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What Are You Talking About?

By Randy Heffner

It was the coldest of times, it was the hottest of times. Perhaps I exaggerate about the latter. But about the former? Not at all.

The cold was not to be laughed about. February 2021 hit Texas like a ton of frozen bricks. Wind turbines couldn't spin, solar panels underperformed, natural gas flows were disrupted, power went out, and many died. The heat came in fast enough after that: Accusations flew in all directions.

For me personally, it got hot in a conversation on a Facebook post. I wondered about what went wrong, how we might make renewables more reliable in harsh weather, and what was up with natural gas, since gas doesn't freeze (well, not on earth, anyway). I hoped my interlocutor might have some insight into the matter. Silly me. Rather than insight, I got a boatload of environmental hubris, denial that renewables had weaknesses, and incorrect conclusions about my political persuasions. Wow, I thought: I didn't know that in my words one could find – “invent” is the better word – so many hidden meanings. My opponent's imagination was quite active and highly creative. It all came clear when I was accused of being a devotee of a certain entertainews celebrity. And I had to ask, “Have you been talking about him this whole time? Because I've been talking about Texas energy reliability. If you have something to say about that, I'm all ears.” My antagonist posted no further replies.

How about that. We thought we were having a conversation, but actually we were talking about radically different things: energy reliability on the one hand and the malign influence of political pundits on the other. We had different frames of reference, and our separate framings of the conversation changed the meanings of our words and sentences. We spoke incompatible dialects.

Consciously or not, every one of our conversations, everyday, has a frame around it that defines the essence of what we are talking about. We not so much aware of the framing; most often we act implicitly as though we needn't be, since there really is only one proper framing to the conversation: ours.

It gets more complex. We may be talking about multiple things at the same time – that is, there can be multiple layers of framing – but one of them will be the dominant framing. Look at Psalm 89:14, where Ethan's words to the Lord touch on both law and love:

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;

steadfast love and faithfulness go before you. (ESV)

If we frame this within a conversation about law and judgment and God's wrath, the first line is more important. We wrestle first with God's authority before we aim to understand or receive God's mercy. The main concern becomes meeting demands of the Law, and we'd best take God's purity seriously if we hope to see any of God's kindness. That's all true enough, but what happens with a different framing of the verse?

Within a conversation about a rich relationship with a loving God, justice remains but, in a manner of speaking, it stays at home while God comes to meet us with care and compassion and loyalty. And these are not sentimental but rather grounded in the hard demands of righteousness and justice, imbuing God's love with credibility and beauty.

The frame in which we read this verse colors whether we relate to God more as a meticulous legalist with a soft spot for love, or as a passionate lover and friend who longs for us to find life “to the full” (John 10:10, NIV) through transformation into our better selves.

Day-to-day, as we relate to family, friends, coworkers, and strangers-on-the-street, framing comes into play not merely as a potential cause of misunderstanding, but more importantly as a path of intentional love. Had I been more alert and aware with my Texas freeze-out friend, I might have suspected mismatched framing. I could have left my framing aside and sought to enter his world and framing. I could have built a bridge rather than a wall. To be clear, I needn't have agreed with his framing, nor his conclusions; the love is not in agreement, but in pursuit of connecting to another's heart. And who knows? Perhaps I would have learned something by seeing for a time through another's eyes. Had I loved this way, perhaps gentleness would have turned away wrath (Prov 15:1).

The previous paragraph is incomplete. Intentionally. To protect you from the danger of poor framing. Even true words can easily change the framing of a conversation. The omitted sentence would have been, “And maybe he would have come to see the validity in what I was saying.” Although this is true, it could turn the paragraph into a formula for transactional (as opposed to relational) success in winning an argument – or a convert. The omitted sentence plays on our desire and our pride, and it would have sat upon the end of the paragraph like a siren, singing the sweetness of us getting people to come to the truth. That's what we're here for, right? But if it's a strategy for winning, it is not a practice of love. Love does not seek its own goals, though it believes and hopes for good to come. Only sincere and true love ever “wins” in a John 10:10 life.

As the St. Patrick's Men's Bible Study makes our way through Romans – that wellspring of many a Christian doctrinal proposition – I'm finding new clues in the text that maybe it wants a different framing than I've given it before. Maybe it's about the life that Creator has always wanted for us, even before the fall, and that we are kindly, faithfully, sacrificially, doggedly pursued.

In any case, I'm learning to stop my rushed life more often to ask, “Wait. What are we talking about?”

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