We Are Not What We Once Were

On Sunday, October 29, 1876, a young flame-haired minister took to the pulpit of a small church in West London to preach his first sermon. His text was Psalm 119, and his title: “I Am A Stranger On The Earth.” That boyish preacher was Vincent Van Gogh.

Preaching was the family business. Vincent’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all been pastors. Van Gogh, a fire in his own bones, wrote his brother saying, “God has sent me to preach the Gospel to the poor!” And he spoke of this vocation as an emergence from darkness, the discovery of clarity; and with his legendary mania, dove into his studies.

Hastily moving to Amsterdam to enter seminary, Van Gogh failed the entrance exam. Undeterred, he entered a missionary school. He flunked out after only three months. Still resolute, he convinced the Dutch Reformed Church to appoint him as a missionary to the coal miners of Belgium.

There, broken-hearted by the poverty of the village and his parishioners, Van Gogh gave away all his possessions. He lived like a beggar himself, barely surviving. When church authorities came to inspect his growing ministry, they were appalled. They removed him from his position because he “undermined the dignity of the priesthood.” 

Vincent never seemed to heal from this wound, a wound that played a role in him turning finally  to the canvas. Van Gogh picked up his brush as an “artist in God’s service,” and the one rejected by the church for going to the rejected, said, “The great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces what leads to God. One writes it in a book, another in a picture.” 

It was Vincent Van Gogh’s pictures – his magnificent interpretations – that he used to lead people to joy, to beauty, to God. And he did so with all his rough edges and broken pieces; his fragmented mind and his constant illnesses. With his short, remarkable life, be brought the world improbable joy out of tremendous personal sorrow.

In that first sermon Van Gogh intuitively knew that suffering was the midwife of transformation. That day he referred, appropriately, to a painting. Describing it he said: “A road leads to a city on a mountain. On the road walks a pilgrim, and he is very tired. He meets an angel. 

“The pilgrim asks: ‘Does the road go uphill…all the way?’ The answer is: ‘Yes, to the very end.’ He asks: ‘And will the journey take all day long?’ The answer is: ‘From morning till night, my friend.’ So, the pilgrim goes on sorrowful yet rejoicing – sorrowful because it is so far and the road so long – but hopeful as he looks to the eternal city.”*

And with words almost as brilliant as one of his later paintings, the preacher who would become painter said, “Let us cling to seasons of difficulty and sorrow…for we are not what we once were, and through these, we shall not remain what we are now.”

*Van Gogh was using the words of poet, Christina Rossetti and her piece entitled, “Up-Hill,” which you can read here.