Growing up, I think most of us see our dads and rock the ol’ Commutative Property of Manhood: Dad = Certain Characteristics, Dad = Man, so Man = Certain Characteristics. For me, it was Dad = Guy Who Fixes Things, Dad = Man, so Man = Guy Who Fixes Things. I believed this for a long time.
Now, my dad didn’t always fix things the “right” way. I vividly remember him mixing a variety of old paints together to create a nice olive hue that adorned our basement walls for years. I remember him calling me into the dining room and saying “If I start shaking, kick me away from whatever I’m touching and call your mother” as he began his first-ever attempt at fixing an electrical problem in the house. And of course I’ll never forget the two of us spending four hours and burning a couple thousand calories trying to replace the downstairs toilet (a job a real plumber could hammer out fairly easily by himself).
But, at the end of the day, the walls were painted, the lights were working, and the toilet was flushing, and to my dad, that’s what mattered the most. The problems were fixed.
I also have just as vivid memories of my dad walking our family through all of the trials we faced, through the deaths of relatives and friends, through the personal crises each of us kids had, through job changes and apartment moves and car wrecks. For a man who could sometimes lose his temper over the little things, from where I stood he appeared to be a rock of constancy and calm in the midst of life’s tests.
I didn’t realize what a toll it took on him. I didn’t see how hard it was to try to “fix” those situations. I just thought he fixed things, because that’s what he does. And of course, that’s what I thought I had to be.
One of the most difficult things I’ve faced as a Christian is coming to terms with the fact that the things I want to fix most are the things I will never be able to. I can’t fix my wife (not that you need fixing, honey…). I can’t fix my siblings. I can’t fix my parents. I can’t fix my students or coworkers or blog-readers or presidential candidates. I can’t fix the Great Problems of the World.
I can’t even fix myself.
Since I identified being a man with being the one who fixes things, who makes things right, and since I found myself incapable of doing this, I felt unsure about myself as a man.
And that uncertainty was terrifying.
What I’ve learned, however, is that this idea of “man-as-fixer” is incompatible with what Christ calls us to be. Jesus doesn’t want us to fix things…but He definitely wants them fixed.
Christianity is full of paradoxes. Die, so that you might have life. Be weak, so that you may be strong. Be last, so that you may be first.
They are all difficult to understand but impossible to ignore. This paradox is like those others: Be still, so that work can be done.
For many reasons, I want to be the one that makes everything better. I want that because that’s what I grew up thinking a good man does. I want that because I want people to think they can count on me. I want that because I don’t ever want to let anyone down.
But I already have. Even for those who don’t know it yet, at some point everyone who shares in God’s eternal life and thereby in His omniscience will know all of my actions, good and bad, sin and virtue, success and failure. I will be revealed for what I truly am.
And what I truly am is one who is not dependable, one who is not strong, one who is not capable of fixing the deep problems of this life (or even many of the surface ones). So for those who haven’t figured that out yet, they eventually will.
They will know what I tried to hide for so long. I am broken. I am weak.
But I can take solace in the fact that we are all broken. We are all weak. We are all in need of saving. The question then becomes, “Who can save us?”
We often look to each other to be saved, look to each other for our problems to be fixed, and often we are left disappointed. We cannot fix each other. Only Christ can mend our broken hearts, can fill our empty souls, can calm our frenzied minds. He can work through us, to be sure, and often does; I know that He often worked through my dad and my mom to make things better, and that quality of dependability and calm in distress that I found in them was a movement of the Holy Spirit.
But in the end, we all let each other down. Christ alone is capable of saving us. We just need to stop trying so hard and allow Him to work.
For me, that’s a very scary proposition; but I know now that I have no other choice.
The Catholic worldview, the worldview I was blessed to receive from my family and am continually blessed to rediscover, is one that recognizes the brokenness of humanity and this world and then dares to say that it can be fixed. It must be fixed. But despite all of our good intentions, we will fail if we try to fix it ourselves, because we are part of the problem.
This is what it means to experience Christ’s mercy. A good friend of mine told me a definition of mercy that I will never forget. He was listening to a talk given by a man with homosexual tendencies who was trying to live a life of chastity, and the man said, “You will never understand Christ’s mercy if you keep thinking it’s Him saying ‘That’s okay’ when you say ‘I’m sorry’. No. It’s much more than that. It’s not until you stop apologizing, not until you don’t know what else to say but ‘Dear Jesus, don’t leave me here!’ that you will know the power of His mercy.”
Dear Jesus, don’t leave me here.
Those are the words of a desperate man. Those are the words of one who has tried every other solution, who has failed in critical moments, who has come to the edge of despair and is terrified of going over.
Those are my words.
Until we get there, we will always be scared that we will let each other down. Until we realize that we desperately need Jesus because we are utterly screwed without Him, we will never know His love. Until we know, really know, that we cannot save each other, then we will keep failing to be saved. And we all need to be saved.
This is how we come to understand the blessing of the cross. God gives us whatever we need to get to that point. For some, it will be addictions to alcohol, drugs, nicotine, sex, pornography, or all of the above. For others, it will be loneliness. For still more, it will be personal loss. Whatever we fear the most, whether it’s being out of control or being alone or losing something or someone close to us, that is what Christ will give us. We must experience the fear, realize that it is minuscule in comparison with the possibility of being without Jesus, and then let the fear die.
That’s what I’m trying to do now. But it’s hard.
Despite my halting attempts at this humility, I know that once I do let go, then I can know His mercy. Once I ask to be saved by Him and Him alone, then He will save me.
But even though I know it intellectually, my sinful self hesitates to commit fully, hesitates to let go completely, hesitates to die totally, because I fear the pain that it will bring. It’s not that I’m not certain of the power of His mercy; it’s that I fear the road between here and the new life His mercy promises.
Once we ask not to be left here in our mess, then He will take us. He will take us from our sin and our fear and the attachments of this life.
And He will give us Himself.
And we will be satisfied.
I am sure of it. I am just as sure that it will hurt, that it will be difficult, and that it will require all of me.
But once I let the fear die, once we all let our fears die, we will be in Love Itself, and that is a land that knows nothing of fear.