Monday, February 16, 2009
Heal Me Just a Little
2 Kings 5: 1-14
How many pills do you take in a day? For me, aside from vitamin, allergy and supplements, I have seven. The ailments that I suffer from are all things that have genetic predispositions, but having a genetic predisposition to something and living a life that allows that disposition to mature into a case of the disease are two different things. I am like many Americans, in that much of what ails me can be traced back to the abundance of our lifestyle. What I have are things that people in the African bush, the jungles of Indonesia, or the mountains of Guatemala rarely suffer from.
I know that I can change the way I live, and the things that ail me will largely disappear. But it isn't so easy, certainly not as easy as taking a pill.
When one wants to truly be cured of something, one finds the motivation. This is true especially when the cure is seen to be easy.
Naaman was a general of the Aramean army. This army had fought the Israelites in the past, had apparently won a few times, because there is, in Naaman's household, a young slave girl who is an Israelite.
Naaman is a guy with a disease. I don't know much about Israelite culture, and I know less about Aramean culture, but I do know that Leprosy was one of those things that made you religiously unclean in most cultures. When the Bible talks about leprosy, they are meaning anything from psoriasis and eczema, still that can be treated today with and lotion or a prescription, all the way to Hansen's disease, which is a disease that causes "numbed nerve endings, the blistering and whitening of skin, and eventual loss of parts of the body". What Naaman suffers from is more likely one of the former, and his "people" can't cure him of it.
So he takes his slave girl's advice, and arranges a visit to this Israelite prophet. The arrangement, like most official visits, is a little stressful. The most stress lands on the Israelite King, who interprets this foreign general coming to be cured of a disease as picking a fight, because he doesn't know about Elisha. (Sounds like some kind of knucklehead King, really, and I think we don't know his name for a reason.) Elisha hears that this foreign general is coming, though and sends a message to the king, saying "hey, remember me? Let this guy come here, and at least he'll know there is a prophet in this country!" So Naaman arrives, and the prophet, through a servant, (Elisha doesn't come out, probably because this guy after all, is unclean) tells him that he must bathe in the River Jordan seven times.
Naaman's not thrilled with this, because 1. He's an important guy, and this Israelite prophet won't even come out to see him, and 2. there are plenty of decent rivers back home. His commonsense servants talk him into doing it, however, on the grounds that "psh, this is a piece of cake, you'd be all into doing it if it was hard, so what's so bad about it being easy?"
So he goes, does what he is told in the Jordan, and sure enough, he is healed. Now, this story, all of chapter five, has a lot of lessons in many different tracks. But what I want to focus on is this idea of healing.
I'm not one who puts much trust in televangelist healing services, I see guys who make people get up out of wheelchairs and then turn around and ask for money a little on the shady side. For a long time, United Methodist and other mainline denominations wouldn't touch a healing service with a ten foot pole. But the Biblical witness will not be silent, and if we are to take Jesus Christ seriously, then we have to at least consider the possibility that God has the power to make people whole. And so God does.
Note that what I say is "to make people whole", not to cure their ills. I'm a little bit at sea with regard to healing services, but what I feel much more comfortable with is seeking to make people spiritually whole in the midst of their illness, rather than seeking a cure to cancer.
Let me say it this way. If I was to be miraculously healed of the things that ail me, I am not sure that I would have become spiritually whole. I would probably not change the habits and behaviors that led to the diseases, and I would undo God's work. No, the diseases are there because of habits and behaviors, and the spiritual work is changing the life that lives them. That's where I have much more comfort claiming God's power, because if I change something about me, God's will becomes clearer.
When we talk about "going on to perfection", becoming "entirely sanctified" in the Methodist tradition, we talk about turning away from sinful lifestyles. That doesn't just mean smoking, drinking and such. That can also mean sedentary lifestyles, fast food, and too much TV. And the strength it takes to change your life in those ways does come from God. All day long.
Naaman wasn't happy with the fact that Elisha didn't come out and do the hocus pocus over him, and the leprosy disappearing. What Elisha told him to do was to put out your own effort. Not exciting, not spooky, no fireworks. Just "go take a bath". But once Naaman was healed, (and this is outside this morning's reading, it is vs. 15-19) , and believed that Israel's God was real, he had a dilemma; How can he go back and worship Rimmon, the Aramean God? He can't not go back, and he can't not worship in the temple without risk of losing his job, and probably his life. Can he take some Earth from around the house of Elisha so that he can stay connected to the ground of Yahweh? Elisha says "go in peace', which I guess means yes. Naaman was able to maintain his connection to the God who had restored him.
What ails us, physically and spiritually, is usually of our own doing. Yes there are exceptions, and it is a bad idea to tell people that they just need to "shape up", or "shake it off", or "forget about it", or whatever. But doctors will tell you that in treating disease, the attitude of the patient makes a huge difference.
We all know people who have been in the midst of chronic illness who have amazing spirits. Back in Commerce, I knew a woman named Shelley Seay. She was probably 90 pounds, soaking wet. I don't know what she had, but it required her having dialysis 3 times a week. The church had gathered around her in an amazing way, arranging for drivers to take her and bring her back from the dialysis center, which was some 40 minutes away.
What people remember about Shelley wasn't her misery, her pain, or her emaciated look. Well, not first. What comes to mind first for so many people is the spirit she had. She took this dialysis treatment for a number of years, by my feeble math, at least six. She was tough, gracious, and would always ask about your life. She ran the church's' Meals on Wheels program, which was called "Casseroles for Christ".
I saw recently her name in a list of memorial gifts to the church in their newsletter, so I wonder if she has indeed passed away. But with a spirit like that, a living memorial is not out of the question.
No one can avoid the aches and pains of getting old. But stopping unhealthy behaviors, and starting healthy ones, and keeping to it, will certainly help alleviate the pain and suffering that we will all experience. Eventually the pills stop working, the medicine loses it's effectiveness. But not doing the thing anymore that brought us to sickness goes a long way toward healing us.
If we are healed to be whole spiritually, you can't be healed just a little; God will seek to heal you all the way. And through the healed Spirit, the body will be stronger.