What's Tony Thinking

Will (Willimon) and Me


As I mentioned in a previous post, I have discovered podcasts during the pandemic. In the early months, I did my listening while on walks and hikes. Since the gym has re-opened, I listen while plodding along on various exercise machines.

Some of you tuned in to listen when I was the featured guest on the podcast, Crackers and Grape Juice, last month. If you’re at all like me, seeing yourself on video or listening to yourself on audio is cringe-inducing. But I guess I wasn’t too awful or boring, as they have scheduled a follow-up, to tape next week. This time it will be yours truly with Will Willimon, who was for a long stretch the head preacher at Duke Chapel and later a Methodist bishop.

When C & GJ proposed that Will and I do a show together, I said, “What are you going to call it? ‘Grumpy old men’?” They have persisted.

Will and I have history. It started like this. (This blog is, I realize, sort of “inside baseball” for church/ theology nerds. For sane others, bear with me.)

I was a history major at Willamette University, a Methodist school in Salem, Oregon. The head of the department was George McCowen, a great teacher and wonderful human being.

That said, this was the era when professors could still pace the classroom floor and growl, without warning, the last name of a student who was supposed to then say something intelligent about the topic at hand. At 9:00 a.m. this was a shock to the system of many just-emerging-from-a-hangover students. George struck terror in many undergraduate hearts, including mine. I think he enjoyed it. In fact, I’m sure he did.

Back in those days, I was a bit of a trouble-maker and campus “radical.” As student body Vice-President I, more or less, single-handedly managed to undo the University’s compulsory chapel requirement. How’s that for ironic? Well, I still don’t believe in required religious observance/ participation.

One day, George looked at me, narrowed his eyes and said, “You remind me of someone, a student I had . . .  . Willimon.” Dr. McCowen had come to Willamette from Wofford College where Will Willimon had been an undergrad a few years before.

Several years later I read one of the first of Will’s many books. “Prolific” would be his middle name. Seeing he was a graduate of Wofford I put two and two together. He was the nefarious “Willimon,” of George’s memory.

Over the years, Will has spoken at a bunch of events I’ve put together. We’ve been speakers together at different conferences. And back in the 90’s we wrote a book together, Good News In Exile, along with our friend, Martin Copenhaver.

Will is known as someone who gets under a lot of people’s skin. He’s a provocateur, particularly given to tweaking the nose of self-assured or smug liberals. Person to person he is one of most gracious people I know. Unfailingly kind and generous.

So I’ve been blessed to know him, and blessed by his (many) writings. Theologically, he’s an odd thing, a Methodist who is a Barthian.

He is, as those who have heard him preach or lecture know, a great story-teller. His wife, Patsy, once told me about life in Will’s family home. “They all just sat around the kitchen table and told stories. When someone said they were leaving, someone else would start another story. It went on forever.”

I envied Will that capacity. It has served him well. Occasionally, I have borrowed a story of his (usually with attribution). But this, for now, is the story of a long-distance relationship (he in the SE, me in the NW) that continues now with a new chapter . . . a podcast . . . grumpy old men.


Categories: Uncategorized