On July 2, 2018, I published the following post entitled “Van Gogh & Me: Pursuing Our Vocations.” My friend Mark Rockwell shared it on his Facebook page with this comment:
Here is the post; the dialogue is below…
Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh is not only a fascinating art history, it is also the story of a spiritual quest by two brothers who love each other dearly.
Van Gogh originally set out to follow in his father’s footsteps as a pastor, but for reasons that are only somewhat revealed, it didn’t work out. During this period of preparation for ministry, Van Gogh describes a foreboding sense –
These are really happy days I spend here, but still it is a happiness and quiet which I do not quite trust. Man is not easily content: now he finds things too easy and then again he is not contented enough.
Though not terribly dissatisfied, Van Gogh senses something is missing. Something is not quite right. He wonders if this “dis-ease” could have a spiritual basis.
There may be a time in life when one is tired of everything and feels as if all one does is wrong, and there may be some truth in it — do you think this is a feeling one must try to forget and to banish, or is it ‘the longing for God,’ which one must not fear, but cherish to see if it may bring us some good? Is it ‘the longing for God’ which leads us to make a choice which we never regret?
One thing I’ve noted early in this collection of letters to his brother Theo is that when Van Gogh describes something about pastoral ministry, his words are distant and wooden. When he describes the visual world or artistic representations of them, however, he comes alive, vivacious.
As we have in our Brabant the underbrush of oak, and in Holland the willows, so you can see here the blackthorn hedges around the gardens, fields, and meadows. With the snow the effect just now is of black characters on white paper, like the pages of the Gospel.
After a disruptive experience in his academic pursuit of a pastoral vocation, Van Gogh moves to Brussels where, thanks to a small stipend from his father and monies from Theo, he is able to eek out a living while devoting himself to his art. He first concentrates on studying and copying the masters where he tries to “understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious matters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God.”
Ultimately, he picks up his pencil to draw and finds great relief.
Though every day difficulties come up and new ones will present themselves, I cannot tell you how happy I am to have to taken up drawing again. I have been thinking of it for a long time, but I always considered the thing impossible and beyond my reach. But now, though I feel my weakness and my painful dependency in many things, I have recovered my mental balance, and day by day my energy increases.
I relate to the tension between Van Gogh’s material needs and his vocation. In historical hindsight, he was beyond question created to be a painter. Yet in his lifetime he sold no paintings. Had it not been for the patronage of his devoted brother Theo, he would have starved.
By the grace of God, I managed to maintain a career in pastoral ministry for almost two decades. At times, working together with many faithful parishioners, much fruit was borne. Other seasons were quite barren. I’m confident that as a minister, I faithfully presented God’s Word weekly and daily represented (in my own weak way) the Spirit of Christ.
I am grateful that, again by God’s grace, this career provided materially for me and my family. But I confess it was more consuming spiritually than fulfilling and took a tremendous psychological toil on my already fragile mind.
Now, I am pursuing another vocation within the realm of faith and mental illness. Were it not for the generous patronage of people God provides to support my efforts, I could not go on. But with God’s help and support from the community of faith, I will find my way to best offer myself as a living sacrifice to the glory of the Lord.
Leslie Thomas: Thank you for posting this and including me. It’s taken me a long time to accept myself as a writer.
After just a quick peruse I see that I definitely connect to these words of Van Gogh. I need to thoroughly read this after work. Just from what you posted, Mark, I can say that all my writing up to now has been my way of getting feelings and thought out. I have dreamed of trying to do this as a way of living but I would do it regardless. I post things hoping that my simple words will encourage or at least help someone else know they aren’t alone in their feelings. It used to be stressful and I did find myself a little discouraged if I thought people were not seeing them or not “liking” them. I no longer have that fear. If I post i leave it in God’s hands. I pray I am not an attention seeker but deep down don’t we all crave some kind of validation that what we write or create is having an impact on the world?
Mark Rockwell: Leslie – I think you’ve got a good perspective in terms of leaving it in God’s hands — as we must in all of our actions and interactions. We can’t really cause tangible encouragement to happen or tangible, soul-touching salvation. That is the Holy Spirit’s work. We can only offer and that is what you are doing. The real substance of effect we may never know and that is probably as it should be lest we begin to hang our hat on quantitative measures and, subsequently let them dilute our motivations.
Brett Thompson: Oh man. Too close to home for me right now. Plus you ask a lot of questions in this post that need a good deal of unpacking. What it seems to come down to is our intentionality. However the public generally does not care about your intentions, only the “product” you can offer that makes them feel something for a cheaply as possible if not free.
Mark Rockwell: Brett your answer seems to steer in the direction of art as a means for making a living, though, I know that is not your bread and butter. So, then your intentionality of art could be more inclined away from the making a living aspect, perhaps? But, having more people hear it would make it more accessible and, potentially, give it a chance to make more of an impact? Am I on the right track?
Heather Williams: here’s my hippy heart thoughts: If you knew me before Christ in my life and hear or see anything I do as “art” my life alone points to Him, even in what some might see as “offensive”. Art is subjective in human standards, so not everyone will “get” it… I know God does. I feel if David can do it and have it as scriptures we read and teach on then I am good following that example. Basically, I don’t think it is as complex as we try to make it. God created everything, so everything brings Him glory. But, I’m a hippy and free spirit, so there’s that.
Brett Thompson: I honestly find myself wanting to make music to simply be a part of the tribe of creators more than putting a product out there to be consumed. However it is always nice to have what you made be appreciated and even better if you can monetize it.
Heather Williams: let’s be honest here, I really do like it when someone appreciates my “art”. It is human connection. I am like Adam longing for Eve even before she was created. It brings me closer to other human beings and it is good… or, even better.. I am like Eve, being created for someone to love and appreciate and God calls it good… I am so writing a song based on this… my motto: find inspiration every damn place you can. ( sorry… every “dang”)… Also MPJ’s song “o Theo” breaks my heart every time.
Brad Phillips: Fantastic discussion. All real art points to Him in some form or fashion IMO. Even exploring the dark or the offensive can point to how much we all need Christ. For me personally I have to create. It is not a choice really. It is the only way I have found that I can truly just be me and express myself. Music especially helps me connect with my Creator. It really is the language of the spirit for me. Yes, it would be nice to have a career and to have it be recognized by others but that is not why I do it. And honestly i gave up on that aspect a long long time ago. Art and especially music is really just ingrained in me and a part of my DNA. I cannot just simply listen to it. I feel it in my soul and it is an important part of me. I have learned that is indeed a gift from Him and money, career or appreciation has nothing to do with it. Often times it is just a conversation between Him and I that others may get to listen in on.
Tamera Parker Shue: The art I make for myself is usually vastly different than my consumer products. I’d say, my personal stuff is as much “spiritual” as it is private. I make it as my own expression and I assume it would mean much less to any other observer.
Join our dialogue: Is there art (or anything) that you create purely for the glory of God or as a natural fruit of your relationship with Him?