Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Short Selling and Fashionable Cynicism

Prior to answering God’s call to the ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church, I was an investment/insurance/commodity broker for a major brokerage firm.  One of my co-workers was a very successful broker who specialized in the world of short selling.  In case you’re not familiar with the strategy, here’s how it works. You think a certain stock or commodity is going to go down in price and/or you’re pessimistic about the future of a certain industry.  How do you make money when a certain company or, perhaps, an entire industry is in decline??  By selling short.  Say you’re pessimistic about XYZ, Inc. which is now worth $50/share.  You think it may be dropping down to the $30 range.  But, you remember the cardinal rule of investing: buy low, sell high.  Short selling just reverses the order: sell high (now), buy low (later).  When you sell an investment short, you sell it at today’s price and sign and IOU to buy it back later.  If you’re right and XYZ, Inc. does drop, you profit even when the company is in decline.  However, if XYZ, Inc. and its leaders somehow turn things around, you are, as we used to say, ‘in a world of hurt.’

But, here’s what you learn at the “How-to-be-a-stockbroker-in-90-days” charm school: pessimism is addictive.  For some reason, those who specialize in short selling begin to adopt a pessimistic viewpoint of everything.  Back to my co-worker…in the early 1980’s the stock market, which had been in the doldrums for about 20 years, broke out of its slow decline and exploded to all time highs that were not curtailed until the shock waves of 9/11.  It was painful to watch and listen to my co-worker explain away the optimism of a rising market as well has his clients’ losses.  He was reduced to the rhetoric of “Yeah, but-ery.” “Yeah, but this is just misplaced optimism.”  “Yeah, but even a broken clock is correct twice a day.”  [What this had to do with being wrong about the market I’ve never discerned.] When pessimism has been working for 20 years…when it has been very profitable to be pessimistic…the addiction to seeing everything in decline is tough to beat.  My former co-worker left the business a defeated man.

I firmly believe in what I call the “God’s economy of experience” theory.  It goes like this: there is no experience in life that God will not either redeem and/or use to our benefit at some point in our life, if we’re open to it.  [Note: I always feel compelled to add that I believe God does not cause all experiences, but is able to redeem/use all experiences…it’s the Wesleyan understanding of free will in me, I guess.]  It is God’s economy of my experience of the pessimistic co-worker that keeps me from selling the church – the Body of Christ – short.

I admit that, by and large, selling the church in the U.S. short has been a ‘profitable’ mindset for just over 4 decades.  But, it’s addictive…and can become self-fulfilling.  Worse, it’s become fashionable.  And, when God blesses us with abundance that belies this trendy pessimism, some are reduced to “yeah, but-ery” in order to retain their long-held spiritual investment of selling God short.

So widespread is this pessimism that God’s blessings are interpreted by some as suspect.  My wife and I were co-pastors of a small rural congregation in the poorest part of the state who had the audacity to plan and build an entirely new church building and pay off all debt within a few years.  “Yeah, but someone probably died and left enough for most of the building…”  No.  “Yeah, but…”  I found myself almost apologizing for what God was able to do through that small gathering of folks who hadn’t yet caught on to the trend of fashionable cynicism.

A few years later when I was privileged to be pastor of a growing church who, in one year, accounted for 1 in 3 baptisms in a district of over 80 churches, again I found myself on the defensive at certain gatherings.   “Yeah, but I’ve heard you’ve got some evangelicals in your church.”

Please don’t confuse and dismiss this all as some form of ‘positive thinking.’  I just wonder why it comes so easy for us – and I include myself - to dismiss God’s blessings as “bullish” exceptions in what everyone knows is a “bearish” spiritual market.  I wonder why it’s easier to say, “Yeah, but…” than “Praise God.” 

It may be worth pondering…but, then again, even a broken clock is correct twice a day.



  1. Jon,
    I am appreciative of your insights and comments here. And so very correct in your assessment of
    our tendency to be pessimistic in our church /personal life and spiritual life.
    Your comments remind me of the old story of someone wondering why, if the congregation was fervently beseeching God for rain, no one was carrying an umbrella.
    We really do sell God short. We have become oblivious and blase about all the blessings we do have, all the opportunities we have and all the experiences we have that can be used for God and to Praise God.
    (My own experience with severe depression is an illustration from my experience.)

    Thanks again. I am planning to share the section about God's economy of experience with a small study group I meet with. I hope you do not object.


  2. Marge,
    Thanks for the comment and, by all means, use the God's economy of experience idea. - Jon

  3. Could it be that God's blessings in the US are so tied to material blessings that we lose sight of what God has done. We take our material wealth for granted as compared to many parts of the world.