Immersed and Buoyant

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. […]

[Naaman] 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.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” He urged him to accept, but he refused. Then Naaman said, “If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the LORD.

2 Kings 5:1-5, 14-17; excerpt from lectionary text for Sunday July 7, 2019

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Naaman is a great man; a mighty warrior.  Naaman is good at what he does.  Maybe Naaman even is good.  His wife’s maid, an Israelite captive, cares enough for his well-being to speak to her mistress.  The women’s speech may be for their own sake — the status of the household is not unconnected to the status of its master — yet, reading, I imagine relationship — hierarchical, yes (this is the ancient world, after all) but flowing within that frame.  Perhaps the slave-maid cares not only for household stability but for the household.  Picture Naaman a man of rectitude.  Self-disciplined.  He knows what he is due, and expects it.  He knows his own duty, and fulfills it.  His sense of honor requires of him courtesy.  He inclines his ear to one who owes him her survival, hears the possibility of hope from a slave, and commits himself to pursue it, even to another land.  He is able to hear and willing to ask, and what he asks is the opportunity to buy.

Naaman does not request a gift.  Naaman expects to pay with vast quantities of silver and gold and garments (2 Kings 5:5), with extreme exertion (5:13).  There is a certain humility in Naaman’s approach.  He is not demanding, not taking, not grabbing.  He asks permission from his king; he approaches Israel’s king; he brings resources to procure what he requests.  He respects the process and follows it dutifully.  Yet maybe this deference betrays his pride.  Naaman not only expects to pay, he wants to pay.  He is offended when the prophet does not appear himself (5:11).  Naaman knows what he is due.  Naaman does not come as a supplicant. He comes with resources, treasures, all of which he is willing to offer.  Naaman does not intend to accrue a debt.  Naaman has planned and prepared to pay his own way. 

Yet the message the prophet sends to Naaman is ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times’ (5:10).  And once his servants have pointed out the absurdity of resisting the simple for having expected the difficult (5:11), Naaman ‘dips’ or ‘plunges’ or ‘immerses’ himself in the river (5:14).

The Naaman that emerges from his immersion is clean from leprosy.  He is stunned at the healing, offers again all that he has brought — explicitly naming it ‘present’ or ‘blessing,’ a response to his new knowledge of Israel’s LORD (5:15).  Naaman offers.  Naaman urges.  The man of God refuses.  Twice.  

The Naaman that emerges from his immersion is not only freed from leprosy.  He seems, as well, to have been freed his proud insistence that he must pay his own way.  Instead Naaman asks that something else be given to him, something more:  two loads of earth from Israel, that he may take them home to Amon and there worship the LORD.

Having spent the week immersed in this text — gone all the way under, felt its ripples and waves and current more closely and strongly than I could have known from shore — it seems to me that Naaman’s asking is the most telling effect of the potency of God’s grace.  

Naaman had been given victory.  Naaman had been given healing.  Now Naaman begs a gift.  He becomes supplicant.  He admits need.  He risks refusal.  He relinquishes his sense of self-sufficiency, stops clinging to the gifts (innate and material) that bought him prestige and position, the ability to pay, stretches out his hands, palms up and open to receive, and asks.

Naaman makes himself vulnerable.

As one realizes, when immersed, entirely encompassed by the force and flow of the water’s embrace, one already is.   Immersed yet — asking grace — buoyant.

The Shock of Ascent

Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.  Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.  The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” 

2 Kings 2:1-3; from the lectionary text for Sunday June 30, 2019

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Elijah and Elisha.  Gilgal to Bethel.  Bethel to Jericho.  Jericho to the Jordan.  And across the Jordan — miraculously parted — a whirlwind of chariots and fire catching Elijah up into heaven.

I know how the story ends.  We all do.  The end is told right at the start, in v. 1:  the LORD is about to ‘take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind.’  

Even those within the story know the event towards which it is aiming.  Gilgal to Bethel.  Bethel to Jericho.  Jericho to the Jordan.  At each point, the imminence of the LORD’s ‘taking’ is told.  ‘Today’ say the prophets at Bethel (v.3).  ‘Today’ say the prophets at Jericho (v. 5).  Each time, Elisha replies that he, too, knows what will come.  ‘Be silent,’ he says to them. 

The pattern shifts slightly only at the Jordan.  Now it is Elijah who alludes to himself being ‘taken,’ and his command to Elisha suggests the urgency of the time:  ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you’ (v.9).  The taking will be soon.  It is coming.  It is nearly here.  Neither of them knows the time.  Neither of them can control the time.  Only step by step respond to the sending sign.  Gilgal to Bethel.  Bethel to Jericho.  Jericho to the Jordan.  The points don’t map in a straight line; they reverse course; their route slants sideways.  ‘The LORD has sent me,’ Elijah had said at the start, and commanded his companion to stay.  Elisha refused.  Elisha is intent … upon what?  Upon clinging to his master?  Upon walking the way?  Upon watching and watching to see what he knows is coming unfold?

The story tells its end right at the start:  Elijah is about to be taken up by the LORD.  Those within the story know this taking is near.  They tell of it; they look towards it; they wonder what it will bring:  ‘If you see me as I am being taken…’ Elijah tells Elisha (2:10).  Elijah cannot grant Elisha’s request nor foretell whether the LORD will grant it.  Which itself is odd, since the LORD had commanded Elijah back chapters before to anoint Elisha prophet in his place (1 Kings 19:16).  Could it be that Elijah has learned humility — to wait on instead of anticipate the LORD?  (His tone has changed since 1 Kings 18:36-37).  Or is the story not about Elijah but about Elisha?  Elisha so focused on walking closely in step, putting aside those distracting other-prophets with their superfluous words — I know, I know, already I know; keep silent about what will be, so that I can see what is even as it unfolds.  Elisha cleaving close to Elijah until he is able to articulate his hope for when they have been cleaved apart.

It’s a strange story.  Not only for the whirlwind of chariots with its crackle of flames and thunder of hoofbeats, nor for the odd route along which Elijah says he is sent, nor for the words Elisha cried after his departing ‘father’:  ‘The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ (v.12) — I hear his voice grow high-pitched and crack as Elijah is carried off.  

The strangeness, too, comes in the mismatch of the verbs which narrate the event’s anticipation and realization and the verbs used by the characters within the story.  How many times have I read this text and never noticed this?    The companies of prophets say Elijah will be ‘taken’; Elijah himself says he will be ‘taken’; the verb in both places is the same.  But the Hebrew of the bracketing narrative says something slightly different:  v.1 explains that Elijah will be led up, brought up, caused-to-ascend; and so in v.11 it is: Elijah ‘ascends’ into heaven.

Is this why Elisha has to follow and watch so closely?  Is this why Elijah cannot speak with certainty of what will be?  Because they both know that what they know is partial, not the whole.  They know enough to watch, to walk from Gilgal to Bethel, from Bethel to Jericho, from Jericho to and across the Jordan.  They know enough to see that the LORD is about to act; they try to ready themselves to recognize the act.  But they don’t really know.  They can’t.  All they can do is read and walk the signs step by step, place to place, word and word, continuing ’walking and talking’ (2:11).  They know what is coming and still there is the shock of its in-breaking.  

Some deaths come like that.  And every birth.  You know, and you know, and still you are stunned when you see that it is not, after all, a ‘taking.’  It is ascent.  It is one being caught up by glory, into glory.  And the other walking back, and further on.  Still in the story, but having been given a glimpse of its larger frame.  Your voice rises and cracks.

The knowing you’d had — that ‘taking’ is coming, even near — partial, insufficient, the knowing matters.  The work to see and to hear and to talk and to walk — that matters too.  By it you are brought across the river, to the encounter with crackling flame and pounding force.  By it you are enabled to take the next step.  To pick up the mantle and cross the river back and walk on into the portion of work that is yours.  

I am still in my story.  DOJ to seminary.  Seminary to local church.  Local church to doctoral work, and then across.  An odd process, sometimes sideways. And if right here, right now I cannot even see to name the journey’s end, yet through this text, I am reminded of how partial my story is and given a glimpse of its larger frame.  Gilgal to Bethel.  Bethel to Jericho.  Jericho to the Jordan, and then across.  An end that is like but also unlike; expected yet impossible to anticipate; an end that is not an end but merely one more turn.  Until the next. I do not know, nor fully can, the story’s frame.  It will come as surprise; it cannot be else.  But here within the tale, I can watch and listen and talk and walk on to the next thing, the next glimpse of heaven breaking in and catching a little bit of this world up into itself, until the kingdom comes.

Fire crackles and chariot wheels rumble and hoofbeats pound against the air.