“I know what’s wrong with it,” said six year old Steven.
From the eminence of 12 years old, I was showing Steven my electric trains, most of which I had salvaged from other sets and lovingly repaired. Suddenly one of the engines we’d been playing with just quit.
That’s when Steven said: “I know what’s wrong with it.”
I turned to Steven, wondering how he had figured it out. “What?” I asked.
“It’s broken!” he announced solemnly. The look on his face told me he clearly believed he had solved the problem.
I got quite a good laugh about that little incident, telling my parents and friends, and we all enjoyed the humor. Clearly the 6 year old’s lack of understanding was on display and very amusing. Knowing something is broken doesn’t mean you know what’s wrong, and certainly doesn’t mean you know how to fix it.
But over the years since, I’ve begun to wonder. Nobody would really claim that just pointing out that something is broken means you’ve accomplished anything. Yet many, many people, who exceed age 6 by many, many years, behave as though this were the case.
“My community is broken. People don’t talk to one another or know one another any more. Problems turn into lawsuits for no good reason.”
So what is causing this? Where is the problem? How can it be fixed? Many of the same people have no idea and clearly have no intention of trying to fix it. They want to identify the problem and complain. Let me ask you this? When was the last time you did more than wave to a neighbor?
“My church is going the wrong way. It’s broken! Things are falling apart! We’re losing members.”
But what’s the problem, and what are you doing about it?
I had an interesting experience with this once. I was leading a Bible study group, and somehow a text led to a series of complaints about our church. Now there was a visitor there. I knew that she was the chair of our staff-parish relations committee. Those in the Methodist church know this is the group that theoretically deals with complaints about how the pastor and staff are accomplishing their mission. If you have a complaint in a United Methodist congregation, the SPR chair is one person to talk to.
The rest of the group should have know who our visitor was too, but they didn’t (problem #1). The visitor pulled out a notebook as the complaints flowed, and started to ask questions. When did these things happen? What might be done? “I’m the SPR chair,” she said. She wanted to go do something about the complaints.
What happened? The complaints dried up. Like six year old Steven, folks wanted to say, “It’s broken,” but they didn’t know where to go from there, or perhaps the desire to pursue the issue was missing.
“Washington is broken. The politicians don’t listen to the people. We need to fix things!”
One of my favorite questions at this point is to ask the person whether they voted in the last election. You might be amazed at how many complaints come from the non-participants. But if you want to get even closer to the problem, ask the person if they know how their representative or senator voted on the problem. If you want to get into even darker territory, mention state representatives, county commissioners, or city councilmen.
Realizing that something is broken is important, but it’s the easy part. It’s where the work starts, not where it ends. At least if you’re not six years old, and thus don’t have someone else to make it better for you!
(I’m submitting this to the one word at a time blog carnival, on the word broken)