Woolly Mammoths and Woodbine Willie

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Coronavirus & the truth we rarely face

There is Only One House

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.”

Thanks for coming by,

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 10, 2010.

Out of the Mouth of Woodbine Willie

“Woodbine Willie” is a strange name for an Anglican priest. The nickname was given to

G. A. Studdert Kennedy (18813 - 1929)

G. A. Studdert Kennedy (1883 – 1929)

G. A. Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929) by the battered troops of the British forces to whom he ministered in World War I.

The name came from the “Woodbine” cigarettes he gave to the troops. Woodbine Willie grew up among the desperately poor. He had two great passions: the church and social reform. He never winced and, oh, how he was loved by what were then known as “the common people.” He was a fighter for social justice and human rights, but he also advocated civil conversation, what he called “a plane” upon which people of differing views and good conscience would come together to resolve a problem.  Think about the current national debate in the wake of the tragedy at Newtown.

There is, and there must be, a plane upon which we can think and reason together upon questions arising out of our wider human relations, social questions, that is, apart from and above party prejudice and sectional interest. If it is not so, and there is no such plane, and we can not think of these big questions outside the prejudices and passions that arise in party strife, then it is safe to assert that there will never be any solution of the problems whatsoever. The idea that politics in the true sense – that is, the art of managing our human relationships on a large scale – must remain a separate department of life, distinct from morals and religion, is ultimately irrational and absurd, and is an idea with which no  responsible teacher ought to have anything to do. – Sermon, “The Church in Politics: a Defense”

Tomorrow night, Tuesday, Feb. 5, Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska will do its best to provide “a plane” for reasonable discussion of the epidemic of gun violence in America. 7:00 – 8:30 PM. Hope and pray that it be an evening where we step back to discuss “the big questions outside the prejudices and passions that arise in party strife.”