“Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he took counsel with his officers. He said, ‘At such and such a place shall be my camp.’ But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, ‘Take care not to pass this place, because the Arameans are going down there.’ The king of Israel sent word to the place of which the man of God spoke. More than once or twice he warned such a place so that it was on the alert.
The mind of the king of Aram was greatly perturbed because of this; he called his officers and said to them, ‘Now tell me who among us sides with the king of Israel?’ Then one of his officers said, ‘No one, my lord king. It is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.’ He said, ‘Go and find where he is; I will send and seize him.’ He was told, ‘He is in Dothan.’ So he sent horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night and surrounded the city.
When a servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, ‘Alas, master! What shall we do?’ He replied, ‘Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.’ Then Elisha prayed: ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” (2 Kings 6: 8-17)
* * * *
And what stops us in our tracks is not the cloak-and-dagger tension of military secrets revealed, and not the perfectly understandable reaction of the servant to besiegement, but the laconic way the man of God answers his servant’s terrified cry. He may not have even looked up when the fellow burst in through the door as the first streaks of morning light shot across the threshold.
“They’ve come for you, you know!”
“What are we going to do?”
It was a matter of what one sees and what one understands. Was it a trick of the light, maybe a distortion in the retina that early in the morning? The eye sees dark shapes, maybe boulders…but then they move, and suddenly a vast army is revealed, and we cannot see it now as anything but rank upon rank of men and horses, standing silently, with a stamping of hooves occasionally, and a muttered command, and an awful dryness in the mouth as one’s eye begins to twitch.
William James says we pay attention to what matters to us and yet we grasp so little. “One of the most extraordinary facts of our life is that, although we are besieged at every moment by impressions from our whole sensory surface, we notice so very small a part of them.”
Let us imagine the young man as one of us, a person who relies on the facts, sees for himself what is real, and runs everything he encounters through his field-tested, rigorized, and fully guaranteed BS filter. We are surrounded by insurgents in white Toyota Land Cruisers with turret-mounted 50-caliber machine guns, grenade-launchers, and farther back, armored trucks.
“Don’t worry,” says the master behind us. “There’s more with us than are with them.” And he prays, short and simple: “Lord, open his eyes that he might see.”
We can see alright. We know what we see before us and what we see is a guarantee of a quick but excruciating death. If it were dark we could still see with night-scopes, night-vision goggles, all manner of devices to cut through the darkness and the fear. We see what can be touched. Our hope for survival is built on nothing less.
Thomas Merton says, “So much depends on our idea of God! …We must learn to realize that the love of God seeks us in every situation and seeks our good. His inscrutable love seeks our awakening.”
So, let us freeze this frame and ask ourselves what the old man sees that we are missing? What is out there that he is so sure exists that he doesn’t even come to the window, he doesn’t even get up from the table nor close the book he is reading? What does he know that we don’t?
* * * *
In his The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann asks what would happen if we imagined that the triune God was real. How would our perception of the world change? Brueggemann does not assume that such a claim is obvious, but rather that we must establish again and again the evidence for such words. “The key term in my thesis is ‘imagine,’ that is, to utter, entertain, describe, and construe a world other than the one that is manifest in front to us…”
Against the evidence of our senses—and certainly against the prevailing common sense of this culture—the prophetic imagination invites us to see with the eyes of faith what the heart longs to experience.
We are witnessing two divergent narrative streams. The dominant narrative is rarely questioned nor is its conceptual framework laid bare. Because its narrative arc sets our own expectations of life we cannot stand away from it far enough to see it for what it is. Brueggemann calls it “military consumerism,” the story of self-invention for self-sufficiency, a social construction whose origin we no longer recognize.
The alternate narrative is the story of YHWH, grounded in the prophets and reflected in the gospels. In its simplicity and directness, it sets up a contest like Elijah’s Mt. Carmel showdown between the gods and YHWH. Two construals of reality, one decision to be made.
In our time, this story may flow through the preaching of those who are embedded in the alternative narrative of YHWH. It may also be ours if we can see with the eyes of humility. “Thus, the offer of prophetic imagination is one that contradicts the taken-for-granted world around us,” writes Brueggemann.
In the Old Testament the expression of it is the Exodus story in which the “Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm…and gave us a land flowing with milk and honey.” In the New Testament Paul crisply summarizes the kerygma “that Christ died for our sins…that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”
These are acts of the imagination, not that they are conjured up by us, but that we are asked to imagine ourselves living in that narrative stream instead of “in the old dispensation/With an alien people clutching their gods.”
* * * *
So, Elisha prays that the young man will see through the surface appearance to the essence of the moment, a reality that shimmers just beyond the senses, a gift of magnification. Elisha’s own seeing, seared into his memory when he saw his master, Elijah, caught up into the heavens, was enough to last a lifetime. He knows what is there without looking.
Today, we are that young man whose world is constricted to the obvious appearances. Against all odds and experience the Word comes to us as a gift.
Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. An earlier version of this essay appeared on StillAdventist.org. More of the author's writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.
Image Credit: Mohamed Nohassi / Unsplash
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