On Calling and Vocation

More than a year ago, I was convinced that I should adjust my career goal from composer to theologian of the arts; and got as far as interviewing at Duke regarding their doctoral program. Once there, I came face to face with a few realities about their program, my religious tradition, and my new family. In short, it wasn’t really going to work, unless I was in a position to fly in and out for class.

I met for lunch with Steve Guthrie, who leads the Religion and the Arts undergraduate program at Belmont university. Steve said “if you want to make work, you need to work as an artist. If you want to teach theology, you should do a PhD, and you can do one anywhere. Most of the interesting work in Theology and the Arts happens at the masters level, because its so interdisciplinary. I’d suggest being an artist, go to the conferences, and read the books.”

I didn’t like his answer, so I was thrilled to see Fuller offer the graduate certificate. I already have a masters in Music, and I try not to make a habit of collecting graduate degrees. The first year the NYC courses took place, I couldn’t participate because they took place during vacation blackout dates for my crummy day job. I was not a happy camper.

So Nate Risdon and I started emailing every so often so that I could get the inside scoop on when the NYC courses would take place, and get the permissions from work. About this same time, crummy dayjob got crummier, and I started applying and interviewing for jobs in event production, then experience design, then arts administration, then project management. Things were not going well. In every case, I could get one interview, during which the interviewer would talk about “when you come back next time…” and then never call back or respond to my follow-ups. It was so frustrating: God had clearly enabled my move to Nashville, my marriage to Joy, and I was still on the sidelines of the metaphorical game I came here to play. I was watching friends get called to go on tour with people or produce the Doves, CMT shows, or supply music to NASHVILLE. And I was back in my cubicle every Monday morning wondering what I had done wrong. I wound up in that cubicle by leaving a church job that wasn’t going very well.. should I have stayed?

So I have my phone call with the Fuller guidance counselor, and she tells me about the “Calling and Vocation class.” I was nonplussed: “Calling and Vocation” seemed a cop-out way to help needy artists self-actualize. I guess I had always seen gifting as equivalent to calling and occupation equivalent to vocation. But by June 2013, it was openly questioning my own sense of calling. It felt like God was calling the people around me to specific tasks (and blessing them!) – but not me & Soundcrawl (my art festival).

It was already clear to me that God has gifted me artistically – and in at least of handful of cases he clearly called me to specific tasks. He enabled my move to Nashville, then called me to serve a conservative church in Franklin, and in many ways he set Soundcrawl before me.

So in selecting between “Calling and Vocation” and “Worship and the Arts” – I splurged and went with Calling and vocation. At the outset, I was excited by the reading list – here were a number of works I had heard of, a few things I had direct experience with, and some texts that were completely new to me.

I have only begun to unpack the insights from my time there. In New York it dawned on me that the reason I keep botching those interviews is because I didn’t want the job. Spending time in a more rigorous theological environment helped me realize I don’t want to be a theologian – I want to think theologically about what I create. I realized that my professional peers in New York were not more talented than I am – I realized that even if I had gone to Julliard instead of Belmont for my master’s I’d still be in this place because the tension is between me, myself and God – not me and the world at large.

New York led me to see some real boundaries to my artistic identity. I’m really not a theatre person – not in the way actors are. I listened to myself continuously interject musical ideas in class – and the way Nick, Todd and I riffed through the various implications and punchlines surrounding contemporary worship music. I’m a musician, dangit. But I’m not cut out for the CCM scene here in Nashville. I’m too cerebral, too liberal, and want too much control over the final project. Lori, Christian and my New York hosts all said it: Why are you in Nashville? In answering that question to myself, I also had to accept that I have already rejected the possibility of becoming a rank-and-file whizkid-genius-composer by not moving to the east coast for school. The avant garde scene in New York is not all that different from the country/pop/Christian scene in Nashville. It’s who you are, where you went to school, and where you go to church (or synagogue).

Father George said something awesome while he was talking about his vows. I’m not going to get it right, but in effect – by taking a vow of poverty, it freed him to only take the work that he was meant to do. He had no temptation to do work tangential to his calling just because it might put him in a professional position to do what he wanted later.

I realized the avant-garde theatre group is tangential to my calling. I only wanted in because I want to do work that counts.

It kept coming back to me.. this is no different than Nashville. It’s the same here as it is there.

And since the class? Whew! I am not a Calvinist, but the timing of all of this is uncanny: the drum corps I marched won the world championship this immediately makes me a more credible brass arranger; my crummy day job invented a new role for me and put me on a 4/10 schedule, giving me a day off each week for projects, and immediately I got a call to “fix” the music for a prolific local high school band; I took a meeting with a comedian who writes for Christian films, and walked out with four music-for-picture projects and the development of a broadway show. Crummy day job gave me a 10% raise, and then I received two more emails booking me to teach workshops for artists.

Because of the readings for this class – particularly the Neafsey, Bass, and Savidge- I finally had the courage to shut down a few projects because I realized that they were tangential to my calling. I have so much contract work I am booked through January. I am putting my festival on hiatus, along with this graduate certificate.

Is all of this work because I have found my vocation? I’m not sure… but I am now exactly in the place where I was trying to get four years ago, and who I was hoping to become when God sent me to Nashville.