by Rev. Dr. John W. Oberdeck
Installation and ordination services are intended to be impressive. A special service is often scheduled. Dignitaries officiate. Hymns rarely sung but unique to the circumstance fill the sanctuary. The called worker for the congregation—ordained or commissioned—is brought forward and asked questions.
The newly called servant affirms the faith passed on from generation to generation and promises to serve faithfully in the vocation into which the servant is placed. Hands are laid on, prayers are spoken and the deed is done. The ritual is performed so that both worker and congregation recognize together the significance of the office now filled.
Would it be too much of a stretch to suggest that we need an installation service for the vocation of parent? Parenthood, after all, is a vocation. Martin Luther certainly viewed parenthood as a calling, a vocation. He included verses not only for husbands, wives and children in the Table of Duties in the Small Catechism but also a verse particularly applicable “To Parents.” Though Eph. 6:4 is addressed to fathers, the use of Paul’s inspired words here seems to imply both parents. At least, it does in Luther’s view. Wouldn’t an installation service be appropriate for such a significant office?
Before carrying this idea any further, I confess that I’m mixing apples and oranges—two different categories. There is a special calling from God, a vocation, to serve God in His Church as one’s full-time occupation. This calling is different from other vocations in any number of ways. Nevertheless, we do use the word vocation to refer to our occupations and careers in the world, as well as to the stations in life that we find ourselves, like being mom and dad.
But do we recognize the family roles—mother, father— as vocations? What do we really mean by the word vocation when used in this non-clerical sense? And further, do we understand the significance of the office of parent? Do we provide it with the attention and respect that it deserves? Perhaps we should even consider the vocation of infant, child and teen. Before discovering if our definition is that elastic, however, we should probably describe what Lutherans mean when talking about our vocations.
Working through us
Our vocations are the means by which God cares for us and for the created order. When each of us fulfills our God-pleasing vocation, God is working through us to meet the needs of our neighbor. Ponder for a moment the far-reaching effects of vocation. To put bread on my table, God works through the vocation of farmer, the bread truck driver and the baker.
All this seems obvious, to be sure, but it is not the way all Christians understand vocation. Some get vocation mixed up with how we are saved. From this perspective, my service to my neighbor in my vocation becomes the way in which I please God. I’m “serving God by serving my neighbor.”
Now, I wouldn’t deny that serving my neighbor pleases God, but if this is my rationale for serving my neighbor, two unfortunate things tend to happen. My neighbor becomes a means to an end, rather than the object of my care. Plus, I begin to think it is the good work I’m doing for my neighbor that gets me right with God. Rather than God using me to care for my neighbor, I am using my neighbor in order to set myself right with God. To some degree, my service to my neighbor is tainted because I’m really serving myself and my goals, not my neighbor. I am loving myself, not my neighbor. The Lutheran view is that God is using us; we aren’t using our neighbors.
Seeing through our lens
Let’s see if there are any implications for our families if we look at them through the lens of Lutheran vocation. God wants to care for the children in a household, but He has chosen not to do so directly. He will care for the children through the parents, parents who now see themselves as tools of God’s mercy and care for their children.
The family I am describing, of course, was the norm for family life. Today’s families come in many forms and configurations. That fact does not, however, change the principle: God wants to care for children. Lutheran Christians who find themselves with child-rearing responsibilities will realize they are not in this calling for themselves—for their own goals or gratification—but they are in parenthood for God’s purposes, because God is using them to care for their share of the next generation on earth.
Is it possible that the next generation also has a vocation? If vocation is our roles and stations in life, and being a child—a son or a daughter—is just such a station, then there is a vocation of being son or daughter. There is no argument if we are talking about middle-aged adults caring for their elderly parents. That seems quite reasonable. I want to take it a step further, however. I want us to think about infants, elementary-school children and teenagers not only as the receivers of God’s mercy and care from parental units, but also as tools God uses to bring His mercy and care to parents.
Really? Yes! God cares for parents through the vocations of children—children who lead otherwise selfish adults into altruism, self-sacrifice and a depth of love they otherwise would not have reached. An understanding of family as a cluster of people that God has brought together so that He can care for each through the others is an understanding of family that can weather storms that life brings. And let’s not forget the blessings brought to family by those whose vocation is aunt or uncle, niece or nephew or the neighbor lady who becomes the surrogate grandmother, or the real grandparents, for that matter.
How significant is the office of family member? How important is this vocation? It is important enough to have an installation. How about right after the Baptism of the firstborn child?
> Did you know? In 1522, Luther wrote, “When a father goes ahead and washes diapers … God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in christian faith.”
About the Author: Rev. Dr. John W. Oberdeck is assistant director for lay ministry at Concordia University Wisconsin.
FOR MOM AND DAD
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