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What a difference an ‘a’ makes

Do Lutherans confuse vocation and vacation in the dog days of summer? Not at Augsburg in August

OK, here’s a quiz: Who were Peter, James, and John? Fishermen, right? Joanna? Wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward (Luke 8). Susanna? She was among the women who provided for Jesus out of their means. Mary Magdalene? Well, she was in recovery, getting over the seven demons Jesus had chased off. Paul? Tentmaker. Martin Luther? Monk, priest, professor.

Got that? Now, back up. The answers are correct, but each of these individuals is known for far greater work, right? Apostles. Providers for Jesus and his followers. First to the tomb. Bedrocks of the faith.

Luther, in keeping with his times, knew this greater calling as vocatio, from the Latin word for invitation — a call — to work in the service of God.

The Rev. David Tiede talked about vocation while he was president of Luther Seminary in St. Paul. His interest in the topic continues. Metro Lutheran stock photo

Luther, in keeping with his times, knew this greater calling as vocatio.

In Luther’s time, Roman Catholics applied vocatio only to priests, nuns, and monks. A key insight of Luther extended vocatio to all believers. Each of us, Luther argued, is called for God’s work day by day.

OK — but what is God’s work? How does it fit into busy lives? How do you even know when you’re doing it? Are you helping or hurting by trying to pray with Muslim co-workers or handing out Portals of Prayer at the beach?

Lutheran institutions of higher learning have taken those questions to heart in recent years. Augsburg College hosts the 17th annual conference on vocation and Lutheran colleges August 1-3.

Vacation conflation

Tom Morgan conflates vocation with vacation. He has been working on the conference from a vacation hideaway near Wisconsin Dells.

Er, shouldn’t he be taking some real time off? “On the seventh day we rest,” muses Morgan, executive director of Augsburg’s Center for Faith and Learning. “Does that mean we rest from our vocations?”

So vocation isn’t simple. The 2011 conference’s fitting theme is “A Calling to Embrace Civility: Lutheran Higher Education in the Public Arena.” David Tiede, former president at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, says Lutheran schools’ calling goes beyond academic excellence. It means “equipping graduates for leadership and being a blessing in the world,” he says.

“That goes to the very core of Luther’s insight,” adds Tiede. “The gospel frees us from our self-need to save ourselves. God has done that for us.”

What comes next? “The blessing of the world,” says Tiede. “God really has some work to do through you.” That’s vocation.

Churches falling short?

Don’t students already know about vocation from church? Not necessarily, says Darrell Jodock of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. “I think churches have fallen short on modeling [vocation] as a part of adult life,” Jodock says. Lutherans and others, he adds, “have a great deal of difficulty articulating how their faith manifests itself in their calling six days a week.”

Recently retired Gustavus Adolphus College religion professor Darrell Jodock offered leadership for the Lilly-supported vocations project at the college. Photo provided by Gustavus Adolphus College

Discerning vocation casts matters into relief sharper than sunrise on a wilderness lake.

Jodock, retiring after teaching Lutheran studies at Gustavus since 1999, calls vocation there “a sense of oneself as nested in a larger community — and then it becomes an ethical priority to serve that community.”

Vocation crosses lines of faith. Jodock knows a Buddhist English teacher and a Muslim administrator at Gustavus who, he says, agree with Luther’s idea of everyone called to serve God.

Training in Lutheran vocation means that faculty readily add the idea to courses: in biology, addressing pollution; in a Holocaust course, preventing more genocide. After a decade of discussing vocation at Gustavus, when the subject arises, says Jodock, “everyone has a glimmer of recognition.”

Vocation awareness has made a difference for alums. Jodock describes the young woman who “broke the script” set by teachers and family and went to Africa with the Peace Corps. Another traveled to India as part of her studies and after graduation returned to India to work — only to realize that a Westerner in India might be more effective elsewhere. Now, back in the United States, she explains Lutheran World Relief needs to congregations.

Indeed, discerning vocation casts matters into relief sharper than sunrise on a wilderness lake. Jodock tells another story. Heads up. This one is subtle:

Still another young woman from Gustavus realized that she had always measured her own self-worth against her school and sports achievements. The insight came in South America, where she had traveled for what turned out to be humble work — tending kids in an after-school program.

There, says Jodock, the young woman realized children and their families adored her — not for her brains or muscle, but just for being there. As a result, says Jodock, this woman, not a Lutheran, began to “ponder just what grace might mean.” All of us, Lutheran or not, might well ponder with her.

And that’s why vocation matters.

For more information …

More information about this year’s Vocation of a Lutheran College conference at Augsburg College in Minneapolis is available at www.augsburg.edu/acfl.

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