God broke me today in a really good way. You see I’m a recovering cynic who relapses at least several dozen times a day. Nothing is more insufferable to me than an overly cheerful person. Somehow I’ve been programmed to presume that cheerful people are disingenuous. But then there’s my friend Beth Anderson who smiles more than just about anyone I know and is also absolutely genuine to the core. She preached a sermon to us at our provisional retreat this morning about God’s perpetual Pentecost that melted my cynicism. I just hope that it sticks.
I’m not sure why I react negatively to people who smile all the time. I think it might go back to my campus fellowship days, when I was in a Christian group with very “positive and encouraging” people whom I thought were better friends with me than they were, because when I drifted away, nobody came after me. But it goes back further than that. Maybe it’s just being a melancholic, romantic soul in general and going through a decade of pretty severe depression.
Perhaps it’s my introvertedness. I have no trouble performing on a stage for an audience or addressing a group of people about a serious topic, but I suck at the banter level of social interaction. It’s a dance that I’ve never learned. I feel like crawling into the nearest air conditioning duct when I’m in a room where people (usually the women) are greeting one another with hyperbolic squeals of delight.
That’s what it felt like the first day of seminary back in 2007. I was looking around and everyone around me was smiling really wide and looking like they were thoroughly sanctified in good-naturedness. I actually wrote a rap as I was listening to the opening presentations called “Hate.” It’s on my blog on this page. Here’s a snippet:
If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a room with all smiles
I look at the ground when I have to walk the aisles
I sit in the back with the guys who don’t clap
They’re the ones I can trust ’cause we’re caught in the same trap.
I have this tendency to believe that “realness” is the word for what happens when people are willing to let their unhappiness show. I feel most at home in a context where people are openly sharing their woundedness and healing occurs. I see the Christian story as being most fundamentally about deliverance from our chains through the power of Jesus’ cross and resurrection. That much is legitimate. But where I go wrong is to assume that people who are peppy really have chains that they’re pretending not to have, and I receive their peppiness as a judgment against me even though they don’t intend it as such.
I console myself with the thought that my cynicism is a form of solidarity with other cynics. It’s outreach, even evangelism, because the cynics look at me and say oh, all Christians aren’t peppy, shallow people, there’s Morgan the cynic who tells it like it is; maybe I can be a Christian too. There is legitimacy to the truth that vulnerability is evangelistic, but the cynicism in which I bathe myself can be quite poisonous and addictive.
I do believe that satire can be a helpful tool for prophetic social critique because humor disarms people in a different way than trying to go head to head with them in a purely logical battle. I also think that there is a healthy degree of cynicism. In Matthew 10:16, Jesus says, “Be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” That verse captures an impossible paradox so perfectly. How can you be shrewd and innocent at the same time without being disingenuous? And yet, we do need to strive for innocence, which amounts to presuming the best intentions on the part of others and living as though God has the power to work out all things for the good through them even though we’re not naive and we’re willing to speak unpleasant truths with grace.
The way that the spirit was poured out on me today through my friend Beth wasn’t in any particular phrase she used, though she had a number of brilliant, beautiful things to say that I retweeted. The tongues of fire rather took the form of seeing the combination of her good-naturedness and fiery conviction. I guess God said to me that you don’t have to be a [fill-in-the-blank-with-your-profanity-of-choice] to be a prophet, which is something I seem to have gotten mixed up about.
When I was at a church planning retreat last weekend, the first of my three back-to-back-to-back retreats, I felt like it was my job to name the tough truths about the godforsaken, impossibly overprogrammed culture of the suburgatory where we live and what we need to do to smash through it so that people in our church will taste the kingdom of God (and quit their travel soccer teams so they can be in church every Sunday, etc). One of my colleagues said at one point something like: you know, I appreciate the passion for trying to do things better, but there actually is a lot of good energy in this church already so I don’t think it’s wrong to acknowledge and celebrate that.
I tend to bristle at the concept of celebrating our successes, because the cynic in me presumes that doing so always amounts to sweeping some uncomfortable truth under the rug. But it gave me some pause as I thought through what I had said and what my colleague had said. And then God blew things wide open this morning. I want to learn how to be a better-natured person who smiles more and doesn’t think crass thoughts about people who seem like they smile too much.
I don’t think I’ll ever be good at banter and peppiness. I’m not going to turn a blind eye to the sinful realities God compels me to name so that people can receive deliverance and healing. But I could stand to be a lot less presumptuous about where other people are coming from. Pray for me. I don’t want to be a cynic anymore.