Do I Still Need to Wait Until Marriage? A Conversation with a Teenager about Sexual Standards

Do I Still Need to Wait Until Marriage? A Conversation with a Teenager about Sexual Standards

Naomi and her son had just placed their drink orders, a coffee and an orange juice, when Naomi looked around the cafe and felt a warm nudge of gratitude. As she scanned the room, she listened to the static of the Saturday breakfast rush. All around her people were engaged in noisy conversation, sipping coffee and poking at their pancakes. She turned her attention back to her 16 year old son, Matt, who sat across from her with his legs dangling from his tall stool. Today was their biweekly mother-son breakfast to check in. She and her husband had two kids, a boy and a girl, and they had made a practice of setting aside time every Saturday morning to have breakfast with one of their children. She had come to treasure this space. It was a symbol of an open invitation into one another’s lives, and their relationships were richer as a result.

Naomi reached back into her arsenal of open-ended reflection questions and pulled one out to begin their time. “Okay,” she began, her son meeting her eye, “what’s something you have been wondering about this week?”

“Crap,” Matt replied abruptly, “you beat me.” There was always an unspoken race to ask the first question. Whoever won wouldn’t have to talk first, doing the hard work of waking up and thinking first thing on a Saturday morning. “Right,” he continued, squinting his eyes in thought, “what have I been wondering about?” He took a moment to look back over his week. They had decided early on to be okay with long stretches of reflective silence in these conversations. Matt’s eyebrows raised as he remembered. He cocked his head. “Well, one thing I’ve been wondering about is sex.”

Now this took Naomi off guard. They had eaten many breakfasts together at this cafe, and had developed a comfortable posture towards difficult conversations with each other, but nothing had really prepared her for her son to ask about sex. Of course, she and her husband had brought up the subject a few times, equipping their kids with some of the facts they would need to know and expressing their own values and expectations for their children’s sexual expression. However, no substantial conversation had ever followed from the kids. The comments served more to establish a sense of safety and permission to have further conversations whenever the time came. Well, she thought to herself, I suppose the time has come!

She kept her cool and invited Matt to continue. “Sure,” she said, feigning causal interest, “can you share more specifically what you have been wondering about?”

“Yeah,” Matt went on, “I guess I’m wondering when you think people should start having sex? Is it after marriage, or…” his voice trailed off, not really knowing how to finish the question.

Naomi immediately had a million follow up questions, each more anxious than the last. However, she knew her fear wouldn’t help Matt navigate this question. She also knew a fearful interrogation might cause him to shut down, and the safe space she and her husband had worked so hard to establish might be compromised. So instead, she chose to calmly affirm his question and echo it back to him to be sure she understood correctly.

“That sounds like a really good thing to be wondering about,” she said, nodding and smiling gently. “I’m glad you’re thinking through this so that you can make more responsible decisions. It sounds like you’re asking what we should be using as a good standard for when it’s okay to have sex. Does that sound about right?”

“Yeah,” Matt said, relaxing and lighting up a bit more. He seemed relieved and grateful to be able to engage this question that had been rolling around in his mind. “That’s what I’m thinking about.”

“It might be helpful if you could tell me where you’re coming from,” she told him. “I mean, what kinds of thoughts have you had as you’ve wondered about this this week?” She knew this part might be difficult, but she put all of her effort into just listening well without judging or composing her next comments.

“I don’t know,” Matt said, looking at his fork. Then he cocked his head again and looked up at nothing in particular. “I guess if you really love somebody, then it’s okay? I don’t know,” he said again, “I think it would be helpful if you could just tell me what you think for a minute and we can go from there?” She nodded along, recognizing the language he had picked up from peers.

“Sure,” Naomi repeated, again echoing his thoughts back to him for clarity. “I think I hear you saying that if you really love someone, then it’s alright to have sex, but you are frustrated that you can’t define it a little more clearly than that?”

Matt nodded. “Yeah, I think that sounds right.”

“Okay,” she replied. “I’d be glad to walk you through how I think about it, and then we can explore that a little bit.” She paused, gathering her thoughts. Matt waited patiently in the silence. He knew it meant she was taking their conversation seriously. “Well,” Naomi began, “this is my experience: My mom grew up Catholic. She believed what her church taught her, which was that sex always had to have the goal of making a baby, or else it wasn’t okay. By this standard, even a married couple using birth control is wrong, because then sex wouldn’t result in a baby.”

“Um, what?” Matt interjected, his face screwed up in confusion and disapproval. “So you’re saying that to them, sex wasn’t ever a fun thing, it just served a purpose?”

“I know,” his mom responded with a grin, “let’s call it the procreation standard. You know, sex scares a lot of people, makes them really uncomfortable. If they, the church in this case, could just relegate it to a utilitarian use, it makes it much easier to deal with. There’s way less room for what they would have seen as sexual immorality.”

“Yeah, and fun,” Matt jabbed.

“Ha,” Naomi said in agreement. “You’ll find that, especially in this conversation, lots of people are going to make it a black and white thing, no shades of gray or room for conversation.” She and her husband had always done their best to point their kids to the stories of Jesus in which he questioned the black and white standards, teaching that God’s love rarely led to a dualistic, only one thing or the other, kind of choice. They believed all of life was a prayer-grounded conversation to find ways to express God’s love.

Naomi continued. “My dad’s family, on the other hand, was protestant. Their only standard was: are they married? If you were married, it was okay. If you weren’t, it wasn’t. Those were the two choices. Again, there was no room in between. Those were the expectations that my parents set for me when it came to setting a standard for when it was okay to have sex. I remember one night my youth minister made us all sign a piece of paper vowing that we would not have sex until we were married. I’ll bet you about ten percent of that group kept their promise.” Naomi chuckled. “What kind of holes can you poke in that one?”

Matt furrowed his eyebrows in concentration. “Well, I can see how that would solve some problems that are caused by sleeping around, but not enough for that to be the primary reason. I guess I don’t see why that standard was set in the first place. Is it in the Bible?”

“Hmm, not exactly,” Naomi responded. “Yes, the Bible talks a lot about sexual immorality, but it always seems to be more about using sex in some kind of abusive way. It seems to be about using sex selfishly, abusing it, and hurting people along the way. It’s not hard to see why there are prohibitions against that. For the marriage standard, you kind of have to read your own cultural assumptions into the scripture, assuming they defined ‘immorality’ the same as you did. You’ve got to be careful when you’re talking about a ‘Biblical standard’ for marriage, though. If you do that, you’re going to run into standards in which men basically own women, where women are executed for adultery and men can get away with it, where you can have multiple wives at the same time, where you can use marriage to manipulate or control folks… you’ve got to work a little harder than just pointing to the Bible when you’re talking about where God might be leading when it comes to marriage and sex.”

“Okay,” Matt said, “so from there, we still need a better standard.”

“Correct,” Naomi replied. “I mean, I think each of these standards might have a really helpful glimpse of the truth, but at the end of the day they echo a problem that the church has always dealt with: trying to control people’s outside, moral behavior more than caring about people’s formation on the inside. Dictating rules is a whole lot easier than the messy job of helping people fall in love with God. Jesus taught us that you can follow all of the rules, while at the same time not letting God’s love transform you from the inside out. To me, these standards reflect that problem. You can be married, and still have sex that is abusive. Same with procreative sex, it can still hurt more than it heals.”

“Yeah,” Matt said. “I get that. Like how Jesus said it wasn’t enough to not murder if you’re still going to hate somebody, or how it’s not enough not to have sex with someone else’s wife if you’re still going to look at her and lust. You’re saying it’s not enough to just be married, or for it to be procreative, something else has to be happening on the inside.”

“Exactly,” Naomi said, nodding gently but enthusiastically. “In having sex, like everything else we do, we should be seeking to embody God’s love for ourselves and others. That line of thinking helped me uncover a new standard, one I’m going to call Procreative 2.0.” Matt gave her a skeptical look. “No, no,” she chuckled, “Hear me out. This one involves asking yourself questions like: Does this sexual encounter create life and love? Not biological life, but spiritual life? Does it draw us in to what God is doing, creating loving, respectful, self-giving community? Does it do that, or does it draw us away from the community, away from God, isolating us and bringing us shame? Does it make us see ourselves as less than what we really are, beloved children of God?”

She paused as the waiter arrived with their pancakes. After they thanked him and got situated, Matt took a bite and looked at her expectantly, inviting her to continue. She took the invitation “Or, you could talk about it as a hospitality standard,” she said. “Here, you could ask questions like: Does your sexual activity create space for you and your partner to become more of who God is calling you to be? Does it have the patience and self control to explore the small steps towards intimacy and self-giving? Or is it all about jumping in with impatient self-indulgence? Is it just about feeling good, even when that means reducing someone else to an object? I believe these are the kinds of questions you have to ask, the kinds of standards you have to set in discerning whether or not it’s okay to have sex.”

They both sat in silence for a moment, eating their breakfast and letting the thoughts sink in. “I just said a lot,” Naomi said between mouthfuls. “You probably have some thoughts about this.” She wanted to invite him to speak without interrogating him.

Matt nodded, working on a bite of bacon. “Yeah, I think I just need to think about this for a while. I mean, I really like the standards you’re talking about, they’re just more complicated, less black and white. Picking the right choice takes some thought and time, I guess.”

“And prayer,” Naomi interjected.

“And prayer,” Matt agreed. “I like how what you said means it has to be an intentional choice, not just something you can rush into. It also makes you respect your partner more, you can’t just take advantage of them.”

“That’s right,” Naomi said. “But I should say that one of the problems is trusting yourself to make the right choice. Our own judgements tend to be a little biased. I think we should always keep some community in our lives that can help ask us the hard questions we don’t want to ask ourselves.” Matt nodded. “But one more thing,” Naomi added, “and I know this is going to sound bad, but I want you to give me the benefit of the doubt for a minute.” Matt looked at her questioningly. “For teenagers, abstinence is usually the best choice.” His questioning eyes turned to skeptical eyes. “Hold on, hold on!” his mom said, putting her palm up. “I know it doesn’t seem like it, but if we’re going to talk about things biologically, the typical teenager’s brain is not developed enough to be able to deal with this choice in a healthy way. So while I will equip you with the knowledge you need to be safe, and the choice is always yours, I do strongly advise you to wait until you are older.”

Matt, still looking skeptical, nodded. “I don’t know if I agree, but I’ll think about it.”

“That’s all I ask,” his mom said with a smile. Naomi hadn’t forgotten her fear and curiosity about why her son was giving this so much thought. “I wonder if you would mind telling me more about why you’ve been wondering about this.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Matt chuckled, picking up on some of his mother’s insinuation. “We’ve just been talking about it for a few weeks at church, and they’ve been encouraging us to think through our own values and talk to our parents about it to get their thoughts.”

Naomi breathed a subtle sigh of relief. “Well, you know your dad and I are here and ready to talk to you whenever you need to talk more about this. You ought to ask him about it next week when you’re out at breakfast, he may have a slightly different take on your question than I did.”

“Yeah, I will,” Matt said, sipping his orange juice. “Thanks for not being weird about this and being open to talk to me.”

“Of course,” Naomi said with a smile.

“Okay, your turn,” Matt started, pulling out another of their weekly questions. “What has been the most life-giving thing that’s happened to you this week?” Naomi sat and thought about it for a moment before sharing a couple of stories with her son from the past few days. These Saturday breakfasts really were one of her favorite parts of the week.

[Image taken from]

What You May Have Accidentally Done When You Voted For Trump

What You May Have Accidentally Done When You Voted For Trump

Dear Trump Voter,

I can’t say that I know why you voted for Trump, but I have a pretty good idea, and I get it. I’m not saying I voted for him, but I see that there are plenty of legitimate reasons to vote for Trump. Sure, he’s not the best role model, but you’re not really voting for him, you’re voting for the party. You’re voting for a conservative, Republican administration. You’re concerned about economics, foreign affairs, and the direction of the Supreme Court, and you think a Republican administration can do a better job. That is completely legitimate. That is democracy.

Now that the election is over, you kind of wish everyone could move on. I mean, we can all agree it’s been a particularly stressful election cycle. The Democratic candidate lost and you think everyone needs to move forward. You might even think your Democrat friends on Facebook are being a little dramatic using words like “grief” to describe their feelings.

Let me be clear, I am not grieving because my candidate lost. I am not a sore loser. This is not about political partisanship. I believe in democracy, and respect the results of the election. I will call him President Trump and recognize him as my president. And if it were John McCain or Mitt Romney, I would be all for moving forward. My grief is about something different than my team losing or winning.

If you voted for Trump, you accomplished all of the things I mentioned above. But, it is important to acknowledge that you may have accidentally done something more.

Wednesday, on Baylor’s campus, a black student named Natasha was pushed off of the sidewalk by a man saying, “No n*****s allowed on the sidewalk!” A student behind her challenged the attacker, asking, “What are you doing?” to which the attacker said, “I’m just trying to make America great again!”

(Read more about it and hear her account here:

In response, we gathered this morning with a large crowd on Baylor’s campus to walk with Natasha between classes. We wanted to remind her that she was a beloved child of God and to send a message to the campus that hate speech is unacceptable. As we walked, I talked with a professor who articulated something I hadn’t yet put into words. She pointed out that a vote for Trump was a legitimization of hate speech. Whatever else it did, it gave hope to hate groups across the nation. Nobody got to carefully nuance their vote, there was no comment section on a ballot to explain why you voted for your candidate. All people got to do was vote for a man, and the man won.

So whether you intended it or not, whatever your legitimate intentions, Trump’s election sent the message that it is okay to say misogynistic, racist, hateful things, and to do misogynistic, racist, hateful things. The Klan endorsed Trump, and they won. That is what I am grieving, and whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, you should be grieving that too.

Please don’t be defensive. I am not calling you misogynistic, racist, or hateful. I know this wasn’t your intent when you voted for Trump. I know you’re a good person, but being a good person now means fighting this thing that you had some hand in bringing about. It is now your inescapable responsibility to stand up against hate speech in all forms. While you got what you wanted and conservative Republicans are in control, you also stoked a flame you didn’t mean to stoke, and it is your duty to quench it. That is the only way to really make your vote what you meant for it to be.

Your fellow American,

Zach Helton

[Photo taken from:]

A Dinner Table Conversation on Race

A Dinner Table Conversation on Race

“…and the third candidate I interviewed was a young black woman,” Aunt Celia continued, “I was just so impressed. She dressed well and she was just so articulate.” At this, Alexander looked up from his plate, repeating her last words in his head: Just so articulate.

It’s not worth interrupting dinner, he reasoned. It won’t do any good. He looked around the dinner table, wondering what would happen if he challenged this subtle parcel of racism. Alexander, a public high school teacher in his early thirties, sat at a large, wooden dining room table with an empty chair to his left and his father to his right. Across the table was his Aunt Celia, sitting between her husband, Ulysses, and her son, Howard. Howard had just begun a new job at his father’s insurance agency. Alexander’s mother sat on one end of the table, and his sister sat at the other. His middle-class, suburban family typically got along well. Dinners were usually a pleasant affair and he didn’t want to interrupt that now. But wait, said an annoying voice in his head, aren’t they always so good-natured because everyone is always too scared to say anything real? He sighed quietly through his nose. That was a good point. It seemed he had to make a choice: Am I about to calmly, respectfully challenge my aunt, or am I about to ignore it? Considering how the latter was a luxury many didn’t have, he quietly sighed again and realized that he had already made his choice.

“You know,” Alexander started carefully, “I know you didn’t mean anything by it, but that phrase you used about a black person being articulate… some people see it as a form of subtle aggression. People don’t really usually mean anything offensive by it, but still, it kind of is.” It took a second for everyone to realize he was disagreeing with something his aunt had said, so rarely had that happened at the history of their table. Then it took another second for them to weigh just how rude his breach was. His sister gave a neutral sounding hmm of acknowledgment and appreciation as she took a bite of rice. His cousin Howard, however, cocked his head and bit and furrowed his eyebrows. Before anyone could speak, though, Celia responded.

“I don’t think it’s racist to pay someone a complement like that,” Celia said. She looked down at her knife as she carved her chicken. She punched racist dismissively. Alexander’s parents watched curiously as they ate, resigning themselves to be spectators to this conversation for the time being. This was more or less the reaction Alexander anticipated. “I’ve hired several black people throughout the years, a few of them became my good friends,” Celia continued. She worked in the financial aid department of a local college. This was a response Alexander heard a lot, the equivalent of saying, “I’m not racist, I have black friends!” It made about as much sense as someone saying, “I’m not sexist, I have a girlfriend!”

“Sure, I get that,” Alexander said, “I definitely wasn’t implying that you would do anything intentionally hateful toward black people. The thing is, though, that hate is just one kind of racism, isn’t it? I mean, there is overt, explicit racism, the kind of stuff that makes you think of hate crimes, offensive jokes, or white hoods, but racism can also be really, really subtle and cultural. Only one may be violent, but both are dangerous.” He saw that Howard was opening his mouth to retort. By the look on his face, this was about to take a turn into a defensive argument. Wanting to keep it from going there, Alexander jumped back in before his cousin could speak.

“Hang on, hang on,” he said, holding up a hand and smiling, “I don’t think I explained well!” He paused to collect his thoughts, “Think of it like this: The United States, in spite of our ideals about freedom and democracy, was founded on the extermination of Native Americans and built on the backs of enslaved blacks, right? Both of these were only possible because they were fueled by an underlying sense that white people were somehow superior to others. Over time we’ve challenged and mostly put an end to these explicit expressions of hate-racism, but the underlying idea is a lot harder to get rid of, right? It’s embedded in our culture, like a birth defect or a disease. I’ve read one person call it ‘America’s original sin.’ Now, slavery and legal segregation have come to an end, but those big victories can sometimes blind us to the underlying, subtle, but still harmful, racist old habits of our culture.”

He made a point to look at his Aunt. “The reason I decided to say something just now is because things get worse when we, the people with the power, deny that we have these habits. People get hurt when we ignore the fact that there’s unconscious racism at work. The thing is, though, I don’t think we whites have really noticed our racist habits because they benefits us. We’re doing okay. But if we listen to the black voices getting louder and louder, they’re pointing out the ways our unconscious racism is keeping them down. Take the protests over the recent police shootings, for example…”

“Come on, you can’t use that,” his flustered cousin finally jumped in. “If you don’t do what an officer tells you, it’s your fault when they use force, isn’t it? Why would officers treat me differently just because I’m white?”

“That’s what I’m saying,” Alexander said. “It’s really easy for you to say that as a white person who enjoys the privilege of not being discriminated against. It’s easier for you and I to say that because we’re not pulled over all the time or followed in stores. We can send our kids to the park and not be afraid they’re going to be shot. It’s our responsibility, though, to listen to the voices who are saying that is their experience, who are saying that our white experience isn’t the norm. Their experience is different. We have to listen even if it makes us uncomfortable to realize that we’re complicit in a…”

Howard jumped back in. “People get followed when they look like they’re up to something, and pulled over when they’re doing something wrong.”

“See, I think that’s an example of subtle, unconscious racism,” Alexander persisted. “Really, as embarrassing as it may be to admit, to us they look like they’re up to something because they’re black. They’re speaking in a dialect we associate with thugs, or wearing clothes we associate with criminals. That’s another thing, we are assuming our way of speaking and our white, middle class clothes and accents are normal and professional. They’re just what we, as people in power, are used to, so we see them as normal. That’s an example of an implicit bias against blacks that hides in each of our unconscious minds. The only way of really noticing it’s there and doing something about it is by listening to and taking seriously the stories black people are telling. The more I really try to get acquainted with my black students’ experience, the more I find that we have had really different experiences just because of our race.”

He lit up, remembering a conversation he had had recently with the parents of one of his students. “Here is a great example. Do you all know about ‘the talk’ black parents have with their kids?” Alexander directed this last question to the whole room and watched them wiggle uncomfortably. They were all thinking of their answer, but no one wanted to say the “s word” out loud. Everyone, of course, but Alexander’s sister, a college student in her early twenties.

“Like, the sex talk, right?” she asked with ebbing patience for her family.

“No, that’s just it!” Alexander exclaimed, looking at his sister gratefully. “That’s the white version of ‘the talk!’ This is a great example of how our experiences as white people are just so different from a black experience. You can ask nearly any black parent in the United States about ‘the talk,’ and they will tell you that it is a talk they got from their parents and they give to their kids about what to do if they have to deal with a police officer, how to get home safe! Nearly any black parent! And we have no idea! Our experiences are still so segregated! White privilege means that we never have to have that ‘talk’ with our kids, because we who benefit from white privilege don’t live in fear of the police!”

There were a few moments of silence. Alexander realized he may have gotten too excited by the end of that last bit and put his family off. He was about to apologize when his dad jumped in with a smirk and a chuckle. “You keep talking about our different experience, but we all have the chance to make the same choices, you can’t deny that. I mean, the playing field has been leveled. It’s not like it was before the 60’s. People can go to whatever school they want, buy whatever house they want, do drugs or not, drink or not, save money or not, I mean, we all have the same choices to make. I went to high school with several black people who ended up in very different places than I did. I chose not to steal or deal drugs, to save up money, to raise a family, and here we are. You seem to be saying that that option wasn’t available to them, but I can’t buy that.” This time it was Alexander’s sister that spoke in response.

“You have the same choices, sure,” she said, “but they’re not really the same. There was a professor last semester that did this experiment with her class, right? She invites half the class to come in at a certain time to start playing a game of Monopoly. They play for an hour or so, making their way around the board saving money and buying up properties, and after they had gotten a good head start, they invite the rest of the class to join. The rest of the class can play just like everyone else now, by the same rules, but it wasn’t the same for them, was it? The property had been bought! Everybody else had money and hotels and houses! Yeah, the new players started with some money, just like everyone else, but from the minute they start they have no chance of buying property. They have to pay rent at every space, and they’re lucky to make it around the board once without going bankrupt, right? Everybody’s playing the same game, but for some it’s no fun at all, it’s just stressful! Without the other players agreeing to change the rules or give the new players some kind of handout or leg up, or without the new players cheating and doing something against the rules, the new players don’t have much of a chance of doing good at all. That’s more what it’s like. So, sure, you have the same choices, but your experience of playing the game is so so different that it’s not really fair to call the choices the same.”

“Um, that’s awesome.” Alexander said. He had never heard that before. “That seems like a really good way to think about it. And if several generations of players have been playing this same unfair game, it kind of creates a mindset, a set of assumptions, a culture that it’s hard to break out of.” He paused, mulling the image over in his mind. “I heard another example of a high school teacher who told the class that they would be playing a game, and the person with the most points would get a prize. He put a trashcan in the front of the classroom, gave wadded up pieces of paper to everyone in the front two rows, and said they would get one point per shot into the garbage can. They started, but immediately there were protests from the back two rows that they weren’t allowed to have wadded papers to shoot. The professor asked the class if they should make it fair and give the students in the back paper too, and they said yes, so he have them the paper. Still, though, no one from the back two rows could make the shot because they were so far away and there were so many people in front of them. They were also so far behind in points by that time, they had no hope of catching up.

“All that to say again, while it looks like everyone has the same chances, the odds are still stacked against some. Sure, schools were integrated, but the best teachers and equipment still went to the white, suburban schools. Sure, non-whites could get hired at jobs that payed a lot of money, but bosses still largely preferred to hire people that looked like them. Everyone is now allowed to shoot at the trashcan, but the odds are still stacked.”

Celia’s husband, Ulysses spoke next. “You know what frustrates me about all this, though? This generation is so obsessed with being politically correct. It seems like people are looking for opportunities to be offended. It makes it really hard for me to believe that there are actually problems and not just ‘problems’ everyone conjures up.” He put “problems” in air quotes. He had obviously been holding onto this thought for a little while at the expense of actually listening to the conversation. Alexander took a patient breath, but it was his sister that jumped in.

“Stop using politically correct as an insult!” she shot. “The whole idea of political correctness is to try to respect people and make sure we aren’t just casually putting them down by the way we talk about them! The only people who are bothered by being asked to be politically correct are the people who have gotten so used to being in power, and now they’re mad that they have to share it!”

“Which I think is probably all of us here!” Alexander interjected before Ulysses could aim his retort. “It may be that this generation is more sensitive than others and may occasionally create problems where one doesn’t actually exist,” he looked at his sister and shot her a look that he hoped told her to calm down. She closed her mouth and he continued, “but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t real and immediate problems to be addressed. Think about this: if you are in a public school and need to find a band-aid, can you be reasonably sure that they’ll have one that matches your skin tone? If you go to a hotel, can you be confident that they’ll have shampoo that works with your hair? If you interview for a job,” here he glanced back at Cecilia, “you can be confident that the way you speak or dress is going to be considered normal and professional. If you call the police, you’re pretty sure they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, right? This is our, white experience. Blacks in our country are telling us, very clearly, that this is not usually the case for them, and we can see it pretty clearly in the small, band-aid and shampoo examples of what our society calls ‘normal.’ We can’t consider our experience as whites normal, but privileged. We have been holding the power, even if we haven’t let ourselves see it. Our answers to these questions prove that something is very wrong, and it is our responsibility as beneficiaries of privilege to listen, give those we have oppressed the benefit of the doubt, and do something! We can’t just write them off because they make us uncomfortable or we’re frustrated at being accused of not being ‘politically correct.’”

After a moment, Alexander’s dad asked, “Well its kind of hard for us to take it all seriously when they’re out there rioting and looting, isn’t it? Standing in the middle of a highway and blocking traffic isn’t the way to get your point across. You shoot yourself in the foot if you’re trying to get a message out like that.”

Alexander nodded, not making eye contact. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” he said, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. “I suspect they’ve been telling us for years, but we’ve been too comfortable to listen.”

“So you’re saying that’s okay?” his father challenged. “That the rioting and the shooting is all justified?” There was another pause.

“No,” Alexander said softly after a moment. “People have gotten hurt. Violence can never be a solution if our goal is mutual respect and equality. I am just trying to understand, and not write anyone off. If I had a son and he was killed by a police officer, and my neighbor’s son was unjustly arrested, and I knew my grandfather had been attacked by a police dog, if I walked around every day afraid for my children’s wellbeing and knowing the odds of being respected in my society are overwhelmingly stacked against them… how long do you think that tension can hold before something breaks?” The room was quiet for a few seconds. “I can’t judge their violence, because I daily benefit from the system that created it,” Alexander finished, not taking his eyes off of his plate. He thought briefly that this must have been what Jesus meant when he said I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.

“I hope you don’t think I was trying to disrespect you, Aunt Celia,” Alexander said calmly, “or proclaim myself morally superior to you, or accuse you of being hateful. I didn’t want to say anything at all, but I felt like I had to. People keep justifying not saying anything by the idea that our culture just needs more time to evolve, but the thing is when it comes to culture, time is neutral. This isn’t just going to work itself out. The subtle problems will continue to be problems, maybe even working their way into bigger and more overt problems unless they are intentionally challenged. Whites have to repent of the privilege they hold at the expense of others. We have to be dedicated and persistent, that’s the only way change will happen.”

“How do we do that, though?” asked his father, “How are we supposed to ‘repent of privilege?’”

Alexander thought for a moment. “That’s a good question,” he said, “I’m not sure I have a straightforward answer. I suspect that if we pay more attention and start to notice our privilege more, it will become more clear to each of us individually where we use it and how we can give it up. To develop that, I suppose we could better listen to the voices of people of color, even, or especially when it makes us uncomfortable. Maybe we learn to ask good questions of black people rather than assuming we know the answer. Hopefully that will help us learn how to stand up and say something when we see racism.”

He thought for another moment. “Not paying close attention when there is a news story involving injustice against a black person, not listening seriously to the voices of people of color, not saying anything when we notice racism… these are all forms of privilege we should all give up. Maybe it could also mean saying no to things you know you only got because of your privilege and pointing out unfair practices. It could mean abdicating leadership or administrative roles so that people of color can fill that position.” He noticed his dad’s eyebrow furrow. “I know, that doesn’t sound fair, letting someone else get in front of you in line when you’ve worked hard to get there,” Alexander said, “but remember we’re playing a rigged game of Monopoly here.”

Alexander could tell everyone was kind of frustrated. He was trying to keep himself calm and not get angry. He could sense that they seemed more interested in defending themselves than actually opening themselves to change. His mother seemed to be getting frustrated that they could not just enjoy their meal in peace. His father and his uncle were agitated by his suggestion that their concept of the equal opportunities of the American dream was somehow unfair. Howard was getting frustrated because Alexander had challenged Howard’s mother. Celia was difficult to read, but certainly didn’t seem to want to talk about it any further. It was only his sister that seemed to maintain a sense of open, quiet curiosity to the progression of the conversation.

“Could I just suggest something so we don’t start really getting mad at each other? We’ll all be together again tomorrow, right? I think right now all of our egos may be a bit agitated, and no matter what, I think we need to keep this respectful and loving. I want us all to be able to be open with one another and not scared or mad. It’s a complicated thing worth talking about, and if we are too mad to listen to one another it doesn’t do any good. Maybe we should recognize that we should stop here, take a breath, talk about something else, and if we still want to respectfully talk, we can bring it back up tomorrow at dinner. What do you think about that?”

“Fine by me,” Alexander’s mother finally spoke without hesitation. They ate quietly for a minute before she asked Howard about his new job.

“It’s going really well, actually,” Howard responded. “I’m really grateful for the opportunity. Oh!” he started excitedly. “I share a desk with another guy who told me a joke Friday morning, I meant to tell you guys. What do you call a Mexican flying a plane?”

Alexander stopped chewing. Are you kidding me? he thought.

“A pilot!” He looked at Alexander. “You thought I was going to say something racist, didn’t you?” He grinned.

Alexander just put his forehead down on the table.

[Image taken from]

How Baby James Became a Monk (Or, Why the Heltons Moved Into the Susanna Wesley House)

How Baby James Became a Monk (Or, Why the Heltons Moved Into the Susanna Wesley House)

A few days after we moved in to the Susanna Wesley House, an intentional Christian community in Sanger Heights, a friend called to see how we were doing. “So, how is it being a monk?” he asked. Well, we did move into a new-monastic community, so sure, we’ll take it. We’ll be monks. Several people have asked Claire and me (fewer have asked James) about our recent move. Many have asked how it’s going, but most have wanted to know why we decided to do this odd thing, especially with a seven month old (who you can bet will be the cutest monk you have ever seen come Halloween). I’ve given different bits of the answer, but I’ve always felt better about being able to write something down than respond on the spot. It is my hope that the following can more fully answer the question of why we decided to become monks.

Several months ago, I had just finished cutting my lawn and was pushing my lawnmower to the backyard when a voice behind me caused me to stop and turn around. “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you,” the voice began. I braced myself. No pleasant conversation I have ever been a part of has ever begun with those words. They’re usually followed by something like: “Do you have a moment to talk about a great opportunity?” or, “Do you have a dollar?” or the dreaded, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” I turned around to see who was speaking and saw a man coming across the yard towards me. He was middle aged with a tired face, dirty clothes, and a stained baseball cap over shaggy graying hair. Behind him, still on the sidewalk, was a woman with a similar appearance sitting in a wheelchair and staring at the ground. I smiled at him and he continued. “My wife and I haven’t eaten in two days,” he said, gesturing to the woman behind him. “Do have any yard work I might be able to do around the house to earn something to buy us some food?” My automatic responses kicked in. “I’m sorry, I don’t,” I told him, “but there’s an organization just a few blocks down this road that should be able to help you.” I told him about Mission Waco, what they did, and who he should talk to. He smiled politely and shook my hand, thanking me for the advice before returning to his wife on the sidewalk.

I continued into my backyard and closed the gate behind me. I had barely taken one step when something inside me faltered. No, that wasn’t right, a voice told me. That was not the Christlike response you were asked to give. That was right. There was something in me very willing, eager to help, to give this couple rest, food, and company, but I hadn’t been present to that voice. I rushed inside and looked around, my eyes landing on a bowl of fruit in the middle of our counter. I grabbed two bananas and jogged out the front door, hoping to catch them. They hadn’t gone far. “Sir!” I called out, trotting his way. He stopped and turned around, and I gave them the bananas. That would be something, some kind of sustenance. He thanked me again and they continued towards Mission Waco. But even after that I knew my response wasn’t right. I wanted to invite them in. I had a house full of comfortable chairs, air conditioning, and food, but I couldn’t do it. I was afraid. My wife and my infant son were the only ones inside, and the unpredictability of the situation scared me.

As I walked back inside, I thought, If only we were surrounded by people who could watch out for one another, I’d be braver. If only we were surrounded by people who affirmed and encouraged one another to do the crazy things Jesus called us to, I’d feel freer to obey. If only we were surrounded by people who daily stopped together to be present to God, I’d be able to respond more mindfully. That was not the first time I’d had that feeling, that I was being restrained. It wasn’t the first time individualism, consumerism, fear, and social expectation had held me back from actually being faithful to God’s invitation to radical love. In fact, nearly everything I had felt called to do in the past few years, to live sustainably and simply, to not utilize slave labor, to work for racial reconciliation, to turn the other cheek, to love my enemies, to fast, to feed the hungry, to offer the homeless a place to stay, and generally to love my neighbor as myself, ended with the thought: If only I were not an I, but a we… If only I was a part of a community that would be intentional about these things, then I’d have a chance of actually being faithful to this call. I could be more fully a part of the body of Christ, an agent of God’s love.

On top of that, living in community has come to seem right to me on other levels. It’s how people have thrived throughout much of history, and studies in positive psychology point towards numerous benefits to living in community. Homestead Heritage is an Anabaptist community in Waco that values agrarian, craft-based intentional Christian community defined by simplicity, sustainability, self-sufficiency, cooperation, and service. They try to live into a pre-industrial way of life as much as possible. Once, on a visit to their community, a community member was explaining to our group why they chose to live in such a way. They said, “Really, the way we are living is how people have lived for most of history, and it’s worked very well. Not to offend you, but it is you all who are doing something strange. We’re kind of waiting for it all to fall apart.” That comment expresses a sentiment similar to the one I’ve developed about Western individualism and the way of life we’ve come to recognize as normal. The fruit it bears is often not good: depression, loneliness, apathy towards justice, and ecological abuse, to name a few. In other words, we’re kind of waiting for it all to fall apart.

Living in an intentional Christian community grounded in mission and spiritual formation is something Claire and I have been attracted to for a long time. Before we began seminary, it was something we explored, but at that time it didn’t work out. While we were in seminary we made attempts at intentional community from our home, but quickly proved we needed more help. It was like we had all of the right tools, but no real idea how to use them. We joked that we needed community training wheels! Once we graduated we began to revisit the idea more seriously (which is saying something, since James was born just the week before graduation), and soon came across the Susanna Wesley House. It is a fairly young community that operates as part of a Methodist group of communities called the Epworth Project. We learned that this network of houses operates by a common rule of life that includes a daily rhythm of prayer and shared service, which in this particular house (situated in the middle of a food desert) had taken the form of urban gardening. I asked to meet with the “house steward,” where we found out that he and his wife would soon be moving out and they were looking for someone to take their place. The timing was perfect. We spent the next four months learning more about the house, spending time with the community, and researching new-monastic communities. We moved in on July 27th.

We are fully aware that there is no magic formula for spiritual formation or to make someone more faithful. We know living in a new-monastic community isn’t a silver bullet that will make us finally do all the things we have felt called to do. In fact, we know this will be hard work, and that many communities like ours end up going down in flames. But, we wholeheartedly believe that this is the step God has been inviting us to take. We believe that by encouraging one another, praying for one another, and keeping one another accountable, we can live more deeply rooted in God’s mission to love the world than we ever could have on our own.


5 Reasons You And Your Kid Should Be Talking About Race

5 Reasons You And Your Kid Should Be Talking About Race

I am not an authority on racism. I am a white, privileged male from the south who grew up thinking that the best way to end racism was to stop talking about it. The events of the past two years, however, have jarred me into a new way of looking at things. I am saying up front that I am not sure how to have a healthy conversation about race, and I am not sure what actions such a conversation should prompt, but what I do know is that a conversation must happen.

Below is not a list of ways to talk to your kid about race, nor things you and your kid should do about racial injustice, but rather a list of reasons that this conversation deserves a priority. Not everything below applies to every one of your kids, but hopefully you will see enough of yourself in some of these to realize how important it is to start talking about race with your kid.

1. Your kid may not think they play a role in racial injustice.

Racism is not just conscious hate, it is far more subtle than that. As Scott Woods points out, it is a disease that can take the form of privilege or ignorance. Chances are your kid is confident that they could call the police and assume that the police would be on their side, or that they speak a language that most of the would can understand. It is also likely that they have set the standard of “normal” or respectable to match their cultural assumptions of what hairstyles or clothing should look like. These are just some examples of ways that, unexamined and unmanaged, our kids can be complicit in racial injustice.

2. Your kid sees what is happening in the world, and they are making interpretations whether your voice is a part of them or not.

There are many, especially in the schools our kids attend, who would like to frame the narrative so that it is about a group of unenlightened troublemakers who don’t know any better putting us all at risk. Your kid is putting these events in some kind of interpreted narrative, whether your voice influences that narrative or not.

3.Your kid is likely right in the middle of the conflict with no idea how to navigate it.

Whether your kid attends a predominantly white school in the suburbs, or a predominantly hispanic and African American school in the city, access to and quality of education has been a part of the racial conversation from the beginning. Your kid is in the middle of a bigger story and they’re seeing the effects of that story play out around them whether they recognize where they are standing or not.

4. Your kid likely wants to do something, but is not sure what or how.

I have seen most of the kids in our youth ministry demonstrate deep passion for issues of injustice, specifically with conversations regarding LGBTQ lives and homelessness. If this is any indication, your kid probably wants to know how to be an ally but is not sure what to do or how to do it. Many of them are very good at getting mad and throwing blame, but they need some help recognizing constructive ways to engage.

5. God is love, and God is inviting you and your kid into a mission characterized by justice.

Most of us have become very good at disconnecting ourselves from the reality that people of every race are beloved by God, created in God’s image, and that their suffering is all of our suffering. God invites us into God’s mission to love the entire world, and inherent in that call is an invitation to just reconciliation. The walls between the political and the religious, between the secular and the sacred, they don’t really exist. We can not all fully engage every front to fight injustice, but we must at least become aware, and we want to invite our kids to walk alongside us.

Where to find the information and formation to start this conversation with your kids

There are many good resources available, some of which we are about to begin exploring as a church family. On Wednesday night, July 20th at 7pm, Lake Shore will begin a conversation on race in America. Then, in the fall, there will be a series of seminars tied to the book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, by Jim Wallis. These are good places to start learning how to have the conversation in a loving and compassionate environment.

If you and your kid would like something to listen to to prepare for this conversation at church, The Liturgists have an accessible, challenging, and engaging podcast called “Black and White: Racism in America,” found here:

Before anything else though, please notice that I titled this “5 Reasons You and Your Kid Should be Talking About Race,” and not “5 Reasons You Should Talk to Your Kid About Race.” There are two reasons for this, one a comfort, and one a challenge. First, you’re probably not an expert on racial injustices, and that’s okay! It can be something you and your kid learn about and discover how to talk about together. You don’t have to have all the answers, your kid won’t judge you for admitting that. Second, it is pretty likely that you have a lot you can learn from your kid. Your kid will have a whole host of experiences with race that you may not know about or they just need help identifying. This should be a dialogue about experiences informed by what you are discovering together, not a lecture!

May each of us enter this conversation compelled by the love of Christ, and may we learn to live more fully into God’s beautifully diverse Kingdom.

[Image from]

“The Gospel of the Little Girl,” 2 Kings 5:1-15a

“The Gospel of the Little Girl,” 2 Kings 5:1-15a

[The following sermon was preached on The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 3, 2016, for Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco. It is drawn from 2 Kings 5:1-15a.]

2 Kings 5:1-15a: Naaman’s master considered him an extraordinary man. He was the military commander of Aram’s army, and by him God had given victory to Aram over Israel. Naturally he was greatly esteemed by his king. Naaman was a fierce warrior, but he also suffered from leprosy. Now one time, the Arameans went out to raid a town in Israel and took a little girl as their prisoner. The little girl became a servant to Naaman’s wife. One day, this girl said to her mistress, “If only my master could be near the prophet in Samaria, the prophet there could heal my master’s disease.” Naaman became hopeful, and he went and told his king what the little girl from Israel said. The King of Aram told him, “Go immediately, I will send along a letter to Israel’s king.” Naaman left with the king’s letter in his hand, plus 750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, and 10 sets of fine clothing.

Naaman handed the letter to Israel’s king, and the king read it. It said, “The man carrying this letter is my servant, Naaman. He has leprosy and I want you to cure him.” When the King of Israel read this, he tore his clothes and lamented, “Who does he think I am—God? Why does Aram’s king think I have the power to kill and make alive again? What in the world makes him think that I can heal you of your disease? It is obvious that Aram’s king is trying to create trouble between us.”

But Elisha, the man of God, received word that Israel’s king had ripped his clothing, so he sent a message to Israel’s king. “What has caused you to rip your clothing?” the note read. “Tell the man who has come to you for healing to come to me. Then he will be assured that a prophet lives in Israel.”

The king told Naaman to go find Elisha, so Naaman showed up at Elisha’s door with his horses and chariots, but Elisha did not show his face to Naaman. Instead, he sent a messenger who said, “Wash yourself in the Jordan River seven times. Your flesh will be restored and you will be clean.” Naaman boiled with anger as he left Elisha’s home. He had come to his house expecting something much different. “What is this?” he shouted! “I came here thinking that Elisha would come outside and call upon the name of his God, and that Elisha’s hand would pass over my sores and heal my skin disease, not the waters of the Jordan River. The Abanah and Pharpar Rivers in Damascus are greater rivers than all the rivers of Israel combined, so why couldn’t I just go bathe in those and be healed?” Naaman stormed away, boiling with rage.

Later, his servants approached and spoke to him with respect. “Father,” they began, “if the prophet had told you to do some big important thing, wouldn’t you have done what he asked? Why is it so difficult for you to follow his instructions when he tells you, ‘Bathe yourself in the Jordan River, and be cleansed’?”

So Naaman swallowed his pride, went down to the Jordan River, and washed himself seven times, just as the man of God had instructed him to do. There, the miracle occurred. Naaman’s disease was healed: his skin was as new as a little boy’s, and he was clean from the disease. Naaman and all his entourage went back to the man of God and proclaimed, “I am convinced that there is no God who exists in the entire world like the True God in Israel.”

On a hot Middle Eastern afternoon, many, many years ago, sitting down in a synagogue with eager students gathered around his feet, Jesus referenced a story that was so offensive that his students tried to murder him. It was a story that Jesus knew well, a story he had heard growing up in synagogues, and around the fire with his family. And as all good stories do, over time it seems to have become a part of him, to soak down into his bones and into his soul. He must have taken this story seriously, as he seemed to think telling people the story was worth nearly being hurled off a cliff. Now if Jesus thought a story was that good, it seems to me that we should probably keep on telling it.

This murder-inducing story is set in Ancient Israel, nearly a thousand years before Jesus referenced it in his synagogue. Israel was locked in a national conflict with Aram, or Syria as we call it now, and it wasn’t going well for Israel. Syria’s armies overpowered them, raiding their villages and dragging their terrified citizens away to be their slaves. Israel faced disparaging defeat. Leading this great and terrible army was a man named Naaman. He was strong, victorious, and wealthy, spending time in the company of only the most important people, even the King himself. Through and through, Naaman was a conqueror, a national hero. When Syrian children played, they fought each other for who got to be Naaman. But as it turns out, leprosy has no respect for rank, age, or wealth. It has been likened to cancer or AIDS, eating through armor with no regard for who we think should be immune. Even for this man who seems to have every means to shield himself from suffering, suffering came all the same.

So here we have the general of our enemy’s army, the man responsible for prying our friends, sons, and daughters out of our arms and into a life of abuse and captivity, and we learn that he suffers from a humiliating and life-threatening disease. Good, we might be tempted to say, perhaps he’ll get what he deserves. But that isn’t how this story goes. That is not how our offensively loving God works.

While on one of their raids, the Syrians had stolen a little Israelite girl, and put her to work in the service of Naaman’s wife, and it is this little girl that changed everything. “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria,” she said one day to her mistress, “he would cure him of his leprosy.” Let’s pause here for a second, and spend some time in the company of this nameless little girl. Snatched from her family, stripped of her national identity, she has every reason to resent everything and everyone. She has every reason to look for escape, to spit in her mistress’s food, to let hate burn inside of her until she has no soul left… but that’s not who she is. The mission of Israel rested on her tongue. Instead of being a voice of hate, moving the narrative along as it seems to naturally want to go, in only a few hopeful words she brought the flow to a screeching halt. And then, as miraculous as her speaking this gospel is, something even more miraculous follows: Naaman heard her, though just barely. With every reason to dismiss this little, foreign slave girl, he listened to her, and we see that he was desperate enough to heed her advice.

After mulling it over, watching the leprosy spread, Naaman went to his King. He shared the girl’s fanciful story, and asked for leave to seek healing in Israel. Thus began the grand and ridiculous exchange of the kings. It went something like this: The King of Syria wrote to the King of Israel, saying “I am sending you Naaman, a general who is very important to me, so that you can cure him of his leprosy.” Obviously, you see, as men of great power and importance they must go to other men of great power and importance to get anything done. In other words, they completely miss the point. The little girl would never have sent Naaman to a King, because if she remembers the stories of Elijah and Elisha, she remembers that nine times out of ten, Kings are useless. The whole book of Kings is story after story of kings getting so caught up in keeping everything together, making sure the Kingdom survives, and ensuring their own little success, that they forget the whole reason Israel was called into being. They forget that the whole point of this nation is to show God to the rest of the world, that they are blessed in order to be a blessing to others. So, standing in a long line of inadequate Kings, the King of Israel, predictably, panics. When Naaman shows up with mountains of silver and gold and all sorts of gifts, the King only sees a provocation. “He’s asking me for what he knows I can’t give him!” he laments, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?!” Oh, the irony of that question. “Am I God?” He knows he’s not, but does it dawn on him to ask for God’s help, or speak to a prophet? No. Grounded in fear and embarrassment rather than righteousness, he only has eyes to see the threat to his precious little system.

While this is happening, some distance away, the real prophet hears about the king’s panic. He calls his messenger to him, shaking his head, and dictates his rebuke. “Why are you so rattled?” he writes. “Stop, open your eyes and see what God is doing. Let this man come to me, then he will learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So, back in the city, Naaman re-packs his silver, his gold, his gifts, and his servants and sets off away from the tension of the royal palace.

Now as they go, something starts happening. His parade goes down out of the city with its multitudes looking at him in a mixture of admiration and fear, they go down into the outlying urban areas, where people stop to gawk at his splendor, they go down into the rural areas, where people look at him in confusion, and they go down into the desert, where no one cares at all. They go all the way down to Elisha’s modest hovel, where frankly, they look ridiculous. Elisha has invited Naaman into a place where his accomplishments and his reputation don’t count for anything. He has stepped out of the world of control that he knows and prefers, and when he finally does arrive at Elisha’s home, consider how he must have felt to see that Elisha was not even coming out to meet him. Instead, a servant, not much to look at, sauntered out to him with a message. “Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will be restored. You will be clean.” With that the servant turned around, and walked right back into Elisha’s house. Naaman’s jaw hung open.

What started as a slow burn in his stomach turned into hot tears welling up in his eyes. His hands began to shake, and when it felt as though his bones would break from the tension in his muscles, the words exploded from his mouth: “WHAT? He’s not even going to look me in the face? Does he know who I am? This isn’t how it was supposed to happen! He was supposed to stand before me, call on the name of his God, wave his hand over this rot, and the power of his little God would come down and fix it!” The more he thought about it, the angrier he became. The JORDAN?? He thought. He remembered the muddy little, sluggish river they passed on the way in, and immediately thought of the grand crystal flowing waters he left back at home. Aren’t the rivers of Damascus better than all of the water in this backwater country? He had traveled too far, made himself too vulnerable, and now this so-called prophet dared to insult him. The messenger might as well have said, go rub some mud on it, it’ll be good as new. Then Naaman felt himself go numb. After a minute, he turned towards where he believed Syria should be, and just started walking.

As he walked, some of his servants began to follow his lead, but then he heard a voice. It was the voice of the little girl, the one who set him off on this pilgrimage to begin with. “Sir?” He whipped around, and was confused. The only ones standing behind him were a couple of his servants. “Sir?” they asked again. “What? What is it?” Naaman asked, regaining his composure, putting the girl’s voice out of his mind. “Well, sir, it’s just that… if the prophet had told you to do something complex and hard, wouldn’t you have done it? But all he said to you was ‘wash and be clean’ and…” he broke off, not wanting to step too far over a line. “Shouldn’t you at least try it?” he finished.

Rage crept back into Naaman’s chest at this suggestion, that he should follow the instructions of a folk healer, but at that moment, looking into the eyes of his servants, something in Naaman broke. Once more, the flow of the story was interrupted by a voice from the outside. For the first time, Naaman opened his eyes and looked at the men standing nervously before him, looked down at his decaying skin, and he knew that really, it made no difference if he was covered in mud. Who was he trying to impress anymore? So he went down to the Jordan. He went down away from his parade, away from his reputation and his glory. He went down and stripped himself of his expensive clothes, stripped himself of his impressive armor, stripped himself of his identity, his nobility, and his pride. Naked in every way possible, he stepped into the muddy water. He crossed the Jordan to bathe, and as he did, he became part of a much bigger story. He joined in walking the path of the Israelites coming out of Egypt, of Elijah taken up to glory, of all of those who would come after him to meet John the Baptist in the same water, of you and me, and all of God’s children who have had their moment in the Jordan and emerged a new creation.

As he rose from the water for the seventh time, his breath caught as he saw that his skin had become like that of a little boy. In fact, as he looked at his new skin, he couldn’t help but think about that little girl. He had become like her, in a way. Faith, Richard Rohr says, is a willingness to open and re-open our hearts to different and difficult ways of seeing the world. That is what Naaman does. In every sense, his faith has made him clean.

He returns to Elisha, he and all his company, and finds Elisha finally waiting to meet him. Standing before Elisha, Naaman can only say one thing, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” It’s not a theologically sophisticated response, and he certainly doesn’t understand how any of this worked any more than the little girl did, but this new story is what he has. Through his suffering, his letting go of control piece by piece, he moved into a new world. He still had a long way to go, but here he stood on the bank. Now he dwelt in a world in which God met him not in the grand throne room of royal palaces, but quiet, running, muddy water. How many search for God looking for grand celestial acts, only to find God in the simple and dirty? Only to find you and me, unimpressive nobodies with the Divine coursing through our souls?

And there we are. This is the story that turned Jesus’ students into an angry mob. I wonder, did you catch why? Where you paying close attention? I believe it was because Jesus invited his listeners to see themselves and their God in this story, and they did not like what they saw. They saw God pour out love and grace on a foreign enemy, yet they were unable to see that story playing out in their own enemies around them. They saw Naaman, representing all of humanity in our need to go down, to go down, and to keep going down to the Jordan, to take off ego and pride and fall backwards into the murky waters of grace, but they were unwilling to make the trip. I think that Jesus asked his listeners to find themselves in the story, and I think he still asks us to do the same, even if it makes us mad.

So I want to end with a question: Who are you? Are you Naaman, desperately searching for healing, struggling to see past your ego and indulgence? Are you the little girl, abused and trodden down by society, yet still looking past racism and resentment to speak a healing invitation into the world? Are you a king, so distracted by the political reality of making things work that you forget why you even exist? Are you part of a kingdom that shares in that sin? Are you Elisha, giving folks a holy thump on the head to remind them who they really are? Are you a servant, asking people to slow down, to recognize God in simple and muddy reality? Who are you? We are all here in this story, each a part of the divine drama that plays out over and over. May God give us eyes to see.

[Image taken from!/2012/02/naaman-warrior-becomes-whole-man.html]

The Gods that Don’t Love Us Back

The Gods that Don’t Love Us Back

Hear now the good news: God created you in God’s own image, and God has called you to incarnate God’s love and be an agent of salvation to the whole world!

Well? Do you feel liberated? Are you ready to go save the world? I’m not so sure. Is this good news to you, or do you feel like a whole lot of pressure and responsibility has just been dumped on your shoulders? In middle school, a mentor once told me that God would hold me personally responsible for any of my friends that didn’t become Christians. To me, the gospel of grace was more often the gospel of anxiety. Luckily, despite the ways we’ve worked North American individualism into our gospel dough, I don’t think this is actually the gospel. Maybe it should read more like this:

Hear now the good news: God created us in God’s own image, and God has called us to incarnate God’s love and be agents of salvation to the whole world!

To me, that feels more like good, liberating news. Here, we have moved beyond the I, and become a we, each a unique part of a beautiful body animated by God’s Holy Spirit. According to our sacred stories, this seems to be God’s idea. However, this grand story is also littered with stories of a community gone rogue, placing something other than God at the center of their worship and bearing rotten fruit. When fear of the future, desire of power or influence, or instinct to hold onto what has been proven to work takes God’s place, the result is always death in one form or another. God’s congregation represents God’s loving image, and when that image is misrepresented, God takes it seriously.

This is the subject of the story we read on Youth Sunday from 1 Kings, and it is a story in which it’s not difficult to find ourselves. To facilitate such recognition, we included a time of silent confession in the middle of the 1 Kings reading. The reader began with verses 20-21: Elijah called out to the people of Israel, How much longer will you sit on the fence, refusing to make a decision between the Lord and Baal? If you believe God is the True God, then devote yourselves entirely to God. If you believe Baal is your master, then devote yourselves entirely to him.” All the people who were gathered together atop Mount Carmel were completely silent. They didn’t know what to say to this.

Here, though, the reader paused, directing the congregation to the instructions in the worship guide: As the congregation of Israel considered Elijah’s challenge in silence, let us consider what keeps us as God’s community from being faithful to God’s call? Take a moment to name the idol(s) competing for our devotion, writing them down on the notecard enclosed in your bulletin. As you leave the service, place your notecard in the bowl on the back altar.

Once all of the pastel post-its had been turned in, the results were along these lines: “Order,” “harmony,” “control,” “certainty,” “money,” “fear of the future,” “need to be accepted,” “holding unworthy people as heroes,” and “thinking we need more.” According to the individuals in the congregation that day, these are the things that we, as a community, put in God’s place. Here are our gods. These are the things we are prone to serve, the things that undermine our integrity as lovers of God and one another. Most of these things sound perfectly reasonable, but that’s the thing about idols, otherwise we wouldn’t be so tempted to serve them. But we aren’t called to be reasonable. God’s love is, by most of our standards, illogical and insane. It’s the kind of love that ends in crucifixion and resurrection, not the maintenance of a safe institution. It’s the kind of love that might get messy and disorderly. It might call us to give up safety and monetary comfort, to foster hope rather than fear of the future, and it might lead us towards a cross. But, as we declare every Easter, we have faith that it will always end with new life.

May we be faithful to our call to incarnate God’s love together. May we hold one another accountable, encourage one another, and courageously abandon the idols that will never love us back.