A SOUTHERN BAPTIST VISITS PORTUGAL
OVERALL THE PREACHING MET WITH GOOD RECEPTION
I recently spent a week in Portugal at the first Fiel Conference there put together by Richard Denham of Brazil. It was time well-spent and I count it a privilege to have been a part of the effort. In short, I was impressed with the pastors, grieved over the lack of doctrinal understanding and commitment and awakened to the need for the kind of ministry which Fiel hopes to have in this country.
FLYING OUT OF NEWARK
My flight departed from Newark for Lisbon out of gate C96. Terminal C ends at just that point and has a bank of glass windows which curve around facing New York City. Since I arrived at my gate several hours early, I had ample time to study the skyline. At first, I wasn’t sure that I was looking at New York.
It was strange not seeing the twin towers. I have never visited NY but have flown in and out of LaGourdia and Kennedy several times and seen the skyline in so many pictures and drawings through the years that it was easy to see the “holes” as I gazed out the window. The Empire State Building seemed more prominent in the landscape. Huge cranes, two of them painted red, white and blue, were at the scene. A large US flag was hanging from one. There was a wisp of smoke that snaked up toward the sky from what must have been ground zero. More than a month after September 11, and still there is visible smoke.
Groups of people from all different countries crowded around the windows of the terminal throughout my 4 hour layover there. The effect was always the same, quiet solemnity. Questions were asked and answered in whispers. Some had tears. No one remained unaffected. Parents held small children in their arms so that they could see. They would point to different objects in the distance obviously trying to explain what the children were seeing.
As horrible as it was to watch those buildings burn on television, it must have been a thousand times more devastating to have witnessed it live. I wondered what that terminal must have been like September 11. One of the TV monitors that beam a continuous stream of made-for-airports-version of CNN is located about 25 feet in front of the windows. One of the speakers is located overhead next to the window. One can stand, looking outside with his back to the TV and hear the commentary while watching the skyline. It must have been frightening to have been there that day.
After spending the morning hours of Friday resting and fighting the effects of jet lag, Steve Ford, my host, took me for a little sightseeing. Steve and Sharon are SBC missionaries who have come to understand and love the doctrines of grace the last few years. They served in Africa for 10 years before coming to Portugual 8 years ago. He is about to accept a call to return to his home church in Arkansas to serve as a staff member in education. Friday afternoon we drove along the coast and went to Hell’s Mouth, a cavern dug out by pounding waves against the rocky coast. It was an impressive sight. An average of twelve fishermen per year lose their lives at this place,some in boats, some by being knocked off the rocks.
On Saturday we went into Lisbon proper and walked among the old buildings and cobblestone streets. The discoveries monument marks the launching point for the great sea expeditions from Portugal dating back to Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama in the 14th and 15th centuries. I was impressed with all that Portugese explorers accomplished and amazed that Portugal doesn’t presently rule the world…
On Sunday I preached in two Baptist churches. The pastor of the second, Jose Pinto, is a wonderful man who was raised in poverty without any of the normal advantages of education or finances. He taught himself music through materials that missionaries left at his church when he was a boy. As a teenager he entered the military and was able to pursue some educational opportunities. Today he is a faithful, meek pastor whose 3 older children are accomplished musicians, two of whom are studying at a music conservatory. I was very impressed with him.
The Fiel conference began on Monday at Agua de Mendeiras, on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. We arrived there safely after stopping in Nazerei, a seaside village. I and the team from Fiel are stayed at a hotel down the road from the Baptist camp where the meetings were held. I was given Room 7, which has a view of the Atlantic. No more than one hundred yards away the waves crashed on the beach. Their roar gave a fascinating melody. The first night I was scheduled to preach on Revelation 1, including verse 15 which says that Christ’s voice is as the sound of many waters. How appropriate it was to have the repetitive, crushing sound of waves in my ear during the afternoon! I had a small balcony that faces the ocean and spent many hours there facing the ocean and writing on my laptop.
I preached eight times on the seven letters to the churches in Rev. 1-3. During the first Q&A time a question was asked that was designed to pit me against Gilson Santos, the other speaker, who is a pastor from Brazil. Gilson preached 8 messages on the church, seeking to establish the authority and sufficiency of Scripture for life and ministry. Although I only received summary reports of what he said, it seemed very much on target. Gilson is a solid man who has benefited from Richard Denham’s discipleship for many years.
The questioner was trying to suggest that the Word of God is just a dead letter (and therefore not authoritative on its own) apart from the Spirit. It is an old neo-orthodox trick, using 2 Cor. 3:6 in an attempt to justify their denial of the the absolute authority of the Bible. Gilson fielded the question quite capably and I did not feel obligated to add anything. The man then asked me about questions regarding church discipline, which I addressed in my message. He thought it sounded unrealistic and harsh, especially in light of Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep (ie. we should leave the 99 healthy sheep and care for the one who is lost). This gave me a wonderful opportunity to go through Matthew 18:15ff and 1 Cor. 5 and 2 Cor. 2. I summed up my lengthy response by saying that the practice of discipline, both formative and corrective, is the epitome of “faithful shepherding,” which goes after the wayward sheep. That seemed to please some, satisfy others and completely bore the rest.
After lunch Steve and Sharon took Hudson and me to see Fatima,the (in)famous Roman Catholic shrine which was constructed in celebration of Mary apparently appearing miraculously to the 3 shepherd girls in 1917. The two girls who died shortly thereafter were recently (May 13, 2000) beatificated by the Roman Catholic Church into saints. The third is still alive and living in convent near Fatima. She is kept completely away from the public except on special occasions she may greet pilgrims from the doorway.
An idol of Mary has been built according to the specifications of the shepherd girls and stands encased in an open theater for her worshipers to come and pray to her. She is about 3 feet tall, it appears. People were standing in line to light candles to assist their prayers to her. So many were burning that the fire looked almost like it would burn out of control in the pit. Vendors sell candles shaped like various body parts (foot, hand, etc.) that pilgrims may purchase to be offered to Mary for special healing of the body. There are also candles in the shape of babies, boys, girls, men, and women.
I stood and watched as hundreds prayed to the idol. One woman was walking on her knees along a marble track leading to the statue, in order to show her true devotion to Mary. I saw the photos of Pope John Paul kneeling before the statue. And while standing there I could not help but pray, at times out loud, that God would open their eyes; that He would vindicate His Son and remove the darkness from this place; that He would expose the Roman Catholic system as the soul-destroying hoax that it is. It was a grievous experience. I had been somewhat prepared for it by my visit 10 years ago to Aparaceda de Norte in Brazil, where another shrine to Mary has been erected. On that occasion I was willing to burn the place down if I could have found a way to
do so. This one was equally bad, only a little more sophisticated. One of the vendors had statues of Laurel and Hardy right next to our lady of Fatima.
On the way back we stopped at Batalha, a town that has a monastery dating from the 14th century. It is huge and ornate. King Joao I began construction after Mary gave him victory over Spain, thus settling Portugal’s independence from its neighbor to the east ever since. The building took nearly 200 years to build.
Overall the preaching met with good reception. I gather that expositional preaching has not been emphasized too much in the Baptist circles in Portugal. The doctrines of grace are not known much at all. My interpreter is a convinced dispensationalist who avidly follows Charles Ryrie. At one point in one of my messages when I said, “The devil is God’s devil,” he evidently added, “that’s what he [meaning me] said,” to make sure that everyone knew that was not his view.
One of the benefits of ministers’ conferences is the opportunity for private fellowship between the formal meetings. I enjoyed several such occasions, some with the aid of an interpreter and some within the limitations of broken English. One young pastor (10 years in the ministry) asked to talk to me after my morning message. He bought me a cup of cafezhino and we sat outside the coffee shop. He said he feels guilty because he does not study much and feels like he doesn’t do very much as a pastor. He wonders if he should leave the ministry because he doesn’t love it the way that other pastors seem to. I spoke to him about his call, the romance of preaching, the joyful dread of the work and priorities. I also told him that there are times when I do not like being in the pastorate. He seemed shocked but it is true. We talked about the fight of faith and the need to persevere where God places you. It was good and hope at least a little helpful.
One day we traveled on to Obidos. It is a walled city that dates from 1000 BC. Streets are cobblestone and only 8-10 feet wide. Only 2 roads can take cars and then only part way. We walked the winding lanes to the top of the wall and walked on the stone wall for awhile. It was very narrow, only about 2 feet wide and it had several well-placed turrets. One of the Catholic
cathedrals (it had 3, I think) was very ornate and contained old art from one of Portugal’s most famous painters.
Steve, Hudson the Swedbergs, John and Karen, and I left after the last morning session and headed for Coimbra, home of the oldest university in Portugal and one of the oldest in Western Europe. The city dates from well before Christ and is filled with incredible looking buildings whose architecture reflect the many eras it has lived through. It is located on the Mondego River and we visited a beautifully manicured park which is located next to it. But Coimbra is known for its university which was established in 1290 by King Dom Dinis for the purpose of “General Studies. It moved back and forth from Lisbon to Coimbra until 1537 where it was permanently located in latter city.
The university is famous for its library, which houses over 300,000 books dating from the 16th, 17th, & 18th centuries. I purchased a ticket for a tour only to discover that the tour guide took today off. The building is not big, but the books are shelved up the walls which look to be about 3 or 4 stories high. Gold overlay is everywhere (we were kept to the roped off sections and could not touch anything). Wooden tables dating from the 16th century were located in each of the 3 chambers. It was beautiful. At night they leave the upper windows of the library open to allow bats in to eat the book mites. Tables and equipment are covered with heavy mats to protect them from the bat droppings. I was told this before I arrived but was somewhat incredulous. After having it confirmed and hearing the bats with my own ears, I am still thinking that there has to be a better way.
Outside the library students were scurrying everywhere, presumably heading to class. There were some “hazing’ rituals taking place and freshmen who were identifiable by their customized T-shirts where being led around by upperclassmen who were dressed in black, vested suits with black hats and black cowls draped over their shoulders. The students actually wear these to class. I stopped one group of students who were wearing yellow garbage bags with holes cut out for their heads and arms. Dentristy markings were written on the bag and they were being led around by one of the upperclassmen. He replied, “Yes,” when I asked him if he spoke English.
I had an engaging and amusing conversation with him which began with an explanation of what they were doing. He explained that this was a ritual for freshmen dentistry students to be paraded around like this by upperclassmen like himself. I asked if he enjoyed humiliating them so. They all laughed and we bantered back and forth a little. At one point he actually draped with his cowl and asked me to take over. I ended the conversation by asking if he studied any religion. He got a disgusted look on his face and said, “No!” The others kinda chuckled. One of them said, “Only teeth and mouth-dentistry.” I took the opportunity to ask if they ever thought about God and if they wouldn’t be missing something significant if they learned all about mouths and teeth and knew nothing about the God who made them. The upperclassmen said, “You have a point.” I replied, “There are bigger questions in life than can be discovered by looking into someone’s mouth. Surely you ought to consider them.” He graciously agreed and said that I had given him something which he must think about. We shook hands and parted ways.
It wasn’t much but perhaps the Lord will use that little “God-thought” (as RF Gates calls them) to expose his emptiness inside. It seems to me that the Portuguese are largely a secularly-hardened people. Religion or Christianity to them is Roman Catholicism. Another student I engaged said as much.
THE CONCLUSION OF THE CONFERENCE
In my last evening session I preached on Christ’s letter to the church at Philadelphia. Several people wanted to talk to me afterwards. Many were kind in their comments about the teaching this week. One pastor’s wife seemed to be hanging back near the door. I caught her eye gave a friendly wave. She began to speak to me and hurriedly made her way across the room and interrupted the conversation I was having with another pastor. She started weeping as she talked and, of course, I couldn’t understand a word she was saying but was very concerned that she was so upset. My interpreter, Anthony, explained that she was telling me about how difficult the last month has been on her husband in their church. He is a young man, this is his first church, and it sounds like it is a pastor-eater. She thanked me for the messages and said that her husband has said to her over and over this week, “I am so glad I came.” I tried to speak a few encouraging words to her through Anthony. Pastors’ wives have it much harder than their husbands. What a wonderful gift a good wife is to a pastor.
Anthony talked to me about coming to Cape Coral in November while he is in the states. He gave me the history of his church over the 5 years he has been there. He has led them through discipline, dealing with a well-entrenched hypocritical deacon and trying to lead them to move forward now with a healthier understanding of what a church is. He is coming to the states in hopes of raising money for their church building. He wants to make an appeal to our congregation. I told him that we are 1689 Reformed and that I knew that he was a dispensationalist. He said he had not disagreed with anything that I had taught this week. I interrupted him and said, “Except that part about the devil being God’s devil.” He laughed and turned red. He said that he is a Calvinist, and he might be, of a sort. We had an interesting discussion about that for a while but it was already late and there was another pastor waiting to speak with me (he finally left, saying that he knew it was now too late for an American pastor to talk, for which I was very thankful).
The conference ended well and there seemed to be a strong consensus to continue having this meeting on an annual basis. Plans are underway for the second one next October. My trip home was very eventful, in these days of heightened security, but that is a separate story.
Tom Ascol, Cape Coral, Florida
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