Thursday 4 December 2008

William Stringfellow: career vs. vocation

“I had elected then [in my early student years] to pursue no career. To put it theologically, I died to the idea of career and to the whole typical array of mundane calculations, grandiose goals and appropriate schemes to reach them…. I do not say this haughtily; this was an aspect of my conversion to the gospel….

“[Later] my renunciation of ambition in favor of vocation became resolute; I suppose some would think, eccentric. When I began law studies, I consider that I had few, if any, romantic illusions about becoming a lawyer, and I most certainly did not indulge any fantasies that God had called me, by some specific instruction, to be an attorney or, for that matter, to be a member of any profession or any occupation. I had come to understand the meaning of vocation more simply and quite differently.

“I believed then, as I do now, that I am called in the Word of God … to the vocation of being human, nothing more and nothing less…. Within the scope of the calling to be merely but truly human, any work, including that of any profession, can be rendered a sacrament of that vocation. On the other hand, no profession, discipline or employment, as such, is a vocation.”

—William Stringfellow, A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 30-31.


Unknown said...

Was Willy ever poor?

Anonymous said...

Yes, he moved to Harlem to practice law (i.e. help poor people) after graduating from Harvard Law School. One quote is something to the affect, "I resented living in a one room apartment infested with cockroaches until I realized that most of the people in most of the world live in one room apartments infested with cockroaches."

Anonymous said...

I think the quote Anonymous is referring to is the section beginning _My People Is The Enemy_ (1964):

The stairway smelled of piss.
The smells inside the tenement -- number 18, 342 East 100th Street, Manhattan -- were somewhat more ambiguous. They were a suffocating mixture of rotting food, rancid mattresses, dead rodents, dirt, and the stale odors of human life.
This was to be home. It had been home before: for a family of eight -- five kids, three adults. Some of their belongings had been left behind. Some of their life had, too.
The place, altogether, was about 25 x 12 feet, with a wall separating the kitchen section from the rest. In the kitchen was a bathtub, a tiny, rusty sink, a refrigerator that didn't work, and an ancient gas range. In one corner was a toilet with a bowl without a seat. Water dripped perpetually from the box above the bowl. The other room was filled with beds: two double-decker military cots, and a big ugly convertible sofa. There wasn't room for anything else. The walls and ceilings were mostly holes and patches and peeling paint, sheltering legions of cockroaches.
This was to be my home.
I wondered, for a moment, why.
Then I remembered that this is the sort of place in which most people live, in most of the world, for most of the time. This or something worse.
Then I was home.

Chris TerryNelson said...

I'm liking this Stringfellow the more you quote him! Keep it up! This one is particularly practical as I am trying to figure out what to do after seminary ends in May. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Yes, Ben, thank you for this--it reads like a great daily meditation.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic quote Ben. Perfect ending to my sermon on living in apocalyptic hope... like John the 'wild-man' Baptist and Jesus the 'poor-man' Christ on the margin of so-called 'civilisation'.

Anonymous said...

Given recent discussions here on the "principalities and powers", observe (as Bill Wylie Kellermann, the editor of A Keeper of the Word, points out in the introduction) that Stringfellow actually considered "career" itself to be a principality. In his conversion, ipso facto, he said he had "died to career".

Unknown said...

Good stuff. Thanks for filling me in. I'm glad I asked.

Erin said...

"career as principality" is sermon waiting to happen. We've been painfully aware of the demands of living in our world and the degree to which we're sold out to success lately, and it's discomfiting in the midst of the financial crisis.

Anonymous said...

Here is Rowan Williams on "vocation":

"So in the most basic sense of all, God's call is the call to be: the vocation of creatures is to exist. And, secondly, the vocation of creatures is to exist as themselves, to be bearers of their name, answerable to the word which gives each its distinctive identity....

"So with the human world; God does not create human cyphers, a pool of cheap labour to whom jobs can be assigned at will. Each human being called into existence by him exists as a distinct part of a great net. To be is to be where you are, who you are, and what you are ....

"... vocation doesn't happen, once and for all ... It happens from birth to death; and what we usually call vocation is only a name for the moment of crisis within the unbroken processs.

"... Vocation is, you could say, what's left when all the games have stopped."

From the "Vocation (1)" in Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994), pp. 173ff.

Williams, I understand, knows and likes his Stringfellow.

myleswerntz said...

I was emailing with Anthony Dancer (fellow Kiwi) about Stringfellow this week. Glad to see you promoting his work--he's way underread.

Anonymous said...

Kim quoted Williams...
"So in the most basic sense of all, God's call is the call to be: the vocation of creatures is to exist. And, secondly, the vocation of creatures is to exist as themselves, to be bearers of their name, answerable to the word which gives each its distinctive identity...."

Or as a paraphrased old saying from the rabbinic tradition says. When you meet God face to face, He will not ask you- Why were you not Moses? but instead Why were you not yourself?

This is why living out one's true vocation is learning to 'let your life speak'.

An interesting writer some of you might want to take a peek at is Parker Palmer, a Quaker teacher, and a theologian on the sly.

Bill Bekkenhuis said...

Thank you for remembering William Stringfellow. I graduated from Drew Theological School and had the privilege of hearing him speak at my undergrad university, Lehigh, in 1979 (I believe). For all the great theologians I've read, he is the far and away the best - and far too obscure. His books seem to be perpetually out of print. Alas, unfortunately the invasion of Iraq seems to have reversed that situation, at least for a bit. God bless.

Bill Bekkenhuis
Bethlehem, PA

Nancy Bowker said...

I so desire to meet others who are drawn to stringfellow..How?

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