Thursday, July 11, 2013

Vintage CC: I Can't Fix You

I wrote this post just last year, but it's been weighing on my mind lately. I think about people whom I've wanted to fix, whom I tried too hard to fix, where my desire to fix someone seemed to cause me to make one stupid decision after another. At this point I need to chalk past experiences up to "live and learn," and a post like this helps me remember what I've learned.

When you try your best but you don't succeed 
When you get what you want but not what you need 
When you feel so tired but you can't sleep 
Stuck in reverse 

And the tears come streaming down your face 
When you lose something you can't replace 
When you love someone but it goes to waste 
Could it be worse? 

Lights will guide you home 
And ignite your bones 
And I will try to fix you

Every once in a while, a movie is made featuring an unlikely, unorthodox mentor figure who transcends him or herself in order to help another character see how they can be more than they are. The title character of Mr. Holland's Opus used unconventional ways to get through to certain difficult students, having heartwarming talks with a clarinet player to feel the music rather than read it and taking another to the graveside of a former student to show him what music can do. And, in simple Hollywood fashion, these kids would understand. He broke through. In a way, he fixed them.

I also think of Sean McGuire in Good Will Hunting, who took on the arduous task of getting down to the core of the title character's troubles, connecting with him in a way that everyone else failed to do. He ended up teaching him about life, love, regret, and ways to channel his gifts into something good and productive.

It's not really a newsflash to anybody that life hardly ever resembles Hollywood. Stories and problems aren't solved in an hour and half. The lead character in our narrative doesn't always win the game. And at least when it comes to ministry, but in many other vocations as well, he or she doesn't always have the right answer for the person he or she is trying to help.

At any given time, a pastor may be called to minister to people with such a diverse range of problems: cancer, depression, financial hardship, difficulties that come with aging, loss. It would be nice to be able to say the right thing in all of these cases, or do the right thing that would make these problems go away. But I don't always know the right thing. Sometimes there is no right thing. The problem is what it is, deeper or more chronic or beyond what I can do. Sometimes it's more a matter of the person needing to realize something about him or herself before things can change. Other times, things just seem to have little hope of changing.

As badly as I often want to be the one who fixes everyone around me, as often as I want to be everyone's savior, it is an important lesson for me to realize that someone already took the title of Messiah, and it wasn't me.

When I served as a hospital chaplain for a summer, my CPE supervisor would talk about "feel good visits." These were the visits with patients who didn't have something seriously wrong with them, or were especially personable, or seemed to have a positive outlook, and so on. These were the easy visits, the ones that made you feel competent and like you were making a difference; even like you had helped fix something. But of course there were the other visits: the ones where someone didn't feel like talking, or couldn't discern whether God was present or cared, or had given up hope. These are the ones where a way to help, a way to fix the problem, wasn't as clear-cut or apparent at all. They're the visits that sent me trudging back to the nurse's station wondering whether I'd just done anything worthwhile at all.

In ministry, there are feel-good moments and there are the other kind. And a big part of wanting to fix someone else's problem is really a result of making the problem about us: we want to feel good, or competent, or like Jesus' stand-in. When we make fixing others' problems about us, we'll likely be even less of a help than we would be otherwise.

As much as I'd like to be Mr. Holland or Sean McGuire or Jesus, I can't. I'm not. I don't have the perfect solution for everything. I can't fix others. I can barely fix myself most of the time.

But I can at least walk with you, pray with you, cry with you, sit in the ashes with you.

That is, if I can get out of my own way. I hope I can at least do that.