Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (James 1:19-27) transports me to Havana, Cuba, late June, 2009, where a group from our church hopped on the white Mercedes van driven by our always faithful and trusted chauffeur, Nestor Rodríguez, and began the ride to Matanzas and then on to La Vallita. I took my IPod on that trip, loaded with a couple thousand songs, and hooked it up to the van’s radio so I could play some tunes for Nestor on our long trip. I was surprised by what he requested – Michael Jackson. The King of Pop had just died a few days earlier, and the news hit Cubans hard. I learned that Jackson’s popularity in Cuba was second only to John Lennon and the Beatles. There are various MJ impersonators working Havana clubs, and everywhere you go, you can find kids who demonstrate a somewhat salsa-influenced version of the moonwalk. I also learned something else about the connection between Michael Jackson and Cuba. Back in 1993, when Jackson revealed publicly that he had been suffering from a skin disease, vitiligo, (and wasn’t purposefully lightening his skin), he could have received help from the world’s leading treatment, if it hadn’t been for the US embargo on Cuba. Pharmacologists in the Cira García clinic in Havana had developed an effective medicine in the mid 80s and had treated thousands of foreigners suffering from the disease. But alas, it wasn’t available to US citizens. At any rate, I was happy to be able to fulfill Nestor’s request and play Thriller and Beat It along with some early J-5, since they were one of my favorite groups as a kid. My IPod was missing one of the songs Nestor requested, though, Man in the Mirror. Too bad; I think there would definitely have been some symmetry in having a vanful of American singers serenading the Autopista Nacional, I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways, And no message could have been any clearer, If you wanna make the world a better place, Take a look at yourself and then make a change. . .
I thought of that experience when reading today’s Passage. The book of James, which is in many ways a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount’s vision of a love that will change the world, tells us that anyone who listens to Jesus but does not do what he says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. It’s an interesting take on the man in the mirror. It’s not enough to look at yourself. You have to remember who you are after you step away from that mirror; you are a follower of Christ and his way of sacrificial love. That identity has to show. So you have to continue looking at yourself and what you are doing to make the world a better place for the poor, the stranger, the sick, the enemy. I’m reminded of another common Cuban experience, with the children there. Whenever we are around groups of Cuban kids, they are constantly wanting to point out things to show us, and the common imperative you hear a thousand times is mira! mira! Which is, look! look! It makes me think that whatever we are seeing in the world, whatever we are looking at, gives us opportunity to also see ourselves, our reflection, in how we respond and react to what we see. The world of poverty, the world of suffering, the world of need, the world of violence, can truly be a mirror for us. It can help us examine the logs in our own eyes, as Jesus said, instead of worrying about what someone else is or isn’t doing relative to those problems. Mira! Mira! Take a look at yourself and make a change.
It occurs to me that in many ways the Church at large, especially the Church in privileged society, suffers from vitiligo. Patches of the Body are prone to lose the “pigments” that provide the hues and tones in the face of Jesus– the colors of Christ’s simple living, solidarity with the poor, and transforming love for enemies. When we look at ourselves in the mirror, and reflect on how much energy we spend on things other than following the simple and clear teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, we see a disfigured face drained of life. It’s one reason I like to go and take groups to visit Cuba. I have never been to the Cira García clinic, but I visit churches in Matanzas and La Vallita and Piedrecitas and Camaguey and San Jose for their curative effects. I go to visit the children and hear their excited greetings – Mira! Mira! As the song says, no message could be any clearer.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.