Over the last few months our Board of Christian Education adopted a new approach to teaching the Bible. We created the Storymakers Curriculum. This curriculum engages children and youth in wondering about Bible stories.
A class of students at Eden Seminary will be partnering with us this fall. The students will help write some of the upcoming lesson plans. On Friday I talked with the students about the project. One of them asked, “How will we do assessments of student learning?”
I thought of our youth. Tests and exams would not make them like Sunday School more. Instead of pop quizzes, they’d want pop tarts.
But it was a good question because it gets at the heart of what we’re trying to do, not just in Sunday School but in our church as a whole. Can faith be assessed? Do we read the Apostles Creed and check off boxes for “agree/disagree”?
We wouldn’t measure the success of our Sunday School or our own spiritual growth in such a way. As I think about my own spirituality, I’m less and less concerned with finding the answer. Instead, I love questions. To me, the best “assessment” of learning in our Sunday School will not be the answers youth give but the questions they ask; not parroting back what we want but asking what we don’t know. And that’s what I hope for everyone in our community. Too many Christians focus on saying “I’m right.” But I want us to be Christians who say, “I wonder.”
Our reading this morning about Naaman is one of the stories I wonder about. It reminds me that a good story is like an onion: we can keep peeling back layers of meaning, not finding the answer but learning evermore questions we want to think about. This morning I want to peel back some of the onion layers of this story, sharing my questions.
I love this story because of its humor. But sometimes we miss it because we’re reading the Bible in translation. In the original language, the names of these characters told us a bit of who they were and what to expect of them.
I prefer to think of Elisha, Naaman, and Gehazi by what their names mean. The name Elisha means “God is Salvation.” But that’s too clunky of a name in English; so to me, I think of Elisha by the name “Holy Helps.” It’s a great name for a prophet, Holy Helps. Naaman, the great soldier of Syria, the one who’d recently defeated the king of the northern Jewish kingdom, bore a name that meant “beautiful,” “fair,” and “gracious.” These qualities were not just physical but moral, suggesting a person both good-looking and earnest, handsome and modest. I think I’ll call him “Captain Aw-Shucks.” Gehazi, the third named character of the story, had a name which literally meant “valley vision.” It’s ironic: you can’t see very far down in a valley; it limits your vision. The name makes fun of Gehazi’s character, his lack of vision and perspective. He can’t see the big picture; he’s Mr. Shortsighted.
It helps me understand this story as a tale of Holy Helps, Capt. Aw-Shucks, and Mr. Shortsighted.
Capt. Aw-Shucks came back from war as a great hero. But a disease kept him from going out to all the parties and events in his honor. A young slave he brought back from Israel told him about a prophet: Holy Helps can help you.
Capt. Aw-Shucks went to see Holy Helps. But the prophet wouldn’t come out to see him. Instead he just said, “There’s no way but Yahweh.” The servants of Holy Helps told Capt. Aw-Shucks to wash in the Jordan seven times.
Capt. Aw-Shucks didn’t want to. But his servants convinced him to try. Aw-Shucks came out of the muddy river looking even more handsome. And so he agreed, “There’s no way but Yahweh.” He wanted to pay Holy Helps, but the prophet said no thanks.
Mr. Shortsighted chased after Capt. Aw-Shucks. He got his money and then he got his disease.
In peeling back the meaning of this story, I want to start with Capt. Aw-Shucks’ disease. Our Pew Bibles call it “leprosy” but that term encompassed everything from Hansen’s disease, which we call leprosy today, to any number of skin conditions. In the case of Capt. Aw-Shucks, the disease seems to be a skin-condition involving the loss of pigmentation and color. The disease turned Capt. Aw-Shucks white.
This disease of whiteness affected all his social relationships. A diseased man could not go with the King of Aram to feasts and festivals. His whiteness got in the way of his relationships.
He was not the only person to suffer from such a disease. Moses married an African woman named Zipporah. His sister didn’t approve; she gossiped about Zipporah until God, in frustration, gave her leprosy that turned her skin as white as snow.
I’m interested in this disease of whiteness that Capt. Aw-Shucks suffered. His whiteness got in the way of his relationships with other people. When has whiteness gotten in the way of our authentic relationships? How did Holy Helps cure him of his whiteness?
In this healing story, many unnamed characters played the key roles. The young slave girl knew of the prophet. The prophet’s servants carried the messages. The soldiers servants convinced him to try the cure.
Throughout the story, small characters stand in contrast to the big ones. The beginning of the story introduced Capt. Aw-Shucks as a great man. He’s immediately contrasted with a young female slave. She had a precarious position: captured in war, reduced to slavery. And yet she didn’t allow herself to be silenced by the power and might of the Syrian victors. Neither awed nor cowed: she continued to speak her truth.
This contrast between big boys and the little truth tellers continues. When Capt. Aw-Shucks tried to find the prophet so that he could get healed, the request almost sparks a war between Syria and Israel. The King of Israel, the big man on the throne, got so scared he tore his clothes in morning. And yet the little girl, in a far more precarious position, hadn’t been afraid.
When Capt. Aw-Shucks finally found the prophet, he made a dismissive comment about the little Jordan River in comparison to the mighty and big rivers of Syria. He wanted a big demand from the prophet, not a little task like washing.
And the story completes this contrast of big and little when Capt. Aw-Shucks comes out of the water; “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” The big man became like a little boy. Capt. Aw-Shucks could only be healed when he starting listening to the common people around him.
What happens in our life: do we get caught up in big events or do we pay attention to the small truths? Do we value what seems grand instead of the everyday?
The key turning point came when Capt. Aw-Shucks agreed to wash himself in the Jordan. At first he baulked: it’s such a tiny river. “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?”
I’m struck by the pride, the superiority, in his voice. He looked down on Israel; prejudice shaped his view of it. Was it the disease of whiteness affecting him? Causing him to universalize his own experience? To make his own experience the standards for all? To see what was familiar to him as best of all?
Prideful expectations certainly complicated the life of Capt. Aw-Shucks at the beginning of the story. But we saw it play out even more so in the life of Gehazi. Mr. Shortsighted, as I like to think of him, came into the story after Capt. Aw-Shucks’ healing. Holy Helps sent the Capt. home without charging him for the miracle.
Mr. Shortsighted couldn’t stand for it. So he took matters into his own hands, vowing to make the Capt. pay up. He ran after Capt. Aw-Shucks and lying said the prophet needed help for some of his disciples; “a talent of gold and two changes of clothing will do.” True to his name, Aw-Shucks did more than that: two talents, each wrapped in fine clothes and carried by a slave.
Mr. Shortsighted got his gold. But when the prophet asked him about it, he lied. And so Holy Helps cursed with the same disease that once afflicted Capt. Aw-Shucks; he became white as snow.
Does pride get in our way? Do expectations of what ought to be keep us from experiencing what can be?
Mr. Shortsighted got something fundamentally wrong about Holy Helps intentions for Capt. Aw-Shucks. Mr. Shortsighted wanted some spare change; Holy Help wanted real change. And the kinds of ways Capt. Aw-Shucks changed tells us something important about our own transformations.
The captain came to Holy Helps filled with pride. He was able to curb it, to humble himself, to be true to his aw-shucks name. And yet, even in the midst of this conversion from prideful soldier to humble servant, we see how much work remained.
After the miracle, the captain responded with a confession of faith, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” He even wanted two mule loads of dirt from Israel so that he could worship God while standing on the promised land.
As amazing as this would seem, Aw-Shucks shows the incompleteness of his transformation. “But,” he asked, “would it be alright if I still worshipped the god Rimmon, the god of my king?” One scholar even points out that Aw-Shucks says the name of the God of Israel twice but the god of Syria three times, a subtle sign of his conflicted heart.
Holy Helps accepted Aw-Shucks’ limitations; “Go in peace.” If there’s grace in this story, then it comes for me in this short line: go in peace. The prophet could see the captain caught between his past self and the person he was becoming.
The prophet, and even more God, will wait through the incomplete conversation in Aw-Shucks. Will wait for him to fully live into his name.
And it’s true with us too. We seek change in our lives. To be better people. To be more loving. To be more open-hearted. To be more patient. We don’t always get it right; and we certainly don’t always get it completely done. God knows our incompleteness and yet says to us, “Go in peace.”
And for that I say, “Alleluia and Amen.”