The Stories We Live (Kathleen A. Cahalan) -- A Review

THE STORIES WE LIVE:Finding God’s Calling All Around Us. By Kathleen A. Cahalan. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017. Xii + 136 pages.

Maybe you were a lot like me growing up. I tried to envision what my vocation would be when I grew up. Living in Mt. Shasta, California, my next-door neighbor was a Fire Control Officer for the Forest Service. I admired Mr. Gray; so I figured that when I grew up I would be just like him. That was the first of many professions that envisioned. Later, I thought I would like to spend my life as a college or seminary professor. I even went and got the proper credentials for that vocation. In the end, I found a calling as a pastor. I also discovered a calling as husband and parent.

                In religious circles, we often speak of call in relationship to serving in vocational ministry. But what about the rest of life? Could each of us have a calling? And could it be that our vocations will change over time? These are the kinds of questions that Kathleen Cahalan takes up in this thoughtful and engaging book that invites us to share the stories of our callings in life, and to do so in the context of the life of faith.

Cahalan teaches practical theology at Saint John's School of Theology and Seminary, Collegeville, MN. She has written widely in the area of practical theology. I used her book Introducing the Practice of Ministry (Liturgical Press, 2010) with a licensed ministry course on the theology of ministry and found it to be very helpful. This book, which is written for a more general audience, was a pleasure to read. I found the book to be affirming of my own calling and enriched my vision of what it means to be called by God.

When we think of calling, we usually think of the word calling or vocation as noun or perhaps a verb, but Cahalan wants us to think in terms of prepositions. When treated as a noun, vocation becomes static. Even using it as a verb has limitations. But prepositions provide us with a more relational vision of calling. It’s in that context that she invites us to share our stories using eight prepositions: by, to, as, from, for, in, through, and within. She writes that "each of these prepositions reveals a different dimension of our callings." (p. xii). At the center of this sense of calling is God, "by" whom we are called. So, "by shifting the grammar of vocation, prepositions will help us see God at work in our own life, where God is inviting us to find our story within the divine story" (p. xiii). 

We start with the preposition by, noting that we are called by God, but in multiple ways. That is, there is no one definitive way by which God calls, but it is God who calls. More often than not, we discover our vocation during our journey of life. As we walk with God as pilgrims, we begin to discern our vocation(s). If God calls us, then to what are we called? She answers, we are called to be followers of Christ. That is, we're called to be disciples, which is our "most foundational and fundamental identity and vocation," and we're called to be disciples in community. Not only are we called by God to be disciples of Christ, but we are "called as we are." That is, God calls us in the particularities of our life, whether we are young or old -- "context shapes our callings" (p. 30). Thus, "vocation is not static or linear, but dynamic, sometimes fluid and other times more stable" (p. 45).

In chapter 4, Cahalan reminds us that we're not only called to follow Christ, but that we are also "called from people, places, or situations." As was true of Abraham and Sarah, callings involve transitions, and we may not always know where we are going, but we know from where we have been called. She writes that "God is continually calling us to new life, from our old ways, from our losses, from what has ended, into new ways, relationships, and beginnings" (p. 58). Callings move us into new places, which leads us to the next preposition. We are "called for service and work." She speaks of vocation as "self-giving service in community for the sake of God's world" (p. 61). But, how do we discern to what we're called for? In answer, she poses three questions. The questions have to do with 1) whether we derive joy from what we're doing; 2) do we have the appropriate gifts/abilities; and 3) does this allow one to serve others. That is, does anyone want us to do this? In other words, calling involves sacrifice. 

The next preposition is an important one. She writes that God calls us "through each other." This reminds us of the importance of community. Though people can fail us, often callings are heard in community. This means that the church "needs to be a school of mentoring and vocation" (p. 88). This word about mentoring is an important one, for to be a disciple is to be equipped for one's vocation, and this requires personal attention. 

The next preposition may seem out of place. She speaks of being "called in suffering." What she means here is that our callings don't always involve choices. Sometimes we have to figure out "God's call in the place that you are," and that might involve suffering (p. 89). That is, we might be called to be present in specific situations over which we have little choice or control. She writes: "It may not be what you want, or where your gifts lie, but it is in fact where you are. In that place, you ask: God, what are you calling me to in this circumstance?" (p. 90). This doesn't mean we court suffering, but when we are in that position we should seek God's sense of call in that time and place. It is in such times that the psalms of lament come to our aid, for they allow us to speak back to God, they "give voice to our profound disorientation, the loss of a world of promise and goodness. The loss of the promise of a calling and purpose" (p. 93). In the midst of such situations, we find new hope and new vocation. This leads to recognizing the calling "by the God within." This requires building up the capacity to hear God speaking within. The word "abide," which is so prominent in Johannine literature is appropriate here. It is a holy mystery, but central to a life well lived. It involves some work, to look inside and recognize God's presence. 

She ends with the "Callings all around us." She suggests that if we want to hear good stories, then we should ask people about their callings. That is, we enrich our own sense of call when we ask people what they believe God is calling them to be and to do. By sharing our stories, we "build bonds of trust." This trust that emerges from stories of calling and vocation are the "foundation of community." Such storytelling involves two things: "the ability to listen to yourself, discern God's holy presence in your life, and share that story with others." Then, secondly, we listen "attentively to another's story." By listening we discover the commonality of our vocations (p. 121). 

I’m not sure I had thought about it in this way, but I do believe that Kathleen Cahalan is correct when she suggests that we discern our vocations "in the stories we live." It's not that all stories are the same, but sharing stories open us up to God's vision for our own lives. To help us with this process of discernment, Cahalan provides reflection questions so we can gather in community and tell and listen to stories.

Thinking of vocation or calling in prepositional terms is rather profound. Each of the eight prepositions explored is revelatory, for it opens us up to new possibilities of living a faith-infused life. It’s also very helpful to be reminded that life is filled with new and different callings. What I think I’m called to be at age 20 might be very different from the calling I discern at age 60. That’s good, especially as we live longer and wonder what it means to walk with God post-retirement. This is a book that holds out great promise to all who seek to walk faithfully with God and live a life worth living to its fullest extent. 


John said…
Would this be a good book study for a small group for 5 to 8 weeks?
Robert Cornwall said…
Yes, it would. There are discussion questions included.

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