Our Two Natures
Given on Sunday 20th September 2009 at The Abbey by Canon Jim Richardson
I have long been fascinated by the life and ministry of that great priest, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. As a Forces Chaplain during the Great War, he gained the nickname ‘Woodbine Willie', because of his habit of sharing his Woodbine cigarettes with the soldiers around him. His grandson, Andrew, is currently Team Rector of Marlborough in our diocese.
I first became conscious of the legacy of Studdert Kennedy when I was Vicar of Leeds. He was born there, in 1883, the seventh of nine children. He attended Leeds Grammar School (where, in my day, I was chairman of governors), and he was, for a short while, one of the curates at Leeds Parish Church. There is a small chapel in the church that commemorates him. He died, in Liverpool, in 1929, aged only 45. As his body crossed the Mersey by ferry, a former soldier placed a packet of Woodbines on the coffin.
Studdert Kennedy was a remarkable speaker, writer and pastor – nationally known and respected – and he had the gift of mixing easily with all kinds of people. Although one senior officer said of him, ‘Woodbine Willie; that impossible fellow! No use for him. Swears like a trooper: quite mad!' that was very much a minority view. He understood human nature, the good and the bad, and his spiritual and moral insights and counsel were a help and comfort to many. In one of his poems, he puts these words into the mouth of an ordinary British ‘Tommy':
‘I'm a man, and a man's a mixture,
Right down from his very birth;
For part of him comes from heaven,
And part of him comes from earth.'
He recognized the two natures within us, and how often we follow the wrong one! That was his strength when he sat with people, or spoke at huge rallies: he didn't patronize or talk-down; he told it as it was, from his own experience.
Today's Epistle from James (3.13 – 4.3, 7-8) also tackles these two aspects of our human nature: that from above, which shows itself in right living, gentleness, and humility towards God and neighbour; and that from below, which is earthly, unspiritual, and devilish, causing all kinds of trouble, division, and pain for ourselves and others. There is, writes James, a war going on within us as we struggle to choose between right and wrong. The Gospel reading from Mark (9.30-37) illustrates this very well. Jesus warns his disciples that it would be spiritually-confused human hands that will destroy him. And, later, horrified by their argument over status, he showed them that all followers of his must turn away from worldly values of ‘top dog' and ‘the rest', and lead by unselfish service and humble example. As a small child cares little about rank or position in life, but is open, teachable, loving and trusting, so, too, must his disciples be before God and one another. Incidentally, it says something about our own society that Jesus would not have been permitted to touch and cuddle a child as he did in the Gospel story.
We know within ourselves this wrestling with good and bad. There is the woman who is kindness itself, and would do anything for anyone, yet inside she is twisted and torn, and her real thoughts are like acid on her soul and mind. There is the criminal – a man people thought they knew so well: quiet, content, a perfect husband and father, and yet he commits the foulest deed. During this year marking the 500 th anniversary of Henry VIII's accession to the throne, much has been written, and shown on the screen, about this popular, gifted, courageous and noble prince who then turned into a ruthless, cruel and predatory tyrant.
In his Epistle, James tells us to ‘resist the devil…and draw near to God.' Of course we should, but it is far from easy. We have to rely on God's forgiveness and grace, in and through Jesus, for we cannot do it on our own. Yet we do have our part to play: we cannot just sit back, full of good intentions, but little else. In my own struggle, I have found two stories from Greek mythology helpful. They are just stories, and no substitute for a living faith, but they are thought-provoking.
You may remember the tale of the Sirens. These beautiful, beguiling women lived on a rocky island, plotting day and night the destruction of sailors, by luring them to the rocks. Their trap was clever: they sang songs of such beauty, that men could not help themselves but turn their boat towards this place of death. Only two crews escaped. One of them was led by Odysseus. He blocked the ears of his sailors with wax, making them deaf, and then had himself lashed to the mast of the ship so that he could not move. As the boat approached the island, the Sirens sang, and although Odysseus was driven half-mad with desire, and screamed out to be released, his men rowed on and out of danger.
Well, we can, if we wish, follow that example. We can fight the darker side of our nature by sheer determination, gritting our teeth, and forcing ourselves not to give way. But does this really work? Any victory gained is surely hollow? Although we may have resisted for the time being, we have heard the voice of temptation, and we long to answer its call. The desire is there – we wish we could!
This way teaches us nothing of the love and grace of God, or of his peace. We may instead become hard, embittered, resentful and envious of other people's lack of inhibition and conscience.
The other crew that safely passed the island was led by Jason. The ravishing strains of the Sirens were countered by the even lovelier music of Orpheus's lyre. Jason and the crew found, to their astonishment, that it was the music of Orpheus that possessed them, and they sailed on fulfilled and content.
In the battle between our two natures, it is what God offers – when we come to our senses and realize it – that is far more satisfying and fulfilling than anything our lower self can put before us. It is the more excellent way. God offers us life, with all its joy, wonder, excitement, and true freedom. This is what James is explaining to us in his Epistle – and Studdert Kennedy through his life, teaching, and pastoral care. Live in the light, feed on the sacraments, enjoy the fellowship of the Christian community, pray, absorb the scriptures, treat your neighbour properly, and trust the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This is how we ‘resist the devil…and draw near to God.' And when we know the peace this brings, we would want it no other way.