It’s been a year now, and my time in some ways is up. Last June I was given a challenge to explore the wild, where “scary people” often drink and smoke and cuss without so much as a second thought. There, in the wild, parents enroll their kids in parks and rec sports without ever considering the option of Upwards. In the wild, instead of asking for “day sponsors” radio stations air commercials. It’s a delicate ecosystem that simultaneously celebrates diversity and drowns out divergent opinions. I crept softly so as not to spook the inhabitants and consequently be tamped down myself. Research was my disguise and discovery my agenda though I was always forthright about who I am…who I am professionally at least.
As I listened some inhabitants wondered aloud, many of them, whether or not they might create a god in their own image rather than acknowledge God in whose image I believe they are created. Quietly I hoped and prayed for the occasional conversion. Mostly I just kept asking questions, like a hostage negotiator just trying to keep the conversation going as long as I could. Now as I try to organize my reflections I sit in a camp chair in the back yard of my domicile, the church. It’s a beautiful afternoon filled with songbirds, the sounds of recess at school across the street, and the hum of vehicles driven by souls all likely plagued by immediate obligations of one kind or another. And I’m thinking...
More frightening than anything I may have discovered about the unsuspecting, image of God bearing pagans whom I interviewed is what I discovered about myself. There have been many conversations with skeptics and cynics over the course of the last twelve months, many of them quite intriguing and filled with provocative thought and comment. I might have guessed that engaging in such rigorous discourse on a regular basis would perhaps corrode the foundation of my own faith. On the contrary I discovered quite the opposite. My faith is bolstered by these forays into real life beyond Christendom.
That should be encouraging, and it is…somewhat. But I also have learned that I am by nature a cynic myself. Actually, I kind of knew that already. Cynicism is the inclination to believe that generally speaking, people are motivated purely by self-interest. It is often coupled with a similar inclination to question whether or not something will actually happen or whether, if it were to happen, it would be worthwhile. I suffer from both of these.
My cynicism often tends to bubble to the surface at inopportune times thus requiring me to apologize to the offended parties. I feel as though I’ve learned how to manage this symptom, though I’m sure many who have endured my presence at one committee meeting or another may disagree. On the other hand the symptom that has me the most concerned at this point in life is the tendency toward pessimism.
As I think about this it is a wonder to me that regularly engaging worldviews so divergent from my own Christian perspective has proven therapeutic to my cynical soul. I thought the pessimism would grow as I grappled with just how much of an island apart from the wild my biblical convictions put me on, both philosophically and theologically. Besides, while there was the occasional movement toward faith, even a conversion or two, it’s not as if my five-question interviews have sparked the next great awakening…of this I’m reasonably sure.
Instead the cynicism actually seems to have worked in my favor. Imagine that: a cynic surprised by the apparent worth of his own cynicism as it applies to the realization that there really is “nothing new under the sun” apart from faith in Christ. Likewise feelings of isolation have unexpectedly faded because, as it turns out, most of us are all simply asking different variations of the same questions whether we’re looking for answers in the local church, university, or dive bar…and honestly the dive bar is normally the most accepting and friendliest of those three places, even when you’re hopelessly out of your element. Don’t ask me how I know.
Given my time in the so-called wild I’m coming to grips with my identity, not just professionally but also as a human being bearing God’s image yet hopelessly flawed apart from Jesus. The fact of the matter is that I am a better person when I’m taking chances. This makes sense. If one never takes chances and seeks to avoid any element of risk, then he is only dying and never actually living.
I believe the same is true of the church. The cynic within tells me that in many cases church people have chosen the slow bleed as opposed to the unpredictable adventure. The church and the wild have a lot the same problem. Both carefully attempt to toe the line between diversity and orthodoxy, wanting to push a particular narrative and squelch voices opposed to it. The difference is that the church’s ecosystem is nowhere near as delicate as that of the wild. The gospel is tremendously resilient. It’s that resiliency that releases the cynic in all of us to throw caution to the wind, leave the results to God, and take a chance given the belief that indeed something wonderful might occur.