“There are two great days in our lives- The day we are born and the day we discover why.” -William Barclay
“The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”- Frederick Buechner
In 1957, John Coltrane’s life was unraveling fast. Because of an escalating alcohol and drug addiction, the famous jazz musician lost one of the best jobs in jazz. He had hit rock bottom, when he had a spiritual experienced that changed everything.
It was the beginning of a whole new way of life. He had a profound encounter with Jesus, that changed him deeply. He was still a Jazz musician. but he began to play the same music, in a very different way.
On the dedication page of his record A Love Supreme Coltrane writes,
During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. All praise to God..This album is a humble offering to him. An attempt to say ‘Thank You God’ through our work.
The Pursuit of (Others) Happiness
Did you notice exactly what Coltrane said? He asked for God to help him make others happy through music.
Which is pretty counter-cultural for most of us. We are saturated with the idea of pursuing happiness, heck, it’s written in the charter of the American government. So we work and chase after some elusive happiness, only to find it’s always a step ahead.
And we do the exact same thing with our work.
For over half my life now, I’ve consistently asked people I meet who serve at restaurants or airports or retail stores the question, “Do you like your job?” And I consistently hear people saying “no.” Sometimes it’s because of the pay, or because of the people they have to deal with. And to be sure, there is something to that, but every now and then I run across someone who tells me they love their job. And the reason is never because of the pay, it’s almost always because they’ve found themselves to be truly helpful to the world.
One of the most liberating things about the Biblical idea of vocation is the realization that we work for the sake of the other. God calls us, through another person, to serve other persons….not primarily for our own sake.
We’re called for the sake of the world.
The Joy of Work
So about that Fredrick Buechner quote above. Buechner was a famous Christian author and speaker, and at one point he was addressing a graduating class. They were about to leave the safety of formal education for the unknown certainty of a future career. And Fredrick Buechner told them this:
“The Voice we should listen to most as we choose a vocation is the voice we might think we should listen to least, and that is the voice of our own gladness. What can we do that makes us the gladdest, what can we do that leaves us with the strongest sense of sailing true north….? Is it making things with our hands out of wood or stone or paint or canvas? Or is it making something we hope like truth out of words? Or is it making people laugh or weep in a way that cleanses their spirit? I believe that if it is a thing that makes us truly glad, then it is a good thing and it is our thing and it is the calling voice that we were made to answer with our lives.
In other words, happiness isn’t a bad thing for work…It’s just not the only thing for work. And if it becomes that, then it will be unattainable. A job is only a vocation, a calling, if you do it for the sake of the other. And where your joy and the world’s need meet…that is where God is calling you.
The album he wrote that dedication for is one of the most famous works of Jazz in the history of the genre. In an article by NPR, they said that this is an album can’t be just measured by the sales, it is, in the NPR reporter’s words “A cherished, holy object.”
In his incredible book, Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller tells about how, toward the end of his life, John Coltrane was performing a set from his album A Love Supreme. And everything was going well, the audience was into it, the music was coming naturally. It was an exceptional night of Jazz, and as Coltrane stepped off the stage someone heard him say, “Nunc Dimittus.”
Which is Latin.
It’s the words that the elderly Simon said after waiting his entire life to see the Messiah, It’s the words he said when he first held the baby Jesus. “Dismiss your servant in peace.”
In other words, Coltrane could die happy now.
He had made music, not for fame or money (although he achieved both), but for the sake of the music, to serve others and for the joy of God.
His gladness had met the hunger of the world.
May we all be so lucky to find a calling like that.