I've always liked quiet. And, like most people, I've experienced the world's madness. "Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness" (Wipf and Stock Publishers, Jan. 2017) distills 47 years of experiencing stillness and madness as a campus minister and Presbyterian pastor (IL, WI, NY, OH, and MN), poverty criminal law firm executive director, and social commentator. Our dog Barclay reminds me to calm down and be much more still than I would without him.
Sharing comes naturally to Elijah. In this scene recorded by Gramma, Elijah surprises Grampa (Wumpa) with a piece of his pizza. Elijah has no knowledge of hoarding. He demonstrates the generosity of the widow of Zarephath who shared her last provisions with Elijah.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
-Isaiah 58:6a-7 NRSV
Gordon C. Stewart (“Wumpa”) with Elijah and Gramma in Chaska, MN, March 26, 2020 in this period of social distancing.
Feel-good stories are becoming fewer during this period of self-isolation. There’s a virus out there that has kept us alone at home for 10 days, but we still talk with the two year-old grandchildren on Skype — or drop in on Elijah at daycare. Remotely, of course.
Elijah at daycare on St. Patrick’s Day
Elijah loves his daycare. What’s not to like? He has close friends. There are only four other playmates. They all adore Lidia, their daycare provider. Lidia only speaks Spanish — of the Cuban variety. Elijah and his friends speak only Spanish in Lidia’s home. But on St. Patrick’s Day Lidia make green smoothies. She called them “immunity drinks”. If it weren’t for the language and the ages, you’d think they were in a pub with a pint. Take a look.
A Brief Conversation — Elijah and Grampa (Bumpa)
Elijah, it makes me happy to see you like daycare so much.
No me gusta la guardería, abuelo.
I’m sorry, Grampa only speaks English. What did you say?
I said, “I don’t like daycare.”
Sure you do.
No! Amo la guardería. Oops, I’m sorry, I forgot. I said “No! I don’t. I LOVE daycare!”
I can see that. I used the wrong word.
It’s okay Grampa, you and Gramma never had daycare, right? You never learned Spanish, right?
So you didn’t have a girlfriend til you were really old, huh?
Do you have a girlfriend, Elijah? You’re only two.
I’m almost three! My girlfriend’s older. I LOVE Nora and Nora loves me.
A feel-good story for the homebound, brought to you by Elijah’s abuerlo, Chaska, MN, March 24, 2020.
No, not THAT Tea Party –the one that turned Boston Harbor into a sea of tea; and not THAT Tea Party — the 20th Century movement to strip government to its bare bones. THIS one is from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
The Daily Briefings
Watching the White House daily briefings on the coronavirus, I feel like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” I mutter to myself, “if something made sense for a change?”
The Mad Hatter, who recently cut the pandemic disease office of the National Security Council as fat and who has no medical education or expertise, presumes to know better than Dr. Anthony Fauci and the other health professionals standing behind him. I talk to the president through the television broadcast to explain what I see and hear.
“When you’re at the microphone facing the cameras, you can’t see what I see on the faces of the doctors standing behind you. You don’t see the stares or feel the energy it takes to hide their disdain. They cringe when you give assurances that everything is under control, declare with authority that the risks are minimal to none, and make announce remedies that don’t exist or are dangerous to our health.”
I shout at the television, “‘If you don’t think . . . , you shouldn’t talk.’ You haven’t made sense since you called the coronavirus a hoax. We’re all guests at your Tea Party, doing our best to be respectful while kicking each other under the table, winking, and passing notes with the scones and tea cozy.
“Those who know their history have read the book(s) your co-author Tony Schwartz and first wife, Ivana, claim to have seen in your bedroom. We know that history repeats itself for those who ignore their history. Our grandparents and great-grandparents risked their lives and died to save us from the day when those books might become America’s Bible. We hear in your manner of speaking, repetition of phrases, framing the free press as America’s great enemy, and see in your facial expressions and body posture, the projection of the Strong Man. What you say and how you say it has a ring to it.”
The Strong Man’s Script
“As the last factor I must in all modesty describe my own person: Irreplaceable. Neither a military man nor a civilian could replace me. Attempts at assassination may be repeated. I am convinced of my powers of intellect and of decision. Wars are always ended only by the annihilation of the opponent. Anyone who believes differently is irresponsible. Time is working for our adversaries. Now there is a relationship of forces which can never be more propitious for us. No compromises. Hardness toward ourselves. I shall strike and not capitulate. The fate of the Nation depends only on me. No one has ever achieved what I have achieved. My life is of no importance in all this. I have led [the nation] to a great height, even if the world does hate us now.”
“I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty.”
“The Strong Man is mightiest alone.”
“Strength lies not in defense, but attack.”
“Do not compare yourself to others. If you do so, you are insulting yourself.”
“The leader of genius must have the ability to make different opponents appear as if they belonged to one category.”
“The victor will never be asked if he told the truth. ”
“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”
“But the most brilliant propaganda technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for success.”
“I know that fewer people are won over by the written word than by the spoken word and that every great movement on this earth owes its growth to great speakers and not to great writers.”
“Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way round, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.”
“The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.”
“I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few.”
“Humanitarianism is the expression of stupidity and cowardice.”
“Life doesn’t forgive weakness.”
“Strength lies not in defense but attack.”
“It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation.”
“My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross.”
“To truly ‘learn’ history means to open your eyes and discover the forces that cause historical events to happen. The art of reading and of learning means remembering the important parts and forgetting the unimportant.”
All the above are quotations from Mein Kampf or speeches of Hitler
There Will Be No Throne Here
The original Tea Party threw the tea into Boston Harbor to protest a colonial power’s taxation of the colonists without representation. They were telling the King of England to go home. There would be no palace or gilded throne in the new American Republic.
Little could the colonists at the original Tea Party have imagined a king rising from American soil — a free electorate allowing a would-be king to shred its own Constitution.
Neither could they have imagined another democratic republic which de-throned Kaiser Wilhelm II turn back the clock for the Strong Man promised to make Germany great again and re-paint the Jewish Jesus as an Aryan-race anti-Jewish fighter who gave his blessing to the nationalist purge and purification we now call the Holocaust.
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party of 2020 is not in Germany, and pundits have been well-advised to refrain from any comparisons, especially when the need to unite is so apparent. But we cannot pretend not to see what we see and hear what we hear.
“That’s very important,” the King said, turning to the jury. They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: “Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course,” he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.
“Unimportant, of course, I meant,” the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, “important—unimportant–unimportant–important–” as if he were trying which word sounded best.
Some of the jury wrote it down “important,” and some “unimportant.” Alice could see this, as she was near enough to look over their slates; “but it doesn’t matter a bit,” she thought to herself.
Members of the Jury: “important . . . unimportant . . . important”?
The danger to an America locked down to safeguard public health is greater than the coronavirus. It is the threat that we will come to see the Boston Tea Party and the U.S. Constitution as partisan mistakes, and plug our ears lest we hear even the faintest hint of the shredding of the Constitution and see no similarity to the Strong Man’s Script.
Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, available in paperback and kindle through Wipf and Stock and Amazon.
There’s no need to hang about waiting for the Last Judgement — it takes place every day.
Albert Camus, The Fall (1956)
The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19
The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first and will not be the last. Historical contexts, memory, and what we believe make a difference to how we live/die in the 2020 pandemic.The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed between 20 and 40 million people, more than all the deaths in World War I. “It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351” – Stanford Encyclopedia.
In the United States, 195,000 Americans lost their lives in the month of October, 1918 alone. The influenza of 1918-19 became known as “the Spanish Flu” after it took the life of the King of Spain, but it was no more Spanish than COVID-19 is Chinese. A virus is a virus. It pays no attention to nations or the propensity of nations and peoples to target a scapegoat — another nation unlike one’s own — as though a virus knows the difference.
The Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 13:31-46)
First appearances can be deceptive, few more so than the teachings of Jesus. The Parable of the Last Judgment is not what it seems –it is not about future end of time. It’s a parable inviting the listeners to get their heads out of the clouds and put their feet on the ground. Its message? Pay attention to people in front of you, or nearby, living under the interstate bridge in the dead of winter. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoners — put yourself squarely in the midst of human suffering.
We might say, the measure of life is compassion in the midst of a world that makes no good sense. What happens at the end is not yours to know. Pay attention to today. Every day is the Last Judgment.
But there’s something else that goes unnoticed in individualistic cultures. Jesus’s parable it is not about the individual. The parable is not about you. It’s not about me. It’s a story that calls the nations to account for their behavior. In that sense, the parable is political. It’s about the polis and its values. There are no privileged nations. All are measured by one standard. The last judgment– the judgment of compassion, kindness, and humility — takes place every day.
The Opportunity of Trouble
Like the Influenza pandemic of 2018-19, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is a crisis in the Chinese sense of the word — danger and opportunity. The danger seems obvious, but perhaps the opportunity is greater. We are at war with each other across the U.S.A., shouting across a deep chasm that the other is a goat. We are in very deep trouble, but we’re in it together because of a deadly virus. In hopes we will come to the deeper knowledge of who we are.
“The human mind and the human heart move to truth through trouble,” said Irish Anglican priest G.A. Studdert Kennedy. “It does not really matter what sort of truth you seek. Bunyan faced with the problem of the soul, and Newton faced with the problem of the stars, are both alike in this: they are troubled spirits. They brood over a mass of apparently unconnected, unrelated, and meaningless facts. Bunyan mutters, ‘There is no health in me’; and Newton mutters, ‘There is no sense in them.’ For both it is dark, and they do not know the way. Both walk at times into the dungeon of despair. The pilgrim’s progress of the scientist and of the saint is made along much the same road, and it begins with a troubled brooding, and a heavy heavy burden at the back of the mind and heart. We must all start there. Life begins in Lent. But there comes to both a supreme and splendid moment, the moment when they cry, ‘I see! I see!’ Bunyan sees a Cross and a Man who hangs in agony upon it. Newton sees an apple falling to the ground. But into the minds of both there comes a blaze of light.” — G.A. Studdert Kennedy (“Woodbine Willie”) sermon “The Word with God.”
Perhaps a blaze of light will flood this moment of trouble, we will rediscover each other, find our better selves, and cry out with fresh joy, “I see! I see!”
This is Elijah. I want to be your friend, but grampa says I can’t be. Maybe if we can’t be friends we can talk like this on our iPads on my way to daycare.
I hope you’re staying safe like gramma and grampa. They won’t go out of the house anymore because the germs are outside. They’re old, like you. We haven’t seen each other for a week because of the torona biris. Mommy says I won’t get it cause I’m just two, but I might carry the biris into gramma and grampa’s house and make them sick and die. How do you carry something you can’t see?
Grampa says he hopes you get the biris. I told him that’s not nice! But he says you’re the one who’s not nice. A lot of people listen to you on TB. They believe you, and sometimes you confuse them. Like when you said the torona biris was a hokes grampa made up, but then changed your mind and said it was real, that it used to be a hokes, but now it’s not. Did you lie? Did you really believe grampa was bad?
You owe grampa and Nancy an apology. So does Mr. Limball. Grampa says Mr. Limball is a lot like you. He throws a lot of stuff against the wall to see what sticks and it gets all over people who believe him on the radio. But Mr. Limball has cancer. We’re supposed to pray for him. Grampa prays for you and Mr. Limball all the time. He says you’re both cancers and we should pray for those who prosecute us. He prays you will just shut up. But his prayers are never answered. Do you believe in prayer?
Have you told everybody you were wrong about grampa and Nancy and the torona biris? Grampa says you should confess. You changed your mind about the biris. So did the president. That’s good. But you still owe grampa and Nancy an apology. Grampa says it’s easy. Just tell them you’re sorry, stop prosecuting them, ask for their forgibnis, and then tell the truth, and tell Mr. Limball to do it too.
Anyway, I hope you listen to grampa. Stay in your house, and don’t say a thing to anybody except Mrs. Hannity about anything until the torona biris is gone. That will make life more peaceful for grampa, and what’s good for grampa and gramma is good for me.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who prosecute you.”
In Illinois after the diagnosis of scarlet fever and other hemolytic streptococcal infections of the upper respiratory tract is made, "Isolation is required for a minimum period of 14 days after onset and thereafter until the nose, throat, glands, and ears are normal on inspection or until the physician reports complete clinical recovery."1
Other states have essentially the same regulation except that the minimum quarantine period is 21 days instead of 14.
SILENCE IN THE HALF-FORGOTTEN HOUSE
The house on Church Lane was in Pennsylvania, not in Illinois, but the Scarlet Fever and the quarantines were the same. No baseball. No backyard games of hide-and-seek or tag. No evenings with the fireflies. No school. Not everything felt like a curse.
To prevent blindness, the room was dark. Other than Mom delivering meals, checking the fever, and reminding me not to scratch, the room was empty and quiet with one exception: the purring of Buddy, the cross-eyed cat with the crooked tail. Even a cat needs company sometimes. I like silence. A lot! But not that much. We’re not meant to be alone. Everyone needs a friend like Buddy.
FINDING OURSELVES IN SOLITUDE
Old memories return in times that awaken them. Live & Learn’s gift of a “Blessing for a Writer” came at just the right time. I fancy myself a writer, but words worth writing have been hiding during the spread of the latest pandemic when the fever and isolation are everywhere..
Might the solitude lead us to find each other?
“Only in solitude do we find ourselves; and in finding ourselves, we find in ourselves all our [neighbors] in solitude.”
— Miguel de Unamuno, “Solitude,” Essays and Soliloquies (1924), tr. J.E. Crawford Finch.
Narcissus of the Greek myth slowly wastes away. Refusing to look away from his reflection in the pond, he dies of thirst and starvation.
The myth assumes that the pond is placid. There are no ripples. But what if a storm troubles the waters, rippling the pond –something like a virus that does not notice Narcissus’s need to see his own reflection in the pond.
Narcissus mutters to himself until, at last, his voice falls silent, except for Echo, repeating his words, forgetful of what she had surrendered to his power: the confidence and beauty that come only from within.
Teach me, like you, to drink creation wholeAnd, casting out myself, become a soul.
- Richard Wilbur, “The Aspen and the Stream,”
Advice to a Prophet (1961)
Legitimate fears, on the one hand, and the false assurances, on the other, expose a truth we rarely face. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pays no attention to political parties, economic status, or national borders. Viruses do not discriminate. One human being is the same as the next. Viruses like this are familiar with homo sapiens stupidity that ignores our mortal frailty. They know better than we that there is only one economy — one house, one planet — in which what happens in one room (one class, one race, one culture, one nation) affects everyone in every room of the house.
A Time for Solitude
The closing of schools, businesses, sports venues, cancellations of political rallies, social gatherings et.al. will separate us until the current siege passes. But is it too much to hope that the threat of a virus would bring our species to its senses and rouse us to action in the face of the bigger pandemic threat, the health and habitability of the planet itself? The viruses will be fine; we may become the latest Woolly Mammoths to die of thirst.
The experience of separation will be either lonely or solitary. Loneliness is its own kind of despair; solitude offers opportunity to step away to reflect. How much we reflect deeply depends in part on learning from previous generations the kind of wisdom that does not shrink or shrivel when there are real reasons to fear. One of those sources of wisdom is G.A. Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929), the Irish Anglican priest, poet, author, and World War I British Army chaplain affectionately known as ‘Woodbine Willie’.
‘Studdert Kennedy became ‘Woodbine Willie’ after insisting on serving in the trenches, moving among the injured and dying, distributing “Willis’s Woodbine’ cigarettes as part of his pastoral care. “Our first job,” he advised a newly commissioned chaplain, “is to go beyond the men in self-sacrifice and devotion. . . . There is very little spiritual work — it is all muddled and mixed — but it is all spiritual. Take a box of [cigarettes] in your haversack, and a great deal of love in your heart, and go to them, live with them. You can pray with them sometimes, but pray for them always.”
The modern cult of cheeriness: deadly fear of sadness
G. A. Studdert Kennedy left behind a word for our troubles in 2020. He called called people to think and feel. He demands that we get real. “Thinking, he said, “begins with trouble in the mind.
“Thinking begins with trouble in the mind. There is no thought without tears. ‘Blessed are they that mourn.’ The modern cult of cheeriness is largely due to the fact that we are deadly afraid of being sad. We want Easter without Lent. But we cannot have it. The human mind and the human heart — you cannot separate one from the other — God has joined them together and no one can put them asunder.”
There’s no such thing as thought which does not feel,
If it be real thought, and not thought’s ghost
All pale and sicklied o’er with dead conventions,
Abstract truth, which is a lie upon this
Living, loving, suffering Truth which pleads
And pulses in my very veins. The blue
Blood of all beauty and the breath of life itself.
--G.A. Studdert Kennedy sermon, The Word with God, 1926.
Coming Next: more wisdom from ‘Woodbine Willie’
In days to come, Views from the Edge will feature more of G. A. Struddert Kennedy as it applies to this moment for thoughtful solitude to reflect on who we are and who we choose to become. Coming next:
“There is, and must be, a plane upon which we can think and reason together upon the questions. . . apart from . . . the prejudices and passions that arise in party strife.”
Dear President Trump, I’m sorry to bother you again. I know you must be very busy on Super Market Tuesday. I meant to send this picture of me but I forgot, like Bumpa. Mommy gave me this Medal of Freedom after seeing you give one to Rush Limmba. She gave me mine last week after I put it in the potty. I bet you have one too.
Gordon C. Stewart (Bumpa), Chaska, MN, Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020
My Gamma and Bumpa helped me with this letter. I love Gamma and Bumpa! Please don’t tell them that I changed it a little. I don’t want to hurt their feelings. When I showed it to the kids at daycare in show and tell, they said it was too nice. They hurt my feelings. I told them we’re Minnesotans. We’re nice here in Minnesota. We don’t say mean things. They say our generation needs to be more honest and pretend we’re not Minnesotans.
Anyway, Bumpa and Gamma don’t like you. They say you need to see the doctor and lie on the couch. I don’t know why. I’ve been to the doctor and she doesn’t have a couch. Maybe you need sleep? Sometimes I do. Like last night. I couldn’t sleep, so I climbed out of my bed and woke up Mommy. Mommy said it’s important to get a good night’s sleep. Then we cuddled in her bed. I wish you could sleep better. Do you get to cuddle?
You have a lot on your mind. Like all the germs from China and the Bidens. That’s a lot! I’m glad I’m not president. I think the germs are coming from Russia. Whatever! You said on tv not to worry. It’s just a bad cold. But then, yesterday, Mr. Pence said you’ve put all hands on deck. I asked Mommy what that means. She just shook her head and told me to go back to sleep.
Today is Super Market Tuesday here in Minnesota. Amy quit yesterday, so you don’t need to worry about Amy anymore. She didn’t want to come in second or third behind Bernie and Joe, and Elizabeth in her own state. That wouldn’t be very nice. So she quit and flew to Texas to help Joe and stop Bernie. That’s kinda weird, don’t ya think? But maybe not. Bumpa thinks she’s sucking up to Joe so Joe will pick her for his wife.
Anyway, the kids at day care are mad at you and Mr. Pence. You say climate change is a hoax. We like the Green New Deal! It’s not a hoax. You said not to worry about the germs from China and blamed the Democrats and television ’cause it’s just another way to make you look bad. You’re not saying that anymore. You lied. I’m just 2, but I know that.
The doctors say the crownaviris germs will go after old people. Yesterday Bumpa and Gramma got masks. They’re going to wear them to vote today. They won’t tell me whether it’s Joe, Bernie, or Elizabeth they’re voting for, but definitely not you. They say you’re not very nice.
I don’t like you, but we’re Christians. We will pray for you to get a good night’s sleep, or sleep on the doctor’s couch if you have a tummy ache, or cuddle with your mommy at home.