I’ve been assembling a collection of some of my stories that were published in the past. That collection will appear in the coming year as Stories by Willimon (Abingdon Press). Here’s a Yuletide offering for you, an account of a service that occurred early in my ministry. Allan Warren retired this year after four decades of ministry in the Episcopal Church.
Dawn Shall Break upon Us
1972, in Clinton, South Carolina, I learned how God is among us. We were preparing for the Christmas Eve communion service over at All Saints Church, to be led by Allan Warren, the town’s eccentric Episcopal priest. (Is there any other kind?) Those of us in the so-called nonliturgical churches tend to use “liturgical” churches on occasions like Christmas Eve, when we’re in the mood for a proper celebration. Anticipating Allan’s sermon, bolstering myself with one last cup of eggnog, I was “getting into the Christmas spirit,” as they say.
Then came the news. The peace talks had stalled. Nixon had ordered massive bombing in North Vietnam. Anger and resentment surged within me. What right had Nixon to do this to our celebration? A sick, twisted, ironic way to note the birth of the Prince of Peace—not with the songs of angels unto shepherds but with screaming bombs over bamboo villages. Was a brief cease-fire too much for us peace wishers to ask?
I phoned Allan. Had he heard? Yes. What should be our response? After all, two of the town’s most influential angry young pastors ought to say something! Would he mention the bombing in his sermon tonight? “I don’t think we ought to let Nixon get away with it,” I said. “We ought to blast him for it.” Allan agreed. “A situation like this calls for a firm response—something radical, arrogant, even defiant.” I braced myself for a major antiwar protest.
“There is only one thing to be done,” he declared. “We must pull out all the stops tonight and praise God as never before.”
“Can you imagine anybody up at the Pentagon singing a Benedictus?” was Allan’s only reply.
Sometimes the eccentricity of Episcopalians is too much. And so, not understanding, I trudged through the crisp December night to the little church where the organist was already struggling valiantly with a prelude, and a congregation of thirty or so waited in silence for the eleventh hour. When the hour arrived, in burst Allan in his tippet and biretta, accompanied by two disheveled adolescent acolytes. He made a couple of flourished bows to the altar, shifted his chasuble, and then, leaning over the chancel rail, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, whispered to the congregation, as if letting us in on some secret that only he knew, “Tonight, the Lord God of Israel has come to set his people free.”
I couldn’t tell you exactly what took place during the rest of the service. Revelation had caught me off guard, and I was thrown into a kind of “minor ecstasy,” as the Quakers say. I remember a couple of great old Advent hymns sung with as much propriety as Episcopalians can sing. I remember the passing of the peace and the iron-fisted grip of an octogenarian. I remember the smell of the wine and the taste of the bread, and I remember the choking clouds of incense that emanated from the censer of an overzealous—if not malicious—acolyte.
But mostly I remember old Zechariah’s Benedictus sung lustily, offkey, and yes, “arrogantly and defiantly,” by Allan, with the rest of us faint hearts joining in as best we could:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel;
for he hath visited and redeemed his people
and hath raised up a mighty salvation for us . . .
Through the tender mercy of our God
Whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us;
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Luke 1:68-69, 78-79
You see, the peculiar defense of Christians in the face of the world’s darkness is often best expressed through a most relevant kind of holy irrelevance.
My “response” to the bombing horror was little better than the horror itself—my resentment, my self-righteousness, merely echoed back in the face of a violent world. The Pentagon generals and I did share something after all: brothers in darkness we were.
And then came Allan, defiant, letting us in on the secret of the ages, supremely confident in the face of all evidence to the contrary, accompanied by a small boy swinging a smoking pot, leading us forth from the little church into the midnight air, bellowing forth “Joy to the World” at the top of our voices to anybody who had ears to hear.
The world cannot understand this hope of which we sing on Christmas Eve. In our more worldly moments, we do not understand this hope. But that night, for one fleeting, radical, scandalous, arrogant, defiant moment, I understood. With my eyes opened by incense and my appetite for joy whetted by a little bread and wine, and my hand still aching from the grip of a wise old woman who opened my clenched fist, all evidence in this barren silent night to the contrary, by the grace of God and Father Allan’s priestly act, I praised God and joined with old Zechariah, who sang before his expectant wife:
“The dawn from heaven will break upon us,to give light to those who are sitting in darknessand in the shadow of death,to guide us on the path of peace.”
First published in The Christian Century on December 5, 1979
For years Mark Galli has served as the brilliant editor of Christianity Today. Mark’s groundbreaking book Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicalswas a landmark in Barthian studies. As Mark heads toward retirement, he has written a heroic editorial calling for the removal of Trump for gross immorality.
We have watched North Carolina’s senators silenced into submission by Trump’s bullying. Christians like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. have defended Trump’s lying, adultery, and racism. More troubling, Christian publications (I’m looking at you, First Things) and preachers throughout the country have attempted to provide Christian justification for supporting Trump. All this makes Mark Galli’s witness all the more remarkable.
There is every reason to believe that Trump has forever damaged the Republican party by intimidating them into defending the indefensible, even to the point of a congressman blasphemously comparing Trump’s impeachment to the Passion of our Lord. More troubling will be the damage Trump has done through the Evangelical preachers who lacked the biblical and basic moral commitment to name what he stands for and what he has done as anathema to Evangelical Christianity.
The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.
The reason many are not shocked about this is that this president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration. He has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.
Trump’s evangelical supporters have pointed to his Supreme Court nominees, his defense of religious liberty, and his stewardship of the economy, among other things, as achievements that justify their support of the president. We believe the impeachment hearings have made it absolutely clear, in a way the Mueller investigation did not, that President Trump has abused his authority for personal gain and betrayed his constitutional oath. The impeachment hearings have illuminated the president’s moral deficiencies for all to see. This damages the institution of the presidency, damages the reputation of our country, and damages both the spirit and the future of our people. None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.
This concern for the character of our national leader is not new in CT. In 1998, we wrote this:
“The President’s failure to tell the truth—even when cornered—rips at the fabric of the nation. This is not a private affair. For above all, social intercourse is built on a presumption of trust: trust that the milk your grocer sells you is wholesome and pure; trust that the money you put in your bank can be taken out of the bank; trust that your babysitter, firefighters, clergy, and ambulance drivers will all do their best. And while politicians are notorious for breaking campaign promises, while in office they have a fundamental obligation to uphold our trust in them and to live by the law.”
…the words that we applied to Mr. Clinton 20 years ago apply almost perfectly to our current president. Whether Mr. Trump should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election—that is a matter of prudential judgment. That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.
To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?….
One of the joys since Accidental Preacher was released into the world has been hearing how helpful it has been for some of my former students. Zen Hess, a wonderful young pastoral leader, posted a review on Theology Forum where he writes,
Will’s memoir is filled with honesty, joy, humor, and rich theological and pastoral insight…I am glad by God’s grace to have gotten to know Will. Whether in his writing or in conversation, I rarely feel as certain of my call as I do after interacting with him. This is true of his memoir. Pastors: read and enjoy and, I hope, remember your calling.
He also says that in the book I’ve made him want to be a Methodist minister. I’m delighted that pastors are finding my memoir edifying themselves and their ministries; maybe you would too. See this post to get a signed copy of Accidental Preacher in time for Christmas.
On September 26, the White House issued an Executive Order (EO 13888) that could stop the resettlement of refugees in North Carolina. This cruel executive order will prolong family separation for refugee families, create chaos and confusion about where refugees can be resettled, and leave refugees, former refugees, and United States citizens without supportive services. The administration has also proposed a refugee admissions goal of 18,000 refugees for this year which stands in stark contrast to the historic average goal of 95,000 refugees the United States. Sadly, North Carolina’s senators seem to be unable to criticize any actions by the President, even when grave humanitarian harm is caused by his policies. Therefore I’ve joined the North Carolina bishops in speaking out against this harsh treatment of people who are dear to Christ. See our letter at the following link:
As your constituents from across North Carolina, we urge you to welcome refugees, support the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and deliver written consent to the administration that our state welcomes refugees. Our Christian faith calls us to extend hospitality and offer a chance for refugees to rebuild their lives in safety and dignity. As United Methodists, we are called to “provide wherever possible pastoral care and crisis intervention to refugees.” (Book of Resolutions, 3281)
On September 26, the White House issued an Executive Order (EO 13888)that may drastically reduce, if not entirely stop, the resettlement of refugees in our state. We are deeply concerned that this executive order will prolong family separation for refugee families, create chaos and confusion about where refugees can be resettled, and leave refugees, former refugees, and United States citizens without supportive services. The administration has also proposed a refugee admissions goal of 18,000 refugees for this year, a shamefully abysmal number for the world’s most powerful nation and in stark contrast to the historic average goal of 95,000 refugees.
North Carolina has a rich history of welcoming refugees and is home to a diverse population of refugees and immigrants, adding to its economic strength and cultural richness. We have been an example of a hospitable and welcoming place for newcomers, where the contributions of all are celebrated and valued. Refugees are resilient, hard workers and valued members of our community. They contribute to our state’s economy as workers and entrepreneurs, paying taxes, starting businesses, revitalizing towns, and buying homes.
Resettlement is the last option for safety for refugees who cannot return home and cannot rebuild their lives in a nearby country. We urge you to affirm the importance of this life-saving program, tell the administration and Secretary Pompeo to publicly declare that North Carolina welcomes refugees, and urge the administration to return the program to historic norms.
Welcoming refugees is not a partisan issue. It is how we live our faith.
I have signed it with Bishops Hope Morgan Ward and Paul Leeland of the North Carolina and Western North Carolina Conferences respectively and five of my fellow retired North Carolinian bishops: C.P. Minnick, Lawrence McCleskey, Charlene Kammerer, Charles Crutchfield, and Thomas Stockton.
If you feel similarly, I encourage you to write to your own elected representatives and otherwise take action to make refugees feel welcome in our communities.
Consider this a reminder that on Saturday, December 7, I’ll be the guest speaker for an Advent Quiet Morning at Grace Church Cathedral (98 Wentworth St, Charleston, SC 29401). This event will begin at 9 a.m. in Hanahan Hall with light refreshments followed by a few talks interspersed with opportunities for conversation and quiet reflection concluding at 12 noon. The theme for the morning will be based on my 2013 book,Incarnation: The Surprising Overlap of Heaven & Earth; reading it before arriving may augment your enjoyment of the event. You’re encouraged to contact Bunny Martin if you plan to attend at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The next day I’ll be preaching at their 9am and 11am services. All are welcome. I would love to see you there.