Van Gogh’s Brush
By Rev. Heather Miner
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you (Jeremiah 1:5).” These, the first words God speaks in the book of Jeremiah, begin God’s call to us. “Stop chasing after those lesser gods and return to me,” God says throughout the first three chapters of the book, because “I formed you; I know you.”
Vincent Van Gogh’s father was a preacher. When Vincent grew up, he wanted to be a preacher too. He would give people the clothes off his back, write sermons in his free time, and live on practically nothing because he didn’t want to have more than those he served. But, after a six-month stint as an evangelist among the miners of Borinage, the leaders of the church replaced him with another because he refused to dress the part and lacked the skills for public speaking. How hard that change must have been for someone whose soul sought to bring God’s light to the world!
Still, during his tenure he painted the people and the land, paintings which you can still view today. http://www.vangoghgallery.com/catalog/Watercolor/1849/Miners-in-the-Snow:-Winter.html. (use “Control/Click to access)
And, when he was asked about color and paint, he had no trouble speaking, lifting others up, and helping them to find the right line.
From Anton Kerssemakers De Amsterdammer, 14 and 21 April 1912…
For days and weeks, with the utmost patience, [Van Gogh] helped me to make some progress, all the while continuing to work hard himself, making countless drawings and sketches in water color and oil paint both indoors and outdoors. … Once when we sat together in my studio painting the same still life, just a pair of wooden shoes and several pots, and I sat brushing away in my own style, laying on the color and scraping it off again, without being able to achieve volume, suddenly he walked over to me: “Look, put a firm, dark transparent stroke there and there; no, don’t be afraid, I will not destroy your drawing,” and immediately he sat before it with his large, wide brush assaulting my small canvas. “You see, like this; look, now the other part comes forward; you must not keep brushing away in the same place for so long, you must just put it down and let it sit; you must not be afraid and not concern yourself with making it pretty.”
Free from the burden of believing he was meant to be a minister, during his last 10 years of life the man who couldn’t speak well to a crowd poured out God’s light onto people, buildings, and rooms we can still peer into today. He may not have sold paintings but, as you can see above, he knew his ability. Van Gogh could draw out the spirit-filled eyes of a woman sitting at a table with her family eating potatoes because his faith compelled him to see people through God’s eyes and he fearlessly put his vision on canvas. His paintings preached.
There is the other story too, the story of his ear, his inner turmoil, and his feelings of failure. These are the ideas that were lifted up in the reading comprehension homework for my 5th grade daughter who, after reading the short passage, wished more people had bought his work so he would have felt better. How flat was the description of Van Gogh in the reading compared to the images he himself created; how devoid of the divine! It was only when I began reading a larger work on his life that I understood how the short passage cheated us of seeing his fuller humanity and, in the same flatness, the ways of God.
The stories we choose to tell not only give form to the people of this world and form to our own lives, but the stories also give form in another’s imagination to the one we call our Father. Did God let Van Gogh down by not making him feel better? Or was God the one who gave his imagination life?
The stories we tell matter. I confess my mood darkened early this week when I allowed frustration to form itself into a story of complaint. When I read these words in Jeremiah, I stopped, and felt a peace and holy love wash over me. In this place of understanding I realized I didn’t like the story I wanted to tell because it doesn’t fit God, the one who knows and loves me. God has always made a way for me to practice my art–to preach, teach, pray, and pastor. God always will. That’s the story I’m meant to tell.
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”
Hear these words, sit with them awhile. I suspect there’s a story you are meant to tell today, this week, through one of your creations—a lesson plan, an agenda, an accounting, a decision. Paint boldly with Van Gogh’s brush, allowing God, who we often push into the background, to come forward…that all might see the divine light.