Jesus


ImageWould you give your life for Christ? If your answer is “no” you can skip ahead to the next paragraph. If your answer is “yes”, here’s another question for you: would you attend church if doing so put your life at risk? No? Ok, skip ahead. Yes? Here’s another: would you encourage your spouse or your children to attend church with you, if doing so put their lives at risk?

To be very honest, I am not sure what the correct answers are to the second two questions, and I’m certainly not sure what my actual, as opposed to my theoretical, response would be if I was personally faced with these choices.

What I do know is that tonight many of my brothers and sisters in Egypt will make these decisions, just as our brothers and sisters in Nigeria did thirteen days ago. Twelve Christians there were killed in attacks by extremists on two different churches.

The Nigerians didn’t unwittingly choose to put their lives at risk. Attacks on churches have become part of the regular news cycle, and they would have been very much aware that acts of violence on a significant holy day are of particular interest to extremists as they look for high profile publicity to spread their brand of terror.

Tonight, on the first Christmas Eve celebrated under a new Islamist constitution, Egyptians will also make this choice. They know the risks and are painfully aware of the threats that have already been made against them. And yet, a very great number of them will venture out of their homes and neighborhoods to join together to worship and celebrate the birth of our Saviour. They will do so with the full knowledge that the act of physically coming together in fellowship transforms them in the eyes of extremists into a high value, high profile target.

This great country, which once served as a place of refuge for the Holy Family fleeing persecution, is becoming a place where it is unsafe to celebrate the birth of their Son.

It is dark, but it is not hopeless. Each person who tonight stands in a church in faith stands against that darkness. Each one of their non-Christian Egyptian brothers and sisters who stands with them in solidarity tonight stands against that darkness. Each one of us who tonight stands with them in prayer, stands against that darkness.

John 1:1-14

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 The same was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

9 That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

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As many of those reading this will know, 2011 was rough. I had known death in personal and painful ways in previous years, but nothing like what I experienced last year.

Before dawn on a dark February morning, I received the news that my boyfriend had drowned in a kayaking accident. Three months later, just as I was starting to re-enter life at a more normal operating level, my beloved grandmother died, also relatively unexpectedly. Although very different, in some ways the grief in the second round was harder to bear – it ripped open what had just started to heal and added the additional loss of person who had never not been in my life. In August, my boyfriend’s mother died – her death was not so unexpected but it added to the weight of pain. As the rest of the year went by, it seemed that the shadow of death was all around me as healthy, life-filled, beloved brothers, nephews, and children of people very close to me died abruptly and without warning.

So it was a hard year. Paradoxically, it was also one of the best years of my life. That might seem a strange thing to say – but it was a year in which I learned that in the same heart profound joy and peace can co-exist alongside profound pain and grief without contradiction. It was a year in which I was forced to confront eternity and everything I believe or don’t believe about the “forever and ever” of the Lord’s Prayer. It was a year in which I was challenged to either allow doubt and bitterness to torture me or to embrace my faith and to cling to that hope with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind and all my strength. It was a year in which I learned to live in God’s terrible and tender love. It was a year in which I chose to believe over and over again that all things do work together for the good of those who love the Lord – whether we ever understand them or not.

Death makes people do funny things – and while I received huge encouragement and support from friends and strangers alike, some very well-meaning people also said some horribly insensitive and sometimes offensive things. For the most part I was able to shrug it off and even laugh – not at them, of course, but with other friends who’d experienced similar loss and who shared the similarly insane things people had said to them. We joked about writing a manual for people on What Not to Say to Someone Who is Grieving.

For those who are interested, the advice really boiled down to a couple of things: don’t give advice (at best it’s obnoxious and at worst offensive), don’t try to explain to the person why it happened (you don’t know), and don’t tell them how they should be feeling (just don’t). In reference to those who have lost partners or children – don’t ask when they’re going to start dating again or trying for another child (just don’t even). Do listen, do affirm, do pray, do send letters and messages of encouragement, and do be there when they need you.

Ironically, it was because of some of the strangest things said to me (with much goodwill but great ignorance) by fellow Christians that I came to two realizations about death. These specific comments and advice, which focused on praying for my “liberation” from pain and/or the spirit of death, challenged me to think about why I didn’t agree with them and led me to the following conclusions:

  1. This world is bound by death. I am going to die. Every living thing around me, every person I know, is going to die. I don’t know when it will happen or how but it will. I may experience and witness healing and miracles over the course of my lifetime but the end will come just the same. This isn’t morbid – it’s just a fact of this life, a fact that may be more difficult to deal with for many of us living in the modern first-world where death has been banished to the periphery. If I can’t learn to live with this fact, however, I am going to be in for a rough ride from here on out.
  1. I may have to live with it but I don’t have to accept it. Death is not natural. It is not what we were created for. It is right that everything in me rebels and protests at the very concept and that its advent provokes searing, gut-wrenching pain. Our nature, given to us by God, is to live. And as those who believe and are called children of God, Life is our inheritance.

These two realizations, and learning that it is possible to believe both at the same time, not only helped me to cope and process what was happening to me and around me but also led me to understand Christ, the Cross, the Resurrection, Redemption and Eternity in new and more deeply personal ways. It helped me to see how simultaneously insignificant and important our lives are. It allowed me to experience a tiny fraction of that profound grief God must have felt when humanity chose to allow death to enter into His perfect creation. It challenges me to move my focus from the here and now to the life everlasting – and to remember that that is where my treasure is.

Psalm 84

How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
I long, yes, I faint with longing
to enter the courts of the Lord.
With my whole being, body and soul,
I will shout joyfully to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow builds her nest and raises her young
at a place near your altar,
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, my King and my God!
What joy for those who can live in your house,
always singing your praises. Interlude

What joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord,
who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
When they walk through the Valley of Weeping,
it will become a place of refreshing springs.
The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.
They will continue to grow stronger,
and each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem.

O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies, hear my prayer.
Listen, O God of Jacob. Interlude

O God, look with favor upon the king, our shield!
Show favor to the one you have anointed.

A single day in your courts
is better than a thousand anywhere else!
I would rather be a gatekeeper in the house of my God
than live the good life in the homes of the wicked.
For the Lord God is our sun and our shield.
He gives us grace and glory.
The Lord will withhold no good thing
from those who do what is right.
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies,
what joy for those who trust in you.

I’m posting the translation of an article written by a friend in Cuba. It’s not exactly a guest-blog, it appeared in Spanish on her husband’s blog cubanoconfesante.com – but with their permission I wanted to share it.

Yoaxis is the wife of Pastor Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso, a Baptist pastor in a small town in central Cuba. He and the denomination have come under intense pressure from the Cuban regime. It started when he refused to expel “undesirables” from his church. It grew worse when he began to speak out about the ways the government tried to intimidate him and members of his congregation. His church is under pressure to kick him out (so far they’ve resisted) as is the denominational leadership (so far, they are resisting too despite serious repercussions for the larger denomination).

Mario and his wife, Yoaxis, however, refuse to bow their heads and pretend that everything is fine and that the Church is free in Cuba. They regularly denounce violations of religious freedom – and in the article below, Yoaxis responds to an article that ran in the state sanctioned press challenging (not very well) information put out by my organization and in the process denigrating her and Mario’s denomination – which despite being referred to as “tiny and irrelevant” in the article is actually one of the largest and most thriving organizations in the country.

Please pray for Mario, Yoaxis, their children, their church and their entire denomination as they play the role of David to Castro’s Goliath. (Disclaimer: please blame me for any grammatical oddities or errors – it’s my translation)

Freedom in Cuba?

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By: Yoaxis Marcheco Suárez

I do not know what is happening to certain people or institutions in the world. I think they must be suffering from some kind of lethargy that prevents them from seeing the Cuban reality or it’s that they simply conform themselves to whatever the anti-democratic government of this country says and paints for them. Deeper Cuba is something else, far removed from the reports and the statistics that the government offers up to international opinion. The simple act of looking at a nation plunged into bankruptcy and the imbalance caused by more than fifty years under the same system, with authorities whose extreme self-sufficiency has led them to believe that they are immortal gods, all-powerful and irreplaceable, should be enough for the free world to understand that on this little Antillean island, democracy and freedom took off for the countryside one day and appear to have been unable to find their way back home.

I have also been unable to explain to myself why the Cuban people do not take up the reins and free themselves and everyone else once and for all from what has overwhelmed them for so long. It is very clear, at least to those with decent eyesight, that the country has succumbed; its inhabitants are fed up with daily life. Unfortunately the response to this unhappiness is the high rate of emigration, suicide, alcoholism, crime, the low rate of childbirth in an aging population, alienation and silence.

To speak of freedom in Cuba is almost painful. The recurring monosyllable is No. No freedom of expression; No freedom of the press; No freedom of political or party affiliation (in a single party system); No ideological freedom, No freedom of information, No freedom of assembly or meeting; and a very qualified religious freedom, where the church-state separation is only incumbent upon the church, because the state is constantly exercising its interfering control over the different denominations, associations, etc, manipulating the church leadership, constantly threatening, blackmailing, with an air of superiority. Truly, I do not know what they mean by the phrase ‘separation of church and state’, when the former is supervised in every way by the latter, every step it takes, every decision that it makes.

The questions posed by Benedict XVI, himself, during his recent visit to the country remain unanswered. When will they return, in their entirety, the institutions that the Revolution in its first years, confiscated from the churches? When will it be possible to create new educational institutions with a religious ethos so that the current and future generations of believers can be educated, not under the Marxist-Leninist doctrine but under the teaching of the Bible? When will the religious institutions be able to broadcast their own radio and television programs, or publish its newsletters, printing presses, editorials and bookstores? Isn’t denying these things to the churches a good indication of infringements upon their freedom?

On the other hand, it’s worth pointing out that if we are going to talk about the restoration of rights to believers in Cuba, the same rights should be given to all, without distinction, including, as mentioned by Percy Francisco Alvarado Godoy in his article: “Another Fallacy of Radio Marti…” to the “tiny and irrelevant congregations that are part of the Western Convention of Baptists, and the Apostolic Movement,” the latter which remains illegal because of the filtering censor of the famous Registry of Associations of the Central Committee. The great fallacy is actually (and believe me it is much more than a “quagmire of lies”) to say that in Cuba, its government, as cited by the same previously mentioned author: “never tortured or persecuted religious pastors for their beliefs, regardless of the size of their denomination, their isolation or a lack of network in or outside Cuba.” I think that the term “never” is perhaps a little too broad.

It’s obvious that this writer to whom I refer is only following in the footsteps of his maximum guide and current historical leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, who had the nerve to state during the interview “Fidel and religion” that no church was ever shut down in Cuba. In the not so distant past, in the 1960s, the dictators, who were of course bitter enemies of religion, created the UMAP concentration camps, where hundreds of pastors and church leaders were sent. Many churches were literally closed, including the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Taguayabón, of which I am a member. Believers were barred from entry to the universities; many who decided to remain true to their faith lost their jobs. The church buildings began to empty in the era of communist ideology, with its atheistic and materialist character, which in Fidel Castro’s version took on the aspect of the exterminator of spirituality in a people who were naturally prone to belief.

The much-trumpeted Cuban Constitution of today, which is manipulated by the owners of everything on this island, says in Article 8, that it recognizes and respects freedom of conscience and religion. If they were being honest, they should have added a clause to the article: only if he who professes is a revolutionary, practices Fidelism, and has learned to agree with everything when given an order by the government bodies.” This clause is implicit even though the article goes on to say that the religious institutions are separate from the state. Article 55 expresses: that the state recognizes, respects and guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. It would be repetitive to explain this huge lie, in a country where those who think differently in terms of ideology and politics are imprisoned, arbitrarily detained, threatened, repudiated – always under the same slanderous pretext that they are on the imperial payroll or are mercenaries. In the colossal egocentrism of the Castros and their followers, “the revolutionaries,” there is no room for other mindsets. They fear plurality, just as all tyrants fear those of true faith and firm conviction.

In any case, even without understanding what is going on with those who proclaim themselves to the world to be free, and with a Cuban people so deprived of their most basic rights, I will carry on here inside a smothered Cuba and in this “tiny and irrelevant Baptist Convention of Western Cuba,” which for me is full of beautiful traditions and a deep history of more than one hundred years, with its champions of faith, like the man who was very close to Martí, Alberto J. Díaz, a collaborator in the struggle for independence against the Spanish colonial power; Luis Manuel González Peña, who during the darkest period for believers in Cuba told a government official who predicted the end of churches in this country, that there would be churches yet for a good while, and even more.

I’ll believe in a Jesus who does not mingle with the ego-centric powers of this world but rather with those below, with the “immense minorities” and who most certainly was followed by many, only later to be abandoned by the great multitude, including his disciples, and who was also crucified for many and accepted by few.