Review: Calling in Context

Calling in Context, Susan L. Maros. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: A work on vocational discernment that recognizes that this process is shaped by our context, our social location.

In her work as a professor of leadership in a Christian seminary, Susan Maros came to a realization as she worked with students on discerning their callings. The ways that she had learned to discern calling in her White evangelical context were not necessarily the ways calling was discerned in other racial, ethnic, and cultural settings. This led to a process of examining her preconceptions about calling.

In this book she shares her learning. To begin with, she discovered that calling took different forms in scripture. The call of Abraham, Moses, and Nehemiah were each unique. Furthermore, calling unfolds over a lifetime, even when punctuated by particular calling moments.

Social location is a critical factor in how people experience calling. Social location includes racial, ethnic, and cultural background, socioeconomic status, and gender. These shape what opprtunities are most accessible and the ones considered “off-limits.” It also affects how we “hear” a call-an inner sense, a prophetic word, the counsel of community.

The last part of the book begins with understanding how we engage power, including understanding our own power and that of our community. Part of this is discerning how power works in social systems. The journey is a long one. Maros commends establishing sustainable rhythms of work and rest, community, companions, and lament. Underlying the discernment of calling is the recognition of and living out of purpose.

The principles and insights developed in this book are illustrated throughout by calling stories of a variety of ministry leaders representing various racial, ethnic, cultural, socioeconomic, gender, and age. Maros both illustrates from and draws insights from these stories, which form an integral part of the book. All of this comes together in a message of hope in the God who meets all of us in our social locations and bids us into lives of purpose under his grace.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The Vocation of the Christian Scholar

The Vocation of the Christian Scholar, Richard T. Hughes, Foreword by Samuel L. Hill. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005.

Summary: An account of the calling of a Christian scholar, emphasizing drawing deeply on the theology of one’s own and other faith traditions, and living in the paradoxical tension of one’s faith and one’s disciplinary scholarship.

Richard T. Hughes is concerned less with the idea of “Christian scholarship” and more concerned with how one is to live out one’s calling as a Christian scholar. For him this involves two elements. One is having “an identity that informs every other aspect of our lives and around which every other aspect of our lives can be integrated.” The other is learning to embrace paradox, as we hold both to an faith informed by our tradition and others, and the perspectives of our discipline.

He describes his own journey of growing up in Restorationist churches, complemented subsequently by studies of Lutheranism and Anabaptism, learning to hold the paradox of grace and discipleship together. He turns his attention to the life of the mind and its requirements of a disciplined search for truth, genuine conversation with diverse perspectives, critical thinking, and intellectual creativity. He contends that this applies to thinking theologically as well as thinking about one’s discipline, so that one’s work is grounded in one’s faith.

Drawing upon the work of Sidney E. Mead, he outlines how both the political leaders and college leaders of the American republic modelled this approach of embracing paradox, holding both to theistic or deistic ideas as well as engaging the Enlightenment thought of the time. They recognized human finitude and the rule of God over human institutions. He moves on the advocate both for understanding the particularities of one’s faith tradition and why we ought move beyond them: the nature of God, the nature of the Bible, the core of the gospel that must not be displaced by particularities, our neighbors in faith who must not be excluded by particularities, and dying to our egos, acknowledging our finitude.

This does not mean denying the power of the traditions we call our own. Hughes goes on to describe appreciatively the contribution of Roman Catholicism, the Reformed Tradition, the Anabaptist Model, and the Lutheran traditions, showing the substantial spiritual and intellectual resources these offer for the life of the mind. Drawing on these ideas, he considers how one may teach from a Christian perspective. I would have liked to hear some discussion of church traditions outside the dominant white culture. He observes that because of the paradoxes within our faith, we are uniquely positioned to foster an atmosphere of comfort with paradox and ambiguity essential to good inquiry. He contends that his work is not to give students “pre-digested answers” but rather to “inspire wonder, to awaken imagination, to stimulate creativity….” It is also to help them explore ultimate questions. Drawing on Paul Tillich, he identifies three:

  1. How do I cope with the inevitability of death?
  2. Am I an acceptable human being?
  3. Is there any meaning in life, and if there is, what is it?

He believes that the values of the upside down kingdom ought shape our choices of what to teach, and how he recognized these values in Howard Zinn’s work, even though Zinn is not a Christian. He addresses the concern about the distinctiveness of his scholarship as a Christian. He contends that the depth of his commitment to Christ cannot help but shape his scholarship, just as Madeleine L’Engle answered a young writer who wanted to become a “Christian writer.” L’Engle told her that if she was a thorough-going Christian, her writing would be Christian.

He follows with a chapter on the vocation of a Christian college. His argument is that Christian colleges ought be shaped by a shared theological vision, all pragmatic considerations aside. He also proposes a theological vision combining Lutheran and Anabaptist perspectives, one both of radical grace and radical discipleship. This is a vision of both radical Christian engagement in society and radical dependence on God. He then ends the book with a postscript of how tragedy can uniquely shape the Christian mind, including a personal narrative of his own near-death encounter.

While this work is grounded in the Christian college setting, I think it is also useful to Christians called to scholarship in the secular setting. The essence of his argument is the importance of a life deeply grounded in a theological tradition and an embrace of paradox. While this may not enjoy institutional support outside the Christian college setting, one may find community with other Christian scholars. I also appreciate the focus on the calling of the scholar rather than “Christian scholarship.” Rather than forced expressions of faith, these are allowed to develop organically as one both deeply cultivates one’s faith, understanding one’s own niche in the great story, and pursues one’s research and teaching. I loved the focus on wonder and ultimate questions, although I’d be curious how he might work out the latter in STEM fields. This is a worthwhile work for any Christian wanting to integrate their scholarly calling into their faith.

Review: Leading Lives That Matter, Second Edition

Leading Lives That Matter (Second Edition), Edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2020.

Summary: An anthology on what the well-lived life looks like exploring four important vocabularies and six vital questions through a range of religious and secular readings.

How might we live lives that matter? To whom or what will I listen as I discern my vocation. With and for whom will I live? What obligation do I have to human or other life? How shall I tell the story of my life. All of these are important questions for anyone who wants their lives to matter. This collection of nearly ninety readings, forty-seven new to this edition help to explore through a variety of genres these questions. Both religious and secular resources are included. The book is organized around four “vocabularies” used about the well-led life, and six important questions. Here are the vocabularies and questions along with a reading that particularly stood out (although the overall selection is outstanding).

Vocabularies

Authenticity: Charles Taylor’s “The Ethics of Authenticity”. Taylor argues that authenticity is not just a matter of doing one’s thing, but an identity formed by wrestling with deep questions of truth.

Virtue: “On Love” by Josef Pieper is one of the best and most concise essays on the different types of love, what we mean by the love of God and love for God.

Exemplarism: To understand the importance of exemplars, what they are and how we might observe them, I could not do better than Linda Zagzebski’s reading “Why Exemplarism.”

Vocation: The readings here were some of the strongest with contributions from Lee Hardy, C.S. Lewis, Denise Levertov, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I choose the one by Charles D. Badcock on “Choosing” who argues that vocation is not finding the one “right” job, but living for the will of God and doing what we please.

Questions:

Must My Job Be the Primary Source of My Identity? The essay by Dorothy L. Sayers, “Why Work?” is marked by her clear thinking and the idea of serving the work, serving God in our work.

To Whom and to What Should I Listen as I Decide What to Do for a Living? The selection from Lois Lowry’s The Giver in which each young member of the community is assigned their work by the elders explores the role of others in our choices of work and captures why this book is so well-loved. Among other good selections are those by Albert Schweitzer and James Baldwin.

With Whom and For Whom Shall I Live? Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” explores the encounter of two orphans, one black and one white, later in life and the choice of whether childhood friendship or race would determine their relations. The essay by Martin Luther King, Jr., “The World House” is also powerful.

Is a Balanced Life Possible and Preferable to a Life Focused Primarily on Work? Perhaps the most thought-provoking is the article by Karen S. Sibert that answers that for some professional jobs, the answer is “no.” The reading is titled “Don’t Quit This Day Job.” Perhaps offsetting this is the concluding reading of the section, a selection from The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel

What Are My Obligations to Future Human and Other Life? Larry Rasmussen writes a fictional letter to his grandson, “A Love Letter from the Holocene to the Anthropocene” on the failure of his generation to conserve the environment for that grandchild in terms of options, quality, and access. He raises profound questions about our failures to future generations. The section also features portions of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si.

How Shall I Tell The Story of My Life? The section begins with the marvelous poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost and ends with Michael T. Kaufman’s “Robert McG Thomas, 60, Chronicler of Unsung Lives.” This last is the obituary of the New York Times noted obituary writer whose obituaries were stories that captured and honored the essence of generally unknown people. It makes you think about what stories will people tell of our lives.

I suspect the primary audience of a work like this is a capstone-type class still offered by many undergraduate colleges, reflecting on vocation and life’s big questions. But it is worthwhile for anyone examining their lives and sense of calling, not only for the vocabulary and the questions but for the excellence of the readings that hold up a mirror to our lives.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Seamless Life

the seamless life

The Seamless LifeSteven Garber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A collection of short reflections around the integral relationship between our daily life and work and the love of God, accompanied by the author’s photography.

Steven Garber has written thoughtfully on the integration of faith and learning for students in The Fabric of Faithfulnessand of loving a broken word, joining with God’s love for his creation in living out our callings in Visions of Vocation. This is a very different book that rings the changes on the themes of these previous books. Garber writes:

   This is a book about vocation, but a different book, a collection of essays and photos. An unusual effort for the publisher, it is new for me too. Rather than making an argument that is developed over scores of pages and many chapters, this one is a deeper and deeper reflection on one question: What does it mean to see seamlessly? To see the whole of life as important to God, to us, and to the world–the deepest and truest meaning of vocation–is to understand that our longing for coherence is born of our truest humanity, a calling into the reality that being human and being holy are one and the same life.

The book is a collection of short (2-3 pages each) essays that follow Garber across the country and through his personal history. We begin with a Madison Avenue company that consults with social entrepreneur non-profits seeking to do good work for the common good, later with one of the companies that are a client of the firm, situated in the Catskills, and then with faith leaders from different sectors of Pittsburgh committed to seeking the flourishing of their city. The journey continues across the country. These reflections are woven into ones on Garber’s own history, from restoring order to a house he and his son are renovating to a visit to a New Mexico livestock auction, bringing back memories of his cowboy grandfather who worked out his belief in God in the way he worked with competence and character.

He reflects on movies, and on words like vocation and occupation; the common root of cult, cultivate, and culture; and proximate. He writes beautifully of the growing friendship he has shared with his wife, Meg and thoughtfully about how joy and sorrow are linked in our lives.

All of this is accompanied by the photography of the author at the beginning of each essay. Many of these could be hung in a gallery. One I love, because it is a view etched in my own memories, is the skyline of Pittsburgh at night from Mount Washington.

This is a wonderful book to be read slowly, perhaps as it has been written over the course of many journeys. It speaks to our longing not only that our lives would matter but cohere. This is a good book to give as a graduation gift, but perhaps a better book for one in the middle of life wondering if the endeavors of every day connect to the deep and transcendent longings of us all. It is far better than the waste of a mid-life crisis. It is a book for those who both love and grieve the world and wonder how this might be held together–seamlessly.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Life of Listening

a life of listening

A Life of ListeningLeighton Ford. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: A memoir in which Ford sums up his life as one of listening for God’s voice, and the unique voice of his own he discovered as he did so.

I have been listening to Leighton Ford most of my life. As a young boy, I heard him preach on The Hour of Decision on occasions when Billy Graham was not on the broadcast. As a college student, I participated as a counselor in a crusade he led in Youngstown. Even then, his voice was different from Billy Graham, quieter, rich with cultural and spiritual insight. I was moved by his account of the death of his son Sandy, a parent’s worst nightmare, and how he went on with God afterward. I saw a turn in his ministry as he focused on leadership and found his book Transforming Leadership deeply helpful as a rising leader. Much later, as I found myself giving increasing attention to the inner journey, his book, The Attentive Life, captured for me what seems the connecting point between those who love God and love learning, the practice of attentiveness. Now, as I think of this question of what it means to finish well in Christ, comes this memoir, in which Ford looks back and sums up a journey of listening to God.

In the Introduction to the book, he describes his youthful response to the call of Jesus after listening to a retired missionary and a college student speak of Jesus:

   I was five then. Now, eighty plus years later, I can barely recall the voices and face of that missionary lady and that college student, but I know that through them I heard another Voice calling me, a voice I have been listening for ever since. So I write my listening story not because it is a perfect story or one to emulate but as a testament to the power of listening for the voice of my Lord.

The narrative traces this listening story from the early years as the adopted son of Charles and Olive Ford. Olive was the one who first taught him to read scripture and pray and took him to the Keswick conference where he responded to the voice of Jesus. He describes his teen years as he struggles to differentiate the voice of Jesus from Olive’s strong, controlling, and protective voice. He narrates his first encounter with Billy Graham at a Youth for Christ rally he had organized, and how, amid discouraging results, Graham encouraged him, encouraging his own response to the growing sense of God’s call to preach.

Graham also told his sister Jean about Leighton, and when they went to Wheaton, they eventually began dating, and in a decisive break with Olive, who disapproved, married Jean. The following years were one’s under Graham’s mentorship, first as an associate accompanying him and sharing some of the preaching, and then forming his own team and booking his own crusades as part of the Graham organization.

He describes the shift in his own ministry as he increasingly included social advocacy and outreach in his crusades, began discovering his inner life as he wrestled with depression,  and met his birth mother and understood more deeply the pulls in his life between the sense of loss and longing represented in his birth mother, and the impulse to separate Olive’s voice from the voice that was calling him. Then came the devastating death of his son Sandy, and the discovery of “places in our hearts we don’t even know are there until our hearts are broken.” His preaching was changing, and it became apparent, first to Billy Graham, and then him, that it was time to part ways organizationally, a move that actually deepened their friendship, and collaboration on things such as the Lausanne Consultation on World Evangelization.

The last part of the book covers the period from his fifties until the present as he embarks on what Susan Howatch called “the second journey.”  He learns both to listen more deeply for the Lord’s voice and to find his own. He recounts the several year journey to developing a new ministry focus on developing rising leaders and evangelists. His last chapters explore the anamcharas through whom the voice often comes, his growing appreciation of beauty and hearing God’s voice as he took up art, and the distinguishing character of God’s voice and how it comes.

No two lives are alike, no two paths the same. Yet, at least for me, listening to those who have been listening to the Voice of the Master is a rich source of wisdom. Such is this book by Leighton Ford; not a substitute for listening to the only Voice who can lead us safe home, but as sage counsel for how to recognize the only true Voice from the many competing for our attention.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Discover Joy in Work

Discover Joy in Work

Discover Joy in WorkShundrawn A. Thomas. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: A response to the widespread lack of engagement in work, exploring the changes to our approach to our workplace, our work ethic, and our work life that foster joy in work that is more than a job, more than an occupation, but rather a calling.

Shundrawn Thomas is the president of a trillion dollar global investment firm, who has worked in many other settings before attaining his present position. He has found deep joy in his own work and is concerned about the statistics that show that the majority of workers are not engaged with their work.

Thomas contends that the discovery of joy in our work has little to do with the job we are in and everything to do with the person doing that work. He writes:

However, only one person determines your joy: you. If you want to truly experience joy in your work, you only have one person to deal with: yourself! You are the only person standing in the way of experiencing joy in your work.

He begins with our approach to our workplace. He starts with changing our attitudes, our perspective on our workplace that shapes our feelings and actions, that when content and positive, sustains us through our workday. He proposes that we need to alter our approach, including proactive preparation, prioritization of our time, and partnering well with others. He advocates for raising our aptitude, working with talented people, and involving discovery, development, and deployment. Finally, we can take steps to ensure achievement by avoiding distractions, and working together with resolution to achieve team goals.

He then turns to our work ethic, what motivates us to put in the effort for excellent work. He addresses the love of money and how money may both be a primary and yet inadequate motivator when we recognize the value of time, the satisfaction of work that aligns with our gifts and interests, the greater value of our health and sense of worth, and the sharing rather than amassing of wealth. We can work for the praise of people, but growth occurs not only through praise but also through criticism. The most satisfying work is not what is praised but is praiseworthy. We may work for respect but greater joy comes when we are motivated from within and concerned more about doing good work for the benefit of others and modest about our own self-importance.

Finally, he talks about the fruits of our work life. Work reveals purpose when we allow it to perfect us rather than looking for the perfect occupation, and give ourselves diligently to it. This means work requires effort, calling on all our physical, mental, and spiritual efforts, undeterred by setbacks. Work promotes growth through training, advanced degrees, certifications, workshops, and seminars as well as cultivation of professional relationships in which one regularly receives and welcomes feedback. Work develops our skills, particularly the four skills of listening, visualizing, collaborating, and leading that are critical for success. Work fosters relationships of trust, transparency across a network of personal connections. All this comes together in producing value as we set goals that answer the questions of which opportunities we will pursue, what problems we will solve, and who we will serve. Most of all, work may glorify God as we combine all these qualities in work offered to God in service of others. Work becomes calling in which our efforts answer to God’s bidding.

This is a book chock-full with principles that feels a bit like reading Proverbs. Each paragraph, sometimes each sentence is worth reflection. Thomas has written a book rich with “work wisdom.” It also reflects a conviction of the inherent goodness of work, that it is not a curse, but done rightly, with the right attitude, can afford deep satisfaction within the greater joy of glorifying God. He does offer many examples, and each chapter concludes with a summary of key insights, valuable because each chapter, though short, is so full of these insights. If one reads too rapidly, or feels one must implement at once all that Thomas advises, this could be daunting. Listening for the one insight that resonates right now and considering what changes this means for one’s work life may be more helpful. This book could be dynamite read together with colleagues sharing a commitment to live transformatively in their work place.

Most of all, this book rings true with over four decades of my own work experience. I’ve found that I can never depend on an organization or workplace to make work joyful. Joy has much more to do with the perspective, the work ethic, the investment I bring to my work, than what I find there. Surely, work places are never optimal, and sometimes far less than that. Sometimes this means changing employers or at least jobs. It is apparent from the book that Thomas himself did so. Years ago, an executive search consultant advised me not to relinquish responsibility for my career path to my employer or anyone else. Shundrawn Thomas would add that we not relinquish responsibility for our joy to others.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Conformed to the Image of His Son

Conformed to the Image of His Son

Conformed to the Image of His Son, Haley Goranson Jacob (Foreword by N. T. Wright). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: An in-depth exploration of the meaning of Romans 8:29b-30, arguing that conformity to the image of the His Son has to do with our participation in the Son’s rule over creation, which is our glorification.

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Romans 8:29-30, English Standard Version

Generations of believers have thrilled to the language of this passage in Romans 8 and its description of the glorious destiny of believers to be conformed to the image of Christ the Son. But what does that all mean? This was the question Haley Goranson Jacob asked, and the answers she found in commentators, when they did address the language of “conformed to the image of his Son” and “glorified,” was all over the map. That question became Jacob’s dissertation study, and subsequently this book.

Jacob contends that instead of some form of spiritual, moral, physical or sacrificial conformity or a reference to a shared radiance with Christ’s glory, this verse points to our participation in the exalted calling of Christ as the last Adam and glorious king to rule with him over the creation as his vicegerents. And she argues that this is what it means for us to be glorified–to share in the Son’s glorious rule over creation.

Jacob makes a careful case for her thesis. She begins by a study of the background of the use of cognates for “glory” in the Septuagint and Apocalyptic literature, applying semiotic theory, and concludes that while there are varied usages, the most common, whether applied to humans or God is not radiance or splendor, but rather on exalted status or honor. She turns to Romans, noting echoes of Genesis 1:26-27 and Psalm 8, in the glory of the Son, the lost glory of humanity’s dominion over creation, and its restoration through the work of Christ. To strengthen the link between Christ the Son and humanity, she looks at the language of participation in Paul’s writing and contends that it is participation in the vocation of Christ, both in suffering and in exaltation over all creation.

Having laid this groundwork, she turns to Romans 8:29b-30. First she looks at the language of Sonship, and the echoes of the promised Davidic King and the last Adam. He is the firstborn, the first raised from the dead of a large family who rules over the creation he has redeemed. Believers participate as adopted sons in this rule and share in his glory–are glorified. One of the distinctives in Jacob’s argument is that she argues for the truth of this in the present and that we already participate in the Son’s work of redeeming a groaning creation, that this is the purpose Paul speaks of in Romans 8:28, that we participate in the working for good of all things.

The prospective reader should be warned that this is scholarly work, the turning of a doctoral thesis into a book, and that there is extensive use of Greek, and some Hebrew in the text. Nevertheless, Jacob’s writing is clear and her argument is set forth step by step for the reader to follow. Her intent is not mere scholarship, but scholarship in service to the church and the edification of believers.

Jacob’s point is not to deny the reality of moral transformation in Christ but to set it in the context of a larger vocation–to participate with the family of the redeemed in the rule of Christ over all creation, both now and in the new heaven and earth. This work challenges us to lift our eyes from our own spiritual progress, to the exalted Son, and the work he calls us to join him in. This is a calling to become who we were created, and then redeemed to be–image bearers who with mercy and love, care for the very good creation. The implication of this understanding extends meaning to all of our work, and has implications for the groaning creation in environmental crisis. To realize that all this comes through the foresight and wisdom of the exalted Father ought swell our hearts with renewed love and deepened affection toward the Father, Son, and Spirit whom we worship with wonder at the incredibly rich life we’ve been called to share.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Every Job a Parable

every job a parable

Every Job a Parable John Van Sloten. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2017.

Summary: A theology of work proposing that our different jobs are “parables” that reveal various aspects of the character and ways of God, and therefore that all work matters and that God speaks to the world through our callings.

John Van Sloten has approached the theology of work in a way I’ve not seen before. He notes how so many of the parables of Jesus focus on the various kinds of work his hearers would readily have recognized and observes:

“When Jesus wrapped a parable around a particular vocation, he was affirming the creational goodness of that job.

I think Jesus is still doing the same today–through the parable that is your job.”

For him, this sheds new light both on how we image God in all of our endeavors, how God is revealed in our work, and how we might more effectively image God in our work. He traces the significance of our work from creation where God speaks through our work and our world; the fall and the ways we are hindered from experiencing God in our work; redemption and the transforming power of naming God’s saving presence in the world, and the New Earth that reminds us that our work is a foretaste of our eternal destiny.

He did something else I’ve not seen before. He interviewed and studied scores of workers from different occupations: astronauts and Walmart greeters, forensic psychologists and restaurant servers, emergency response personnel and asphalt contractors and explored how God meets them in their work and reveals himself through it. One of the powerful experiences for both Van Sloten and the various workers was to see their work in new light as they revealed that it all matters to God.

Perhaps one of the chapters that most resonated with me was his discussion of our lives as part of God’s great story, that he speaks through us–where we have the sense that we are participating in something greater than ourselves, where Someone greater than ourselves is speaking or singing or composing or caring or building or crafting through us. He calls this entering into the spokenness of our work.

Through short chapters that weave stories of workers with theological reflection, Van Sloten offers one of the richest and most accessible treatments of the theology of work I’ve read. He invites individuals and groups to join him in this reflection on the significance of our work with reflection questions titled Lectio Vocatio at the end of each chapter. Van Sloten has also created a series of YouTube videos around different vocations. One example is a sermon on restaurant servers. He includes a list of links to all the videos in an index.

There are many people who sit in our churches who wonder what connection their work has with the things we speak of Sunday by Sunday. They spend the major portion of their waking hours at work in many cases. John Van Sloten offers the tremendous news that God not only speaks on Sundays but through us in our work, which matters greatly. God “calls” to the world through our callings. Rather than a necessary evil, our work images the good and beautiful and true God. The book may serve as a great resource for an adult education class, or a preaching series, giving people hope that it is not simply through their involvement in the church, but also through their work in the world that they may know the pleasure of God upon their lives.

Review: Called

CalledCalled, Mark Labberton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Understanding our calling to follow Jesus and seek God’s purposes for the flourishing of the world is key both to a life well-lived and a church that fulfills its mission. This book explores the contours of what it means to live a called life.

Mark Labberton has a vision of a church filled with people living out in daily life the call to follow Jesus and seek the flourishing of God’s purposes in God’s world. He sees the lack of the fulfillment of that vision expressed in lost churches that are self-absorbed, silo-ed, oppressive, invisible and often the bearers of bad news or no news. This lack is all the more urgent because he sees this church in the midst of a lost world characterized by free-floating values, disconnectedness from real community, consumeristic, and fearful–a place where the church which knows its calling could make a difference.

Having outlined the need, Labberton then charts the path. It begins by returning to the “first thing” of following Jesus. When Jesus called people, his call was “follow me.” Following means re-locating from the Promised Land of the American Dream to those who understand themselves to be exiles in Babylon. It means re-orienting by taking a hard look at how one is living out this call. It means re-focusing on who is calling and his fundamental call to character reflected in the fruit of the Spirit. It also means an embrace of wisdom, which he defines at “the truth and character of God lived in context.”

The next three chapters focus on three”ways” in which the called person lives. First is the Way of the Beloved–understanding ourselves individually and as communities as the beloved of God called to live in sacrificial love. The second is the Way of Wisdom, which is the translation of the truth and character of God into practical action that fits the needs of our context. Finally, he speaks of The Way of Suffering, in which faithfulness to Christ’s call is an invitation to enter into the sufferings of others, or even to suffer for the call itself.

Having laid out the need for a called people and the fundamental contours of the called life, Labberton turns to discerning the particular expression of calling for an individual. What is key here is keeping primary calling to Christ, to God’s purposes in the world, and to character, primary. Beyond this, individual call is discerned through the work of the Spirit, evidenced in the fruit of the Spirit, confirmed by the scriptures, attested to by the community, reflected in one’s spiritual gifts and strengths, and lived out in one’s context–one’s time, passions, work, finances and more.

The epilogue comes back to “first things” and challenges us with the idea that who we are as followers of Jesus is far more critical than what we do. All work that isn’t illegal or immoral is honorable and may be done unto the Lord. Opening ourselves up to pursue Jesus and listen to his call will lead us individually and together into well-lived lives and church communities that are salt and light in the world.

Each chapter concludes with a “Practice” section, allowing the reader to reflect on and put into practice the chapter content.

I can think of at least three audiences for which this book would be of value. First, church leadership teams could use this to great benefit to reflect on what it might be like to lead their churches in following Christ and hearing his call. Second, this could be helpful in adult ed contexts, particularly where the idea of “calling” is thought of as something for a special class of “saints”. Finally, this is a good gift for college students on the front end of discerning calling in their own lives.

The book size lends it to gift giving, and the short chapters and “Practice” sections lend this to use with groups. I would hope for wide circulation of this book, that Labberton’s vision of called people and renewed churches might be realized in many communities. Granted, that will take more than a book, but one never knows what the biblically-rooted vision found in this book under the grace of God might accomplish!

 

A Vocational Blind Spot

Blind spot test

Blind spot test

At the conference I am attending on the academic vocation, we talked today about a blind spot that occurs in many faith communities. In many of these we look at vocation only in terms of religious vocations or applying to those involved in spiritual ministries.

What is striking is that many of the academics I know see their work as a spiritual calling but often fail to hear any affirmation of this either in their institutions or in their faith communities. And it is not just academics. I’ve know people in the world of business, law, medicine and other fields who see their work as integral to being faithful to a spiritual calling. Sometimes they have been highly successful and impactful in this work. Sadly, in many cases the only affirmation they receive in faith communities is for how much money they contribute, but not for the work they do.

It’s not limited to academics and professionals. I’ve know plumbers and carpenters and electricians and many others who view their work as being “for God.” They seek to do quality work, deal honestly, and serve their customers.

One of our speakers asked the question of what it would mean if we wouldn’t simply feature the people in ministries or religious vocations or trumpet the big donors, but also celebrate the engineers and plumbers, lawyers and electricians, and all the others who are conscientiously offering the gifts of their work to God.

The apostle Paul wrote an early group of Christians saying, “And whatever you do,whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). My sense is that “whatever” encompasses anything not specifically prohibited by the scriptures.

What would it mean if we broadened our sense of calling to encompass “whatever”? What if we honored the intrinsic value of the work people do, and not just what it is “good for”? What if we started affirming the 40 or more hours a week people spent in their workplaces as mattering to God, and not just the few hours they gave to church activity?

What if?