My great-great Uncle John, my dad’s great Uncle John, was a farmer in central Minnesota.
As the story goes, there came a time in his adulthood when Uncle John started to feel like there was something kind of out of place about his life, something unsettled in his soul.
Now, he was someone with a deep faith, so he would pray about it.
“God, what’s going on here? What’s going on with my life? Why does it feel like something’s off? I need help with this.”
One day John was out in the fields, and he was feeling that uneasy feeling in his soul, and he was saying, “God, what do you want from me?”
And then, for some reason, he just stopped in his tracks and he looked up at the sky.
It was midafternoon and the sky was a clear blue, and the clouds were these vaulting, billowing, tremendous, luminous bodies lit by the sun. This feeling of wonder came over him. And then he noticed that the clouds around the sun had formed in this strange and wondrous way. One cloud was the shape of the letter “P.” And the other cloud was the shape of the letter “C.”
And John leapt off his tractor and fell to his knees: “Preach Christ! Preach Christ! That’s it! Yes, God, yes! I’m going to preach Christ.”
So, he went off to seminary. And he became a Lutheran minister in the area.
Now, my great-great uncle John came to be beloved as a pastor and over the years as a pastor basically everyone in the county came to call him “Uncle John.”
(My dad growing up was kind of confused about how big his family was, you know, ‘cause he seemed to have cousins everywhere calling Uncle John “Uncle John”). He was kind of like everyone’s uncle.
But as a preacher, it was just understood that Uncle John, bless his soul, was just … well, you know Minnesotans are nice, they still came to church and sat through his sermons.
One Sunday morning at church Uncle John was in the pulpit drifting along through what you might call a sermon. And in the course of his meanderings, for whatever reason, he came to tell the story about how he got the call to ministry.
You know. He was out working in his fields with this unsettled feeling in his soul, and he was praying to God for guidance for his life. And he looked up and he saw the glory of God shining down through the heavens, and before his very eyes the clouds spelled out “P” “C” – “Preach Christ.”
In the back pew, some guy threw up his hands and stood up:
“Plant Corn! God was telling you to plant corn! Not preach Christ!”
One of the more important things we do as people of faith is called discernment. God is at work in our lives and in the world, but it’s up to us to discern how that is, what God is calling us to, where we are being led, what the right thing to do is.
How do we read the signs for our lives?
The reason why I start with this story about my Great-Uncle John is because we can have a little bit of good humor about this.
Discerning God’s purpose for our lives, this can get so serious. We can be afraid of getting it wrong.
Or there can be judgment: Oh, look at her, she’s got it all together and is so clear about why God put her on this earth. But me, I’m just a meaningless mess over here, and I’m sure God’s very displeased about how I’m wasting my potential.
At our best we’re all just doing the best we can. And we’re often not at our best. This is all about Grace. Right? This Way of Jesus. God help us, we’re working it out as we go along.
We can have such a deep yearning to know the sacred purpose of our lives. And when we’ve experienced what it’s like to be living into that, that’s amazing! Beyond words. Holy. And it doesn’t have to last forever to be true.
An important part of the practice of discernment is experimentation.
A spirit of willingness to try something new when it seems that even just maybe it’s what you’re called to try at the moment. And then after trying for a while, a prayerful consideration of that experience. Asking God’s wisdom to help us assess how that experiment went, with a spirit of grace.
So, thinking about my Great Uncle John: it seems like he did need to make a big change in his life, when he was out there working the fields with this unsettled stirring going on in his soul. It seems like he did need to claim a sacred propose and to claim his faith in God through Christ and really step into that and live that out. Now it could be that he was really called to just plant more corn, but to do that with a renewed understanding of the higher purpose that is at play in working the land and raising crops to fill hungry bellies.
But it seems that in John’s case we he was truly called to something else. But maybe it wasn’t preaching. That’s fine. He was a kindly pastoral person. Perhaps he could have been happy and good at serving as a chaplain at the hospital or in the fire department. Maybe he was really called to lay ministry in his church. It’s not mine to say – which is important to acknowledge. But it does seem that he got stuck on one idea, that didn’t turn out to fit so well. That’s very common and understandable, when it comes to discernment.
The reality is our sacred purposes change in the course of our lives, or even moment to moment.
One of the most helpful advice I’ve received about discernment is:
Know what season it is.
What season is it in our lives? In our families, our communities? What season is it in the world around us? And given that season, what is God urging us to do and to be?
We heard from the wisdom of the book of Ecclesiastes (chapter 3) that for everything there is a season, and a time for everything under heaven.
This is true of the world, as well as, when it comes to our lives, there many seasons of our lives.
There are the seasons of childhood, the seasons of youth, the seasons of young adulthood, of maturing adulthood, seasons of elderhood, seasons of dying, seasons of birth-giving.
Some lives last for certain seasons and don’t ever reach others. And that can be enough. When we live according to the holy purpose of our moment in time, however many moments of time someone has to live are enough.
Then consider Jesus’ little parable about the Realm of God, from the Gospel of Mark:
Jesus said, “God’s realm is like seed thrown on a field by a man who then goes to bed and forgets about it. The seed sprouts and grows—he has no idea how it happens. The earth does it all without his help: first a green stem of grass, then a bud, then the ripened grain. When the grain is fully formed, he reaps—it’s harvest time!” (Mark 4:26-29)
We just can’t take ourselves too seriously. The seeds of the Realm do their thing on their own, in their own time. When the seasons come and what they bring is not our doing. It is just up to us to know when is time to sew and when to harvest, to discern what season it is, what the season is asking of us, and then respond in a good way.
So what is this season for you? What is it calling for.
What is this season for your family? For your community? For your country and world?
It is through prayerful discernment that we find what is our time and our season, what is the nature of our work, what is our times of our rest, what is the nature of our play.
In all this may we know and enjoy God’s abundant Grace.
(Delivered Sunday, November 17 2019, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, United Church of Christ)