Fighting for Hope: the Siren of Cynicism

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I’m back from a few days away. Not sure whether you missed reading this or appreciated the break.  I’m starting to get the rhythm of writing it; I feel out of sync when I go too long without posting anything.

There’s a lot going on at Christmas.  For some people, it’s the worst time of the year, when they (or you) are forced to remember what’s been lost.  For others, it’s the time they (or you) look forward to most, counting down from mid-October, soaking up the season, giving and getting and swinging and singing along to every carol.

When people are happy and you can’t look away, when you feel you have to accept the invitations and then make small talk and be of good cheer when it’s all ashes in your mouth and a lump in your chest, when the bonus five pounds aren’t a well-earned consequence of your celebration but an attempt to feel something else…then mostly you just want it to be over.  Screw this.  Then it is over for another year, and you feel bad for wishing the season of joy away, and bad about yourself for having needed to, and could we please just get on with gray January and let life go back to “normal,” sucky as it is?

That’s not my holidays this year, but I’ve been there.  We lived through a string of about 10 months in which every birthday, anniversary, holiday and three-day weekend ended up spent in the hospital with a sick baby.  I have friends who are living this bad dream right now, and it motivates me to pray for them when I read their latest crappy news and remember living in that tunnel.

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Rene Magritte “The Labours of Alexander,” 1950

So now I’m going to throw a curveball:  Don’t give in to cynicism.

There are plenty of reasons to.  There are more than enough reasons to.  It’s valid to suffer depression during the holidays, and I mean even if you don’t have any big, clear external reason.  If you’re depressed, you’re depressed; feeling bad about yourself for feeling bad is the nastiest sinkhole available.

But taking the step into cynicism is not the way out.  The struggle with depression is always valid because it’s not our choice and most of us would trade in a millisecond with those who want to explain to us how to cheer up.  Cynicism is different than depression.  Depression is a physiological reaction, a biochemical issue with neurotransmitters in the brain, sometimes triggered by an external event, sometimes caused by an internal imbalance.  Cynicism is a decision.  Cynicism is a choice.

Cynicism means thinking the worst of others, of the world, of our future.  Cynicism is the view that things are bad now, but just wait…they’ll get worse.  Cynics know better than to hope for change, much less get their hands dirty trying to help it along.

There are reasons for cynicism.  Politics becoming increasingly hateful and corrupt, every new scandal, the blatant lies revealed and still nothing changing, can lead us to believe there is no hope.  Every article I read about police shootings, unarmed people being killed in cold blood by strangers who have carefully planned their slaughter, the pictures of Syrian refugees dying–almost always accompanied by comments that “we” are better off having them die far away than get to come here and blow up our children, these are temptations for me to say “(*&#(&@$!!!(@#(&8!#%@# the whole thing!”

But I believe cynicism is the cowardly way out. Yes, it’s hard to hope.  It’s costly to decide that things could be better and to continue looking for the good happening around us.  It takes courage to try to be part of making the world better.

I fight cynicism.  Honestly, the world sucks. I mean, it’s awful.  Children are starving to death and companies are selling their souls, poisoning water supplies and covering it up so they don’t have to pay to clean up and cut into shareholder profits.  I tend to make generalizations here, rather than reporting specifics, because I have no interest in getting bogged down in debates that obscure whatever point I’m trying to make.  But for example, someone in Houston, reportedly “Christian extremists,” set a mosque on fire on Christmas Day.  My place in the world is to help people know that God loves them (and you!) and delights in them (and still you!); this God I believe in tells us to love the poor, love our enemies, pray for people who hate and hurt us, and learn to love ourselves.  I hope they weren’t Christians who burned that mosque; I hope they don’t claim to follow Jesus and take credit for that atrocity.

There are some Christians who drive me insane.  I don’t think they show grace to others in how they live, they are very judgmental and highly controlling.  They are not the image of God’s love that I’m hoping people will see. They don’t set mosques on fire.  But the way they experience the God who is real in my life and the basis on which they seem to connect to that God leave me baffled.

At this point, I’m supposed to remind you that I am also some people’s worst-case representative of Jesus Christ.  And I suppose that’s true (there is a comment section, after all).  But my battle with cynicism isn’t over me.  My battle with discouragement is over me, over my hypocrisy and inconsistency and how I do the very thing I hate, while the thing I want to do, I do not do.  Yet I know I’m trying, and I’m trying in the right direction.  That, at least, I can say with confidence.  I’m erring on the side of Grace.

In the face of all this, it would be easier–it is the path of least resistance–to decide that there simply isn’t enough ground for hope, there aren’t enough people working for the good, God isn’t answering our prayers for change and things just keep getting worse, and therefore wisdom dictates that we hunker down, circle the wagons, and just narrow the Ark down to the folks like us who should make the cut.  Often cynicism masquerades as wisdom.

This is what I’ve got for you:  four reasons and a plea.


 

Reason One: There are a whole lot more people out there doing good than you realize.

They aren’t making headlines.  They aren’t seeking headlines.  They’re too busy investing their lives in making this sucky world better.  Some of them–probably most of them–have more courage than we can imagine, because they are looking through wide open eyes at how bad things really are, and still continuing to work to make changes.

A friend of a friend, whom I admire greatly, has worked for years on Native American reservations and now works in Washington D.C. to bring political attention to Native American issues. If there is ANY concern in all of U.S. culture or history that would justify cynicism and a jaded “screw you,” it is our nation’s genocide that we refuse even to acknowledge.  It’s bizarrely considered inappropriate and even unpatriotic to mention our ancestors’ (and, in the political realm, our) treatment of Native Americans.  Mark Charles remains hopeful and works for God’s healing and conciliation among the people of our nation.  If you have the courage, read Mark’s post on “The Doctrine of Discovery.”  It’s an education.

Two of my favorite people in the world have lived for the past 20 years in South Central Los Angeles, working for God’s transformation of their neighborhood.  They’ve defeated brothels and drug dens fronting as liquor stores, they’ve helped create celebrations and gatherings of their neighbors, they are currently fighting to stop a drilling site that is poisoning children in their community, and in all this they’ve been raising their family.  Unless you’re lucky like me, you don’t know Richard and Anna.  But they’re faithful and amazing and about as un-self-righteous as humanly possible.

A dear brother of mine, Jason, is an author.  He’s been a teacher and had a great impact on many young people.  He’s just completed his seminary degree.  He seeks to do good through writing fantasy novels.  There are endless options for how we can pitch in with our abilities.


 

Reason Two: Small things matter.

Today I preached on the passage in which the disciples try to stop people from bringing their children and babies for Jesus to bless them.   Those disciples “knew” that Jesus had more important things to do then lay his hands on babies’ heads.  Except he didn’t.  Except he made a point of correcting them and explaining that children should be allowed to come to him and not turned away.  God thinks children matter.  God thinks that giving a child a blessing, a loving touch, a moment of attention, matters enough to stop everything else.  If you don’t enter the kingdom of God as a child, Jesus says, you’ll never enter it.  Children matter.  Small moments of focused attention matter.

The principle at work here: it’s not really up to us to decide if the thing we’re doing is “enough.”  Working on “big things” or “small things” is in the eye of a Beholder far beyond us.  People matter, children matter, everyone God has created in His image matters to him, and therefore to us.


 

Reason Three: Christianity is like the worst possible world view to pursue reasoned cynicism.

You want to study Nietzsche or Camus, you can get the red carpet rolled out for you and a well-beyond-gentle nudge to die in the land of Cynics.  Hemingway can’t get you there fast enough for his satisfaction(“Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name…”).  If you believe everything we experience is a vale of tears, then you might feel vindicated in your dark view of reality.  But for the belief system that roots everything in conquering death after its deity has died, we simply can’t base negative conclusions on how things are going now.  Jesus declared a kingdom that turns the world’s values upside down, then triumphs over the world’s power through resurrection.  There is no point at which it is reasonable to say, “This isn’t working.”  Peter went back to fishing and the women showed up only to anoint the dead man’s body.  Then, then the angel asks “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?”

I could spend this whole blog piling up the reasons why trying to make any difference in the world is hopeless in the face of staggering numbers and horrific suffering.  From a Christian perspective, that only means that the stage is set for God to restore what is broken in His creation and redeem the suffering and tragedy that His creatures have caused one another.  Resurrection trumps.  Period.


 

Reason Four: God will bring justice, Jesus insists, through continuous, unrelenting prayer.

Jesus taught that the widow who was being denied justice cried louder for it, and eventually she wore out the judge overseeing her case.  He wasn’t moved by pity or compassion or the reawakening of a deep sense of justice; he just got worn down by her continuous demands.  Yet this is the model Jesus presents when he says, “Pray and you will get what you ask.  Knock and God will open the door for you, seek and you’re gonna find what you’re looking for.”  Jesus asks what sounds like a rhetorical question, “Will God delay long in bringing justice to his beloved who cry to him day and night?”  He answers, “I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”  “But,” Jesus concludes, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

God will bring justice, Jesus insists, through continuous, unrelenting prayer.  I know that’s not always easy for us who seek justice to believe:  I’m not seeing much happening.  Does God really change things according to our pleas? Didn’t God already know what he was planning do do?  Did Moses honestly change God’s mind when Moses interceded for Israel?  Intellectually, I can tell you that’s hard to wrap my head around, but Exodus gives us that story and Jesus says, “Ask and you shall receive.”  He even makes the point that if imperfect, sinful parents know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more the perfect, loving Heavenly Father would give of his Holy Spirit.

 

There are many people already at work, doing great and small things that we can’t accurately measure but that advance his kingdom, God’s work cannot be stopped even by death but will always triumph through resurrection, and prayer is the greatest means of changing what looks unchangeable.

 


A Plea

We need you to throw in the gifts you have.  I need you to ante up. It’s easy to get discouraged and convince ourselves that our little parts don’t really add up to anything measurable.  Of course I would love to see you invest in the work in Nicaragua.  But when I say “I need you,” I mean that it helps me remain hopeful and encouraged when I see that you are finding a way that works for you.  When you refuse to let the lies and the propaganda and the spin get you down and instead insist on doing what must be done and that you can do–people see.  I see.  Doing the right thing all alone is often too hard to sustain, even when one’s faith is strong.  And once again, Christianity has wired into its DNA the answer: we exist in community, not as autonomous individuals.  We have analogies, like being different parts of the same body, to explain our roles and how we must work together. If you’re not in, then our body is crippled.
Hope is hard.  Cynicism is easy.  Giving up is simple, especially because it offers an opening for the selfishness that always taunts and lures:  “Everyone else is looking out for themselves, why aren’t you?  Fool.  You’re being generous while everyone else is getting all they can.”

Cynicism is also cowardly.  It asks no courage and lets us believe we are savvy while we hide.

Our world needs grace and it needs resurrection.

God loves to bring people into the dance, and the dance needs more partners; our world needs you.

Madeleine L’engle, Me, and Quilts, but Mostly Quilts.

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I saw Madeleine L’Engle speak at my seminary. She was one of my heroes. I love her writing, both for children and for adults, and I think Walking on Water is the best expression of the intersection between faith and art that I have ever read. She is in my canon with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Henri Nouwen, and Frederich Buechner.

Her address challenged many of us. She talked about Jesus the Peacemaker and how we need to be Peacemakers with him. She challenged us to use our knowledge to help people to see this Jesus. I remember that some of her statements likely ruffled feathers and maybe even crossed some people’s lines of how they understood orthodoxy.

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Afterward, the seminary held a reception for her. I was in my late twenties, struggling through my peculiar mixture of giftedness and brokenness. I had loved her writing since fourth grade, when I read A Wrinkle in Time and she ripped open my longing for other worlds and magical beings that aren’t magical but supernatural. We all had punch and cake and we got to mill about, chatting with one another over what she had said to us, while Ms. L’Engle sat right in the middle and talked to people. I walked toward her, grappling with my insecurities, knowing I would look stupid if I tried to say anything and feel stupid and regretful if I didn’t.

She wasn’t really talking to anyone else when I approached, just greeting people as they paid their respects.  I sidled over and looked out of the corner of my eye but couldn’t make myself go up to her. Then a woman came over whom Ms. L’engle greeted as an old friend.

“I brought the pictures of the quilts,” the woman declared.

“Oh, good,” my hero responded, sounding excited.

Her friend proceeded to turn through a photo album, very slowly, describing each quilt in what sounded to me to be exhaustive detail. I stood there for perhaps ten minutes, willing this woman to go away, praying for her to stop talking about her stinking quilts so that I could muster my courage and give Madeleine L’Engle my regards, my homage, some expression of how much her writing had inspired me and how her life continued to challenge me. But they went on talking about quilts: trivial, superfluous, immaterial compared with the matters of which Ms. L’Engle had just spoken, and about which I was studying in seminary. We were learning about God’s Word and how to impact the World, and I wanted to talk to my hero about these things. I wanted to tell her that I, too, longed to be a writer, which was probably the most terrifying thing of all. Certainly, aspiring writers and sycophants must have said this to her constantly, and it sounded both clichéd and absurd (I hadn’t published anything); nevertheless, I felt it would somehow force me to push forward and validate my claim if I could speak these words aloud to her. To Madeleine L’Engle!

But she kept talking about quilts. The longer I stood there, the more ridiculous and pathetic I felt, until finally I left, mentally scourging myself with every step. But I didn’t solely blame myself. I reviled this woman and her bloody quilts. Who cares about quilts?

Madeleine L’Engle cared about quilts.

This woman whom I beatified, though I didn’t know anything about her beyond her writing, enjoyed seeing these pictures of quilts. I didn’t miss my one opportunity to speak to her because of quilts; I missed it because I felt insecure, which caused me too much discomfort, so I hid behind anger and directed that anger at quilts.

I later wrote her a letter of admiration that I never sent. Then, several years back, I read about her death.

I wish I had spoken to her, but really, I couldn’t.  I couldn’t speak to her because, with all I was learning about hermeneutics and narrative criticism and Greek syntax, and in spite of her challenge to be a Peacemaker, I had not yet found my own peace and I failed to apply “love your neighbor as yourself.” I failed to respect that my neighbor might have different interests than mine. I missed that, legitimately, she might be a different person than I had projected; she might be a different person than me.

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Non-existent picture of Mike talking with Madeleine L’Engle.