Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (I Kings 17:8-24) transports me to December of 1958, when Americans were going to the drive-in to see The Defiant Ones on the big screen, watching Maverick on the small screen, and shaking their booties to La Bamba on the radio. Those who spent their mornings scanning the New York Times might have missed the small story hidden away on page 32 on the first day of December. It was the only coverage the Times gave that month to a revolution on the verge of overthrowing the government of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba. The article’s first sentence began what the uncredited journalist must have felt was a tired tale: Cuba’s slow-motion rebellion begins its third year next week, a study in inertia but nonetheless a tense and tragic struggle. To hear my friend Lila González tell it, the events of December 1958 in her home town of Santa Clara were anything but slow-motion. She was a young girl, and her father owned the large hotel in the city square. Fidel Castro had sent his two top commanders, Che Guevera and the Camilo Cienfuegos, to this provincial capital, one of their assignments being to stop a train that was supplying arms to the government forces. When the train was derailed, army forces began deserting their ranks and joining the revolution. Lila recounts the excitement of the time as student revolutionaries filled the streets. Camilo even sent some of his men to her father’s hotel in search of food for the soldiers. Señor González, although a member of the privileged class, had no sympathy for the corrupt government and was happy to have the revolutionaries commandeer food from the hotel kitchen. By the end of December, Santa Clara was taken by the rebels, and the next week Batista was flying the coop. So much for inertia. Lila proudly remembers the thank you card with money inside that arrived from the popular hero Camilo a few weeks later, repaying them for their troubles.
The people of Israel were well into their own revolutionary government when the prophet Elijah came onto the scene. Sixty plus years prior, King David had undertaken his expansionist enterprise and had conquered surrounding neighbors, among them the Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon. Even before the time of the monarchy, the history books of Joshua and Judges are replete with stories of sorties on these outlying towns, such as the Sidonian town of Laish, where the story goes that a group of marauding raiders took along a priest and massacred the entire city of quiet and unsuspecting people. We can imagine that events like this were etched into the memories of people like the Sidonian widow in today’s passage, who looked up one day and saw an Israelite man approaching. In his famished state he had defied the customary boundaries his culture had set up, coming to her, like Camilo’s men came to the Santa Clara hotel, to commandeer food and assuage his hunger. The poor woman was on the verge of starvation herself, but complied. After they had all eaten their fill of what turned out to be miracle bread, her son took ill and died. She must have thought about all those fellow citizens of Sidon who had met their death when Israelites approached, and she momentarily mistook the prophet for one of these bearers of doom. It strikes me as fascinating that the chroniclers of Israel’s history took time away from the many chapters and verses dedicated to imperial conquest and lavish temple building to tell this little story, with such striking detail. We read that the man of God took the dead boy up to his bedroom on the second floor, prayed, and for some bizarre reason crawled into the bed and lay on top of the boy. He did this three times, prayed again, and the boy came to life. What an oddly disconcerting thing this must have been for the widow, to see a man representing decades of terror and conquest come in to her house and sprawl headlong on top of her dead son. Her horror soon turned to hallelujahs, though, as the breath of life returned to the boy. This out-of-the-way story, tucked in among the meta-narratives of Israelite history, abruptly gives way back to the grand exploits of kings, but not before reminding us that life-giving power and grace often happens on the margins, far removed from the centers of power and front page news.
Sixty plus years after the euphoria of revolution started on the streets of Santa Clara, I have the good fortune to talk on a regular basis with the daughters of Lila González, who now live in Atlanta. The inertia and slow-motion governance that followed the 1959 regime change was too much for them to take, and they, like many of their generation of Cubans, now live as expatriates. They are defiant ones, mavericks (as are their parents, who maintain a defiant faith and maverick hope while staying in Cuba). Whatever happens on the grand scale of world history, especially in the history of the respective regimes of the US and Cuba, I take satisfaction in knowing that there is also a prophetic history being written, a history of small stories of life-giving grace tucked away amidst the grand narratives of conquest and temple building. It is the history of life-giving friendships formed across vast chasms of cultural difference, despite the long history of enmity between our lands. I am 100% sure that there won’t be any Elijah-like prayer postures undertaken in this friendship, but it would be a miraculous answer to prayer if one of them could teach me to dance La Bamba.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.