Some of us feel compelled to rescue the world, and we try to do it in so many ways. The ways we rescue may be simple or complex, close to home or global. We try to repair them all, from multiple interventions when our kids get in trouble at school to advocating for an end to the climate change that’s currently burning down the beautiful Greek island of Evia.
For me, it’s a given that I should rescue things and people. After all, I am a minister. Isn’t that what we do? I really do want to save the whole world from whatever ailments or tragedies are inflicted upon it — the earth itself and the people in it. The thought that writer and theologian Frederick Buechner writes about this makes so much sense to me: “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” I suppose that my desire to change, rescue and fix could very well be my undoing, because the stark reality is that I — one person — can do very little that would make much of a difference.
That’s the overwhelming part. How can we watch the world’s great need and not answer our inner compulsion to repair it? When asking myself this kind of question, I always think of tikkun olam, which is a jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world.
The phrase tikkun olam is found in the Mishnah, a body of classical rabbinic teachings. It is often used when discussing issues of social policy, insuring a safeguard to those who may be at a disadvantage. In modern Jewish circles, tikkun olam has become synonymous with the notion of social action and the pursuit of social justice.
To those who, like me, have this inner desire to change things and fix things, I can not offer any easy answers, because I do not have any. There simply aren’t any. I’m fond, though, of this idea: do the next right thing. When faced with big needs and small ones, sometimes that’s all we know to do, the next right thing.
I think that’s okay. The “next right thing” is like following the light we have or following God into the pressing needs the Spirit shows us. One thing I have learned is that before any act of repairing or helping, there must be a time of waiting, a time when the soul finds a sacred pause and waits there for holy direction. Then, just maybe we will have discovered what we need to “save the whole world.”
I love the way that poet and author Martha Postlethwaite describes a way forward for us fixers. I also love the way she invites us to find “the song that is our life” and to open our hands to receive it. Her thoughts come through so powerfully in her beautiful poem, “The Clearing.”
Do not try to save
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself to this world
so worthy of rescue.
Creating a clearing.
“The Clearing” by Martha Postlethwaite
We probably can all agree with the song John Mayer sings that we’re “waiting on the world to change.” We need changes big and small for bees, elephants, giraffes, oceans, blue whales, sea turtles, polar bears, monarch butterflies and all things nature. And then we need to clearly see the humans who probably need help most of all. So many humans live lives of deep need through no fault of their own, suffering because they’re facing incredible hardships and personal tragedies.
Martha Postlethwaite would suggest that we clear away the forest of our life and wait patiently in the clearing until what she calls, “the song that is our life,” becomes crystal clear. With that song, we will find the place of the world’s great need that is calling out to us for help.
So be present and mindful in the clearing. May God help each of us open our hands to receive our song, and then go out into the needy world singing. Amen.