Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Hebrews 1) transports me to the Miami International Airport, where I re-entered my home world just over ten days ago after a three-week visit to Cuba. The re-entry shock from these trips is always, well, shocking. Returning to wi-fi and a food court after being off the technology grid and eating rice and beans is one thing, but there’s something more to the culture shock that makes re-entry difficult. A caveat: There’s always a temptation to romanticize and idealize the Cuban experience, and I don’t want to do that here. I simply want to name the very different angels who appear to be watching over the two countries that lie 90 miles apart. I’m grateful to my friend Mahan Siler for recently writing about Walter Wink’s understanding of angels as spiritual powers that define and shape and give voice to an institution or a community. As for Cuba’s current angelic presence, its contemporary ethos and power – its voice – is one of distress and complaint and discontent. No es facil is the phrase you’ll hear more than any other. It ain’t easy. The angel’s frustrated complaints seem like an appropriate response to a revolution that has outworn its welcome. Some who long compared the Cuban revolution to the Exodus story, with Castro as a Moses figure, now point out that Moses only stayed in power for forty years. For over fifty years now, the country has sacrificed individual freedom on the altar of communal solidarity, and it has taken its toll.
Now, to the angel of the America I re-entered. I spent my first day back in the states binging on television, at one point watching five episodes in a row of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. The show takes its material from the headlines of real news, and it deals with some of the most twisted and horrific of criminal acts. And now, less than two weeks into my re-entry, we’re dealing with one of those real news headlines, as a University of Colorado neuroscience doctoral student went on a shooting spree last night at the premier of Dark Knight Rises, killing 12 and injuring 58. Sandwiched between those SVU episodes and this Batman mass murder episode, my last ten days have provided several opportunities for me to come face to face with some of the less publicly destructive, and more self-destructive mental illnesses and addictions people struggle with in our culture. Some of the more troubling and tenacious diagnoses and disorders that are fairly prevalent in our culture today were not even in existence fifty years ago. The symptomatic details of the maladies vary widely, but they seem to have one striking feature – they are extremely isolating. Unlike Cuba, where virtually everything is by necessity done communally, our struggles have become more and more privatized and cloistered. Such is our version of no es facil. It ain’t easy living in our culture. Perhaps all the dysfunction and dis-ease is an appropriate angelic response to a country that has, for well more than fifty years, sacrificed communal solidarity on the altar of individual freedom. It has taken its toll.
While each culture has its own respective angelic presence, its particular ethos and spiritual power that gives shape to the daily lives and defines the particular challenges of its populace, I think I’m discovering what makes the culture shock so palpable. The writer of Hebrews helps me define the distinct difference I experience between the two worlds, and helps me understand what it is that attracts me to the spirit of the Cuban Christian community in places like Matanzas and La Vallita, even in the midst of their complaints. Today’s passage tells us over and over again that the angels, for all their hype and hoopla, do not have the final say. They can lay claim to some power, but they do not have the ultimate power in a community, in a culture. Today’s passage gives example after example demonstrating how the power of Jesus is superior to the power of angels. In one of these contrasts, we read that Jesus, unlike the angels, was anointed with the oil of gladness. That’s it. That’s what I experience in Cuba. No matter how difficult their struggle, how frustrating their daily life, no matter how fiercely they might complain, the community of faith there is saturated with the oil of gladness, the unguent of joy, the aceite of alegría. It ain’t easy, but they are in touch with a higher power that knows how to belly-laugh and make a joyful noise through the difficulties. That’s what I miss here in our culture. We seem to have ceded ultimate power to our dis-eased angel, and it has left us high and dry. We have confused the ethos of individual prosperity, along with its attendant maladies, with the Spirit of God’s own Son. It is challenging, to be sure, to live under the guardianship of our culture’s protesting angel and the power it wields. A greater and more important challenge, though, is to fully acknowledge the deeper power at work, the anointed Power that drips with the oil of gladness. It may not be easy, but Orquidia and Samuel and Nancy and Orestes and Julio and a host of others have taught me that it’s possible.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.