I do not really know Will Willimon except through his book with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens, and I read that nearly 30 years ago as a freshman in college. I really did not know what I was getting into, but I needed a change in pace and I tend to appreciate memoirs or elder preachers.
Willimon is funny. He knows he is funny and he likes to use self-depreciation humor, not just for effect, but also theologically. At the start of the book he has these two quotes
My story is a comedy, as opposed to a tragedy, not because my life is funny but because my life is having a happy ending due to God’s gracious choice to be God for us and choosing even the likes of me to be for God.
You can tell that Kathleen Norris is a Christian. As she wrote her memoir, she repeatedly reminded herself, “You’re not that big of a deal. The call is the big deal.” If my memoir makes me my life’s chief protagonist, me, the big deal, I’m the most miserable of writers. More interesting than my life are the hijinks of a vocative God who explains my life.
There is some real similarity between Hauerwas and Willimon in tone and history. Both seem to like to be cantankerous, getting riled up about things that both are really important and over things that seem odd to be riled up about to me. But because they are so serious about both their faith and their understanding of human and divine grace, there is a lot of inbuilt willingness on my part to allow for a bit of ‘grumpy old man’-ing.
Willimon was a pastor, the chaplain at Duke for 20 years and then a United Methodist Bishop. He seems to live as he preaches. And hold himself to even higher standards than he holds others. Willimon does keep others the center of the story. He grew up with an absent father (often in jail) and was seeking father figures. When he was young and in a confirmation class at church, he was supposed to get a picture taken with the other kids and the pastor. A woman organizing the picture chastised him for not having a tie. But the pastor gave a sense of grace.
“What a beautiful group!” exclaimed Dr. Herbert. “I have one request before we go out and take our place on the church steps. Boys, please, no ties on a Thursday. Only I can wear a tie in church on a weekday. Such are the rules of our Connection. You may wear them if you must on Sunday. Please remove your ties. Let’s take that picture.” God is like Dr. Herbert, without the Plymouth.
I look forward to reading memoirs of pastors from my generation. I have found great value in Eugene Peterson, Stanley Hauerwas, John Perkins, John Stott, and other memoirs. I would love to get a memoir from Flemming Rutledge, although on Twitter, she has said she will never write one. Calling and what they have seen as important is part of what I have valued. And I value appropriate self-disclosure and weakness. It feels to me that I need to see weakness and struggle even more than success. Success should be attributed to God. But how God uses weakness seems to be more encouraging than recounting how well things went. Willimon seems to have worked really hard, but at the same time appropriately gives credit to God.
This is an easy to read memoir. The humor makes the hard stuff go down well. (Like this)
Jesus’s directives seem extreme for most church squabbles. I’ve found that when someone offends, if I count to ten and seethe for a year or two, I usually get over it. If, on the other hand, I offend them and they refuse to suppress their anger at me, I dismiss them as touchy, overly sensitive. I would like you to think that I’m such a nice person that I would never obey Jesus and confront you. Truth is, Jesus has a considerably higher view of friendship than that practiced in most churches, which amounts to: I promise never to hold you accountable if you’ll do the same for me. Church as a gentile conspiracy of niceness, as a civil compatibility club rather than a community of truth.
I mostly listened to the audiobook. It is Willimon reading and I think that matters, but the production was not as good as it could have been and the audio was at times muddy or airy, like the mics being used were not as good as they should have been. The audio is not awful, it just was not as good as I think it should have been.
The book ends with an afterword by Kate Bower. Kate knows Willimon well, he was both chaplain and colleague to her. She puts some context on his humility. And I think shows as well as anything that she believes in the faith and life of Willimon as someone to emulate. I want pastors that are not perfect, but ones that can be emulated. And that seems to be what I get from Willimon.