Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good
IVP Books, 2014
256 pp., 18.00
Drew Moser, Jess Fankhauser, and Jeff Aupperle
Visions of Vocation
The word "vocation" is loaded. It elicits a spectrum of strong opinions within the church; ranging from the angst-filled young adult in despair over the future to the steadfast theologian certain of the idea of calling and how it should work for everyone. As an office which walks with college students in search of resolute answers to questions of "calling," amid the spectrum there is one thing we are certain of: if everything is vocation, nothing is vocation. If everything is part of one's calling, how does one see the forest for the trees? Yet, if vocation is reduced to one's 9-5 existence, then the authentically holistic nature of our lives is not appropriately considered. The resulting compartmentalized view of work fails to provide the coherent and seamless understanding we long for in understanding the ramifications of our lives. One thing the church should be able to agree upon is that vocation implies that our lives are initiated and called by God. Beyond this, there is much debate.
Fortunately, there are a number of books emerging on the issue of calling. Consider Tim Keller's Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work; Kingdom Calling, by Amy Sherman; and Skye Jethani's Futureville, in which Jethani devotes major portions to the subject of vocation. Around the same time as Futureville's release came Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, by Steven Garber, founder and principal of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture.
If you have ever heard Garber speak in public, you know that he does so with a soothing, lyrical style that tips his audience to his fondness for music and poetry. He often notes that "the artists get there first," and his writing reflects this inclination, weaving in stories that begin as seemingly separate strands. Yet in Garber's chapters they are woven together to form a tapestry that reveals how vocation is integral to the mission of God.
This book is not for the faint of heart. Despite Garber's poetic style, his words pack a punch, challenging the reader to consider what it means to be "implicated." Garber quotes Byron: "They who know the most must mourn the deepest." Living with a full understanding of vocation means choosing to see the wounds of the world and responding with a heart of flesh rather than a heart of stone. It means choosing the better but not the easier.
This willingness to know and see is, to Garber, the beginning of vocation. It is an echo of what Wendell Berry explores from his Leavings collection:
I go by a field where once
I cultivated a few poor crops.
It is now covered with young trees,
for the forest that belongs here
has come back and reclaimed its own.
And I think of all the effort
I have wasted and all the time,
and of how much joy I took
in that failed work and how much
it taught me. For in so failing
I learned something of my place
something of myself, and now
I welcome back the trees.
Implication and learning forms the theoretical framework for the book, which gives the reader a primer for further reading on the subject of vocation. Garber himself is a prolific reader, and he tells compelling stories from the realms of art, law, education, history, and social justice to implore readers to see the world with the eyes of the heart; a concept he refers to as "words becoming flesh."
Garber makes his point by asking a question central to the book: Can you know the world (in all of its good and evil) and still love the world? It's a valid question, and Garber powerfully explores the connectedness of relationship and responsibility while warning against the temptation to avoid implication. He posits: "we are called to be common grace for the common good," a simple idea to assent to but a much more complex idea to embody. Nonetheless, placed within the context of the everyday life, Garber shares vignettes of people who have lived their lives in this noble pursuit.
Each story attempts to reinforce Garber's point that vocation implicates, in spite of the grief and hurt we find. Yet, Garber's central question is unlikely to be what readers will find to be most difficult. What is more difficult for the reader to grasp is: Will you choose to live "implicated" in the midst of what you know—the glories and the shames—for the balance of your life? In Garber's sixth chapter, titled "Vocation as Implication," he writes, "When we take the wounds of the world into our hearts—not just for a day, but for a life—we long to see the work of our hands as somehow, strangely, part of the work of God in the word, integral to the missio dei, not incidental to it." This extends the question beyond the present day to cause the reader to grapple with the "implications" of what it means to live implicated. This resonates with Eugene Peterson's argument in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. There, Peterson argued for a long view of discipleship in the midst of an "instant" society. Garber too points the reader to an abiding and comprehensive view beyond the faddish and trendy causes that we may support to appease our conscience.