Friday, December 19, 2014

Changing U.S.-Cuba Relations

President Barack Obama brought surprising news on Wednesday as he announced changes in the U.S.'s relationship with Cuba. In addition to a prisoner swap, the two nations will move toward reestablishing diplomatic relations and Obama will lessen travel restrictions. The news sparked lots of chatter in Washington, D.C., Florida, and around the world. 

Baptist News Global ran an article today on various reactions to the news. Since Churchnet's delegation to Cuba just occurred in October, a couple of us who went were asked about the developments in light of our fresh experiences in the island nation. Churchnet Missions Mobilization Team Leader Gary Snowden and myself (as Churchnet Communications & Engagement Leader) are both quoted in the piece

"Because of the Churchnet delegation to Cuba, I understand - and celebrate - the news more than I would have otherwise," I say in the article. "My visit also increases my surprise. Although President Obama campaigned in 2008 on normalizing relations with Cuba, I found in my discussions with Cubans that they feared meaningful changes still remained years or decades away."

"I believe we need to get to know each other," I added as I praised the lessening of travel restrictions. "As Americans visit Cuba and Cubans visit the U.S., we build relationships built on people not propaganda."

Churchnet Missions Mobilization Team Leader Gary Snowden
Cubans and Americans together in Cuba

In addition to experiencing the travel restrictions (which meant some extra hurdles for the trip), we also saw scenes related to other parts of the big news. 

We saw images celebrating the "Cuban Five" throughout the island nation. The continued imprisonment of three of them remained a key political issues and a roadblock to better U.S.-Cuban relations. Similarly, the imprisonment of American Alan Gross stood as an obstacle. The last three of the "Cuban Five" were swapped for an imprisoned American spy, while Gross was also released by Cuba on humanitarian grounds. 

In Cuba we saw the U.S. Interests Section building (formerly the U.S. embassy building). The U.S. Interests Section is a pseudo-diplomatic office established by President Jimmy Carter, the president who made the most significant positive step forward in post-Revolution relations until now. Obama's plans to restore diplomatic relations and reestablish embassies will change the nature of that old building in Havana yet again.

Billboard celebrating "Cuban Five"
U.S. Interests Section building (with lots of flag poles in front)

In the last two months, I have often thought of my new Cuban Baptist friends. They impacted how I view their beautiful nation and the global Christian family. 

As I told the Jefferson City News-Tribune shortly after returning: "Although separated by a physical distance of only 90 miles, the U.S. and Cuba remain worlds apart politically and culturally. We traveled to Cuba to demonstrate we will not allow national borders or politics to divide us from our Cuban brothers and sisters. As the Bible says, we are united with 'one Lord, one faith, one baptism.' We celebrated that the baptismal waters run deeper than national allegiances."

The fact that Pope Francis played a critical role in bringing the change in relations shows that Christians can serve as bridge-builders and peacemakers. I hope Baptists and other Christians will follow that example. I hope Christians in the U.S. will celebrate how the changes will help our brothers and sisters in Cuba. 

Cuban and Christian flags in Cuban church sanctuary
Moment from special worship service in Cuban church

A Whimsical Book Tour

With the release of my new book, Sacramental Politics: Religious Worship as Political Action, I decided to launch a book tour. After all, that's what the famous authors do. Unlike rich authors, however, I don't have a publicist. So I set up the book tour myself. Perhaps I don't quite get the concept, but I took my book on a nice tour of Jefferson City, Missouri.

In the book I examine the rhetoric of a lot of politicians. So we went to visit the Missouri Governor's Mansion and the Missouri state Capitol.

Dealing with religion and politics naturally means I discuss various church-state issues in the book. Thus, we visited a couple of potent church-state symbols at the state Capitol: a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds and a large statue of Thomas Jefferson (seen from their backsides).

Much of the book considers religious worship moments, including songs, liturgies, and even scriptures. So we trekked to a local church for a visit.

Finally, we headed to a couple of nice reading spots - the types of places we hope other copies of the book will show up in with other people. We visited a coffee shop and a local park.

I had fun on the tour, and think my book did as well. If you would like to invite us to a more serious event, please contact me. Hope you'll check out the book (and send me a photo of it somewhere on tour).

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Surprised at Christmas

I feel sorry for pastors at Christmas. They show up to preach about the stories we've heard each year for decades. And they've preached the same texts for years, perhaps even tiring of their own explanations. I pastored a church for two years so that meant only two Advent seasons, which I easily filled before needing to repeat myself.

Perhaps we know Christmas too well. We no longer allow the stories to surprise us, shock us, challenge us. 

A two-year-old around can help bring back some of the wonder. On Saturday, we trekked to Bethlehem to experience the biblical account of the birth of Jesus. A local church puts on an incredible "Journey to Bethlehem" living nativity in the woods behind the church. With a couple hundred volunteers, they take visitors on a trail to get a taste of life on that holy night. I remembered the event from my childhood. But this time I enjoyed it even more as I watched my son soak it in. 

The event started in a room in the church decorated to be a humble home in Nazareth. As the cloaked family talked to us (their extended family members), Roman soldiers burst into the room to announce the need to travel for a census. As a soldier first barked out a command from behind us, my son jumped and spun around. His eyes never left the solider and his mouth never closed. 

I worried he might be too frightened. However, as the "head" of our family started to leave to lead us on the journey, my son leapt up, ran past several other people, and dutifully followed right behind the man's robe. He was hooked. Along the journey, we met shopkeepers on the edge of Nazareth, other travelers, shepherds, magi, thieves, more soldiers, and lots of animals. At each station, my son stopped and stared, taking it all in. Then he faithfully marched on to follow our leader into the dark woods.

My son showed surprise as the events unfolded that helped me realize which parts of the story I knew too well. As the shepherds spoke to us, we waited in anticipation for the angels to appear since we thought the little guy would enjoy them. Instead, he stared at them with a mix of confusion and fright. But that's probably exactly how the shepherds felt! Otherwise, the angel wouldn't have needed to say, "fear not." We make the angels out to be sweet, angelic beings singing pretty lullabies. But it was likely terrifying to be a shepherd that night. Later, my son still isn't sure what to think about the angels. He says they scared him and then adds they didn't scare him. I guess the jury's still out.

As we arrived in Bethlehem, we were met by more Roman soldiers to be counted and taxed. As the solider yelled and threatened us, I chuckled - especially as he moved my wife's scarf to see who was hiding behind the Eskimo-like bundling. As we walked away from the station, my son looked up, shook his body, and said that guy scared him. He has repeated that each time we've talked about Bethlehem since. He rightly captured the emotion of the moment. While I noted their fake swords, he saw dangerous, imperial might. Maybe we would think about Christmas differently if we read the stories from a position of less power and security.

Fortunately, we saw a bunch of animals, which helped him not worry too much about the soldiers. Sheep, goats, and donkeys. What could be better than that?

As we approached the stable with Mary, Joseph, and baby (doll) Jesus, my son visited with goats at the back of the stable. He couldn't see anything and didn't seem to realize what Mary and Joseph were telling us about. We were late getting to the stable and had to hang out in the back with the goats because he spent so much time with a donkey. He kept reaching out for it and yelling "hi, donkey!" So for the first time all night we were in the back of the pack.

But as everyone else headed back to the church, my wife suggested our son go up and look. He seemed shy at first, but Mary invited him up. He got his own personal time with the three and got to go see the baby Jesus up close. Later we asked him what his favorite part of Bethlehem was, fully expecting him to say the donkey (he does a great "hee haw"). Nothing else had earned nearly as excited of a response. However, he quickly responded, "I like baby Jesus." He still gives that answer, which makes me feel like an excellent parent!

I looked at the doll version of Jesus and felt disappointed (even though it was too cold for a real baby), but my son soaked it in with wonder. While I saw it, he experienced it. We took him hoping he'd learn more about Christmas, but perhaps I'm the one who needs the lesson.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Political Nativity in the Nation's Capital

Christmas and politics may not sound like topics that should intermingle, but the Christmas story carries some inherent politics we often overlook. Too often we reduce the season to singing about joy, wishing for merry times, and eating yummy treats. Jesus is the reason for the season but we do not always realize the reasons the biblical accounts are written the way they are. In my brand new book, Sacramental Politics: Religious Worship as Political Action, I address the inherent politics of Christmas along with other inherent political aspects to religious worship.

Ethics Daily ran a column-length excerpt from the book today that features a section on the politics of Christmas. The piece is titled "A Political Nativity in the Nation's Capital." It highlights a live nativity in Washington, D.C., that is enacted each year by the conservative religious-political group Faith and Action in the Nation's Capital. In the section, I mention some of the inherent political implications of Christmas stories, songs, and nativities. I hope you enjoy the piece and check out the book.

Reverend Rob Schenck, president of Faith and Action in the Nation's Capital and chaplain for The Capitol Hill Executive Service Club, offered one of the two back-cover endorsements for Sacramental Politics. I appreciate his kind words.