The reign of terror against rural Alabama churches appears to be over. Three college men—all honor students, and two of them students at a United Methodist school, Birmingham-Southern College—have confessed to setting nine churches on fire.
On my last Sunday in Duke Chapel, after I’d preached to a full church and received a standing ovation after my sermon, a sophomore came up to me and said, “Thanks for abandoning us. What am I supposed to do for spiritual guidance now?”
I told him that God was calling me to a new ministry in Alabama and that whoever replaced me would be great.
Tom Wolfe may deny that his novel is about Duke, but having spent 20 years there I know a few things about the school. Wolfe’s “Dupont University” has the same number of undergrads as Duke, the same fraternity-sorority dominance of the social scene, the same veneration of basketball, and a dozen other similarities.
Whatever you do, for God’s sake don’t ask a question in class, that really makes Holmer mad,” said the older, wiser graduate student. This was my only preparation for entering Paul Holmer’s legendary class on Søren Kierkegaard at Yale Divinity School.
In 1964 the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini created a new mode of presenting Jesus in film. His The Gospel according to St. Matthew is a word-for-word rendering of Matthew’s Gospel. It contains no additional dialogue and shows only the scenes described by Matthew.
Carl Parker died recently. The Reverend Carl Parker. That you have not heard of him is an indication that you have never praised God in a church that bears the name of Wampee, Little River or Indian Field. For over 50 years he preached the gospel at places like that.
Jesus leads his disciples up a mountain. He was forever making them go places with him that nobody much wanted to go. But this was different. Mountains are good, quiet, restorative places for Sabbath retreat, rest and renewal. The pace had been hectic, so they headed for the hills. But on the mountain everything changes. The disciples’ solitude is intruded upon by the dead. If Peter hoped to “find himself,” forget it. He is discovered by the two great figures of the faith—Moses and Elijah. There is stunning, transfiguring vision and inspired speech. Peter, jolted awake, listens in on the conversation between Jesus and the patriarchs.
All I know about Jesus is what I heard him say. That’s all I know about almost anybody. It’s not true that “deeds speak louder than words.” Only words speak. The old “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one” is only partly true. Most ministerial speech these days tends to be in the affirmative mood. We pastors are, in the acerbic words of Stanley Hauerwas, a “quivering mass of availability.”
Those of us who have been trained to make rhetorical peace with the congregation marvel at the freedom of Jesus to preach over their heads, to wound in order to heal, to use their own beloved texts against them. How sly of the common lectionary to pair this linguistic assault by Jesus at Nazareth with Paul’s pretty words on love. Poor preachers. Sometimes we love our people in the name of Christ, enduring just about everything with them, and sometimes we love them by throwing the Book at them.
It’s too soon in Luke or the new year for an Easter story. Still, any time we’re working the night shift with Jesus, we must be prepared for an outbreak of Easter. We witness what it’s like to be astounded by a death-defying Jesus, moved from failure and scarcity to life and triumph. It’s wonderful.
I never expected First Things to give a theologically nuanced interpretation of the current U.S. war on terrorism, and it hasn’t disappointed me. Its editor-in-chief, Father Richard Neuhaus, has yet to see a war for which he could not provide theological justification from the magnificent Catholic magisterium—despite what the pope says.
Leadership is all the rage at universities these days. There are courses in microleadership and macroleadership, leadership skills and leadership techniques. There are professors of leadership (some of them calling to mind the old adage “Those who can, do, those who can’t teach”) and institutes of leadership.
When I first started teaching, the dean thought it would be a good idea for me to warm up to the vocation (after five years in the pastorate) by teaching summer school. The summer school was designed for second-career folk—those called into the pastoral ministry late in life. Some of these students, I was to discover, are the most interesting kind.
The people who have the best background for becoming pastors in today’s church are high school foreign language teachers,” Stanley Hauerwas declared during a recent discussion between Duke University faculty and seminarians.
In one of his classes, Stanley Hauerwas was asked,“What do you think of Willimon’s preaching?” Hauerwas said, “My main criticism is that Willimon is far too subtle, much too charming. It’s that southern soft-talk thing he does so well.
After a large Sunday dinner, family and friends gathered in the living room of my grandmother’s rambling house for the event that made me a Christian. Lifting a silver bowl filled with water, the preacher said some ritual words, made some promises and then baptized me.
A generation ago, Leander Keck, past dean of Yale Divinity School and Winkley Professor of Biblical Theology, emeritus, at Yale, wrote A Future for the Historical Jesus (1971), a book that proved to be prophetic. Who but Keck could have predicted our past decade's obsession with the history of Jesus?