In 2015, I took a required seminary class, Foundations of Christian Education. It was taught by Rev. Dr. David White, the C. Ellis and Nancy Gribble Nelson Professor of Christian Education. Dr. White is a United Methodist Church elder and scholar. I went into the class expecting to learn about Christian Education curriculum and pedagogy, something I had little interest in before taking his class. To my surprise, Dr. White taught us about life-long learning, vocation, and spiritual growth. I exited his classroom with a more holistic approach towards Christian Education than just understanding the basic mechanics.
Dr. White assigned five books to read, discuss, and critically analyze during the semester. One of the books that captured my interest, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, 2000), was authored by Dr. Parker J. Palmer, the founder and Senior Partner Emeritus of the Center for Courage & Renewal which oversees the “Courage to Teach” program. He wrote this book to reverse the popular belief that vocation is something one chooses as a goal or something one is able to accomplish through sheer will. He believes that “trying to live someone else’s life, or to live by an abstract norm, will invariably fail – and may even do great damage.” (page 4)
Palmer presents his solution in a series of essays presented over a decade. Each essay ties into the central solution of self-understanding and inward listening: “Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” (page 4) One must ask first two crucial questions before starting the inward journey: “Who am I? What is my nature?” (page 15)
How does one know his or her nature? Palmer uses examples from his personal vocational journey of failures and successes. First, one must travel inwardly into one’s dark places. “But before we come to that center, full of light, we must travel in the dark.” (page 18) Understanding the truth within our failures sheds light on our vocation. And second, one must understand the root cause of our fears. Again, this is an inward view rather than looking outward for blame.
Palmer stresses the importance of understanding our limits when choosing our vocation. “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening.” (page 4) We grow up in a can-do culture where we do not believe in limits. This is unrealistic and a source of self-denial and eventual burnout.
He believes in the importance of leadership in helping others determine their vocation. “A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there.”(page 78) He also believes in leadership within the community by:
- Lifting up the value of “inner work.”
- Spreading the word that inner work, our personal matter, is not necessarily a private
- Reminding others of the dominant role that fear plays in our lives. (pages 91-93)
The final essay is on the seasonality of life and understanding that selfhood and vocation have a seasonal rhythm instead of the belief “that we can make whatever kind of life we want, whenever we want it.” (page 97)
I did not appreciate the section on the God of Reality (pages 50-53). “One dwells with God by being faithful to one’s nature.” My belief is that God made us to be the imago dei. Although Paul speaks about our many gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-31), if our nature is not within the image of God, then we must change. For Christians, this is following Christ and not boasting, but striving to obey. If our “true nature” is to follow money, deceit, murder and evil, for example, then we need to listen to Scripture and change. Christians cannot only look selfishly inward. We are called to unselfishly follow Christ and to help our neighbors. This did not come through in the book. However, based on the tone of the book, I believe the author would not want evil people to follow their nature.
I appreciated Palmer’s clear writing style and his ability to be vulnerable, especially when he dealt with depression. His book is only 116 short pages yet gives sage advice on vocation. “Most of us arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a long journey through alien lands.” (page 17) If we find our vocation after such a journey, the homecoming is both authentic and joyful.