Sunday, 25 September 2011

In the house of Rimmon

I wonder if you remember the story of Naaman the Leper from the Old Testament of the Bible?  If you don’t, or you haven’t ever read it, it’s in 2 Kings 5, and you can read it here.

It’s a wonderful story, every twist and turn of it full of food for thought to keep your mind occupied on your desert island or alone in your monastic cell even better than algebraic equations or seeing how many words you can get out of antidisestablishmentarianism.  It’s a preacher’s story – you could run a 6 month’s team preach on it and still be going good.  A treasure trove of wisdom and wonder is the story of Naaman – the only difficulty is knowing which jewel to pick up first.

And in recent days it’s been returning very insistently to my mind.  That is to say, one particular verse has.  Naaman the Leper came from Aram.  He was not a Jew and he did not follow the Jewish religion.  But, through the ministry of the prophet Elisha, the God of Israel healed Naaman of his leprosy, and Naaman concluded that he had encountered the true God, and wanted to worship Him.  So he did, but he had this one lingering problem, which he expressed like this to Elisha:

But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also— when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this. (2 Kings 5:18)

And Elisha responded, “Go in peace,” which I take as meaning, “Yes, that’s okay, Naaman.”  One wonders how many grisly martyrdoms might have been avoided if everyone had taken such a practical approach, but that’s not why the incident has kept returning to my mind.

I do very little these days that a person could convincingly describe as “ministry”, but I do have a small connection with an older lady, that causes my heart and mind some disquiet, because of the nature of our conversations.  She can be lonely and, though never demanding or intrusive, she looks forward to my visits.  But when the conversation goes as I want it to go – staying on safe territory, discussing topics of general interest, exchanging pleasantries and enjoying each other’s company – a kind of hungry vibe comes from her.  And she really comes alive, relaxes and enjoys herself when we can engage in one of the following topics of conversation:
  1.    Slagging off someone (anyone will do) we both know.
  2.  Comparing all the younger generation of the present day unfavourably with her own generation when young.
  3. Comparing her neighbours unfavourably with herself.

I find this very awkward.  Her political views – strongly held and deeply felt – are almost diametrically opposed to my own, and very often her conversation strays into areas which lead her to not only emphatically assert her own views but vigorously and contemptuously attack the views I hold; and she looks for my affirmation of her assertions.

Sometimes, she just wants to pour contempt on me.  For example, I recently made the error of confiding in her about a painful incident that had happened to me some while ago, when I was asked to stop attending a Christian study group because some of the members had complained about me to its leaders – not, they said when I apologised for giving any offense, because I had said or done anything wrong but because I was more knowledgeable about the subject than they felt comfortable with.  This is the kind of thing that happens to me so I wasn’t amazed – but it felt sad and embarrassing nonetheless.

My old lady, entering into the spirit of things with some zeal, said yes, she knew just what they meant!  Experts!  She said there had been girls like that when she was a girl at school – no cleverer than her, no better than her, but always so darned vocal about everything – know-it-alls!  Experts! Ha! Just exactly the same!  

Er . . . right . . .okay . . . 

You gotta laugh really, haven’t you?

Sometimes, the only way to tempt her off topic is to introduce another subject of conversation that will allow her to rip into some other poor soul and disembowel their character for a change.  Outrage and indignation looking for a nest like mother cuckoos desperate to deposit their eggs.  Someone is going to get pitched over the edge and it matters not who.

If I won’t play ball, if I stay silent, or stand up for whoever’s up for assassination today, or argue, things deteriorate badly.  We part barely friends, she is miserable and uncomfortable – and I am her main friend.  But if I let it happen – if I feed her fires of outrage and contempt with anecdotes of things or people that have upset me, or examples of the shortcomings of the modern world – she has a really nice time.

Friends, it is mighty difficult; and hear me – I do not come out of this well.  Nobody hears or sees our conversations; except Jesus.  He goes with me, and He listens and He watches, and I have more than half an idea He is no way impressed by the way I conduct myself as I duck and weave and try to salvage what I can of the wreckage of one character and lifestyle after another.  It feels like betrayal after betrayal, every visit.   But the circumstances are such that I must not sever the connection; it would be cruel.

And the story of Naaman in the house of Rimmon came back to me when I was thinking about it.  I know to whom my heart’s fealty is given, and what He expects of me.   But the circumstances of my life include this particular duty, which involves me being linked arm in arm with the worshipper of a different god.  And when that person bends from the upright, linked together, down I go too.

I ask His help, I ask Him to go with me, I try my very hardest with it, but I also have to say: “when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.

And He says “Go in peace.”

It’s not just me that gets into this kind of bind.  As sour as bile in the mouth was the lingering after-taste of the execution of Troy Davis, that vile and heart-breaking cruel piece of work: and it left me wondering, how must Barack Obama feel?  For at the end, in desperation, the people appealed to him.  He had the power, you see, not to pardon, but to order a re-trial.  And from the White House there was only silence.  But from what I’ve seen so far of Barack Obama, I would guess that had circumstances been different he would have been out on the streets carrying a placard saying “I am Troy Davis”.  Don’t you think?

But he has a job to do, and his compatriots are not making the ride an easy one.  If he wants to do what he came into power to accomplish, for the poor and disenfranchised of America, he could not afford to blow all his credits on one act of mercy.  Much as Pontius Pilate could afford to do nothing but wash his hands of Jesus, Barack Obama was in the house of Rimmon fix.   Or maybe he didn’t even want to.  But I am hoping it was the Rimmon clinch that stood in his way.

May the Lord forgive Your servants for this one thing: When our masters enter the temple of Rimmon to bow down and they are leaning on our arms so that we have to bow there also— when we bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive Your servants for this.

May God grant that in time we may find a better way of proceeding; but in the meantime, flawed and shamed as we are, how our souls hunger to hear His “Go in peace.”


Buzzfloyd said...

This was helpful and interesting.

God's "Go in peace" is always ready as an answer to our prayers.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) Thanks, Buzz x

DaisyAnon said...

Interesting Ember. I have and have had 'friends' like that.

I have been someone like your friend as well for far too much of your life. Something which I deeply regret now.

I try not to indulge in this now. But I have lost at least one 'friend' as a result. I try not to pick up the phone or write the email and find it quite hard sometimes, which is interesting.

I do agree with you that "One wonders how many grisly martyrdoms might have been avoided if everyone had taken such a practical approach,", and I think we find this approach recommended in Paul's letters as well, although generally Christians prefer to skip over these passages in favour of ones that appear to condone intolerance. Or interpret them to mean intolerance is what is being recommended.

Something I have noticed more as I have tried to control my own loose talk and thoughts is how some people's conversation is peppered with comments about the private lives of mutual acquaintances. And I do wonder what they tell others about me and what they repeat that I have said, so I am more cautious now. It is so easy to get sucked into a warm cozy feeling of intimacy being told things about other people.....And then to feel one has to reciprocate.

I think of the letter of James, all about the capacity of our tongues as a force for evil.

You said she "vigorously and contemptuously attack the views I hold; and she looks for my affirmation of her assertions.
Sometimes, she just wants to pour contempt on me."

I am a very cynical (not very nice) person and I do not know the circumstances but I suspect that she knows what she is doing. I also suspect that if you refuse to feed your friend's need and kindly but firmly maintain boundaries she will either settle down or find an excuse to end your visits and she will find someone else to feed her destructive needs.

I think that as we get older we become a more concentrated essence of what we have been. I wonder why your 'friend' is lonely? Maybe others have voted with their feet.

Well, thank you again for this. I shall be thinking of it a lot in relation to my own faults in this respect.

DaisyAnon said...

And another thing, David Cameron recently intervened personally in some tragic situation where the media were baying for action.

But he was criticised then for favouring one family over others in the same situation but without influence, and for acting like a benevolent despot, not a Prime Minister in a democracy.

And then again, it is always for each of us such a fine judgement sometimes. When is the 'Go in peace' response best, and when do circumstances require us to make a stand for what we believe to be right?

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Daisyanon - thanks for this thoughtful and helpful input x

Linda said...

"I think that as we get older we become a more concentrated essence of what we have been."

I like that. I have been wondering about someone and their aging and how it compares to their parents.

Pen Wilcock said...


Ganeida said...

lol Ember. So often I sit here scratching my head wondering which end of your knot to tug! Which nettle to grasp? Friends like you described are indeed a trial but while we can listen as best we are able there is absolutely no need to pass on any malicious gossip that may be spilled into our ears ~ thus we may have peace. Isn't it more about what we do, than what is beyond our control?

My problem is that I do like to pass on a good story & sometimes those stories are not mine to tell! *sigh*

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) I had a better visit yesterday - we talked about awful difficult *things* instead of personal acquaintances.

Buzzfloyd said...

Gossip is a natural part of social interaction. We use it to find out how other people feel about things and so establish norms and mores and we use it to affirm relationships. So it's not all negative. I don't think talking about other people is inherently bad. But slagging people off, spreading rumours and salacious information are the nasty side of it.

Pen Wilcock said...

That's interesting, Buzz. My view of gossip changed after I met really dangerously personality-disorder level destructive people. I've known 3, now. In each case they traded on people's social code of discretion and confidentiality to divide and conquer. What brought their scams down in the end was gossip. So I came to see that sometimes gossip keeps people safe. Also gossip sells books and increases trade generally, it disseminates information (eg about good practice in childbirth and breast feeding, healthy nutrition and safe sex) and enables people to assess each other and form relationships. It's saying unkind and spiteful, scornful things that is so soul-destroying.

Fourwheeler said...

Hi Ember,

Your dilemma over this friend reminds me of something I was told long ago when singing in a church choir. We young adults were bemoaning the fact that many if not all of the boys would, when their voices broke, not only leave the choir, but also the church. The choirmaster said, 'you never know what they may face in later life. Their being here now has planted a seed, given them words that they have sung here, that will return to them in times to come when they are relevant to something that is going on then.'

In this case, those times when you speak up against the bile she is throwing out may come to mind again, as she reflects in her loneliness what has passed between you. There could be positive outcomes that are beyond your knowing.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) Thanks, friend!

Mark Spinks said...

Good morning. I was doing a little research on the kind of idolatry that Naaman was delivered from, and I came across your blog.

The story of Naaman is not only the story of a man who was healed in body of leprosy, but was also healed of idolatry, as well. The passage in 2 Kings 5:15-19 records the depths of that deliverance, and it is plain that Naaman was finished with worshiping the idol of the house of Rimmon. Because the eighteenth verse is translated in the future tense, it appears to be an indulgence, blessed by the prophet Elisha, to continue in the form of that worship, howbeit not from the heart.

I am aware of two ways of looking at this passage of scripture that fit better with the entire context that the idea of going thru the motions for expedience.

The first thought is that Naaman was grappling with his new understanding of who the true God was, realized complications ahead, and trying at that moment to see his way thru with the "new light" he had on the subject. From this standpoint, the prophet's benediction, "Go in peace," would be understood, not to be an approval of hypocritical behavior, but a confidence that the same God who had delivered Naaman from idol worship would also help him to understand how to conduct himself when he was back in Syria.

The second thought is present by Adam Clarke in his commentaries. He believes that the passage should be translated in the past tense, and therefore, that Naaman was requesting pardon for having worshiped this idol in the past.

Thank you for the opportunity to express these thoughts. - Mark Spinks

Pen Wilcock said...

Thanks, Mark.