2 Kings 5:1-14
July 3, 2016
I recently heard a story about a woman who had a layover in an airport. She had some time before her plane departed, so she decided to buy a newspaper and some cookies to eat to help her pass the time. She sat down at a table, opened the newpaper and began to read. It was crowded, and a man wearing a suit and tie sat down in the opposite chair. She glanced over at him and continued reading.
A few minutes later, the man opened the package of cookies that was on the table, took one out and began to eat it. “Hmph! She thought. “The nerve of that man, eating my cookies!” But she didn’t want to say anything to him – that would be awkward. She simply took a cookie of her own and sent him a look as if to say, I saw you, but these are my cookies and I’ll be eating them, thank you.”
A few minutes later, to her surprise, the man took another cookie out of the bag and ate it. This made her really indignant. How dare he eat my cookies! Who does he think he is? She grabbed another cookie and ate it while throwing him a really nasty, scathing look. There was only one more cookie in the bag and just as she was reaching for it, the man took the cookie, broke it in half, ate one piece and left the other one for her. That was it! She grabbed the bag with the last half of the cookie, gathered her things together, scowled at the man and left to go to her seat at the gate. About 10 minutes later, she boarded her plane and when she got to her seat, she opened her bag to get out her headphones, and low and behold, there in her bag was the unopened package of cookies she had purchased!
Sometimes, our pride can get the most of us and we begin to make up stories in our heads. Without stopping to think or ask questions, we rush to conclusions and make assumptions. (And you know what they say about the word ASSUME? When you break down the word you can see that to assume makes an ASS out of U and ME)
This is what happens in our story today. Naaman, commander of the army of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, the King. He had beaten the Israelites in battle. He was a mighty warrior, used to giving orders and getting his way. He was in a position of power and might, and had probably been rewarded richly. He was, after all, in the King’s favor. Life was good, except for one thing: Naaman had leprosy – or some kind of skin disease (in those days, “leprosy” was used as a catch-all term for skin disorders.)
One day, a young Israelite girl who had been captured as a slave and served Naaman’s wife, said, “If only your husband could meet up with the Prophet who is in Samaria! He would heal him.” I imagine that Naaman was desperate to be healed. He had probably exhausted all possibilities of healing in his own land – he had the financial resources and the all of the connections necessary to afford the best treatments available, and yet he was still afflicted. So Naaman mentioned this option to his boss and friend, the king, who encouraged him to go seek out this treatment option and even offered to write a letter on his behalf to the King of Israel.
Naaman set off on the journey with his entourage, taking gifts of silver, gold and extra clothing to bestow upon this prophet-healer. He also took the letter from one king to another, presenting Naaman to be healed. Upon presentation of the letter, however, the King of Israel rushed to a conclusion of his own: since this impossible task of healing was not something in his power, he tore his clothing and began to wail, convinced that the King of Aram was trying to start a war. If the King of Israel had proceeded with this line of thinking, he could’ve inadvertently led his country into war! Fortunately, Elisha heard of the King’s worries and told him to send Naaman to him to be healed.
When Naaman arrived at Elisha’s place, a messenger came out with instructions. Naaman was stunned that the prophet didn’t come out to meet him personally, important man that he was. And on top of that, the prophet told him to go and bathe in the River Jordan. In his mind, he could’ve saved himself the trip and bathed in one of the rivers that was closer to home and cleaner!
Naaman’s pride and entitlement almost kept him from the one thing he desired the most. The story he told himself was that he should receive special treatment. “Who does this prophet think he is, not even coming out to greet me in person?” His prejudice almost caused him to miss out on the cure for his leprosy. He came very close to missing the healing and wholeness that he wanted more than anything.
What are the stories we tell ourselves that keep us from encountering healing and wholeness?
Pride may be an obstacle – we may tell ourselves that we are superior to others and don’t need help from anyone, or that we deserve special treatment – but for many of us, the stories we tell ourselves have less to do with pride, and more to do with shame and inadequacy.
In her bestselling book, Rising Strong, Brene Brown tells a story about going on vacation with her family to Lake Travis in the beautiful Texas Hill Country. Early one morning, before the rest of the family was awake, she and her husband, Steve, decided to take a swim across the cove. Competitive swimmers, they had met 25 years earlier when they were both lifeguards and swim coaches. They set off from the shore, and when they got about half-way, they stopped to check for boat traffic on the lake.
As they were treading water, their eyes met, and inspired by the beauty of the day, and her love for her husband, Brene was overwhelmed with gratitude and eager to connect. “I’m so glad we decided to do this together. It’s beautiful out here.” Expecting Steve to respond with an equally gushing response, she was surprised when he gave her a non-committal half-smile and said “Yeah, water’s good,” then started swimming away from her.
Didn’t he hear me? She wondered. Maybe my unexpected touchy-feely-ness took him off guard and he was so overwhelmed with love that he was rendered speechless? Whatever the case, she was embarrassed and ashamed.
When they reached the shore, Brene decided to try again. Steve, who had arrived before her was ready to push off and head back. She wasn’t used to putting herself out there, but she had to try again. After all, she had just written a book on vulnerability and daring! So she flashed a smile and tried again: “This is so great. I love that we’re doing this. I feel so close to you.”
“Yep, good swim.” He responded and pushed off to swim back.
Brene was confused and angry. She didn’t know whether to feel humiliated or hostile.
Fueled by anxiety, she swam back to the dock, beating Steve by a few strokes.
When he joined her, she plucked a technique from her research and said:
"I feel like you're blowing me off, and the story that I'm making up is either that you looked over at me while I was swimming and thought 'Man, she's getting old. She can't even swim freestyle anymore.' Or you saw me and thought, 'She sure as hell doesn't rock a Speedo like she did twenty-five years ago.' "
It turns out that Steve hadn’t heard a word that she’d said because he’d been fighting off a panic attack during the entire swim. The night before, he'd had a nightmare that he had taken their kids on a raft in the cove when a speedboat roared toward them. In the dream, he pulled the kids underwater and waited for the boat to pass over, but he could tell that his son was out of breath, that he would drown if they stayed under any longer. In the middle of the lake, the nightmare was feeling very realistic. All that Steve could think about was getting back across the cove.
Brene had been making up a story in her head that tapped into her shame and feelings of being unlovable. Steve was tapping into his fears of inadequacy about being able to protect his family.
The most powerful stories may be the ones we tell ourselves, says Brené Brown. But beware—they're usually fiction.
Our fears of inadequacy and shame cause us to tell ourselves stories about human relationships, but they also cause us to tell ourselves stories about our relationships with God.
I don’t deserve God’s love.
I’m not good enough - if you only knew the things I’ve done in my life….
God will only love me if I…
I’m not lovable.
These tapes that we play in our heads are often there from childhood – from painful lessons taught by our parents or shame-based religious institutions, and they are difficult to reprogram. Brene Brown writes that in her research, those who had experienced shame around religion, “believed that the sources of shame arose from the earthly, man-made, human-interpreted rules or regulations and the social/community expectations of religion rather than their personal relationships with God or the divine.” She writes, “Our faith narratives must be protected and we must remember that no person is ordained to judge our divinity or to write the story of our spiritual worthiness.”
The story of Naaman is one of many in the Bible where God’s healing grace is bestowed upon an outsider. Naaman was not an Israelite, one of the Chosen. In fact, he was an enemy! He didn’t do anything to deserve healing, and he couldn’t buy his way to a cure. In fact, After Naaman was healed, he returned to Elisha, grateful and professing his belief in the God of Israel. He tried to offer payment to Elisha, but the payment was refused. God’s grace and love are free and undeserved. There is nothing that we can do earn them and there is nothing we can do that is so horrible that God will withhold them from us.
God’s providence is complex – it doesn’t often match our expectations. We need to be open to surprise.
In Zen Buddhism, there is a concept known as “Beginner’s Mind.” Beginner’s mind is cultivating the attitude of not knowing, even when you approach something that seems very familiar; of seeing everything as if for the first time; allowing ourselves to be surprised by the ordinary. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s there are few,” writes Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki.
Brother David Stendl-Rast writes, “To recognize that everything is surprising is the first step toward recognizing that everything is a gift. The wisdom that begins with surprise is the wisdom of a grateful heart.”
“We can cultivate our intellect’s taste for surprise. And whatever causes us to look with amazement opens ‘the eyes of our eyes.’ We begin to see everything as a gift.”
How do we train ourselves to be open to surprise? How do we cultivate beginner’s mind?
It takes an effort to reprogram ourselves so that we stop jumping to conclusions. We must be conscious, brave and vulnerable to make changes in the way that we see ourselves, and the stories that we make up about our worthiness and the intentions of others.
We can can begin to do this is by setting aside our pride and our prejudices and practicing gratitude and generosity of spirit – by assuming that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have to work with. When we start with that presumption, we open ourselves up to the possibility that we may not know everything; we may not have all of the answers; our assumptions might be wrong!
When we let go of the stories we tell ourselves that diminish our inherent worthiness, we are able to live into a new story of wholeness and healing - the Gospel story - that honors and celebrates who we are: beloved children of God.
 Brene Brown, Rising Strong, (New York:Random House,) 2015, pp.15-20.
 Rising Strong, p. 83.
 Brother David Stendl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, (New York: Paulist Press) 1984, p. 215
 Brother David Stendl-Rast, p. 22.