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Our Hope Defies Reality: How One Conversation with Rob Moll Changed My Life

Jul 24, 2019

Hi, my name is Scott and I’m a cynic.

I never thought I’d wrestle with cynicism. I was such an idealist by nature. But, as comedian George Carlin famously said, “behind every cynic, you’ll find a disappointed idealist who doesn’t want to be hurt again.”

I became cynical for a host of reasons, but most involved a long tenure serving a large, institutional Baptist church in its third decade of decline. The dysfunction, internal politics, and passive-aggressive culture took a wrecking ball to the naive idealism of my twenty-something heart.

How I Connected with Rob Moll

As I was emerging from my cynicism and looking for models of how to live and lead with hope, I stumbled on the work of Rob Moll. Rob was a former editor-at-large for Christianity Today and at the time of our connection, he was playing a major role in the Communications Department of World Vision.

During a season when I was researching cynicism for a book project, I had a phone conversation with Rob. He was gracious to give me his time, as I was someone he’d only recently met on Twitter.

Rob Moll headshot

Tragic News About Rob Moll

I was grieved today when I opened my Twitter feed to discover news of Rob’s tragic death while hiking Mount Rainer in Washington. Rob died at the age of 41. He leaves behind his wife, Clarissa, and their four children.

Later this afternoon, I found a copy of my notes from that phone conversation, even though the recording is lost.

In reading my notes, I was overwhelmed with Rob’s profound insights and winsome call to overcome cynicism with hope. I found line after line, which I had influenced my leadership in the years between that conversation and today. One line, in particular, has been a part of every Easter message I’ve delivered since that phone call. I’m disappointed in myself – I believed I had come up with the thought, but it had been Rob’s words all along. While repenting of my inadvertent plagiarism, I now intend to cite this wise sage for decades to come.

Rob Moll’s Journey from Cynicism to Hope

I’ve attempted to summarize Rob’s contribution to our lengthy phone conversation below. The topics we explored that day included cynicism, the Church, hope, forgiveness, empathy, humility, the Gospel, and transformation. Where Rob asked me to keep particular comments off-the-record, I have honored his request.

I hope his words arrest and inspire your heart the way they have mine. My prayers are with his family and close friends as they mourn his loss.

Here’s Rob Moll – in his own words.

(Note: As this was a phone conversation, the grammar of the dialogue is reflected as such.)

Rob Moll – In His Own Words

“I started as an idealist.

God called me to report on the things he is doing in the world and share it with people. I wanted to bring people closer to God and encourage them to a better fuller expression of who we’re called to be. That’s my view of my work at Christianity Today.

After graduating with a business degree, I ended up on the fraud beat and ultimately the celebrity pastor failure beat. I covered the botched transition at Calvary from Chuck Smith to Skip Hetizig and the Ponzi scheme of Barry Minko, helping the FBI uncover fraud against Christians.

I left CT, but am still getting calls about ongoing abuse situations with CJ Mahaney, Mark Driscoll, etc. This meant hours and days on the phone with people who’ve been spiritually abused, kids who’ve been raped or molested by their youth pastor, exposing the systems where these things were covered up…learning about pastors who were shipped off to other churches where they got away with it all again.

I saw the seedy underbelly of the evangelical world. It’s as nasty as any other place where people get together. The church is not at all immune to all of these problems.

But, what I found was at the same time, you could attend the very churches where this horrendous stuff is happening and people are oblivious. They’re raising hands, worshipping – impacted by messages – walking away moved and changed.

I would ask, “How can you stay in this movement?”
Amidst all of these awful things happening, people were still encountering God. This wasn’t some sort of fake encounter. They weren’t duped. It was real.
Whatever went on in Mars Hill, when someone would leave a service saying “I encountered God,” that was a real experience.

God works in our imperfect lives. That’s the foundation on which we encounter God in the first place.
We are broken – in need of grace, mercy, God’s love. God reaches out to us even in our own state. That person (the celebrity pastor who failed) isn’t in a fundamentally different state – we all need Christ’s redemption…

Things are often a lot more complex than it’s simply this guy’s fault or that guy’s fault.
The Prayer of St Francis had a profound effect on me in this area, helping me move from critique and cynicism to asking God, “How can You use me to direct this situation to a better end?” What does it look like to embrace the best in someone else, acknowledge their failures, respond with love and grace?

You know, the antidote to cynicism is love. (I’m still figuring out how to say this in words by the way.) The temptation to cynicism is the same temptation of any other human instinct. The same temptation as fear, lust, emotional response – natural, all-too-human, often totally unhelpful, unproductive in the end for our spiritual lives. 

A cynical response may be instinctual – may always be the initial response. When I read about the failures of the Christian world, I often have an anger response, a cynical response. There’s a lot of verbal violence in social media response, especially in Christian space, when it comes to leadership failures.

The response, for me though, has to be one of love. Thomas Merton reflected on this idea, talking about nonviolence – the nonviolent method of protest. He said – when it comes to nonviolence – if it is only a method to overcome the adversary, then nonviolence is an admission of weakness. True nonviolence seeks to find the good in the adversary and seeks to bring the good out through love. True nonviolence seeks the redemption of his adversary, not his castigation.”

Human relations are prone to flaws and failures. The best response is not to do go out and fix that wrong, fight against the problem, “tackle that injustice”…the initial response has to be one of love.

Love doesn’t say my boss is a moron, he needs to get with the program.
Love doesn’t say I’m done with them, let’s exclude them
Love says my relationship with God isn’t any different from theirs.
Love seeks to bring out the good and seeks the redemption of that person.
This is a totally different response than bringing out the cynicism. 

In the framework of love, empathy and humility are manifestations of that difference.
Our brains have two neurological systems – the sympathetic and parasympathetic.
The sympathetic – fear, anger, an adrenaline rush – those hyperactive responses are totally appropriate for chasing the lion and fighting off a home invasion.
But, they’re not appropriate for dealing with every day. Our primary responses are often like this, however.
The other system (parasympathetic) is one in which we love, show compassion and empathy, and exhibit rationality and logical thinking.
These two systems cannot be active simultaneously. Using your empathy to understand someone else facing a difficult situation – asking “could I have been more helpful to do something different?” – prevents one from going on the attack.

Nothing has to change for everything to change.

I may not be able to (fill in the blank), but if I’m not cynical about it, if I’m responding with love and compassion, I can seek to change a situation. My assessment hasn’t changed, but my attitude has changed. So, everything is different. Without hate, without blaming, without anger.

I don’t know all I can do, but God has sent me and I can do something. I have an opportunity to try to make a difference. that might be nothing more than speaking up in a meeting when something needs to be said. That might be having conversations to lead people in a different direction. We may not have the power we need to do the things we need to be done, but we can take specific concrete steps to move things in a different direction. 

Love has to drive our response to better people.  That’s hope – I may not have what I need, but hope drives my actions – toward attempts to improve or somehow better the situation.
Despair is not a Christian virtue.
Love drives our interactions with the people.
Hope drives our belief that it matters at all. 

Hope is all about resurrection. Our view of the grace – death doesn’t define our end.
Hope is a defiance of reality. The way things are not the way they should be, therefore it will be redeemed.
Consider the Lord of the Rings. Hope – the moment where out of the catastrophe, something good comes. In the darkest moment, when we have the most reason to despair, the situation turns around – good comes from the bad. Out of death comes life.
Hope doesn’t deny reality; it defies reality. (Scott’s note – that’s been Rob’s line all along – it changed my life).
Without hope, all you have to work with then is power. Then you can’t relate to others based on love, only their utility…

Trust is mandatory for leadership. You can manipulate or coerce people, but you cannot lead them.
Vulnerability is dependent on trust. Vulnerability begets vulnerability.
When they’re vulnerable with you, then you can change the situation. 

Moving out of cynicism – our response to move forward change – that’s real leadership.
To reject hope and operate out of fear, cynicism, that’s coercion. When we go that way, we’re no better than those who hurt us.
We’re always going to be hurt. That’s life – deal with it with an open hand and respond to love. That’s where we have an opportunity to make a real difference. “

-Rob Moll (quotes taken from typed notes of a phone interview with Scott Savage, March 14, 2015)

Final Thoughts

Rob, thank you for sharing your wisdom, humility, and vulnerability with me. Your courage will continue to points us to a posture of love and a hope which defies reality.

To further support Rob Moll’s legacy (both for his family and his work_, please visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/love-for-the-moll-family and mycause.worldvision.org. For more information on his writing, please visit ivpress.com/rob-moll.

P.S, – I never wrote that book I was researching. But Rob’s words did influence a manifesto I created a couple of years later.

You can read The Hope Manifesto for free here.

 

 

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