For me, it is watching my five month old son swinging in his baby swing as the fire crackles behind him and my eight year old daughter plays with her miniature horses. "Thank you God for this blessing!" Thank in the moment.
This is the most fun form of thanks. You will feel a bit like the famed Joel Ostein when you do it, but give it a try anyway; "Dear God, thank you for the great future that you have in store for me. Thank you that everything that comes my way will be a blessing, not because I won't suffer some set-backs, but because you are a great God who redeems all things. Thank you that my best days are ahead of me, because of you! Thank you God! Amen." Thank forwards.
Thanking backwards, in the moment and forwards literally surrounds our souls with good feelings of gratitude and wholeness.
Before I go, I have one important thing to do. I want to thank you! Thank you all for being such loyal blog-reading friends. Thank you! You make my life so much better. I so love being a part of this internet community together.
All For Now,
Monday, November 14, 2016
This past Wednesday morning, hours after the new President-elect was announced, I was on the campus of the University of California Santa Barbara. A heavy, hallow sense of angst filled the air of the student commons where I walked. "Where are all of the students?" I asked a worker at the Student Union information desk. "They were all out late last night in protest of the elections. "People are really sad," he said, with a abject stare. A few minutes later, I found myself in line at the student book store about to buy a book. The girl in front of me, who I had never met before, said directly to my face, "The world is coming to an end!" "What do you mean?" I asked. She said, "Because of the election, the world is coming to an end." Not knowing the student at all, I instinctively put a half-arm around her shoulder and said, "I think it will be ok, our country has been through many hard times before, we will get through these hard times together." She wasn't sure...
A little later that day, I was working-out at the 24-hour fitness in Oxnard where I live. Oxnard is about 70% hispanic and the gym itself is probably more like 80%. I love it for that reason. I have many friends there who hail from multicultural backgrounds. And yet, on this morning, it was somehow different. There was an unspoken distance between me and my friends who are people of color. Why...I wondered to myself, what has changed? And then I realized, it must be the election. And so, I walked across the gym, bridging the distance of only a room, though it felt like I was bridging the chasm of Checkpoint Charlie, the marker that divided East Germany from West Germany after World War II. Where only a day before there was brotherly love, now there was a dastardly divide. I said; "Hey, I hope you don't think that I espouse any of the ideas expressed in this election about race. That's not how I feel. That's not what I think." Instantly, I felt the ice between us melt, and the possibility of a renewed friendship once again emerge.
As I had these two encounters in the same day - two encounters of fear, of distance, of division, of awkwardness of splitting, I remembered to myself what one of the names for the evil one is in the Greek language in the Bible. It is Diabolos. Although the standard definition of Diabolos is - "slanderer," or "accuser", the Greek is actually much more nuanced. Diabolos is actually a two part word, as most Greek words are. The prefix "Dia" means "across", or "between" (as in the word diameter). The root "Bolos" means "to throw," "to cast" or "to cut". So, Diabolos literally means, "to cut across," or "to throw across". And then it occurred to me that that is what our country is experiencing right now - "cutting across", the middle, "division through the center". Modern day psychologists have a name for this - "splitting". The evil one is the ultimate - "splitter".
Now, here is where I need to underline and clarify my main point of this blog-post. In no way do I think that any person in either political party, in the previous Presidential election is the evil one, or even channels the evil one (although as a Reformed Protestant, I believe that all of us are fallen and can become vessels for either love or hatred at any given moment - all of us). But there is division, and there is fear, and there is uncertainty and even dread in America. And, as Christ followers, it is our job - no let me put it more strongly - Christ put us on the earth for the purpose of bridging these chasms of division in the world, "of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves". And of, whenever possible, clearing the air about what is right and true and what we really think and believe. And just to remind us, these are our mainstays as Christians;
* All people are created in God's image
* All people are redeemable
* Love is the strongest power in the universe and will outlive all things - even time itself
* Words matter, and hurtful words cause damage
* Jesus showed the ultimate love and died for all people
And so this is why...
For Christians It's SHOW-time
It is simply no longer enough for us Christians to feel loving thoughts about those around us. We must SHOW them. It is no longer enough for us to have warm loving sentiments about people that come from different cultural backgrounds, we must SHOW our love in concrete actions - in real demonstrations of affection. Our actions do not have to be to march in a rally (in fact, a postmortem of the 1960's may show how little such rallies actually often produce in the way of change). But we must SHOW. SHOWING may be as simple as,
* Holding the door for someone else
* Offering a loving comment
* Using our words to cross the divide, letting those around us know that we are people of love
* Walking across the room and clearing the air
I know of one woman who told me that the only interaction she has with people of a different multicultural background than the one she self-identifies with is in the people who clean her house. Even though this is the case, she has decided to SHOW her love by doubling the pay in the coming weeks ahead, and telling them how much she appreciates what they do. Whatever it takes to SHOW others our actual acts of love and kindness we must do.
On Sunday, after I articulated some of these aforementioned thoughts at the front of my sermon, and how uncertain I was about the future of race-relations in America, a man came up to me after the worship service. He was an African immigrant. Beaming with pride and hope, he looked me in the eye and said, "It will be Ok Graham." And then he said, "Never forget what Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Human progress is neither automatic or inevitable...Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle'" "Yes," I told my African immigrant friend, "I suppose you are right."
This past weekend was Veterans Day in America. It was a weekend where we honored those who have given, as Lincoln called it, "the last full measure of devotion". In that same speech, the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln also wondered whether this nation "can long endure." Lincoln's question for his time is now a question for our own time. And...
For Christians It's SHOW-time
All For Now,
Monday, November 7, 2016
God Redeems Elections Too!
This recent Presidential election, with all of its national strife, internecine division, and angry mean-spirited rhetoric can be redeemed by God. The addiction we all have for the latest scandals or news-grabbing headlines of this election, (I am one of the biggest election junkies that I know - I can't get enough of this presidential race - and like all addicts, I have experienced a decreasing degree of pleasure in watching it all in combination with an increasing degree of dependency on more forms of information), this election can be redeemed by an exchange for something better.
Since it is such a religiously loaded word, it might be helpful to understand what it means to "redeem" something. When we use the word "redeem" in normal English it generally means that something can be "exchanged". For example, I have a coupon for a sandwich at Subway which says on the back of it, "turn this coupon in and redeem it for a free sandwich." The idea is, I guess, is that the coupon = 1 sandwich. Redeem in this instance means exchange. However, when we are talking about spiritual redemption, we are talking about how a bad situation, a broken thing can be exchanged for a new thing, a whole thing, a good thing. As Christians we believe that a fallen person can be redeemed for an eternal existence through Jesus Christ.
Here are some examples that recently occurred to me involving - redeeming.
One week ago, on Halloween Monday, my two daughters were excitedly making preparations to put on their Halloween costumes and go trick or treating door to door throughout the neighborhood. Before leaving the house, my older daughter, Haley, asked my wife Star, whether Halloween was an "evil holiday." Haley went on to explain that at her private Christian school, several kids had said that Halloween was evil. Star explained to Haley that what we believe as Christians (particularly as Reformed Christians) is that, "God can redeem all things". What she meant by this was that even if Halloween had some occasionally treacherous undertones, that God was capable of making the holiday into an enjoyable one as well.
It has long been tradition that St. Patrick, when he went into Ireland to bring Christianity to the native clans there, found many of the indigenous people worshipping the sun. As the sun rose in the morning, and the sun set at the end of the day, so they believed God rose in the morning and set in the evening. God didn't just make the sun, God was the sun. And a different God was the moon. And so, for the ancient Celts, their God was represented by a circle. When Patrick noticed the worship of the circles (as representing the sun and the moon), he thought of a way to combine the circle with the cross of Christ. The circle could be placed at the center of the cross, and made to represent the eternal love of Christ for the world. God can redeem pagan things.
And so, tomorrow, we will have an election. Many people in the country will be happy with the result of the election, and many people will be unhappy with the result. Some will want to revolt. Others will want to disengage and be less interested in politics in general. There will be a lot of mending to do. Through it all, remember this;
God Can Redeem All Things
And God Redeems Elections Too!
All For Now,