It’s easy to be cynical these days - especially about the church. Shall I give you a brief run down?
Last week a survey came out showing that white evangelicals are the MOST likely religious group in America to see immigrants as a threat. I mean, come on. We follow the One who literally said whenever you welcome a foreigner, you welcome me.
This survey makes me feel a little cynical about short term missions trips to those same countries that are being demonized.
This, on top of earlier research showing white evangelicals are more likely to justify torture than any other group.
Ummmm. WWJT? Who Would Jesus Torture?
Not to mention widespread evangelical support for porn star adulterer and boastful BS-er, Donald J. Trump, at TWICE the rate of the general public.
(No further comment needed to justify my cynicism.)
It’s enough to make you quit the faith and leave in disgust, shaking the dust off your feet as you go.
Some of my friends have done just that. And I understand. I really do.
But I’ve made a decision to hold on.
Yes, it’s a constant, tiring battle lately. But I guess I still hold out hope that the bride of Christ will turn back to Jesus. And that we’ll be converted all over again.
So, as I was reflecting on the times in my life where the Light has broken through the cynicism, I detected a pattern. And I thought I’d share that pattern with you. Maybe it’ll help you too.
The pattern is this - I’ve seen how immersing myself in places of simplicity and joy, especially among people who are very different from me, has renewed my strength and helped me rise above the fray.
In fact, there are 4 specific groups of people that have helped me with this. Check it out, and maybe God will use them to give you hope too…
1. People on the margins
I’ve spent most of my adult life living in Asian slums and inner city areas - places that are magnets for folks with addiction and homelessness issues. I guess that’s why I cling to a God who breaks chains and sets people free. And those folks who have been set free are a HUGE source of encouragement for me.
Last month, I was back in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside and I met a guy I’ll call Jimmy. Looking at his clean clothing and joyful face, it was hard to believe Jimmy when he told me he had once lived on the streets for a loooooong time, mired in his addiction.
But one day, a friend invited Jimmy to a community dinner (at the community house we set up a few years ago described in my book, Subversive Jesus).
Jimmy was reluctant.
He told me he felt dirty. Bad. He felt like he would be rejected. But the pull of being in a home, around a dinner table at a family meal was enough to help Jimmy overcome his doubts.
Jimmy experienced the radical welcome of Jesus in that place that first day. And the rest is history. Jimmy is now a changed man.
Jimmy’s faith is simple. He simply believes in a God who can set people free. Because God set him free. It’s hard to be cynical in the face of that kind of faith - because it’s raw, and it’s real.
I’ve found this kind of hope, time and time again on the margins, in the slums and inner cities of the world. Maybe you could too.
2. People from other cultures
Last year I was in Malawi, at the first ever Alongsiders camp in East Africa. “Alongsiders” is a movement of young Asian and African Christians who make a simple yet powerful commitment to walk alongside those who walk alone - taking one orphan or vulnerable child each as a “little brother or sister” that they walk alongside and disciple over the course of several years.
I experienced a kind of worship at that camp that I only ocasionally have the privilege to participate in. It wasn’t about doctrine, or schedules, or performance or excellence.
It wasn’t about skinny jeans or smoke machines.
It was about a deep gutteral cry from inside - a joyful shout to God despite all that is wrong with the world (and believe me they face a lot of challenges). Here’s a glimpse…
We DESPERATELY need more of that simple exuberance in our lives. Desperately.
That’s one reason why the white American evangelical response to the caravan of refugees from Latin America is so damn disappointing. Guys - we need them! We need their faith. We need their different perspective. We need them to renew and refresh the stale, sad pews of our churches. We seriously missed the boat BIG TIME on that one.
Not long ago, I was invited to share about the Alongsiders movement at a Wednesday night church meeting in Canada. I rocked up to the church and it was immediately apparent that this would be a meeting of the old and the faithful.
There probably wasn’t a person there under 65. White hair and brown cardigans were the order of the day. But let me tell you, they packed out that hall that night. It was cold and raining and yet they were all there ready and excited to hear about God’s work and to pray for the world.
I expect I would have more than a few points of theological or political disagreement with them. And I could have been cynical that night. But I chose not to. I asked God for humility instead.
God was gracious enough to give me eyes to see the beautiful faithfulness of those old-time Christians. They read their Bibles more faithfully than I do. They care about the world in costly ways - giving financially from their meagre resources. Some of them probably literally pray ON THEIR KNEES beside their beds at night for their grandchildren and the missionaries overseas. Ouch.
I see the goodness and simplicity in that, and I’m deeply grateful for it.
4. New believers
Remember that old Keith Green song based on Psalm 51? “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.” - that’s what I think of when I meet brand new followers of Jesus. Those folks who have just discovered something - Someone! - so amazing, that EVERYTHING is turned upside down. I want that Spirit of renewal within me too.
They might have all kinds of crazy heretical ideas. They might not really understand all the clever theological things I know about Jesus and social justice and the upside-down Kingdom. They probably haven’t been to Bible School or read the smarty-pants theologians I’ve read. And yet. And yet…
I remember staying with a family here in Cambodia. Their cook was a new believer. The lady was illiterate, and yet there she was teaching herself to read a Khmer Bible so she could read the scriptures! She was so alive. She was on fire! And she was an inspiration to me.
If you’ve been struggling with cynicism, I get it. Me too.
But don’t let it take you out of the game. Don’t let cynicism be the bitter flavour of your faith or the reason for your exit.
Seek out the people and places that rekindle the flame and immerse yourself in God’s loving embrace.
Pay special attention to the poor, the foreign, the wise and the newly transformed.
I’m not saying give up on the battle for justice. I’m not saying compromise on important issues, or give up speaking truth to power.
But refresh yourself along the way. Give yourself grace. And have grace towards others too. You need this.
You need times of worship where you’re not dissecting the lyrics.
You need simplicity in your faith. You need gratitude.
I need those things too. And I’m determined to pursue them.
So, I leave you with these words from Psalm 51, written by David at a very low point in his life. I invite you to make them your prayer:
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.