Writings by Cole Huffman

The Fixer Is Out

In a preaching class where I guest-lectured recently, I was asked what one thing I would say to the younger version of myself about pastoral ministry. It’s hard for me to answer questions like that. I think in tangles on the fly. But if I boiled it down to just one thing, it would be that people are more complicated than I know.

There was a time I would hear tales of broken relationships in the church and think: If they just sat down for lunch together, they probably could work it out. That operating assumption wasn’t just mine. Facebook still believes that if people can just connect then we’ll understand one another, and if we understand one another we’ll overcome our differences. How’s that been working out for us all?

While giving retrospective counsel to myself, I would also tell the younger family-man version of me that a family is more complicated than I know. Every time I tried to solve a problem in my family (and church too) by treating the person as the problem, it did not go happily. In that mode—the fixer—I usually make things worse.

Eugene Peterson calls pastors to eliminate the word “dysfunctional” from our vocabulary. Years into the sheepfold now, I can better appreciate why. As a label the word oversimplifies and doesn’t account for how we actually find people in the church (and family too):

“Bicycles are dysfunctional; people aren't. The minute we start using that kind of vocabulary, we train our imaginations to think of a person as a problem. People are not problems to be solved. They are mysteries to be explored. I'm not saying there are no problems to be solved. But we don't merely fix things…. The way the pastor goes about things has to do much more with relationship, with forgiveness, with grace, with healing, with understanding, with redemption, with patience. These are the virtues that we should be cultivating.”

People are complex. If “complicated” gets at the mysteries in being human, “complex” accounts for degrees of complicatedness. These ride together, like on a tandem bike.

Proverbs tell us life isn’t complicated in the sense that it’s not all that difficult to make the connection between foolish actions and consequences. And yet life is complex due to layers within circumstances and consequences. Consider Proverbs 26:4-5:

“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

There are times we leave fools to their folly (let him/her fail). There are also times we mercifully intervene. We’re presented with about four varieties of fool in Proverbs: ranging from the naïve person, who probably needs his folly corrected for his own good, to the scoffer-mocker, who seems dead set against God. Four varieties of fool means it’s not always clear who is who and which is which, because not even fools are simple.

To oversimplify anyone is to underserve him or her. In her memoir of cancer, Everything Happens for a Reason, Kate Bowler describes how easily people shifted into solutions gear. When they weren’t minimizing her suffering they were platitudinizing it. “There is a trite cruelty in the logic of the perfectly certain,” she concluded.

I hate triteness, but can still shift into solutions gear myself. Not long ago I counseled a depressed person. I made the mistake of using the word “functional” with reference to maintaining daily responsibilities. The person was looking down, wiping tears, then looked up at me and repeated the offending word flatly: functional. If we need hope like we need air, I’d just sucked it out of the room in a clumsy attempt at fixing a broken person.

We don’t go to fixing well people either. Steven Curtis Chapman tells about singing at a Billy Graham Crusade. Backstage after the event, he overheard Dr. Graham second-guessing his presentation. He was telling his son, Franklin, “I probably should have found a better illustration....” Nearly two thousand people had responded to Graham’s preaching. Chapman was amazed at Graham’s disappointment in himself. “Is that common for your dad?” he asked. Franklin Graham said it was. Frequently, right off the platform, his dad expressed dissatisfaction with his own preaching. He was never considered complicated (part of Graham’s universal appeal), but never was he just a preaching functionary.

No one is merely the sum total of their struggles, or their gifts. I think I’ve known this a long time, but the understanding needed to age in me. I wasn’t an idiot at the starting line, just inexperienced.

Because people are complicated, the best fruit of long experience with them is humility, not mastery. Pablo Casals, a master Spanish cellist, was at the age of 90 still practicing his cello four to five hours a day. When he was asked why he did that, Casals answered, “Because I have the impression I am making progress.”

If asked what I would say to my 90-year-old self yet to come, I’ll stay with what I’d tell my younger self: people are still more complicated than you know. And: I hope you’re making progress with Jesus.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 12:25 PM
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