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. 2 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. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 4 So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 5 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. 6 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.” 7 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.”
8 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.” 9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10 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.” 11 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! 12 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. 13 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’?” 14 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
He’s a military man. A general… and a famous one, at that. The Ancient Near East’s equivalent of an Eisenhower, maybe a Patton. He is accustomed to issuing a command, and watching as his order is carried out to the letter. He is successful, wildly so—a “great man,” in “high favor” with the king, because he is victorious.
And yet…this mighty warrior is suffering from something our bibles translate as “leprosy,” but which might be any one of a number of skin diseases lumped into that category. He has a spreading affliction of the skin, one that can be so serious that, in some cases, the afflicted person is shunned, and has to live outside the community. He is not there yet. But Naaman is enough of a man of the world to know what might lie in his future. It’s terrifying.
Naaman has entered what author Eric Elnes would call the Dark Wood. The "Dark Wood" was first described by medieval poet-philosopher Dante Alghieri as a place or time of spiritual danger, where the traveler on the journey of life might fall into sin. The Dark Wood was something to be avoided at all costs. It was a fearful place, and who can imagine Naaman’s situation and disagree? He has a disfiguring disease, one that might not only interfere with his identity as a winning commander of troops, but one that could end with him being a complete outcast.
But author Elnes re-interprets this supposedly dangerous place or time in his book, “Gifts of the Dark Wood.” Instead of danger, he sees these times of disorientation as deep spiritual opportunities. He writes:
Some enter the Dark Wood when their beliefs—or doubts—set them at odds with their friends or faith community. They can no longer bring themselves to pray the prayers or recite the creeds because their internal dissonance meter has gone off the charts. For these or other reasons, they grow weary of juggling all the masks they wear to project a certain image to the world that has little to do with who they really are. For others, sheer exhaustion places them in the Dark Wood. They wake up one day facing too many commitments made to too many people, feeling trapped in a tightly woven web made up of obligation and guilt. If any of these experiences describe you, then if the mystics are right, you are in the best possible position to experience profound awakening about who you are and what you are doing here.[i]
Those mystics he’s speaking about—people like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila—they believed that true connection with God was not prevented by times of trial, test, and disorientation. They believed that God was actually nearer than ever just when people tended to feel the most disconnected and alone. The Dark Wood offers gifts—particular gifts for the seeker. The answer for Naaman lies in, first, understanding what gift he is being offered, and then, understanding how it opens him to the possibility that, “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.”
At the outset of his story, Naaman’s affliction places him smack in the middle of uncertainty.
Imagine how this feels for a powerful general. In his work as a commander of soldiers, his vision is honored, his word is law, and his will is obeyed. And all of this presumes that he knows: he knows with great clarity how to achieve his objectives, he knows with great certainty what his forces can and cannot do, he knows with great wisdom the exact strategy for each situation.
But not now. Not here. Now, Naaman does not know. He has been given the gift of uncertainty, and we can be fairly sure it doesn't feel like much of a gift at all—merely a cruel twist in what was once pure success story.
This is what it is to be in the Dark Wood. It involves a time of not knowing. It involves anything but certainty. And… it should be noted that this is the path of many, many or the heroes and heroines of scripture. Think of Paul; we heard from his letter to the Galatians this morning. In another letter, in what is surely his most well-known passage, Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known…” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Paul takes it as a matter of course that the life of faith is not a life of certainty. Only God possesses complete knowledge, and to the extent we believe we have it, we are usually mistaken.
But then… the Unexpected Love shows up. This is author Eric Elnes’ favorite way of saying “the Holy Spirit,” and for him, it captures the work of the Spirit perfectly. The Holy Spirit is not usually part of our structures of certainty and verifiable fact. The Spirit is more likely to affect us in the form of a hunch, or something that draws us inexplicably. In Naaman’s case, the Spirit shows up, not in the form of a map of a military campaign or in a display of power and strength. The Unexpected Love appears as a young girl, an Israelite slave in the service of Naaman’s wife. The Unexpected Love pours out of her mouth as a wish: “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!” (2 Kings 5:3).
Naaman heeds this word—it appeals to him, he pursues it. But he pursues it in the old way, the familiar way: through power, and wealth. He appeals to the King of Aram. He travels to Samaria, taking with him boatloads of silver, gold, and expensive clothing. And after a comic-relief moment with the King of Samaria (who completely misunderstands and thinks he’s being asked to give a cure), Naaman responds to a summons to meet the prophet—Elisha—face to face. Surely, the greatest general of Aram will be given an audience with the Israelite prophet.
Leprosy or no, Naaman’s ego is well intact. And it rears up in fury when the prophet does not see him face to face, but simply sends him to bathe in the Jordan River.
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 … 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. (2 Kings 5:11-12)
We are so sure of how God is supposed to act, and so sure of what God, hypothetically expects of us. We are sure it’s hard, the life of discipleship, or even, getting God’s attention. We are sure it’s way too hard for us. There are modern day mystics, too, and one of them, Thomas Merton, was asked—one too many times—about all the specifics of life in the monastery, and his prayer practice, and even why monks wear robes. He snapped, “What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe.”[ii]
How you are cleansed is by bathing. It’s simple—so much simpler than we think. We just aren’t sure. And that’s ok. That uncertainty is the gift that allows us to listen to new voices in our quest to find God’s healing. It allows us to listen more deeply to our own inner voice. It allows us to quiet the loud voices (including our own, panicky shrieking) so that the still, small voice can lean close and whisper in our ear.
For Naaman, his rage is finally cooled by another couple of servants, whose quiet wisdom is his next encounter with the Unexpected Love. And then, at last, his body and his disease are cooled by the waters of the Jordan, as he finally accepts the gift of his uncertainty. The mighty general, having taken the psychic plunge of allowing himself to be counseled by three slaves, takes the physical plunge and allows himself to wash, and be clean.
There are gifts for us in the Dark Wood. I invite you, the next opportunity you have, to see what it feels like to rest in the gift of uncertainty. Don’t run away from it. Befriend it. And as you do, listen for unaccustomed voices… listen, and you may find you are suddenly aware that you have had an encounter with the Unexpected Love, God’s gentle and reassuring Spirit. The woods are lovely, dark, and full of blessings. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (And Other Wanderers (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 7-8.
[ii] Ibid., 13.