Friday, January 12, 2018

Work Harder, Preachers

Hey preachers, let me have a moment…

There is a lot of low hanging fruit out there this week. A lot of easy barbs, jabs, pithy snark we might include in our sermons. There is a lot of it, and it’s hanging really, really low.

Work harder. The Word of God needs to be proclaimed this week as powerfully as it ever has been, maybe even more so. Work harder. This coming Sunday’s sermon is crucial; it’s impact will have a lasting effect on those who hear it. Work. Harder.

How many sermons will include the word “shithole” this Sunday? How many times will the line, “Galilee was a shithole country, too” be uttered by how many preachers in how many pulpits?

That’s just too easy, preachers. Work harder.

Don't just negate; create something new. Don’t only deconstruct; let your preaching be constructive. Do not waste vital sermon time reacting; preaching is a proactive moment.

Every one of us needs to invest some significant time this Sunday morning describing the world as God intends it to look and then letting the people know that it is up to us to go out and make it look that way. Creative, constructive, proactive - Preach the Word.

Yes, resisting the evil forces of the world is a significant part of our role, preachers. And yes, we need to name those evil forces. Racism is real, and it is roaring as loudly as it ever has. Bigotry, misogyny, hypocrisy … all on vibrant display in our country this week. Sure, call it out, name it, drag it into the light.

But don’t stop there - work harder!

 Don’t spend your entire precious time slot speaking against something; speak for something. Offer the alternative. Describe God’s preferred reality, and be specific about how we together can bring it to life in the world.

There are dozens and dozens of Biblical descriptions of the world as God intends it to look - the prophet Isaiah, the words of Jesus in Matthew 5-7, the practices of the early church, Paul’s descriptions of unity in diversity. Find them, read them out loud, and then dare people to live like that.

There’s probably a MLK march or rally or event of some kind in your community, right? Whatever it looks like specifically, it is an opportunity to stand in connection with others on behalf of justice and peace and understanding. Tell your congregation to go to it. (Springfield, MO - Click here)

There’s probably a program in your community designed to help people who have immigrated from another country, right? Get the information and put it into the hands of your congregation on Sunday. (Springfield, MO - Click here)

Yes, there is a lot of low hanging fruit this week. Preachers, do not be tempted. To simply negate, deconstruct, and react is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Create. Construct. Proactively proclaim the Good News. God has an amazing, gracious, love-filled, just, peaceful, vibrant vision for what this world is supposed to look like. Announce it. Proclaim it. Tell them that it is here! Just sitting there, waiting for us to realize it! Waiting for us to enter it … to receive it.

It’s a big Sunday, preachers. Work harder.


(11:15 a.m. - UPDATED with links for Springfield, MO responses)

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Is Diversity Still a Strength?

In the past month, I have heard both from a family who is leaving the congregation because it is too conservative for them and also from a family who is leaving because it is too progressive for them.

Now obviously, as I spoke with each one they shared more; their reasons are more nuanced and complex than that. There is always more to the story. But that’s the nutshell version: for one it is “too conservative” and for the other it is “too progressive.”

For nine and a half years, I have been preaching a consistent message: Love can overcome different perspectives. Diversity is a strength. The conversation matters. “Though we do not think alike, may we not love alike?” as John Wesley said.

I believed that the church was made up of people who see the world differently, people whose politics and theology are labelled either “conservative” or “progressive” or some other such label, and yet who could embrace our variety of perspectives together as we focused on the mission and ministry of the church, and could do so with abiding love for one another.

But the two conversations I mentioned above have given me pause to wonder if that is true anymore, and to ask myself some existential questions. Here are a few…

Question 1 - Has something fundamentally shifted in our world that makes it simply impossible to be in relationship with (much less have a conversation with) someone who sees the world very differently from one’s self? We all know the cliché about knowing what people with whom to avoid discussing politics. It has become a meme, but it really isn’t funny. Why can we not even talk with each other anymore?

Question 2 - Does the “malevolent spirit” currently unleashed upon us have more power over us than the power of God’s love? I do not believe that in my heart of hearts, but from the way we are acting these days, it seems that it may. Or rather, it seems that we have allowed it to.

Question 3 - Is it time for a season of being intentionally apart from one another? Should we just seek out like-minded people and commiserate for a little while, take comfort in similarity, breathe deeply without fear of conflict or attack, without the anxiety of defensiveness, and simply renew our souls? And plan for some point in the future in which the atmosphere might be sufficiently healed that we can come together again?

I am very progressive – theologically, socially, and politically. And yet I have made every effort to temper my own bias, knowing that I am preacher in a diverse congregation. Obviously my bias is revealed every so often; how could it not be? It is who I am. It’s just that I take very seriously the Biblical admonition to avoid being a stumbling block for others who are seeking God. And if my progressive perspective is a stumbling block for anyone’s relationship with God, it breaks my heart. Every time. But that begs another existential question…

Question 4 - Has my tempering of my bias become in and of itself a stumbling block for others? Here I am thinking of the family who told me the congregation is “too conservative” for them. And moreover, here I am thinking of the many, many people who have rejected church as an option in their spiritual lives because they assume that being socially, theologically, and politically conservative is the only choice for a follower of Jesus. This is of course an incorrect assumption, but am I exacerbating it by trying to moderate my progressiveness?

Please forgive my processing these questions “out loud,” so to speak. This is a highly narcissistic post, I know. I’ve been pretty transparent here about some real internal struggles I’m feeling right now, and I understand the risk that entails. But I know that I am surrounded by gracious, loving people who are a continual source of encouragement and support for me, and I’ll just throw myself on your grace and understanding at this point.

And at the same time, I get the feeling I’m not the only pastor struggling with these kinds of questions. There are enough of us, in fact, that the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church put together an excellent webinar series on the topic, called “Pastoring in Partisan Times.” (You can watch the recordings here.)

One of the most helpful ideas that came out of that webinar series for me came from Dr. Leah Gunning-Francis, who said, “I know that we are looking for ways to try to appease and make people feel comfortable, but the truth of the matter is it is impossible to do that in light of the gospel.” I get that. In fact that really pokes at the dead center of my existential struggle. How do I hold “making people comfortable” and “not being a stumbling block” in tension and still be an effective preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

So that’s where I am at the moment. I’ve been here nine and half years, preaching the same message (diverse perspectives are a strength), and now have had two very faithful families from opposite ends of the spectrum tell me they are not going to be a part of the congregation anymore, because it is not closely enough aligned with their own perspective. It has shaken me, and left me wondering if diversity actually is a strength anymore.

And now I’m just trying to figure out what to do with that.


UPDATE (1/4): I would like to add that the people who left are people whom I love dearly and whom I consider to be very good friends. Which makes the whole thing all the more befuddling and heartbreaking.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

The Church I Want

Ever since I became a pastor (way back in the year 2000) I have felt a connection with people who have been hurt by the church, who were maybe once a part of the church but have rejected it for reasons, and those who just really see no need for the church in their life.

You might say that a part of my calling has been to acknowledge the harm the church has inflicted both by action and inaction, and to present an alternative relationship, another way to think of church. It has been one of my driving motivators to be able to say, “There is another way. The version of the church that you reject, I also reject. And there is another way.”

But I’ll be honest. That’s getting harder and harder to do.

The litany of reasons is far too long to catalog here. Christians behaving in blatantly un-Christlike ways may very well have done irreparable damage to the church. There seems to be no way to “fix” it at this point. All we can do is …

What? What can we do?

Maybe I’m in this mood because I’m so old and cynical. I feel like I used to be so gracious and understanding, saying things like, “Well, that may be the way that you relate to Jesus, but I relate to Jesus differently than that. Everybody’s different! Whoopee!” But now I see people who say they are Christians doing and saying such abhorrent things, and I honestly cannot say that with integrity any more.

I’m getting tired of thinking to myself, “No, that’s not what following Jesus looks like. That is not what church is.” I’m sick of reacting to Christian awfulness.

So let me instead phrase it in the positive. Let me tell you what I want:
+ I want to be a part of a church that struggles together to make sense of things; not one that presents one narrow set of doctrines as the only possible way to look at the world.
+ I want to be a part of a church that makes art and writes songs and dances and sings together; not one that is run like a corporation.
+ I want to be a part of a church in which content is more important than form.
+ I want to be part of a church that blesses human love expressed in sacred covenant; not one obsessed with forbidding gay people from being married.
+ I want to be a part of a church that reflects the racial diversity of the community around it; not one whose worship features “the most segregated hour of the week.”
+ I want to be part of a church that values and cultivates the spiritual gifts of women in the same ways, with the same leadership roles and corresponding salary levels, as men; not one in which sexism clouds every decision.
+ I want to be part of a church that celebrates cultural nuance and embraces the beauty of difference and distinction; not one in which anything out of the “ordinary” is inherently wrong and to be feared.
+ I want to be a part of a church in which scientific discovery is embraced, doubt and skepticism are encouraged, and intellect and reason are seen as complimentary to spiritual growth.
+ I want to be a part of a church that does not campaign for specific candidates, but is passionately engaged in politics for the sake of God’s justice.
+ I want to be a part of a church that, in word and deed and thought and attitude, represents Jesus Christ with love and grace and peace and justice and truth and life and light and wonder and meaning and hope and joy.

That’s all. That's the church I want. Pardon my selfishness, but this is my blog after all.

(And before you say, “That sounds like OUR church!” take a minute to think about the theology behind what you are saying. You are severing your particular congregation from the body as a whole. Your ecclesiology may need a bit of work.)

I want to do something new. I want the church to be something that I am afraid it is not, but certainly can be. Should be. Is supposed to be. MUST be, if we are to be faithful to God’s desires. It's obviously not about the church "I want;" it's about the church God wants.

Can such a church happen within existing structures? Can there be a 21st century reformation of the institutional church? Or are we too far gone, and the only hope is to create something altogether new?

I think the church is in a season of great potential energy. We’re right at the top of the hill, and we’ll either get over the hump and move ahead or be pulled back down the backside. I’d really like to be one of those giving it a nudge forward.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

"Look Down" - Our Fundamental Connectedness

“Look down, look down, don’t look them in the eye.
Look down, look down, you’re here until you die.”

One of the themes of the musical Les Miserables is this refrain – “Look down.” These are in fact the first words sung, by the prisoners on the chain gang. They are words of caution spoken among them, since to make eye contact with the guards would invite a harsh response. And metaphorically, to “look up” and express any hope for the future was dangerous. Hence:

“I know she’ll wait; I know that she’ll be true.
Look down, look down, they’ve all forgotten you.”

Later, the refrain is sung by the people of Paris.

“Look down and see the beggars at your feet.
Look down and show some mercy if you can.
Look down and see the sweepings of the street.
Look down, look down, upon your fellow man.”

This time around, the words “look down” are spoken by the poorest in the streets as a plea to the people of the upper class, asking them to “look down” with mercy and pity. To “look down” on another person metaphorically is to think they are “less than,” to consider oneself superior to them. And if superior, then disconnected.

Herein lies the ethical problem of arrogance. When one person or group of people think they are inherently superior to another, they are assuming a disconnect that does not in fact exist. The person or group that has self-identified as superior will likely not see it as such, but in fact the separation they assume is mythical.

Because of course, we are not in the slightest bit disconnected from one another. In fact, we are more intimately woven together than we realize. The Bible expresses this truth in many ways, including in the creation story itself. Human beings are connected to one another and to the rest of creation from the very beginning, even receiving divine instruction to watch over the other living creatures in the same manner and with the same care as the Creator would.

In the Christian Scriptures this profoundly interconnected unity is one of the most significant themes. The people are described as individual parts of one body. When one suffers, all suffer. When one rejoices, all rejoice. “You are one in Christ” is not a word of instruction; it is a description of reality. Over and over again, the Christian religion affirms our fundamental connectedness to one another, and to the world around us.

In stark contrast, so much of what we experience in the world encourages us to separate from one another. Backyard decks with six-foot privacy fences have replaced front porches. Fear and suspicion are our initial reactions to strangers, rather than friendly hospitality. Public interactions are defined by video screens and earbuds rather than eye contact, handshakes, and real-time conversations. “Look down” takes on a whole new meaning for people messing around on their phones instead of interacting with the world around them.

Beyond that, the ones we do connect with tend to be very, very similar to our selves, and thus very, very familiar. We live inside of bubbles we have created for ourselves. We only watch news channels we “agree” with. We know which people we can talk with and which we can’t, and know which topics to avoid altogether. We rarely read anything that is dramatically different from our own perspective on life.

We even tend to drive by the same routes to the same places over and over again!

To live isolated lives is incompatible with Christian teaching. Jesus is the ultimate barrier buster (as I've mentioned before) and those of us who follow him are supposed to be the same. Rather than exist in our familiar bubbles, fearful of and reticent to encounter anything outside of our own comfortable echo chambers, Jesus asks his followers to lovingly eliminate the barriers we so expertly place among ourselves.

Simply put, one cannot follow Jesus by “looking down.” We need to look up, look out, make eye contact, be aware of one another, truly see each other. And who knows, maybe we’ll see something new, maybe we’ll learn something, and maybe we’ll make a new friend or two in the process!

If the religion you practice allows you to “look down” on another, I don’t know what it is but it is not Christianity. If the teacher you follow is making you feel superior to another person or another group of people, I don’t know who it is but it is clearly not Jesus. If the group of people you belong to is comprised only of people who are exactly like you in every way, I don’t know what it is but it is definitely not the church.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

"The child's a Keller!" - Thoughts on Portraying Captain Keller in 'The Miracle Worker'

“Nonsense! The child is a Keller! She has the constitution of a goat!”

Thus Captain Arthur Keller introduces himself in the stage production of “The Miracle Worker,” the story of Helen Keller’s introduction to the teacher who illuminated her darkness, Anne Sullivan. I have the honor of portraying the Captain in Springfield Little Theatre’s current production.

This initial line reveals so much about Keller’s character, in just a few short words. In the scene, he has just been told by the family doctor that the doctor thought his daughter Helen may not live through the illness that ultimately took her sight and her hearing.

This is impossible for the Captain to believe. And why? Because “the child is a Keller!” It means something to be a Keller. It means strength. It means courage. It means pride. Being a Keller means overcoming obstacles, refusing to accept defeat, never backing down. Over and over again in the Captain’s relationships, this is evident.

Keller’s wife Kate carries a gentle, compassionate demeanor on a framework as hard as Alabama iron. She is his second wife, and many years younger than he. She balances his gruff bluster with calm composure, and yet is more than a match for his inner strength. She knows exactly how to utilize subtle humor, a tender touch, or a clever expression to defuse his fury at just the right moment. He values her as his wife because she exhibits a very “Keller-esque” strength of character.

The Captain has a son from his first marriage, whose name is James. James is a Keller through and through. He shares his father’s grief, even years after his mother died. Yet her death is a topic they avoid discussing, and as a result their relationship exhibits all the disappointment and pain that have built up over the years. However, Jimmie clearly has the Keller courage, which allows him to eventually stand up to his father and claim his own identity. The play ends before we witness the full resolution of their relationship, but the seeds are planted.

When the “inexperienced, half-blind, Yankee schoolgirl” Anne Sullivan enters his world, Captain Keller is initially the picture of southern hospitality, albeit overtly misogynistic. Anne’s unyielding determination quickly begins to infuriate him, as she refuses to acquiesce to his wishes. However it is precisely this stubbornness that eventually impresses the Captain deeply. They stand toe-to-toe on multiple occasions, and she matches his intensity every time. He sees in her a person who will not surrender, despite the odds, and he cannot help but come to respect her for that.

And then there’s Helen. She is in many ways the most “Keller” of all the Kellers. There is a moment just after she meets Anne Sullivan – Helen is carrying Anne’s suitcase and Anne reaches out to take it for herself. Helen quickly and aggressively slaps Anne’s hand away, thereby insisting that she can carry it on her own. This delights Captain Keller! “That’s my girl,” he thinks as he chuckles to himself. The Captain loves Helen dearly, but struggles to show it. It comes out in the little quiet ways that he spoils her, allowing her to have “the little things that make her happy.” There is always a special relationship between a father and a daughter, and this is true of the Captain’s relationship with Helen as well. He wants nothing more than to connect with her, to share something with her. And yet he is “as sensible to this affliction as anyone,” and has become begrudgingly resigned to the idea that there will always be a separation there, the thought of which is an unending source of anger and frustration for him.

When it comes to the Captain’s relationship with Helen, there is one line in the script that I really do not like. Speaking “to” Helen, I say, “You do not even know that I’m your father.” I understand the playwright’s point here, but I do not agree with the idea behind the line. I actually think there is a deep, unspoken connection between Helen and her father. They are very, very similar, and he admires her very, very much. He may not be equipped to express it well, but nevertheless it is there.

There is, on the flip side, a line the Captain speaks that I really, really love. “We don’t just keep our children safe – they keep us safe.” There is such a profound truth expressed here, one I have pondered deeply as I have worked on this show. A child keeps a parent safe by grounding them, by keeping them focused on what is truly important, by pulling them out of themselves and into the life of another person. A child gives a parent a level of accountability and trust that is hard to get anywhere else. And therefore, when there is a separation between child and parent, whatever that separation might be, it hurts deeply. It is unbearable.

As the Keller family interacts on stage these next two weekends, I hope that audience members will see what it means to be “a Keller.” As Anne Sullivan enters this family system and completely disrupts the entire order, I hope our audience is right there with us, feeling the disruption, the conflict, the anxiety, and ultimately the resolution of that breakthrough moment.

I also hope that we can tell this amazing story of strength and courage as well as we possibly can. It is a unique kind of challenge to tell a true story on stage, and a familiar one besides. Most of our audience will already know this story. I have enjoyed portraying the Captain for that very reason; it has given me a new perspective on and appreciation for the remarkable life of a true American hero, Helen Keller.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Designated Hitter Rule

“The designated hitter rule gives me hope for the future of the United Methodist Church.” - Megan Keller

I mean, this statement is brilliant, right? Come on! In one pithy phrase, Megan has included baseball, ecclesiology, and current events, mixed with a bit of social commentary and an edge of controversy. This is the finest single sentence I have read in a long, long time. Maybe ever!

Here’s what you need to know to appreciate the brilliance of this sentence:

First of all, you need to know that Major League Baseball has two subdivisions, the National League and the American League, and they play by different rules. Namely, the National League allows the disgusting aberration of pitchers batting ... oh er, I mean … the National League game is “more pure” because all the players bat. Whereas the American League allows for teams to utilize a “designated hitter,” whose one job is basically to hit glorious, majestic home runs that make people cheer and make the game more enjoyable for everyone … hm, eep, I mean … the American League has a player whose only role is to hit, and who is “designated” to do so on behalf of the pitcher who uses the time to rest in the dugout.

I am being facetious to make my larger point, obviously. I find it rather amusing, though there are some who take the matter quite seriously. My larger point is that teams in the National League and in the American League are a part of Major League Baseball, despite the fact that they play baseball by different rules.

The second thing you need to know to appreciate the genius of Megan’s sentence is that the United Methodist Church is currently in a bit of a tizzy over allowing gay people to get married and ordained, or not. There’s a Commission working now on a proposal they will then bring to a General Conference meeting in February of 2019, at which point some decision will be made, at which point United Methodists around the world will have to decide what to do next.

Will we come up with some variation on the “designated hitter rule” to apply to the United Methodist Church? Some way to be a part of the same league, even if we may play by slightly different rules? A way for some pastors to marry any and all couples, while some would marry only opposite-gender couples, as they chose? A way for some bishops to ordain people without considering sexual orientation, while others would?

I am a “marriage equality” pastor. I have a good friend and colleague down the street who is a “traditional marriage” pastor. We are both United Methodist pastors doing all we can to be faithful to the call of Jesus Christ for ourselves personally and for the churches and the communities we serve. I have the utmost respect for his ministry, and I know that the feeling is mutual.

Can we not come up with some way for us to both be United Methodists? I’d like to be allowed by my denomination to officiate at any wedding ceremony I deem appropriate. I’d like for my friend down the way to be afforded the same opportunity.

People on the extreme left won’t like it because, “Ew, pitchers batting!” People on the extreme right won’t like it because, “Purity of the game!” But I’m pretty sure most of us in the big, diverse middle can figure it out. Most of us can be okay with individual pastors and individual conferences doing ministry in particular ways that suit particular social contexts. I have actually had an email exchange with the pastor friend in question, posing that very idea. We are on the same page.

I don’t know exactly what it would look like. It would probably get confusing every so often. Yes, it would require compromise, which is hard for everyone. But like Megan said, there's a spark of hope here, isn't there?

They figured out how to do it in MLB; surely we can figure it out in the UMC.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Miriam's Revenge - October 8, 2017 Sermon

I love the story of Miriam! Miriam, Moses’s big sister, given the most important babysitting gig of all time, sees her baby brother picked up out of his basket by no less than the princess of Egypt. What does she do?
She is at a definite disadvantage, remember. Her people, the Hebrew people, are slaves in Egypt. They are powerless and subject to the whims of the Pharaoh’s oppressive decrees. The one in force was that every newly born Hebrew boy was to be thrown immediately into the Nile River and drowned.
And there was her brother, floating in his basket on the turbulent river, settled in among the reeds, in open defiance of Pharaoh himself. His very life was a blatant act of protest against an unjust government policy.
And the one who sees him and picks him up, of ALL people it might be, was the daughter of the man who thought of, wrote, and is ultimately responsible for enforcing the decree.
So what does Miriam do?
She redefines the conversation. She reframes the parameters of power.
She. Takes. Charge.
She could have said, “Hey! You can’t do that!”
She could have said, “Hey! That’s my brother!”
Who knows what the results would have been? If that would have changed the outcome at all, or perhaps made matters even worse? People in power tend to dig in their heels when they are challenged directly, even if the challenge makes complete sense. A direct challenge to the princess, in public no less, would not have gone over well. The princess, in her attempt to save face and affirm her control of the situation, would very likely have dismissed Miriam for the powerless, oppressed, enslaved little Hebrew girl that she was.
But lo and behold, the princess was not the one with the power here. True power resides in the ability to frame the conversation in the first place. True power is not winning or losing an argument, it is defining the terms of the argument before it even starts.
Which is exactly what Miriam does.
“How can I turn this situation around so that my baby brother is not only safe, but maybe even gets to come home with me again?” she thought. And inspiration struck. A brilliant idea emerged in her clever mind, and idea that was just crazy enough to work.
But, having the idea is one thing. Implementing it is another. To do so would require a great deal of courage. She would have to take an enormous personal risk in order to pull this off. She would be risking her safety and the safety of her family as well.
Digging deep, she walked up to the princess, who was looking into Moses’s basket and talking with her servants about him. As Miriam approached, she heard the princess say, “He must be one of the Hebrew babies, I suppose.”
This was Miriam’s opening. Looking up boldly into the eyes of the princess, she made an offer. “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to be a nurse for him?” she asked.
Not a challenge, then. Not a confrontation. In one clever question, Miriam redefined the conversation altogether. They were not speaking about what the princess could or could not do; they were not speaking about the particular identity of the as yet unnamed baby; they were not participating in debate and dialogue about the issues of the day.
Miriam deftly and courageously took the princess’s power away from her and used it against her. “You are in charge here,” Miriam’s subtext said. “And I, your humble servant, want to make your life easier by finding a suitable caretaker for your new baby.”
The princess was completely duped by the plan, and agreed … hook, line, and sinker.
Miriam ran home as fast as she was able, grabbed her mother, and returned to the princess.
And then, making the story even more remarkable, the princess not only gives baby Moses back to his mother, thereby allowing him to stay alive, but she actually offered to pay for the child’s care.
So … Moses lives. Moses’s mother gets to raise him. AND she gets paid for it as well.
All because of one clever, courageous girl’s ability to completely redefine the conversation, to reframe the parameters of power, and empowered by God, take charge.

Once again we gather together on a Sunday morning following a mass shooting in our nation. This pattern has become familiar, and that familiarity is unsettling. We ought never to become familiar with violence of the type unleashed in Las Vegas, Nevada last Sunday evening. And yet, here we are again.
And as it happens, this Sunday is “Children’s Sunday” here at Campbell, an annual tradition by which we celebrate the youngest members of our congregation, their work, their faithfulness, and their immeasurable contributions to this congregation’s mission and ministry.
Obviously, this date was chosen for “Children’s Sunday” many weeks ago. I know that there are people here today who would rather we simply talk about how awesome our kids are and how bright the future is and how hopeful we ought to be. I know there are people here today who want to hear that message, because I do. I would rather not have to think about the terror of last Sunday evening in Las Vegas, and the shock, grief, and heartache that it caused.
But not to address it would not be faithful. Some preachers will tell you that God has “laid it on my heart” to say such and so. I have no idea what that actually means, but I do have a sense that I need to say something today. Something important and significant. And if that means that God “laid it on my heart” then I guess that’s that.
What I feel like I need to say today is not so much about the event of last Sunday, as about the days that have followed it. It’s about our “conversation.” The social environment in which we live. Our community. Our nation.
It is simply this: We need to pay attention to who is defining the conversation.
The one who defines the conversation itself is the one with the power. It’s not about who “wins” or “loses” the argument, it’s about who sets the terms of the argument in the first place.

The one who defines the conversation is the one who defines the parameters of power. And that one is rarely a public figure, by the way. Rarely a politician or an athlete or an actor or a TV preacher. People who define the terms of the conversation stay out of sight, under the surface, in the shadows. And they like it there.

I’d like to be very blunt, very honest about something. I suppose I’ll get emails this week about “being too political.” That’s fine - abryan@campbellumc.org - go ahead and send them. I have prayed about this, thought about it, wrestled with it, and here I am. “Too political” or not, you all know me and I’m happy to have a cup of coffee with you this week and talk about it face to face. So here it is.

We are not a “divided” nation. We are a “polarized” nation. It does not seem to me that we are divided, meaning that half of us think one thing and half of us another. It seems to me that we are polarized, meaning that there are relatively small minorities on both “ends” of the spectrum and a large majority in the center. I find this to be true in many issues, and one of those is when it comes to guns.
There is an extreme pole that wants to repeal the second amendment. That is true. Those people exist. And there is an extreme pole that wants any and all guns to be accessible to any and all people. That is also true.
Here’s the thing, if you were to add up the “no guns for no people” group and the “all guns for all people” group, they would be a minority. A significant minority. The vast majority of us are reasonable and rational people that can actually talk about things with one another. Whether it is me, who doesn’t like guns and has never even picked one up let alone fired one, or someone else who collects them, hunts with them, keeps them clean, and stores them safely, both of us could be a part of this reasonable middle group. And both of us would agree that no, we should not repeal the second amendment and also that yes, there should be reasonable limits on what kind and how many guns should be allowed to be owned and used by qualified, licensed, responsible people.
However, if you listen to how the conversation is framed, you would think there are only two possible ways to think about it - either “no guns for no people” or “all guns for all people.” That’s the way our “national conversation” has been discussed. But it is just not true! It isn’t reality!
And so the question is - Who is framing the conversation that way? Maybe that’s where we need to spend some time and energy. Who benefits from keeping us at each other’s throats over issues that aren’t really issues in the first place? That is where the power resides, after all. And they stay hidden, under the surface, in the shadows.
And maybe some different, deeper, and more Christ-like questions are - How can we REFRAME the conversation?
How can we resist getting sucked into fearful, hateful, unhelpful confrontations, elaborately choreographed by someone we will never ever see?
How can we redefine the parameters of power?
How can we take charge of the moment on behalf of today’s babies floating in their baskets, to speak a word to the unjust and oppressive decrees of our day?
For we know that true power resides with God, whose reign is announced and embodied in Jesus, and brought to life in the world by the Holy Spirit.

These are not an easy questions to answer. Doing so required of Miriam not only a great deal of cleverness, but also a amazing and inspiring courage. Miriam was living with three strikes already against her: a Hebrew, a child, and a girl. She is an unlikely hero indeed. But it is her story, her example that we can follow today as well.
For the sake of the children we celebrate today, we have to find a way to reframe the conversation so that it aligns more closely with the priorities of the Reign of God, as described and defined in the Holy Scriptures. Peace. Justice. Hope. Love. And like Miriam’s example of scripture, maybe today’s children have something to teach us about how we might do so.
Children have not yet been taught that the world is polarized. Or divided. Children understand that people see things differently, that people are different from one another. And children actually like it that way! Too much sameness and children get bored, right?
Maybe that is a part of what gave Miriam the cleverness and courage to pull off the greatest babysitting feat of all time! It’s not coincidence that Miriam was down by the river, not her mother. Would her mother have even thought of such a plan? And if she had, would she have had the courage to pull it off?
Maybe we ought to look towards our children for guidance through these turbulent times. Not to put pressure on them as potential saviors of the world, but rather that they might teach us how to reframe our conversations, how to reframe our actions, how to reframe our lives according to God’s own purposes.

And maybe, if we do, maybe just maybe the world will begin to change, for God’s sake. It could happen! After all, as Miriam showed us, never underestimate a clever, courageous child.