Welcome to the blog of Bishop Will Willimon, Professor of the Practice of Ministry, Duke Divinity School. Here you will find articles, sermons, lectures and other offerings from Will Willimon.
This Fall Abingdon Press will publish The Holy Spirit, a new collaboration by Stanley Hauerwas and me. We hope the book will be read by pastors and their congregations that they may have a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit. It’s been said that the Holy Spirit is the most neglected aspect of the Trinity. May this book be used by the Holy Spirit to address that!
We’ve Got an Advocate
That the Holy Spirit incorporates us into Godʼs very life is not only found in the letters of Paul. In the gospel of John, Jesus promises that though he will return to the Father he will ask the Father to send the “Advocate, the Paraclete,” who will be with us forever. That “Advocate” is the “Spirit of truth” whom the disciples will recognize because, “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be with you.” (John 14: 17) The Advocate is sent to “teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14: 26). The Spirit has distinct work to do: to make us one body, the Body of Christ.
That the Holy Spirit is here called “Advocate” indicates that in Christ we are more than simply accepted by God or even justified by God. The Advocate continues to plead for us, represent us to God in ways greater than our ways and speak in our behalf to God better than we could speak up for ourselves. At the same time the Advocate is God representing God to us, revealing God to us in ways that we could not have come up with on our own.
That the Holy Spirit “will teach you everything and remind you” of all that Jesus said is immensely reassuring. None of us is born Christian. We must learn the faith and, in the Holy Spirit we see that God loves us enough to teach us all we need to know to be with God. Jesus commands us to do some extraordinary things in his name but never commands us to attempt to obey him by ourselves. Jesus tells us some astounding truth that is easy to forget. Therefore the Advocate reminds us. Here is truth we cannot teach ourselves, truth that is not only a great mystery to us but also truth that we, in our human sin, cannot attain on our own. Therefore the Advocate is a truth-teller.
We know a person who suffered a great wrong at the hands of another. She was justifiably angry at the injustice perpetrated against her. In an encounter with her wrongdoer her rage boiled over and she was in the process of, “Giving him a piece of my mind.” In that moment she, “remembered that Christ commanded us to forgive our enemies. I said, ʻLord, Iʼll try to do what you want me to do, but youʼll have to help meʼ.” We believe her remembrance was the work of the Advocate, the true eternal truth-teller, the Teacher, the Living Reminder otherwise known as the Holy Spirit.
We spend most of our lives outside of the sacred precincts of the church. Thankfully, the Advocate is with us “forever,” at all times and places, helping us to be the disciples Jesus calls us to be.
The love that is Trinity is a wonderful but also a harsh and dreadful love, a love that (we learn in Christʼs resurrection) cannot be destroyed. Christʼs church is given the extraordinary opportunity to participate in the love that is God in a world that knows not God.
The Holy Spirit rests upon bodies, first on the crucified body of Jesus, then on the often full-of-holes and beaten Body of Christ, the church.
A little church in Alabama had been saving for a decade at last to build its own church and to enable the congregation to move out of the rented space where it worshipped. A couple in the church had raised four foster children. One Sunday, during the prayers of intercession, the couple said that social services had asked them to take on three more children who had become homeless. They asked the church for prayers,“to help us find a larger place to rent so we can take in these kids.”
With that, one of the oldest members of the congregation blurted out, “We donʼt need to pray for that. Letʼs give them our building fund money!” There was applause. That Sunday the church gave the entire building fund to enable the family to have a larger home. We believe that such a miracle is attributable only to having ordinary people pray, “Come! Holy Spirit!”
The Holy Spirit is the agent of the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom is present, often hidden, in the church. The Holy Spirit is the way that God keeps actively loving us in time, the way that the Trinity keeps showing up to us, keeps pointing us toward the truth embodied in the Crucified. By Godʼs love, we live in the Age of the Spirit, that new time in which the church exists and testifies to the world that our time is not our own. God has taken time for us and the sign of that divine intrusion is the Holy Spirit at work in the church that is lives and works in the world.
God through the Spirit draws us into the life of the Trinity making possible a people who would otherwise not exist. The Spirit must have a body on which the Spirit can rest. That body turns out to be called “church.”
Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon
This Fall Abingdon Press will publish The Holy Spirit, the latest collaboration by Stanley Hauerwas and me. In this book, we attempt to lure fellow Christians into the riches of Pneumatology, thinking about the Holy Spirit. We hope the book will be read by pastors and their congregations that they may have a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spiritʼs lack of prominence in contemporary theology is odd given that the movement generally known as Pentecostalism is the fastest growing form of Christianity. Charismatic Christianity has grown exponentially over the last century. The movement which many think began in 1906 in modest circumstances on Azusa Street in Los Angeles has exploded into a world-wide phenomenon producing some of the most lively churches in South America and Africa.
Of particular note is the Holy Spiritʼs special relation with the poor and the dispossessed. The sermon that Jesus preaches in Luke 4, claiming that the Spirit is upon him to preach good news to the oppressed, deliverance to prisoners, is taking form in worldwide Pentecostalism today.
The charismatic, Holy Spirit induced movement has not been restricted to Protestants. In 1967 during a retreat at Duquesne University a number of the participants were “reborn” in the Spirit. It was not long before the movement spread to the University of Notre Dame spawning summer meetings that for a number of years attracted thousands. This Catholic charismatic movement has generally had the support of the Popes and bishops.
Charismatic forms of Protestantism have often received a different response from the churches. In fact, the “enthusiasm” of the charismatics may be one of the reasons the Holy Spirit does not have, at least among mainstream Protestants, the same status as Father and Son. “Enthusiasm,” (infused with God) was a frequent charge against John Wesley and his Methodists.
Some fundamentalist churches ostracize members who claim to have received charismatic gifts, seeing such claims as dangerous undercutting the authority of Scripture and disrupting congregational order. As mainstream Protestantism loses the social and political status it once enjoyed, unable to attract new members, it becomes fearful about the future. Mainline Protestants sense that just identifying themselves as Christian is enough of a threat to secular culture; they are anxious not to be counted with Christians who speak in tongues, perform signs and wonders, believe in miracles, and are possessed by the Spirit. “Progressive Christians” know that many of their secular friends think that Christianity can no longer be rationally defended. That some Christians in the name of the Holy Spirit claim to be possessed by God in a way that seems irrational to modern, Western people only reinforces the secularist suspicion of the absurdity of Christianity.
In a field education seminar, Will had a student present a case study in which a parishioner asked her pastor, “What does the United Methodist Church believe about speaking in tongues.”
The pastor was rather pleased with himself to respond, “Oh my God, donʼt tell me youʼve gotten into that!”
She reported that she had experienced glossolalia, ecstatic speech, during a session of her Bible study group.
“Perhaps you are still dealing with grief over the death of your daughter,” said the pastor.
“I am. Is that what causes this?” she asked.
“Perhaps you ought to seek professional help,” persisted the pastor.
“Thatʼs why I came to you,” she concluded.
We find this a rather brutal policing of the Holy Spirit to assume that a report of
unusual spiritual gifts should be responded to with, “You are insane.”
Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon
From the Pew Research Center comes the sad truth about racial diversity in American churches. Some years ago I said that my own beloved United Methodist Church has shown little intention of taking the costly, painful steps that might lead to greater racial diversity; we prefer slogans about diversity to actual racial inclusiveness. Years ago Lyle Schaller said that the more a congregation talks about “diversity” and the less it talks instead about “evangelism,” the less diverse that church is.
During the four decades of my ministry, the UMC we spent millions to subsidize mostly failing ethnic minority local church, we have an elaborate, rigidly enforced system of racial quotas for our leaders, and a higher percentage of ethnic minority bishops than any other church. And yet, as you can see, we are at the bottom of the list in actual inclusivity of membership.
This data shows that the UMC is actually less inclusive than we were four decades ago. I think the data confirms my contention that racial inclusiveness is exclusively a local church issue; it is not solved by Annual Conference and General Conference measures. I pray that the UMC will use this dismal data from Pew as encouragement to dedicate ourselves anew not to being more inclusive in our hierarchy but inclusive in our Sunday worship. I bet we would have to reform our training of clergy, our deployment of clergy, our worship and hymnody. There is no painless way for us to move from being one of the most racially exclusive church to a church that more faithfully mirrors the mission of Christ.
The UMC’s location at the bottom of the diversity index is an affront to our tradition, our theology, and our fidelity to Jesus Christ. How ironic that we will probably spend more energy at the next General Conference talking about sexual orientation than about our now well-documented racial exclusivity.
If a religious group had exactly equal shares of each of the five racial and ethnic groups (20% each), it would get a 10.0 on the index; a religious group made up entirely of one racial group would get a 0.0. By comparison, U.S. adults overall rate at 6.6 on the scale. And indeed, the purpose of this scale is to compare groups to each other, not to point to any ideal standard of diversity.
Seventh-day Adventists top the list with a score of 9.1: 37% of adults who identify as Seventh-day Adventists are white, while 32% are black, 15% are Hispanic, 8% are Asian and another 8% are another race or mixed race.
Muslims (8.7) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (8.6) are close behind in terms of diversity, as no racial or ethnic group makes up more than 40% of either group.
Although U.S. Jews (90% white) and Hindus (91% Asian) are not very diverse, especially compared with Americans overall, the five least diverse groups in the index are all Protestant denominations. Members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (a mainline denomination), the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (an evangelical denomination) and the United Methodist Church (the largest mainline church) are all more than 90% white.
This Fall Abingdon Press will publish The Holy Spirit, a new collaboration by Stanley Hauerwas and me. We hope the book will be read by pastors and their congregations that they may have a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit. It’s been said that the Holy Spirit is the most neglected aspect of the Trinity. We hope that our book, in some small way, helps to change that neglect!
The Holy Spirit as God
When we talk about the Holy Spirit we are speaking about God. You may find this an odd remark with which to begin a book meant to introduce the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. After all this is a book written by Christians for Christians. However throughout Christian history and particularly in our own day Christians have had difficulty remembering when they say Holy Spirit they say God.
God as Father, Son, and….
Surveys show that nine out of ten Americans say they believe in “God.” But weʼre not sure that the God in whom so many Americans believe is the God designated by “Holy Spirit.” Actually, when Christians say Holy Spirit they are not merely saying “God;” they are saying Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who are the one God. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. Often when you are third in a list, for instance, a list like the Apostles Creed, it can seem that third is an after-thought.
Thus the general presumption is that the Father creates, the Son redeems, and the Spirit—well, what does the Spirit do? Too often the Spirit is associated with our feeling that we have had some sort of “experience” that is somehow associated with God or at least a vague feeling that seems to be “spiritual.” Human experience is a questionable place from which to begin thinking about God. Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are often cited by United Methodists as constituting authority in theological argument. Some even claim that John Wesley was big on experience as a source for theological reflection. Subjective experience is no place to begin thinking about the Holy Spirit. Such thinking can result in a dismissal of what the
Bible says about the Holy Spirit and an unfortunate degradation of Christian doctrine. So we say again: to believe in the Holy Spirit is to believe in God. To have had experience of the Holy Spirit is to have had an experience of something other than yourself.
Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon
 See Jason Byasee’s book in the Belief Matters series, The Trinity (Nashville: Abingdon 2015).
To pre-order The Holy Spirit:
“We are dying and our pastor hasn’t a clue what to do about it. If our next pastor refuses to lead, we’re history,” lamented a layperson as we stood in the gravel parking lot of a little Alabama church.
A consultant told one of my churches, “Your church staff is intelligent, spiritually astute, but don’t know how to do the things that need to be done to give this church a future. Worse, they have a well-developed theology to justify their lack of leadership.”
At the risk of nostalgia — when I entered the pastoral ministry in South Carolina four decades ago I was clear that I was being sent onto the frontlines of a war. Jesus demanded the acquisition of leadership skills – truth-telling, pain-inducting, coalition-building, constant communication – that are rarely innate and few seminaries teach. I had to figure out how not only to maintain but also to move the church. When I became a bishop years later, it seemed that many pastors had reverted to maintenance and care-giving – safer work than the leadership of change.
It’s a truism that no human institution endures without change. As G. K. Chesterton said in defense of tradition, if you want a fencepost to stay the same, you’ve got to repaint it every year. Refurbishment and transformation are even more pressing for the church. Had I the time, I’m sure I could demonstrate – through appeal to Scripture and church history – that there’s no way to remain the church without continual renovation and risk because of Jesus. Leading is only necessary for an institution that needs to go somewhere or that lives under external mandate. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the nascent church by focus upon the leaders of the church. What Jesus demands of disciples can’t be accomplished without someone being given the burden of leadership (ordination).
“Just be with your people, be present, listen, and love them,” responded one of my pastors to a consultant’s criticism that little appeared to be happening in his church. I was moved by the pastor’s sweet response.
“That’s not good enough,” the consultant shot back. “It’s arrogant for you to refuse to acquire the necessary skills and practices required to serve the needs of the church here and now. ‘I’ll just be present with you’ means ‘I refuse to submit to serve you as leader.’ Hey, we’ve learned why churches thrive and be more faithful. You’re ordained to lead.”
I surveyed seminary graduates whom I had taught recently. I asked, “What should we have given you that we didn’t?” Nearly all of them responded, leadership. “I graduated from seminary with lots of great ideas but without skills in how to execute those ideas,” said one. As I see it, we are the first generation of pastors in a century to be forced – by the demands of a living God and our changed cultural context – not only to care but also to lead. The good news is that an increasing number of pastors are eager to grow beyond earlier disparagement of leadership resources as mere symptoms of “institutional anxiety” or facile, faddish “church growth quick-fixes.”
There are more resources for church leaders than have existed at any time in the history of the church. Having taught M.Div. and D. Min. courses in leadership (I know, “those who can’t, teach”) and having field tested dozens of church leadership books (desperation forces one to read), I’ve got some favorites. For a church leadership book to make my A-list, it must: be congruent with my ecclesial tradition and congregational culture, be explicitly driven as much by theological commitments as by organizational and sociological insights, honestly tackle the tough, necessary work for mainline Protestant Christianity to have a future, and be unashamedly specific and practical.
I’ve been prodded and poked by the many books of Bill Easum, Paul Borden, and Tom Bandy, recommending them to fellow pastors: “Here is pastoral leadership on steroids.” Easum’s Go Big: Leading Your Church to Explosive Growth (2006), or Bandy’s, Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers: Ministry Anytime, Anywhere, by Anybody (1995) are hard-hitting, fast-paced shoves to be more assertive pastoral leaders. Paul Borden (Hit the Bull’s Eye: Aiming Real Leaders at the Mission Field, 2003 ) nails pastors for wasting time with internal congregational hand-holding rather than externally engaging North America in mission, mission, mission. I wrote the foreword to his Hit the Bull’s Eye, admitting how Borden challenged my own tendency merely to keep house in the congregation because I didn’t want to do the hard work of standing up to and moving out into a world that thinks it’s already Christian, sort of. Though Easum, Borden, and Bandy have distinctive emphases and differences, their kicking-butt-and-taking-names approach is a life-giving shove to all-too-cautious and diffident pastors who may have unwittingly reduced ministry to chaplaincy to inwardly focused churches.
And yet, these popular church-growth gurus, though published by mainline church publishing houses, often sound if they are speaking to churches other than mine. Their ecclesiology tends to see the church as a hindrance to real mission and evangelism (defined mostly as harvesting converts who have assented to “the message”). As a pastor said of one of Borden’s books, “First become a conservative, non-hierarchial, non-connectional, sort of Baptist church with a pastor who is absolutely cocksure self-confident about his or her vision and goals, and the rest is easy.”
I have found some church leadership books of enduring significance: Anthony Robinson’s Transforming Congregational Culture and Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations (2003), answers the often heard criticism (from writers like Eugene Peterson) that church management books favor commercialized quick fixes devoid of theology. Tony has a gift for focusing on the essentials and for giving pastors the confidence to lead. His own pastoral experience shows; he is convincingly mainline (he’s a UCC pastor, consultant and contributor to the Christian Century). When I wrote my textbook for ordained leaders, Pastor (2002), wanting to condense leadership wisdom for future pastors, I leaned heavily on Tony’s insights.
Tony’s pastoral leaders are collaborative, humble enough to change, motivational without dominating, constantly teaching, eager to use acquired influence to do the tough work required to be a faithful, living church and confident that the Protestant mainline is a gift of God to North American religious life. A pastor leads congregational change by daring to ask the right questions, framing the problem in a theological perspective, and patiently, small-step-by-small-step moving people in the same direction. Tony tells us not only what ought to be done but how to do it by spelling out strategies like, “maintain disciplined attention,” “give responsibility back,” and “don’t over value consensus.” His What’s Theology Got to do With It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church (2005) is a little gem of theology put into practice.
Though her more recent books seem less theologically disciplined by theology, Diana Butler Bass’s The Practicing Congregation (2004), dares to confront the changed religious landscape faced by mainline churches. Some pastors’ leadership styles are dated. The theologian who urges, “Just be present with your people,” or “Don’t worry about reaching others; just be open and welcoming” Is clueless that we live in culture rapidly becoming post-Christian. It’s no longer enough passively to “be the church” in expectation that the world will see our liturgical and ideological superiority and spontaneously join in. While I benefited from her honesty and her passionate focus on younger people, I have heard some clergy use (abuse?) Bass’s insights as an excuse not to focus on leading staid congregations into a better future; why bother to reach out to the world if the world is dead set against us?
Many pastors in my church family trust Lovett Weems. His Church Leadership (rev. ed. 2010) has become the book that a wide array of seminaries use for leadership training. I’ve enjoyed watching Weems incite mainline pastors to notice numbers like attendance and membership growth. Weems’ refusal to bless decline as a theological virtue is no small feat in United Methodism, I can tell you. I wonder if Weems’ prescriptions are radical enough to address our current congregational challenges — he stresses caution and leadership that is respectful of and aligned with a specific congregation’s culture and tradition. Yet his advice is always sound and pastors find immediate help from Weems’ interpretation of secular research on organizational management (greatly revised from his 1993 first edition). Weems gives pastors the chutzpa to notice the numbers (without the courage to quantify, leadership is impossible) and to plan for growth. With words more gentle than mine Weems shows that pastors who are comfortable servicing the spiritual needs of one generation or social class and who are focused mainly on internal congregational maintenance rather than faithful mission, are attempting to serve a 2016 church using a 1950 Christendom mindset.
Gil Rendle’s Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches (2010) is similar in tone to Weems. Though much less a “do this and you will get that” sort of leadership book, Rendle does a fine job of convincing mainline churches that we must move from a presumption of power to a position of active mission to all of God’s beloved, hurting people. The old cultural props are gone and that’s OK; what’s not OK is leading as if nothing has changed.
The foundation for that change of mind is Darrell Guder’s The Continuing Conversion of the Church (2000). While Guder probably didn’t think of his book as a pastoral leadership book, it really is. Guder forces us pastors see ourselves as lead missionaries in God’s mission in the world. A major reason why we pastors must read books about church leadership is that we now lead our congregations in the challenging mission field of North America.
More in line with the how-to-fix-it leadership genre is Molly Baskette’s thoroughly likeable and immediately useful, Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead and Yours Can Too. (2014) Molly renders church leadership as less an onerous burden than a fun adventure. She tells how her church started growing, collected more money, did more mission, attracted a more diverse and younger congregation and — she is U. C. C.! Earlier, Kirk Hadaway (an Episcopalian) Behold I Do a New Thing (2001) gave rout to the lie that liberal, mainline churches must succumb to slow death. I love the way that Baskette, and Hadaway before her, refuse to throw up their hands and throw in the towel, forcing us pastors to dispose of the alibi, “But what can anybody do?”
I enjoy telling seminarians, “You have been called by God and the church to leadership in the best of times. We’ve tried some things and learned a great deal. After decades of blaming, alibiing, and denial, we now have lots of practical, proven tools to help us to be faithful to our vocation.”
I not only believe that, I’ve seen it in action. What a great time to be a pastor
William H. Willimon’s forthcoming novel, I’m Not From Here, appears soon.
Jemson was Methodist of the whole cloth: he was notoriously short on theology and a mile long on good works. — Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman
One of the many strokes of genius of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird – our greatest American novel – is to make a child, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, the narrator. We see the South, that is, 1930s Maycomb (Monroeville), Alabama, through a child’s penetrating stare. In Harper Lee’s much heralded and equally maligned second novel Go Set a Watchman, twenty-six-year-old Scout returns home from her sojourn in New York to visit her aging father, small town lawyer Atticus.
Many have condemned the publication of Go Set a Watchman as a brutal defamation of our beloved Atticus Finch or as an unedited, sloppy novel that detracts from the reputation of Harper Lee. While Go Set a Watchman lacks the literary perfection of her first novel, I am bold to believe that Watchman, particularly when read in the context of Mockingbird, confirms the artistic genius of Lee. She has said that she wants to be our Jane Austin. In writing Watchman, Lee is all that and even more.
I didn’t say that her novel is easy to take; the last third of the novel as Scout confronts the racism of her hero, Atticus, is excruciatingly brutal but utterly truthful. I grew up in a town like Maycomb, among people just like Atticus and I can tell you – no better picture has been painted of the ambiguities, the complexities, and the evil of genteel, educated, polite Southern racism circa 1955 than Watchman.
No one can help comparing Watchman with Mockingbird; many take offense that Lee presumed to publish another book after reaching the apex of international literary glory. I believe that the main reason for outrage against Watchman is that Lee has dared to allow Scout to become an adult woman and that she has dared to tell the truth about race in America and maybe that Lee has written as a Christian.
The first thing I noted by comparison was that Watchman is often very funny; I never saw much humor in Mockingbird. The funniest passages are when Lee remembers church. She recalls the Baptist revivalist’s sermon, “Would You Speak to Jesus if You Met Him on the Street?” that led Jem, Scout, and Dill (“Scout and me are Methodists,” admitted Jem) to re-enact a baptism by immersion in Dill’s fish pool. In Jem’s pretend sermon, he asked, “Where is the Devil?” and answered, “Right here in Maycomb, Alabama,” a statement that proves to be prophetic by the end of the novel.
The children are punished for their bogus baptism (Whap! came Miss Rachel’s switch on Jem’s behind before he could finish his sermon) but in a way, all church is pretend in Maycomb. Returning to the church of her childhood during her fateful homecoming, Jean Louise encounters “the warmness that prevails among diverse individuals who find themselves in the same boat for one hour each week.” The sermon is delivered by the Reverend Mr. Stone of whom her crazy uncle pronounced, “…had the greatest talent for dullness he had ever seen in a man on the near side of fifty.” Stone’s preaching is studiedly inoffensive. As a pastor, he had “all the necessary qualifications for a certified public accountant: he did not like people, he was quick with numbers, he had no sense of humor, and he was butt-headed.” Maycomb’s Methodist Church (“not large enough for a good minister but too big for a mediocre one”) at first was pleased when the bishop sent them a young pastor. After less than a year, word around the congregation was, “We asked for bread and they gave us a Stone.”
The only show of passion during or after service was when Jean Louise’s (“licensed eccentric”) uncle accosted the volunteer choir director and complained that the Doxology had been sung too fast. He was informed by the musician that a pepped up Doxology was pushed at a course led by a man from New Jersey on “what was wrong with Southern church music.” Her uncle shot back, “Apparently our brethren in the Northland are not content merely with the Supreme Court’s activities. They are now trying to change our hymns on us,”
While biblical allusions are scattered throughout Go Set a Watchman, one is impressed by the irrelevance of the church. When push comes to shove in Maycomb (and the whole town is being pushed by the nascent Civil Rights Movement), no one seems to recall anything of help or challenge from their Christian faith.
The same Sunday evening of the church service, a meeting is held in the Maycomb County Courthouse (in the same courtroom where Atticus had been unassumingly heroic in Mockingbird) because “politicking’s done on Sunday in these parts.” At this gathering of the County Citizen’s Council (euphemism for the South-wide effort to resist integration), there gathered are “not only most of the trash in Maycomb County, but the county’s most respectable men” including the man who has meant the most to her, the man whom Jean Louise (and all of Mockingbird’s readers) idolized. Atticus introduces the guest speaker, a disgusting man who stands up and delivers the most vile and repulsive of rambling racist diatribes. Jean Louise, who has slipped into the “Colored balcony” to witness the event becomes infuriated and nauseous.
That evening Jean Louise grows up the hard way. She discovers that she embodies Atticus’ noble values better than he. Atticus “had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.” In the aftermath, she visits her beloved family servant Calpurnia, offering Atticus’ help in an upcoming manslaughter case against her son. Calpurnia is polite but cold toward the child for whom she was a surrogate mother. She thanks Jean Louise but indicates that she and her family will attempt to defend themselves. (“NAACP-paid lawyers are standing around like buzzards,” warns Atticus.) The African Americans of Maycomb are moving on, securing their lives without the help of their privileged, white, disappointing protectors.
“Did you hate us?” Jean Louise tearfully asks Calpurnia. After silence, “Finally Calpurnia shook her head.” Whether in assent are denial, we are not told.
Jean Louise has a bitter, angry confrontation with Atticus before she leaves Maycomb forever. Atticus attempts to defend himself, trotting out all of the conventional Southern white justifications in defense of segregation, dated but shockingly similar to the current rhetoric of right-wing politicians from Texas to North Carolina.
I’m sure that Go Set a Watchman will be read and dissected for decades. Harper Lee’s rendition of mid-1950s Southern racism, white privilege, class tensions, relationships between men and women, and ordinary, mundane evil is spot on. Any Southerner over fifty is sure to find Watchman to be a painful but revealing read as we walk again with Jean Louise that path made or refused by every Southerner I know.
In its own way, I believe that Watchman is a very Christian novel, maybe even Methodist. Though Jean Louise is the only character who notices the gap between Maycomb’s universally held Christian convictions and the racist “Christian civilization” they think they have built, that she even notices and rebels is a Methodist moral achievement in the rigidly enforced segregationist mindset that is the charming world of Maycomb, Alabama. Watchman is a story of redemption, of the Wesleyan New Birth as a painful opening of the eyes, of the move into adulthood as learning to tell the truth.
Atticus calls the vile Alabama governor merely “indiscreet,” and the failure to get a conviction of the murderers in “the Mississippi business,” a “blunder.” Atticus, like any person, we Christians believe, is not only a sometimes admirable personal of great integrity, he is also a sinner, a confusing mix of good and bad. Harper Lee is a great literary artist, and, in her own way, the best Methodism can produce, a firm believer in the biblical truth that the purpose of telling a story is to tell the truth. Only then shall we be free.
The text for unfortunate Mr. Stone’s Sunday sermon was from Isaiah 21: For thus the Lord said unto me, Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. Stone had droned on about escaping the frustrations of modern life by coming to Family Night each Wednesday bearing a covered dish. In Go Set a Watchman prophetic Harper Lee takes Isaiah as her model. Even as the child Scout stared at her world, seeking the truth about things, so Jean Louise Finch stares at her world and dares to declare what she sees, thereby blessing the rest of us, if we dare.
“You were really present to us in your sermon today, preacher,” he said on
his way out of church last Sunday. What did he mean by that? Are there
Sundays when I am absent?
I suppose that his remark was an affirmation that this sermon really
seemed to mean something to me. I was “there” in a way that was noticeable
and engaging. Perhaps that is not a bad distinction between a sermon
and a lecture. A lecture is usually a rather “cool” presentation. A few ideas
are put out on the table for reflection, consideration, and possible adoption.
The ideas may mean something to the lecturer or they may not.
On the other hand, in a sermon, there is the expectation that the
preacher will be “present.” The moves made within the sermon must not
simply be general ideas that may or may not have any relevance to the
preacher. They must be ideas that, to some degree, the preacher is trying
to embody in his or her life. The effective sermon is not simply a report
on what the preacher may or may not think. Rather, the engaging sermon
engages the hearers, it takes them somewhere they would not go without
the power of the sermon. It makes a claim upon the hearers. They understand
themselves to be addressed, summoned because it is clear that
the preacher has also been addressed, summoned by the very word the
preacher is attempting to preach.
Sometimes some preachers are accused of being “manipulative.”
Verbal manipulation can be a problem. However, we preachers ought to
acknowledge that every one of our sermons is a sermon about matters
that deeply concern us. We really do want to persuade our hearers, want
to change them, want to encourage them to internalize these ideas in their
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not merely some report on an interesting
philosophy. Rather, the gospel is a matter of God’s action and human
response. The gospel is a claim about the mighty acts of God and therefore
that claim must be an act, a summons, a deed.
Detachment can be the death of preaching. In fact, for the preacher
to be detached from the subject matter is a basic violation of what the
gospel is all about and therefore what preaching is all about.
How can we preach in such a way that it is obvious we are present in
our preaching? Some of the advice your English composition teacher gave
you in high school is relevant. It is better to speak in the present tense than
in the past tense when using verbs. The active voice (she approved that . . .)
is better than the passive voice (it was approved that . . .). Simple, direct
sentences are to be favored over complex sentences. Short, uncomplicated
sentences convey energy and directness. As someone has said, the passive
voice is always about something that took place somewhere else other
than here and at another time other than now.
Concrete details are much better than abstract generalizations. I
remember hearing about a teacher of preachers who asked students in
his homiletics classes to call out all of the big theological words they had
learned in their seminary classes, words like redemption, atonement,
sanctification. Then he asked them to think of one everyday noun that
could stand for and exemplify those big words, words like bread, water,
wine, birth. He was trying to get his budding preachers to move from
the detached abstraction engendered by the seminary studies to specific
engagement. What are our sacraments if not concrete embodiments of
matter, which without the bread or the wine would remain theological
abstractions? Preaching that is present is therefore preaching that is
If something is universally true, it is best grasped through the particulars
of life. Things that are generic and abstracted tend to float above
human experience. You will note that Jesus is a model for us in this matter
of concrete communication. Jesus spoke of coins, seeds, soil, and the stuff
of everyday life to speak of divine matters.
Avoid standing off from the sermon or from yourself in the manner
in which you speak about the sermon. Don’t refer to the sermon or to
yourself as preacher, or to the listeners as listeners. Why say things like,
“This morning I would like to have you consider the possibility that . . .”?
Instead, just begin by saying, “Let’s look at the problem of . . .”
Lately, I’ve become annoyed at the way we preachers will speak about
something called “the Christian community,” when what I suppose we are
talking about is church.
Don’t talk about a story, or report on a story, or explain it. Tell the
story. Rather than introduce a story with something like, “There is an old
story that I heard some years ago, I have forgotten just where, perhaps
you have heard it, which I would now like to retell again to you.” Rather,
simply begin, “One day there was a little girl who did not know which way
to turn in a dark wood . . .”
Rather than summarize conversations between people, “One day
Jesus was met by an interesting man who had some interesting things to
say to him,” say, “‘What have I got to do to inherit eternal life?’ he said
to Jesus.” It is always better to show than to report. If the conversation is
interesting, don’t tell your hearers that it is interesting. Rather, repeat the
conversation for them and, if it is interesting, they will know it without
your telling them.
Study the art of storytelling. Storytellers seem to involve their listeners
in the action of the plot, seek to have their hearers identify with the
various characters in the story. Isn’t that what we want them to do with
Extended quotations, even if they are from Scripture, get to be tedious
and difficult to follow. Again, in quoting, we are distancing ourselves
from the material we are presenting. Our hearers likewise will feel
distanced by the use of long quotations.
Generally, I think it is a good rule to avoid heavy-sounding theological
abstractions. Use words like redemption, or atonement, or incarnation,
which are all good theological words, and watch a congregation’s
eyes glaze over. All of these words speak of concrete, available experiences
of God’s ways with us. Talk about those ways, the primary theological encounter,
rather than the abstracted theological report of that encounter,
and you will be “present” in the sermon.
Perhaps above all, we must be interested in what we have to say,
convinced that what we have to say is of singular importance for our
hearers. I sometimes tell my students to search the biblical texts for the
given Sunday and find something within the text that engages them. If
they can’t find something that engages them, they will never engage their
congregations. It is well for our hearers to ask us to be present in our sermons,
interesting, engaging, and enthusiastic about the message we deliver. To be
anything less is to raise questions about the validity of the message we
have to deliver. The message we have been given is good news, the words
of God unto life. Let us give that message with all of the clarity and all of
the presence we can muster.