Book Review: Accidental Preacher: A Memoir

Accidental Preacher: A Memoir

Author: Will Willimon, Afterword By Kate Bowler

Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019

242 pages, including Prelude, Afterword, and Index, hardcover

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

About the Author

The following information is from the jacket cover: “Will Willimon is professor of the practice of Christian ministry and director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. He is an internationally renowned preacher and widely read author noted for his humor, his insight into the Christian faith, and his theological commitment. His many books have sold over a million copies.”

Rev. Dr. Willimon, a Methodist preacher and former bishop, is the prolific author of over 80 books, thousands of sermons, and numerous articles in publications such as The Christian Century. He also has a popular website: willwillimon.com. 

A Personal Note

Over the years, I’ve appreciated Rev. Dr. Willimon’s written works and website posts. A few years ago, our synod clergy study conference was privileged to have Dr. Willimon as the keynote speaker. He is an incredibly gifted master storyteller, able to tell one story or anecdote after the other ad infinitum. 

Contents

There are nine chapters written by Dr. Willimon, each beginning with a biblical citation. The chapter titles are as follows: Fortuitous Baptism, Unwitting Call, Inadvertent Summons, Unexpected Church, Unplanned Disruptions, Adventitious Preacher, Serendipitous Writer, Unanticipated Friends, Unforeseen Commission. 

To whet readers’ appetites, I am going to cite one or more quotations from each chapter.

In Fortuitous Baptism, Willimon has this to say about his mother: “My mother ended her day reading her bedside Bible. That one so fiercely independent as my mother daily submitted to the writings of these ancient Jews made a deep impression.” (p. 19)

Also in chapter one, when a grade four student boasted that he gave his life to Christ, Willimon reflecting on such a boast, counters it with this insight: “You can’t give something to somebody who already owns what’s being given.” (p. 37) 

In Unwitting Call, Willimon reflects on calling, identity and God: “Believing that most of the important things that define us are accidental, externally imposed, Christians believe the question is not “What do I want to do with me?” but rather “Which God am I worshiping and how is that God having his way with me?” (p. 45)

In Inadvertent Summons, Willimon observes: “That we are not self-made implies that we are God’s property, to be called for as God pleases. In the New Testament, “calling” or “vocation” refers to discipleship rather than employment.” (p. 53) 

For pastors, according to Willimon one’s calling, one’s vocation is an ongoing struggle: “Church doesn’t wait for you to have the proper motivation for worship in order to call you to worship. And there are so many times, when you have been called to be a pastor, that you don’t feel like being a pastor but still must act the part. As a pastor, your personal problems take a backseat to the needs of others.” (p. 71)

In Unexpected Church, Willimon shares this humorous tidbit: “To everyone’s surprise, there I was, 1998, delivering the final address at Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral Successful Church Conference. A thousand pastors had gathered around the theme “How to Succeed at Ministry.” I, of course, chose “Failing at Ministry with Moses, Peter, and Just about Everybody in the Bible.” (p. 86)

There are several thought-provoking Willimon statements in Unplanned Disruptions—some may find them prophetic, others cynical and hyper-critical, yet others painfully true.

On the Bible and family: “Scripture’s lack of interest in childhood, parents, and family is born of the conviction that God is more responsible for you than Mom or Dad.” (p. 98)

A critique of and prescription for mainline Christianity: “Buttoned-down mainline Christianity offers aspirin for those in need of massive chemotherapy.” (p. 101)

On Willimon’s experience of racism: “You already know that I grew up in an unashamedly, legally white-supremacist culture. Each day I boarded a Greenville bus that bore the sign: South Carolina Law: White patrons sit from the front. Colored patrons sit from the rear. Nobody questioned that sign, especially those who preached to me on Sunday.” (p. 102)

A critique of natural law: “Natural law is a fiction devised to help us cope with our contingency before God. Sorry, anal-retentive legalists, the world was not created by a lawyer.” (p. 104)

On preachers who pervert the theology of the cross: “Ingratiating preachers transform Jesus’s cross into a snuggly bourgeois blanket.” (p. 107) 

On the upper middle class and pneumatology: “The upper middle class has a myriad of ways to tame the Holy Spirit.” (p. 113) 

On God continuing to work within us: “How easily people like me get it wrong; how disruptively God works to set us right.” (p. 116)

In Adventitious Preacher there are a generous array of homiletical insights. 

On the nature of preaching: “If a preacher finds the words to bring the gospel to speech, it’s only grace. The Christian faith is inherently acoustical. You can’t self-inoculate the gospel; somebody’s got to tell it to you. It’s auditory.” (p. 122)

A couple of priceless quotes from Luther on sermons and preachers: “Luther said ‘a sermon is a surgeon’s scalpel!’ Hey, he also said, ‘Whenever the word of God is rightly preached, demons are unleashed!’” (p. 127) “God can ride a lame horse or shoot with a crooked bow,” said Luther. By God’s grace, even life’s setbacks can be used by God to re-call a preacher.” (p. 129)

On the process of sermon preparation and when the preacher is not satisfied with their sermons: “When composing a sermon, I apply a theological test: What is God doing in this biblical text, and what might God condescend to do in my sermon? In my sorriest sermons, Jesus may elect to preach.” (p. 142) Yours truly has experienced this numerous times over the years!

On a best thing about being a preacher: “One of the best things about being a preacher is that one preaches from, rather than apologizes for, a biblical text.” (p. 144) 

On clergy leaving the ministry: “Of the twenty people who were ordained with me, only two of us made it to retirement as clergy.” (p. 145) 

On the consequence of preaching: “Preaching is judged by its performance in the lives of the saints.” (p. 147) 

In Serendipitous Writer, Willimon links “good preachers” with writers: “Good preachers are voracious readers, recognizing in writers and stand-up comics our kith and kin who, like our Lord and Dostoevsky, create worlds through words.” (p. 163)

A warning about those who write an autobiography or a memoir: “Gertrude Stein dismissed autobiography as inferior literature that “anyone can write,” then proved herself wrong in The Making of Americans. Be suspicious of memoirists who claim to give you a fully accurate rendition of themselves.” (pp. 164-165)

In Unanticipated Friends, Willimon acknowledges preachers’ indebtedness to other preachers: An unindebted preacher is a poor preacher, though the line between grateful apprenticeship and smarmy plagiarism gets thin. My own incriminating paper trail is too long for me to be righteously indignant that a fellow preacher snitched one of mine.” (pp. 185-186)

On the importance of Willimon’s wife as his friend: “Never a truer word was spoken by my mother than “Without Patsy, (Willimon’s wife) you would be a disaster.” (p. 189)

On God’s forgiveness: “Don’t attempt friendship, in marriage or otherwise, without a God who forgives.” (p. 196) 

On advice from Willimon’s friend Rev. Carlyle Marney: “I called Marney and asked him if I should interview at Duke. “Sure. But if you’re hired by Duke, you must become more adept in using a word:bullshit.” (p. 209) 

In Unforeseen Commission, Willimon reflects on the surprise element of prophecy: “Now anybody God chooses, even betrayers like Peter or me, can be enlisted for prophecy.

On the authority of a bishop, Willimon offers this satirical comment: “I wish that Jesus had authorized lapel pins, Boy Scout badges, corporal’s stripes, judge’s wigs, Tasers, or doctoral hoods to give God’s servants clout, but that’s not how Jesus works.” (pp. 226-227)

This memoir is a brilliant example of how God humorously and absurdly chose and called Rev. Dr. Will Willimon into the ministry. All preachers would benefit in some way from reading this volume. 

Preachers’ Thought for Today

Bethany Meadows pulpit, photo by GW-H

“Preaching is effective as long as the preacher expects something to happen-not because of the sermon, not even because of the preacher, but because of God.” -John Hines

A preacher to preachers

A preacher to preachers

Those of us who preach, more or less weekly, are also in need of inspiration from, if you will, a preacher to preachers. One such mentor whom I appreciate is Frederick Buechner. Here are a few words of wisdom from Buechner on the power and inspiration of words, sermons and preaching.

“Sermons are love letters.”

A sobering question for me as a preacher is: How much love do I put into sermons as I prepare and deliver them? I’m sure there’s always room from improvement, speaking for myself. And do parishioners hear and receive sermons as love letters? If they do, then there shall be a whole lot of understanding and harmony in the parish, and they will be inspired and encouraged.

“Language itself is revelatory and gives life.”

If that’s true, then we preachers shall always be searching, with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, to find the right words and transform them into God’s Word for his people via the sermon.

Buechner’s sermons contain what’s been referred to as an angular vision—i.e. seeing something just above or below, not directly, to describe the everyday and apprehend the holiness.

It has been said that Buechner’s book, Telling Secrets, is a life transforming one for preachers.

“Secrets can do damage, they undermine facing the present head on. Doubts, failures, mysteries, imperfections, warts and all—tell all the secrets, the truth will set you free.”

Buechner says that we preachers need to be whistling in the dark.

“Without darkness, people cannot appreciate the light. Writing and preaching are like whistling in the dark. It is trying to convince ourselves as preachers that there is something, someone more than the darkness.”

I like this image of “whistling in the dark,” for me it is an image of hope, courage and joy—that even in the face of sufferings and an uncertain future, we can dare to live with hope, take courage, and be joyful. Why? Because God—Immanuel—is with us.

According to Buechner:

“There is nothing more powerful than a preacher speaking with love to a congregation.”

This reminds me of the captive audience of the disciples on the Emmaus road with the risen Christ, when Jesus opened up the meanings of God’s Word.

“Silence is the first language of God. We need to listen to God in silence. Preaching is born out of silence.”

The times my sermons fall on deaf ears are likely due in part at least to the reality that I did not spend enough time in silence to germinate the Word or hear what the Holy Spirit was speaking to me.

Buechner’s writing is often darkness before the light, the muck before the cleanliness.

“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found.”

Amen to that, for that’s the Good News of the parable of the prodigal son in a nutshell!

Transfiguration Sunday Yr B

Transfiguration Yr B, 22/02/2009

II Cor 4:3-6

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“For we do not proclaim ourselves”

 

Preachers and preaching. In today’s second lesson, the apostle Paul is speaking of himself and his co-workers. He says: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” Paul and his co-workers are facing charges from some in the Corinthian congregation. The charges seem to be that Paul and his co-workers are not genuine preachers and their preaching is not authentic. In response to the charges Paul insists that he and his co-workers are genuine and their preaching is authentic.

From the beginning of the Christian Church, right up to the present day there have been charlatan preachers preaching deceitfully. I don’t know if you’re like me, but on occasion, I have heard a few preachers so egotistic that their sermon was all about themselves. Every story in the sermon was from their life or a member of their family. If I were the preacher’s spouse or family member I’d have felt rather embarrassed and perhaps even resentful about such stories. A preacher needs to practice discernment and ask permission from family members before he or she tells family stories from the pulpit.

Some preachers are tempted by fame and status. They covet being the most popular preacher in the world. Or they become obsessed with climbing the social ladder; desiring to hobnob with the rich and famous. Worldly gain is their game; some making millions of dollars a year by distorting Jesus and the gospel into an entrepreneurial empire. Their affluent lifestyle is on public display for us to see as if they were saying: “Look how rich and successful I am!” Their theme song is “How great I art.” I wonder what Jesus thinks of such preachers?

Other preachers are hooked on Hollywood. They strive to be the Rev. Entertainer; the single, most important criteria for their preaching is the question: “Are my sermons entertaining?” For them, wowing us with dramatics is cool. They may compromise their moral-ethical integrity to preach manipulative, emotionally stirring sermons to get what they want for their own selfish ends. Preachers who tip the scales too far this way may be tempted to develop a cultic or sectarian following like some of the Televangelists. Cultic and sectarian followers are brainwashed, programmed to do almost anything for their leader who has absolute authority and control over them. In recent times, we’ve witnessed how such cultic and sectarian followers have killed and committed suicide in God’s name because they’ve been brainwashed by their leaders.

How radically different are genuine preachers! Paul says you can tell a genuine preacher from a charlatan. He says a genuine preacher does not preach herself or himself. No. Rather, he or she preaches Jesus Christ as Lord and himself or herself as slaves for Jesus’ sake. Or in the words of The Message: “Remember, our Message is not about ourselves; we’re proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master. All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you.” I like that—we’re messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you. If I am going to be a reliable messenger I need to listen very closely to the message I’ve been given to share it with you accurately. I need to learn the message and communicate it well for you. I also need to take orders willingly from Jesus so that I can run the errands he gives me. I need to be in shape spiritually to run his errands. So an authentic preacher feeds daily and deeply on God’s Word. Unless I feed daily and deeply on the Bible, how can I feed you spiritually? An authentic preacher also listens to Christ speaking through prayer. Without listening to Christ in prayer, I cannot feed you.

When I read and study the Bible and feed deeply on it; when I listen to Christ in prayer I, like Paul will strive to preach the message that Jesus is Lord. At the heart and core of all Christian sermons is the earliest confession and creed: “Jesus is Lord.” What does it mean to preach and confess Jesus as Lord?

Well, it means several things. Jesus as Lord means that his power and authority is the highest power and authority of all. No human being, no human institution has a higher claim on our loyalty if Jesus is Lord. Our loyalty to Jesus as Lord is greater than our loyalty to family. Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords has a claim on our loyalty that is higher than our loyalty to any political party, government, or nation. Preaching and confessing Jesus is Lord means that his claims on us to be loyal to him are higher than the claims of race, class, or gender. The confidence of Christian preachers in preaching Jesus is Lord gives them courage and their people courage to confess Jesus as their Lord even in the face of the most powerful forces and authorities on earth.

On the scaffold in a Nazi prison, within months of the end of the Second World War, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was superior to the might of Adolf Hitler because he knew that Jesus is Lord. This is the testimony of countless witnesses and martyrs throughout the ages, some known to us and many unknown to us. This is the witness when, on our deathbeds, in our dying moments, the faithful in Christ triumph over the failures of medicine and of the body, because we say and we know that Jesus is Lord. Who is Jesus? Jesus is Lord; and as long as there are people in the world who, in the worst of times under the most dangerous of circumstances, yet declare that Jesus is Lord, this world and all of its powers will never ever have the last word.1

We preachers and you listeners who follow Jesus continue to place all of our hopes and fears, sufferings and triumphs in the One whom we confess to be: Jesus is Lord. We believe with our whole being that if Jesus is Lord then, come what may, we shall endure it for he is always with us right up to the end of this life and into the open door of eternity. Fear not brothers and sisters in Christ, for Jesus is Lord!

Coming back to what Paul is saying to the Corinthians and us today, because genuine preachers preach Jesus is Lord, they are “your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” In the New Testament Greek, the word doulos can be translated both as slave or servant. The word slave today may have negative connotations—since we in the Western world worked hard and even fought to end slavery. I think what Paul is driving at here is not the negative realities of slavery. Rather, I think what he means here is something like this: because Jesus has a claim on us preachers as Lord, we are compelled to give of ourselves in love as he did for the people we serve. The self-giving love of Jesus will pour into us if we are called to be preachers so that we can give this same self-giving love to those we serve.

In making personal sacrifices as preachers, we discover, more often than not, the truth of Jesus’ words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” For Paul, it means putting the needs of others first by serving them. A colleague and friend of mine of blessed memory, the Rev. Dr. K-Henry Reitze, inspired me with putting others first by serving them. Whenever we gathered together for a meal at church, he would go to the end of the line and insist on being last. We are your slaves for Jesus’ sake. We are here to serve you. I don’t think Paul meant that as slaves we serve out of fear. Nor do I think he meant we serve as hirelings. Moreover, I don’t think that Paul equates slave here with abuse or misuse. Rather, I believe Paul meant that as slaves for Jesus’ sake we serve out of his love. The love we receive from Christ is not horded and kept to ourselves; it is shared with you whom we serve. In serving you, we serve Christ himself, which is the highest privilege that I can think of in this life.

So, thank you for granting me the privilege of serving you. Most of all, thank God through our Lord Jesus Christ for the privilege of serving him and for giving us the Gospel, the Good News, which is meant to be shared with you and all people. Whether we are ordained or laity, we are all called to spread the Good News in word and deed. May the Holy Spirit give us grace to make us willing to share this Good News. Amen.

 

1 Peter J. Gomes, Strength for the Journey (New York: HarperCollins & HarperSanFrancisco Publishers, Inc., 2003), pp. 213-214.