Michelangelo said “every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” That’s a good way to imagine my life’s work.
My wife Kathy and I have had the privilege of twice traveling to Italy. Like millions, we’ve been moved by Michelangelo’s work, especially the Pieta and The Statue of David, which was started two years after he finished work on the Pieta.
Two sculptors before Michelangelo had started the statue (in 1464 and 1475). Both gave up. They felt the 20-foot, eight-ton slab of Carrara marble was too difficult to work with. The slab had laid unfinished for 25 years when Michelangelo was commissioned in 1501 to complete the work. It took him two years.
Michelangelo’s sculpting required a lot of shifting around. You don’t move an eight-ton slab. You move around it, sculpting by shifting from side to side, front to back, top to bottom. You have a mental image of a statue inside the slab and un-cover it by process of elimination, chipping away everything preventing the statue from emerging.
That’s an apt way to describe my life’s work. Friends tell me that I’m constantly shifting, from pastor to teacher to consultant, targeting leaders then millennials, now the poor.
They’re right. I am shifting. It’s how right-brain types sculpt their life’s work. We begin by knowing what we don’t want to say. In my case, I came to faith via a gospel that’s been shaped by the Enlightenment and populism (the Enlightenment assumes information is the key to individual transformation. The more, the holier. Think right, act right. Populism assumes cultural transformation is bottom-up through individuals). Within a few years, I knew that’s not the kind of faith I wanted to sculpt. So I started chipping away, working, as Malcolm Gladwell writes, like the “Old Testament prophets.”
My shifting began almost 40 years ago. A truncated, Fall-Redemption gospel was inadequate to change the world. I chipped away and discovered the creation-fall-redemption-consummation gospel that rocked the world for 18 centuries. I was underway.
Then I shifted again—to translating, or reframing the gospel. I recognized creation-fall-redemption-consummation isn’t intelligible in our post-Christian world. So I shifted to another side of the slab, chipping away until ought-is-can-will emerged. It’s accessible to all.
Then I shifted to another side of the slab. We think in pictures, so I chipped at this until I imagined ought-is-can-will as our behavioral DNA. I began to get a foot in the door and place at the table in all sorts of culture-shaping institutions.
Then I shifted again. I asked why few organizations take our behavioral DNA seriously. I chipped away until human conscience emerged. Good conscience moves us to action.
Then I shifted again. I discovered that our behavioral DNA aligns with neuroscience and how the brain’s hemispheres interact. I began chipping away and discovered how findings in neuroimaging align with the cautionary tale of King Arthur’s Round Table.
The Arthurian legend is about two outside voices, Merlin and Dagonet, being ignored by insiders (the knights). Merlin and Dagonet eventually leave the Round Table. The kingdom collapses. Outsiders are right-brained, insiders are left-brained. We live in a left-brained world. I chipped away at this and discovered ambidextrous organizations, right- and left-brain leaders collaborating in an infrastructure for sustaining innovation.
Then I shifted again. I chipped away and discovered ambidextrous organizations align with the ancient gospel (depicted as a sphere) as well as the four offices of Jesus. Wow.
Then I shifted to another side of the slab. A friend introduced me to a systemic approach to creating new cities, cities without systemic poverty. This chipped off the “bottom-up,” anti-systems, anti-institution model. Scaling systems up and down emerged.
A reader last week asked about my “new understanding of poverty.” I don’t have one. I’ve chipped away at the same slab for almost 40 years. Through the help of a friend, all I did was un-cover an ancient solution to poverty, one found in older church traditions.
I recognize some people don’t shift that much in life. They know early on what they want to do, and they pretty much have a well-established sculpture depicting it. Good for them. Believe me, there are times when I wish I was one of them. But I’m not.
Malcolm Gladwell writes that prophetic types are late bloomers. They take a long time to get to where they’re going, “not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.” It’s called sculpting.
In every block of stone, Michelangelo imagined a statue inside it. He simply un-covered it, shifting here and there. I don’t know what my next shift will be because I don’t know what I don’t know. God will tell me, and by God’s grace, Kathy and I will keep shifting. As a prophetic voice, it’s the only way I know to sculpt my life’s work.
 Malcolm Gladwell, “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?” The New Yorker, October 28, 2008
I love this post. Stringing together time, meaning, and purpose. Keep going.
Thanks, Mike, for your transparency and vulnerability.
I agree with Heinz. Keep going. Your writing and thinking have been a blessing to me for many years, stimulating and encouraging.
That is what a faithful journey looks like. Thank you Mike.
Attracting those to the gospel as you do has required your transparency, which I am thankful for, because, in all things I have been able to apply ought-is-can-will thinking, which has comforted my soul in many of life’s trying moments.
Thanks for what you’ve been doing; keep moving, it seems to be working.
Keep doing what you and Kathy are doing my friend. It brings fresh wind and insight and I benefit greatly from it. I also know I am not the only one. It keeps pushing me to keep growing and asking questions I may not otherwise ask.
Thank you all… will do. But keep praying for me, as I often feel like a frail man in this endeavor.
What I read once and don’t want as an epitaph is: “He came with a song to sing but left it unsung. He spent his life stringing and un-stringing his instrument.”
Mike, I think we are perhaps singing our song, in many cases not sure that it is the final song or the right song or the perfect song, but we’re singing. Not just stringing and un-stringing the gee-tar. Keep singing, Brother! Your song has been music to my ears since 1991.
Keep it up, Mike.
I’m late to read your post. I’m preparing for an event where a prof and I will communicate that we all carry principles & negotiables into the game and that we might surprise ourselves as items switch columns. But the really key thing is to keep re-evaluating because if you’re truly alive, you realize that everything is always changing. Those who settle stop evaluating because it’s their eyes & heart & mind that stand still – the world never does. You’re unsettling, Mike, you remind us to be lively because you are lively. Therefore, thanking God for you.