Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.

Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

I was out on a run on new year’s eve, pondering the year ahead,  when I decided to borrow my wife’s copy of this little book, Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer, and re-read it. I am glad that I did. Parker Palmer’s classic was just what I was looking for to start the new year, and it just may be a book that would be helpful to you, too. 

The subtitle of this book, “Listening for the Voice of Vocation,” hints at its purpose. It is about discerning one’s vocation, to be sure, but it is about more than that. Or perhaps the whole idea of vocation is about more than what we often think that it is about. 

In my own life, for example, it may seem as though I have a clear sense of vocation, and in some ways I do. I am called to be a pastor in the ELCA, and particularly to be the pastor of First Lutheran Church in Albemarle, North Carolina. I have no doubt of that. But is that the entirety of my vocation? 

Every day is filled with possibilities, and every day involves vocational decisions. Right now, on a cloudy Saturday afternoon, I am writing this review. But there are a thousand other things I could be doing. So how do I choose? Palmer would suggest that it is only by listening. The word “vocation,” as Palmer reminds us in this book, comes from the Latin word for “voice.” That is where our vocation is to be found. 

But to what do we listen? There are hundreds of possibilities, aren’t there? Modern technology assures us of that! And even when we are trying to listen for God’s call, there are lots of options. I can (and do) read the Bible, of course. I pray, and journal, and read books like this one. But what is so helpful about this book is that we are taught that if we are to discern our vocation, we must listen to our life. 

I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about – quite apart from what I would like it to be about – or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.

And that is what this little book is all about. It is all about teaching us to listen to our life. To listen to our experiences, to listen to our family and friends, to listen when doors seem to close, to really listen to our souls (which Palmer reminds us only speak their truth “under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions”). And to discern the path that God is calling us to walk. 

This book is hard to categorize. It is part memoir, part essay collection. It is a book which manages to teach us about vocation, but also about clinical depression (which Palmer has lived with, and which he describes movingly in Chapter IV – All the Way Down), about leadership (in Chapter V – Leading from Within), and about what vocation looks like in different seasons of life (in Chapter VI – There Is a Season). It is a book that I will certainly return to, and that I commend to anyone trying to listen and understand what life is truly about. 

Our lives participate in the myth of eternal return: we circle around and spiral down, never finally answering the questions “Who am I?” and “Whose am I?” but, in the words of Rilke, “living the questions” throughout our lives.

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