God loves us anyway: Thinking about Will Campbell

Will Campbell
Will Campbell
(Picture courtesy of The Tennessean)

I’ve been thinking about Will Campbell recently.

If you aren’t familiar with Will, he was the campus chaplain when Ole Miss was integrated and was a courageous voice for civil rights. He was a writer, Brother To a Dragonfly being his best known book. He was also tour chaplain for Waylon Jennings and inspiration for cartoonist Doug Marlette’s Will B. Dunn ¬†character in the Kudzu comic strip.

I had the good fortune to hear Will when I was a student at Furman. I don’t remember what he said in the Wednesday morning lecture series but I’ll never forget the Tuesday evening gathering with Religion majors and other ministerially minded folks. (We used to get Tuesday night exclusives with the Wednesday speakers, followed by a cheese and cracker reception.)

During this reception one of our more conservative students engaged Will in an argument. As the argument escalated the rest of us started circling them, high noon style. The student, Chuck, called Will the worst thing he could think of – a communist. Will called Chuck a damned liar.

We collectively held our breath for the next volley. Some of us were kind of looking forward to it because Chuck was a thorn in our progressive sides. We wanted to see him taken down.

It never came. Instead, Will put his arm around Chuck’s shoulder.

“We disagree,” he said. “We’ll probably always disagree.” He then went on to say something to the effect that in Christ they were still brothers and that he loved him.

Will wasn’t just there when the Southern Leadership Conference was formed. He was also the unofficial civil rights chaplain of the Ku Klux Klan, listening to them and trying to understand them. He knew they were in need of conversion.

But then again, aren’t we all.

When Campbell died in 2013, a writer in Alabama shared the following story:

In a 1989 speech at Samford, Campbell criticized the Southern Baptist Convention’s plans to meet and evangelize in Las Vegas. “I said something a few weeks ago in Greenville, S.C., that got me in some trouble, so I’ll repeat it,” he said. “If we want to have an authentic Christian witness, we need to go, one by one, to the brothels and ask the women we call whores, ‘Please, Ma’am, please teach us something about grace, because in our certitude, we’re not even aware that we need grace.”

We need grace, all of us.

No matter where we stand on issues or what Bible verses we like to fling at each other, may we be certain about this one thing.


Rolling Stone article on Will Campbell

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All Twisted Up

Sometimes it’s hard to take it all in.

Driving the very familiar road to the beach I noticed a lot of damage in one town. Old homes had trees resting top of them, pulling down gutters and destroying roofs. Other trees were uprooted, still lying in the yards where they’d fallen. I finally realized that the town had been hit by the tornadoes that swept through the eastern part of the state not so long ago.

It’s already been an ugly season for tornados and sometimes it’s hard to know how to take it all in. We’d not had time to take in the devastation in Alabama when a new town is added to the geography of disaster: Joplin, Missouri. Yesterday I heard a woman on NPR saying in a quiet, lost voice, “My husband has Alzheimers and he’s in (a care facility now destroyed.) We don’t know where he is now.”

A friend posts on his Facebook page a link to a site showing picture after picture of the utter devastation in Joplin. (One redeeming picture is the mixture of joy and relief of a young couple as they hold their just-rescued dog.) Over lunch I try to read a Sports Illustrated story ¬†about the Alabama storms but have to stop. I’m in a Subway eating my sandwich and the tears are beginning to fall.

Perhaps instead of spending so much time, energy and money worrying about the end of the world we would do well to invest ourselves in those whose worlds have ended. As I looked at the pictures from Joplin I wondered to myself how one even begins. But the truth is that I know. You start where you are and you pick up one piece… and then the next… and then the next.

It’s what we do when our worlds have ended – whether it’s a natural disaster like a tornado or a private one like a death. It’s what we do when we don’t know what to do next because the worlds we’ve been living in no longer fit us or feed us or seem like life to us. We pick up the next piece. We follow the next thread. And when it seems that there is just too much that’s unknown or too much that’s too tragic we stop and breathe and in our breath allow our hearts to grow just a little bit bigger. For as I read the story and looked at the pictures I wanted to weep for the sadness of it all but also for the grace of it all… People who traveled far away from their homes to search through the wreckage of a stranger’s home. A dog who was willing to work through the hard days sniffing for life. A former football player who found that he could give something back to these people who’d cheered for him, that he could cheer them up just be being there with them.

Sometimes life leaves us all twisted up. But we pick up the next piece. We follow the next thread. And sooner or later we discover that while one life may have ended, a new one has begun.