Calling All Years Good

Christian Vocation throughout LIfe's Seasons

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Kathleen A. Cahalan, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore
  • London, England: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , June
     244 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Coming out of the Collegeville Institute Seminar on Vocation across the Lifespan, this edited volume contains essays reflecting on the question of vocation and the ways that this somewhat disused theological term can make sense when talking about human experiences of age and aging. Kathleen Cahalan’s introduction, “Finding Life’s Purposes in God’s Purposes,” names the question succinctly: “What difference does it make to understand Christian vocation not only from the experiences of young adulthood but also from the play of children, the transition into assisted living in late adulthood, and the middle years of multiple callings?” (1-2). As a project in practical theology, this book began in the lived experiences of Christians who were invited to reflect on questions of vocation, calling, and finding meaning in life. The researchers found that most people have “limited, mostly nonexistent, experiences and conceptions of God as Caller” (2); tend to focus on major life commitments around career and family in young adulthood; tend to discount childhood experiences of feeling called; do not find conversation about vocation in their religious institutions; and do not find the language of “vocation” or “calling” to be useful. The authors of the book then retrieve the language of vocation for contemporary experience, exploring the theological and ecclesial resources available that can aid people at various stages of life to make sense of their own questions of purpose within the context of Christian life and faith. The authors provide useful analyses of the typical vocational questions that arise at each life stage.

Cahalan’s second chapter, “Callings over a Lifetime,” lays out several key insights: “Callings are discerned through relationships; they evolve over time; they are multiple and changing; they are dependent on the emergent capacities of the body; and, last but not least, they are mutually influencing and responsive to others” (13). Of particular note are the ways that Cahalan and the book’s chapter authors put emphasis on the embodied nature of vocation—vocations are lived out in bodies constituted by relationship, historical context, and experiences of marginalization—and on the relationship between vocation and time: that vocations are not a one-time life decision about working and/or partnering but rather develop over the lifespan.

Following Cahalan’s excellent introductory pieces, there are six chapters that consider questions of vocation at each of six life stages: childhood, adolescence, younger adulthood, middle adulthood, late adulthood, and older adulthood. Between each of these chapters are short biblical “interludes” that show people living out different callings at different ages. Each individual chapter draws together theological reflection and social science research about that age. Each offers valuable resources for thinking about the question of vocation at a particular life stage. Each author takes seriously the theological commitment that God calls Christians generally into relationships with God through the church community, and calls Christians individually to use their gifts and talents to serve others and the common good.

When vocation is focused only on the “big decisions” of career choice or family, it is easy to assume that the very young and the very old do not “have” vocations. The chapter authors critique the notion that a vocation is something that one possesses (naming it, instead, as something lived out in relationship with God and others), and bring unique focus to the question of vocation at the edges of the lifespan. Bonnie Miller-McLemore’s chapter on childhood takes seriously the question of vocation for infants and children. In particular, she notes that the vocation of the infant may be to be the receiver of care and to call forth nurture and care from others. Children, she argues, are called to “working, playing, learning, and loving” (50) within a context of freedom from serious consequences and pressure to decide. In addition, children inform the vocational commitments of adults; not only does adult interaction with children influence their later vocational choices, children draw out vocations in adults as caregiver, educator, supporter.

Joyce Ann Mercer’s chapter on vocation in older adulthood offers a similar vision of God’s calling at the end of life. She notes the particularly embodied experiences of frailty and the slowing and narrowing of vocational choices towards the end of life. Chronic disease, memory loss, loss of independence, and death are constant reminders of mortality, and Mercer names loneliness as a particular challenge facing older adults. Like children, older adults can be called to be receivers of care, but Mercer also names dying as a particular calling of older adults. Dying well invites older adults to consider the “completion tasks to which persons should attend in order to leave this life… bringing meaningful closure to the one and only life one has lived” (195).

All chapters in this volume take seriously the lived experiences of people at each life stage and all wrestle with finding theological language to understand people’s experiences of discerning meaning and purpose throughout their lives. This book accomplishes its task of expanding the ways Christian theologians and ministers can think about vocation, about the God who calls, and the people who are called. While the authors note throughout that each of these life stages is contextualized and shaped by race, gender, and class, the book does not give extended attention to the ways that the realities of oppression and marginalization complicate aging and the naming of vocation. This is perhaps beyond the scope of this first consideration of vocation and age; additional work in this area should nuance the authors’ reflections. Theological educators preparing students for ministries would be well served by this book as it challenges assumptions that vocation is a singular thing and that vocational choices happen only in young and middle adulthood. Not only does a more expanded vision of vocation draw attention to the times throughout the lifespan when God calls people to particular tasks or roles, it also reveals a theological anthropology that takes age seriously as a theological category.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cynthia L. Cameron is adjunct professor in the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Date of Review: 
November 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kathleen A. Cahalan is professor of practical theology at Saint John's School of Theology and Seminary, Collegeville, Minnesota. Her previous work includes Calling in Today's World: Voices from Eight Faith Perspectives and The Stories We Live: Finding God's Calling All around Us.

Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore is E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Christian Theology in Practice: Discovering a Discipline.



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