Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life

Douglas J. Schuurman, Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life. Eeerdmans, 2004. 190 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8028-0137-1.

Douglas J. Schuurman's Vocation: Discerning our Callings in Life has become my favorite book on Christian calling. The term calling tend to be associated with those who become pastors, ministers, staff positions in the church. Martin Luther and John Calvin brought forth the original idea that all Christians are called. These leaders thought of two types of callings. There is the general calling to follow Christ and there is the specific calling of serving God in all our callings: work, marriage, church, community, and other spheres. Schuurman thinks this idea has fallen on hard times. He seeks to recover this Reformation teaching for our day. He does not accept everything about the Reformation view of calling, but critiques its weaknesses and adds current information to make it more applicable.

The author explains his purpose: "My primary aim in this book is to develop a contemporary articulation of the classic Protestant doctrine of vocation. This doctrine and the religious impulse it reflects have had a profound influence upon the way many Christians understand and integrate faith and life, but in recent years core aspects of Protestant vocation have come under assault by our culture and by non-Christian and Christian thinkers alike" (xi). A few years ago I presented a paper on Librarianship as Christian Ministry at a national conference. During my research I read research that showed that 50%  or more religious librarians thought the concept of librarianship as a calling was not helpful or did not believe it. Many Christians think only ordained ministers have a ministry. Some of us, however, still think that the Protestant doctrine of vocation is still an important concept. It helps to provide meaning to our work.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I was having a conversation on the idea of calling. We observed that we knew of multiple people who felt a call to ministry and went to school to receive training. After training they went back to their "secular" jobs. We wondered about this. We know of many who hate their jobs. They do not like what they do. They do not see their work as connected to their calling as a Christian. The teaching of calling or vocations helps us from living fragmented lives. It gives us a purpose for living. God created the world and declared it good. We participate in His work when we love our neighbor and meet human needs.

Vocation includes seven chapters. In chapter one the author argues why he think the Protestant doctrine of vocation is still a useful concept. He notes that this teaching of vocation comes from both "the Lutheran and Reformed wings of the Protestant Reformation" (4). According to this teaching "all relational spheres--domestic, economic, political, cultural--are religiously and morally meaningful as divinely given avenues through which persons respond obediently to the call of God to serve their neighbor in love" (4).

The author provides biblical support for the doctrine of vocation in chapter two. He states there are two "primary meanings" for vocation in the Bible. The first is more general; it is the call to "become a member of the people of God and to take up the duties that pertain to that membership" (17). Second, is "God's diverse and particular callings--special tasks, offices, or places of responsibility within the covenant community and in the broader society" (17). In addition, the author states how vocation is associated with both providence and gifts. The author notes how the Apostle Paul use of calling and gift "interchangeably. . . implies ...or suggests that gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. . . are also callings" (30). He also shows how the Bible speaks of callings to secular spheres.

In chapter three the author provides a theology of vocation. He describes different religious affections that are necessary for fulfilling our vocation. These affections are dependence, gratitude, obligation, and meaning. The author notes, "God's call to devote everything we are and do to Christ and to service of God and neighbor brings unity to our lives. Paid work, home life, recreation, friendships are all particular callings in response to this one call" (66). I appreciate his emphasis that calling is not connected only to paid work. In addition, he discusses "helps" for helping us to discern and fulfill our vocation.

The author in chapter three responds to critiques on the doctrine of vocation. In the first part of the chapter he lists the proper uses of vocation. Some of these are serving the common good, promoting good, restraining evil, and shalom. He notes, "shalom is a condition of wholeness, of health and flourishing to the fullest extent" (80). In the second part of the chapter he responds to critiques of vocation. One of these is turning work into an idol. Another one is feeling an obligation to only those under our charge. A third accusation is that it emphasizes self-love. A fourth charge is that it acts as a cover for injustice. The author does a good job in responding to these charges showing both the strengths and weaknesses of the critique.

Chapters five and six cover more about career choice and long-term decisions. These are topics most people think about when they hear the topic vocation. The author provides much wisdom in these chapters. The author shows how our society in different from society in the time of the Protestant Reformation. For example, we have more freedom in choosing a career or a mate. One problem with our society is the emphasis on self-fulfillment. He also disputes the bull's eye view of calling. The idea that God has only one particular person or job for us. Another problem is the belief that to "have a calling [one] must hear God's voice and see tangible signs of God's presence" (127). The author does not believe that it is not possible for God to do this, but that in the majority of the chases He does not work this way.

Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life is an excellent book for those who want to integrate their faith in their life. I have underlined something in almost every page of this book. I think this is my third time to read it. It has been very encouraging each time I have read it. There is not much I disagree with in this book. It helped me to see that my work is a calling from God, but it is not the only calling I have. God provides us with gifts for all our callings. He also put us in places where we are to serve Him and our neighbor. If you are looking for a book to provide meaning to your work and life, you might want to give this book a try.

Other books on Calling and Vocation I have read that I would recommend are Leading Lives that Matter: What We Should Do and Who We should be edited by Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass; Here I am: Now What on Earth Should I Be Doing? by Quentin Schultze; Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor by Ben Witherington.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Darkness IS My Only Companion

Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Darkness is my Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006.

The death of Robin Williams recently caused some discussion on mental illness. There are many myths that circulate about mental illness and those who suffer from it. For example, much reference was made to that popular saying, "Know Christ, Know Peace; No Christ, No Peace." I find that the implication that people who suffer from mental illness is because they do not know Christ is completely false. Even devout Christians suffer from mental illness. Another false idea is that if these people pray more and read their Bible, the problem will go away. I find these simplistic answers increases the suffering of those who struggle with mental illness. Mental illness has physical causes which these myths seem to ignore.

An alternative source that seeks to educate those who suffer from mental illness and those who love and care from them is an excellent book by Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Darkness is my Only Companion. McCreight has a Ph.D from Yale University, is assistant priest at St. John's Episcopal Church and teaches at Albertus Magnus College. Not long after the birth of her second child, the author experienced severe depression that was on and off for several years. After five years, she was diagnosed as manic, and therefore, bipolar. In other words, sometimes she was manic, other times she was clinically depressed. After several years, she and her doctor "finally stumbled upon the right 'cocktail'" for her brain and she has "steadily improved." By both her experience and knowledge, the author speaks authoritatively on the subject of mental illness. She is also a trained theologian who can speak as a Christian on the topic.

McCreight states that after her diagnosis she tried to find books to answer the questions she had, but she was unsuccessful. Some of her questions were: "Does God send this suffering? If so, why? And why this particular kind of suffering? Why, if I am a Christian, can I not rejoice? What is happening to my soul?" Since she was unable to find a book which answered her questions, she decided to write one herself. This reader is glad she did. She notes: "Most of the books answered scientific questions, which were in themselves not uninteresting to me. However, I wanted a book that would ask not purely scientific questions about these illnesses and sets of symptoms but religious questions, and not just any religious questions but a specifically Christian set of questions. What is the problem of  of suffering and evil viewed from the Christian gospel? How therefore might a Christian respond in the face of mental illness? How is the soul affected by the disease of the mind, indeed of the brain? Does the Christian tradition offer resources for coping with mental illness and for explaining its origin and healing? (12). The author addresses these questions throughout the book. Even people not suffering from mental illness but experiencing trials and difficulties will benefit from this book. There are some similarities between physical and mental illness. It is hoped that sometime soon people will see that severe mental illness is a serious disease with serious consequences. It is hoped that we will try to better understand the disease and provide the support people need who struggle with this illness.

Darkness is my Only Companion is divided into three parts and thirteen chapters. In the first part (chapters 1-6) the author describes her struggle with the illness. She discusses mental illness in a general way and how it affected her personally. She includes theological reflections on the illness and her experience. In part two (chapters 7-11) McCreight explores more thoroughly the theological questions she had. She discusses how prayer and scripture assisted her struggles. The author analysis of the relationship of faith and emotions was quite helpful and interesting. In part three (chapters 12-13) the author provides helpful instruction for family, friends, and clergy. The last chapter discusses methods of choosing the right therapy and treatment.

This excellent book provided much help in this reviewer's own question. How was this author suffered from manic-depression able to work a job? What are some the major types of treatment for those who suffer from severe mental illness? Should patients take medicine? What happens when the individual must be hospitalized? Should Electroconvulsive treatment ever be done? How to prevent suicide in the patient? These and many other questions I had was addressed and answered by this book.

One important point to make is that there is no generic case of mental illness. Some individuals might not be able to work a regular job. Different individuals will experience mental illness differently. We should never judge one person based on the experience of another person. I am always worried when I write about mental illness it will cause someone to suffer more.

Darkness is My Only Companion is a reference to Psalm 88: "My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion." The author refers to Scripture often in this book. The book clearly shows that as an Episcopalian, she has been helped by prayer, tradition, community, and written prayers. This is an excellent book to learn more about mental illness and how to support others who suffer from this illness.