Cynics and skeptics welcome
I used to pass out a flyer on Temple’s campus that assured the liberal arts students, who I generally hung around, that cynics and skeptics were welcome among us. Circle of Hope has done a pretty wonderful job of collecting burned-out Evangelicals, people who are doubters, skeptics, and cynical about the whole thing. I’ve always wanted to create a safe place for people like that, and it may have been self-serving, since I’m not so far off from that. Admittedly though, I do want to create an environment where we can be cynical about our cynicism, where we are free to doubt our doubt too.
We’re a safe place for everyone, but we are moving toward transformation, not just tolerating where we’ve been or who we’ve been. Jesus is making all things new among us, and that hope in that promise is that we can all be made new, taken the best from our pasts without being shackled to the worst of it. People should be skeptical of us if we aren’t living out the authentic Gospel, but at the same time, we probably won’t be a safe place for you if you can’t own your dignity and follow Jesus. I strive to be all things to all people, but I can’t keep you safe from Jesus. In fact, I can only say that you will be saved in Jesus.
Be careful that your cynicism doesn’t drown out new seeds of faith
There is safety to express your doubt and your skepticism among us. And I want to admit that it takes a lot of courage to do so in certain settings. To offer a counter-narrative to the dominant narratives around us, even if they sound cynical, takes some courage. I will say, though, that we need to be careful that our deconstruction of the problems in the church don’t hurt the delicate faith of others, too. They might hurt yours from blossoming as well.
While it can take some courage to express negativity, it doesn’t always or usually even. Circle of Hope has been a safe place for people to express discontent, and I’m happy for that. It is easier to hate than to love. It is easier to criticize than to uplift. It’s easier to tear down than it is to build; easy to catch the plague and spew negativity. You might think the whole world is ending when Trump threatens Iran. You might think that your whole world is ending because your marriage is, or maybe your parents’ marriage is. Maybe it’s because your business is failing or you dropped out of graduate school; or your career changed at a time you never expected it to. Or maybe because someone slashed your tires, or your neighborhood is the center of the opioid epidemic. There is no shortage of negativity and bad stories.
In those moments, we can suffer and grieve together. Remember that the Lord promised us trouble in this world, and he said if it hated him, it would hate us. But take heart, our Lord has overcome the world. The trouble that finds you and the trouble that you see isn’t the end of the story. Let’s keep sharing good news together, so that we can share the Good News together.
“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.”—John 15:18
“I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”—John 17:33
Don’t let your grief overtake you, don’t let your cynicism oppress you, see the little seeds of faith that are growing. Delicately water those seeds, knowing that a deluge of negativity might sweep them away. Jesus reserved his harshest words for believers who clumsily trample on seedlings. If you feel justified in doubt or rage, tread carefully. You might even be doing damage to your own little seeds of faith. Let them grow too.
Five suggestions for what to do when the despair overtakes you
Knowing that it might be easy to embrace the negativity in a world full of darkness, here are a few suggestions for what to do when the world is too hard to bear and you need a breath of fresh air.
1. Take a retreat.
That one worked for me last week when I took my quarterly retreat. I love going up to the Franciscan Hermitages in Aston and it’s been a tradition of mine since before I became a pastor. That space has sentimental significance to me. It’s amazing how you can fall in love with a space and forget all of its shortcomings. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about here. Find regular rest that allows you to love what isn’t always loveable, to become friends with your limits. The retreat creates space for you to be with God and to be at peace with all of the limits you have, the frustrations around you. In your silence and solitude, you may find an inner peace that sustains you through the worst seasons of your life without your faith being a casualty.
2. Make a new friend.
I am always inspired when I meet someone new. Now, I’m kind of programmed to meet someone new as a matter of personality, but I know not everyone is. But I’m not just speaking to extraverts who get super jazzed about making a new connection. A new friend doesn’t have to energize you in order for them to help you through your despair. For me, listening to someone new gives me a new perspective on my life. Maybe their problems contextualize mine, or maybe their take on mine help me see them in a different light. Maybe we can help each other. Community is formed with new friends, and many new friends are looking for community. I was happy to talk to my new stylist the other day about Circle of Hope and what we’re doing. She has some faith and she thought she might need to check us out. I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t say anything. And it helped me deepen my own appreciation for the little operation we have here.
3. Talk to an old friend.
Maybe the new friend you made a few years ago, feels like an old one now. I’m so grateful to be able to call up my best friends and tell them how I’m feeling and what’s on my mind. My wife is one of my oldest friends; she’s all ears and ready to hear me when I finally decide to share how I’m feeling. It’s not so easy for me to be vulnerable, but the pastors team keeps telling me to share how I feel even though there’s a great risk in my mind in doing so. In general, it’s OK. I’m still nervous about opening myself up, so it pays to have old friends that I trust. You might not feel like you have a lot of close friends to talk to, so this might be hard to apply. I’m not just saying this to plug the program, either, but join a cell of ours and see if you can’t plant seeds for one of those new friendships.
4. Embrace the faith of a little one.
Maybe in that cell you find, rather than drowning someone’s faith in your cynicism, your cynicism might be drowned in their hope. I find that listening to new stories of faith really change how I see the world and they give me hope despite all of the trouble in the world. When nuclear war and climate change threaten catastrophe, a new person getting baptized, the ultimate antidote to those catastrophes, has been a great source of hope for me.
Here’s the thing, in our world, full of danger and darkness, any iota of faith should be praised as a miracle. I’m ready to say that in 2018 in the Philadelphia metro, new faith is a miracle. I think we should see it as such, and name it when we see it. I was speaking on Sunday that any faith of any kind surviving the damning material world is worth respecting and admiring. Even if someone isn’t following Jesus, I think that finding hope in the misery around us unlocks space in their heart for God to move and for Jesus to be known. Praying is hard enough and too many Christians don’t, so if I witness someone doing it, I have to honor them. God might work in a mysterious way and God’s grace is much bigger than my concept of it. So embrace new faith; it is a great antidote to cynicism.
5. Worship together.
Finally, worship together, pray together, share together, be together in an intentional way adoring God. The weekly discipline of attending the Sunday meeting for me is a source of joy in a sea of despair. Being in community together for a common cause is the sweet spot, not just the “programming.” Being together matters even if the sermon falls flat or if you didn’t like the songs (or even if you don’t like the building). I have heard those reasons to avoid worship, and sure, the cynicism among us can drown out even a communal expression like worship. But pray for a softened heart and mind as you enter into worship, and you might be less mad at the leader and unlock some new hope for yourself. Maybe it isn’t just a crappy message or the same generic songs that you hate and you swore they sang last time. Maybe it just has been a hard season for you, as it has for the whole United States in many respects. Maybe worshiping together our savior, who has overcome the world, will help relieve you a bit.