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.

the-labours-of-alexander-1950 Rene Magritte

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.

Who Speaks for Us

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embarrassed

Red Cups.

Complete absurdity.  Nothing more need be said.

Yet so much is being said.  Somebody started this inane discussion, a whole bunch of other people joined in, and now the memes are flying, the progressives are denying, the “victims” are crying…and I’m dying.  At least I feel like I am, or kind of would like to, because this is so bloody humiliating.

So let me start here:  I never said that Christmas is under attack.  I’ve never questioned your right to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  I’m okay with Starbucks serving their coffee in whatever cups they choose.  I have no say in their business and want no say in their business.  I would certainly number myself among those who believe that $5 could go toward feeding a starving child or protecting a battered mom, and I put myself squarely in the camp of those who believe we should invest our money in caring for those who were not born into the richest 6% on the planet because of what Jesus says.

I am so gut-wrenchingly weary of seeing these arguments pop up.  I truly hate them.  I don’t hate the people who start them, but that is an act of will and the work of God’s Spirit.

I believe knowing God’s love transforms us.  I’ve seen wrecked, wretched lives become something beautiful because Jesus redeems what we’ve trashed, including–maybe especially–ourselves.  As Bono sings about Grace, she “travels outside of karma.”   We don’t just get what we deserve or what we have coming to us.  Thank God.

If we could be known as the people whose wrecked lives were salvaged, I would be thrilled.  If we followed Pope Francis’s example and became known for our concern and action on behalf of the poor, I would be ecstatic.  Heck, if we could just be known as the folks who are kind to our neighbors, go out of our way to help people when they move and always show up in emergencies, I would say the Lord’s Prayer is getting answered (the “thy will be done” part).

But “we” keep making an ass of our collective selves.  We keep rallying behind causes that, to my way of thinking, have less than nothing to do with what Jesus calls us to (“Love one another as I have loved you”, “Love God,” “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a reasonable 15-word summary).  I cannot, for the life of me, imagine how we’re thinking that this will encourage people to experience God’s delight in them or to believe that there is hope beyond the mess that they’ve made of their lives.

“I’m trapped in this gambling addiction, I spent our rent money–again–after my wife gave me the ultimatum if I don’t change this time she’ll divorce me and fight me to the death for custody of our children.  Oh, wait, Christians are upset about how a multinational is decorating their disposable paper cups and how Target markets its toys–I see the Light!”mystery-person-full

So who speaks for us?  Who gets to set the popular understanding for what we believe, how we live, what we want people to know about us?   We’re not really a “keep it to ourselves” community, since Jesus said not to hide our light under a laundry hamper.  I know, there are many folks who dislike that specific characteristic, that we feel so compelled to talk about what we believe and make sure others know, in case they want to join in.  But I’m convinced that if what we couldn’t keep to ourselves was our desire to care for abandoned babies and poor, lonely women dying in nursing homes, ordinary folks wouldn’t feel quite so ticked off.  And if they did, I could reasonably let myself say (to myself), “That might be their problem.  They may even feel a little nipped of conscience.”  If people freaked out over our relentless action on behalf of kids who drink polluted water and breathe noxious fumes, I could conclude that those people, not we, have the problem.

You know what?  There are people who give themselves tirelessly to helping kids drink clean water.  I’ve met them.  I know people, as friends, who fight against child trafficking in the world, from here in Nicaragua to Thailand to in the U.S. where we’re tempted to cover our eyes and pretend it’s not our problem.  I have beloved friends who have spent their adult lives in South Central Los Angeles, in what many would call “the hood” or “Compton” or “the ghetto.”  They fight for better education for the kids there, they’ve helped shut down a liquor store/brothel/drug den, they’ve run a tutoring center for the past 20 years.

I would nominate these folks as the ones who should speak for Christians.  I know they would kick me in the shins for saying this, because they don’t want the weight of such responsibility, but honestly, they’ve earned it.  They are loving, grace-spreading people who attract others and rally the neighbors to their cause–of making the neighborhood a safer place for everyone.  Scandalous, huh?  There are, indeed, those who dislike my friends and oppose their work…because these campaigns threaten profits to slumlords and worse.  Hmm.  That might be their problem.

You know and I know that media, plural, also run for-profit businesses based on viewers, advertisers, airtime, views, clicks, and again advertisers.  Though some newspapers, news programs and web sites might hope to help educate and inform the public and do that fifth estate thing, the overwhelming majority, in terms of dollars and audience, pursue their bottom line through whatever attracts attention.  Sex always sells.  People love scandals.  Folks love to boo the bad guys or watch the mighty stumble and face-plant in mud.  Most desire to see idiots make asses of themselves.  They want a common enemy.  These are all base motives, and every large media outlet caters to all of these, in their own way.

Enough generalizations.  Someone is reporting this stupid story.  Someone can’t resist–won’t miss out on the profits generated by the viewership from–everything the Westboro Baptist Church does.  Do those reporting desire to make Christianity look stupid?  Perhaps.  I suspect for some that motive is present in the mix, especially if it can go hand-in-hand with getting higher ratings/ making more money for their business.

So yes, we can’t have this discussion without acknowledging that how Christianity is reported in the news and by whom figures large in answering who appears to speak for us.

But I expect profit-seeking businesses to pursue profitable strategies.  I may dislike their approach and question their moral character; I am not surprised that they do what they do.

On the other hand, I am still surprised and appalled when people who read from the same main book I read and talk to the same Divine Being I’m praying to conclude we should scream and abuse and persecute and hoard, in the name of Jesus.  If reporters are twisting our words, shame on them.  If we speak hatred and fear-mongering, more than shame on us.  We are making Jesus out to be the un-grace in the world.  That just sucks.

When the religious leaders of Jesus’ day twisted the message and turned people away from the God Jesus depicted in Luke chapter fifteen–the one who ran down the road to hold his pig feces-reeking son and welcome him back without rebuke for self-destructive choices–Jesus called them out in the most aggressive manner.  He called them hypocrites, like 19 times.  He called them “children of hell.” He challenged them to change by pointing to who God really was and pulling back the curtain on the sham they were making of loving God and neighbor.

I know we’re going to have some Christians who pull hypocritical stunts.  I lived through the Bakers and Swaggart fiasco.  I don’t think I’m holier than them, but I don’t want them speaking for Jesus or representing his followers to the public, either.  They claimed those positions and that went badly.

I don’t want the role, either, a lot of the time.  I know my own hypocrisy and inconsistencies…or at least a bunch of them.  I seem to discover new ones every other day.

But the truth is, to a small degree I do have this role.  I preach.  I mentor teens and young adults.  I teach the Bible.  I coach.  I live this faith in public.  I write about who I think God is and how he feels about you and me.

It’s a shared responsibility.  Everyone who wakes up in the morning and tells people, “Yeah, I’m a Jesus follower,” contributes to the message.

If that’s true, what do we want to say?  What are the most important points we’d like to communicate?  How do we represent our cause to the men and women and girls and boys who don’t know what we’re talking about?  How do you want to introduce that gambling addict to the source of your hope?  What is the best way to express to the battered women who live in our barrio that God is real and loves them and wants better for them?

I have these suggestions:

PAY ATTENTION TO HOW WE SOUND.

Sometimes the mockery we receive is not persecution; it’s that we have said stupid things that make us look ridiculous.  If you live inside a sub-culture of only Christians, remember other people don’t agree with our assumptions and don’t know our lingo.

HOW WE TALK ABOUT OUR FAITH IS AS IMPORTANT AS WHAT WE SAY ABOUT IT.

People who don’t believe in Jesus aren’t idiots.  People who reject Christianity aren’t all out to get us.  When everyone reads everyone else’s posts and comments, making belligerent comments because you “know the truth” and someone else doesn’t (or doesn’t agree with your interpretation of it) communicates un-grace.

STOP SAYING STUPID STUFF  KEEP THE FOCUS ON JESUS’ MAIN THEMES

Jesus explained his critique, “For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”  You’re giving 10% of your kitchen spices but ignoring justice, mercy and faith.  If God is the father whom Jesus describes, and that’s the love I want people to experience, then how do I convey in my words and actions a God who broke down the dividing wall, the hostility between groups of people who despised each other?  God is reconciling people to himself and you are his message of reconciliation.  You are.

TELL PEOPLE THAT YOU ARE MESSED UP AND GOD LOVES YOU ANYWAY!  

You are.  He does.  That’s the best news you have.

They may laugh at you or judge you for your sins and flaws and weaknesses…but that won’t kill you and it may help them see God’s redemption in your life.

You may be the one who speaks for us.

Taken in The Rehearsal Factory, Toronto, ON @ October 11, 2007