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Go Forth and Make Projects of All Nations

I live in a spiritual tradition that’s addicted to fixing people.

When I was a kid, trying to figure out how to own my inherited faith, I had a bizarre and upsetting experience with my buddy’s older brother. I was trying to explain to him why I didn’t think lying was such a big deal. We went back and forth, and when he couldn’t change my mind he lost his temper. As a good conservative religious person, he couldn’t cuss me out. Instead threw out the biggest threat he could think of: “Good luck explaining this to God when you die.”

Now I’m sure I’m not the only person who had a bad experience with an older brother. But that sort of attitude is indicative of the fix-it lifestyle. Where do you think he learned that conversation stopper?

The fix-it lifestyle is easy to spot. Fixers foist their particular paradigms on you. They do a lot of talking, and they do a lot of doing. And they hurt people. More often than not.

Tonight a friend told my wife and me about a recent bombardment of missionary support requests. They had their scripts and set up their coffee meetings and did a lot of talking about mission and money. Some peddled more than others. But none of them listened. They were so focused on their mission that they couldn’t see my friend, who by the way is doing kind of crappy right now.

At the end of our chat, my friend told me: “It’s hard to be positive about people when they don’t know or love me.”

As she processed with us, we wondered together how people can expect to go and fix somebody “out there” when they don’t even know how to love people around them.

The problem with “mission” is it pulls us from the present. If we are always on mission for people we are never in relationship with people. It’s too easy to look past human pain when you’ve got a job to do.

It’s like when you’re late for work. You’re focused, you’re determined, you’re going to stop for nothing.

Imagine living your daily life like that, being late to work. That’s the mission-first life.

Have you met someone like that? It’s exhausting. They come off really self-centered. And be honest, you kind of wish they would go away forever.

I’ve spent enough time in the world of faith to wish they would go away. Because I’ve watched people sent through the meat grinder in the name of mission.

The worst part is this people-eating machine lives inside so many cause-driven people. It doesn’t matter what the cause is: God, guns, climate change, health, feminism. The tyranny of the mission-first life crosses all ideological boundaries.

In the religious world we use the language “idolatry.” It’s when you find something good that makes your life a little more beautiful, but then you get stuck and think it’s the only way to see beauty. And then you think it’s the only thing that’s beautiful.

The mission, for many, blinds people of faith to the beauty of God. I think it’s what Jesus of Nazareth was pointing to when he said “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.”

He was pointing out the stuckness of his critics, and their myopic devotion to something beautiful that had become more like a prison.

There is a ton of important important work to do, plenty of justice causes to champion and plenty of worthy campaigns to wage. But none of it matters if you live a scorched earth life on your way there. You end up making a bigger mess than the one you’re trying to clean up.

So let me offer a mantra that I find helpful to avoid stuckness and unnecessary injury: “People, not projects.”

And I offer this out of personal experience. I’m a fix-people addict in recovery.

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