Some of you may be old enough to remember Johnny Nash of I Can See Clearly Now fame. It was 1972, I was halfway through high school and enjoying life – cricket, football and athletics were taking seasonal turns to fill my days (along with an all-year-round heavy engagement at the Army), reluctantly interspersed with the minor matter of my studies! I could regale you with my memories of the various contexts in which “I Can See Clearly Now” was played or sung, but that may not necessarily be edifying to the soul. That 1972 Nash album also included a song which contradicted the clarity of the singer’s vision expressed so confidently in the title-song, “I Can See Clearly Now”.
Instead of being able to “see all obstacles in [his] way” and enjoying the disappearance of those “dark clouds that had [him] blind”, the final track on the album expressed a lot more uncertainty and confusion: “There are more questions than answers, and the more I find out, the less I know”.
I have found myself humming that tune lately as I’ve listened to one appalling news story after another: • the savage, senseless murder of Drummer Lee Rigby and the consequent attacks on Muslims and mosques, with the almost inevitable concerns about the role and efficiency of the security services; • the escalation of the conflict in Syria, spilling over into neighbouring countries, with Lebanon and Israel directly affected, reports of chemical weapons being used and of the world taking sides; • the spate of bombings in Iraq on Monday (27 May 2013) – 15 in all – in which 53 people were killed and more than 100 were wounded.
In addition to these atrocities - which join the catalogue of violent conflicts and crime that form a blight on our civilisation over several decades and which condemn our continued bestial inhumanity to each other - this month has seen a series of natural disasters. Among them were the Oklahoma tornado, the landslide in Kashmir, earthquakes in Uzbekistan, Northern Algeria, California and Macedonia and flooding in South China and Norway - all of varying intensity and destructive force, leaving people dead, destitute or desperate.
And then, in recent days, I have felt the grief of believers who are striving to live out their faith and the convictions their faith bring in the context of serious challenges, about which there are so many very difficult questions and no easy answers.
But the one question which recurs is the inexorable “Why?” Even if all the other questions had answers - and they don’t, of course; not all of them - this one is most difficult to answer, certainly epistemologically (that “how-do-we-know-that-what-we-know-is-knowable-and-true” position). How does one know that one’s response to the pain, confusion, anger, despair or any other of a plethora of emotions is correct, let alone helpful and meaningful?
Some days ago, a local newspaper reported that police had confiscated belongings from homeless people. The local Salvation Army corps officer joined with other concerned citizens and agencies to address the matter with the authorities and, subsequent to this representation, the police issued a statement explaining things from their perspective - among other things, attempting to answer the burning question, “Why?”
Depending on your perspective, their explanation is accepted as being adequate or not. Some are able to move on to the next headline, whereas others find the questions still outnumbering the answers.
My experience is that when emotions run high - and the tragic, barbaric events in Woolwich, Syria and Iraq clearly evoke strong feelings that provoke strong reactions - answers often are not only inadequate but, frequently, provocative. That doesn’t mean they are not sought after. Like everyone else, I have been trying to make sense of this bombardment of bad news, but I, like 1972’s Johnny Nash, find that the questions which pop up outnumber the answers by a considerable margin.
Yet, I know enough not to be in despair – a knowledge which motivates to more than not giving up on the world, nor on humankind, but having hope for the world and for humankind. This is not an epistemological knowledge, mind you, because I can’t qualify it nor explain it. It is a knowledge grounded on my belief in God and growing through my faith relationship with Jesus Christ. It is a knowledge that endures despite the unanswered questions. I “discover” it often - mostly from within, but not infrequently from without: • A pigeon family makes their home on our balcony and, as we watch at a respectful distance, from the making of the nest, through the laying and hatching of the surviving egg, to the nurturing of the fledgling, I find my knowledge nurtured. The beautiful sight of watching the parent helping the young one to strengthen its wing muscles in preparation for its maiden flight, strengthens that knowledge. • Amid the tensions between faith communities, as well as among people with not-so-hidden agendas, as a result of the horrific murder in Woolwich, my knowledge is confirmed as I watch a Salvationist cross the street after a worship meeting to chat with a Muslim family who live directly opposite the hall. As I watch their easy banter and the relaxed way the Salvationist cuddles the family’s baby affectionately, it is apparent that this is not an overt act of reaching out in a difficult time, but the consistent interaction of good neighbours. Watching it and listening to the corps officers speak about generous support, of active involvement and mutual respect, I know! • A good meeting with salt-of-the-earth officers, local officers and Salvationists in a fairly large corps is followed by our unscheduled visit to a village. Here, “Mrs Village” (as the envoy is known affectionately, and tellingly, in the village where she has led the corps for 30 years) and her trusty corps sergeant-major are leading the singing of the last verse of the final song of their Praise And Testimony wind-up after a long day at the Army. They are delighted to see us, but cannot talk too long because they are about to embark on the third of their pub rounds which start on a Friday evening, continue on Saturday and conclude at about 10pm on Sunday after the final meeting. They chatted long enough to speak with excitement and gratitude to God about the new people coming to the corps. Their inspirational commitment and focus on the mission helps me to know! (They arrived at DHQ for the opening of the new building, too late for the actual ceremony, because they had been visiting someone who, during the course of their visit, had committed to becoming an adherent member of The Salvation Army.) • I know, because these Salvationists who so inspired me are replicated all over this territory. I get to meet them most weekends! People who, having accepted and experienced God’s grace, live to share that grace with others. Many of them won’t have answers to a number of the questions that life throws at us - they do not have epistemological knowledge that would satisfy the persistent enquirer. But, they have an unshakeable faith, and to that faith they have added virtue, and to virtue, knowledge (see 2 Peter 1:5). So, they do know and they do live out that knowledge in a genuineness and integrity that not even the most cynical sceptic can refute.
In a world burdened with serious challenges, there certainly are more questions than answers - undoubtedly! What a relief to have discovered some time ago that the ultimate answer is found in Jesus, who declares himself to be the way, the truth and the life.
Ephesians 3: 16-21 (New Century Version)
“I ask the Father in his great glory to give you the power to be strong inwardly through his Spirit. I pray that Christ will live in your hearts by faith and that your life will be strong in love and be built on love. And I pray that you and all God’s holy people will have the power to understand the greatness of Christ’s love - how wide and how long and how high and how deep that love is. Christ’s love is greater than anyone can ever know, but I pray that you will be able to know that love. Then you can be filled with the fullness of God.
“With God’s power working in us, God can do much, much more than anything we can ask or imagine. To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus for all time, forever and ever. Amen.”