Book Review: Listening Hearts, Discerning Call in Community by Suzanne Farnham

Book Review: Listening Hearts, Discerning Call in Community by Suzanne Farnham

Hearing God’s Call for vocation

The popular question, “Does God speak to us or tell us what we should do?” comes to mind when I think of the book, “Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community,” Morehouse Publishing, 1991. We do live in an era of doubt, and Christianity or belief in God is lacking. Even among believers one wonders if one is following the will of God. In this book the reader finds ways to discover what God is saying for one’s life.

I came across this title as part of a one-day conference held by the Episcopal Church on discerning a call within community. The book was recommended reading by the San Francisco Bay Area organization (ECUSA). I read it gladly, and with interest. I want to know if I am doing what I should, and if I am meeting the needs of both my community and my Church–most certainly the will of God. For me, this is not an arrogant request, but a genuine one.

The book is easy to read, informative, intelligent and direct. Its premise goes like this: “A call may come as a gradual dawning of God’s purpose for our lives.” Some may be surprised that lay people will want to respond to a call, usually thought reserved only for ordained clergy. I think call comes to the laity, too. We are under baptismal vows. If you are a Christian, or interested in knowing about God’s will for you in work, service, prayer, even marriage, this is a worthwhile book. It is a book about ministry.

Here is the rationale for ministry:

“Doing good things–volunteer work, for instance–may not be ministry if God is not the motivating force–even if the person doing them is a Christian. On the other hand, if God is the motivating force, even those who do not consciously bear the name of Christ may participate in God’s work. God used Cyrus, king of Persia, to release Israel from captivity, saying, “…I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me” (Isa. 45:4). One task of the Christian, then, is to recognize, affirm, and celebrate Christ’s reconciling action in others, including non-Christians. A true minister is “anybody who is the channel to others of God’s love, and is willing to share something of the cost of that love; and whose eyes are open to perceive God’s presence everywhere and in everybody.” In The Rule of St. Benedict, this same thought for monks goes: “…the work of the monk is to accept and participate in the divine saving activity in our life.” The quote (Terrence G. Kardong, OSB) from another book demonstrates that this request of God and us is for all Christians the same. It is a general request that “Listening Hearts” addresses.

You can see that I like this book, and I like the fact that a group of people put it together, a team effort of its own which reflects the kind of book this is for people who may be living in a community or team setting. It is as if a whole group thought these were good things, and a way to hear what God is saying.

One needs confirmation in the subject area of discernment and acts of discernment, so there is a need for a book like “Listening Hearts.” The book suggests this confirmation by community, and offers a guide to the book’s use by groups. The appendix titles: “Guidelines for Discernment Groups;” “Types of Questions to Raise When Serving in Discernment Groups;” “Suggestions for Recognizing and Encouraging Ministries;” “Informal History of the Project and the Research Methods Used” by Suzanne Farnham. Authors of the book: Suzanne G. Farnham, Joseph P. Gill, R. Taylor McLean, Susan M. Ward. This edition is, “With Newly Formulated Guidelines for Discernment,” and the “Newly Revised Edition.”

Some chapters are shorter than others. “Supporting the Ministries of Others” is a shorter chapter, but a necessary one for a book like this. I say a book like this, because it talks of living in community: “Without support, ministry may become lost. Without support, we may become lost.” It isn’t the length of chapter that is important, nor the pithy nature of the text, but the direct and practical way theological matters are explained. There is a common sense to this book.

To emphasize the quest for God as subject for man and woman, the introduction quotes Soren Kierkegaard (1835): “What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know…The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do…What good would it do me to be able to explain the meaning of Christianity if it had no deeper significance for me and for my life?” “Listening Hearts” is an aid in this journey of finding deeper significance in life. Not too long, written in a readable manner for the general reader, the book is good for group discussion and for individual reading.

I don’t think the writers considered this book the end or maybe even the beginning of a book on the subject of discernment. But among those available, this is an excellent one to have on hand, to read. The intent is to help with a living a question of what God may want for us, as living the good and bad in our lives is a living in the tensions of life with God. “Thus we gain hearts to listen and respond to God’s call.”

–Peter Menkin, Easter 2007

Peter Menkin, an aspiring poet, lives in Mill Valley, CA USA (north of San Francisco).

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