by the Rev. Dr. Jane Patterson
A young couple and their baby are enduring a long airplane flight, squashed together in their tiny seats, the seat in front too close for them even to lean over to try to grab a fallen pacifier.
The baby squirms and fusses. All of a sudden, they notice a tell-tale odor wafting up from their little one. The father grabs the baby and the diaper bag and heads up the aisle toward the restroom. Heads turn and noses wrinkle as the odor follows father and baby up the aisle.
Once in the miniature restroom with his squirming infant, the father spreads the changing cloth out on the toilet-top, leans over in the cramped space, and begins going through the familiar motions of cleaning his son, smiling at him, noticing how he reaches for things. A few minutes later, they are heading back to their seat, the son beaming as his father bounces him up and down. Fellow passengers smile, some remembering their own intense years of parenting.
Something like this happens every day in the life of a parent. But does this father have the vocation to change stinky diapers on a crowded airplane? No, he doesn’t. He has the vocation to raise a child to adulthood with all the love, wisdom, patience and courage he can bring to this sacred calling.
A consequence of his vocation to parenthood is all manner of obligations like dirty diapers, the need to stay home with a sick child, the obligation to carry out consistent discipline when he would rather just have fun with his children. Having said, “yes” to parenting, that father’s life will expand in directions he never expected, and many he would not wish for. Every significant “yes” to a relationship or type of work will bring with it some attendant obligations and, truth be told, some suffering. Are these darker threads in our vocations a problem? Do they interfere with our sense of calling?
We might think that growing resentment over the obligations and suffering that go with a certain vocation is a sign that the vocation is coming to an end. But when the vocation is still vibrant, it is my experience that enduring through the obligations and suffering actually deepens and sweetens the sense of call.
It is highly likely that the story of the horrible diaper on the airplane will become part of this family’s lore. Re-telling the story grounds everyone in the costs of love, costs this father is glad to pay.
St. Paul loved to remind his churches of his costly love of them. As he wrote to the community of believers in Corinth:
“Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:24-28).
What Paul is saying is, “This is what you mean to me. This is how deeply I love you. I would go through all of this and more, because you are my sacred calling.”
In a recent post, the Rev. Mike Marsh wrote on the role of suffering in our lives. “We can never really understand what it means to believe in, confess, or follow Jesus as ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God,’ until we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him,” said Marsh. “The cross is not usually a part of our ‘program for happiness.’ The cross stands as a sign of contradiction to our programs for happiness.
“God does not give us crosses to bear. The burdens, difficulties, losses, and frustrations we encounter every day are not our cross. They are just the circumstances of life.” And our vocations are not immune to all kinds of vexations, inconveniences, and sometimes great and real suffering.
In recognizing and accepting the shadow of the cross in our work or our relationships, we come into contact with the mystery of God’s life in our world, the way in which life and death, joy and suffering, service and exaltation are inseparable from one another.
A rational calculation will not prepare us for this divine encounter, for how is the work of parenting, or marriage, or even our jobs really completely rewarding, when tallied up against the obligations and frustrations of spending our lives for others?
Yet we are drawn by love into these commitments where we shoulder the cross, just as God was drawn into our world by love and compassion, all the way to the cross, and through the cross into eternal life.
The one thing to watch for would be those occasions when our suffering and obligations do not lead to larger life. Then we need to question whether perhaps God is calling us to a change of course.
Some questions for reflection:
What are your primary vocations?
What obligations go along with your particular callings?
Have you known suffering on account of any of your callings?
Have you experienced both the kinds of obligations that strengthen and the kinds of obligations that deplete a vocation?
If so, what was the difference between the two experiences?
The Rev. Jane Patterson, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. She serves with John Lewis as missioner for adult Christian formation in the Diocese of West Texas, and in the leadership of St. Benedict’s Workshop in San Antonio.
Reach her at