Among the important things never mentioned at Sunday dinner conversations among the Willimons was the embarrassment of my father.
“What am I to say when they ask, ‘Where’s your father?’” I’d ask.
My mother’s most detailed response: “Just say that your father doesn’t live here anymore.” That’s a relief. At least there was a time when I had a father. I mined my memory for some shred of recollection. I remembered climbing into a man’s lap and watching him fill his pipe with tobacco. There was also the scratch of whiskers. Then there was a memory of being in Skelton’s grocery store with a man with a pipe who pulled a cold “dope” out of the cooler and handed it to me. When he did, someone in the store asked, “A Coakercoler for your grandson, right, Bob?”
The man who had given me the drink replied, “Go to hell. That’s my son!”
Beyond that, nothing.
There was a tobacco humidor with pipes on the living room shelves. “Was that Daddy’s?” I asked.
“Yes,” was all I got. Sniffing the amber-colored jar provided my sole tangible confirmation of paternity.
One day, alone, rummaging in the desk I was forbidden to open, I found a letter from the warden of the US prison in Atlanta. “To whom it may concern: The prison record of Robert C. Willimon has been exemplary.” How would I live up to Daddy’s success as a convict?
As student body president of Hughes Junior High, I gave a speech one night to the PTA. The editor of the Greenville News came up afterward and said, “You’ve sure got that Willimon gift of gab. Who’s your daddy, Charles or Gene?”
I gulped. “Robert was my father.”
“No kidding? Didn’t know Bob had a boy as young as you.”
He bent down and whispered, “Bob could talk a preacher into breaking the Ten Commandments. That son of a bitch talked me out of ten thousand dollars. Left town. Never paid back a cent.” Another profession, banking, closed to me forever.
“But I’ll tell you this,” he went on. “If your daddy walked right through that door and said, ‘Bill, give me ten thousand dollars. I’ve got a great idea that’ll make you rich,’ I would whip out my checkbook. God-a-mighty, what a man with words!”
“I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me. And he said, Go, and tell this people. … ” (Isa. 6:8–9).
Methodists adore this passage. It’s what the song “Here I Am, Lord” – written by Jesuit Dan Shutte in 1981, evolved to become a sort of Methodist national anthem – is based on. Few Methodists make it through two stanzas of this hymn without volunteering to go evangelize Zulus or at least to shed a maudlin tear. The chorus runs: “Here I am, Lord, is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me … I. …”
Note the prevalence of the first-person personal pronoun, as vocation degenerates into volunteering. Caught up in this syrupy tune, I wonder how many singers are truly challenged by the encounter with a summoning God. How many are actually willing to accept the risk of being rescued from our overly cultivated subjectivity?
Never have so many been so free to get so much of what they want yet have so little notion of the life worth wanting.
Vocation – called for by God – is a term scarcely used anymore. Vocation’s power, said Hermann Hesse, is when “the soul is awakened. … , so that instead of dreams and presentiments from within a summons comes from without,” and an external relation “presents itself and makes its claim.” The notion of an unchosen calling seems odd, schooled as we are in the fiction that our lives are our exclusive possessions to use as we choose.
“Who am I?” or “Why am I here?” evokes in unison the widely held individualist creed: I am self-fabricated, autonomous, my personal property, the sum of my astute choices and my heroic acts of detachment from anyone more important than me. I bow to no claim other than that to which I have freely consented. I’m the captain of my fate, master of my soul, author of the story that is me.
Christians assert the un-American conviction that our lives are less interesting than the God who assigns us. To paraphrase Aquinas, we’re contingent creatures. We’re the moon, not the sun; our light is derivative, reflective of the Light of the World. The God who had the brilliant idea to breathe life into mud (Gen. 2:7) loans breath, but only for as long as God wills.
All sorts of lies keep us from knowing the truth of our contingency and dependency. The myth of self-invention underwrites the market that gives us fifty kinds of pizza and four hundred TV channels, and calls the resulting wasteland “freedom.” Never have so many been so free to get so much of what they want yet have so little notion of the life worth wanting, making it impossible to choose themselves into the good life.
Augustine charged that our boasts of Promethean human freedom of choice are but the rattling of our chains, a failure truthfully to acknowledge our masters. In this supermarket of desire, endless, never really satisfied consumption is our fate. I tell myself that I am free of externally imposed masters while failing to admit my serfdom to the most imperious of lords: me.
Modernity compels us to write the story that defines who we are, heroically to choose from a variety of possible plots. Christians, on the other hand, believe that most of the important things that define us are accidental, externally imposed. The question is not “What do I want to do with me?” but rather “Which God am I worshiping and how is that God having his way with me?”
Now we come to my discovery of the God who discovered me.
My sophomore dream trip to Europe (envisioned as a twenty-four-hour-a-day, three-month bacchanal) was commandeered by God and made a comedy of vocation. By midsummer 1966 a blue VW Beetle (purchased at the factory the Nazis built at Wolfsburg) deposited us in Amsterdam. In the Rijksmuseum, while my buddies explored the city that knows no sin, I stood face to face with the paintings I’d only seen as slides in Constance Armitage’s Art History 101. I wondered before a melancholy Rembrandt self-portrait, so real I had to look away. To my right, an older man intently studied a van Ruisdael. He looked familiar, but who would I know so far from home?
Dr. Marney! A week or so of gray beard, but there he was – Carlyle Marney. Six months before, Marney (as he preferred to be called) had come to Wofford College’s annual Religious Emphasis Week. He spoke with his deep voice that sounded like God, if Yahweh had been a Baptist from Tennessee. He swore, even in sermons, and made outrageous comments meant to thrill sophomores like me. I had retained none of his sermons’ content, except something about Marney’s horse in the pasture, turning its head when Marney whistled. Impenetrable metaphor for God?
I hesitantly approached. “Dr. Marney?”
“Who the hell are you?” he replied, looking me up and down cautiously.
I had awoken to an exam for which I had not studied.
“Oh, just a student at Wofford where you spoke last spring.”
Marney stood there, assessing me.
“Are you in Europe preaching?” I asked.
“I’m here to recover the Jew,” he said, punching his finger into my chest. “Eight synagogues in five days. Rubbing my clean Christian nose in the ashes of the circumcised.”
Very awkward pause.
“And you? Why are you here?” he demanded.
“Me? I’m just bumming around Europe with some guys, looking for girls, just having a good time.”
“You take me for some kind of fool, boy? I’ve been a preacher long enough to know when somebody is lying.”
“Uh, then I guess I don’t know why I’m here,” I stammered.
“Good! Maybe we can get somewhere. Unamuno says knowing that you don’t know is the beginning of knowing. May I help?”
He grabbed my arm. “These Dutch have told me more truth than I can take in one afternoon. God, I need a drink. You?”
Marney led me down the steps, out the front door, and into the first bar outside the museum.
“Got bourbon?” he called to a waiter across the dim, smoky bar. “Doesn’t need to be fine bourbon. This boy doesn’t know the difference and I don’t expect good mash this far from home. Two. Straight up.”
Watching Marney fiddle with his pipe, I was excited, at last being taken somewhere dangerous.
“Now that you’ve got some liquor in you,” he said after his first sip, “you ready to talk? No horseshit. Who brought you here? What’s the reason you won’t admit?”
Marney began tamping sweet-smelling tobacco into his pipe.
“Uh, I thought I was here just to see Europe. My first time and all. I really like art history. …”
“You started this, barging in when I’m trying to come to terms with Abraham,” mumbled Marney, accusingly, then settling back in his chair, closing his eyes as if he had heard nothing noteworthy.
“When you were speaking at Wofford, I got to thinking, or else I finally admitted to myself that I had been thinking, that maybe, I ought to think about applying for one of those Rockefeller grants for a trial year at seminary, but. …”
Marney grinned as if he had finally figured me out. “Son, life’s less monologue and more dialogue.” I had awoken to an exam for which I had not studied.
“It’s just I’m really bothered that I’d be thinking about seminary. It seems kinda crazy,” I said nervously.
“Why crazy?” asked Marney, staring across the bar, feigning disinterest, puffing on his pipe.
I began a rambling narration. “I grew up without a father, you see. My father left us when. …”
Marney shook his head. “No. Your daddy can abscond, die, disown, but everybody’s got some daddy or another. I bet you went out and found one, didn’t you? Besides, how the devil does not having a daddy explain you here, now? God’s of the living, not the dead.”
I was grateful for the table between us. I blurted, “You see, since I’ve been at college I’ve gotten to read Freud, and I’m thinking, ‘maybe my fixation on God is just my compensation for my lack of a father while I was growing up.’ Wish fulfillment, maybe.”
“Probably,” smirked Marney.
“My thinking about God is just my psychological reaction to my daddy being in prison and all?”
“Look,” said Marney, laying aside his pipe and moving toward me across the table as if to grab hold, aggravated at having to explain the obvious. “Son, God will use any handle God can get.”
Too long a silence. Then I asked, “But, how can I figure out what’s God and what’s my own screwed-up background?”
In an exhale of smoke Marney pronounced, “Son, God will take advantage of any screwed-up background, crooked daddy, manipulative mama. Read the Scriptures, for God’s sake! I swear, I’ve never known a preacher worth a damn who didn’t have a bad mama or daddy problem. God can work with either. Be glad you only got one loss for God to take advantage of.
“Yep. I’m pretty sure God’s got your name. Not the first time I’ve heard this story. You’re nobody special. Got God’s fingerprints all over it. You have time for me to have another one of these?” he said, pointing to his empty glass. “My good man,” he shouted to the waiter. “This round, don’t spoil it with ice. My protégé likes it straight. Garçon, encore bourbon!”
Sometime before dawn, tossing, turning on the dirty mattress in the fleabag monastic cell that three of us had rented for eight dollars a night, accompanied by the sound of some student puking in the shared toilet down the hall, I said the words that Paul surely prayed when God blinded him: Why not somebody else? What kind of God would call somebody like me? But I don’t want to be a Methodist preacher.
That night in Amsterdam was the birth of the accidental, initially humiliating, but eventually happy life that is not my own, summoned, made accountable to someone other than myself, answerable to an externally imposed claim. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say: “Keep your hat on; we may end up miles from here.”
One day in high school, I asked an aunt to violate family law and “tell me about Daddy.”
Here’s what she told me: When my older sister and brother were young, my father committed bank fraud, or bank robbery, or maybe both; it’s hard to remember exactly. At the time, Daddy was reputed to have more liens against him for unpaid bills than anybody in the history of Greenville. His Greenville Pickens Speedway, road construction company, and a dozen other brilliant ideas busted. He was sent to the federal pen in Atlanta, or maybe the one in Indiana, at one time or another; it’s hard to remember.
Through it all, my mother stood by, awaiting his return. Daddy was released from jail and returned to the Willimon place. Nine months later, even though he and my mother were in their forties, I was born. Alas, my father’s troubles resumed, and, after some misdeed that broke the proverbial camel’s back, one Sunday the family had a meeting and decided it would be better for all if my father would leave.
Mother was consulted and agreed, after being told that the family would look after me and my siblings (they were both more than a decade older than me). Daddy was written out of the will and my brother Bud, my sister Harriet, and I received the three-hundred-acre inheritance that would have gone to him. My mother’s sole condition was that no one ever speak of my father because “this little boy ought not grow up with that burden.”
Everyone kept that promise.
It’s all absurd, of course, dark and sublime Faulknerian Southern Gothic worthy of Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, or maybe even Eudora Welty. But people handled things differently back then. What was left of a family’s fictional dignity must ruthlessly be preserved. Adults, having made a mess of so much, prided themselves in their ability not to mention a few things that were deemed too unpleasant to lay upon a child. Their obfuscation produced a large void in my Eden.
I was twenty-two, at a family wedding in Raleigh, when my aunt Alice came into the motel room where we were gathered and asked, “Would you like to meet your father?”
“Yes, I guess.”
Led into an adjoining room, I was greeted by an older man, smoking a pipe. We shook hands. All I saw was an aging relative for whom I had no more feeling than for a distant cousin.
What a relief to know that God likes to make things;you can’t devise yourself from scratch.
“I hear you have done right well for yourself,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Hear you know how to make a dollar.” I have heard you are good at talking people out of money! Son, you make me proud.
In my first church in Clinton, South Carolina, I paid a pastoral visit to Miss Agnes, who had been my mother’s roommate at Winthrop College. “Willie, it seems like only yesterday that you were born!” she said after serving iced tea. “I remember visiting Ruby when she was expecting you. A terrible year, that was. She didn’t care if she lived or died. Hair turned snow white during those nine months.”
My nativity a “terrible year”?
“You can’t expect her to have been happy about it. A forty-year-old woman surprised by a baby,” she said with a dismissive little laugh as she offered me a cookie. “Still, I understand that you have brought her happiness. That’s nice.”
There you have it: I, the accident, the firstfruits post-prison. That’s why I’m uneasy with the term “planned parenthood” and thank God that abortion wasn’t readily available in 1946. God be praised for Bible stories of embarrassing pregnancies from Sarah and Hagar to Mary.
If I could have mustered resentment against my father, or the family who cast him out, or their vast conspiracy of silence, I could have tested my obedience to Jesus’s command to forgive enemies. I could be the courageous victim who clenched his fist and overcame all. Alas, my lack of attachment to my unknown father produced too little antipathy for me to get over. I do believe that my father improved my biblical interpretation. Saint Paul did jail time, so did our Lord.
You can learn Greek, but if your old man hasn’t been a convict, I brag to seminarians, vast portions of the New Testament will be incomprehensible.
“It is god that hath made us, and not we ourselves” (Ps. 100:3). Another shiny quarter memorization verse in Sunday school. What a relief to know that God likes to make things; you can’t devise yourself from scratch.
That we are not self-made implies that we are God’s property, to be called for as God pleases. As John Alexander points out in his 2012 book Being Church, in the New Testament the terms calling or vocation refer to discipleship rather than employment. We can be called to “eternal life” (1 Tim. 6:12) or into fellowship with Christ (1 Cor. 1:9), out of darkness into light (1 Pet. 2:9), and into right relationship with God (Rom. 8:30), but not to a career. Paul was a tentmaker (Acts 18:3), but nowhere is Paul “called” to be a tentmaker. Tentmaking put bread on the table, justification enough for Paul to give it his best.
Humans have careers; vocation is what God does.
The “mythologist” Joseph Campbell famously defines vocation as “following your bliss”; the theologian Frederick Buechner similarly says vocation is “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” But bliss is made suspect by Jesus Christ – who casts fire on the earth (Luke 12:49), turning father against son (Luke 12:53), bringing not peace but a sword (Matt. 10:34). Jesus brings enlistment, incendiary vocation in mission that sometimes destroys bliss. Ask Paul.
“I like working with people, therefore. …” or “I’m good with words, so naturally. …” is not the way of vocation. How about nursing sick people? No? That doesn’t appeal? Hey, what about advertising?
Vocation is not evoked by your bundle of need and desire. Vocation is what God wants from you whereby your life is transformed into a consequence of God’s redemption of the world. Look no further than Jesus’s disciples – remarkably mediocre, untalented, lackluster yokels – to see that innate talent or inner yearning has less to do with vocation than God’s thing for redeeming lives by assigning us something to do for God.
Without a Christ who summons, the sweet voice within is the best we can muster. But who, intently listening to his or her own subjectivity, risks anything as costly and crazy as God routinely demands?
“Mary, how did you decide, by listening to your life, to become pregnant out of wedlock, have a sword pierce your soul, and bear the crucified Son of God into the world?”
See what I mean?
Vocation is not an inner inclination awaiting discovery by rooting around in the recesses of the ego. As Jesus succinctly says, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit” (John 15:16).
My adolescent, long-night-in-Amsterdam question, “What kind of God would choose someone like me?” is answered by Scripture. The God who chose Israel and the church chooses the likes of me.
Vocation is not evoked by your bundle of need and desire. Vocation is what God wants from you.
God’s got some form of discipleship in mind for everybody. Everyone can expect vocation – that peculiar way God uses you, creation of God, in God’s salvation of the world. One of the happiest aspects of my happy pastoral life is watching the ways in which God calls – to write letters to the incarcerated, to do time on the church finance committee, to empty the bedpans of those in need, to raise a couple of godly children, to set a good table for the hungry, or to be a public school teacher.
At the Northside UMC Wednesday morning prayer breakfast (God and a sausage biscuit at an ungodly hour), I piously asked the assembled laity, “Pray for Mary. Johnny was booked last night. DUI. I’m going to see what I can do to get him out. Mary’s had a time with that boy.”
“How much you know about alcoholism?” said one of the men, unimpressed by my pastoral care.
“Where you going to get the money for bail?” asked another. “We’ll go with you. Take this off the prayer list. We can handle it.”
The three of us walked into the bowels of the jail, where we saw a frightened youth, huddled in the corner of a cell, weeping.
“Son, how long have you had a problem with alcohol?” one of the men asked through the bars.
“Uh, I wouldn’t say I have ‘a problem,’” Johnny replied.
“Let me rephrase that. How long have you been lying about your problem? Son, I’ve learned a lot about booze the hard way. Had that monkey on my back since I was in the army. I can show you the way out.”
“We’re springing you,” said another, who was a lawyer. “And you come home with me. Our kids are out of the house. Your mama’s got enough on her already. I’d love to have somebody to watch Clemson football with.”
A vocative God showing off.
It was christmas eve 1981. Northside United Methodist Church had a rough ride the years prior to my arrival as their new pastor. Things were so bad they found neither the funds nor the enthusiasm even for a Christmas service the previous year. The dispirited congregation needed a win. Even if I singlehandedly had to mold the candles, grow the poinsettias, and falsetto-croon “O Holy Night,” by God my first Northside Christmas would be a candlelight extravaganza of Yuletide emotion.
As I was putting the finishing touches on my sermon for that night’s service, my brother called.
“Daddy just died.”
The father I barely knew selected that night – my biggest night at my new church – for his exit, this time leaving for good. As we drove to church that night, I was ashamed of my lack of response. Though I tried to lament the tragedy of it all, my grief was no greater than that I’d have felt for a distant relative. We hurried into church. I put on my robe, pulled tight the cincture, directed the candles to be lit, and formed the choir for the introit – “O Come, All Ye Faithful” instead of my preference, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
That’s church for you. Church forces us to march in and sing even when we’re not in a singing mood, not feeling faithful, and “joyful and triumphant” is not us. Church doesn’t wait for you to have the proper motivation for worship in order to call you to worship. And there are so many times, when you have been called to be a pastor, that you don’t feel like being a pastor but still must act the part. You may be in pain, may be in over your head emotionally and theologically. Though you are supposed to be an expert in helping others to grieve, you may not know how publicly to mark your own loss. As a pastor, your personal problems take a backseat to the needs of others. You’re the only pastor they have, and Christmas comes but once a year. So you pull tight the cincture and pray, “God, who got me into this, give me the hardheaded determination to get through it.” You go out and act like their pastor even when you don’t want to.
You pull tight the cincture and pray, “God, who got me into this, give me the hardheaded determination to get through it.”
That Christmas Eve at sad Northside, as at many other times and churches, I practiced the art of pastoral repression in service to my vocation. I stood up and played the preacher. Don’t accuse me of deceit or denial – that night I was almost grateful for having something to pray over other than myself, pleased that baptism had given me a church family more messed up than my own, glad that a pregnant virgin is more newsworthy than a son unable properly to grieve the death of a failure at fatherhood.
I wasn’t a hapless victim of poorly thought-out paternity. I was privileged to have been called for, compelled by my vocation to suck it up, take a deep breath, and stand and deliver, lay some Bible verse on them that would help them make it through the night. There was only me to say the divine words they couldn’t say to themselves. Somebody’s got to deliver the news, the good news for all who dwell in the land of darkness, whether it be east of Eden or on the north side of Greenville. Even though we “love darkness rather than light” (John 3:19), God incarnates anyway: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. …
In each of our histories, there is regret and unfinished business. The world, as good as it is, is never enough. Not enough time, not enough room for complete redemption or full reparation. Even God Almighty shares one limitation with us finite humans, said Aquinas: Even God cannot make our past not to have been. No retrieving the lost days, no recalling just the right Bible verse to make the fix, no taking back the thoughtless word.
You can’t. That’s when you give thanks that the Word, the eternal Logos, became flesh, our flesh, and moved in with us. God refused to stay spiritual. The Word intrudes with words we cannot say to ourselves, Light shines in our darkness. God so loved the world in all of its screwedupness and regret. There’s only us to tell the story. We step forward, anyhow. We sing. O come, all you faithful. Come on, all you unfaithful. Let’s adore him anyway.
And wonder above wonders, in a dejected little church that nobody has heard of on ironically named Summit Drive in Greenville, damn South Carolina, with an emotionally inept preacher without even the grace to mourn his departed thief of a father, God with Us. Alpha and Omega enters our finitude, incarnating into our misspent histories.
An odd birth, an absent father, God come to those of unclean lips who could not come to God. Go ahead, Lord, live dangerously: send me.
A former dean of the Chapel of Duke University, Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is the author of many books, including Accidental Preacher: A Memoir (Eerdmans, 2019), from which this article is adapted. Used by permission of the publisher.
All images from https://timothyjonesfineart.com