In this excerpt from Alisha and Josh Garber's blog, Worthwhile Adventures, Alisha finds a kindred spirit in artist Vincent Van Gogh, who turned to art when the church rejected him. Read the unabridged version here.
From a very young age, when folks asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would naively respond, "An artist!" Art, like the work of Vincent van Gogh, has always impacted and inspired me deeply.
Many people think of Van Gogh as the dude who cut off his own ear and gave it, as a present, to his girlfriend. But his story is so much richer than that. He loved God so much that he wanted to become a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. When he failed the exam to become a pastor — many, many times, he became a missionary. Van Gogh felt so drawn to the plight of the poor that he gave away his missionary salary, paid by a small church in a Belgian coal-mining town. He slept in a haystack behind a bakery, eating the baker's bread for free. His parish, embarrassed by his behavior, raised money so he could live in a house. He repeatedly gave the money they raised to the needy. The congregation was so upset that they had Van Gogh removed from his position with the church for having excess zeal. Can you imagine? Van Gogh was being so Christ-like that he showed up to preach with hay sticking out of his hair ... and they fired him for it!
Embittered and impoverished, Van Gogh left the church at the end of 1879. "I wish they would only take me as I am," he wrote in a letter to his brother, Theo.
Van Gogh, then, tried to earn a living as an art dealer. Seeing the way dealers treated art, like a commodity rather than as a celebration of creativity, completely broke him. In his grief of having failed as both a minister and an art dealer, he proceeded to paint The Starry Night.
A church stands at the center of The Starry Night. All the buildings around the church have lights in the windows, but the church is dark. And if you look at the night sky, there are swirls of color, light mixing with darkness, stars shining and illuminating the rich canvas. When I look at this painting, I wonder if it conveys what Van Gogh felt when he looked back on his journey as a religious worker. As David Paul Kirkpatrick puts it, Van Gogh was rejected by the church, but he did not reject God.
When Josh and I embarked on our missions' journey, over a decade ago, we quickly grew accustomed to leaving our earthly possessions behind. After many yard sales, we set off on a truly Worthwhile Adventure, serving first in the Czech Republic, then Lithuania, and now Barcelona.
When Van Gogh tried to follow Christ's teaching in Matthew 19:21, he was ridiculed by the very church he tried to guide. It was as if his congregation said, "Sure, go ahead and help the poor, so long as you look like the rest of us, and we all can continue living our comfortable lives."
For me, the idea of post-Christendom is represented in The Starry Night. God is too big to be contained by a building. The reality is that the church in Europe (and in many other parts of the world) has been steadily declining for some time — check out this video about our service in Barcelona to learn more. It's time that Christians realize that we must stop packing God into a little box with a steepled roof and learn to see God in the stars shining all around us (and illuminated in the windows of our neighbor's apartments). Too often confining rules, overbearing subcommittees, and the culture of "church" — things emerging out of our need for structure and identity — push folks away from their very faith.
The artist in me tries to celebrate creativity in our ministry with the church in Barcelona. Whenever possible, I seek to inspire visual worship and creativity within the Sunday services. Not all parishioners worship the same way. I really want our community to seek out the light in its neighborhood, in the eyes of coworkers, as well as in the people begging on the street corner, and to stop looking inside the church for God, because God is all around us. God is swirling and whirling in rich blues and deep hues, just like on Van Gogh's canvas! We must have faith to know that God's plans are not our own, and it's OK to feel uncertain and uncomfortable.
In some ways, my journey seems to be running opposite of that of Vincent Van Gogh. Vocationally, I've moved from artist to missionary (or, at least, I certainly had way more time to paint before becoming a full-time international church worker). However, in other ways, it's very similar. I've learned to see how God's brilliance cannot be contained inside a dark building. I now feel emboldened to live out Christ's teachings to be a beacon to others — church-going folks and non-believers alike.
I'm hopeful for the future of our church community in Barcelona. As we move toward reopening after the pandemic, we have a new name, Barcelona Anabaptist Center, to symbolize the ways our congregation has shifted.