The last several nights I’ve been unable to sleep because of the time difference. In Scotland, where I’ve been visiting my dear friends the Holsteens, my body has not been sure what to do with itself at the end of the day, but it seems pretty sure it ought not fall asleep. The faint call of the seagulls in the wee hours has kept me company, alongside a sort of audio documentary about Paul Simon called “Miracle and Wonder” written by Malcolm Gladwell.
The gulls remind me of Legolas the Elf in The Lord of the Rings, who is warned that if he ever hears the voice of the gulls, he will never be content in the landlocked woodlands again. That call will awaken a yearning for that ancient Edenic homeland across the sundering seas where the Elves once dwelt at the dawn of the world. That warning proves to be prescient for Legolas, who becomes a pilgrim after the One Ring is destroyed, finally following Frodo, Gandalf, and Galadriel from the Havens to Valinor, beyond the walls of the world.
I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m really enjoying Gladwell’s exploration of Paul Simon’s work too. Gladwell makes the case that there really is no hard and fast rule when it comes to artistic mastery. It was Gladwell who popularized the idea of the 10,000 hour rule of mastery, and I think there’s truth to it. I mean, there’s simply no way to get really good at something without doing it for a very long time. But, in “Miracle and Wonder”, he’s arguing that precisely when a person reaches that high point of fruitfulness in their gifting is pretty scattershot. He cites one theory that poses two main poles between which is stretched an organic continuum of artistic mastery. At one end are the young geniuses and at the other are the older masters.
The young geniuses push hard into a clear, focused vision early on and seem to hit their prime before their thirties. Picasso was an example, who Gladwell says peaked around twenty-eight or so. On the other hand, there are the older masters who tend not to have a clear vision (and who don’t worry much about having one), but whose process is much more of a meandering exploration over time – a kind of intuitive pilgrimage, where wonder, love, and diligence develop a master’s intimacy with his materials. Gladwell points to Cezanne as one who did some of his most brilliant work in his sixties and seventies. Paul Simon’s Graceland album was made in his late forties.
Tolkien fits closer to this end of the spectrum too. He wrote The Hobbit when he was forty-five, and didn’t complete The Lord of the Rings until he was around sixty-two. And that is an encouraging thought.
It really is an encouraging thought to me, because I have always felt like much more of a late bloomer. Actually, I’m not sure I have bloomed yet. But that’s okay. I’m getting more and more comfortable with the thought that I am on a long, meandering pilgrimage towards mastery and fruitfulness. I mean, even Legolas was nearly three thousand years old when he joined the Fellowship of the Ring. The point is, as Henri Nouwen said somewhere, to stay on the road. Or if you fall off into some ditch, to waste no time getting back on it. Similarly, Josef Pieper understood that to be human at all is to be a pilgrim en route to the Beatific Vision; any dallying along the way threatens to sidetrack us from our destiny, which is to be entirely alive, even as He (who is Life itself) is alive. To be quickened to incandescence.
There are a couple of places that come to mind where I feel that I brush up against something of that wholeness and get the smallest inkling of where we pilgrims may be headed. When I’m singing songs for people in person at a house concert and, more recently, when I was dancing at a ceili during the local Celtic Festival. These kinds of glimpses come and go, but when I’m singing for people I feel closest to being entirely present and alive. Very rarely do I experience my body, my mind, my spirit, and my heart as deeply and joyfully engaged in a mysterious and deep communion with others, God and myself. But when I’m sharing songs and stories I do. Likewise, when I’m dancing (and, keep in mind, I’m no dancer) I sense that some glimmering hint of a beautiful truth central to Reality is taking place, and I’m being whirled up into a world inhabited by vital elegance, concrete brilliance, and vigor.
These wake longing in us, and that longing ought to be honored. They tell us something true about what it means to be human. Theologian Hans urs von Balthasar was emphatic that if beauty gets ignored, she’ll take her sisters – goodness and truth – with her on the way out the door. Similarly, D.C. Schindler suggests that the transcendentals ought to be ordered thus: beauty first, then goodness, and lastly truth. In his book, Love and the Postmodern Predicament he says that beauty is our initial point of contact with reality; it quickens and kindles our desires, and calls us further along the path of goodness, whose final destination is truth. The beauty of dance, which intricately orders things within a context of complex and joyful dynamism, isn’t invigorating by accident. The calling that comes through it is real in an ultimate sense; a mystery is opening to us, inviting us into itself.
Last fall, I was talking over Vietnamese food with a friend. He asked me something like, “Where do you hope to be in five or ten years?” I told him that I’ve never been able to answer questions like that. I’ve never been a big planner, never felt a strong sense of direction or what most people might label calling, in any kind of very definite sense. If Gladwell is right about young geniuses, apparently, some people do feel that, I suppose. But my way has been characterized less by clarity or assurance and more by intuition and interest. I was surprised (and comforted) to find that my friend, whose life has always appeared to be very well planned and executed, was like me. I’d been wrong: he hadn’t had that clarity either.
We agreed that life was too much a living, wingéd thing to be pinned down so easily. Though the dance has steps and the music is by no means chaotic, it is dynamic and ever developing. Even a choreographed dance must have spirit and a passionate responsiveness among the dancers, if it is to move us. Music, though composed, takes on new expression as the musicians find themselves at play within its living themes.
Still, I do have one story about calling though that has stayed with me.
For a few years in high school I worked an after-school job as a delivery boy for Charley McCool’s drugstore. It was a great experience, and no teenager could’ve asked for a more patient, kind first employer to gently guide him into the world of work. After he’d given up trying to teach me to drive his stick-shift pickup truck (I still cannot drive a manual to save my life), I took my own car and learned every backroad and nook of a neighborhood on both sides of the track in my hometown. I would sort and restock the little orange pill bottles or do janitor duty, until the delivery box behind the counter filled up with prescriptions. Then, I’d kneel, scoop up an armload of white paper bags and hit the town.
Well, one day, after maybe the hundredth time I’d done this, I knelt down to scoop up the bags and I felt an overwhelming sense of God’s presence. It was not pleasant, honestly. I felt like someone was standing on my chest. I seemed to hear a voice in my head saying something vaguely directional like “follow me”. At the time, I took it as a call to ministry. I still do. But when it came, it nearly made me sick – even angry. Why? Because, from all I knew at the time, a call to ministry could only mean one of two things: to be the pastor of a church, or to be an overseas missionary. I knew great pastors and I knew great missionaries, and I knew I had no interest in being either.
In the years since, I’ve come to understand that neither one of those roles were meant for me, though the calling has remained. Back then, when it came to what following Jesus could look like, pastor or missionary were the only two categories available to my imagination. The vast variety of ways the life of the Trinity can play out over the course of a human life was lost on me. I thought of righteousness as a certain rock in a certain field that I had to stand on at a certain hour with my mouth held just right. I had no imagination to see God’s righteous will was itself an inexhaustible realm. Wonder, experiment, and exploration were what I was really being called to. I thought I was being sent to prison to bust up rocks in monotony, what I was actually being given was a golden ticket to join the research and development team at a magical chocolate factory. (If you know much about such places of employment, you’ll recall they are, reminiscent of Aslan, both delicious and perilous.)
Another development along my meandering pilgrimage came when I read the passage about the Vine and the branches from John 14. Of course, it was plenty familiar, but one day it came at me sideways and I saw something I’d missed the first hundred times I’d read it.
I’d always thought of obedience as God saying “You. Go over there and do the thing I tell you to do.” Being ‘sent’ by God carried with it a sense of being sent away by God. Upon reaching “there” you’d be evaluated and possibly rewarded if you carried out the assignment satisfactorily. However, on this fateful day, the whole picture flipped for me. Jesus describes the goal of the whole shebang in terms of nearness or abiding, saying that love and obedience are the same thing. Could it be true that obedience was God saying, “Beloved, come. Come over here where I am and do with me what I’m doing”? Sent meant with, not away.
After that, my prayer became “Lord, I just want to be with you where you are, and I want to bear good fruit.” Unsurprisingly, the Creator of the Universe is just about anywhere you can think of and up to more good in a wider variety of ways than you can possibly imagine. To me, that means every human on the planet has the same calling: to get as close to Jesus as possible, find out what he’s up to, and get creative using whatever you’ve got to get in on the work. How might I love with Jesus what he loves with the things that I love? And Jesus loves a lot of things, doesn’t he? I mean, he made this whole world, and, if the promises are any indication, the Creator is just getting warmed up.
I had just gotten off the long plane-ride to East Asia, and my friend picked me up at the airport. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years, and as we traveled towards his apartment we played catch up in the taxi. The conversation was relaxed and meandering, until he asked me if I was still writing songs. I said that I was, and he suddenly grabbed my shoulder, leaned in close, and fixed his eyes on mine. He held that position for a few silent moments before saying with astonishing seriousness, “You understand, Matthew, you’ll be doing that forever.” I didn’t laugh. He wasn’t joking.
Whatever good work we begin here, doesn’t end here. In fact, it never ends.
Old Testament scholar John Oswalt describes the Hebrew concept of tov, which we translate as “good” work. He says, first, that evil is anything that works to unravel what God has called “very good”, and that God’s people are called to join God in the constant work of mending what has been torn. God made a good thing, he’s making it tov again. When the remnant of Israel return from exile in Persia, Ezra and Nehemiah call the people to the tov work of rebuilding the ruined city and reestablishing, in the midst of a tumble-down world, the dwelling place for the Name of the world’s true Creator and Redeemer.
Some of the ways I have come into that work along the way have been through writing songs, book-making, through cooking or conversations. Once upon a time, it was by driving around delivering white paper bags of medicine in a boat-of-a-Buick with red-velvet interior. I’ve been a camp counselor, a worship leader, a roofer, a cafeteria worker, a landlord. Lots of things.
It’s helped me to think of my life as a flowering shrub – maybe a rose bush – meant to bear out the beauty of God’s life in this world. You can imagine the bulb underground as a kind of core gifting. I don’t know about you, but for me, that bulb is hospitality. Hospitality is at its root a creative endeavor – it’s about crafting things that work like cultivated habitats where rest, nourishment, and real contact with the life of God are made more likely.
My life has been planted in the garden of this world, a hospitality shrub. Its bulb is meant to sprout into all kinds of blossoms. One fruit on the hospitality shrub is called songs. Another house concerts. Another friend-visits. Another could be writing essays like this one. Podcasts or poems could be others, or walks with friends. Even though I am a singer/songwriter, that’s not actually how I understand my core gift or calling. Music is just one bloom on the shrub – one way a more primary calling gets worked out. Though it’s certainly the one that I’ve spent the most time cultivating, if it were pruned, my ultimate calling would not cease to be. It would continue to work itself out some other way.
One bulb, planted in the earth, can grow and be populated with many blooms. One gift can work itself out in many ways. Calling and gifting work like that. And, as the dance of the seasons develops, some of those blooms will be pruned to divert nourishment to others. There will come seasons of deep sabbath, when the whole shrub goes bare, so that roots might become more healthy, established.
You are a bush burning with the glory of the Living God. Don’t be afraid. You aren’t the maker of bulbs, and you aren’t the Gardener, though you labor at His side as you learn his trade.
That’s the miracle. That’s the wonder. The call comes on the wind like a voice from some land beyond the walls of this world. We taste the Honeyed Name. It haunts us, thrills us, captivates us. We’ll never be content again, until we set out after the Source of that beauty. Until we can break through the veil of this world and enter into the Blessed Realm, our heart’s true home.
The pilgrimage to this Joy set before us is both delicious and perilous. Yet we walk it in the best of Company, the Holy With-Walker himself hems us and our fellows in as we go. Among us are some with uncanny clarity, who burn white-hot like shimmering beacons in their youthful march. The miracle. There are many others who, after much faithful meandering, grow steadily brighter. The wonder. Golden-beamed though grey, they walk onward, leaving the path strewn with blossoms: fragrant fruits that beckon as they bless.
The featured image titled “Kirkstone Pass”, set in England’s fabled Lake District, is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and used with her glad permission for Cultivating.
Matthew Clark is a singer/songwriter and storyteller from Mississippi. He has recorded several full length albums, including a Bible walk-through called “Bright Came the Word from His Mouth” and “Beautiful Secret Life.” Matthew’s current project, “The Well Trilogy,” consists of 3 full-length album/book combos releasing over 3 years. Each installment is made up of 11 songs and a companion book of 13 essays written by a variety of contributors exploring themes around encountering Jesus, faith-keeping, and the return of Christ. Part One, “Only the Lover Sings” is available both as an album and as a companion book.
Matthew also hosts a weekly podcast, “One Thousand Words – Stories on the Way,” featuring essays reflecting on faith-keeping. A touring musician and speaker, Matthew travels sharing songs and stories in a van called Vandalf.
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