8.18.2017

The Church of All Cynics


As I have traveled all over the world, I’ve met pastors, elders, administrators, missionaries, professors, students, and everyone in between, who are dying to spill their guts in frustration over their churches or The Church, or both. Usually bothThey suspect their churches may have grown over programmed and under challenged. They’re annoyed with the music, irritated by the message, embarrassed by the mission. They see wasted resources, lost opportunities, incompetent leadership, and unengaged participants, resulting in little by way of true life change for the people who make it through the door. And they want to be heard and affirmed, because even though they suspect they're right to be concerned, they’re afraid they’ve grown overly critical.

So they find me, a known cynic, and together we moan and complain and wish and wonder about the future. We share our conflicted feelings, lamenting the way our great love for God's Church clashes with our disdain for so much of what the Church says and does and is. More often than not, these conversations end on the same familiar note; Our complaints are valid and our disappointment is great, but we feel compelled to stay.

We are the Committed Christian Cynics. And we are legion.




Unfortunately, the Church doesn’t know what to do with us. This is partly because we have strong opinions about things that make some folks nervous, like human sexuality, and personal integrity, and global responsibility, and what Jesus really meant when he urged us to Love one another. And partly because, in our sincere efforts to tell everyone how dumb they are and how they're doing it wrong, we sometimes come off as arrogant, condescending, know-it-all dickheads. Admittedly, we need to work on our approach. (I’m raising my own hand here, as I often need reminding there’s a world of difference between sharing concerns with gentle skepticism and spitting bitterness like an angry viper.)

The thing is, cynics are easy to write off as negative and pessimistic. The rest of the Church is quick to dismiss us as complainers, but maybe they shouldn’t be so eager to cast us aside, for the Christian cynic has a God-given burden to bear; We are the snarky, sarcastic, opinionated, face-palmers of the Faith. We carry the torch of critique into the Church -- And we’re here to set shit on fire. We are pot-stirrers, tradition challengers, purpose analyzers, and push backers, and whether or not they know it, our churches need us.

You know why? 

Because when bad things happen to good people, Jesusy platitudes are no match for the cynic's microscope. In our dictionary, nebulous Christian language has no meaning. By our calculations, sketchy church numbers don’t add up. We cynics see things in a different light, sift things through a different filter, examine things through a different lens, and that's good for everyone. Does it make people uncomfortable? For sure. But a vocal critic can be great instigator of honest introspection and thoughtful evaluation.

When a stranger quips, “I’ll pray for you”, it’s the cynic who asks, “Really?
When a person says, “A short-term mission trip changed my life”, the cynic is looking for evidence.
When a pastor teaches “the Bible is clear”, the cynic wonders how they know with such certainty.
When the Church proclaims itself  “the Hope of the world” the cynic narrows her eyes, lifts her chin and challenges, “Prove it.” 

Our approval of All Things Christian can’t be bought with vague over-spiritualization or authoritarian proclamation. We require more. We ask hard questions and demand real answers, and it’s not because we’re just a bunch of jerks who get off on tearing down other people’s ideology. Sometimes, it’s actually because WE LOVE GOD and WE LOVE PEOPLE, and even though we’re kinda mortified by Churchy bullshit, WE. LOVE. THE CHURCH.

That’s why we stick around. 

We stay because we know that, while there are so many things wrong, this is the Church that made us, the same Church that introduced us to Jesus. And we’re still big fans of Jesus. We stay because we weren’t always this cynical; we remember what it was like to feel content with simply showing up to check the boxes of the good Christian life, and we remember how even that changed us. We stay because we honestly believe the Church can do so much better. We want to dismantle broken systems to build a healthier community of Christ followers. So we stay in The Church and (when we can) we stay in our churches because we love them, and because we’ve been cynics long enough now to know how a negative perspective can spark a positive change.

But let’s not pat ourselves on the back quite so vigorously, my cranky friends. Our beloved, broken churches have grown weary of our cynical ways, perhaps rightfully so. The problem is, Committed Christian Cynics might be good for the whole of the Church, but we can be kind of terrible for each other. Like, the worst.  

Cynics, pessimists, and opinionated dickheads are naturally drawn to one another. We’re actively looking to make eye contact with someone else who sees what we see, who hates what we hate, who affirms our observations and agrees with our assessments. To the natural optimist, it probably sounds like an awful first date, but when one critical thinker finds another, the ensuing bitch-fest is kind of refreshing. It’s so nice to realize you’re not alone, you’re not crazy, and you’re not just being a huge asshole about everything. We feel validated by each other’s complaints, but in the company of another cynic, a valid complaint against a broken system can quickly spiral into thrilling condemnation of everyone who doesn’t look, think, or act like us. See, we love the Church…but we also kind of love to hate the Church.

This is our downfall. 

When the club of Committed Christian Cynics comes together we immediately get to feeling smug and superior. Sometimes we buy into our own hype so hard we start to believe everything we think, and we think everyone who doesn’t agree is an ignorant fucknugget. We feed off each other’s negative energy, waiving the critic's torch wildly, recklessly, rushing to set fire to anything and everything we deem unworthy, with little concern for the people who might get burned.

I used to think it would be awesome if there was a church just for us, the critics and complainers, the people who see all the problems so clearly and obviously. This church, The Church of all Cynics and Complaints, would have the most thoroughly critiqued worship gathering, programs, and pastors on the planet. Can you even imagine?

The Sunday morning service would boast a respectful variety of cool music, old hymns, and secular one-offs, but, instead of praise hands, we would raise our arms to give the songs we can’t stand the middle finger. Sermons would be laced with trigger warnings - pronouns avoided at all cost - but, just in case, Xanax and self-care rooms would be available to anyone traumatized by ideas, stories, or words they didn’t appreciate. Instead of an offering basket, we would pass an orphan, stuffing cash into his little pockets until an usher came by to scold us for creating dependency and fostering an early childhood attachment disorder. 

Newcomers would receive a welcome tote sewn by Malaysian sex workers out of fabric scraps locally sourced from the dump by junkies and hipsters. Inside, they would find a beaded bracelet, handmade by children recently rescued, sunburnt and hungry, off of rafts floating aimlessly in the Wisconsin Dells. They’d get a recycled paper bookmark that firmly declares “WORDS MATTER! Except for bad words, bad words don’t matter at all!”, and a coupon for 20% off the tattoo of their choice*.
(*excluding embarrassing tribal flash**)
(**not that anyone is judging***)
(***yes, we are)

The culture of this carefully curated church would be painstakingly pain free, restrictively liberating, and exclusively inclusive. The Church of all Cynic and Complaints would encourage its members toward a kind of self-obsessed self-awareness so they may grow to be courageously cautious as they follow Jesus. The church motto would be: 


You Be You!
(But maybe try to be more like me.)

In short, it would be uncomfortable and terrible for virtually everyone involved, and nothing good could come of it, because no one could ever do anything right. EVER. Every effort to engage each other would be dissected with the intent to find something wrong. Every fresh attempt at art and music and storytelling would be squashed by the potential to offend. Every act of service, every generous gift, every friendly gesture would be stained by the suspicion of ulterior motive. A Church of all Cynics and Complaints couldn't help but be critical to the point of paralysis.

Honestly, it could never work, because when too many critics emerge in one space, it creates a toxic environment. 

But if we think of the Church as a body, I mean like an actual living organism, then try to think of the cynic as bacteria. Some bacteria are good and necessary in order to keep the body healthy and balanced, right? But when too many bacteria get together, it knocks the whole system off kilter as they breed and fester, eventually poisoning the body against itself. Good bacteria shouldn’t be ruthlessly eliminated and bad bacteria shouldn’t be blatantly encouraged. This is the difficult balance the Christian cynic and the Church must strike with each other. 

Remember when Jamie Lee Curtis smiled and sold us probiotic yogurt to help us poo? The Church should embrace the critic with that same kind of enthusiasm. Churches need to learn how to receive criticism well, understanding that sometimes it’s actually helpful and might even be exactly what they need to gain forward momentum. At the same time, it’s up to the Committed Christian Cynic to hold the torch of critique with care and concern for the rest of the body. We have to turn our keen eyes for observation on ourselves, asking ourselves the hard question: Will I be a probiotic or a paralytic to the Church? Am I poop yogurt or bitter poison?
 I don’t know about you, but I wanna be poop yogurt.

Through open dialog and thoughtful critique, I hope to shed light on Church fallacies and set fire to ugly Christian facades, but as long as I claim to carry this torch in one hand, I have to carry the burden of responsibility in the other. I have to remember that cynicism is contagious - and it can be dangerous. I have to respect that once someone sees something by the light of the cynic’s torch, it’s nearly impossible to unsee it. This enlightenment might lead people to new insights and greater freedom in their faith, but it can also be painful and traumatic, like watching their childhood home burn to the ground. If I’m the one holding the match, it’s up to me to honor this process with patience and humility. 

Especially since sometimes we, the cynics, are just wrong.

We don’t like to admit this out loud, particularly if we’re the arrogant, opinionated dickhead type, but we’re not always right and we most definitely do not have everything figured out. The nature of a cynic is to be better at demolition than construction, and a lot of us are still learning how to dismantle and dispose of outdated church language, tired programs, harmful missions, and rusty old ideas without completely discouraging the optimists and innovators around us. 

The Committed Christian Cynic needs to challenge the Church with Truth for today, and the Church needs to meet them at the door with Hope for tomorrow. For as much as the Church and the cynic are frustrated, annoyed, and exasperated by one another, we actually need each other. We make each other better, stronger, healthier, and more productive, but only when there’s room for criticism to sharpen the Church and for the Church to soften the critic.




8.02.2017

Hello again.

Hi.

So showing up here after more than a year feels a little like walking over dead grass in summer and wondering if it will come back to life when the dry season is over. Was the death of this blog just a seasonal quieting down? I guess we’re about to find out.




I never intended to quit blogging, instead I disappeared on accident when I tried to write a book (like a real one, with a real publisher and real editors and real everything). Maybe I could have told you sooner, but I felt weird about making a “Hey Everybody, I’m taking a break from blogging to write a book!” announcement, because when I agreed to write a whole entire book, I wasn’t actually sure if I could do it. To come in here and make it a thing would have been like shining a spot light on my next potential failure, and I just can’t handle that kind of pressure to perform. As it turns out, book writing is a greedy process, and it sucked up all of my words and most of my fully developed thoughts and a large chunk of my heart for the better part of 18 months. Also? I could do it. I mean, I did it. 

I wrote a whole damn book. …And now I can’t decide if I feel proud as hell or utterly terrified that someone might pick it up and read it. It's really confusing. 

I’ll save the details for later, when the powers that be make me beg you to buy the shit out of it, but for now I will just warn you that it’s one of those obnoxious, self-indulgent, Spiritual memoirs, which, to be honest, is not at all what I set out to write. What I really wanted to write was like a cookbook or something. Y’know, something that didn’t require the bearing of a soul or the sharing of painful truths. But if I’ve learned anything at all through this journey, it’s that a book has a way of becoming itself, and apparently mine was always meant to be personal.

Admittedly, this lengthy silence isn’t solely the book’s fault. The truth is, it has been a dry season around here for many difficult reasons and I haven’t had the grit to put much of it into words. I’ve been over here, quietly abiding scary things, like the rapid transformation of my chubby baby boys into three long lean adults, actual grownass men with their own ideas about life and faith and politics. My oldest is 23, but I’m still trying to find my feet as the Mother of men, still learning when to listen and when to help, when to offer advise and when to argue, when to shut my stupid mouth and when to let my eyes roll all the way out of my head and onto the floor right in front of them. It’s complicated stuff, this parenting of grownup people, and I find myself apologizing often for mistakes I made when they were 2 and 7 and 13, and for all the other years. 

During this silent spell, I’ve also been earnestly seeking God, trying to figure out how to wrestle the Hope and Grace of Jesus from the white-knuckle grip of a Church that seems hellbent on claiming it, but not sharing it. Though I’ve been in this process for a few years now, I’m still as lost and lonely as anyone - as everyone - who’s found themselves in this wilderness, wondering what Church is supposed to look like apart from those buildings and those programs and those people. I am the church, this I know…but beyond that, I have no fucking idea, so don’t ask me.

But since the moment I finished the book (basically like 5 seconds ago), my mind has been itching to return to this space. My fingers are suddenly dying to tap out the stories and ideas and questions that have been driven into the margins of my life by a big project and giant kids and marriage stuff and money stuff and mental health stuff and just a lot of other stuff in general. So, anyway, now I'm back, and it's been so long and there is so much to talk about. And I'm excited to see what a new season will bring…



4.28.2016

Last Days in the Desert

A long time ago, in a desert far, far away, I found myself standing in a half-circle with a handful of professional Christians on a film set in the middle of effing nowhere. I was invited there, along with a pile of smart people, for a sneak peek at a little indie art house production, written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia. The film, Last Days in the Desert, imagines Jesus toward the end of his famous 40 days of prayer and fasting, as his journey intersects with that of a boy and his parents, dwelling in the desolate dry wilderness. While Satan continues to pluck at his insecurities, Jesus finds himself drawn into the little family's plight, as they grapple through sorting their lives. The screenplay was short, the dialog sparse, the cast and crew minimal, and I was super curious to see how this would play out on screen.

Cast, crew, dirt.

Shortly after we arrived on set, actor Ewan McGregor came over to shake hands and introduce himself to us, one by one, saying, “Hi, I'm Ewan...I'm Ewan, nice to meet you...I'm Ewan, how are you?...Hey, I'm Ewan...” Like we might not know he was Ewan. When I called home that night, my kids asked what Obi Wan McGregor was like, and I told them the truth. “He was kinda like a homeless person...but, like, if a homeless person's eyes were made of the Caribbean Sea.”

4.20.2016

Missionaries probably shouldn't be jealous of a strippers. But sometimes they are.


I'm really looking forward to speaking the Love Made Claim annual fundraiser this Saturday, in Denver, CO. If you're in the area, YOU SHOULD TOTALLY COME! (ticket info here) Anyway, I was sitting here preparing my talk, when I remembered this old post from back in the day, so I thought I'd throw it out there again, for old times sake.

I still think about this girl... I wonder if she's still working in the sex-industry... and I wonder if she knows her great worth...


Check out Love Made Claim, Inc.


The other day I boarded a plane from Reno to San Francisco, and I was stoked because there was no one else in my row, and I wanted to read People magazine, but I would never want anyone to see me reading People magazine because I have a serious aversion to freaks who carry on weird, one-sided relationships with famous people. (What!? People is the fastest way for me to see how out-of date my clothes are. That’s all. That’s why I read it. Sheesh, let it go...) ANYWAY. You can imagine my dismay (and also how quickly I shoved Sandra Bullock’s tragic smile back in my bag and pulled out Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day) when someone stopped at the end of my row.


It was a girl, and she was wearing one of those tight black velour matching two piece sweatsuits with fake Uggs. When she turned around to shove her crap in the overhead, her butt said “Juicy” which, in my opinion, has about the same sexual appeal as having the word “Pfffffft” stamped across your rump. But, I'm old, so what do I know.