18 Aug Helping, Fixing, or Serving?
My church recently experienced three instances of people asking for money—all on the same Sunday. Two people came into the building, one during worship and one after worship, and one person stood outside the church, seeking money from parishioners as they left. Our experiences that day raised a couple of questions that come up repeatedly: what is our role as individuals and as a church in responding to the needs of our community? And, what constitutes real help rather than enabling?
Clearly, Jesus gives us a mandate to care for those who are poor, marginalized, sick and grieving. Calvary, like many churches, generously supports local programs that provide food, affordable housing, and daycare for low-income families. We work with and through agencies and non-profit organizations that assist our most vulnerable neighbors. But what does our “care” look like, in practical terms, when people are standing right in front of us asking for money for rent, bus fare, medicine or a car repair?
Not long ago a member of our congregation gave me a copy of an article that was published in Noetic Sciences Review twenty years ago. The focus of the piece is on the differences between helping, fixing, and serving, and the commentary is as relevant today as it was two decades ago. Here is a summary of the author’s critique:
Helping is based on inequality. It is not a relationship between equals. When you help, you use your own strength to help those of lesser strength, those who are needier than you are. Helping incurs debt. When you help someone, they “owe you one.” People feel this inequality. When we help we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity and wholeness.
Fixing is based on judgment. When I fix a person, I perceive them as broken, and their brokenness requires me to act. There is distance between ourselves and whatever or whomever we are fixing. Fixing is a form of judgment, and all judgment creates distance, a disconnection, an experience of difference. In fixing there is an inequality of expertise that can easily become a moral distance.
If helping is an experience of strength and fixing is an experience of mastery and expertise, service is an experience of mystery, surrender and awe. Unlike helping, we don’t serve with our strength, we serve with ourselves. We draw from all of our experiences which means that our limitations serve, our wounds serve, even our darkness can serve. Unlike fixing, we can’t serve from a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch.
Service, then, is a relationship between equals. Our service serves us as well as others. Over time, helping and fixing are draining, depleting. We burn out. Service, however, is renewing. When we serve, our work itself will sustain us.
Fundamentally, helping, fixing and service are ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. From the perspective of service, we are all connected: all suffering is like my suffering and all joy is like my joy. The impulse to serve emerges naturally and inevitably from this way of seeing.
These distinctions, between helping, fixing and serving, have become something of a “plumb line” for me, as I continue to discern how I am called to respond to the ever-present needs in our community. I share them in the hopes that that they will provide “food for thought” for your own reflections as well, as together, we continue to seek to be God’s people in and for the world.
Yours for the Kingdom,