Out of the Mouth of William Stringfellow

Jacket of "My People Is the Enemy"

Jacket of “My People Is the Enemy”

“Let all religious people beware. Their earnest longing for God is predicated on the reservation on their part that it is necessary for them to do something to find God. The Word of God in the Bible, however, is that God does not await human initiative of any sort but seeks and finds [people] where they are, wherever it be.”

– William Stringfellow, Count It All Joy (Eerdman’s, 1967).

Inspired by Stringfellow’s writings, six students at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago gathered weekly at 6:00 a.m. on Wednesday mornings with Professor Bruce Rigdon to reflect together on our late-night (10: p.m. – 2:00 a.m.) “bar ministry” at Poor Richard’s, a “secular” place, in light of Stringfellow’s writings. God was already present everywhere; our privilege was to recognize it in the world.

Outside the fence at the seminary students from the Moody Bible Institute targeted McCormick people with tracts that threatened Hell for the liberal “sinners” who didn’t recognize the depth of human depravity. They wanted to save the “wretched” seminarians who scorned every hint of a shame and guilt as the starting point of the Christian faith. We believed that grace was amazing and that it was everywhere, but Amazing Grace‘s “saved a wretch like me” was the language of Moody, a wallowing in shame and guilt from which we were proud to have been freed.

It’s 1966 in Chicago’s Old Town entertainment district. Kay Zimmerman, a dear friend and classmate who lost her sight at the age of nine, and I walk into Poor Richards arm-in-arm. The bar is unusually full. A young man jumps up on a table with his guitar and starts to strum out  the hymn we seminary students ridiculed for it’s wretched theology of human wretchedness: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me…” and everyone rose to their feet to join . “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

Several years following ordination, the Chaplain of Milliken University (Decatur, IL) invited me to an evening with “Bill” Stringfellow. It was two weeks before Stringfellow was to undergo major exploratory surgery for a misdiagnosed illness that threatened his life. During an evening in Bill Bodamer’s home Stringfellow spoke in terms that captured my attention in a new way.

It was during that visit that I began to move theologically from the prevalent paradigm of good v. evil to what Stringfellow argued was the biblical paradigm of life v. death. Even yet today, I am still moving from under the spell of my own form of pietistic slavery to “goodness” into the freedom for which Christ has set me free.

Over the years that followed, Bill became a guest in our home during his visits to campus ministry programs at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Northern New York Campus Ministry (Canton, NY), and The College of Wooster (Wooster, OH). My children remember this frail man with the searching eyes, sensing perhaps that his physical frailty not only revealed a human frailty he never denied but a powerful faith in God’s great extravagance.

The absolution from pietism is that there is no way at all to please God, no way to strike a bargain  with Him, no necessity to meet Him half-way,…no way in which His godliness can be diluted in dependency upon human enterprise. The futility of pietism, ending as it does in honoring death in the name of fidelity to God, is that God has triumphed over death already, in the here and now of this life. What is given to men, in that triumph, is not to add to God’s achievement, since it is decisive, and it is not to complete His work, since God is not negligent, and much less to ridicule God’s passion for this world by resort to moralistic legalism, mechanistic ritualism, doctrinaire meanness or any similar religious exercises.

“The vocation of men is to enjoy their emancipation from the power of death wrought by God’s vitality in this world. The crown of life is  the freedom to live now, for all the strife and ambiguity and travail, in the imminent transcendence of death, and all of death’s threats and temptation. This is the gift of God to all in Christ’s Resurrection.

“Men of this vocation count all trials as joys, for, though every trial be an assault of the power of death, in every trial is God’s defeat of death verified and manifested.”

– William Stringfellow,  conclusion of Count It All Joy

“Let all religious people beware.”

4 thoughts on “Out of the Mouth of William Stringfellow

  1. I love synchronism. Your blog appeared just at the right time. It’s given me a name for aspects that I am uncomfortable with in the church, and were particularly at the forefront of matters I was presented with – with is piety. So thank you for that. It is good to be able to name things.

    And you have given me another book for my ever growing reading list.

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    • David, Part of it, I thin, is one’s own personal disposition. Thomas is my favorite Apostle. Just behind is Peter. And the people of faith who have influenced me were not pious in the sense Stringfellow describes. This morning I’m preaching on Psalm 84. In preparation for it I discovered again G. Studdard Kennedy (“Woodbine Willie”) as he was known. I think perhaps our ilk within William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience is that of Woodbine Willie and William Stringfellow. What they each recognized was that the search for righteousness is a vain search, and the message of the gospel is that we don’t need to go there, that Love has called a stop to it. Here in the U.S. during the national debate about guns and gun-control, I suddenly recognized, with great horror, a heavy streak of the righteousness I claim to deplore in others. I hope you have great day today in NZ. The Peace of Christ be with you, David.

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  2. Thanks, Gordon, for reminding us oif the teachings of that man of such powerful writings. Such great wusdom put forth in a small volume and such a great mind speakng with Courage to a world too timid to speak anything but platitdes derived from fear.

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    • Jim, he was a presence who always made churchy and religious people uncomfortable. His eyes seemed to see through you, and the slow movements of the fragile physique left to him by the pancreas surgery and subsequent diabetes only served to increase the size of his presence in a room. He was very quiet-spoken. Soft voice. During a program called “America after Vietnam” that packed the theater at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Stringfellow went toe-to-toe with Fulton Lewis III, a William Buckley protégé, like Mohammed Ali pummeling Leon Spynx with jabs, a left cross, right cross, upper-cuts, and a knock-out blow that left everyone, including Michael Harrington (the third panel member), on their feet. His point was that death was the operating god of American’s foreign policy, and that the worship of death would not go away after the war had ended. But Bill just sat there as though nothing had happened.

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