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Monday, July 29, 2013

Van Gogh and Grace

Today I’m reading 2 Corinthians 12:9 

But [Jesus] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

Vincent Van Gogh is most remembered as the moody artist whose tortured soul led him to cut off his ear; the undiscovered genius who only sold one painting in his lifetime; a man whose troubled thoughts eventually led to his suicide. But there's a lot about Van Gogh that we should know.

*Before he was an artist, before mental illness absorbed his mind, he was a lover of Christ. From his own letters he writes that he started out in life wanting "to sow the seeds of the Bible" to the poor and the working class people. His father was a pastor, but early on Van Gogh took an unconventional approach, probably because his manic disability was beginning to manifest. Night after night he copied page after page of the Bible in English, German and French. "I read it daily but I should like to know it by heart and to view life in light of its words."

But Van Gogh had a hard time submitting to the rules, regulations and procedures of established churches. His zeal and eccentricities created much conflict with church officials. He, like Wesley and Whitfield before him, began preaching to coal miners in England. He wrote of their plight to his brother Theo, " Most of the miners are thin and pale from fever; they look tired and emancipated, weather beaten and aged before their time...The miners and the weavers still constitute a race apart from other laborers and artisans, and I feel a great pity for them." (Sept. 24, 1880)

Van Gogh lived among the miners and shared their poverty. He went into the mines with them and breathed the same black dust they breathed. He visited the sick, prayed with them and preached to them on Sundays, trying to infuse a little hope, a little encouragement, a little light into their dark lives.

Eventually when he turns to painting he often chose simple laborers as his subjects: a young peasant with a sickle, farmers eating around their dinner table, women working in a wheat field. The vocabulary of his colors often spoke of hope in darkness. Light - God - often represented by bright yellow. Just look at his painting "The Resurrection of Lazarus." It's all yellow with the glory of the power of Christ. He wrote, "In a picture, I want to say something comforting, as music is comforting. I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize."

As his mental life deteriorated, so did his spiritual sense. His letters chronicle a descent into doubt and depression. Eventually he was committed to an asylum in France on May 8, 1889.

From his room he could see the sun washed fields and it was a turning point. He converted his room into his art studio and began to paint. The windows of his room overlooked a garden and his first painting from the asylum was titled "Irises." He regained his sanity for a while and then painted "Starry Night" with its brilliant sun hovering over a church steeple, pushing back the darkness.

I have seen copies of "Starry Night" forever. I was surprised to come upon the original at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC a couple weeks ago. It was smaller than I thought it would be. Surrounded by too many people. But the brilliant sun reminded me of the hope Van Gogh had in Christ. The same hope that we have...that Christ is greater than our sin, our illness, our doubts, our despairs, our failings. The deterioration of Van Gogh's mental state is tragic, but Christ never abandoned him. And that light, that promise is ours as well. Philippians 1:6, “…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”


(*Source - Ken Gire in "Windows of the Soul")

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