Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Sower: Van Gogh, Christ & The Parable

One of my favorite painters is Vincent Van Gogh. Though best known for his paintings, Van Gogh started out as a pastor. Though he left the church, it is obvious that God did not leave him. Many of his paintings bear out his theology. The painting "The Sower" is one of those. Painted in the south of France in 1888, it was inspired not only by the field workers who toiled around him but the parable of the Sower that is in Mark 4:3-8. He, himself said, "One does not expect to get from life what one has already learned it cannot give; rather, one begins to see more clearly that life is a kind of sowing time, and the harvest is not here."

Like the sower, as missionary, Van Gogh "preached" the gospel everywhere. First translating the Bible into various languages (as he spoke, read and wrote in five different ones). Later, in Belgium, he discovered the harsh, bleak existence that the miners lived. They had inadequate food, water and warm clothing. He ended up giving away much of his food and his own clothes because he understood the unconditional and compassionate love of Christ. Those over him were unhappy with the poor and meager lifestyle Van Gogh had adopted and the dismissed him from service, stating that he was "undermining the dignity of the priesthood." Van Gogh followed only Jesus and not the rules of "those cold theologians."

At the age of thirty (the same age Jesus began his ministry), Vincent began to paint and he saw no difference in this from his missions work, as he now served God with his art. To him, both vocations were a ministry. The visual language reveals his passionate love for the gospel of "the great artist-Christ," as he referred to him. Many of his paintings are a visual parable of lines and vibrant colors.

For Van Gogh images of the golden sun and the wheat fields were of strong religious significance to him as they stood for "the good God" and eternity.

In his book Van Gogh and God: A Creative Spiritual Quest, Cliff Edwards wrote, "Vincent's life was a quest for unification, a search for how to integrate the ideas of religion, art, literature, and nature . . ." He saw painting as a way to express his love of God and of man. 

When I look at his painting "The Sower" the bright yellow of the sun and sunshine stand out. This was his way of focusing the work on God. A God he said was "the irresistible force that urges us towards loving more." 

Whenever I've heard the parable of the Sower taught, the teachers or pastors always focus on the types of soil. But that's not the name of the parable. It's the parable of the Sower, emphasis on the scatterer of seed. What the parable shows is the generosity of the sower, who does not stop to scatter the seed only in good soil but scattered it everywhere. From a farming perspective this would appear to be sheer folly, but aren't the things of God that way? I'm sure all of the agrarian people listening to Jesus tell this parable were scratching their heads and wondering what kind of a fool that sower was. They would think how much effort and seed was wasted by his irrational farming techniques. 

Over the years, I, too, have focused on the soil and have seen, at different points in my life, that I am different soils (good, rocky, thorny). Wendell Berry wrote in his book The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture:

The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all.
It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into
health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can 
have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.

Berry is both a farmer and a writer. His works all bear a strong connection to the land and how we are to be good stewards of it. He understands all the labor and toil it takes to cultivate the land and make soil rich so that a farmer can reap an abundant harvest. 

But now, rereading this parable, should I have been asking myself, "What sort of sower am I?"

Am I, like the sower in the parable, generous? 

One example of this is in terms of my children. How much of my time do I give them to listen to them, hear their questions and concerns, and share with them? Their first perception of God as Father is through their earthly one, so what image do I give them? Do I sow sparingly in their lives? Do I view them as interruptions to what is important? I need to stop seeing their coming to me as interruptions but as opportunities to sow generously into their lives. These are moments when I can awaken their curiosity and wonder at the love of God. It is a chance for me to offer deep, genuine affection unsparingly.

Van Gogh himself said, "What is done in love is done well." Is that how I share the gospel to my children? To coworkers? To those who come across my path each day?  When you love others as Christ did, then you will not only see beauty in the world and others around you, but people will see that within you as well. 

The sower's generosity was without judgment. He did not withhold from the grounds that, to most of us, clearly was a waste of good seed. It is love without judgment. As Henri Nouwen wrote, "When we have become completely free from the need to judge we will also become free from the fear of being judged." Or, as Mother Teresa stated, "If you judge people, you have no time to love them." And that is what we are called to do. We are to love people into the gospel. 

This is to be done through love, generosity, and humility. I must be careful of the words I speak and that my actions be rooted in Christ's mercy, compassion and grace. This isn't always easy to do in a social media world where people quickly go from irritation to indignation to anger. Words they would never say to someone in person are spilled out on-line in rants and comments. We cannot share the gospel by heated debates. People can tune out our words but they are definitely paying attention to our actions. That's why 1 John 4:7 tells us, "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God." 

Is this what others (family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, passersby) notice about our lives? Do they know we are Christians by our love? 

Also, I must take the time to cultivate the soil to nurture the roots or the plant will die. This means investment: of myself, of my time and my energy. It is an unselfish giving up of my resources to help another flourish and grow. Am I doing that in the lives of my children? In the lives of friends or neighbors? How about a stranger's life? 

To do this, I must first tend to my own roots, my own soil. This means spending time reading and studying scripture, praying, and listening to the gentle whispering wind of the Spirit to guide me. If I don't, I won't have good seed to spread in the first place. Like any good farmer knows, I want repeat-bearing seeds because that means multiple harvests. I also must understand that for any seed to grow, it needs time to mature and tending to them with fertilizer and water. This means I cannot rush or be impatient. If I am patient and tend to the seeds, I will see that miraculous transformation as it becomes a plant. All farming requires faith because it is ultimately an act of hope. Hope for a bountiful harvest. 

That's one thing I love about Christ: he's an artist, a storyteller. His parables continue to cause me to dig more deeply and, like the good soil, it is rich with meaning. But it's not enough to just read them, instead, when I read a parable like this one, as I go through my day, I need to stop and ask myself, "What kind of sower am I in this field?"

"Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously."
- II Corinthians 9:6

"The best way to know God is to love many things."
- Vincent Van Gogh

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