What to do when your words get twisted
Once Rachel played a video of Jerry Seinfeld receiving the 2007 Comedian Award that, at this time, 1.4 million of you have already seen on YouTube. In it Seinfeld makes fun of the award he is receiving. “I really don’t want to be up here” he said, “I want to be in the back over there or over there saying something funny to somebody about what a crock this whole thing is.”
I appreciate his honesty. In his own way, Seinfeld has been a prophet. One line from his recent Clio Award speech kind of sums up his message: “We live in the world and we know everything stinks.” He has been standing in the back of our rooms talking about how stupid everything is for a couple of decades now. Even more, he drew the so-called Millennials into the back-story of the comedian lifestyle and encouraged most of them to have their own self-conscious lifestyle of being comedic. As a generation, they are prone to standing back and observing how stupid everything is. What’s more, as an “audience” they are so tuned in to people doing “bits” that they are also aware of how you are doing a bit in the middle of a conversation, and are likely to be observing you observing and likely to be critiquing how well you are critiquing. Always performing, they might be more interested in how you say something, or how they can make fun of how you said something, than in what you are actually trying to say.
So it is no wonder that our pastors suffer so. They are all from the Seinfeld generation and they know that some (if not most) the people their age have been trained by Seinfeld to stay removed and cleverly observe what they have just done. Even if they get a compliment or some affirmation it may be accompanied by a joke: “That’s a really great speech for someone who makes speeches for a living.” Sincerity is always suspicious. If you are putting yourself out there for anything but a self-deprecating joke you are not to be taken seriously.
It is no wonder we have cells full of cell leaders who don’t want to get in line to be the next leader. I don’t think their inhibition is about their conviction or hope or even their supposed fear of commitment. I think it has a lot to do with the requirement to be publicly sincere. Once you come out as someone who cares about Jesus and others (“No, really, I mean it,” we have to say) they fear they will run into “that guy standing in the back” who is going to start observing everything they do and twisting everything they say. In the old days, people would throw the liar out. But these days, self-consciously lying for effect is a respected art form. Like Seinfeld said in his Clio speech, “I love advertising because I love lying.” Then he looked at the laughing audience and dared them to figure out whether he meant it or not.
So leaders of the church need to learn a lesson from Jesus that may be more relevant now than ever. One place to start is John 8, where Jesus has an amazing dialogue with people who are standing back, observing and then attacking him. In one of the funniest moments in the Bible Jesus says “Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” His detractors immediately say, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” Whoever is going to stand for God is likely to get similar treatment, only it will not be as straightforward or as unintentionally funny. It will be about twisting what you say for a moment of amusement.
Jesus’ words were most famously twisted by the devil himself. His response provides a good example to follow by anyone who is enduring the same, relentless attack by someone not interested in hearing what you say but very interested in mocking it. Someone was talking about their fear of being mocked the other day, and I suggested they at least begin responding to their fear by trying on the mentality of Jesus.
- He doesn’t live by what people say about him. The devil tempted him to make bread from stones, a bit like Seinfeld admittedly makes a living from doing nothing. ”If you are the Son of God” the devil began accusingly –- he's always good for making every moment conditional rather than true. Jesus told the tempter he could live off what God says. Just avoiding this temptation by never taking on the mantle of leading or caring won’t make it go away. People will keep twisting. Our response either exposes them or saves them.
- He knows he is being tested. It is OK to see someone’s snide remark or sarcastic, meaning-diminishing comment as a temptation or even as an attack. They may as well be telling you to prove your worth by jumping from the pinnacle of the temple. Jesus told the devil not to test him. Perhaps you should speak back to a Seinfeld-trained person and tell them not to test you. We can at least not facilitate an atmosphere of insincerity by letting everything be undercut by people trying to convince us that everything is a joke, including us.
- He is ready to confront the tempter. “I don’t mean anything by it. We’re just talking. Don’t be so serious.” There are a lot of ways to make something nothing, and people expect us to conform to the nothingness. Practice saying it so you are ready: “Why are you twisting what I am saying?” The pastors and cell leaders, especially, need to discern how to say, “I am giving you my heart and you are not receiving me. I am telling you the truth and you are undermining it.” It might be kind to add, “Is that what you meant to do? Or do you just do it because Seinfeld taught you?"
[Originally published in October 2015 in Development]