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Monday, October 23, 2017

"Calling All Years Good" (Kathleen A. Cahalan & Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore)

TITLE: Calling All Years Good: Christian Vocation throughout Life's Seasons
AUTHOR: Kathleen A. Cahalan & Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids. MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2017, (208 pages).

What is calling? Is a person called only with regard to a particular career or vocation? If that is so, what about people who have retired? What about those who are unable to work for some reason? Do they not have a calling as well? Addressing this is a powerful expansion of calling to address this conventional lopsided understanding of calling. We tend to think of vocation as some kind of a question that could be answered once and for all. Whether it be a Full-Time ministry engagement or a particular career work, people have tended to restrict their understanding of vocation only in one particular part of their life. What about transitions in between vocations? What about life stages? What about retirement? Is there a different calling for each life stage? Or is there only one calling for all of life? These questions are boldly dealt with in this collection of articles that reflect on six phases of life: Childhood; Adolescence; Younger Adulthood; Middle Adulthood; Late Adulthood; and Older Adulthood. No one phase should be allowed to define one’s whole life, for each phase comes with unique challenges and specific contexts. Questions asked during one phase would either be asked differently or be irrelevant altogether in another phase. The key question being asked “What would a lifelong perspective do to our understanding of vocation?”

Great question. From this one big question comes an array of questions desired for each of the transitions from one life stage to another, to help us understand theology and lifespan theory.

  1. Entering: What signals the transitioning into this phase from another life phase? How do people awaken to the vocational questions at the heart of this age?
  2. Characteristics: What are some of the key vocational characteristics, especially in terms of changes in the body and living through time?
  3. Vocational Experiences: What are some of the key calling experiences (e.g., gifts, skills, decisions, identity, love, work, joys, losses, service)? How is God encountered as Caller?
  4. Communal Dynamics: What are supportive practices for the nurture of vocation, including implications for ministry? What callings does this lifespan age evoke in others (e.g., parents, children, siblings, grandparents, colleagues, mentors, and mentees)?
  5. Ending: What signals the transitioning out of this phase and into another life phase?

The whole exercise started as a five year project where hundreds of people from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds reflect on questions about vocation. The researchers made several interesting discoveries. Most people have only limited understanding of what it means to have God as Caller. Most also see calling restricted only to their active years of work. Younger people also tend to think of God’s calling in terms of some specific and definite plan from God for them. Most communities that people live in do not help individuals exercise their sense of calling. Most challenging is to help people make sense of their calling in real terms instead of some vague imaginary and distant idea.

The answer to the big question is simply this: Our vocation is inherently our narrative. Our stories tell us about ourselves and our purposes in life. They also help us to build communities of hope. Callings are relational. They are always in relation to a community. Exploring the topic in multifaceted ways, this book promises something for everyone at every age. In fact, it is so comprehensive that at different stages of one’s life, different pages will speak to us at different times. For the topic of calling is an evergreen question with unique answers all the time. At childhood, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore notes that the concept of calling for children remains largely hidden. She laments that theologians and Christian scholars do not do enough work on understanding vocation for children. This has largely been taken up by sociologists and non-faith-based studies. Worse, children are not considered active participants. Things are often done for them instead of with them. Decisions are made for them and the fear is that we may make them believe they are self-centred Peter Pans who never grow up. She also makes a profound observation of Luke 2:52 about Jesus’ childhood. On Adolescence, Katherine Turpin notes the unique stage of openness and the flexibility to change. As developing young ones, they are learning about themselves and their relation to the world they live in. They learn through experimentation and various emotions such as suffering, happiness, loss, etc. Turpin notes the importance to resist the “one true thing” narrative, which risks straitjacketing children into something they were not meant to be. Kathleen A. Cahalan explains that as adults live longer, there needs to be four phases of adulthood: Younger; Middle; Late; and Older Adulthood. Each of these phases are reflected upon by Katherine Turpin, Matt Bloom, Kathleen Catalan, and Joyce Ann Mercer respectively. Younger adults navigate their callings through careers, busy lifestyles, and starting significant relationships. Middle age adults experience callings in paradoxical ways even as they grow in various responsibilities. The challenge is to deal with vocational changes and one’s identities in the midst of such changes. Later adulthood emerges through grand parenting and caregiving while older adulthood involves learning to deal with one’s aging body and frailties.
After each chapter on life stage, there is an essay that reflects on biblical characters that parallels the particular life stage of interest. Viewed through the lens of calling and vocation, each author illuminates the Bible passages to summarize how callings can be played out at the various stages of life. We see how the Old Testament describes the importance of blessings by one in late adulthood on their children. Even in older adulthood, it is not necessarily the last phase of life, but anticipation of a new beginning. With the promise of the resurrection in Christ, there are lots of reasons to rejoice even as one’s body ages away.

The discovery of calling is tightly bounded up in one’s personhood and narrative, and how one relates to the various communities lived in. The history, the present, and the future are all bound up in defining the identity of each person. As much as we may think of calling as some kind of an external prompt, it is equally important to recognize that it is just one part of calling. The other part, arguably might be even more important, is the sense of inner awareness of one's understanding of self. Every calling is a relationship between a Caller and a Callee. We are called people, not just to do certain things, but to become the persons we have been called to be. Activities alone will have to arise out of this identity. Jesus himself constantly referred to Himself through His identity: He is the Bread of Life. He is the Gate. He is the Bright and Morning Star. He is the Giver of Life. He is the Creator of all things and Judge of all people. He is the Alpha and Omega. Through the recognition of who He is, He is able to be focused in what He does. In this book, authors Kathleen Cahalan and Bonnie Miller-Mclemore have expanded our understanding of calling using the different phases of life as a framework to see the general calling amid the specific years of interest. In doing so, they have shown us that calling is never restricted only to one part of our lives. We are always called, even though the specifics may differ from year to year. By constantly seeking to renew and to refresh our understanding of calling through the years, we will have a more purposeful and meaningful journey through life.

Bonnie Miller-McLemore is E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture at the Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion of Vanderbilt University.

Kathleen A. Cahalan is professor of practical theology at Saint John’s University School of Theology and Seminary and director of the Collegeville Institute Seminars.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of William B. Eerdmans and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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