Are You Tired Of Being Cynical? Here’s 4 Ideas To Help You Be Different.

My generation didn’t invent cynicism.

ImageWe just own it as our posture toward the world.

We became fluent in irony, exploring all its nuances.  We re-made media into a layer cake of self-referential pop culture jokes.  We diluted our rage into detached snarking from the sidelines.  We invented the mumblecore film genre, fixating brooding introspective neurotics shuffling through life.  (Well maybe Woody Allen invented that genre, but we perfected it).

How’s that working out for us?

I get it.  Cynicism is a defense mechanism.  When you freely share your dreams, the world rewards you with mockery, rejection, and harassment.  Interestingly, certain types of cynical people gravitate toward the dreamers:

  • Those who view the world as a Darwinian testing ground wherein ideas compete in a melee.  They have no qualms slaying your fledgling dreams in the sand of that arena.
  • Those who are consumed in the pursuit of their own agendas  They co-opt other people’s dreams into their own, and in the process they dilute or corrupt those dreams radically.  Think of House of Cards villainess Claire Underwood’s cynical takeover of a clean water nonprofit, only to steer it away from its original mission.
  • Those who make their living puncturing the earnestness of everyone around them.  They adopt a jaundiced eye, reading everything in the light of the next expose, the next punchline, or the next news cycle.
  • Those poor souls who are tired the day to day shuffle, and have no energy to  care about your dream.  Perhaps they’d like to help, but their wells are dry.  There is nothing left for them to draw upon.

Dealing with these people hurts deeply.  It’s all too easy to build a cynical crust around your heart, simply to protect yourself from the pain inflicted by the cynics.

The cynicism of others breeds cynicism within us.  And when we give ourselves over to cynicism, then our world shrinks and life becomes gray.

But…

  • it is better to risk being hurt than it is to be cynical.
  • It is better to attract the eye rolls and clucking tongues than to sit on the sides rolling your eyes and clucking your tongue.
  • It is better to spectacularly fail than it is to protect yourself with ironic detachment.

So how do we overcome inner cynicism within ourselves?  Not easily.  But here are some things that help.

1) Have Goals

A compelling positive is always more attractive than a jaded negative.  Don’t just set goals to have goals, though.  Make sure you care.  Of course, that might be the problem – you don’t know what you care about.  Then set small goals that will enable you to try out several things.   Consider the small goals as stepping stones to something larger, if you would like to go there.

2) Monitor Your Information Diet

We feed on a diet of information all day long.  Does the information you consume inspire you, or feed your cynicism.    Consider your social media intake – how does it shape you and affect you.  What about the radio shows you listen to – do they just make you mad?  Does the news stoke your anxiety and sense of helplessness?   Consider taking a media fast for a time.  Detox from inputs and see what that does for your cynicism.

3) Consider Your Social Connections

Some people just want to be unhappy, and they will drag you down into their pit of misery too (Related Post: Some People Want To Be Unhappy).  I’m not suggesting that we cut them off entirely.  But be aware of which of your friends drain you of energy, and which of them add to your energy.  Budget your time wisely.

4) Attend To Your Physical Health

It’s amazing what a little exercise, good diet, and proper sleep can do for cynicism.  If you take time to attend to caring for yourself, you might just find that you’re in much better shape to act in the world.  (Related Post:  30 Minutes A Day)

How about you?  What are some things you do to let go of cynicism?

Related Posts:

Time To Cut Back The Snark

Move from Criticism to Creativity

If you found value in this post, please share it with your friends, because it might bless them, and it’ll certainly encourage me.   Get encouragement in your inbox by clicking here to sign up for the Horizons of the Possible monthly e-newsletter.  You’ll receive a monthly digest of the best posts from the blog and the best photos from Instagram, as well as information about upcoming publications.  

 

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Tardis Theology #3: In Which Charles Dickens Questions The Value Of His Life’s Work

ImageWhat could be better than a Christmas ghost story by Charles Dickens?

How about a Christmas alien invasion story featuring Charles Dickens, in which the master of melodrama himself helps the Doctor thwart an extraterrestrial horde’s plan to conquer the Earth?

Yes, it’s an absurd premise.  Absurdity, after all, is part of the fun of Doctor Who.

But this episode gives us more than time-travel hijinks.

When first we meet Charles Dickens, he is moping in his dressing room prior to a Christmas Eve lecture/reading of “A Christmas Carol.”  Remember that in the late 19th century, great authors were also famous stage performers who toured the world, entertaining huge crowds with the sheer force of their personality.  The Dickens we meet is exhausted from the pressures of this life.

“On, on I go. Same old show,” he tells the stage manager, “I’m like a ghost, condemned to repeat myself for eternity … I’m an old man.  Perhaps I’ve thought everything I’ll ever think.”

Dickens’ struggle is what makes this episode more than an adventurous romp.  Dickens wrestles with burnout.  His creative energies have ebbed.  He plods through life, weary day after weary day.

Perhaps that is a struggle you have experienced at some point?

The struggle comes to us in many different forms.  It might be a deep feeling of disconnect with our work.  It might be that nagging sense that we’re living our lives according to someone else’s script.  We might say that we’re “in a rut.”  Perhaps we medicate with alcohol or amusement or anything to help us forget the ennui.

No matter the external manifestation, the internal struggle finds its root in one question:  “What’s the point of it all, anyway?”

As Dickens works with the Doctor to understand the nature of the alien threat, his inner struggle becomes more intense.  He tells the Doctor:

I’ve always railed against the fantasist. Oh, I loved an illusion as much as the next man, revelled in them. But that’s exactly what they were. Illusions. The real world is something else. I dedicated myself to that, injustices, the great social causes. I hoped that I was a force for good. Now, you tell me that the real world is a realm of spectres and jack-o-lanterns. In which case, have I wasted my brief span here, Doctor? Has it all been for nothing?”

And there is the Biblical touchpoint.

Scripture teaches us that our lives are God’s works of art:

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb…My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.  When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.  All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”  (Psalm 139:13, 15-16).

There is no waste in God’s economy.

As Christians, we learn to discover the meaning that God has woven into our lives.  We learn that we are sent by God to do good work, which He has prepared in advance for us (Ephesians 2:10).  We come to grasp that whatever honest work we apply ourselves to is a service unto the Lord, and therefore it has dignity and meaning (Colossians 3:23-24).

In the Doctor Who episode, Charles Dickens is rejuvenated by the adventure and the discovery that the world is far bigger than he expected.  It leads him to personal renewal, telling the Doctor: “I shall spend Christmas with my family and make amends to them.  After all I’ve learned tonight, there can be nothing more vital.”

His final question to the Doctor is whether his books last.  The Doctor reassures Charles Dickens that his books last forever.

For the Christian, we take assurance that our vocation, our work will endure because it is work that has been given to us by the One who Endures.  Our lives have meaning because the One who Calls is the giver of meaning.


For Reflection:

Watch:  Doctor Who, Season 1, Episode 3 “The Unquiet Dead”

Read: Psalm 139, Ephesians 2:8-10, Colossians 3:23-24

Reflect:

Make a list of the different roles you play in life (parent, student, employer, citizen, friend, etc).  Try to list as many roles as you can.

  • Which of these roles are easy and energizing?
  • Which of these roles are tiresome and difficult?
  • Which of these roles seem important?
  • Which of these roles seem insignificant?
  • In light of the scripture passages we looked at, how might you re-consider all your roles as opportunities to do the good work God has prepared for you?
  • What do these passages say about the relationship between God’s favor and our good work?
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When Your Life Is Turned Upside Down, Find Hope In Celebrating Holy Week (Not Just Easter)

1st half of 2011 172Things didn’t turn out the way Peter expected.

I suspect that he envisioned a quick victory.  While it’s likely he expected tense moments, Peter certainly expected God to act powerfully before things became their darkest.  The Palm Sunday crowds with their shouts of “Hosanna” seemed to confirm Peter’s confidence.

On Maundy Thursday, I imagine the confidence of the disciples as they playfully joust back and forth about who is best among them.  The high spirits reflected their expectation of how things were going to turn out.    Then Jesus took up the basin and the towel and showed them a different way of being.   Jesus, in that act of loving service, began to unravel his disciples’ expectations.

A little while later came the shouts and swords, the capture and trial.   What had begun as a celebratory feast had transformed into a long, fear-filled night.  Yet Peter screwed his courage to the sticking place and snuck in to hear the examination of the Jesus.   Imagine Peter’s desperate hope:  surely now, at this moment of crisis, God would supernaturally intervene, as he had done for Elijah on Mt. Carmel.  This was the darkest hour.  God would vindicate Jesus and usher in his kingdom.

But the coming of Good Friday brought no relief.  Jesus’ blood was spilt on the stones.  His hoarse voice cried in desperation, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”

Things had not turned out how Peter expected.

Linger there with Peter for a while.  He never thought things would be this bleak.  His thoughts for the future had been snatched away.  Everything he’d been working for, dreaming about, hoping in – all of it was suddenly gone.  Who among us is unable to empathize?  Who has not experienced the death of a dream, the shelving of a hope?

But Jesus specializes in making dead things alive again.  That’s the glory of Easter.  That’s the message of being born again, being renewed, new life.

Holy week takes us on that emotional journey, from the highs of Palm Sunday through the agony of Good Friday to the joy of Easter.  We will continue with our traditional Holy Week special services.  I hope you’ll join us for our Maundy Thursday communion service on Thursday, April 17 at 7pm.  In this service, we’ll gather around the Lord’s Supper and reflect on the call of Christ in our lives.   Also, please join us for our Good Friday service, Friday April 18 from noon to 3pm, in which we’ll solemnly reflect on the seven last sayings of Christ from the cross.

We’ve been through a lot this past year.

But Easter’s coming….

Soli Deo Gloria,

Russell

Originally Published in the April 2014 edition of the Covenant Courier.  To learn more about Covenant-First Presbyterian and our Holy Week worship services, please visit our website

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Tardis Theology #2: In which Rose Tyler is wrong about what it is to be human

In this episode, the Doctor takes Rose five billion years into the future to view the end of the world.  They crash an exclusive soiree for the Universe’s wealthiest notables.  Held on a specially shielded space station, this cocktail party’s main event is the viewing of the expansion of the sun and fiery death of the planet Earth.

Perhaps you are thinking: “Ah, the end times!  That is the Biblical touchpoint he’s going for….”

Sorry, but no.  I have something else in mind.

For it is at this function that Rose meets Lady Cassandra O’Brien, the last human.

ImageHowever, Cassandra looks more alien than any of the other creatures at the party.  She’s nothing but a smooth sheet of skin, translucent enough to reveal the blood pumping through.  Her brain is kept alive in a small tank below the frame on which her skin is stretched.  Cassandra’s eyes and mouth offer the only texture to her otherwise flat “body.”  She confesses to having had over 700 operations to achieve her completely smooth skin.

The Lady Cassandra is a sight both horrifying and absurd.

(I can’t help but wonder if Cassandra is an homage to Katherine Helmond’s plastic surgery obsessed character in the 1985 dystopian classic, Brazil – but I digress)

The ever-adventurous Rose initiates a conversation, only to discover that Cassandra is vain and condescending.  Rose, not being one to back down from an insult, blasts Cassandra with this retort:  “…you’re not human.  You’ve had it all nipped and tucked and flattened til there’s nothing left.  Anything human got chucked in the bin.  You’re just skin, Cassandra.  Lipstick and skin.”

Bazinga!  There is the Biblical touchpoint: “what is it to be human?”

One of the virtues of Science Fiction is that it pushes us to ask that question.  It’s a question that Doctor Who returns to again and again.  What defines humanity?

And it’s one of the key themes of the Bible.

The Bible presents humans, all humans, as bearers of the image of God.  Theologians debate a lot about what exactly it means to bear the divine image.  For the purpose of this reflection, we’ll focus on one aspect:

To bear the image of God is to carry an intrinsic dignity.

Psalm 8 celebrates the wonder and glory of the natural world, asking God the question:  “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that  you care for them?”

There it is:  What is so great about humanity?

The Psalmist continues:  “You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.  You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet…”

That’s a dignity that exists in every human regardless of ethnicity, regardless of gender or age or economic status.  That dignity is carried by every human being, even if they are mentally incapacitated or disabled in some way.

No amount of self-degradation can strip away that dignity.  It exists.  It is there.

And therefore, no human being, none whatsoever, is beyond redemption.

So Rose Tyler is wrong.  Lady Cassandra may have completely degraded her body.  Yet she is still human.  So it is that, even though Cassandra is a scoundrel and a murderer, Rose pleads with the Doctor to save her from death.  Rose, in the end, recognizes that there is dignity yet in Cassandra.

There is more to being human than having a functioning body.

To be human is to bear the image of God.


Watch: Doctor Who, Season 1, Episode 2 “The End of the World”

Read:  Genesis 1:26-28; Psalm 8

Ponder:

  • When have you had a hard time honoring the image of God in another person?
  • How have you seen human sinfulness affect our ability to honor the image of God in others?
  • In what ways has Christ worked in you to renew your perception of the image of God in others?  In yourself?
  • What are some ways Christ might be leading you to honor the image of God in others?  in yourself?

If you found value in this post, please share it with your friends, because it might bless them, and it’ll certainly encourage me.   Get encouragement in your inbox by clicking here to sign up for the Horizons of the Possible monthly e-newsletter.  You’ll receive a monthly digest of the best posts from the blog and the best photos from Instagram, as well as information about upcoming publications.  

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4 Life Lessons I Learned From A Nonagenarian’s Story

Edited Photo for July 2 2013 blog postYou’d like Nora if you met her.  She’s a lovely 96-year-old member of our church (your vocabulary word for the day is nonagenarian: a person in their 90’s).   Nora would immediately charm you with her smile and her cheery demeanor; I’d bet a steak dinner on it.   I’ve also found that she is very wise.

Just one conversation yielded four great life lessons.   Here’s the story:

Last month, I took Nora communion.  After we enjoyed the sacrament, we spent some time chatting.  I told her that I was preaching through Ephesians, and soon I would get to the passages about family.  On a whim, I asked Nora if she had any parenting wisdom that she could share with me.

So, she told me about her mother.

She could have talked about how well she had raised her kids (and believe me, she has lots to be proud of – her children turned out well).  She could have held forth about the wisdom she had accumulated over the years.  Instead, she immediately spoke of her mom.

Life lesson number one: modesty is always becoming.

Life lesson number two: it is always good to honor your father and mother.

A little context is helpful here.  Nora’s parents immigrated to the United States from Finland.  They moved to a small mining town in Minnesota.  Everyone in the town was very poor.  But Nora’s father received every paycheck as though it were a gift.  He worked hard and understood the need to be grateful for what they had.

Nora’s mother, however, was in charge of directing the children’s education.

All nine children.

That’s right.  Nine.

When Nora’s mother saw that one of her children was idle, she’d say, “why don’t you go over to the library and get a book.”  (This was a small town – the library was in easy walking distance)

Nora read lots of books.

Nora’s mother impressed the vision of a college education upon all her children.  When the older children graduated college and got jobs, they contributed money toward the education of their younger siblings.

Life lesson number three:  when you’ve been helped, you help others.

Then Nora told me about her report card.

Back in those days, the school didn’t just give grades on academic subjects.  The top two items on the report card were “Attitide” and “Application.”

Nora remembered her mother taking a report card, holding it up, pointing to those top two items, and saying:

“There’s no reason you can’t always get A’s in those two subjects.  They don’t take brains, they just take determination.”

Life lesson number four:  there’s no reason we can’t excel in attitude and application.

Were these four life lessons new to me?  No.

Did I need to be reminded of them?  Yes.

That’s why God gives us to one another.  This is the meaning of “iron sharpening iron.”  We need to ask for one another’s stories because God often uses one person’s story to remind another person of truths they need to hear.

So what about you?  What is the best life lesson you’ve learned recently from listening to someone’s story?

Russell

If you found value in this post, please share it with your friends, because it might bless them, and it’ll certainly encourage me.   Get encouragement in your inbox by clicking here to sign up for the Horizons of the Possible monthly e-newsletter.  You’ll receive a monthly digest of the best posts from the blog and the best photos from Instagram, as well as information about upcoming publications.  

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Tardis Theology #1 – In which the Doctor prompts us to consider Jesus’ call

Image

The Tardis, from Wikimedia Commons

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be trying out a new feature for weekend posts: Tardis Theology. I believe that wherever there is truth, goodness, and beauty, we can find hints of God’s hand behind it. With that belief in mind, I’ll be reflecting on the popular science fiction series, Doctor Who, beginning with the first season of the 2005 revival. In each episode, I’ll look for some touchpoint to a biblical theme, and using that touchpoint to lead us in reflection on the Bible.  This week’s episode is Season 1, Episode 1: “Rose”

 

The call to adventure.

The call to conceive that there is more to life than the frenetic daily shuffle from shop to food to entertainments and then to sleep. The call to raise our aspirations above hollow trifles, to imagine things beyond the distractions with which we fill the passing days, weeks, and years.

Quite simply, the call to be more than we understand ourselves to be.

That’s what this first episode is all about: Rose Tyler hearing the call to be a companion to the Doctor in his adventures through space and time. It’s quite a thrilling episode, full of danger and adventure, as the Doctor saves Earth from an alien invasion.

Yet here’s the interesting part – throughout the episode, the Doctor dissuades Rose from following him. The Doctor speaks of the blindness of humanity, calling the species a bunch of “stupid apes.” As he explains to Rose the peril of the invasion, the Doctor shouts: “…you lot, all you do is eat chips, go to bed, and watch telly, while all the time underneath you there’s a war going on!”

It’s like he’s daring Rose to prove herself.

And she rises to the occasion, using her gymnastics skills to save the Doctor at the climactic battle in the episode.

So the Doctor invites her to join him as a companion.

And there’s the Biblical touchpoint: the call to be a companion.

The Bible is filled with stories of calling. Abram the calling of God to a new land. Moses experiences God calling from the burning bush. Isaiah perceives the call in his dramatic vision. These are Old Testament callings to service.

But it is Jesus who calls to companionship.

Jesus. The divine being who became flesh and dwelt amongst humanity. God with us. Look it up in the first chapter of the gospel of John, or check out the poem in the second chapter of the book of Philippians (verses 5-11). Not just a wise human teacher, this Jesus. No. The early church understood that Jesus was fully human and fully God. We call this the incarnation.

And it’s this Jesus who calls us, not just to serve, but to accompany, to befriend.

Now here’s the contrast with our Doctor Who episode: unlike Rose Tyler, we don’t have to prove ourselves worthy of being a companion.

Jesus calls, simply because he wants us to accompany Him. We have nothing to prove, nothing to earn. We have no way of convincing Jesus that we’re worthy companions.

Jesus simply calls.

And when we accompany Jesus, we find that the adventure He takes us on is quite different. At first, the adventure comes in the transformation of daily life. Jesus teaches us to see the glories of creation that have always been right in front of our noses. He teaches us to appreciate the wonders of the people who are already in our lives. And then, after we have accompanied him for a little while, He begins to suggest to us actions and choices that will take our lives in a different direction than we had ever imagined.

Is it an action packed adventure through space and time? No.

The adventure Jesus takes us on is deeper and richer and real. It is often heartbreaking and difficult, but it is satisfying to the soul. It is what we call “Blessedness” or “Abundant Life.”

So, have you heard the call to be a companion to Jesus?


For Reflection:
Watch: Doctor Who, Season 1, Episode 1 “Rose”
Read: Luke 5:1-11 and 5:27-31. John 15:12-17
Ponder:

  • How have you experienced the call of Jesus?
  • What unexpected places has Jesus taken you in your life?
  • In what ways has Jesus transformed your understanding of the ordinary things of your life?

 

 

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Re-Thinking The Hard Work Of Writing

Man Carving His Own Destiny Photo by Russell Smith

Writing is hard.  Don’t let anyone tell you different.

More precisely, good writing is hard. By good writing, I mean

clear writing.  Writing that is lean and vigorous and interesting.  Writing free from cliché, propelling the eyes forward and seducing the reader to think.

As a pastor, I have to write a lot of material: sermons, articles, studies, blog posts, etc.  The more I work on the craft of writing, the harder it gets.

David Bayles, in his book Art and Fear (co authored with Ted Orland), tells of his experience of learning piano.  After a few months of intense practice, he moaned to his instructor: “but I can hear the music so much better in my head than in can get out of my fingers.” To which the teacher replied, “What makes you think that ever changes?”

His point: your vision for your work is always ahead of your execution.

And from that gap between vision and execution arise paralyzing thoughts:

  • How are you going to surpass the success you’ve already had?
  • What makes you think that people will be interested in what you offer?
  • Do you really think that work is polished enough?
  • Are your thoughts really that original?

These questions are unimportant.

They are unimportant because they seduce us with an idealized fantasy of perfection.  They lead us to think about how people will respond to our work after it is complete.  That’s like fantasizing about the marriage you’ll have before you’ve ever asked the object of your affection for a date. That’s like dreaming about how you’re going to spend your fortune once you hit the lottery.

It’s a dangerous fantasy because it takes our minds off this day’s task.  This day’s task is hunkering down and actually writing something, anything.  This day’s task is, if nothing else, slapping words together in a sloppy mess.  Because without that sloppy mess, we have nothing to work with.

Bayles and Orland remind us that the task of the artist/musician/writer is very different from the task of the person who receives the work:

“To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product:  the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process, the experience of shaping that artwork….Your job is to learn to work on your work.”

Learn to work on your work.  Learn to structure your life and time so that you can actually accomplish the task of sitting down to string the words together.

It may not make the craft any easier. But it takes the psychological pressure off.

 

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