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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Who Does That?!

Often I take a manuscript into the pulpit. The preached sermon will vary. Below the post will be a link to the preached sermon.

Text: Jeremiah 18:1-18

Pastoral Prayer: Lord God, who loves with an everlasting love, there are times where we amaze those around us not for our faithfulness, but for our faithlessness. They don’t shake their heads at us out of disgust or disappointment. They are amazed that we would demonstrate such willful stubbornness to the One we name our God. Keep spinning us on your wheel, shaping us into something different – a faithful people whose lives are nothing if we are not in Christ. And all God’s people say . . . Amen.

We have driven west out of Creede, Colorado toward Lake City on Highway 149 almost annually for more than 15 years. We flat landers never tire of taking in the mountain vistas. Looking up to the west as the road turns north we spotted a small dash of white just below the peak of the mountain ridge. Was it snow? Nah. It couldn’t be. It was late summer, maybe even Labor Day weekend when we first spotted it. Surrounded by trees below and dark rock above, the sort of rock that these mountains were made of, lava rock. There was no snow anywhere else but there. Couldn’t be.

Curiosity got the best of us during one visit. We pulled off the road and stopped. I pulled out my camera and attached the longest telephoto lens I had. Carefully zooming in I could not believe it. Snow. Maybe it does not surprise you but there was no snow above or below this spot. Evidently the annual winter snow filled a crag in just the right place that kept it from the angle of the sun necessary to melt. Snow belongs on the mountain. If the snow were any where else, say in the meadows below, it would cease to be snow. Why would snow leave the mountain?

Jeremiah never made it to Creede. But he knew the crags in the mountains of Lebanon. The snow never left the mountain. And as such it was always a source of water for those below. So when he observed the stubbornness of his own people, of Israel, even heard their determined faithlessness in their own words, he used the image poetically to call out his people for failing to be where they belonged – with Yahweh.

We don’t all live where there is year round snow on the mountains to remind us where we belong. But, we do live among people who express amazement when we decide to make the potter’s job more difficult. 

That is, when we read Jeremiah call for the people to turn from their evil ways, the people, God’s snow in the highland crags of Lebanon, reply,

It’s hopeless. We will continue to follow our plans, and each of us will continue to act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.

we cannot help but call back to the opening story and make the connection. The potter is finding the clay difficult to work. Then in a shocking move, God asks, “Who does that?!” He does not ask the question rhetorically, as if to say he already knows the answer. He calls witnesses to answer the question,

Ask among the nations, who has heard things like these?

Who does that? 

Do you see the irony? God asks the nations, who follow their own gods, really no gods at all, if they had ever heard of any of their people abandoning their gods. Two things to keep in mind. First, Israel had a well-known history. Yahweh had written into their story God’s own faithfulness to the promises he has made his people. Second, the response of the nations bears witness to the way the clay has made the Potter’s work more difficult.

All who pass by will be appalled and shake their heads

The force of the language is that the reaction is amazement. Those who pass by witness the consequences of stubbornness and hiss and shake their heads in open disbelief.

And that is my first point. People find it hard to believe when Christians decide for an allegiance other than the One we claim that saves.

Hemant Mehta is the editor of The Friendly Atheist, a channel on the Patheos website. He and other contributors write pieces that draw attention to Christians whose words contradict what the Scriptures reveal about Godself. For instance, a recent article draws out a self-proclaimed Christian prophetess who said God destroyed the Bahamas to put an end to human trafficking, going so far to allege underground tunnels, on an island no less, were destroyed. To add insult to injury she claimed the reason Hurricane Dorian did not wreak the havoc on the U.S, as if we don’t have our own issues with human trafficking, was a result of her prayers. She is not alone in making that suggestion, by the way. No prayers for the thousands of destroyed homes. What about the yet to be numbered dead? 

I imagine you are thinking, “Pastor there are all sorts of nuts out there who say things that you and I both know are not true.” Yes, I do. But hear me. These folks provide cover for the rest of us. It is far easier to point out the way these folks fail to represent Christ faithfully while our advocacy on issues more close to home go unattended. In other words, we need these types so that we are not scrutinized by our own lack. Somehow we think our lack gives the Potter less trouble.

Where are our voices when we learn that the effort to fight human trafficking is reduced by our crackdown on immigration because many people who come to our Country are fleeing human trafficking themselves? Budgets have reportedly been cut. What will we do when we see fewer and fewer arrests and convictions of perpetrators? We cannot fall back and point to those we think are crazy if we ourselves have more interest in what harms us rather than what harms others.

If that is too abstract, what are we doing about the increased performance anxiety both young people and adults face? Rather than slow down, we witness the secular religion of busyness become the default religion we give for justifying our worthiness. If we aren’t busy doing something, all the time, every moment filled, then where is our value? This is not just the religion of others. It has been mingled with the same faith that points out that it is God who justifies in the life of Christ for us and with us. We point our children away from the mountain and set them in the meadow. We fail to point them where they belong – in Christ – leading them to believe they belong in the arena of performance, that their value is in being the best.

But, alas we don’t want to hear the ways we may be stubborn in our own rights.

And that is my second point. Jeremiah’s words were met with adversity and those of us who speak out about us being where we belong, in Christ, will too.

We don’t care to hear what friendly atheists say. And, we certainly don’t want anyone in our own group calling attention to our decisions to do our own thing. 

Many have bought into the fanciful idea that they prefer to be faithful to Jesus on their own, in their own time and in their own way. It sounds liberating, freeing. But, the nations, people, whose gods are no gods at all bear witness in their amazement that we pattern our lives in the same way they do. There are few if any distinctions.

And that takes us back to the start, back to the potter. If Jeremiah relays God’s query to the nations, “Who does that?!”, then when we look at the opening story, the focus should return to Godself. Who does that?!

Who takes clay and works it on a wheel and continues to work the clay remaking it every time it resists its form? Who does that?

We have had Colin Rosebrook here to both demonstrate his skill on the potter’s wheel and to relay his work to the activity of God. He has a studio, still, in the Paseo. While Colin uses an electric powered pottery wheel and makes many different objects with great skill, potters were an integral part of ancient culture. Every town had at least one potter. Most everyone was familiar with their art, their craft. Two stone wheels connected by an axle. The potter would turn one with his foot, speeding it up and slowing it down as needed. He or she would work the clay on the other wheel. It is not likely that this was Jeremiah’s first visit to the potter’s house.

But whereas before he may have simply taken in the skill and products produced, here he was invited to make some different observations. He was to resist suggesting he already knew what potters did on their wheels. He was to gain something new this time around.

There it was. Studiously taking in the work of the potter, God drew Jeremiah’s attention. This time Jeremiah paid careful attention to the patience of the potter as he worked the clay. When the clay resisted the form intended, the potter would continue to work the clay to make something else. Over and again. Maybe the clay was of poor quality, Maybe it was too dry. Maybe it reacted adversely to the touch of the Potter. Whatever the reason, the Potter was undeterred. He kept working the clay.

While it is our inclination to make the story about the clay that represented Israel and all nations, and us, Jeremiah was learning something about the Potter – the figure that represented Yahweh, Godself. 

And that is my final point. The Potter keeps the promise made to the clay. For without the Potter the clay has nowhere to belong.

When Israel leaves Yahweh, it ceases to be Israel. When the snow leaves the mountain it ceases to be snow. Surely you have made the connection. We are not immune from receiving the promise of God as punishment. There it is glaring like a neon sign in the dead of night. God keeps God’s own promises, a light for all to see, especially his people. Driving right by we experience the promise as punishment. We remove ourselves from its safety. We leave the mountain. 

Who does that?

Evidently it is a common human malady. It is the tendency of the clay on the wheel to resist, for whatever reason. To stretch the image to the point of breaking, we could say the clay needs an example for how to rest on the Divine wheel. If clay is, as the Apostle Paul used it, a metaphor for our earthen, flesh and bone, vessel, then we need someone to be clay for us.

Do you see how the conditions Jeremiah addressed are oft repeated? It is as if we could map Jeremiah’s words and experience onto the situation and stories Jesus told in his day. Met with the same adversity by the religious folks, who protested with religious criticism, Jesus was resisted just like Jeremiah. 

Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah – for instruction shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, let us bring charges against him, let us not heed any of his words.

Those haunting words may be heard in the plotting against Jesus,

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him.

Despite resistance to his message,

Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. 

What drove him was not the reaction of the people. Instead it was the promise of God. We may want all the attention on us. But when we invite the light, our dark hearts are exposed. Jeremiah discovered that God’s authority would not diminish, nor would his work, for Yahweh aimed for the snow to stay on the mountain. The Spirit works the clay so that it will have a place to belong, in Christ.

We gather to remember our own stubbornness that highlights God’s mercy and patience. About the time we think we are finished, we are through, we have failed, the Potter determines to work the clay again to make it something different.

Our celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a recognition that by God becoming flesh and blood, clay, he provided not only an example of true humanity, but in his suffering and death, he defeated the forces that make the clay hard to work. He defeated the powers of Sin, Satan, Death and the Grave. Now we, the clay on the wheel, may trust the promises of God that the different he makes of us, in us, is to ensure the snow remains in its place – that we remain in Christ.

Who does that?!

God in Christ Jesus – that is who does that!

Here is a link to the preached version of this manuscript.

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.