Often beside a cluttered kitchen, overlooking a disaster of a living room, my family sits down to eat dinner (usually later than I’d like to admit). At the table next to a lamp we have a little chalkboard on which I write quotes I want to remember, things I want us to see everyday. Lately we have been memorizing this passage from the Talmud while we eat
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
We say “enormity” round and wide. We say “NOW” loud and jab our fingers toward the earth. We point and raise our eyebrows with a loud “but!” and shake our heads while we say “neither are you free.” When we say “abandon” we take our time in it. We let the words sink in and fill out. These are letters to live by. This is the call of Love (and when you hear it in your three year old’s voice it’s unmistakable).
But I’ll be honest: it is daunting.
When I see a story about another awful thing – another no good, terrible, why-did-this-happen thing – I feel angry or sad or helpless (or all). The story about the woman whose husband died while they were trying to escape their country. The little boy covered in dust. The women raped in camps awaiting refuge. The mother whose husband and child were killed because she cut hair for American soldiers in Iraq and she still can’t get two of her kids to safety. And of course people I love going through their own hardships.
These are times I pray, sometimes despite myself. I beg to what I am not always convinced can hear me, if there is any way for you to intervene, please help. And there on my knees I remember – maybe it’s a still small voice – I’m the intervention. I’m the plan. show me what to do.
The vast majority of the time I am not thinking of this. In the middle of wrangling three kids, cleaning my square feet, tracking appointments and deadlines I am more likely to not be thinking about kids without clean water or refugees in airports or women without hope for an education. But sometimes my bubble is popped by the double-edged sword of constant access to information and the sweet health and safety of my children is made a little sour by the realization that so many mothers are unable to experience it. Sometimes I am restless and heartsick. I’m grateful I don’t have to think about these things all the time, but I’m also grateful for the occasions that do cause me to think about them.
But then what? Where do I begin? What am I supposed to do when the problem is so complicated and so huge? I am overwhelmed by the thought that every refugee now being refused the entry they were promised is a person. An actual human being with inalienable rights. I’m overwhelmed thinking about the young girl who hung herself because she didn’t have clean water. I’m overwhelmed thinking about every new terminal cancer diagnosis which will be delivered just today.
Do you know what helps? do justly, love mercy, walk humbly. NOW.
My children find this easy. Maybe that’s why Jesus said to follow their lead. I tell my daughter about a family coming into the airport from another country and she says, “If they don’t have a place to go, can they stay here?” I tell her there are kids her age without clean water and she says, “Let’s bring them some!” I tell her that some people in the world are very scared and she prays for them to have comfort. My kid doesn’t waste time in sentimentality – she feels sad, but she doesn’t just feel sad. She thinks of what to do. Now.
Meeting strangers at an airport so they know there are Americans glad to welcome them is not going to change policy, but it’s a Now thing. A campaign for 30 people to get clean water won’t relieve the global problem by any measurable amount, but it’s a Now thing. Showing up for a friend won’t make everything in her life better, but it’s a Now thing.
Praying doesn’t feel so useful, but it reminds me that I’m in on this game. It grounds me to the work Jesus calls me to, the demand Love makes. And it gives me a place to trade my smallness for some Now.
Because also overwhelming is thinking of the 21 actual human beings (and counting) who will have clean water because of the people I get to call mine. Every single time that number goes up I am daunted by the enormity of a single person’s worth. Every time a friend shows up for me I am reminded that they are not obligated to fix what’s broken in my life, but they have bound themselves – neither free to abandon – me and my grief. This work will not be completed in my lifetime, I am sure of it. I will die the same day many children are born new into awful situations. I can’t do or love or walk enough to make this place suitable for everyone Then. But I can do and love and walk Now.