The Fix-it Impulse: The Challenge of Abiding in the Desert

“Christ on the Way to the Desert,” Dagmar Anders

“I can fix it.”  As a minister, spouse, father, social worker, son, white male, in virtually every context of my life has that phrase been a refrain.  It’s both gift and curse.  “I can fix it.”  Most of the time, these words are code for a deep urge within me to right a wrong.  I always want to trust that feeling.  It’s the wellspring of my anger and outrage at injustice, it’s my own response to sadness in another person, and it is the same feeling Jesus confronts in today’s Gospel on this First Sunday of Lent.  The desire to fix things is very human and it is an important response to the hunger and thirst that we see so clearly articulated today in Matthew.

To be in the desert and be hungry and thirsty is not a spiritual metaphor.  Anyone who has actually fasted or, more appropriately, actually been hungry or thirsty because of a lack of access to food or water knows better.  It is a material condition that engages our deepest understandings of need and fulfillment.  Jesus knows what it means to persist in hunger.  Johann Baptist Metz’s little classic, Poverty of Spirit, speaks of the temptations in this Sunday’s Gospel as “three assaults on the poverty of Jesus,” the total emptying of God’s self into the humanity of the Christ.[i]  Each Lent, I find them to be helpful ways to think about what it means to truly live in muck and mire and lean into the first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3).

Stone to Bread:  Changing the circumstances of another

Years ago, I served in Latin America and had my first encounter with the forced informal economy of the prison system where I ministered.  One of the members of my small faith sharing group explained that he was struggling to come up with the cash/goods/services/whatever to be sure that he could eat the two meals a day that the penal system did not provide.  I thought to myself, “Wait, one meal a day? But, I saw what you just ate for lunch (a bowl of rice and some trash fish from the wharf in our town).”  A state-sponsored fast was not my idea of paying one’s debt to society.  And so the anger flashed up in me along with the impulsive response, “I can fix it.”  So in our small bible study, we read the feeding of the five thousand in Mark (6:34-44) and had a discussion of sharing and table fellowship.  Carlos was invited to eat breakfast the next morning with two of the other men in our group. I was validated, “Yes, I can fix it.”

The temptation of turning stones into bread is the challenge of the quick fix.  We fall prey to the first solution that comes to mind.  In pastoral work, I find this is often connected to the impulse to address needs that are right in front of us.  We want to eliminate the pain that is a natural part of the human condition, as Metz would say, part of our poverty.

And why not?  We are given so many creative faculties by God that to deny them would seem to betray the principal fact of our creation as good.

From the heights of the temple:  Fear of falling

When I returned to the prison the next week the guards informed me that there was no admittance for outsiders.  There had been an incident of violence in one of the cell blocks.  The next week I entered again to find Carlos in much the same situation, still hungry, still needing something from me to change his circumstances, and this time he was alienated from the men who had shared with him in our group.  My fix had actually opened the door to some conflict that I spent much of that visit mediating by running back and forth across the courtyard like a fourth-grader in a gossip cabal.

In the end conversations were not helpful or fruitful and my rash pastoral decision to fix an immediate problem had resulted in a deeper relational issue.  I left frustrated and angry with Carlos and startlingly unaware of my own discomfort with the brokenness.

Reflecting upon this moment more than a decade later, I am struck by the clarity with which I now see my own fear of failure or response to guilt or both.  Healing the relational break was important, but perhaps not so important as to practice the discernment that had eluded me in the prior visit.  Instead, I retreated into the desire to fix as a means of sustaining myself.  How many times in relationship do we find as Metz reflects that “the tabernacle of self is empty and barren?”[ii]

It is no coincidence that Jesus’ temptation on the temple parapet is to unfettered autonomy from which only a divine community of angels can save him.   In ministry and justice work, I often find that folks with value commitments often cannot say no.  We have the tenacity and grit to build the kingdom, for sure, but at what cost to self if we are not accepting the support of others?  Authenticity, as Metz points out, means enabling ourselves to be cradled in the web of our relationships.  If we commit ourselves to the other fully, we come in contact with the living God through poverty of spirit.

A cross made from lumber and dried flowers stands in the desert at San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
A cross made from lumber and dried flowers stands in the desert at San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

The kingdoms of the world: Refuse to bow

I remember looking at Marvin’s hands during our family session.  He was the father of my 7 year-old client in the community-based mental health clinic in which I was a social worker.  Marvin’s hands were like my father’s, weather worn from Chicago winters working at a car wash– cut, bleeding, and dry.  Marvin had a few trips to Cook County Jail and spent more of my client’s life in pre-trial detention because of his poverty than actually serving sentences.

Marvin’s friends from high school were dead or in jail.  His mother was an addict, and his father had died when he was young.  Marvin struggled with my client’s mother.   Their relationship was chaotic and painful.  They were trying though.  There was my client, the 7 year old, whom they loved fiercely.  When I would hand my client off to one of my colleagues because Marvin told me that he needed to talk, Marvin would gush praise on the boy and spout pain to me.  He cried with a kind of sorrow that broke through my calloused clinical walls, and I cried with him.  It was the only response.  I told him the only thing that made sense – despite everything being stacked against you, Marvin, you are here. You have found a place to take your sorrow and frustration.  You’re making a different choice than those around you.  Marvin acted out of love.

Being a social worker taught me to recalibrate my expectations of progress – that of my clients and my own.  The Lenten promise of a clean heart, one that waits with a willing spirit depends on the hard work of recalibrating our expectations to the brokenness of the world, as the psalmist tells us.  Clients like Marvin taught me that Jesus’ temptation to flee the desert is real and in circumstances like these even seems logical.  After all, the third temptation is the most appealing – get out to end the pain.  Marvin stayed.  He refused to bow before the powers and principalities arrayed against him. He persisted in the midst of hopelessness and despair.  God abided with him.

“Jesus’ no to Satan,” as Metz writes, “is his “yes” to our poverty.  He did not cling to his divinity.  He did not simply dip into our existence, wave a magic wand of divine life over us and then hurriedly retreat to his eternal home… Instead, Jesus subjected himself to our plight.”[iii]

He does so still.  As we begin this Lent, we remember that hunger is an invitation to realize that strength if we can avoid the impulse to fix it.

John DeCostanza, Jr. is Director of University Ministry at Dominican University in River Forest, IL, and a DMin. candidate and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Scholar at Catholic Theological Union.  

[i] Johannes Baptist Metz,  Poverty of Spirit. (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), 10.

[ii] Metz, Poverty of Spirit, 32.

[iii] Metz, Poverty of Spirit, 12.