by Win Bassett
The Rev. Lisa Fischbeck’s recent discussion on Episcopal Café about the ordination of laity reminds me of a passage from William Stringfellow’s A Second Birthday, one of the many memoirs he published in his life cut short by diabetes in the mid-1980s. Stringfellow was a Harvard Law School graduate and lay theologian who lived among his poverty-stricken brothers and sisters in Harlem, championed for his neighbors’ rights in courts, and helped to defend women against the politics of The Episcopal Church. (I recommend The Rev. Greg Jones’ 2007 piece on Stringfellow for the Café.)
Richard Beck, a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University in Texas, started The William Stringfellow Project in June of 2012 after his “discovery of him a few years ago…had an enormous impact upon my theological development.” It’s been though Beck’s “reading through and blogging about Stringfellow’s books in chronological order” that I’ve been introduced to the elevating thoughts from, in the words of Commonweal, an “under-appreciated…lifelong Episcopalian.”
In a post on his blog last week, Beck discusses Stringfellow’s A Second Birthday, and specifically, he mentions the lawyer’s notes on vocation in light of his illness:
Vocation has to do with recognizing life as a gift and honoring the gift in living.
In the Gospel, vocation means being a human being, now, and being neither more, nor less, than a human being now…And, thus, each and every decision, whether it seems great or small, whether obviously or subtly a moral problem, becomes and is a vocational event, secreting, as it were, the very issue of existence.
Beck comments, “In short, our vocation is simply being a human being, now. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s the only real decision we have to make. And we make it every moment of every day, over and over.”
This is particularly difficult to hear in an age when “[t]oday’s Millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential,” writes Anthony Bradley at The Acton Institute’s PowerBlog. I expanded on this “gut-wrenching struggle” a bit more in a post for The Wayfaring, where I described my own struggle to live an “ordinary life”:
My mom responded to me with an incredible email, and in the message, she was perhaps the most open she’s ever been with me. I won’t quote it here in the hope that she will continue to be this forthcoming with my brothers and me, but after a touching introduction, she listed a few things that she and my dad do on a daily basis in living their ordinary lives. One “little thing” particularly struck me–my parents taking a shopping cart back inside a store instead of leaving it in a parking lot after they are done with it.
I have a feeling a return to the idea of living an ordinary life will become more prevalent as localism, front porches, bartering, and community structures regain their significance in society. And I have a feeling I’ll be writing on this topic more often as I observe loved ones experience my similar struggles and as I spend more time with my parents to de-save the world myself. In the meantime, I look forward to taking a morning walk with my mom and dad and dog this weekend at their lake house. I guarantee they’ll pick up a piece of trash or two along the way.
Stringfellow’s words, and Beck’s comments, echo this return to the ordinary life of the generation before me — simply to be a human being and to consider each action and non-action as an individual vocational endeavor. If I do this or not do this, am I “honoring the gift in living”? Or, thinking of each “vocational event” in light of the prayer of confession:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
Not everyone is called to save the world. A dear friend recently said to me, “That job has already been taken.” And similarly, not everyone is called to Ordination to Holy Orders. “But that doesn’t mean we give up the opportunity to name, bless, and send forth a person to a particular calling [outside of a call to the clergy] in the world,” writes Rev. Fischbeck.
That calling may be as simple, yet still important, as picking up a piece of trash when you see it, taking a shopping cart or two from the parking lot when you enter a grocery store, or doing the dishes while everyone else enjoys drinks and conversation. All of these are ways, as Rev. Fischbeck mentions, of extending the church “beyond the church walls.” And all of these individual, separate, and vocational deeds, writes Stringfellow, are what will give us the “freedom from the moral bondage to death that enables us to live humanly and to die at any moment without concern.”
Win Bassett is a writer and lawyer in North Carolina. His work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Paris Review Daily, Books & Culture, Paste Magazine, Religion & Politics, and Neiman Storyboard. He begins Yale Divinity School in the fall. Follow him on Twitter: @winbassett.