The Bible includes multiple healing stories, in both Old and New Testaments. There’s a lot more to them, of course, than factual accounts of physical healing. My basic approach to Holy Scripture (and if you’ve read any of my previous blogs you’re no doubt aware of this) is that you can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously, but you can’t do both. With that in mind, let’s delve into the storyline in Second Kings with the prophet Elisha:
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. –2 Kings 5:1-14 NRSV
There’s several ways to deal with this story (as with just about every Bible selection), but this week I’m taking a somewhat unusual and probably unexpected if not outright odd route.
It’s now been about three years since my congregation broke ground on a building project. We pushed out the east side of our building to construct a multipurpose area that will primarily be used for worship. Some folks, of course, automatically refer to this space as a “sanctuary,” although I’m among those grateful we designated it officially as the worship area.
In the 25 years since the original construction, we’ve used a large multipurpose room for worship and various fellowship activities. This has often meant a good deal of chair stacking and table setting-up to transition from one activity to another. Some folks don’t care for the hubbub. A few have longed for a more permanent space set aside just for worship (which, incidentally, would be more appropriate for weddings, funerals, and other special observances). The working description of the building addition alludes to the increased opportunities a larger building will offer for community outreach of various kinds. Over the past couple years we’ve seen that concept developed into reality. Having separate areas certainly worked very well for the wedding and reception I attended there about a month ago.
I wasn’t at the groundbreaking because my wife and I were hundreds of miles away on vacation visiting her family. On that particular Sunday we attended a small, active, and obviously caring congregation. After the worship service I found myself listening in to some of the conversations (hey, in a small church that’s going to happen whether you intend to or not). A fair bit of the talk was about folks who’ve left the denomination for one reason or another recently and over the past couple of decades. This has left several small congregations in rural areas with enormous challenges. I wouldn’t be too surprised if many of them close their doors permanently over the next decade.
About 30 years ago those same congregations took a major hit when my denomination began ordaining women. That wasn’t the only reason, of course, but it served as the flash point for doctrinal and procedural issues. Today’s flash point is also about sexuality, only this time it’s the sacraments of ordination and marriage for individuals in same sex/gender relationships.
In that small congregation I visited there was some lamenting for those who’d left (and I imagine from their perspective it was more akin to “the church left us”). There was remembering of days when pews were occupied completely on Sunday morning, potluck tables overflowed with food, youth groups were active, and offering plates were full. Memories can be tricky things, but certainly today’s realities are much different from the old days.
In our rampant consumer culture it’s easy to accept the idea that small equates with weak, that bigger is better, and that if you’re not growing by objective standards (whether that’s attendance, income, or square footage) you’re failing. With all due respect to the movie Field of Dreams, churches long ago adopted the idea that “if you build it, they will come.” Fifty years ago we could hardly build new churches–or add to older ones–fast enough to keep up with the growth (which begs the question: Which came first, the buildings or the growth?). More recently that old adage has been adapted to become “if you build it, then you can create all kinds of new programs and ministries.”
Yes, buildings can be important and facilitate ministry. But I’m suspicious of the idea that they’ll automatically lead to greater activity both within the congregation and outward in the larger community. By the same token, large, well-attended, bustling congregations aren’t the only place where effective ministry takes place. And so, maybe the first challenge we need to tackle is the idea that congregational life in the 21st century requires more than approaches imbedded in the 1960s.
When the Aramean commander Naaman sought healing in Israel his own king sent him to the wrong guy for help. It wasn’t Israel’s king but its prophet Elisha who offered the right path. And even then Naaman was stubborn: the Jordan was too small, the rivers back home were bigger and better, the instructions appeared too simple, and besides, Elisha wouldn’t even come out of the house and greet him (he was, after all, an important person who demanded respect!).
It’s interesting that a finally humbled Naaman didn’t just walk out into the Jordan and splash some water on himself, or even dunk himself underwater. No, he washed himself seven times. So was it the Israelite river’s water or God’s grace that led to healing?
Over the last few decades I’ve read lots of books, each claiming in one way or another how to “fix” the church. There’s all kinds of church-growth techniques and tools out there. Each has no doubt worked someplace and sometime. But that doesn’t really help us today, does it. What would it be like if we (and here I’m dipping into symbolic/metaphorical thought, just to be clear) washed ourselves in the grace of God. For starters it would require us to lessen the hold objective criteria have on us in the church as we move to more subjective standards.
I find that possibility to be equal parts uncomfortable and hopeful. Sure, we’ve never done it that way before. Certainly there must be some proven five-step or ten-step plan to lead us out of our current “wilderness” and into a future promised land. But what if there’s no such thing?
In my own denomination (as in others, I must note!) some church doors will be closed for the last time, and in other places new building projects will be completed. That’s probably not the central point here. The call of God is not first of all to either close or open buildings. It is, rather, for humble disciples of Jesus Christ to be washed in divine grace and sent forth as prophetic faith communities engaged in a life of service. The details will vary depending on location and circumstances, naturally. And in the process we may discover what healing really means.
*Updated and adapted from the 2013 ForeWords archive
My book, What Was Paul Thinking? is now discounted at both Amazon.com and Barnes& Noble.com in print ($10) and e-book ($5.99) editions. If you’ve ever wondered just what Apostle Paul was getting at (and let’s face it, Paul can be hard to understand and appreciate at times) this is a good place to start.