Seven Times He Ran Washing
As many of you know, Sufjan Stevens is one of my favorite musicians. So it’s no surprise that I have had Sufjan lyrics running through my head all day. The line that keeps repeating itself to me is from The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us (what a phenomenal title!): "seven times he ran washing his face in his hands". I couldn’t fully remember the story that this song alludes to, so I looked it up. And in II Kings 5, I found it; the story of Elisha and Naaman.
Naaman was the commander of the army of the King of Aram; and he is described as a "great man", "highly regarded", and "a valiant solider". But Naaman had leprosy. So he traveled to Israel to see Elisha the prophet, in hopes of a cure. Naaman brought with him all that was necessary to secure good standing with Elisha; money, status, talent, connections. And apparently Naaman assumed that these things would make a difference in the way that he was treated.
When Elisha responded to Naaman through a messenger, without even so
much as a hello face to face, Naaman became angry. Second Kings says
that "Naaman went away angry and said, ‘I thought that he would surely
come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave
his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and
Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of
Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed? So he turned and
went off in a rage."
Naaman, this great, well respected man, actually rants and rages because Elisha does not act according to his expectations. In fact, he rants and rages because God does not act according to his expectations. It was this reaction from Naaman that caught my attention. I couldn’t help but realize that so often my own reactions to circumstances are incredibly similar to Naaman’s. In fact, I have spent a good deal of time over the past year trying to understand and deal with just that. Why do I get so upset when things do not go according to my expectations (especially when I’m not aware that I have specific expectations)? Why can I not escape the feeling that God is particularly unkind to me?
In struggling with these questions, I began to seek counsel from an older and much wiser woman. She has listened to me give explanations of how God could have done things differently in my life. "Are not Abana and Pharpar…better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?" But as she listens, she continually challenges me that I am wrong. That not only are God’s ways higher than my ways, but that God is good and He desires mercy, not sacrifice. Slowly I am beginning to realize that she is right. That God is kind, and He does desire mercy, and the means through which He provides that mercy are His and His alone.
Naaman had issues with the means that God used in his life. He clearly had certain outcomes prepared in his mind, and they weren’t necessarily bad. In fact, it appears to make sense that Elisha should come out and meet him. But Naaman has so scripted this interaction in his head, he could not make room for outcomes other than his own. Isn’t this exactly what I do? I script the outcome of my life and my circumstances in my head. And because the things that I want are good things (right and fulfilling relationships, fruit from the labor of my job, respect from others), I feel justified in my desire of them. I even feel justified in my anger at not receiving them.
This actually makes me think of another Biblical story, the story of the Fall. "When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it." Eve had good reasons for desiring the fruit; surely that meant that it was a good thing for her to desire! But in this thought pattern, it appears that Eve, Naaman, and I all have the same major sin. Because the things that we want appear to be good things, we each convince ourselves that they are good for us. We convince ourselves that we need them. Then we begin to expect them and become impatient waiting for them. We script for ourselves ways to attain that which we desire; and even believe that our plans for getting them are better than God’s. We end up with so much vested in our own scripts for our lives, in our own pre-planned outcomes, that we cannot make room for the possibility of other means or other outcomes. We cannot make room for God’s means or outcomes.
In Naaman’s story, this meant that his servants had to plead with him to trust someone other than himself. They had to plead with him to be cleansed in the apparently ridiculous manner of Elisha’s command. "So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. Then Naaman and all of his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel."
This was not what Naaman had scripted for himself. Yet God showed him mercy. God desired mercy for Naaman and glory for His Name. And through Naaman, I am learning anew that God not only desires mercy for His children, but he also provides that mercy in our lives. He provides Himself.
It is good to have friends who plead with us, reminding us of God’s goodness. "Lamb of God we sound the horn. Hallelujah!"