It has been awhile since I’ve posted–this summer has bee especially crazy with lots of travel: most of it for work, but a couple trips to see family as well. Right now, I am in Colorado with my mom, getting ready to celebrate her 80th birthday; and last month I was in Phoenix to visit my dad (whose 80th we celebrated last November) and stepmom.
It was while I was in Phoenix that I read this great new book about vocation that I can’t stop thinking about; the title is Calling all years good: Christian vocation throughout Life’s Seasons, edited by Kathleen Cahalan and Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore. It’s a very valuable, excellent book, and I’d like to share a bit about it.
There is a bit of background that brought me to this book and ultimately to this review. (Perhaps you have a similar story in your own experience). Several years ago, I was listening to a sermon, with a friend of mine sitting next to me in the pew. I don’t remember the text, or the overarching point, but I do remember that the preacher was talking about the vocation of a Christian. We talked about it after the service was over, and her response has stayed with me. At the time, her mother was in poor health and nearing the end of her life. My friend expressed her frustration with the sermon, which to her ear, linked the concept of Christian vocation almost exclusively with actively “doing” something. As I remember the conversation, at that point, my friend’s mother was capable of “doing” little more than welcoming her grandchildren onto her lap, and receiving the affection and actions of others. My friend, who is also a theologian, insisted: “Was that not also a vocation?” I have never forgotten this exchange, and it has challenged me and my own thinking about Christian vocation ever since.
One of the editors’ main goals is to explicitly challenge the often-unconscious assumption that the concept of Christian vocation can be reduced to work, specifically the occupation that one holds in the prime of one’s professional life. Even though most of us know, at least on some level, that vocation encompasses much more than that, too often the language of vocation gets reduced to this singular idea.
The volume is clear, well organized, and very well written. In the second chapter, Cahalan introduces four key themes involved in vocation, which are emphasized and explored in different ways throughout the rest of the book; I want to mention two of them. The first one is that vocation is always experienced and lived out in relationship. She writes, “vocation is inherently relational, more a verb or an activity been a noun or state of being. We become who we are in and through communion with God and others” (14). The second point is that vocation is always experienced and lived out physically, through the body. Possibly the best section in this chapter comes under the subheading “Embodied Callings.“ She writes, “Vocation is largely dependent on what the body can, and cannot do at a given age and the emergent capacity to do a particular activity (e.g., walking), accomplish work by using that capacity (e.g., be a floor manager at a grocery store), or face relinquishing some or all of that ability (e.g., using a walker or wheelchair” (21). This emphasis on the role of the body is a critical point that often is missing in discussions of Christian vocation. The way this theme is explored and emphasized throughout the book is one of its strengths.
All of the chapters are very good, and each has something important to offer, particularly for people who are either in a specific stage of life and thinking about vocation as it relates to them, or for individuals who are working with specific populations. For me, given where I have been the past few months, it was the last chapter, on “Oldest Adulthood,” that I found most evocative and insightful. Joyce Ann Mercer begins the chapter this way: “What does vocation in older adulthood look like? When I ask this question of people in faith communities, their responses usually indicate that while they are loathe to suggest that older adults are not called by God, at the same time it is almost impossible to imagine what vocation means or what forms it might take an older adulthood” (174). She also makes very explicit the way many older adults themselves feel about their stage life, and how they are viewed in society: “First-person reports from older adults themselves suggest that if today’s older adults are on pedestals, those pedestals must be located in broom closets and basements where they are invisible and ignored” (177). All the more important, then, that the Christian church can speak positively, constructively and specifically about the vocation of older adults.
The body takes center stage in this chapter, as Mercer notes, “Perhaps at no other life stage save adolescence does the body occupy such a premier place in defining the contours of life” (183). She discusses the physical losses that older adults experience, but not only those; she also discusses other kinds of losses, including the loss of friendships and family members, and the loneliness this can cause. All of this contributes to the frustration and despair that are experienced when one cannot sense or articulate God’s call for oneself.
Older adulthood is not only marked by loss, however. Mercer recognizes that this is also a place where interdependence and community come to the fore: “Older adults may call forth in others untested capacities of loyalty, commitment, justice, and love. This too is an important element in the purposes of God” (194).
Finally, Mercer says something in her chapter that applies to the entire book more broadly: “The authors of this volume would be quick to assert that vocation is not a possession, not something we ‘have’, so much as it is a gift from God into which we live across the ages of our life span” (177). This is, perhaps, in the end, one of the most important reminders of the book as a whole, and it returns me to the story that opened this review: vocation is not something we “do” at all (and especially not something that some “do” better than others); it is something we receive from God that we experience and live out in a wide variety of different ways that can radically change over the course of our lifespan. Seen this way, there is openness and freedom to rethink the concept of Christian vocation in every stage of human life, from its first breath to its last. Appropriately, then, the book closes with a reflection on resurrection, which leaves room for mystery and also roots us in hope.
I highly recommend the book; it has been helpful to me as I think about my own parents, and their aging, and how I can best support and encourage them where they, in their unique expressions of their vocations; and what I can learn from them as I seek to live out my own vocation faithfully and joyfully.