(Approximate reading time: 3-4 minutes.)
When work needs to be done, but no one qualified is available to do it, it is sometimes necessary for unqualified people to attempt it. I know this from personal experience.
When I entered pastoral ministry, the denomination I served sent me to a little church that was on the verge of closing. Membership was small and most members were on a fixed income, so we were always short of funds. When the roof leaked, I tried to fix it. When the parsonage washing machine stopped, I tried to repair it. When the boiler didn’t heat, I tried to get it working again.
The boiler was old, probably from the 1930s, and had once been coal powered. It had been converted to run on natural gas and, by the time I came in 1981, had a control module to regulate it. It was this module that I would tinker with whenever the boiler stopped working.
I had no qualifications for working on a boiler, unless that it was that I had once cleaned carbon deposits out of the massive boiler tubes where I worked. In my defense, when the church had no heat and no money to pay a repairman, something had to be done.
Once, when all my tinkering failed to restore the boiler to working order, we hired a repairman. I took him to the boiler room, showed him the control module, and waited around to learn what I could. He examined the controls for a short time, then turned to me and said: “Don’t ever touch that again.” Later, when I was coiling his extension cord for him, he took it away from me and did it himself. The look on his face said everything: “You’re an idiot.”
A decade later, in another town, I had a computer that sometimes failed in startup. Once, when my brother-in-law, who was a programmer, was visiting, I had him look at the computer. He got into the root directory and began making changes to the autoexec.bat file as I watched. After that, whenever there were problems in startup, I would enter the root directory and begin making changes.
There came a time when nothing I did would successfully launch the operating system, and I had to ask a friend at church – another programmer – to take a look. He worked intently on the computer for a few minutes. Then, with the same look the boiler repairman had given me, said these hauntingly familiar words: “Don’t ever do that again.”
It’s enough to give a guy a complex. This week, I took it on myself to repair the dishwasher, which wasn’t heating, and which had developed a small leak. I had ordered a new heating element and spent five minutes watching a repair video on YouTube. I removed the dishwasher from the cupboard, loosened the retaining nuts, removed and replaced the heating element, then put it all back together. We tested it the next evening. It didn’t heat and the leak was a little worse.
I am afraid of the look the repairman is going to give me. I am planning to busy myself in the other room until he leaves.
Many people who would never think of repairing boilers or rewriting root directory files assume that ordering their spiritual lives is a piece of cake. Yet the complexity of a human soul is far greater than that of boilers or computers, which can be repaired by an outside professional. The soul is an inside job. It is something we must do ourselves.
But we needn’t do it alone. Others with more experience – established believers, pastors, and spiritual directors – can guide us. Older generations of Christians referred to this guidance as “soul work” or “the cure of souls.” It is wise to seek guidance, but others cannot do the work for us.
We must do the work ourselves, yet it can only be done in cooperation with God. The instruments used in the cure of souls routinely include Scripture, prayer, meditation, and select spiritual practices, but such practices are not substitutes for confident interaction with God. They are rather a means to it.
(First published by Gannett.)