Pastor-Theologian

Vincent van Gogh’s Rembrandt, Nouwen’s van Gogh and Carol Berry’s Gift

Twenty or so years ago I read Leonard Sweet’s soulTsunami. Tucked away in that long description of the to-come for the church and religious life was a reference to Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, The Church at Auvers. A framed print greets me every morning as I come to the Office/Study. I could not afford the real deal. And, had van Gogh been able to get his due for his art, he would not have had to rely on others in his life to get along. Maybe that is a good thing.

The Church at Auvers by Vincent van Gogh, 11 November 2016

Sweet used vivid imagery and a link to look up the the painting to draw out an assessment of the perception of the church heading toward the Twenty-first Century. A studied look at the painting reveals that in relationship to the would-be-traveler the windows are high and no doors are to be found. Had the Church, in van Gogh’s experience, become inaccessible? Was it the language? Or, was it the lack of compassion. Art does not provide its own answer. Van Gogh did not leave a Cliff Notes version for the piece that I am aware. Ever since that day I have been haunted by the prospect that in our regular habits we have made the church too hard to understand and much too hard to enter and find refuge.

Some weeks back I received an opportunity to request books for review from IVP. They are always good to oblige my selections. Thumbing through the catalog I spotted this title, Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent Van Gogh: A Portrait of the Compassionate Life. If you remember the remark Renee Zellweger made to Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire the title “had me at, Hello.”

Dr. Doug Dickens taught the Christian Ministry, read Pastoral Ministry, course I took in Seminary. To say he was unconventional would be an understatement. Don’t let that convey he was not good. He was great. Despite preface to the course, that he had tired of students who ran to Trustees and Administrators regarding the content of the course, a fact which endeared him to me all the more, Doug entreated us to dispense with the facade of ministry and to embrace the messiness of human experience. Likely his course helped me to navigate ministry experiences that I could not have anticipated. Stop telling people what or how to feel about their experience. Listen. Don’t talk. These and other important humanizing instructions have been indispensable. 

Years later, after serving as pastor for some while, I ran on to Henri Nouwen’s, In the Name of Jesus. It fast became my favorite little book for pastoral ministry. I have collected a few others over more than thirty years. And until I saw Carol Berry’s little book in the IVP catalog, I suspected it would be my all-time favorite. But that changed. It is not that I won’t read or give away Nouwen’s little book. I will. But, I am tempted to say that Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent Van Gogh is now the best little book for pastoral ministry I have read. All of our staff have read In the Name of Jesus. I will now ask them all to read Berry’s little book.

I shared this with a small group of pastor friends and one of them tossed out how much they liked In the Name of Jesus. My reply, “This may well be better.” Upon further reflection, I probably should say they are different. Likely my visceral response is related to our cultural milieu where compassion seems evasive. We live in a world that champions me getting mine and measures my value based upon my accumulations. Pastoral ministry is often farmed out to other than pastors. Now we have Speakers and Teaching Pastors. Don’t misunderstand. I enjoy preaching. I still think that somehow God uses words, human words, to declare Good News in Jesus Christ that re-describes the world different. As such, it actually undermines the current ethos. But I have learned that people have better BS meters than we think. They see right through us to our desire for bigger and better under the rubric of reaching people. 

Enter van Gogh’s Rembrandt. It is clear Carol Berry learned from both Nouwen and through Nouwen, the compassion of Vincent van Gogh. That is really the point, learning. My two older grandsons already know all they need to know. Just ask them. 

Me to Max, “We need to learn more math. You love to make things and more math will come in handy one day.” 

Max to me: “I already know all the math I need.” He is seven.

How many of us think we know everything?

LIttle did I know that when van Gogh experienced his down times, was melancholy, he would sketch Rembrandt pieces. Consider it an exercise for those less than creative moments. Once a particular period came to an end and he painted with abandon, he painted his own version of Rembrandt’s, The Raising of Lazarus. What a great compliment to one of his favorite artists! Berry points out that upon closer inspection, in van Gogh’s rendition, he himself is the Lazarus figure. Berry writes,

Vincent replaced the figure of Christ with the bright orb of the sun. Lazarus’s two sisters are painted in the semblance of Vincent’s friends, Madame Rollins of La Berceuse and Madame Ginoux, the Arlesienne (a woman of Arles). Both of these women had not only been Vincent’s models bud had cared for him while he lived in Arles. In the face of Lazarus we see the likeness of Vincent. Thus in this copy Vincent painted his personal experience of feeling vulnerable and ill and of being restored through the compassionate kinds of his friends – who became his modern-day saints and holy women from life.

Van Gogh suffered the weight of others whom he sought to help at risk to his own health. For a period of time he had a pregnant prostitute live with him, Siene. He went without to make sure she and her two children had what they needed. Surely his training as a young minister brought to mind, “He eats with tax collectors and prostitutes.” He received later in life what he had sown early, compassionate friends.

Berry traces van Gogh’s life and art with a view to the way he was haunted by the stories Jesus told, the Scriptures that he had studied, and arrived at the place where he would as soon do without as to see another do so. Henri Nouwen taught a course on the compassionate life Berry audited in 1978. One of the great assets of this book is how she brings to life the famous painter through her research combined with the teaching notes of a famous priest and how it influenced a pastor’s family in Vermont and L.A. to learn and exhibit compassion. Each section comes with a reflection on parish life and the way she and her husband’s lives intersected others as they learned the compassionate life in service and serving others.

Pastors, lay leaders, and folks interested in a world different – pick up your own copy of Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent Van Gogh:  Portrait of a Compassionate Life.

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Can’t We All Just Get Along? The Church of Us vs. Them: A Conversation with David Fitch

How many times have you read a Facebook/Blog post that insists, “If your pastor didn’t say anything about [most recent social injustice], you need to find a new church?” Maybe you have used this lede in an attempt to raise attention to the latest illustration of failed immigration policy, how racism has gone underground or the ways our current economic structures insist on an indentured debtor class. All of these issues and more are important. But is it possible calling out the lack of attention given in some churches gives fuel to existing antagonisms that further divide?

David Fitch’s recently published, The Church of Us vs Them: Freedom from a Faith That Feeds on Making Enemies, takes aim at the antagonisms that distract the church from its call to be God’s faithful presence. It is a reversal of the reversal. Rather than live out allegiance to Jesus is Lord, discerning the faithful responses to conflicts with wisdom and grace, the church has often been caught up in antagonisms that deepen division. Fitch remarks that when he wrote, The End of Evangelicalism, ten years ago, never would he have imagined we would be where we are today in need of disassembling the enemy-making machinery in the church.

If you are new to David Fitch, he is the,

B. R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary Chicago, IL. He is also the founding pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community, a missional church in the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago. He coaches a network of church plants in the C&MA linked to Life on the Vine. He writes on the issues the local church must face in Mission including cultural engagement, leadership and theology and has lectured and presented on these topics at many seminaries, graduate schools, denominational gatherings and conferences.

In The Church of Us vs Them, Fitch brings together ideas from at least two of his previous books, The End of Evangelicalism and Faithful Presence. The former is more academic analysis of Evangelicalism while the latter is more specifically an on mission ecclesiology. If there ever was a time for a work like this, it is now. We need someone to help us unwind the antagonisms that has left the church captive to ideologies of the Right and the Left as we deal with important issues that tend to bring out the worst in all of us.

Today on the podcast, David and I have a conversation about The Church of Us vs Them and more. I hope you will check out David’s other books. I think you will find an underlying trajectory that brings us to his current book. Check these out while you are ordering your copy of The Church of Us vs Them. For other of David’s books click here.

If you find the podcast helpful, share it with your friends. Share it with your pastor friends as well as folks you know involved in leadership that touches on the pastoral. Also, consider heading over to iTunes, login, search for patheological and give us a five-star rating and a kind review.

Living in Sin: A Conversation with Jason Micheli

“I forgive you.” We generally think those words follow, “I’m sorry.” The Good News of the Gospel is that God’s, “I forgive you,” comes first. That is how Jason Micheli describes Grace. God’s one-way love.

Many couples at one point or another have reached for a book on marriage to help negotiate those difficult periods. Reading with a highlighter in hand pages of these books are scourged for the Holy Grail of marital success. Lists are made. Habits are rehearsed. Often these to-do’s become a greater burden than imagined. Frustration becomes the norm.

What if the better way to look at marriage is to consider it a parable for the love God has for the Church? For you? Micheli takes us on just such a journey. Equipped with a reprieve from stage-serious cancer Jason breaks open our defenses with self-deprecating humor, gut-wrenching episodes of fear and uncomfortable discoveries so that his encounter with God’s grace becomes fuel for a book we all need.

Today on this episode of Patheological, Jason comes on the podcast to talk about his new book. I suspect you will pause the interview and click over to purchase yourself a copy. Friends and family members may come to mind and you could buy a copy to give away. For pastors who happen on to this post or the podcast, let me encourage you to consider this a resource in your work with couples and others who could use a window into God’s grace that could well be the place where their lives are turned around by the Good News words, “I forgive you.”

If you find the podcast helpful, share it with your friends. Share it with your pastor friends as well as folks you know involved in leadership that touches on the pastoral. Also, consider heading over to iTunes, login, search for patheological and give us a five-star rating and a kind review.

Plundering Egypt: A Conversation on the Passing of Rachel Held Evans

Just two days after Stan Grenz died, David Dockery began his concluding paragraph warning Baptists, specifically Southern Baptists, that Grenz might lead his readers into orthodox inconsistency.

Unfortunately, his pietism didn’t translate into evangelical coherene or orthodox consistency.

That was fourteen year ago.

Reading some of the responses to the death of Rachel Held Evans reminded me of that incident. In fact, to demonstrate how this works, the same thing happened after the death of Jerry Falwell. No matter your theological convictions you may be sure someone will take advantage of the news of your death to point out all the error of your ways. It makes us feel better about our chosen perspective on the spectrum.

Among we Southern Baptists it appears that orthodoxy is now tied to how one interprets the Scriptures regarding women in ministry – preaching or pastoring. But, one of the oldest creeds of the Christian faith does not make that issue a matter of Christian orthodoxy. What’s more, it now appears that after claiming to be a confessional denomination, Southern Baptists indeed have a Magisterium that weighs theological positions in the balance. Welcome to the new SBC. Entity heads take your bow.

Could we benefit from splitting the hair between Christian Orthodoxy and doctrinalism? I think so. Take this simple test. If Stan Grenz, Jerry Falwell and Rachel Held Evans all would affirm the Nicene Creed, then they would be considered within the bounds of Christan orthodoxy. But, given their doctrinal differences, they would likely not share a home in the same denomination. That is the difference between orthodoxy and doctrinalism.

When Grenz and Evans moved beyond the doctrinalism of Evangelicalism that did not mean they were now unorthodox. What’s more, if Grenz identified as a Pietist with a PhD then, he is echoing what my friend Bill Borror recently described on a podcast. Bill used the imagery of Isreal leaving Egypt for his own move out of Evangelicalism and into a different Christian stream most would consider Mainline. He noted that he felt like he had left Egypt carrying with him some plunder.

Listening to Rachel Held Evans and reading her books reveals much the same. While she left her Baptist, Evangelical roots, she maintained the fervor of an Evangelical even if she found her home in the Episcopalian branch of the Christian tree. Think the late Robert Weber who followed the Canterbury Trail later in his life.

Tommie Marshell joins me on this podcast episode. We talk about her response to Rachel, public responses on social media and in major publications. We work to distinguish between orthodoxy and doctrinalism. Take a listen and leave your thoughts in the comments. Be nice.

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If you find the podcast helpful, share it with your friends. Share it with your pastor friends as well as folks you know involved in leadership that touches on the pastoral. Also, consider heading over to iTunes, login, search for patheological and give us a five-star rating and a kind review.

Chains of Grace: A Conversation with Rick Davis

We are all addicts. Amidst a culture bent on positivity, Karsten’s maxim could not be considered good news. He did not back down.

Let’s give Karsten his conclusion. When we do we admit that we are all at the same time captive. At some point, these circumstances, addicted and captive, will lead to incarceration. When a person has served his or her time in prison, what next?

Dr. Rick Davis is my guest on this episode of patheological. I met Rick in 1985. We have been friends ever since. He is also my mentor. After serving as a preacher, pastor and denominational employee since his days in high school, Rick is now the Executive Director for Chains of Grace.

We recorded this conversation during Holy Week. I had hopes that it would post that week. Ministry responsibilities take precedent over my side (not) hustle. I am glad to post it today as I recently read about a survey that indicated Americans experience stress at greater levels than those in any other Country. You could say we are captive, even incarcerated, by forces that lead to all sorts of poor decisions. So, you may not have been in prison like those with whom Dr. Davis and Chains of Grace serve, but be sure we are all looking for those that will walk with us once we discover we have been set free.

After listening to the podcast click over and support Chains of Grace. Rick notes more than once in the podcast all the ways you can help. You may also want to subscribe to the Chains of Grace podcast, Re-Entry. These short episodes highlight the stories of those whose lives have been changed by God’s grace.

If you find the podcast helpful, share it with your friends. Share it with your pastor friends as well as folks you know involved in leadership that touches on the pastoral. Also, consider heading over to iTunes, login, search for patheological and give us a five-star rating and a kind review.