The Call

     In the last Ministry Exchange, I devoted this column to the fine writings of my new friend, Barbara Brown Taylor. A gentle, eloquent Episcopal priest and an important writer, I commended her book The Preaching Life. As campus evangelists, we are all preachers of sorts, so her story is one of invaluable assistance to us as we try to learn how to live and proclaim the reality of the Kingdom smack in the middle of a suspicious, if not hostile, culture. She uses words well and shows us how to think imaginatively and theologically about our lives.

     Not just for clergy, Barbara is helpful for all of us wandering along life’s journey and especially for those of us (and our students) who are seeking to discern God’s will for our lives. (I assume that that is what most of us are about, and what we all desire for our young friends.) As I mentioned in last month’s review, Taylor is an ally in our efforts to integrate life and faith. Listen as she reminds us why some of us are taken with talk of “whole life discipleship” and why we tend to downplay the dualism between clergy and laity: A gardener’s altar may be his garden, where sacraments of seed and bud contain the grace of God’s life-giving power; a painter’s altar may be her easel, where sacraments of canvas and oil evoke the grace of God’s creative genius; a father’s altar may be his lap, where sacraments of children exhibit the grace of God’s love. Such everyday sacraments may be easier to discern in our personal lives (sacraments of friends, family, home, nature) but since we are called to be priests wherever we are, it is important that we learn to recognize them in our professional lives as well. Wherever our offices are, that is where we are called to exercise our vocation as minister of word and sacrament.

     She then goes on to wonderfully describe the altar found at the workplace of the physician, the word processor, the truck driver. Our public and professional lives are places to find and serve God. In discussing the way some clergy are tempted to think more highly of their ministries than those of ordinary others, she wryly suggests that “they need watching. Because their spheres are limited, they tend to forget that God’s activity is not….They may infer that God is more com-fortable with polished brass and stained glass than with the gaudy disarray of the world.” She states bluntly, “If the church is where we learn who and whose we are, the world is where we are called to put that knowledge to use.”

     This sort of earthy theology is less uncommon than it once was (ask me about a new series of paperbacks which Dallas Willard is editing, along just these lines: the spirituality of the ordinary). Still, I am convinced that we simply must remind students, churches, friends and family over and over again: this is God’s world! God cares about our daily lives! Christ died to bring shalom to His Earth! The Spirit calls and empowers us to serve God in every aspect of life! We must see life (public and private) in light of these truths! No dualisms!

     Taylor, an Episcopal priest, may not know our neo-Calvinist tradition of Kuyper & Bavinck, Wolters & Walsh and Brad & Terry, but her work resonates with her sense of a fallen-and-being-redeemed Earth. The Preaching Life is, among other things, a sweet and storied invitation to discern vocation.

     Dr. Os Guinness’ new book, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life, is not written as a Taylor-esque memoir. It is, however, one of the most significant guides to the intellectual and existential complexities of finding meaning and purpose in what many consider a purposeless world. I have often repeated my admiration for Guinness’ work and the brighter students in our circles should absolutely read his several books. His earlier work includes a classic on the sixties (The Dust of Death), a brilliant treatise on doubt, a thoughtful critique of the church growth movement and a major work on public philos-ophy entitled The American Hour. And, of course, the book I am always suggesting, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds, on how and why evange-licals are caught a worldly and unbiblical anti-intellectualism.

     The Call may become known as his best. It could be used as the thinking person’s devotional, a beefy inspirational read for the New York Times crowd. Oddly (and Os makes it a point to critique how promiscuous we are with terms like “seeker-sensitive”) this is remarkably usable and contextualized even for non-believers. The numerous stories, anecdotes and illustrations are from mainstream literature, the arts and politics. We’re talking delightful stories about heavy-hitters: Dante and Kierkegaard, Picasso and Dali, Churchill and Lewis. I’m sure that this is the first book Word ever published with a story of jazzman John Coltrane! People who take life seriously, who like to learn, who are genu-ine seekers, will find this work a blessing!

Although seemingly designed with, shall we say, “highbrow readers” in view, please know that Os sees it as a part of his own call-ing to bridge the gap between the academy and the person on the street,” the abstract and the concrete. (Just read his thoughtful yet blunt words about money if you want concrete,” or his several chapters on sloth, if you want practicality.) I know that he has passionately poured himself into this collection; indeed, he says he worked on it for more than 30 years! The Call may become the defi-nitive book on the subject for just such a reason. Fine books like Your Work Matters to God and The Monday Connection are designed to equip lay people to see their jobs in Christian perspective, but they fail to reflect adequately on the distinctions between career and calling, vocation and work. (The booklet Our Place in God’s World, which introduces the reformational idea of office, is important here.) In our effort to be relevant, we sometimes short-cut the theological work needed to undergird the whole project of Christian cultural engagement. In simply studying the work, reducing the grand doctrine of calling to career, we miss the bigger picture. Guinness makes clear that our call is first to Christ, and the purpose of our lives is to find our place in God’s service. In that context, we are given numerous vocationsÑas parents, citizens, church members and workers. Only someone with Guinness’ immense breadth of knowledge (not to mention his regular contact with people outside both the academy and the church) could put together this sort of a book. It is at once a winsome apologetic (give it to those searching for direction) and a systematic study for believers who need solid, foundational teaching. Here we get a glimpse of Guinness’ own calling, speaking and writing with one foot in the church and another in the cultures of policy think-tanks, corporations and industry. We are better for it.

     Please do not let the hardback price or serious-mindedness of this important book cause you to delay getting it. If I were listing a dozen or so books which all of our staff ought to own, this handsome volume would surely be high on the list. Use it to consider your own calling; use it to exercise your intellectual capabilities; use it evangelistically (maybe with a professor you know or a recent graduate); use it to help your students understand a concept which is central to a truly Christian worldview; use it devotionally, the 26 chapters are short enough to read one a day for a month. Indeed, use it to swipe good illustrations and quotes for your public speaking.

     This book is just overflowing with insight, written in a voice credible enough to get a hearing from nearly every quarter by one who is a longtime friend of the CCO. I sincerely find it an honor to exercise part of my calling by commending it to you.

     Dr. Guinness’s delightful British accent and superb command of the English language make him a treat to hear, no matter what the topic. We carry several tapes of his speeches, but we now have a great new audio tape, produced by the astute Mars Hills folks, where Os is expertly interviewed on the topic of The Call by Ken Meyers. This is especially nice because you get to hear him conversationally, which makes reading the book that much more enjoyable. Better still, the flip side of the tape is an extended interview with another expatriate Brit, our good friend Paul Marshall. Marshall is known for his reformational political theorizing during his tenure at Torontos Institute for Christian Studies, and more recently, has gotten world-wide attention because of his human rights writing (Their Blood Cries Out) and activism on behalf of persecuted Christians. He has also done fantastic scholarly work on the development of the ideas of vocation during the early reformation period and knows that literature as well as anyone. (For the really interested, see his A Kind of Life Imposed on Man, published by the University of Toronto Press for about $45.00.) Call us and ask for the tape on vocation and work by Guinness and Marshall. It will be an investment you will use over and over again and is a wonderful accompaniment for the Guinness book and your ministry in promoting thoughtful, relevant discipleship.