Under The Sun #6: A Sorrowful Portrait

3SelfPortraitWithFeltHat2Pastor Barry/ The Gathering Church  Under The Sun #6 (Ecclesiastes): A Sorrowful Portrait (Vincent van Gogh)  To hear this message and others download our free app at The App Store by searching The Gathering Connect.

Vincent (1853-1890) Ecclesiastes 6:1-6, Ephesians 2:1-9

Vincent” is a song by Don McLean written as a tribute to the most well-known post-Impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh. The song is also known by its opening line, “Starry, Starry Night“, a reference to van Gogh’s 1889 painting The Starry Night. McLean wrote the lyrics on a paper bag while sitting on a veranda in 1971 after reading a book about the life of van Gogh.  It was released on McLean’s 1971 American Pie album, and the following year the song became a hit first in the UK and then in the US on the Easy Listening Chart.

Today’s lesson in the book of Ecclesiastes brings McLean’s song Vincent to my mind because of the first verses in chapter six (Ecc. 6:1-6).  Vincent van Gough is the most well known post-impressionistic painters of all time.  In 2017 one of his paintings (Laboureur Dans Un Champ) sold for $81.3 million dollars,  yet he himself died largely unknown and in poverty.  Today museum exhibits of his work are attended by large crowds from all over the world, yet those same works were first exhibited on the day of his funeral outside of the little apartment he once rented (public areas of the Auberge Ravoux). His brother Theo organized the display on the public sidewalk for strangers passing by—some of the paintings were still wet from the brush of the prolific painter.

Born in Zundert, Netherlands, The son of a minister, van Gogh started working at age 16, when his uncle got him a job as a trainee with an art dealership, but he was fired in 1876. Afterward, he worked briefly as a school teacher in England then at a bookstore back in the Netherlands. In 1878, he went to the Borinage, a mining district in Belgium, and worked among the poor as a lay preacher. He gave away his belongings and slept on floors, but after less than a year on the job the religious organization sponsoring van Gogh decided he wasn’t cut out to be a pastor and dismissed him.

Vincent van Gogh did not have any children although he gave birth to more than 2,000 artworks, consisting of around 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches. Van Gogh did not begin painting until his late twenties, and most of his best-known works were produced during his final two years. He also produced 651 letters written to his brother Theo that suggest that he suffered from bipolar and borderline personality disorderVan Gogh’s distinct style vividly expressed his tortured mind and his deep loneliness.  Vincent failed in four relationships with women and a friendship with painter Gauguin that ended in a rage where he cut off his own ear.  Likely, that self-mutilating incident was the frustrating culmination of the news that his brother was engaged and would therefore be less able to continue funding Vincent’s artistic endeavors and limit his availability in their friendship.  Vincent was committed to a hospital where he spent two weeks in recovery and then returned to his “yellow house”, but his mental attacks continued and neighbors filed a petition against him.        Eventually, Vincent committed himself to an asylum for one year but he left wanting to be free of the institutional life.  Two months later the artist left his apartment one morning to paint in a wheat field and there shot himself in the chest with a pistol. Vincent managed to limp home, but died of his  injuries two days later, with his brother Theo at his side on July 29, 1890.  He was buried the next day. Ironically, His brother Theo would die six months later.  Theo’s widow, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, had Theo’s remains moved from the Netherlands and re-interred in France, where Vincent was buried. After Jo passed away, her only child with Theo, Vincent Willem van Gogh, inherited his uncle’s     artwork and eventually founded the Van Gogh Museum, which opened in Amsterdam in 1973.

In Ecclesiastes the “teacher”, referring to death, asks “Do not all go to the same place?  Believers in Christ know the answer to that question is “no.”  Yet to all who did receive Him, to those who       believed in His name, He gave the right to be called the children of God… (John 1:12).  We know that van Gogh had many problems and vices, but he also once had a deep faith in Christ.  He expressed this in paintings like The Good Samaritan, The Raising of Lazarus, The Sower and The Sheaf Binder. Vincent described Jesus as “the supreme artist, more of an artist than all others, disdaining marble and clay and color, working in the living flesh.”  “One cannot do better than hold onto the thought of God through everything” he wrote, “under all circumstances, at all places, at all times, and try to  acquire more knowledge about Him, which one can do from the Bible as well as from all other things.” The church had rejected van Gogh as a missionary and perhaps even as a parishioner but his brother ,Theo, also a believer in Christ,  and God never did. It is likely that God gave Vincent and Theo two days before his death for some reflection.  “It is by grace we are saved”  (Ephesians 2:1-9). 

Living a Legacy Matthew 5:13-16, Romans 7:21-25 

One of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, once said: “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”  God has created us to live with faith and passion and not ease and comfort, in fact the later most certainly will cancel out the former.  No matter what our lot in life may be we can positively affect people who know us or even come after we are gone if we do not live solely for ourselves on this earth.  Think of the benefit our founding fathers had on our nation and its posterity.  Think of the fathers of our faith and yes, most of all consider Jesus Christ (See One Solitary Life by Dr. James Allan 1926). Of course it was Jesus’ sole mission to seek and save those who were lost (Luke 19:10), but did He not call us to do the same (Matthew 5:13-16)To be sure, our lives are not as pure, and stained with many imperfections, but He will redeem all that we entrust to Him and only He can do it (Romans 7:21-25).  Even the sorrowful portrait of Vincent can bring beauty. 

“Who Knows?” Ecclesiastes 6:7-12, Philippians 4:11b-13, Revelation 21:4-7. 

Do you live to quench a sinful appetite that is never satisfied or will you be content with what you see that God has provided?  These are the parting words of the “teacher” to us today.  We can “not   contend with someone stronger” is to say, in the words of Doris Day (Singer/Actress 1922-2019), “whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see, Que Sera, Sera”.  

“For who knows?”, asks the “teacher”.  God knows— the past, the present and the future so the wise will entrust their lives to Him. Have faith…He will weave the tapestry together (Romans 8:28)Let us forget all the vain philosophies of men: “the more the words the less the meaning”.  God’s word is simple: “Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:8). The apostle Paul shared the “secret of being content”(Phil. 4:11b).”  It is not that we will live in ease and comfort, but that we can do all things through Him who gives us strength.  Thus, regardless of the “fairness of life” it is never meaningless when we trust Godand He makes “all things new” even in death (Rev. 21:4-7).  This is His promise for all who believe— for Vincent, for Theo and for you and me.



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