Repairing the World (Part 3)
Repairing the World (Part 3)
December 30, 2018
There is a Leonard Cohen song called “Anthem.” The lyrics run like this: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” The world is broken as are each of us. Yet, something essential and good happens as a result of that brokenness.
Our ancient ancestors in faith understood the tension that was there for every human being who is paying attention: we can see how the world could be; we can see who that person we care about could be; we can see (on a good day) who we could be—but we fall short. It’s not that the world or the people around us or we, ourselves, are all bad. Rather, it is the incredible mixed bag that we all are—capable in any given moment of rising to the occasion and just as capable in the next moment of sinking to our lowest level of functioning. Even if we are paying attention and being intentional in our choices, we are probably shocked at some points by our immediate reactions to things—the ones we repress—asking ourselves, “Where in the world did that come from?”
The central story of creation that our ancestors told was of a world that was created by God and was good. In the beginning, the world was formless and void, an “inky blackness” as our translation says. It wasn’t that God was absent. Rather, God’s Spirit—literally, the breath of God,—just flowed above the inky darkness. The very first thing that God did was that God called light into being, separating day from night. The most basic, dependable aspect of the world in which we live was called into being. We know, even on our worst day, that the sun will rise again.
As I’ve said to you many times before, I don’t think the point of the creation story was to offer us video proof of a world created in a matter of days. Rather, I think that our ancestors were talking to us about two things. First, they were telling us that God acts on the side of bringing order out of chaos—which meant a lot to the people who first heard this story, when the kingdoms had fallen and the people were in exile. Of course, our life as a nation never feels chaotic and our personal lives never feel like they are coming apart at the seems so what could it possibly mean to us to have a God who brings order out of chaos, right?
Second, I think our ancestors in faith wanted us to know that God had a hand in the creation of every creature of the sea and sky and land, including us, and that God so loved that world! Each day unfolds like poetry or a great song and the refrain of that great song is, “It is good!” Think of that—God clearly has a preference in the story for incredible diversity—consider the range of creatures created. God clearly has no interest in hierarchy—they are all good. God clearly has an interest in human beings taking on the role of stewards of the earth. Literally, the first job God ever gives us is to care for the earth and all of its creatures.
The problem, of course, is that we all know that the world is not what God intended it to be. How could it be with plenty of food to go around but with people starving? How could it be when we poison essential resources like our water? How could it be when nations are not only divided but when throughout history those who have had power have wielded it out of pure self-interest? Something is wrong with the world that God called good.
Of course, we can look much more locally in our lives and point out that the people around us are not the people God intended them to be, too. After all, the great American sport is putting people on pedestals, adoring them and crying out, “I want to be like Mike” (or whomever the person of the day might be.) Then, we knock those folks off the pedestals and delight in their fall. Of course, by the third act, no one loves repentance like Americans! We live in a cynical, jaded time in which many people seek out others’ flaws.
Most tellingly, though, we know that we ourselves are broken, too. A lot of people put a ton of energy into trying to hide this fact from others. Some people are completely oblivious to this truth at all. Perhaps the most grown up among us just own the truth of our own struggles and wounds and broken places and try to work around them as best we can: “Yes, you are correct. I am broken, too. None of us are who God created us to be but maybe, just maybe there is ‘partial credit’ available. Maybe I can be more of God who created me to be. Maybe, together, we can be more of the family or the couple or the community whom God created us to be. Maybe, aspiring to be more rather than less, counts.”
So, in order to be with me so far, I need you to agree to two things: there is a lot of brokenness in this world (including inside of each of us) and that brokenness is not God’s fault (the ultimate way to shrug off responsibility, right?) If you are with me then you are standing at the crossroads of cynicism or pragmatism. You can either give up on the whole thing, take your seat in the “stands” and keep thinking to yourself, “I don’t want to play this game but if I did I would be so much better!” Or, you can roll up your sleeves and try to make things a notch better.
This is where the Kabbalah story of the broken vessels comes in for me. The Kabbalah is a collection of writings by Jewish mystics. It has been around forever and became trendy a few years ago but that’s not the Kabbalah’s fault! I heard the story that I’m thinking about when Rachel Naomi Remen recounted it in an interview. Everyone in her family was a scientist—physicians and nurses, except for her grandfather who was a rabbi and a mystic. God, for him was experienced on a daily basis—perhaps, discovered on a daily basis would be the better way to say it. When Rachel was 4, her grandfather told her this story.
It seems that on the day when creation began, God tried to pour the divine light into the vessel of creation—into the world, itself. However, it was impossible for the finite creation to contain the divine light. It didn’t take long for the vessel of creation to begin to crack until eventually, it shattered. When it shattered, the divine light escaped its container. Some of that light made its way back to the divine. However, most of that light was spread throughout creation, hidden in every person, in every event, in every creature and every place in this world.
According to this story, the whole reason that we are here—the core meaning of human life—is to find and recognize the divine spark in every person, event, creature and place. We have to learn to see everything differently. We have to be willing to stand in the presence of our own brokenness and the brokenness of the world and open our eyes and hearts and minds to the possibility that even in the most broken places in myself and in the world around me, there is a divine presence to be discovered. Our job is to name it and to do what it takes to release that light back into the world. So, sometimes, we might simply need to love someone dearly enough until they finally trust the moment enough to be the best of who they could be. In other times, we might need to be a part of righting the wrongs and injustices that keep a person or a place or an event or a creature from allowing that divine light to shine through them. The bottom line is that we would have to learn how and where to look.
So, the old news is that world is broken. We can devote ourselves on a daily basis to pointing out this truth. Our news services will support this by finding the worst things that have happened in our world. Our leaders will tempt us by making it look for all the world like the self-centered people are the ones who get ahead in this life. If we don’t have any expectations then we’ll never be disappointed, right
Or, we can feel the real upshot of this story. If the divine spark is in everyone and everything and every event, then my real power has far more to do with who I actually meet today, with what I actually choose to do today, with how I look at myself and those with whom I come into contact. In the story, the work of human beings is called, “tikkun olam,” which literally means “repairing the world.” However, the secret of tikkun olam is that I don’t have to win some election or be in charge of some company or be surrounded by like minded people to be a part of this healing. I just have to pay attention and care.
I spent a lot of time in 2018 witnessing and often receiving tikkun olam. My favorites, like most people, are when we get to offer this to others. So, thanks to a whole host of people’s support, I got to be there in Missouri when a woman whose whole life was up for grabs got to sit on her new porch on her mobile home that had been moved to a new site and she cried tears of joy. I got to be there when a military vet hugged me and thanked our group for the fact that he now had running water and his family had been able to take showers for the first time. Moments like these were tikkun olam because they were humbling and left me thanking God for the chance to just be there and be a part of them and thanking God for all the people that made them happen.
However, sometimes, the tikkun olam—the healing that happens—happens for and to us. Our life goes up for grabs in an instant when a health crisis emerges. People care for us. We do the hard work of trusting others and people come through. Things grow darker and darker and yet people keep showing up—with the professional medical skills they’ve honed or simply with a casserole. There is light in the darkness. There is healing in the broken places.
Or, as some of you saw this year, Christmas sometimes arrives in Pageant Sunday, when you end up with an angel on one knee and a shepherd on the other. And what you are left to feel is awe!
Christ came to show us how to live—to be the example, not the exception. That life is about seeing the something more of God’s presence in every moment and every person. Look at the person in front of you….now, look again!