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Shall we dwell on the murky or reflect on the joy?


…and I think to myself, what a wonderful world…

Driving to work this morning I was in peak hour traffic with hundreds of cars all around me. I didn’t experience any road rage. I had to change lanes and a man in the next lane slowed down and beckoned me over. When I thanked him with a wave of my hand he returned the gesture. I dropped one of my Grandchildren off at Kinder and was greeted by many of the kids with stories of their weekend. They all call me Grandpa! I stopped to pick up my morning coffee and the lady who held the door open for me acknowledged my ‘thank you’ with a ‘no worries’ and a smile. I drove on singing to myself that great ballad by Louis Armstrong ‘and I think to myself, what a wonderful world…’

At the time of writing [Paul] was going through all sorts of suffering and pain which he acknowledges and describes. But he has chosen not to dwell upon the murkiness, instead to rejoice by dwelling upon the good, the things he can marvel at.

At the same time I had the radio on and as I listened to talk back and news I got a very different story. Later as I checked online for the latest media offerings that different story was dominant. Words like crisis, anger, killings, shock, and corruption were being thrown around. Stories about sex offences, car bombs, overcrowded prisons and politicians refusing to acknowledge problems, aged care crises, road accidents (one of them with a car on fire), sexually transmitted diseases, abuse of the drug ecstasy, aftermath of bush fires, war, assault, child abduction and natural disasters. The song that came to mind was from Eric Burdon and the Animals, ‘We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do…’

Just another day in the life of the world? A mixture of good and bad, wonder and horror?

I used to teach a subject called ‘Life in the City’. It was a socio-theological analysis of urbanisation and life in a 21st century city. For one of the classes I would take my students to the top of the Rialto building in Melbourne to experience a perspective from above the city where everything gave the appearance of orderliness and functionality. We then went to visit one of the Urban Planners from the City of Melbourne and listen to him talk about ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ and all the wonderful things that went into making Melbourne the city that has won numerous awards. It was a perspective that fit into the ‘what a wonderful world’ song mentioned above.

The next week we would visit Brendan Nottle, the Salvation Army Major in the City and the leader of their Project 614 mission to the streets of Melbourne.  He would tell stories of the underworld of the city, stories of children selling themselves for sexual favours so they could get money for drugs, stories of violence on the streets that were sickening and so unnecessary, and stories of people locked into homelessness, mental health issues, and substance abuse.  ‘We gotta get out of this place’ would’ve been an understandable theme.

I called this section of my class ‘Marvellous Melbourne, Murky Melbourne’. Students were at first confused. Which side of the city was accurate? Was the Urban Planner just spinning a yarn or was the Salvos officer exaggerating? The answer of course was that both perspectives were accurate and were going on at the very same time. There really are some wonderful things going on in the everyday world of most people and there is some horrible stuff not very far beneath the surface.

It’s important to remember both sides to the story. If we get lost in the murkiness, if we believe that the perspective of the world we get from the media is all there is, we become morbid and pessimistic, a pain to be around. However, if we believe the whole world is rosy with no underworld and no murkiness we can become overly optimistic, refusing to deal with reality and apathetic about doing what we can to bring change to the injustices and the pain.

The Bible speaks into this dual realty. The human experience as the Bible portrays it is a mixture of good and evil, right choices and wrong choices. Character studies throughout the Bible reflect this duality. King David is known as a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14) and yet he is also an adulterer and accessory to murder (2 Samuel 11 and 12). His son, Solomon asks well when he seeks God for wisdom (2 Chronicles 1:7-10) and his song writing on the beauty of love is classic (Song of Solomon), but he also moans and groans about the meaninglessness of life as he knew it (Ecclesiastes).

Peter, the follower of Jesus, gets it right when he refers to Jesus as the one who has the words of eternal life (John 6:68) but then blows it soon after when he says he never even knew Jesus (Luke 22:54-62). The early church benefited greatly from the things the Roman Empire got right; the roads, the ‘pax romana’ (peace across the Empire), and their legal structures just to name a few. But they also suffered terribly as they later felt the full force of persecution of anyone not worshipping the Emperor and fell to the madness of some of Rome’s leaders.

Nothing’s changed much really; marvellous and murky all tied up together. How do we then live? Paul the Apostle gives us some wise advice when he writes to the church in 1st century Philippi. He tells them to concentrate on the excellent and praiseworthy things around them. Our minds should be dwelling upon whatever is honourable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent or worthy of praise.

Various translations use the term ‘dwell on these things’ rather than the popular translation ‘think about such things’. There is an important difference here. If we are to think only on the excellent and praiseworthy things we would have to live in denial of the murkiness of our world. Paul is not suggesting this, as the context of his letter to the Philippians shows. At the time of writing he was going through all sorts of suffering and pain which he acknowledges and describes. But he has chosen not to dwell upon the murkiness, instead to rejoice (a key word in the letter) by dwelling upon the good, the things he can marvel at.

We must be aware of the things that are painful and the things that we will seek to change as we have opportunity, but we can keep our spirits high by choosing to dwell upon the good things of life like all those stories I heard this morning from a group of wide eyed Kinder kids who all call me Grandpa! What a wonderful world!

Food for thought.

Dr David Wilson is Director of Sophia Think Tank