May 3, 2014

When Vocations Collide

By  Cheryl Magness

Most of us have had the childhood experience of running into our teacher (or dentist or pastor) at the grocery store or post office. The first time it happens it sort of blows the mind. "You mean Mrs. Jones is a normal person who wears regular clothes and goes to the grocery store on the weekend?" Who knew?
Even as adults, we may find it uncomfortable when our carefully circumscribed worlds collide. We like to be one person at church and another at work. We carefully craft our digital identities only to find them compromised when we meet one of those online friends in real life.

Sometimes in our daily lives we also find that our various vocations are at odds with one another. I have a friend, a wise, homeschooling mom, who has observed, "I can be a fantastic cook, or an excellent homemaker, or an effective teacher. But I can't be all three at once. Something has to give."

Indeed. I am a rather controlling person. (My family may stop laughing now.) I like for things to be neat. If I could design life to my specifications, there would be a row of hats on the shelf in my closet, and I would be able to easily switch from one to the next whenever the occasion merited. Time to make supper? Take off the mom hat and put on the chef one. Time to go to choir practice? Take off the chef hat and put on the pianist one. Time to teach the children? Take off the housecleaning hat and put on the homeschooling one.

Life, unfortunately, is not that neat. Life is, in fact, very messy, and more often than not, we are called to wear multiple hats at once. Not only that, sometimes those hats don't stack up very well. What happens when, due to a parent's aging and ill health, we go from being that parent's child to being the parent? What happens when a friend or family member behaves in a way that is sinful or self-destructive and we are torn between speaking the truth or providing unquestioning support? What happens when the government that represents us asks us as citizens to do something that goes against our most deeply held convictions?

The list could go on and on. Interesting, isn't it, how the doctrine of vocation can be so utterly clarifying and confusing at the same time? It should come as no surprise that this is so. Our vocations, like all aspects of our earthly existence, are stained with the effects of sin. Nothing is simple and neat anymore, as the Devil, the world, and our sinful nature work overtime to turn order into chaos. These vocations that bring us such joy and purpose turn on a dime to become the occasions of our sin: "Here consider your station according to the Ten Commandments, whether you are a father, mother, son, daughter, master, mistress, a man-servant or maid-servant; whether you have been disobedient, unfaithful, slothful; whether you have grieved any one by words or deed; whether you have stolen, neglected, or wasted aught, or done other injury. (Martin Luther, Small Catechism, V. Confession)

So, how do we make at least some temporary, manageable sense of it all? Friends, we don't. As much as we want to, we can't. Whenever we think we have finally achieved mastery, that's when Satan is closest at hand, ready to pounce. As Christian Lutheran women, one of our deepest desires is to be the best mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and friends we can. In so doing we make idols of those vocations. When we've done well we pat ourselves on the back. When our relationships are going smoothly, we feel blessed. When we fail--when we lose patience with our elderly mother, or sit crying in the middle of the mess that is our house, or discover anew that the ones we love are sinners just like ourselves, it all comes crashing down, and we wonder where God is.

And in our brokenness, we see again that God is there. He is there for us as He was there for the Holy Family, who knew, as we know, the pain of colliding vocations. Consider Joseph, whose position as a God-fearing citizen was sorely challenged by the news of his betrothed's pregnancy (Mt. 1:18-25). Or consider the colliding vocations of Mary, both child and mother of God. Could there have been any more confusing position in which to find oneself? Consider, finally, Jesus. How can the same person be both God and Man? How can He be both our brother and our Lord? Oh, the anguish Jesus and his earthly family suffered as their vocations set them on a path of unthinkable pain and loss that first Passion week.

As we struggle daily in the always confusing, often painful demands of our own multiple vocations, we can see in Joseph, Mary, and Jesus the response that our Heavenly Father asks of us. When vocations collide in this messy world, what is one to do? For the answer, we need go no further than the foot of the Cross:

". . . but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, 'Woman, behold, your son!' Then he said to the disciple, 'Behold, your mother!' And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home." (Jn. 19:25-27)

I doubt that, on top of everything else that had happened, John expected to take a new mother home that day, or that Mary expected to gain a son. Life rarely turns out exactly as we expect. Some of you reading never expected that you would today be single, or married, or childless, or the mother of many, or a stay-at-home mom, or a working mom, or any number of other possibilities. When we are little girls we imagine what it will be like to be grown up women, and more often than not reality doesn’t quite fulfill expectations. That may be good news or it may be a source of disappointment, but either way, it is never simple. Ah, you slippery vocations. If only you would stay in your nice, neat little boxes and only come out when invited!

When we are called to work that we never imagined or prepared for, or when the daily demands of life are all too much, how do we respond? I am reminded of another wise piece of advice, one that many of you have also probably heard: “Do the next thing.” Jesus, dying on the cross, provided for His mother. John, watching his world appear to crumble, took home a new mother and cared for her. When your vocations collide, pause and ask what you have been given to do in that moment. That’s all you can do. Now you are a cook. Now you are a dish washer. Now you are a care giver. Now you are a career woman. Now you are a sister, a mother, a daughter, and a wife. At each of those times, and at all times, our calling is the same. Our Heavenly Father asks us to submit to His will for our lives, to serve our neighbor, and to trust Him in all things, including—and especially--when we fail. May it be to us according to His Word.


Cheryl is the sister of ten, daughter of two, mother of three, and wife of one. She was an English teacher in a past life but is currently getting a bigger return on her music degree than her English one. Her husband is a Lutheran cantor. When not accompanying one of his choirs, she can most often be found playing piano in the community, homeschooling her youngest, or caring for her aging mother. She blogs at A Round Unvarnish'd Tale

Title image: "The Umbrellas" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1883


  1. Cheryl, I really appreciate seeing someone address the reality that an understanding of vocations doesn't always make life "easier." I remember when I attended a talk about vocation, and a few of us college-age girls started to discuss how challenging it was to choose our majors, and how we were unsure about whether we should base our choices on our personal enjoyment or on our ability to serve others through our future jobs. An older lady overheard us and basically said, "But this understanding of vocation should free you from all that!" We were kind of annoyed, because... we still had to figure out what fields of work to pursue, even if we knew that we were "free" to pursue any of them.

  2. Thank you for creating this site and offering me the opportunity to write for it, Anna. There is so much to say about vocation, and I am looking forward to doing just that in future posts. :-)

  3. Well put, Cheryl. Thank you for introducing your readers to this site. It looks like one I will be enjoying!


Please note: Comments are moderated and will appear on the blog once we've had a chance to approve them.

Thanks for joining the conversation!