Friday, May 1, 2009

Sometimes you're the tether, sometimes you're the ball . . .

At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ's people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.

On the surface, this part of the ordination vow seems like a no-brainer. The last part of Matthew 25 pretty much lays it out with the culling of the herd. No mincing of words there.

But lately I'm having some issues with the word "helpless." I could be wrong, but I don't recall this word placed in Jesus' mouth in the Gospels. "Least of these" is about as close as we get. Who are the helpless?

Well, word-nerd that I am, I looked it up. This from "unable to help oneself; weak or dependent; deprived of strength or power; powerless; incapacitated." So who are helpless? Well, babies, of course--except that they can cry to signal what they want, so they aren't totally helpless. People with extreme dementia? People in a coma? Hmm. Maybe.

But the people Jesus talks about in Matthew 25 are not, by this definition, helpless. They are hungry, thirsty, in prison. But that doesn't mean they are helpless. And most of the people I serve in my diaconal ministry are far from helpless. Poverty encourages it's own kind of power. When our survival instinct meets threat, helplessness becomes relative. Prey becomes predator, abused becomes abuser. Salt the situation with some alcohol or drugs and you'll have a master manipulator before you can say "God bless." We all do what we must to get by.

Do I sound jaded? Already? I hope not. I've spent the last couple of days failing to heed the giant sucking sound of a domestic-violence-alcohol clusterf*&k with some folks I pastor. How is it after three days of witnessing their chaos, I find myself engaging the drama? (Yeah, I know, the "three days" part should have been my first clue.)

I think this has something to do with an unhelpful stance implied in the words "serve the helpless" which implies an us (well-equipped saviors) and a them (incapacitated victims). We become fix-it junkies with those in need as our projects, and before you know it the Holy Spirit wanders off looking for something more interesting to do. In reality, even those who are a total disaster have more volition than we see in them. One of the worst things we can do is presume helplessness, assume the role of helper, and attempt to strip away any remaining agency they have. Or just as bad, we presume helplessness and suddenly discover they've have a surprising wherewithal to transform us from helper to enabler (which is a polite way to say "self-destruction facilitator").

Remember tetherball. Set aside, for a moment, those dark memories of getting beaned upside the head with the tetherball by that kid who couldn't keep his hands out of the classroom fish tank. The thing with a tetherball is that it's . . . well . . . tethered. No matter which way you hit it, it's going to wrap itself around that pole. By the laws of physics, it's helpless not to. That's what I'm finding in my diaconal work. Everybody has their pole--addiction, violence, overwork, codependence, compulsive whatever--and no matter which way life slaps you, you're bound to wrap yourself around that pole. Poles can also be less "in-your-face" but still destructive like one of my personal favorites: "Everyone must like me." But everytime the tetherball hits the end of its rope, there's that same damned pole again.

So . . . SURPRISE! Joke's on us: we're all helpless! Remember? It's a broken world. And we're included. We are all tethered to sin--or in the less loaded terms of a pastoral care text, to our "limitations" as well as "gifts."

A deacon helps no one by futhering the illusion of helper and helpless. In fact, she can pretty well muck it up even further if she fails to show "in [her] life and teaching" an understanding of her own helplessness and an awareness that service does not mean fixing. And because it's so ingrained to defend the mask of benevolent servant, so deeply tempting to make those we serve into projects, this could well be the deacon's most telling challenge.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. Love the irony--the helper being helpless. To resist seeing work as a series of projects, to see projects as people, to see people as part of the whole rather than a hierarchy--perhaps that is what it is all about.