J. Marshall Jenkins

Author, Therapist, Spiritual Director

Van Gogh’s Sermons

 Van Gogh, Self=Portrait, 1887

Van Gogh, Self=Portrait, 1887

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:11-12).

Several years ago, I visited the Art Institute of Chicago.  There I contemplated one of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous self-portraits.

The colors and textures made me feel his pulse and deep pain even as I looked into the subtle sadness of his soft eyes.  There he was, and no photograph could convey the living man better.  Perhaps not even a face-to-face encounter with the genius could exceed it.

A couple of years ago, I took a course on Henri Nouwen from my friend, Chris Glaser, in Columbia Theological Seminary’s Spirituality Program.  Chris shared with us a story he heard from his teacher and friend about Van Gogh:

As a young man, Van Gogh wanted to follow his father’s footsteps as a Reformed Church pastor in the Netherlands.  Assigned to a small parish serving poor miners and their families, he visited them often in their homes and in the mines themselves.  True to Jesus’ teachings, he gave away much that he owned to help them.  This violated church officials’ expectation that clergy maintain the lifestyle of the professional class, so they dismissed Van Gogh from his post and his calling.

So young Vincent made a decision: If he could not preach to the unlettered poor from the pulpit, he would preach for them sermons without words through painting.  Utterly unknown in his lifetime, he eventually went mad and committed suicide.  But every painting he left blesses us.

Since Constantine we Christians live the contradiction of allegiance to the poor, crucified Christ whose following became the religion of power in the western world.  But any reader of the gospels can see that this is no rags-to-riches plot.  He has everything to do with living in solidarity and service with the poor.  Young Van Gogh got it right.  The church got it wrong.

Sadly, Van Gogh’s story does not surprise us as we see everywhere the misuse of Christian faith to keep the poor and marginalized in their places and the rich and powerful in their privileges.  There are Van Goghs in your midst – perhaps including you — yearning to share their gift to God’s glory, but the church too often does not listen as Christ would because of other agendas.

Keep alert for the Van Goghs and receive their gifts gratefully.  Attend to the Van Gogh within for whispers of your own beautiful and silent gift, and claim the freedom to give it.

Related Posts

When Christians Persecute

Constantine, the Kingdom, and You

Henri Nouwen: Witness to Heaven on Earth

Heeding My Call….For Today, At Least


J. Marshall Jenkins

About J. Marshall Jenkins

J. Marshall Jenkins is an author, psychotherapist, teacher, and spiritual director. For several years he has been writing on the Beatitudes for people in emotional pain, publishing biweekly here on his Beatitudes Blog at http://www.jmarshalljenkins.com. His newest book, Blessed at the Broken Places: Reclaiming Faith and Hope with the Beatitudes, is now available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


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4 Replies

  1. What a wonderful and meaningful use of Van Gogh’s story, especially for our time! And congratulations on your thoughtful and inspirational blog!

    1. jmarshalljenkins.com

      Thank you for telling the story so compellingly! I have repeated it many times. So often we think of Van Gogh as that mad genius, but realizing that his passion for sharing God’s love inspired his work encourages me in mine. All of us are earthen vessels, broken but carrying a precious treasure, and despite his tragic life and death, Van Gogh’s generosity sets a powerful example. And thank you, Chris, for your support over many years!

  2. M Wayne Alexander

    Recently saw a movie about Van Gogh on TCM(Turner Classic Movies)that covered all aspects of his life-from his becoming a preacher to his untimely death. I was awe struck by just how much Van Gogh learned the true meaning of why Jesus came to Earth. Not to condemn, as did-and still does, the church but to show compassion for the less fortunate.
    Blessings to both of you fine gentlemen.

    A brother in Christ,

    1. jmarshalljenkins.com

      Thank you, Wayne. Your comment prompted a Google search of movies on Van Gogh, and I suspect that you viewed, “Lust for Life,” a 1956 film starring Kirk Douglas. I look forward to watching it! And many blessings in return to you, kind sir!

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