Whatever your politics, we’re in a painful place right now as a world, as a country, as a city. Leaders are at odds with each other, families are at cross purposes, and as always, the folks on the margins take the brunt. So I want to talk about healing this morning, about the loss and struggle that precede it, the humility that invites it, and the whole new life that follows right behind.
Kathleen Norris writes, “Once a little boy came up to me and said, ‘I saw the ladder that goes up to God.’ Stunned, she closed the book she was reading, which happened to be The Ladder of Divine Ascent by a fierce 7th century monk, and listened. “The boy told me that the ladder was by his tree house and that God had come halfway down. God’s clothes were covered in pockets—like a kangaroo, he said, and we both laughed. Even God’s running shoes had pockets, he told me, full of wonder. (Then the boy) said that God carried food in the pockets to feed all the…birds and the… people” who had died. (That’s good, I offered, and he nodded.)
The boy’s vision had been laid alongside his own searing loss. “His dog (was) bitten by a rabid raccoon on his family’s ranch, and his father had had to shoot both animals.” (Norris) As the boy shared his dream, Norris was quiet, and then she couldn’t help but think of another young man who had also seen a ladder going up to heaven—Jacob—and his response is compelling to me: When he awakes, Jacob says, “God is in this place of struggle, and I did not know it.” God is in this place of struggle… What kind of healing do you long for? What loss is calling you? How do you contribute to systems that serve some and wound others? What kind of healing work is particularly yours to do?
Healing does not come through some external rationale or explanation—there are no perfect words to say to a child who has lost a beloved pet or to a classmate who’s lost a friend or to a neighbor who’s lost an opportunity; no recipe to give to a parent who is burying their son or a dream; no magic to give to a survivor of violence or oppression. Healing is lonely work that stirs within. First there is an acceptance of need, then an honest engagement with the struggle and one’s capacity to respond; there’s the discovery of personal strength and the embrace of a power greater than yours; there’s a recognition of history and context and a through line of Presence—and then something like peace dawns, if only for a moment, and perhaps hope for tomorrow. And if you are willing to pay it forward, one’s own healing invites taking the risk of solidarity to stand alongside another vulnerable person: to ask what being well looks like to them, to hear what they have to offer, and then to walk the mourner’s path together. This is how a beloved community is made. If we have eyes to see it, shared loss is the soil in which humanity’s healing is planted.
In today’s scripture, Naamen knows something about losing his life in order to find it again—diminished, perhaps, but richer for the exchange. Naamen is a successful military leader, the commanding officer of Israel’s enemy, a great man in high favor with his master, the king of Aram—and yet he suffers from a debilitating skin disease. And that is to say, in addition to his status, beyond his skill as a warrior, despite his political prowess and power, Naamen is wounded and weak. “How can this be possible?” the original audience would have murmured to themselves, as they prepare for the hero’s inevitable fall. He’ll learn a lesson about pride, they assume.
Most of the time his ailment is referred to as leprosy, but that translation is open to debate. No archeological evidence can be found that the illness commonly called leprosy today, Hansen’s disease, existed in the Middle East in ancient times. But whatever Naamen had, it was disfiguring and painful. And to add insult to injury, his illness was obvious to anyone who looked.
There was no hiding it. On the hands and the neck and the face of the generalissimo—inside the tailored uniform, beyond his broad chest of medals, beneath the hilt of his shiny and swift sword—Naamen’s skin had fallen to pieces. No longer able to protect him, his skin boils and burns. For good and for bad, the barrier between him and the rest of the world has literally broken open, and that vulnerability is both the cause of his pain and the way through which he can be made whole.
How are we like Naamen the leper? Where in you or in the systems you uphold is an old wound that belies your beautiful frame—covered over, ignored, even forgotten but festering? Where do you hide away the sin-sick soul: in anger, in fear, in sadness? What would happen if we let God lead us to the place where we are most weak, where it hurts the most, and where it pains us even to look? Racism, classism, sexism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, pride, arrogance, greed? Would you go there if I promised that that is where the healing begins?
An essential character in the story is the Israelite girl. Young, female, and held captive, which is to say three times an outsider, who in Hebrew is described as “little, little” just in case we missed the point, she is pivotal. This unnamed heroine is courageous enough to break her expected silence and speak her mind. “If only my lord were with the prophet in Samaria! He could cure him of his leprosy,” she declares in a surprising show of interest for the other, itself a healing act. And it is upon her word that Naamen approaches the king of Aram with a request to follow this lead toward his own wellbeing. And in that, the one heretofore understood as powerless has become the initiator of hope.
The girl suggests that Naamen contact the prophet Elisha. Not surprisingly, given the way power usually works in the world, the king of Aram disregards her advice, and he sends an enquiry to his peer, the king of Israel. He also sends along a small fortune in gold and silver and fine clothing, presumably to assure the conquered king that this time Aram comes in peace. But the overture has the opposite effect: the king of Israel tears his clothes in grief, believing that his rival is trying to pick another fight.
At this point the prophet Elisha steps in, directing the king to send Naamen to him. Upon his arrival, though, Elisha will not see the powerful leader, instead sending a messenger with the prescription: wash seven times in the Jordan river, which Naamen rejects as both too simple and beneath his dignity as a foreign power. “Are not the rivers of Aram as good as the Jordan,” he asks imperiously, turning away in rage. “Where is the welcome a man like me deserves? Where is the miraculous ceremony? Where is my cure?” For a moment Naamen forgets that it was by putting himself in the hands of the little servant girl, accepting his weakness and her power, that got him to this point. Perhaps his arrogance is a reaction to being on such foreign soil as this vulnerability? I get it. Again, a nameless servant invites his healing. “What’s up, tough guy?” he admonishes Naamen. (My rough translation.) “For you, it’s got to be difficult? Relax. Surrender. Wash and be clean.”
When Naamen doesn’t get the attention or deference he thinks is his due, the Spirit waits, letting the man vent and strut. No lightening bolt consumes him in mid-rant, no disapproving angel descends. God waits until Naamen acquits himself of the odd human propensity to work against our own good. And when, after stalking off, he relents, we see in Naamen what had been there inside him all along (and what I believe is in each of us, too)—a person who is brave enough to accept his own weakness, faithful enough to step through his wounds into a whole new life. When he finally gives up, and lets go, and listens to the vulnerable voices outside and within him, and steps into the water, it’s clear that the river is just the place of his healing, not its source. Healing is lonely work that stirs within.
By this time, Naamen has already come a long, ragged way, a path familiar to anyone who is willing to take herself on. We know Naamen and “all the irritating and endearing, weak and tenacious behaviors” in his story, because we have all of that in our stories, too: big ideas, bad tempers, taking offense, throwing tantrums, pleading and cajoling, seeing reason, changing our minds, eating crow. He’s not perfect, but he listens, and he learns. Mostly he figures out how to not let his demands to be fixed get in the way of his work on being whole… Sooner or later, I guess, most of us won’t “get the cure”: we’ll be too old or too sick or too late. But each of us can always be healed.
One morning walking across the campus at Duke University, author and professor Reynolds Price stumbled and fell—and there began a journey of excruciating pain and loss. Paralyzed for a season by a mysterious disease, he would have to learn again to feed himself, and bathe himself, and walk unassisted. It was like dying and being born, he said. “Fairly late in the catastrophic phase of my illness,” writes Price in his book A Whole New Life, “I began to understand three facts I’d known in theory since early childhood, but (whose reality I had barely plumbed.)” When you have lost your way, or lost your health, or lost a loved one, three things are true:
- You will have to dig your own way out. Healing comes only when you begin to face what you have lost.
- Given the significant loss, you can no longer be the person you used to be. So,
- Your work is to figure out who you are now. And who will you be tomorrow?
And once you’ve got a glimpse of being whole, consider this: who will you feed from your pockets, who will you walk beside, and who will you point to the river of life?