Discerning a Call

Discerning a Call
by Garrett Mostowski

Miles City, Montana is planted between I-94 and the chattering Yellowstone River. It rises to an elevation of around 2300 feet where views of plains and pine hills are astonishing for nothing if not their emptiness and possibility. If working classes still wore blue collars, nearly every person in town would dress the same. It is filled with the hands and feet of those who grow, harvest, and process meat, wheat, barley, chickpeas (in some cases), and other things we often eat. 

One hour north of town, past the one tree forest that stands next to the one room school house, I am drinking weak coffee from a scarred black thermos while listening to the radio relate weather forecasts of snow-filled gusty winds and lists of school districts cancelled or delayed in the days ahead. John Maylor is sitting beside me with one hand on the steering wheel of his early 90’s Ford pick-up and one around his coffee cup, which he is using to punch the steering wheel.

“I guess they aren’t going to come,” he says with a smile, looking off into the horizon.

A pack of Black Angus grazes on a hill in the distance. The beasts in the foreground bend their head for another bite, and when they do, you can see steam rising from their mouths against the black fur of the cattle in the background. John blows his horn a few more times, but when the cattle don’t lift their head or turn, he sighs and tells me how tough it is to trust if these animals even know how to survive. 

“They are dumb as shit,” he says.

As we wait, a sea of Black Angus congregates around the truck, ten to fifteen bodies deep. Every expressionless face is still, waiting as if the blows of the horn had been profound wisdom, every word of which they are hanging on. They are anticipating their daily “cake” of compressed oat, peas, and barley—supplemental feed for his cattle during the harshest parts of the winter. The thick, dark green cylinders remind me of over-sized rabbit pellets, the kind I used to feed my pet bunny, Thumper, each day after school. The cattle will have to wait to have their cake until the pack grazing further away begin to make their way over to us.

John asks me to read the numbers on the ear tags I can see out my window.

“0-9-1-6 and…”

“Oh-nine-sixteen, ok,” he says.

“1-3-4-7…”

“Thirteen forty-seven,” he repeats.

“1-5-3-5,” I say.

“Ok, that’s perfect. We’ve got some friendlies. Hop out.” 

John knows, out of what seems like 1000+ cattle to me, which ones will eat out of human hands and which will be spooked by the gesture. And I would learn soon enough as they form waves to jump away from me as I step out of the truck. All but a few keep their ground. Oh-nine-sixteen steps toward me, sniffing. 

“Careful, she’s a lover and a leaner.” 

He is right about one characteristic. She nudges my hip and leans in searching for food as I step around the bright blue hood of the truck to where John is waiting with a white bucket brimming with cake. I pinch one and hold it out for oh-nine-sixteen who slurps it and the leather glove I am wearing. 

“She’ll spit it out. Don’t worry.” 

I had expected some joke about cannibalism. 

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John begins to rant a little about farmers who spray pesticides on their crops and the effects it may have on the soil. As he speaks, a concern keeps returning to his lips: he does not want me to label or judge him—not as an “ecological-type” nor, since he farms animals to slaughter as “a brutal man who kills to kill.” He only kills to eat and so that others can eat, which is why he cares so much about the soil—he’s expressing care for all of us. He considers it a point of pride that he raises food for at least part of the world’s population.

Standing in the sea of Black Angus, I had over a thousand other concerns on my mind and I hadn’t thought of John at all as an “ecological-type” or a “brutal man.” If I had formed any thoughts about him at all, I had found him rugged and wise. I tell John what a great time I am having with him, and that I don’t mean to pry too much, but maybe he can tell me why he is concerned that I would see him in either camp. 

I have always been a curious person, asking too many questions too directly to too many people—often inappropriately to those with authority over me or to people from cultures where the young should not question their elders, no matter their intentions. So, when John looks at me with a cocked head and wide-eyes, I am immediately afraid that I have been too direct, unkind, or sloppy in my attempt at pastoral care. But then I think he isn’t used to having someone around who asks questions. Ranching is lonely. 

“I’m trying to avoid the culture wars,” he says, and when I ask why, he says, “I think they are tearing us apart.”

In a recent interview with Krista Tippet, social worker and author, Brené Brown, discusses America’s “high lonesome culture that we’re living in right now, where we are the most sorted that we’ve ever been, in terms of—most of us no longer even hang out with people that disagree with us politically or ideologically.” She says that it creates a phenomenon where perhaps the only thing we hold in common with those in our own ideological camps is a common hatred for another group of people. 

This seems to be the root of John’s hesitation to speak without qualification, and while I do not realize it in the moment, I must have appeared as a potential a threat to him. He does not know what side I’m on in our culture wars. 

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Since my visit with John, I have accepted an invitation to go live among the people of Miles City, Montana, and play pastor to their community. I haven’t been able to shake a feeling though: John thought I, a pastor, may hate him; he was afraid to speak openly with a clergy person. 

In his book Telling Truths in Church, Mark D. Jordan, professor of religion at Harvard Divinity School, provides some insight into part of this problem. “Language wears down,” he says, “In contemporary ‘Christendom,’ in the societies of mass media partly constructed by Christians, Christian language wears down fast.” Between me—a person deemed ready to receive a pastoral call from a congregation—and John—an ordained deacon and elder in his church—the fear of using language arose, we might say, since the only language we have at our disposal are the phrases, tropes, and categories we inherit from the political world and mass media. We did not have a common Christian language, Jordan might say, and I would add, not having it made us afraid of one another. 

I haven’t been able to get over this.

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Language matters. And I’m sure that, like most things in the universe, it lives and it dies. In between, however, language needs care like humans, like soil. When it becomes worn down and weak and vulnerable, it seems to make us weak and vulnerable to one another and even ourselves. After all, language is formed inside our minds, lungs, lips, and tongues and then processed through our ears—it’s a physical, embodied experience affecting our minds and hearts.

Dr. Robert Dykstra of Princeton Theological Seminary says that pastors are first people who care deeply about the Word and so, in many ways, words. Language and the use of words is our primary tool, whether praying, preaching, writing newsletters, greeting, or counseling. Since my visit to Miles City, Montana, I have been wondering, “Do I care for my words?” I don’t know if I have been paying attention to my use of language. While there is no need to judge my past performance one way or another, moving forward, I will try to create an awareness for my use of language. And, as Mark D. Jordan suggests, I will try to find new ways of expressing language to hopefully heal our relationships. Jordan writes, “Finding new languages for Gospel truths might mean any number of things. It might mean making new vocabularies, contriving new images, experimenting with new shapes. These acts of creation take talent and time, both of which our churches now lack more than they once did. So, finding fresh language must also mean, in our present circumstances, the selective and critical use of old forms of Christian speech. The use has got to be selective. Not all the old forms are worth reconsidering. The use has also got to be critical.” 

This, it turns out, is part of discerning a call. Finding a place to live, a progressive enough congregation, proximity to mountainous outdoor sanctuaries, a place with tried and true rhythms of life, support for a wandering, fallible, idealistic young pastor who will undoubtedly make every mistake every young pastor makes—these were the things I thought I was discerning, and indeed, they factor into my process of discernment. But God’s spirit revealed something new to help me discern the broader call that has been placed on my life. She helped lift my eyes from the anxiety of the moment to the long road ahead, whispering to me, “Do you care for your words?” §


Image: Dwell by Carmelle Beaugelin


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Garrett Mostowski recently accepted a call to be Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Miles City, Montana. His work has been featured in Christian Century, The Oxford Theatre Review, The Princeton Theological Review, and Caesura among others.