He is a war hero accustomed to receiving praise. He expects to be treated with honor. He is used to being in charge. He likes to be in control. He is not accustomed to taking orders from people who are beneath him. And he is not well. The reality is that things are out of Naaman’s control. He is not in charge of his situation.
There are so many ways that we are not like Naaman. Maybe we’d like to be, but we are not big heroes. Not famous. Not folks to whom others bow and scrape and show great honor. But, I dare say, we are quite like him in wanting to feel as though we have some control over our lives, and like him in not wanting to have to depend on the advice and aid of others to make our way in the world. Serious illness has a funny way of shattering our sense of being control and able to make it on our own. Presently there are several people in our congregation who have completed or are undergoing treatment for cancer, and being in conversation with them has put in mind own experience with breast cancer, now nearly fifteen years ago.
The medical professionals lay out a very specific plan for treatment. In my case, I was okay with having a mastectomy, but totally not okay with having to go through months of chemo. I resisted. Did my own research. Got second and third opinions from doctors. Explored alternative therapies. I prayed and I cried. I didn’t want to go bald. Didn’t went to throw up. Didn’t want to be exhausted. Didn’t want to depend on others. Didn’t want to be unable to work. I didn’t want to lose control over my life. And, there were no absolute guarantees anyway. In the end, what finally convinced me to take the chemo was my sister Melody saying, “why not just trust your oncologist and do it? I want you to do it.”
All of our lives are about trust and control. These two things come into sharp focus when we face life-threatening illness, stubborn addictions, depression, debilitating anxiety, devastating losses, dashed hopes. Anything that disrupts our expectations for how our lives should go—even when the disruptions are just momentary, when stress puts us over the edge, when that one more thing is the straw that breaks the camel’s back—these disruptions test our trust, in ourselves and in others, and test our need for control, our desire to have things go our way.
Should Naaman trust this Israelite servant girl taken captive on one of his raids? Should he trust the King of Israel to help him when in fact Naaman defeated the King’s army, killed the Kings soldiers, and ripped children from their parents? Should he trust this prophet named Elisha who doesn’t even have the courtesy to come out of his house and say “hello,” but instead sends a measly servant to tell the Army Commander what to do. Can he trust that any of these people are really interested in his becoming well? Naaman doesn’t want to be tricked, and doesn’t want to be humiliated. He comes surrounded by all of his props: fancy clothes, silver and gold, chariots, horses, and soldiers. Just to make sure that nobody thinks that he is not the guy calling the shots. Just to make sure nobody mistakes him for a sick guy in need of help and healing from others.
Trust is tried and the need to control is tested. The Jordan is a muddy river and Naaman is deeply offended that the cure Elisha offers him is to dip seven times in these silty waters. He refuses to do it. It is beneath him. He’d rather return home, head held high, and skinny dip in his the rivers of his own nation. It is the servant who changes Naaman’s mind. This servant who has virtually no control over his own life. This servant who is always under command; always submitting himself to the orders Naaman gives him. The servant speaks: “If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more then, when all he said was ‘Wash and be clean?’”
At some level, the servant gets his master. Naaman majors in doing big, courageous, difficult things. It is his life blood. His reason for getting out of bed in the morning. The greater the challenge, the greater the glory. But at a deeper level, the servant doesn’t get Naaman at all. Namaan is not a servant. He doesn’t have a servant mind. He is the guy in charge, giving, not receiving the orders. And what he is being asked to do is incredibly difficult for him. He has to submit himself. He has to trust the word of a string of servants. He has to surrender control. He has to let go of his famous, honorable, heroic persona. He has to strip himself naked in front of his servants and his soldiers, and reveal all of his oozing sores, and wade into the muddy waters of a foreign river. It is immensely difficult.
I’m pretty sure that as Namaan walked toward that river his trust levels were not at 100%. Maybe as high as 50%, probably as low as 5%. I suspect he was harboring some pretty significant doubts about the whole crazy proposition. To doubt, to question, to wrestle with possibilities that could heal us, is inevitable, it is what we do, but it is not a resting place. It is not a resting place. Choosing to trust without being sure what will happen when you do; choosing to surrender a bit of control, choosing to let go of attachments to habits of being that bind us—taking the leap of faith is the only way to find out what will come of the choosing. Naaman didn’t know what would happen when he dipped in the Jordan River. But he let go and submitted to this wildly weird possibility of becoming well. I didn’t know what would come of trusting my doctors and submitting to chemotherapy, but in process of choosing I surrendered control and let go of my attachments to being hyper-functional, and hyper-independent, and hyper-afraid of being weak. I don’t know what attachments you need to let go of to find peace and rest.
But I know that in having my own life thrown off course, in being forced into a place of not knowing, and letting go and choosing to trust others, I grew in trust of God. Within the muddy, chaotic waters of my life where the Spirit always hovers, I found myself awash in God’s unfailing, unconditional love, that holds me in life and in death. I found myself securely attached to God, the source of all life and all love. And Naaman too found himself attached to the eternal, divine source of all life and all love. Because he made the difficult choice to trust a strange string of God-given servants, just enough to surrender control, and strip down, and walk into those waters where the healing love of God freely flowed, and restored his life, and sent him home, a servant of the Love that found him.