I have felt compelled to highlight a bright spot amid the darkness of Revolutionary Cuba, namely the witness of countless ordinary people who stayed true to their beliefs, and to their Christian faith, in the face of intimidation, imprisonment, and bullets. Many shouted “Vivo Cristo Rey!” (or “long live Christ the King!”) as they were being executed by Fidel Castro and his henchmen. One of those who heard these shouts was dissident Armando Valladares, imprisoned by Fidel Castro. Mr. Valladares is himself a remarkable witness who stated:
I am not an extraordinary man, and I am quite ordinary. But God chose me for something quite extraordinary.
Armando Valladares is a poet who in 1960 was jailed as a political prisoner. After his release he later wrote Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag (Encounter Books, 1985). He also has served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
Initially supportive of the Revolution, he had been appointed to a low level position in the new government. Over time he began to have reservations about the human rights abuses of the new regime. He was arrested, for refusing to display a sign on his desk that said, “I’m with Fidel”. He was convicted of terrorism and sentenced to 30 years imprisonment (of which he served 22):
“For me, it meant 8,000 days of hunger, of systematic beatings, of hard labor, of solitary confinement and solitude, 8,000 days of struggling to prove that I was a human being, 8,000 days of proving that my spirit could triumph over exhaustion and pain, 8,000 days of testing my religious convictions, my faith, of fighting the hate my atheist jailers were trying to instill in me with each bayonet thrust, fighting so that hate would not flourish in my heart, 8,000 days of struggling so that I would not become like them.” (Quoted in Richmond Times Dispatch).
With God’s help succeeded, as he later stated: “Even though my body was in prison and being tortured,” Valladares said, “my soul was free, and it flourished. My jailers took everything away from me, but they could not take away my conscience or my faith.” (National Review).
Antagonizing believers is a particular specialty of the Castro regime. To them, faith is especially dangerous, because it kindles the conscience and keeps it burning when enemies advance. “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” were the last words of so many of my friends who were dragged to the shooting wall. Eventually, the government realized this was a battle cry for freedom, one that came from the deepest part of the men they were killing, and one that was only inspiring more men to die faithful to their consciences and to something greater than Fidel Castro. Their executioners realized that an expression of faith was more powerful than the explosion of a gun. So eventually, they gagged them.
The following video is of Mr. Valladares reading a poem that he wrote in prison, using his own blood as ink. The video is produced by the Becket Fund for Religious Freedom, which conferred its “Canterbury Award” upon Mr. Valladares in 2016:
A video that has recently gone viral shows a black woman in Des Moines, IA approaching a white police officer and giving him some food and water, and a hug. The background of this incident is the Nov 2 ambush and murder of two police officers, Sgt. Tony Beminio and Officer Justin Martin, while they were sitting in their patrol cars. Their funerals are scheduled to be held today and tomorrow in their respective Iowa communities.
The woman in the video, Courtney Bach, was not aware that she was being filmed. The tragedy had hit home for her in two ways: she lived near slain officer Martin, and also she is the daughter of a police captain.
“God says to do good and love your neighbor – that means everybody,” Bach said.She said she’s tried to stay off social media because the response has been so overwhelming.”
I feel like the act doesn’t deserve attention because it should be expected from everyone,” Bach said. “It shouldn’t be a surprise.”
You may read more, and watch the video, at KCCI.com.
Ten years ago, on an October day in Nickel Mines, PA, a man named Charles Roberts who was “angry at life and angry with God” according to accounts at the time, crept into a one room schoolhouse. He took ten girls hostage, and then shot them, before killing himself. Five of them died, and the rest were seriously injured.
Almost immediately, the devastated Amish community sought to forgive the deceased perpetrator, and to reach out with compassion to the family of Mr. Roberts. As reported by NPR: “Several families, Amish families who had buried their own daughters just the day before were in attendance and they hugged the widow, and hugged other members of the killer’s family.” The Amish later donated money to his widow and children.
In a further twist–like the old idea of “paying it forward”–that love and embrace has spread. Terri Roberts, the mother of Mr. Roberts, has in turn helped those whom her son victimized. She has become a part time caretaker of an Amish girl named Rosanna, who was neurologically devastated by a gunshot wound to the head. (As reported in New York Daily News).
This “Amish grace” shocked the nation almost as much as the horrific crime out of which it manifested. Though many still struggle at times, the Amish families were able to endure thanks to their strong community and the deep faith that permeates their day-to-day lives. In this, they are exemplars to all of us.
I am reporting today a small silver lining in an otherwise very dark time for Haiti. We are told that the death toll stands north of 800 people as 145 mph winds destroyed buildings and uprooted trees in this tiny island nation. Within a day of the terror inflicted by Hurricane Matthew on one of the poorest of nations, Christian agencies are already on the ground trying to help.
Christian groups are at the fore of early relief efforts as Hurricane Matthew, the most powerful hurricane to hit the United States in a decade, brings storm surges and lashings of rain to Florida after killing at least 339 people in Haiti. (Christian Today)
The article mentions Christian Aid and the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief as two organizations already mobilized and working alongside the Red Cross/Red Crescent. Other news articles have mentioned “Samaritan Purse” and “LiveBeyond” as agencies already involved. I am aware of other churches entering into the relief efforts.
Our thoughts and prayers for protection go out to the people of Haiti, Cuba, Bahamas, as well as our own brethren in Florida, and the eastern seaboard of the US. If you are interested in contributing, contact your local church or one of the aid organizations mentioned above, for suggestions on how to help these relief efforts.
In Townville, South Carolina Wednesday more than 1000 mourners said farewell to a boy clad in a batman costume. The guests also came dressed as Wonder women, Power Rangers, Batman, and Captain America. The unusual event has captured briefly the attention of the world, as this story has made into news outlets as far away as Europe.
The deceased, Jacob Hall, was a nine year shooting victim who loved superheroes. His life was tragically cut short last week by a murderous teen who shot him in the leg at a school playground. The older youth (who is now in custody) had also earlier shot and killed his own father.
The Toronto Star reported that one of his friends called Jacob a “sweet boy who knew a lot about Jesus”. At the funeral, pastor David Blizzard had this to say: “He’d say, ‘Mama, forgive that boy and love him like Jesus loves him because Jesus loves him.’ That’s exactly what Jacob would probably say.”
It sounds as though this young man was indeed a little superhero. We presume that he rests now in the arms of Jesus.
Few events have shocked us more than the coordinated attacks that occurred on Sept 11, 2001. Terrorists commandeered four airplanes and slammed them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and into the Pentagon building in Washington, DC; a fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. In the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, some found solace in a cross made of steel I-beams, an accidental symbol of God’s presence and comfort, that was uncovered in the rubble.
On Sept 13, two days after the towers collapsed, a recovery worker discovered the cross:
He had just helped pull three bodies from the rubble when he saw it there in dawn’s first light, standing in a sea of debris. A heavenly symbol in a hellish setting. A cross.
Exhausted and traumatized by his labors, the man dropped to his knees in tears. “It was a sign,” Frank Silecchia would recall, “a sign that God hadn’t deserted us.” (USA Today)
The “9-11 cross” became a symbol of hope and encouragement for many. Some made pilgrimages to pray before it, and left messages there. Makeshift worship services were held there.
One minister at the site says that when a family of a man who died in the attacks came to the cross shrine and left personal effects there, “It was as if the cross took in the grief and loss. I never felt Jesus more.”
(Cited by Wikipedia; the original article is no longer available).
After a few weeks in its original location, the cross was hoisted up onto a pedestal. A Roman Catholic Priest, Brian Jordan, blessed the makeshift monument and proclaimed, “This is our symbol of hope, our symbol of faith, our symbol of healing.” Jordan had lost a friend on 9-11, and had been struggling to cope with questions of why God had allowed this to happen. Like the worker who discovered it, the cross struck him also as being a message from God.
Today that cross, having survived a challenge from the American Atheists, is on display in the 9-11 Museum. For those of the Christian persuasion, it is part of an answer to the question, “where was God?” He was (and is) right there, with us, in the midst of suffering and death.
I am startled to realize that it has been over a month since I last posted anything on this blog. I have had good intentions of commenting on some major issues that have arisen lately. However, I have found that my time has become consumed by other work, and the preparation for (and enjoyment of) a family vacation. Here are a couple of things.
1. The Olympics: Had I been more on task last month, I would have posted something about the faith statements of Olympians. Many of the greatest athletes in the world are also giants of spirit. They are Olympians of faith. We certainly appreciate them. For all people, whether or not you posses athletic prowess, there’s nothing better than to aspire to be an Olympian of faith. That is something attainable by the smallest, the slowest, the oldest, and the sickest among us.
2. Kayla Mueller: The recent publicity about Kayla Mueller, the aid worker who was kidnapped by ISIS, is another story worth telling. At the end of her life, she found an inner strength through her faith in God that allowed her to withstand unimaginable tortures. Her strength earned the respect of her fellow prisoners as well as her captors. Her faith prior to capture is a topic of some mystery. She once said something to the effect that some people find God in a church, but she found God in adversity, and her own life certainly demonstrates this. Our admiration is added to that of others, as she takes her eternal place among the great martyrs and heroes of the Christian faith.
If I get more time soon I may revisit these stories. For now I commend them to you for further research and reflection.
Another celebrity wedding was just celebrated, in a show of opulence and grandeur such as only royal families and A-list starlets can muster. At a fairy tale setting, a castle in Scotland, the knot was tied between the pop singer known as Ciara and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. As with other celebrity weddings, this is not their first time making such a commitment–he was married before, and she has a child by a past fiancé. However what stands out in this case is that they chose to recommit themselves to their Christian faith and follow the biblical ideal of abstinence from sex before marriage. They endured no shortage of criticism, including from Khloe Kardassian.
We applaud the choice of these our brethren to make a deliberate choice to follow a hard path, both as a personal commitment to their Lord and Savior, and as a public witness to others. As Wilson put it, “we decided to do it Jesus’ way.”
Celibacy and abstinence are choices that can really bless us. It isn’t all privation and misery. We lose some tickling of the flesh but gain entry into deeper joys. Take the following example, of one who has abstained from sex for periods of time, not for religious reasons, but on the suggestion of a yoga teacher:
The first few months kind of sucked, he admitted. He was depressed and anxious. But then an amazing thing happened: Squire started waking up in the morning and laughing with a feeling of what he calls “ethereal joy.” And his interactions with other people became deeper and more meaningful than his sex-based relationships.
“Everything in our society is geared toward objectifying people into body parts so it’s all about the arms, thighs, butt or crotch,” said Aurin Squire, a 36-year-old playwright from Queens. “Celibacy allows you to take a holiday from constantly objectifying people.”(NY Daily News).
So, thank you Ciara and Russell, for giving us a bright moment amidst the grim newsfeed of violence, terrorism, and crass politics. Thank you for being a witness to the Christian faith. Thank you for reminding us to “do it Jesus’ way”. May God bless your lives together.
CBS News recently reported a story of faith and forgiveness, with a fascinating twist of fate. In 2005, in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Jameel McGee was arrested on false charges of drug dealing. He spent four years in jail before he was exonerated. While in prison, Jamal found God.
His arresting officer had his own “come to Jesus” moment (figuratively as well as literally). His misdeeds were discovered, he was fired, and he had to do his own stint of jail time for a year and a half. While in prison, he, too, became a Christian. Looking back on his former life he says, “I was the lowest of the low.”
Today, by chance (give or take a dose of divine intervention) they have found themselve working alongside each other at the same faith-based cafe. Jamal McGee confronted the former policeman, Andrew Collins, who apologized. Jamal McGee, who is vocal about his Christian faith, forgave Collins, and says that today they are very good friends.
Today they’re not only cordial, they’re friends. Such close friends, not long ago McGee actually told Collins he loved him.
“And I just started weeping because he doesn’t owe me that. I don’t deserve that,” Collins said.