Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Weaver - A Glimpse into the life of Vincent van Gogh

As we think of the difficult life of Vincent van Gogh and his tragic death by suicide, we sometimes wonder why God will allow His children to suffer thus.

According to Wikipedia,
Vincent van Gogh was the son of Anna Cornelia Carbentus and Theodorus van Gogh, who was a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. Art and religion were the two occupations to which the Van Gogh family gravitated.

At a young age, Vincent had been fervent about religion. His religious emotion grew to the point where he felt he had found his true vocation in life, and at one point he became a nearby Methodist minister's assistant in wanting to "preach the gospel everywhere." Once while working in a bookshop where he was not happy with his work, he spent most of his time in the back of the shop translating passages from the Bible into English, French, and German.

In an effort to support his wish to become a pastor, his family sent him to Amsterdam in May 1877 where he lived with his uncle Jan van Gogh, a rear admiral in the navy. Vincent prepared for university, studying for the theology entrance exam with his uncle Johannes Stricker, a respected theologian who published the first "Life of Jesus" available in the Netherlands. Vincent failed at his studies and had to abandon them. He left uncle Jan's house in July 1878. He then studied, but failed, a three-month course at the Protestant missionary school (Vlaamsche Opleidingsschool) in Laeken, near Brussels.

In January 1879 Van Gogh got a temporary post as a missionary in the village of Petit Wasmes in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium, bringing his father's profession to people felt to be the most wretched and hopeless in Europe. Taking Christianity to what he saw as its logical conclusion, Vincent opted to live like those he preached to, sharing their hardships to the extent of sleeping on straw in a small hut at the back of the baker's house where he was billeted; the baker's wife used to hear Vincent sobbing all night in the little hut. His choice of squalid living conditions did not endear him to the appalled church authorities, who dismissed him for "undermining the dignity of the priesthood."

It seemed, there was considerable conflict between Vincent and his father, and at one point of time his father made enquiries about having his son committed to a lunatic asylum at Geel. Vincent fled back to Cuesmes where he lodged with a miner named Charles Decrucq. He became increasingly interested in the everyday people and scenes around him, which he recorded in drawings. Wikipedia recorded his checkered life which is full of ups and downs, just like ours, but perhaps more colourful just like his paintings.

His paintings and drawings include some of the world's best known, most popular and most expensive pieces. He produced more than 2,000 works, including around 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches, during the last ten years of his life. Most of his best-known works were produced in the final two years of his life, during which time he cut off part of his left ear following a breakdown in his friendship with Paul Gauguin. After this he suffered recurrent bouts of mental illness, which led to his suicide.

Vincent and Paul Gauguin had quarrelled fiercely about art. Vincent felt an increasing fear that Gauguin was going to desert him, and what he described as a situation of "excessive tension" reached a crisis point on 23 December 1888, when Van Gogh stalked Gauguin with a razor and then cut off the lower part of his own left ear lobe. Gauguin left Arles and did not see Van Gogh again. Van Gogh was hospitalised and in a critical state for a few days. In January 1889 Van Gogh returned to the "Yellow House", but spent the following month between hospital and home, suffering from hallucinations and paranoia that he was being poisoned. In March the police closed his house, after a petition by thirty townspeople, who called him fou roux ("the redheaded madman").

The central figure in Van Gogh's life was his brother Theo, who continually and selflessly provided financial support. Their lifelong friendship is documented in numerous letters they exchanged from August 1872 onwards.

As I reflected on Vincent van Gogh's life - his rich heritage of Christianity, being the son of a minister of the Gospel, his theological trainings and his passion to spread the Gospel - and then his so checkered life with his tragic end, despite his giftedness, I am reminded that as God's children we may not always understand what God allows us to go through in this life. Sometimes some of our sufferings could be because of our sins and failures or weaknesses. At such time we have to face the sad consequences of our mistakes. But at other times, our sufferings and afflictions could happen without apparent reason. This is particularly true in our illness or chronic battle with clinical depression or bipolar disorder due to our constitution. Bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness) is a medical condition that can be treated, just like diabetes, hypertension and asthma. The only difference is that during a severe depressive episode, a person's brain can be so mulfunctioning to the point that it is not able to send/receive appropriate messages and the person may be tempted to end his life in a moment of insanity. And sadly some are successful, and Vincent van Gogh is one of them. It is a mercy that if Vincent van Gogh truly belongs to Christ then he is now saved in the arms of Jesus where there is no more tears or sufferings, even though he left this world through such a tragic end.

We may not always understand why God in His sovereignty allows certain things in our lives or allows us to go through certain trials and afflictions. But we have no doubt at all of His sovereignty and His love for us, and that He in His faithfulness is working all things for His glory and our good.

God said in Isaiah 55:8-9

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

God promised us in His words, that no matter what He allows us to go through, we can have the assurance that nothing shall ever separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Rom 8:38 “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Thank God for His love for us and His presence with us even when we have to go through the valley of the shadow of death on this earth.

Like this lovely poem "The Weaver", our life is a weaving, between the Lord and us. We cannot choose the colours, He worketh steadily. While we cannot understand the ups and downs He allowed in our lives, we sometimes forget He sees the upper, and we, the underside of the tapestry. The dark threads are as needful, in the weaver’s skillful hand, as the threads of gold and silver in the pattern He has planned. One day when we see our Lord face in face in eternity, maybe we will understand why.

The Weaver

My life is but a weaving,
Between the Lord and me.
I cannot choose the colors,
He worketh steadily.

Oft times He weaveth sorrow,
And I in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I, the underside.

The dark threads are as needful,
In the weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

Not ’til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly.
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reasons why.

- Author Unknown -

Just like the necessity of the dark threads on a colorful tapestry, the ups in our lives will have to be balanced out by the downs. Our manic/hypomanic experiences will have to be balanced out by our depressions. Both experiences complement one another. Borrowing the words of Dr Kay Redfield Jamison who is a Professor of Psychiatry with bipolar disorder and the author of "An Unquiet Mind", as a result of these ups and downs, we have felt more things, more deeply; we have more experiences, more intensely; loved more, and been more loved; laughed more often for having cried more often; appreciated more the springs, for all the winters; worn death "as close as dungarees," appreciated it - and life - more; seen the finest and the most terrible in people, and slowly learned the values of caring, loyalty, and seeing things through.

We have seen the breath and depth and width of our minds and hearts and seen how frail they both are, and how ultimately unknowable they both are. Depressed, we have crawled on our hands and knees in order to get across a room and have done it for month after month. But, normal or manic, we have run faster, thought faster, and loved faster than most we know. And much of this is related to our illness - the intensity it gives to things and the perspective it forces on us. It has made us test the limits of our mind (which, while wanting, is holding) and the limits of our upbringing, family, education, and friends.

Our sufferings make us more compassionate towards others. It helps to appreciate God and His mercies and faithfulness in our lives. It enable us to bring this same hope to others. For nothing in this life shall last for eternity. Our family, possessions, careers, achievements, fame, etc and even our own life, shall one day perish. But only our relationship with God through our Lord Christ shall last for all eternity.

As clay in the Potter's hand, our lives is in God's hands.

Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying, O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel. Jeremiah 18:5-6

Our comfort is God Who loved us and sent His only begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ to die on the cross for lost sinners like us, continues to love us and care for us through all the changing scenes of life. If we truly trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord, we can have the assurance of our sins being forgiven in Him, and of our eternal heritage in Him. In this life, we have our portion of happiness and sadness, success and failures, joy and sufferings, laughter and tears, mania and depressions, wellness and sickness, etc. We can have the assurance that He will never leave us nor forsake us. One day when our tasks here have ended, He shall take us home to be with Himself where there will be no more tears, sickness and sufferings. What a blessed hope! Meanwhile, we can continue to press on in this pilgrim journey looking unto God for grace and strength daily. What a mercy!

But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

....for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. Hebrews 13:5

Romans 8:35-39
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
36 As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
37 Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.
38 For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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