There’s something you want, but you can’t have it. Worse than that, everyone around you already has it. It has to be frustrating.
But, what we learn in Hebrews today, as well as This American Life episode 259, is that sometimes the proper response is not to demand that we have what others have, but rather to question what it is about that thing that makes us desire it in the first place.
In Hebrews, the author advises the people to “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have.” The people seem to be struggling with this. Why else would the author write it? Instead of being jealous of what other people have, like the temple down the street, the people should instead continue in love, welcoming with hospitality all who visit.
Upon reading this verse, it’s hard not to wonder what the author is talking about. At first, the people are told to continue in love. But it makes that turn, the one I quoted above, away from how they should act when people come into their community, and towards how they should respond to the world around them.
Are these people, these “Hebrews,” giving something up in order to follow the gospel? Maybe they have given up participating in the economic structures around them. Or perhaps the temple, which they used to visit to offer sacrifices, has been left behind for the sake of this new gospel idea.
Whatever it is, they have given it up. And, from what this passage says, they have been promised something better in exchange, even if it’s not apparent right away.
In the first act of episode 259 of This American Life, Starlee Kline tells the intriguing, if not strange, story of her families long journey to Disneyland.
Starlee starts with the statement “I guess my mom was what you’d call overprotective.” As the story goes on, this becomes a large understatement. Because of fears of dangers and crowds and everything else that comes with a theme park, Starlee’s mother would not let her children visit Disneyland, which was in the same metro area they lived in.
What makes this story so captivating is the solution her mother reaches: while they still will not visit Disneyland, they will spend two weeks at the Disneyland Hotel.
Great proposition, right? And they did this for 3 years! They would visit the hotel for two weeks, never venturing across the street to Disneyland.
What makes this story fit so well with the message in Hebrews is the way Starlee talks about her interactions with the other children staying in the hotel, those whose parents let their children go to Disneyland. She’s quick to point out that everything in the Hotel screamed of Disneyland. There were murals on the walls, “second-tier” characters walking around, and even a view of the Magic Kingdom Castle from just about every window.
The place swarmed with kids, and so Starlee and her brother would work to get to know them whenever they could. This might be in the morning, before they left for the park. Or at night, when they returned (of course, by that time they’d all be really tired).
As Starlee tells her story, it’s easy to think their situation for those years, so close yet so far from the theme park they dreamed about visiting, was undesirable. But that’s not the story she tells. Rather, she talks instead about her expertise of the hotel, and the way in which they used that to assist other kids.
Starlee and her sister would spend a lot of time at the check in desk, waiting for new arrivals, kids just arriving at the desk. They would meet them, and tell them all about the hotel, until they would leave and go to the park. They began to see themselves as Disneyland Hotel experts, available to assist any newcomers in navigating the world that was the Hotel they spent so much time in.
Starlee understands, like the author of Hebrews tries to teach the recipients of this letter, that while the rest of the world may be enjoying something which looks desirable, rather than covet that world, she should instead focuses on love and hospitality. And, much like the author of Hebrews believed of the world in which they were surrounded, though it looked good, was actually less than it appeared, so too Starlee learns that Disneyland, which she had dreamed of for so long, was not all that her fantasies held.
After 3 years in the Disneyland Hotel, he mother finally gives in and takes the kids to the Disneyland park. Instead of her experience living up to the years of hype and expectations, what she finds is that the park is actually much different than she imagined. She says of their visit “It was strange to see that it was a natural place with long lines and smelly bathrooms. When I climbed onto a ride I was surprised by how solid the seat felt. When you think of fantasy places in your head, you never think about the fact that they’re plastic, that the overhead bar might pinch your neck.”
Starlee’s mom buys seasons passes after their first visit, but Starlee informs us that they don’t go back. “Before going, my sister and I had been sure that once we were there, we’d never want to leave,” she says, “nothing was more important than being allowed inside. But now that we’d actually seen what it was, it’s not that we were disappointed, but it just didn’t loom so big anymore.”
The message of Hebrews, and of Starlee’s story, shouldn’t be reduced to accepting ones lot in life. At the same time, the admiration of the world someone else inhabits can lead to “the grass is greener” beliefs. The writer of Hebrews knows this, that the world in which they live, full of it’s materialism and empire thinking, is not as life giving as living intentionally, growing in love and compassion, in community.