Lutherans have long held the cherished doctrine of vocation. It is the profound understanding that God is working through us as we serve our neighbor through our daily stations of life (including family and community members). However, the recent “missional” emphasis has tended to push the doctrine of vocation aside, making people feel guilty for simply tending to their daily jobs, family responsibilities, and the general grind of daily life, instead of forsaking it all to go spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I believe this to be unfortunate, problematic, and deeply hurtful to Christian families, particularly the vocation of parents.
I cherish the vocation of my parents, as I know did my older sister Heidi. She was the oldest of three; she was six, I was four, my brother Matt was three (my brother Josh came along later). However, a Wilms Tumor was ravaging her body. I know Heidi didn’t know what a vocation was when she was six, but I am certain she was thankful my parents lived theirs out so fully.
As Christians, they took their family regularly to worship. As a farmer, my dad worked long hours trying to support his family and make a living. As a mother, my mom had three young children to take care of—including Heidi as she was plagued by cancer.
Heidi’s favorite song was, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Even though she was just six-years-old, she was particular about her songs. She liked the hymns and if it wasn’t to her liking it got the ax— “Mom, that one just doesn’t have enough Jesus in it,” so out it would go.
By every human reason and by every manner of human strength, they tried to make Heidi get better. They couldn’t. While sitting in my mother’s lap, her last words were, “Mommy, I know I am going to be with Jesus now.” She closed her eyes and then breathed her last. She died in my mother’s arms, hair gone, strength gone, and now life gone. Not by her own reason or strength did she go from the arms of her mother into the arms of her Savior. Baptism has a way of doing the impossible.
My vocation as brother was confusing at that time. I remember my brother Matt and I thought it was cool that Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane was leading the funeral procession in his squad car—our favorite show was the Duke’s of Hazard. But then we got to the grave site. Not by my own reason or strength could I figure out why they had put Heidi into a box. Not by my own reason or strength could I figure out why they were lowering her into the ground.
I turned to ask my mom. The picture of my dad and mom crumpled in an agonizing embrace, utterly weeping, is forever etched in my mind. Not by their own reason or strength would they be able to bear the burden of seeing their child lowered into the grave. Not by their own reason or strength would they be able to calm the devastating outrage of watching their six-year-old little girl suffer and die.
But their trust was not in their own reason or strength. Their trust was in the One who called them, and called Heidi, by the Gospel. Just as they confessed in the Apostles’ Creed that day—“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” Here, the “Amen” becomes painfully and expectantly real.
My mom and dad often talked of Jesus, but their vocation was not as missionaries. Their vocation was as parents—diaper-changing, supper-cooking, clothes-folding, cow-milking parents. They told my sister about Jesus, just as they told all of their children about him. They taught each of us the hymns and songs that the church has sung for ages.
I am pretty sure Heidi probably sang her favorite song to many of the nurses who cared for her, and maybe even told one or two about Jesus, but her vocation was not as a missionary, it was that of a little girl—a daughter who also had the horrid disease called cancer. Yet, she was a little girl baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. She was a daughter, taught by her parents of God’s unconditional, irreversible, and resurrecting love promised to her through the water and the Word.
It is no wonder that Luther writes this about the vocation of parents: “In all the world this is the noblest and most precious work, because to God there can be nothing dearer than the salvation of souls…Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel. In short, there is no greater or nobler authority on earth than that of parents over their children, for this authority is both spiritual and temporal” (Estate of Marriage, 1522, AE 45:47).
It should also be no wonder that the latest studies unequivocally show that parents are the most formative influences in the faith life of children. From the largest study of this kind ever done, Christian Smith in his book Soul Searching, now has the research to back up what the Scriptures have said for thousands of years—parents are the most formative influence in the faith life of their children:
“More broadly, one of the most important things that adults who are concerned about how teenagers’ religious and spiritual lives are going to turn out can do is to focus attention on strengthening their own and other adults’, especially parents’, religious and spiritual lives. For in the end, they most likely will get from teens what they as adults themselves are. Like it or not, the message that adults inevitably communicate to youth is ‘Become as I am, not (only) as I say.’”
This, too, is part of the mission of the church.