Monday, November 26, 2018

Namaan Versus the River

Beginning the Story

There are a few stories in the Bible that I really like. I suppose that they are the ones that point out human nature in a surprising or interesting way… I don't know, I guess that is what I like in stories in general. When I read Heart of Darkness, Winnie the Pooh, or a Christmas Carol what always strikes me is how the writer wants you to see some part of human nature in a new or clearer way.
Stephen King is good at that too. I suppose that is why he is so famous as an author. He uses fear to showcase a whole raft of human emotions in a way that we do not normally think about them.
I mean think about it – Romeo and Juliet through Robin Hood and on to Mickey Mouse and the gang – these are stories that let us see ourselves in unique and different situations so that we can ask some deeper questions.

Am I like that? What would I do if? Do people really think that?

These are the questions that change us, that help us, that bring about a depth and a growing faith.
It is no different from the stories of the Bible. Just as it was no different when Jesus told stories. In fact, from the dawn of human history, people sat around the campfire and told each other stories so they could learn, feel, and grow.

Jesus would tell a story about a vineyard owner and the people he hired to pick the grapes and we would see ourselves in one of the characters.

The problem is – these stories were usually about things we did not want to believe about ourselves – like that we can be mean, or jealous, or petty… but when it is a story about someone else it allows us to see ourselves safely… we are one step removed… and it makes us wonder.

I wonder how much I would be like Jonah -  if God asked me to do something I did not want to do I might run away too. I wonder how much I am like the Pharisee who looks down on the person who throws a few pennies in the collection plate. I wonder if I would go hide in a cave when life got overwhelming like Elijah did.

That is what we do, right? Watch a murder mystery or read a thriller and you cannot help but wonder how far you would have to be pushed before you took the shovel and bashed their heads in.
The first step to wisdom with any story is to see ourselves somewhere in it.

Seeing it Through Story

A Reading: 2 Kings 1:1-15a

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”

He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. 

He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” 

So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” 

He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.”

The Story Unfolds

So what do you think of this story?… What does it tell you about human nature?… And where do you see yourself?
I think like any good story I can find myself in almost every moment of every character.
Let’s start with Namaan. Here is a guy who is used to getting his own way – a guy with the resources and power to buy himself a cure. He is the type of guy who can easily go down to the US and pay for an MRI when he is told his is scheduled for six months from now.
But when he gets there two things happen – first, Elisha does not even come out and see him, sends the secretary out to tell him to take two aspirins and call him in the morning… Or at least, that is what it seems like – wash in the river? That is it? No magic pill, no waving hands? No incantation? There has to be something you DO… to cure this disease, no?
The rich powerful man who traveled hundreds of miles on an uncomfortable camel is told by the secretary to take a bath and go home. You can understand his outrage. I can even put it into a perspective that makes perfect sense to me… Namaan feels like he has not been heard and that Elisha does not care.
No, wait, you don’t understand, I have leprosy… I’m special, I’m sick, you don't get it.
I’ve said that. If you knew who I was, If you understood that I have cancer, if you only knew – you would treat me different.
No – says Elisha – you are just like everyone else, no better or worse, and the cure is simple.
Now, look at it from Elisha’s point of view. Let’s say the commanding general of the United States Army hears that I am really good at prayers and comes to church asking me to pray for peace. He hears that God listens to me and wants my prayer to solve the growing Korean, United States military crisis.
Namaan is putting Elisha on the spot and demanding some huge miracle and Elisha figures, perhaps rightly so, that if he fails this test there will be repercussions. Big repercussions. Perhaps life and death repercussions. How do I get myself into these things, he mumbles under his breath.
Ever felt like that? Like you had to impress somebody or do something that you really might not be able to do and the pressure is so much…
If this story was set in the modern era Elisha would have said, here, take chemo and radiation like everyone else, and God willing, you will get better. The traditional cure for leprosy (which by the way, was any kind of skin disease from a blister to eczema) was to ritually wash. Essentially Elisha says, go and take the medicine like everyone else, you are not better or worse than them, and if God wills it, you will be cured.
Which is hard for Namaan – who is used to getting his own way, sometimes at the point of a sword, to hear.
For some reason, we have turned the characters around and made this a story about God being special and being able to work miracles. It is not. The waterworks, the same as the chemo works – sometimes. Namaan was just lucky.
This is a story about feeling you are special – about asking for the impossible – and someone having the guts to point out you are just like everyone else and have to work to solve your own problems with the resources you are given.
Again – not easy to hear.

Prayer Reflection: Naaman’s Story (inspired by 2 Kings 5: 1-14)

a little girl
an army commander
a religious zealot

for one brief moment
difference suspended
doubt superseded

ordinary water
simple ritual
extraordinary presence

May we have the courage of the child
to reach out to even the powerful.

May we have the wisdom of Namaan
to ask for help when we are lost.

May we have the faithfulness of Elisha
to love outside the lines. 

~ written by Katherine Hawker,

Ideas to Take With Us

I love this story because I am someone who thinks they are special and who wants to make things harder then they are. I want to lose weight by going on the newest fad diet and joining this Keto group and getting a Y membership… When the real answer is to eat better and go for a walk.
I get Namaan – if it really is as simple as changing my diet, I am unlikely to do it. Maybe I am, just lazy, maybe I don’t want change, or maybe I just want to feel special and made a big deal of.
It is uncomfortable to hear myself in this story – but it is something I have to hear. There is real wisdom to be found in these stories – but the thing is we have to realize that the stories are meant to make us think, to make us change.
I think far too often we are our own worst enemies – we are standing in the way of the simple answer – or as the slave said if the prophet asked you to do something difficult would you not have said yes? We are not special, we are not different, but we have the choice to do the right thing. Just like everyone else.

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