Posts Tagged ‘William Willimon’

The “terrible paralysis” from believing “it’s all up to us”

January 23, 2015

Lord_teach_usAs you may know, I’m currently preaching a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. I preached a similar series five years ago—a lot of water under the bridge since then—and used a book on the Lord’s Prayer called Lord, Teach Us, by Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, as one resource. As I’ve revisited this book—on the other side of my “evangelical reawakening”—I find that I’m far less sympathetic than I once was with both the book’s tone and its substance.

For example, I’m now a convinced “just warrior” who believes that violence can be good and necessary under some circumstances. I oppose Christian pacifism. I believe strongly in the police’s role in maintaining law and order, even through violence (as perhaps even Hauerwas now does—the big softie!). I deeply love my country, warts and all—and I don’t believe I’m kowtowing to “empire,” or the world’s “domination systems,” or whatever, by doing so. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, take a few classes at a mainline Protestant seminary.)

Don’t get me wrong: Like the good Candler graduate that I am, I believe that the gospel should liberate people in the here and now, not just in the sweet by and by, and that the Church should take the lead to make the world a more just place, as it has for two millennia. But even if the most oppressive nations on earth were suddenly as egalitarian as, say, Sweden, these nations would still need Jesus to save them from their sins. The Swedes still need Jesus!

Nevertheless, while I was tempted to throw the book out the window after re-reading their chapter on “Your kingdom come,” their chapter on the next clause, “Your will be done, on earth as in heaven,” is strong. I especially like the part in which they relate this petition to the story of Joseph and his brothers at the end of Genesis. As part of a discussion about the “amazing resilience of God’s purposes,” which “cannot be stumped by our plans,” they write:

We modern American people are so accustomed to thinking life as a choice or chance. Life is what I do and decide or else life is a roulette wheel of sheer luck. Is that why we often feel so helpless and hopeless? If life is all up to us, then we know enough about ourselves and our brothers and sisters to know we are doomed. A terrible paralysis comes from thinking that it’s all up to us. If the fate of the world, the outcome of the future is solely of my doing, or even yours, then—a good freshman course in the history of Western civilization should convince us that we are without hope. No wonder we feel frail and fearful before the bomb, AIDS, the ecological crisis, thinning ozone, or even the department of motor vehicles—it’s all choice or chance.

William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 63.

Attention fellow Methodists: making sense of suffering isn’t always wrong

October 16, 2013

keller_bookThis following story comes from United Methodist pastor, theologian, and bishop William Willimon, as quoted in Tim Keller’s new book on suffering. (I blogged about the book last week.)

Once, Willimon was paying a visit to a woman in his church who had just delivered a baby. When Willimon got to the hospital room, the wife and husband were anxiously awaiting word from the doctor. They had just received the “ominous news that ‘there were problems with the birth.'”

When the doctor arrived, he told the couple that the child had been born with Down syndrome, but he also had a minor and correctible respiratory condition. He said, “My recommendation is for you to consider just letting nature take its course, and then in a few days there shouldn’t be a problem.” The child would die “naturally” if they just left things as they were. The couple was confused and asked why they shouldn’t fix the problem. The doctor looked at them and said that raising a Down syndrome child would create enormous amounts of stress in the marriage, and that studies showed that many parents of Down syndrome children separated or divorced. He then said, “Is it fair to you to bring this sort of suffering upon your other two children?”

At the word suffering, the wife suddenly seemed to understand. She countered that her children had lived a safe and comfortable life with every advantage in the world. They had known, if anything, too little of suffering and the difficulty of life in the world. She spoke of “God’s hand” and said, “I could certainly see why it would make sense for a child like this to be born into a family like ours. Our children will do just fine. When you think about it, it could be a great opportunity.”

The doctor was dumbfounded and turned to the minister, urging him to “talk some reason into them.” Willimon of course knew that the couple needed to be given good instruction as to what lay ahead so that they did not take up their parenting of this new child with naïveté. But, he wrote, the couple was using reasoning, though it was a reasoning foreign to the doctor. In the dominant cultural narrative—reflected in the reasoning of the doctor—”words like ‘suffering’ are unredeemably negative” because “it is important to avoid pain at all costs” since “our lives are [valued] by nothing more significant than our desires.” The couple, however, was thinking about life through the logic of the Christian story, namely the Fall and the redemption of the world through Jesus Christ, and in that story, suffering can be redemptive, a way of serving others, and a way of glorifying God.[†]

God’s hand is in this, said the mother. I can see why it would make sense…

I’ve said many times that I disagree with that harmful bumper-sticker theology that says, “Everything happens for a [good, God-ordained] reason.” For one thing, it doesn’t make sense to pray that “God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven” if God’s will often isn’t done on earth as in heaven. And God isn’t the author of evil, so if evil happens it doesn’t happen because God caused it.

But to say that everything doesn’t happen for a God-ordained reason isn’t to say that nothing—or at least things that we perceive to be bad—happens for a reason. If the mother is right, God wanted her to have a Down syndrome child.

And why not? Do you think that this mother wasn’t incredibly grateful to God for this child? Do you think that she perceived her Down syndrome child as defective? Do you even think that this mother would want her child to be someone other than who he or she is? Inasmuch as this child causes suffering in the family, wouldn’t the parents say that it’s totally worth it to have this person in the world?

If so, then how can this child’s Down syndrome be a tragic mistake rather than a gift from God?

Maybe I’m writing this blog post to myself because I’m the one who has often been allergic to the idea of God’s sovereignty. Leave it to a good Wesleyan like Willimon to remind me that there may not be as many accidents in the world as I think.

Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 78-9.

Sympathy for the devil? Nah, just for Jim Standridge

August 19, 2013

I saw this video a couple of months ago on YouTube, in which a Baptist pastor from Oklahoma opens up an industrial-sized can of… well, judge for yourself. Christianity Today has now picked up the story. When I watch this video, I mostly feel sympathy for Standridge. I know I’m not supposed to. I’m supposed to think he’s a jerk or a bully or far worse (I’m afraid to read the comments section of the YouTube post). But I don’t. I imagine he’s just having a bad day. Been there, done that. Who hasn’t?

For one thing, are we criticizing Standridge for having these thoughts in the first place or only for being so gauche as to speak them out loud in a sermon? If it’s the latter, well, that’s hardly a major sin.

C’mon, fellow pastors: Haven’t you had church members who you believe—perhaps in your most human moments—”aren’t worth fifteen cents”? Granted, you don’t post their names on Facebook or anything, but don’t you feel that way sometimes? Let’s get real.

Besides, it’s hard to argue with his logic when he calls attention to the poor guy caught sleeping during his sermon: “You say, ‘Well, he may never come back.’ Well, he ain’t here now!

Also, to his credit, Standridge at least knows his flock well enough to call these people by name. He clearly seems to care deeply about them, even as he criticizes them. And in our politically correct age, when we talk so much about cultural sensitivity and context, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt that he knows his audience, and he’s speaking to them in a language they understand. I’m not a Baptist from Skiatook, Oklahoma. Are you? I doubt he worried about how his message would play in New York or L.A.

CT asked some prominent pastors and theologians if it’s appropriate for pastors to call out church members by name like this during the sermon time. Everyone said Standridge was wrong—except good ol’ United Methodist bishop Will Willimon.

Prophets such as Amos or Nathan called people to account personally. It’s almost refreshing, in this age of feel-good theology, to see a preacher really get worked up over behavior and get morally indignant in the service of the truth delivered to him to speak.

Willimon’s book on Wesleyan theology is a masterpiece

August 28, 2012

Will Willimon’s book United Methodist Beliefs: A Brief Introduction is nothing less than a masterpiece. It distills Wesleyan theology into one brief, highly accessible volume—and I’m not even getting paid to say that. (I’m not above getting paid, mind you, if the fine folks at Westminster John Knox happen to be reading this!)

Our church has been selling copies of this book on Sunday mornings, along with a couple other Wesley resources. You’re not going to get a better, more readable introduction to Wesleyan thought. If you know Bishop Willimon, you know his writing style isn’t dry. He has more than a few opinions on the subject of Methodism that he doesn’t mind sharing along the way. His subjectivity, however, is never distracting to me.

Last Sunday I preached on sanctification, which Willimon identifies as the central emphasis of Wesleyan thought. This doctrine, with its robust understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work in the believer’s life, is Methodism’s best gift to the universal Church. Willimon rightly identifies Pentecostalism as a “grandchild” of Methodism.

On the subject of sanctification, he addresses the central challenge facing Methodist theology, the point at which Wesley loudly parted company with Luther and Calvin, and the challenge we’ve been dealing with on this blog for the past month or so: Given our Wesleyan emphasis on human responsibility (including the free choice to accept God’s justifying grace in the first place), how do we, at the same time, claim that we’re saved by grace alone, through no merit of our own?

Willimon writes:

One of Wesley’s great achievements in soteriology was to keep a vital tension between God’s grace and our grace-driven but never-forced involvement…

A word of theological caution: When we Wesleyans speak of this triumph of prevenient grace, there is the danger that such talk will overshadow our truthful and orthodox assertion of the pervasiveness of human sin. How do we affirm with the Western theological tradition (thanks to Augustine against the Pelagians) that we are indeed sinners utterly unable to save ourselves from our sin? How do we avoid hedging on the historic affirmation that salvation from sin belongs only to God in Christ, working through the Holy Spirit without our help or encouragement, and (with Wesley) assert that God has given us the freedom to take some real responsibility for our situation?

We do it through prevenient grace.

Our sin, while obvious and undeniable, is not the last word on the human condition. God didn’t stop creating after the first six days of creation. God continues to get involved in each life, giving grace that enables all of us, despite our sin, to say—when confronted by the presence and work of Christ—”yes.”[†]

I recommend reading the book for the complete answer, but he’s right on: prevenient grace is the key.

William Willimon, United Methodist Beliefs: A Brief Introduction (Louisville: WJK, 2007), 78.

“That the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid”

September 11, 2011

My favorite United Methodist gadfly and preacher, Will Willimon, who also somehow became the bishop of the North Alabama annual conference, wrote the following for a Christianity Today article on the 9/11 anniversary.

On 9/11 I thought, For the most powerful, militarized nation in the world also to think of itself as an innocent victim is deadly. It was a rare prophetic moment for me, considering Presidents Bush and Obama have spent billions asking the military to rectify the crime of a small band of lawless individuals, destroying a couple of nations who had little to do with it, in the costliest, longest series of wars in the history of the United States.

The silence of most Christians and the giddy enthusiasm of a few, as well as the ubiquity of flags and patriotic extravaganzas in allegedly evangelical churches, says to me that American Christians may look back upon our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat. It was shattering to admit that we had lost the theological means to distinguish between the United States and the kingdom of God. The criminals who perpetrated 9/11 and the flag-waving boosters of our almost exclusively martial response were of one mind: that the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid. All of us preachers share the shame; when our people felt very vulnerable, they reached for the flag, not the Cross.

September 11 has changed me. I’m going to preach as never before about Christ crucified as the answer to the question of what’s wrong with the world. I have also resolved to relentlessly reiterate from the pulpit that the worst day in history was not a Tuesday in New York, but a Friday in Jerusalem when a consortium of clergy and politicians colluded to run the world on our own terms by crucifying God’s own Son.

Re Willimon, this is what I’m talking about!

June 3, 2011

Following up on my previous post, here’s a fine example of Willimon’s thinking and writing. I stumbled across this just now as I am preparing for a sermon on Paul’s (Saul’s) conversion in Acts 9:1-9:

This sort of conversion involves a journey from self-confident independence toward child-like dependence. The one who knows so much must become as one who knows nothing, one who must be led by the hand, healed, and instructed by the very ones he once despised. In this painful, baffling interim we turn and become as a little child. We progress by regression and go forward by falling backward. Such turning and helpless regression accompanied by blindness, confusion, speechlessness, hunger, and childishness is, for this peculiar faith, the very beginning of wisdom.

William Willimon, Interpretation: Acts (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988), 78-79.


June 2, 2011

Bishop Willimon wants more accountability from his clergy.

For several years in my twenties, I had a job in sales with a large corporation. I wasn’t very good at it, and I hated nearly every moment of it—of the actual job, I mean. I enjoyed most of the people I worked with.

Looking back, however, I can see how God used it for good. It was a school of hard knocks, to be sure. But it paid the bills while I was working toward something else. And it forced me to be more outgoing than I would normally be. (When I became an engineer, by contrast, I was practically the social butterfly of the office! Extroversion is relative.)

One year our general manager decided to post our names on a wall with a bar chart indicating the percentage of our annual sales quota that we had retired per month. It just so happens that I was lagging behind most of the year, so, of the few dozen salespeople listed, I hovered near the bottom. It embarrassed me greatly.

Whenever I passed this “wall of shame,” I wanted to place an asterisk by my name, with a footnote explaining my unique set of circumstances that led me to this point… If only this industry weren’t in a downturn. If only this customer hadn’t done this. If only our competitor hadn’t done that. I wanted to justify myself.

And of course there would be truth in these excuses. There was some bad luck involved in my lack of success that year, just as there was some good luck involved the next year when I blew out my quota.

Still, the bottom line was that I didn’t like my job. I didn’t have a passion for it. I wasn’t trying very hard, because I had mentally checked out. Indeed, unbeknownst to my superiors, I was going to school at night, taking calculus at a community college in order to get an engineering degree and change careers.

Do you think my lack of motivation played a role in my being near the bottom of that chart? Of course it did! I didn’t see it that way at the time, but it’s clear to me now.

With this “wall of shame” experience in mind, you might imagine how I felt when I read an article in the current issue of The Christian Century (subscription only) about William Willimon, a favorite preacher, theologian, and writer of mine who is nearing retirement as United Methodist bishop of the North Alabama conference.
Read the rest of this entry »

Lenten Blog Tour: Paradise Now

April 21, 2011

The following post is part of the Lenten Blog Tour, which features Lenten reflections from 41 bloggers using scripture passages from the new Common English Bible translation. The CEB New Testament is out now, and the full Bible will be published later this year.

"Gordon's Calvary" at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem: A proposed site for Golgotha, "The Skull."

Reflection Text: Luke 23:32-43

They also led two other criminals to be executed with Jesus. When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing.

The people were standing around watching, but the leaders sneered at him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he really is the Christ sent from God, the chosen one.”

The soldiers also mocked him. They came up to him offering him sour wine and saying, “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” Above his head was a notice of the formal charge against him. It read “This is the king of the Jews.”

One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”

As most of my friends and parishioners know (and some of my blog readers are learning), I have become one of those annoying clergy people who tells everyone that they ought to go to the Holy Land if they ever get a chance. I say that as a former skeptic: you couldn’t have convinced me before I left how meaningful the trip would be.

My favorite places were those in which we could say with some certainty that Jesus walked here. Jesus healed here. Jesus spoke these words here. Sometimes I would even settle for “in this general vicinity.”

One of my favorite moments was captured in the 20-second video clip below. It shows the ancient synagogue in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. (It’s now part of a church.) It’s not quite the original synagogue—the walls were rebuilt in the fourth century—but the floor was original to the first century.

As I stood in this small room, I thought, How cool is this? It’s very likely that Jesus walked on this floor, possibly even mounted these steps, when, in Luke 4, he read the words from Isaiah that inaugurated his ministry: Read the rest of this entry »

Paradise now

March 22, 2011

In my sermon this past Sunday (which I’ll post soon), I argued for an interpretation of Luke 23:43 (“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”) that prior to last week I had never before considered… Thank you, William Willimon!

Willimon is a great preacher and theologian who was Dean of Duke University Chapel before being appointed a United Methodist bishop in Alabama. (I guess he was being punished?) Anyway, I’ve been reading his book about the seven last words of Christ called Thank God It’s Friday. In his chapter on this “second word” from the cross, Willimon quickly discarded everyone’s favorite interpretation of this verse—that this criminal on the cross received assurance from Jesus that he would go to heaven when he died—for something far more radical: Paradise begins now. Heaven begins now. Eternal life begins now.

Although Willimon has been a pastor, he can now say things without worrying about confused parishioners meeting him in the greeting line, asking, “Where did you get that?” It would have been helpful for him to back up his interpretation at least a little. So he left me to do the heavy lifting! Having done so, however, I wholeheartedly agree with Willimon. Read the rest of this entry »

Telling the truth from the pulpit

March 4, 2011

Or, “Hauerwas and Willimon, Stepping On Our Toes Again, Part 2″…

Nowhere could truthfulness be better witnessed today than in the church’s preaching ministry. We must desire, we must demand, that we hear the truth preached by those set aside to be ministers of the gospel. Is it any wonder that the world does not believe in our Messiah when our preaching has been turned into lies in the interests of caring, comfort, and false friendship? Preaching lies not so much by what is said explicitly but by what is left unsaid, namely, that Christians betray their non-Christian brothers and sisters by an unwillingness to say that the reason we are all so miserable is because we do not worship the true God truthfully.

Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 123.