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A Story From Iran

Every now and then I read and hear a story that really requires no introduction or set-up but just a strong recommendation to follow a link and see for yourself. This is one of those stories from the Overseas Council website. It was just posted a few days ago so it is time relevant and very moving.

A STORY OF TRUE COURAGE

Elam-LadanThe story is about Ladan, a courageous young woman that is Iranian born; raised in a Muslim family; called to Christ; and fearing arrest, left her homeland and fled to Turkey.

“It was there in Turkey that I felt the burden; a great a burden to go and tell people about Jesus. I was tasting the love of Jesus more, and also knowing Him more.”

To Ladan, to be Christian meant to take the Word seriously and return to her native country to share the Gospel with her countrymen.  She knew she would face persecution, possibly prison and maybe even death.  But nevertheless, she felt the call of God to share the Good News with lost people.

“Even with all my fears and worry, I felt I had to return to Iran, and give this message to my people.”

To learn about Ladan and hear her testimony in her own words in a 9 minute video, I highly encourage you to go to http://overseas.org/ladan-courageously-endures-prison-for-sharing-the-bible/You’ll be moved by her story as she truly reflects the words of Jesus in Luke 21:12-16.

But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them.  But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death.

THE HISTORICAL CHURCH IN IRAN

Iran is on the news much these days concerning nuclear power, economic sanctions, aggressive behavior and a host of stories of terrorism. We hear little about the Christians there despite the fact that Christians have occupied the area for centuries. According to Acts 2:9 there were Persians, Parthians and Medes among the gathering at Pentecost and heard the Apostles in their own language.  Many old churches remain in Iran from the early days of Christianity. The Church of St. Mary in northwestern Iran for example, is considered by some historians to be the second oldest church in Christendom after the Church of Bethlehem in the West Bank.
Today, only about 2% of the population is non-Muslim, and Christians are among the least minority. But the good news is that Christianity is reported to be the fastest growing religion in Iran. In 1976, the Christian population numbered 168,593 people, mostly Armenians. Due to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, almost half of the Armenians migrated to the newly independent Republic of Armenia and Christian numbers decreased. However, the opposite trend has occurred since 2000, and the number of Christians with Iranian citizenship increased to 109,415 in 2006.*

*Some fact and figures obtained from wikipedia.org

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2014 in World Christianity

 

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The Middle East: An Enigma of Persecution and Hope for the Christian Church

Reading this weekend from an article in Fox News Online (February 11, 2014 – FoxNews.com) Christian persecution in the Middle East continues. As Fox reported…

“In a rare appearance on Capitol Hill by a Vatican representative, Archbishop Francis Chullikatt testified before a House subcommittee on the ‘flagrant and widespread persecution’ of Christians in the Middle East. ‘No Christian is exempt, whether or not he or she is Arab,’ Chullikatt said.
Chullikatt was among seven speakers discussing the escalation of threats to Christians. Specifically, testimony focused on underreported assaults, the plight of impacted Christian communities and the need to protect religious freedoms and civil rights.
‘Arab Christians, a small but significant community, find themselves the target of constant harassment for no reason other than their religious faith,’ Chullikatt said.”

Such persecution is not a surprise or unexpected. Considering that as Christian we are told to expect persecution, hearing about it in a country that tends to hate Christians brings no wonder that they are facing oppression, torture and even death every day for their testimony of Christ.
The Fox report goes on to say,

“In Syria alone, there have been reports of kidnappings, Christian communities intentionally displaced by militants, as well as shootings and beheadings of Christians who refused to convert to Islam, according to various news reports from the region.
One of the most graphic illustrations of ongoing brutality confronting Arab Christians is the practice of bombings of Christian houses, churches and other places of worship on Christmas Eve, Chullikatt said.”

In my blog from August 19, 2013, “Troubles in Egypt“, I related a story about the challenges the Christian church in Egypt was facing. While that under-reported persecution still goes on, the church is seeing some hope in their situation as the country is undergoing a change of leadership that I pray will be for the betterment of the church. Despite the horrific stories we do hear and read of the Middle East, my friends at SAT-7* shared dual stories of tragedy and hope in their newsletter of January, 2014. Their title line was, “Iraq is not lost. Miracles are happening.”
The first part of the story highlighted a story from Baghdad about Pastor Michael (name changed) who is a leading minister in one of hundreds of churches in Baghdad. On a Sunday morning Pastor Michael was driving the church bus through the streets of Baghdad to drop off the church members who needed transportation to and from services. He had just dropped the last of his passengers when a terrorist drove along the side of the bus and detonated a bomb that killed the terrorist, destroyed his car…and the bus.
But God clearly has other plans for Pastor Michael. When the smoke cleared, Pastor Michael sat in his bus seat surrounded by twisted metal, fire and a completely totaled bus…alive and only with a few minor cuts. Pastor Michael said, “I couldn’t believe it. The bus was in shambles, totally destroyed and burning. But I was okay. It was clearly a miracle. God must have something more for me to do.”
The second part of the SAT-7 newsletter relates the opposite of such terror with words of hope. They reported about one of their producers, Chris (not his real name), who was in Baghdad interviewing Christian pastors and believers. Pastor Michael was one of his interviews. Chris reported that all the pastors he spoke with were enthusiastic about SAT-7 and admitted that the channel was watched by many Christians as well as non-Christians in the region. Chris related that many of his interviewees were joyful and even willing to be identified as Christian on television in Iraq. The newsletter went on to relate one experience of Chris and his crew that was a tense moment on the streets of Baghdad.

“They were driving through a restricted area when they were stopped by the police. On learning they were a television crew, officers ordered them to halt their work. When the crew informed the police that they were representing churches and were with SAT-7, the officers’ attitudes changed. They brought over their commanding officer, who then spoke well of SAT-7, saying that the police greatly respected the channel and the Christians. Chris asked if they could pray for the officers. The police agreed. The crew laid hands on them and asked for God’s protection. They then gave the officers booklets about Christ and wished them well. It surely made a great impression.”

It appears that the police might have had a bit of distrust for reporters and news people but upon learning that this crew was part of SAT-7, the police not only became friendly but also opened up their hearts to receive prayer and hear about Christ. God is at work in the Middle East. Perhaps we won’t ever read about His work from the secular news, but the stories of Michael and Chris insures us that the truth is going out in Iraq. Despite the ever prevalent stories of political doom and gloom from the secular press, the church in the Middle East survives. The SAT-7 newsletter included a few more words of hope…

“Everywhere Chris went, nearly every person they spoke with knew about SAT-7, saying it was respected, that they watched to receive hope for tomorrow, that Christians were truly different. They saw a number of restaurants and shops where televisions were continually tuned to SAT-7!”

Although it is hard to get exact determination of the number of Christians in the Middle East, recent data suggests that the overall Christian population is in decline. The pastor of an Anglican church in Baghdad, Rev. Andrew White, stated that Iraq’s Christian population had shrunk from 1.5 million to just 200,000 within the last decade. He indicated this trend could be witnessed across the Middle East. That being said, eye-witness accounts know that there is resurgence in new Christian believers, although very much a slow process. Dr. David Baer, president of Overseas Council illustrated it as a faucet drip: “The flow of new converts has gone from none to an occasional drip..…drip…..drip; to a more frequent drip, drip, drip; to a slow but steady sliver of a stream.” I believe the church is not only surviving but is seeing a quiet and slow restoration. God is at work in the Middle East!
With the efforts of SAT-7 to broadcast the truth of the Gospel throughout the Middle East, a steady advance of the Christian church is seen. With the efforts of Overseas Council the need of Christian education and maturity of believers is being addressed. Together, SAT-7, Overseas Council and MEATE (Middle East Association for Theological Education) are having a tremendous bearing on the church throughout the Middle East with a partnership called TEACH. They use multimedia technology to create highly accessible Christian education that will encourage and equip Christians in the region, where access to solid theological resources in the local context is most times very limited and often inaccessible. The momentum is right and the time is right for this program to impact the lives of those new to the faith.
TEACH includes broadcast programs that can be viewed from the privacy of the individual’s home, in addition to courses available online in which believers can earn a certificate or degree. The online courses are monitored by mentors who administer tests and lead group discussions. The curriculum, written in Arabic by Arab scholars for an Arab audience, features 32 courses arranged in five categories: Christian Life, Leadership and Ministry Skills, Society, Bible and Church.
For more information and a video about TEACH click HERE. If you want to be a part of making a difference in the Middle East and be part of changing stories of tragedy to stories of hope, you can help support the Middle East Christian church by giving a gift to give the Christians there the knowledge they need to take the Middle East church into the next generation.

*A NOTE ABOUT SAT-7 (From their website): Since the first program aired in 1996, SAT-7 broadcasts have brought quality Christian television programming directly into millions of homes throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). SAT-7 airs 5 channels in Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish languages to a known audience of over 15 million viewers! In a region characterized by high illiteracy rates, media censorship, and limited incomes, anyone with a satellite dish can turn on SAT-7 and hear the Word of God in his or her language.

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2014 in Mission, World Christianity

 

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TROUBLES IN EGYPT

I KNOW I STILL OWE SOME SEGMENTS FROM MY CUBA TRIP LAST JANUARY!  I have been traveling a bit and time has been flying by and I have simply not been able to sit and write.  But this post is so important for the Christians in Egypt that I knew I simply needed to sit down and make myself get it out.

TROUBLES IN EGYPT

If you have been watching the news about Egypt you know that the political atmosphere tImagehere is explosive…literally.  In the midst of the Muslim upheaval, the Christian church is caught in the crossfire.  I have received numerous emails and updates from people I know there and all are in great need for our prayers. There have been more than 50 Christian (Coptic) churches burned and many Christians attacked. The stark realization of the violence was described by Ravi Zacharias in his RZIM August newsletter:

“The prolonged nationwide disruption and brutality of those supposedly just staging a “sit-in” are horrific. How can anyone so destroy their own country and kill their own people and murder minorities and still claim to be for the democratic process? The tragedy is beyond description.”

Perhaps for a more complete understanding of the situation, reading from people on the ground in Egypt will help us in the U.S. to understand more than what we will read or hear from our American media.

FROM A PASTOR:Image

The situation now in Egypt is not good; there is more violence and destruction than the news is covering. Most of the violence is close to where my family and I live, but thankfully we have all been out of Cairo. Please be praying for Egypt and especially the churches and Christian buildings that have been torched. Many of our church leaders’ homes and churches are in danger. We really need all of your prayers now. However, we trust in God and we believe He will do miraculous things in Egypt. The hostilities and confrontations have been going on in Egypt for months now and we pray that there is a swift and peaceful end to them.

FROM SAT-7*:

In the past 6 weeks the Muslim Brotherhood has occupied a number of public spaces, to demonstrate for the reinstatement of the former President (currently being held by the army and facing charges related to abuse of power, including substantial material and intelligence support to Hamas). Unlike the peaceful occupation of Tahrir Square by demonstrators in January 2011, and again at the end of June 2013, these Muslim Brotherhood occupations were dominated by calls for violence against the army, the police, the liberals and, specifically, the Coptic Christians in Egypt – all resulting in the violence witnessed on August 14th, when police stations, hospitals, private and public property were destroyed. Many Christian churches (at least 40 so far), homes and businesses were also attacked, as well as a monastery, three religious societies, three key bookshops belonging to the Bible Society in Egypt, three Christian schools and an orphanage.

For the complete commentary from SAT-7 written by Dr. Terence Ascott, CEO and Founder, SAT-7 International, go to https://www.sat7usa.org/understanding-the-present-situation-in-egypt?srctid=1&erid=144131&trid=f5168b62-25d9-4187-93eb-9b8e74d6ffed. (Photos from SAT-7)

MY CONCERN IS THE CHURCH

I know that the troubles in Egypt seem far away and you may think that they have nothing to do with us here in the U.S.  Well on a political front, we (the U.S.) are intertwined with Egypt in many ways and our relationship with this country that is a mighty force in the ME is in jeopardy.  If Egypt were to collapse or turn totally radical Muslim, the U.S. would certainly be impacted if the Suez Canal were to be closed or the oil pipelines were shut down. I don’t even pretend to know all the intricacies of that relationship but Egypt is an important ally in the ME who we need as a friend and not as an enemy. Abraham Lincoln stated, “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?” 

But the reason for our interest in Egypt needs to go way beyond political concerns.  As Christian, we are called to be supporters, encouragers and prayer partners for our fellow Christians around the world. Christians are dying friends, and they are suffering at the hands of those that oppose Christ and the Gospel. When one of us suffers, all of us should feel the suffering. When a Christian suffers for Christ, Christ suffers. Romans 15:1-7 says to us:

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.  Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.  For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”  For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.  May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

So with these verses in mind, may I ask that you remember our brothers and sisters in Egypt in your prayers?  As Christians, we are one body under our Lord, whether it is in America or the Middle East or in a remote part of the globe.  When we pray for our fellow Christians, we are honoring Christ.

…`I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:40

PLEASE PRAY THAT:

  • The current violence in Egypt (and all of the MENA region) will end soon.
  • The effective rule of law and order will be re-established for the benefit of all citizens, Christian and Muslin alike.
  • There will be effective protection of the Christians, Christian churches and other property against attacks by extremists.
  • Egypt will be governed for the benefit of all its citizens, with people of different persuasions able to live alongside one another peaceably.
  • Egyptian Christians will have opportunity to grow in an increasingly prominent and effective role in addressing the needs of all Egyptians and helping to bring healing and reconciliation in the country.

 *A NOTE ABOUT SAT-7 (From their website):  Since the first program aired in 1996, SAT-7 broadcasts have brought quality Christian television programming directly into millions of homes throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). SAT-7 airs 5 channels in Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish languages to a known audience of over 15 million viewers!  In a region characterized by high illiteracy rates, media censorship, and limited incomes, anyone with a satellite dish can turn on SAT-7 and hear the Word of God in his or her language.

Overseas Council is partnering with SAT-7 in a new initiative to bring Theological Education
to remote parts of the Middle East and North Africa through satellite transmission and long-distance mentoring.
For more information about this partnership go to http://overseas.org/our-work/programs/teach/.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2013 in World Christianity

 

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REFLECTIONS FROM CUBA – Part 2

Continued from 2/4/2013

The logo displayed on the wall of the Methodist Seminary of Cuba

Evangelical Methodist Seminary of Cuba

To prepare myself for my trip, I read an article from the Methodist Global Ministries by Melissa Hinnen highlighting the Methodist Church in Cuba and the Bishop in Cuba, Bishop Ricardo Pereira Díaz.

As reiterated from the article;

According to Bishop Pereira, recent history in the island nation has produced a generation of atheists who don’t know about God’s love for them. Young people in particular are drawn to a church that embraces Cuban culture and welcomes everyone in the community regardless of their faith or political background.

“We have taught pastors and laity that they can engage their Cuban heritage by praising the Lord, dancing, and raising their voices in worship as they do on the street,” said Bishop Pereira. “This makes the church attractive, especially to young people.” Members are generally 35-45 years old, and the average age of clergy is 30. Since 1999, the church has grown from 8,000 to 36,000 members.

To address the needs created by rapid church growth, five years SEM Buildingago the Methodist Church of Cuba established the Evangelical Methodist Seminary in Havana. “In the midst of so many doctrines,” said Bishop Pereira, it was important to provide a “theological formation that would be eminently Methodist and Wesleyan.”

Today there are more than 350 (Methodist) pastors in Cuba. “At the moment we have about 120 students pursuing their degree in theology,” said Bishop Pereira. The seminary is also extending its training to reach an additional 800 people throughout the country, preparing them for church leadership.  The Methodist Church exists in 92 percent of Cuba’s municipalities.

I had the opportunity to visit the Seminario Evangelico Metodista de Cuba (Evangelical Methodist Seminary of Cuba) for a couple of days and spend some time with the president of the Seminary, Dr. Alfredo Caballero Marrero (photo below).  The seminary in housed is an old church building (photo above) that is in the area of Havana known as “old town.”  It is as older building with classroom space, kitchen, dining room, library, offices and limited dorm rooms.  The actual worship center is encompassed within the building structure but is owned by a church that is not a part of the seminary.

Alfredo strikes me as a confident and well respected leader.  I took an iDr. Alfredo Caballero Marreronstant liking of him.  Seeing how his staff looks to him for his wisdom and advice and how his family looks to him as the head of the family, I see a prime example of a man that God has called for leading His work in Cuba.  He was once a pastor of a church with about 6000 members but was asked by the Methodist Denomination in Cuba to become president of the seminary.  He is now a pastor to pastors, a trainer of trainers and a teacher of teachers.  He says he misses pastoring a church but states, “What I do today to prepare these students is much more important for the future of the whole church in Cuba.”

The seminary has about 40 students in residence at any one time and another 300 or so students in courses in 24 seminary extensions throughout Cuba.  The resident program runs in four rotating groups where each group spends 3 modules of 21 days on campus.  The rest of the time the students are working in their local church.  While compared to U.S. standards for costs, the cost of educating these students appears to be very little, at about $6000 per year per group of students.  But for Cuba, that is a lot of money!  Since very few students can afford that amount of education expense, much of their cost is supplied through scholarships.  The education cost includes the student tuition and meals and a room while in residence.  Books are generally borrowed and returned to the school and the limited supply of computers is shared by the students in allocated time slots.  On one occasion I observed a student utilizing the computer at about midnight, his time slot for computer usage.  Transportation to and from the school for their 21 day in residence time is the responsibility of the student.  Many have to travel for more than 8 to12 hours by bus, hitchhiking or walking to get to and from the school.  Some of the students are couples, working together in their common ministry call.  All of the teaching is done by pastors and professors as volunteer time.

After graduation, the students are prepared, ready and able to plant home-churches through the island.  I visited two of these home-churches planted by Methodist Seminary graduates and they are indeed thriving and Kingdom building churches.  I will reflect more on these churches in part 4 of this series of posts.

I was privileged to be able to attend a devotion time and a communion service on Thursday morning with about 40 students and staff (photo left).  This morning marked the last day of classes for this particular group to be at the school for this module.  The student led music was at first lively and praising the Lord and eventually became slower and more contemplative as the worship moved towards the pinnacle of celebrating the Lord’s Supper.  With everything being sung in Spanish, and me not at all fluent in that language, I could not understand the words or join much in the singing.  But I certainly felt the passion and devotion in each piece of music.  Given a moment to share some comments, I expressed greetings and thanked them for their dedication to become the future leaders of the church in Cuba.  I told them that they are the future and hope for their communities and for Cuba.

Staff and guestsFor the rest of the day on Thursday I spent the time in meeting the school staff (photo right) and learning of the operations, methodologies and needs of the seminary.  We were able to talk about the Seminary and the many challenges that they face to train the future leaders of the Methodist church in Cuba.  Despite the seeming lack of internet service throughout most of Cuba, the school has managed to build a remarkable intranet system linking the school network together.  They use this system for teaching remotely as well as school business communication and video conferencing.  The school’s greatest need at this time is a van or mini-bus.  Because the school extensions are over the length of the island, it is very difficult to get materials and people sorted to the various locations.  I suspect that whatever vehicle they will eventually be able to obtain, will be well utilized!  The projected cost of a van is around $21,000 U.S.  Other needs include new computers for school as well as student use, a new projector and general equipment and furniture.  The estimated cost for this equipment is around $18,800 U.S. Another non-monetary need for the seminary is one of visiting teachers that can come to Cuba for weeks at a time and freely share their knowledge and wisdom with the students.  A willing spirit and compassionate love for Biblical teaching is more important than denomination affiliation and polished Spanish language skills.

As you can read, the needs are great but the rewards are greater.  Part of the Overseas Council ministry is to not only to provide for student scholarship but to also provide equipment that will help a school function to the greatest capacity.  I will provide some more detatil of OC’s overall work in Cuba later in this series.  If you feel moved to participate in our work at the Methodist Seminary of Cuba, please give a gift of any amount, designated for Methodist Seminary of Cuba.

On Friday we had a little more meeting time and then a walk in the city. My next post will reflect on the city of Havana and some of the sights, with a number of photos.  Stay tuned!

Blessings

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

REFLECTIONS FROM CUBA – Part 1

TRAVEL SUMMARY

I just had an opportunity to spend a week in Cuba during the last days of January. Although just a short trip, I did have busy days with opportunities to visit Havana and some of the countryside around the city.  I also spent a day in each of several smaller communities including Minas (a town that once was a thriving copper mining town), Matanzas City and Santa Clara.  This travel encompassed a narrow portion of the western half of the island within a three hour drive east of Havana and three hours west of Havana. I wish I could have seen more but time did not allow for further adventures.  But, what I did see delighted me with beautiful mountain scenery, coastal views of the Gulf of Mexico and even a short boat ride through a cave.  The people I met were loving and very much in hope of a brighter future for their lives in spite of sometimes difficult living conditions and little income.

Map of Cuba showing my paths of travel

Map of Cuba showing my paths of travel

Allowing for a full day each way for travel between Houston and Havana, I had six days on the ground to meet people, see the sites and explore the culture. My first three days were shared with two friends from The Woodlands UMC, Rev. John Hull, Mission Pastor, and Jennifer Sims, Small Group Director.  We spent three days together while visiting the Evangelical Methodist Seminary in Havana.  After John and Jennifer went home, I spent the following three days traveling with hosts from the Lost Pines Seminary, a theologically reformed seminary that is non-denominational. I will say more about the seminaries in later posts.

The Religious Makeup of Cuba

From what I have read and from personal conversations, I want to first relate what I understand to be the broad religious makeup of the Cuban population of roughly 11,000,000. According to the U.S. Report on International Religious Freedom, an estimated 60 to 70 percent is believed to be Roman Catholic although only 4 to 5 percent regularly attend mass. I was told that it is not uncommon to have a large Catholic Church building with only a handful of people attending on any Sunday.  Membership in Evangelical churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population but that number is growing daily.

Baptists and Pentecostals are estimated to be the largest Evangelical denominations followed by Methodists, Anglicans and Presbyterians.  There are also those that consider themselves strongly Evangelical but non-denominational.

Building in Havana with a distinct Middle Eastern flavor.

Building in Havana with a distinct Middle Eastern flavor.

Non-evangelical groups include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists; Quakers, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). The Jewish community is estimated at 1,500 members, of whom 1,200 reside in Havana. Muslim presence is minor with the majority of the believers from outside Cuba, with only a few actual Cuban Muslims. I did see one building that was a Muslim Community Center but no real evidence of a mosque.  Interestingly though, I did see a number of older buildings that had a distinct Middle Eastern influence.  Other religious groups, in a very small presence, include the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, Buddhists and Baha’is.

In addition, many Cubans (some say as much as 80%) participate in religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River basin, known as Santeria. Santeria is very similar to the practice of Voodoo that I observed in Haiti. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some even require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately the total membership of these syncretistic groups.

U.S. Report on International Religious Freedom

On July 30, 2012, the U.S. Department of State released its latest report on the status of religious freedom around the world; the report had many good things to say about religious freedom in Cuba. An expert analysis of the report by Duane W. Krohnke in his blog includes the following comments.

The Cuban “constitution protects religious freedom.” After the 1989 collapse of the U.S.S.R, the Cuban constitution was amended to eliminate “[scientific materialism or] atheism as the state creed” and to declare “the country to be a secular state” with “separation of church and state. The government does not officially favor any particular religion or church.” Moreover, says the U.S., “there were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.”

The Cuban “government’s respect for religious freedom improved” in 2011, declares the report.

“Religious organizations reported significant ability (in 2011) to attract new members without government interference. Many churches reported increased participation in religious instruction for children because government schools no longer scheduled competing activities on Saturdays or Sundays. The majority of religious groups reported little interference from the government in conducting their services and saw improvement in their ability to import religious materials, receive donations from overseas, and travel abroad to attend conferences and religious events. Some religious groups found it easier to bring in foreign religious workers. . . .”

Some religious groups “operated afterschool programs and weekend retreats for primary and secondary students and higher education programs for university graduates. Although not sanctioned by the government, these programs operated without interference.”

“Religious groups reported they were able to continue to provide community service programs with little interference from the government. These programs included providing assistance to the elderly, after school tutoring for children, clean water, and health clinics. “

While these improvements in government cooperation with religion institutions are favorable and appreciated, I did hear of some isolated instances where the atmosphere was not as lenient.  For example, while their programs for seniors seem to be highly accepted, I did hear of one instance where there was still some averseness to allow a church to directly minister to children and young adults. 

Cuba Push CartIn addition to the laws to allow more religious freedoms, there have also been some significant civil law changes in regard to property ownership, the ability to buy and sell property, business and entrepreneurship.  I was told that as of three years ago, one would not have seen a pushcart in the street selling wares to the general public.  Today, there are many such carts of various sizes, modes of pushing/pulling (human and animal) and selling a variety of wares, mostly food.  The freedom to buy and sell property is working in the favor of the church, allowing many pastors to either convert their home to a home-church, or even to buy new property to establish a home-church.  Consequently, there are newly planted churches springing up throughout Cuba. I had a chance to meet three of these new home-churches and see their efforts in community outreach, member care and church growth.  Of course, with church planting comes the need for properly trained church leadership.  Thus, there is a great need for the seminaries to be well equipped and financially stable to be able to meet the demand for educated leadership.  While I was not in Cuba to engage in ministry per se, I was able to fully appreciate the vital role that Overseas Council will serve in the future of the Cuba church through our partnerships with several Cuban seminaries.  If you feel moved to participate in that work, please give a gift of any amount, designated for Cuba.

Well, that’s a general overview of the status of Cuba, although not near complete.  In following posts I will attempt to tell you a bit more about my personal time in Cuba.  I will also describe the particulars of the two seminaries I visited.

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2013 in Mission, World Christianity

 

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Giving to the Kingdom For Christmas and Beyond

Giving to the Kingdom For Christmas and Beyond

Well, it’s been way too long time since I properly addressed myself to this blog so it’s about time! First, going against all current political correctness, and with a greeting that seems to be more and more under attack these days, I say to you with a warm heart and firm conviction that Jesus is the reason for the season… MERRY CHRISTmas!

Secondly, in this joyous time of Christian sharing and caring, let me treat you with a story that can be found on the OC website, but may have been missed if you do not visit that site regularly. It’s a story of a man, Kennedy, called by God for ministry, trained to be impactful in ministry, and then multiplying his training by training other church leaders.

Called

Kennedy is a born again Christian. Ten years ago, he says he was called to ministry but refused.Kennedy

“I just didn’t see myself doing ministry. Someone told me, ‘I just couldn’t see you anywhere but the pulpit.’ I laughed inside. For seven years, I went to church and sat in the back, so I could get out quickly. Finally I was asked if I’d like to help at the church, so I said I’d usher. One morning in the early service, the pastor was late, and someone asked me to teach. Afterward, the church leaders asked me to get theological training in order to preach again in the future.”

Again Kennedy was called, this time he responded.

Trained

Kennedy studied at Africa International University (AIU) in Kenya, formerly known as the Nairobi Evangelical  Graduate School of Theology. He already had a degree in business management, so he inquired about a degree in theology.  Kennedy is thankful to God for His provision. He didn’t have the funds to get an education when he arrived but was able to complete his studies through various scholarships, including one from Overseas Council. He graduated in 2011 with his Master of Divinity degree in Biblical Studies.

Multiplied

Kennedy is passing-on his theological training to other pastors who have not had an opporunity for proper education in order to help them have a deeper understanding of the Bible and Christianity as a whole. He trains pastors in the Kibera slums and Maasai churches (the Maasai are an ethnic group in Kenya).Pastor Training

“The Maasai believe that men need to be very macho, so I had to help them see that Jesus was not weak on the cross but rather strong. He was also smart because He won in the end!”

Kennedy says his training has helped in a number of ways in ministry, including showing other pastors how to teach the Bible in context and the power of forgiveness.

Kennedy says his story is an example of how investing in one leader impacts multitudes. The pastors he is training today will teach others in various churches tomorrow. By equipping a group of 12 pastors, he is reaching over 1,000 of their church members with the true Gospel message. Kennedy is changing his part of the world with the Word of God because of his own theological education.

The key to Kennedy being able to become a church leader teaching church leaders in Kenya is his Christian education. As you are thinking about what to give for Christmas, please prayerfully consider giving to the Kingdom by supporting church leaders like Kennedy so they will have an opportunity to give themselves to others. Your gift, $10 or $10,000, will continue to expand the Kingdom in mighty ways that go far beyond this Christmas season. It will continue for generations to come, through one life touching other lives. Please consider giving a gift through Overseas Council and be a blessing to Christian leaders like Kennedy.

Blessings, and have a very Merry CHRISTmas.

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2012 in Mission, Uncategorized, World Christianity

 

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Come Holy Spirit Come

I had the wonderful privilege of preaching at Atoka Presbyterian Church (EPC) yesterday.This church has a wonderful history (you can read it on the photo of the historical marker in front of the church) and I was thrilled to be among the loving congregation. After presenting an update about Overseas Council during Sunday School, I utilized some borrowed wisdom from Sinclair Ferguson and Paul Fritz, and reflected on the Holy Spirit for the worship sermon. I won’t belabor you with the whole text but I do want to share with you the final points dealing with how the Holy Spirit works in the life of a believer and some Bible verses that you might want to contemplate in your walk.

HOW DOES THE HOLY SPIRIT WORK IN A BELIEVERS LIFE?

1. The Holy Spirit regenerates. Recall Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born? Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:3-5)

2. The Holy Spirit guides believers into truth. Jesus said, “But when he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears and he will tell you what is yet to come.” (John 16:13)

3. The Holy Spirit cleanses, sanctifies and justifies us. Straight from the words of Paul “…you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (I Cor. 6:11)

4. The Holy Spirit refreshes us daily with hope and love. Again from Paul “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Rom. 5:5)

5. The Holy Spirit intercedes for believers in ways that He pleads our concerns to the heavenly Father. Paul wrote, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” (Rom. 8:26)

6. The Holy Spirit reminds us of important truths we forget. Jesus said, “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26)

7. The Holy Spirit teaches us to be more Christ-like.  1 Corinthians 2:9-16 were my subject verses for the sermon.

However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” — but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.   The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment: “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. 

CALL ON THE HOLY SPIRIT…AND LISTEN

I emphasized that the Christian walk involves practice…practice…practice listening to the Holy Spirit.  We need to admit to our own inability, we need to pray and ask for help and we need to listen for the Holy Spirit’s comfort and counsel. The Holy Spirit guides us not only in prayer but in daily life.  Often we tune out his presence because we want to follow our own agenda.  But if we listen for him he will show us how to be more Christ-like.  The more we tune-in to his voice, the more we will grow.  The more we grow, the more ready we will be when we are confronted with temptation or sinful behavior.

I will end with the words of A. W. Tozer from his book, “The Pursuit of God”

“In our sins we lack only the power. The moment the Spirit has quickened us to life in regeneration our whole being senses its kinship to God and leaps up in joyous recognition. That is the heavenly birth without which we cannot see the kingdom of God.  It is, however, not an end but an inception, for now begins the glorious pursuit, the heart’s happy exploration of the infinite riches of the Godhead.  That is where we begin, I say, but where we stop no man has yet discovered, for there is in the awful and mysterious depths of the Triune God neither limit nor end.” 

If you would like a full copy of the sermon and/or the PowerPoint slides, send me an email.
Blessings,
Dan

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2012 in Sermon

 

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