William Willimon (1946- )
William Willimon was the Campus pastor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina for several years. He tells this story of an evening visit to a fraternity house on campus.
The residents of many of these college fraternity houses have done much to deserve the bad reputation they usually have. The University Dean at Duke requires each fraternity to have a certain number of programs each year to give them at least some semblance of respectability, and, in the hope that someone might learn something. One of the fraternities invited Willimon, the campus pastor, to do a program. He was to come to the frat-house and give a lecture on “Moral Character and College.” Willimon thought to himself, “I can’t believe these guys are dumb enough to invite an old guy like me to talk to young men like them on character.” I can’t believe it either, because I have heard Willimon preach. He is brilliant, articulate, has a powerful personality, and, when he wants to be, can be blunt and intimidating. Those boys had probably never been to chapel service and did not know what they were in for.
On the appointed evening, Willimon went to their house and knocked on the door. The door opened and he was greeted by a young boy about nine or ten years old. “What is a kid doing over here at this time of night?,” Willimon wondered. Surely, he thought, there should be rules against children even being at a place like that at any time of day. He had visions of the frat boys getting this poor kid drunk for a few laughs.
“They are waiting for you in the common room,” the boy said politely. They went back to the common room and there all the young men were gathered, glumly waiting for the presentation.
Willimon says he then hammered away at the boys for an hour about the failures of their generation. He talked about morality and character and responsibility and faith, and how fraternity houses like that one gave little evidence of any of those things. When he finished his talk he asked if there were any questions. There was dead silence. So he thanked them for the honor of inviting him there, and headed out. As one young man walked him to the door, Willimon overhead him say to the little boy, “You go and get ready for bed. I’ll be back to tuck you in and read you a story.”
When they got outside, the fraternity boy lit a cigarette, took a long drag on it, and thanked the pastor for coming out. “Let me ask you,” Willimon said, “Who is that kid and what is he doing here?”
“Oh, that’s Donny,” said the young man. He said, “Our fraternity is part of the Big Brother program in Durham. We met Donny that way. His mom is on cocaine and having a tough time. Sometimes it gets so bad that she can’t care for him. So we told Donny to call us up when he needs us. Then we go over, pick him up, and he stays with us until it’s okay to go home. We take him to school, and we buy him his clothes and books– stuff like that.”
The pastor stood there dumbfounded. He said, “That’s amazing. I take back everything I said in there about you guys being bad and irresponsible.”
“I tell you what’s amazing,” said the college boy as he took another drag on his cigarette, “what’s amazing is that God would pick a guy like me to do something this good for somebody else.”
There are a couple interesting things about that reply. First of all, he believed God picked him for that task, and that God had placed that boy in his care. It wasn’t that the college required a program, or that his girlfriend worked for the Durham Big Brother program and talked him into it, or whatever other external circumstances led to that boy being there. It wasn’t any of that. It was God, he believed, that picked him out to do that. And secondly, the young man was amazed that God would pick a guy like him. Even though Willimon said he took back all he said, the young man probably saw the truth in a lot of what he said about him and his friends, and he didn’t see why God would pick a careless and irresponsible frat-boy to do something so important and so good. He didn’t think he deserved it or was even up to it. Humility, service, goodness, and even faith were all evident in that reply. Not bad, thought Willimon, for a college kid.
“The time has come,” Jesus said in Mark 1:15 as he began his public ministry, “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” Jesus was going to need some help to get this movement off the ground. What he should have done is put an ad in the paper, taken applications, done interviews, and then carefully select the most qualified candidates. But Jesus did not do that. Instead, he saw a couple fisherman, said “Come follow me,” and they did. Then he saw a couple more, and said, “You come too,” and they did. He then had one third of his staff in place, and chances are none of them could even read or write. What kind of way is that to put together a leadership team? And they all, like the college boy, would wonder why they were picked. Some time later, Peter, after one of his many blunders, said, “Lord, depart from me, for I am a sinful man.”
And Paul, selected later, also did not feel up to it, calling himself, the “least of all the apostles.” God would not have had to depend on unqualified amateurs. He could have brought his own staff from heaven– Michael and Gabriel the angels, and a few more of their kind. They knew how to get things done, and they were experienced. They had been on God’s staff for a few thousand years already. But Peter, who always had his foot in his mouth? And James and John, who both had problems with pride and a fierce temper? And Paul, who at one time was arresting Christians and having them killed? Why depend on the likes of them? And if God was the one who was really arranging for the care of Donny, why put him in a frat-house full of boys interested in little more than partying? Why not arrange for foster care with some wealthy and responsible young couple in the suburbs? Peter, Paul, James, John, the boys at the fraternity, you and me, all chosen by God to accomplish what he wants done in the world.
Mark 1:16-18 — As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
I Corinthians 1:26-27 — Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
II Timothy 1:8-9a — So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life– not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace…
O Lord, in whose hands are life and death, by whose power I am sustained, and by whose mercy I am spared, look down upon me with pity. Make me to remember, O God, that every day is thy gift, and ought to be used according to thy command. Grant me, therefore, to pass the time which Thou shalt yet allow me in diligent performance of thy commands. Amen.
—Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)