Where on earth did that come from? I quizzed my father. It was Christmastime during my first year as a graduate student in German, and without warning, my decidedly monolingual father had begun to sing “O Tannenbaum.” Though the melody was somewhat off-key, his German pronunciation was perfect. “Didn’t I ever tell you?” he answered. “Your grandmother was a German instructor at Tulane University in the ’40s.” What?
As an undergraduate, I really had fallen in love with the new language, its sounds and culture and special ways of saying things. Learning German had opened up a whole new world to me and given me a whole new sense of myself. And the language also opened up German literature, something I loved to share with others, so that they might come to love it too. One of my far away grandmother’s favorites, the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, had also become one of my favorites, too, as it turned out. How eerie.
Some 20 years later, after both a master’s degree and doctorate in German, an extended period overseas, and over 15 years of teaching the language at Luther College, I gradually became aware of a new-old call I was hearing: the study of theology. What? That’s a pretty frivolous thing for someone to do at your age, I heard myself saying. What does that have to do with German?
Despite some very hefty internal protests and a few external ones, I did spend many weekends and the next four summers studying theology in Dubuque. I fell in love with theology as much as I had fallen in love with German literature and language earlier. The good news was that I didn’t have to give up the one in order to have the other; in theology I found a world of scripture, theory, and critical literature that only enhances the German teaching I have continued to do at Luther. It also helped lead to my eventual appointment as the director of the Sense of Vocation program.
Towards the end of my theological studies, I discovered the revolutionary agreement between Roman Catholics and Lutherans that would not be signed officially until a year after my thesis on it was finished. How delighted I was to learn that the original document and most of the negotiations about it were in German! There was a connection after all. That work led happily to the establishment of a joint study-abroad course with Loras College, on-site in Wittenberg and Rome. I often wonder what will come along next.
As Martin Luther understood, we human beings are called to many voca-tions in our lifetime. For some of the callings, especially in our work, we can and do prepare, with application forms, references and interviews. Other vocations, even very crucial ones, just may appear in our lives, virtually without warning. My work, first as a student and then as a professor, was laid out fairly clearly—I finally can see that now that I am older. However, my vocation as a mother of two daughters did not followed such a prescribed path: While I somehow have managed the challenges and the joys of our life as a family, I am reminded that my now nearly 20 years of life as a single parent never figured into the original plan I had drawn up for myself as a young person.
Clearly, finding our vocations—or having them find us—may not occur according to our preferred timetable or considered outline, but rather over time and in often unexpected ways. Yet, because we first have been called beloved children of God, there is no need to fear the future, even when it feels most uncertain: Whatever our life directions end up being and whenever they arrive, even the most challenging or delayed vocations come with the grace to help us live them out, for ourselves, for God, and for others.