The prophetic voice makes everyone uncomfortable. Being prophetic doesn’t necessarily mean predicting the future. The role of the prophets in the Bible was less about predicting the future and more about being the moral compass of the country — usually reminding the King and the country how far they may have strayed from God.
Nobody likes prophets. The most successful prophets were killed. Challenging the powers that be never is a good career move.
I’ve been wrestling with the prophetic voice and the role of the pulpit.
I firmly believe that, as preachers, we are called to be the poet and the prophet. It’s always easier to embrace the poet role and not challenge the status quo. Because challenging the status quo can leave you without a job, real quick.
Take a look at John Wesley’s journal entries:
People, from the days of the Hebrew Bible to 2017, tend to get uncomfortable being reminded of God’s heart.
The heart of the Gospel is uncomfortable — particularly to the stable, secure, comfortable, to those in power — after all, Jesus claimed that he was anointed to preach the gospel to the poor. I believe that both the liberals and conservatives would have a difficult time dealing with Jesus if he walked the earth in 2017. We’d still be too preoccupied of dehumanizing the other side and dismiss anyone (yes, even Jesus) who took up the “other” side’s issues.
I intend to spend a bit of time processing my thoughts about the prophetic role of a preacher (and probably spend a few blog posts on it as a result).
What ignited all this was Vincent Van Gogh.
All I knew about Vincent Van Gogh was that 1) he cut off his ear, and 2) The Starry Night.
I recently learned that Van Gogh was a man of faith and wanted to be a minister — a Methodist one at that.
However, he failed to get into a school of theology. Perhaps it’s always been difficult getting ordained in the Methodist system… (that’s another topic for another day).
But he didn’t give up his call to be in ministry. He took a missionary post in a small Belgian village.
As a missionary, he lived the simplest of lives. He sold all of his belongings and slept in a haystack behind the village’s baker’s home.
His church did not appreciate him doing this. Maybe it was because he showed up not smelling so fresh; maybe it was because his clothes would’ve been tattered; maybe it was because stray hay would be stuck on him here and there. Whatever it was, the church simply did not appreciate their pastor making a haystack his home.
Here was a man who did sell everything he had and gave it to the poor to follow Jesus and here was the church who had an issue with Van Gogh doing so.
The church took an offering for Van Gogh so that he can go find a place to live — and for God’s sake, buy some clothes. Because you know, people love telling pastors how to dress.
Van Gogh took that money and gave it all away to the poor coal miners in his village and he returned to his good ole haystack.
The church simply could not fathom the idea of being led by a homeless man. So, they fired him.
Let the irony sink in. They fired their pastor for being homeless all the while worshiping Jesus who declared, “Fox have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (emphasis added).
I can’t imagine the pain and rejection Van Gogh must’ve felt.
He already experienced the sting of rejection when he wasn’t “smart” enough to get into a school of theology.
It took me 3 times to get ordained in the UMC. Each time I was “continued” (our term for “failing the exams”), it stung. A lot. Each time more than the previous failures. Your head starts filling up with questions like “Am I really meant to be doing this?”
The things they (the BOOM: Board of Ordained Ministry) tell you to work on or say to ease the pain of failure —often times, those prick your soul even more than the rejection. Like them telling you, “You’re great for the people you’re serving.” Oh, so I’m great for my church, but clearly you didn’t think I was good enough to jump through your hoops to your satisfaction. So what are you saying about my church folks…? But clearly, I digress…
Tony Campolo once preached, “What if Jesus actually meant what he said?” (And I’m sure that many other preachers have asked this question as well). Van Gogh literally followed the words of Jesus by selling all he had and giving it to the poor and the church — the church — fired him for it.
I always assumed Van Gogh went crazy because… he just went crazy. But now, maybe certain events in his life drove him to a place where he cut off his ear.
To me, he was the artist who cut off his ear. But there’s always more to someone’s story than just that one thing we hear/read about, ain’t it?
Which brings me to the only other thing I knew about Van Gogh: The Starry Night.
Listening to the Liturgist Podcast, Science Mike dropped this piece of knowledge: in the center of the painting is a church. It’s featured prominently — though I never noticed until listening to this episode.
Something else I never noticed before: all the houses around the church have their lights on. The stars and moon are brightly painted. But the church? Dark. The lights are off.
Did Van Gogh mean that the church is closed for business? The light has gone?
That the Church operates in the dark?
That nobody’s home, ever?
Was he reflecting on the harm that the Church caused him and others?
Because the lights being off in the church sure seems intentional.
My mind keeps coming back to Revelation 3:20: Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
It’s a nice verse that makes a nice painting and featured on the wrapper of an In N Out Burger.
But Jesus is talking to a church — the Church of Laodicea. And he’s standing outside a church — a church — and asking to come in.
In this season of my life, I keep coming back to The Starry Night and Revelation 3:20 and what it means to be a preacher.
I wrestle with the comfort of being a product of the United Methodist or being a prophet. Because in the words of Sho Baraka, I lose money every time I’m honest.
By my writing those last few sentences (and the next few posts that deal with this), by no means am I declaring myself to be answer to all the problems; I’m definitely not saying I’m the voice the Church needs to hear. Nor does it mean that I’m going to don on some camel hair clothing and eat honey and locusts (more honey, less locusts) and rail against the institution that feeds me.
I’m simply… just wrestling. Which is something the church generally doesn’t encourage enough, let alone talk about, if you ask me.
I think why this new insight of Van Gogh and The Starry Night has been lodged in my heart is because I feel like there’s truth to (what I perceive) Van Gogh’s commentary about the church. Truth that I can’t shake off; truth to the thought/idea of the church having no light. Everything else is illuminated but the Church remains dark.
But more personally, there’s immense truth to the fact that I remain in the dark, while everything around me is illuminated. Sometimes I remain unknowingly in the dark — forgivable.
But other times I simply choose to be in the dark — because ignorance does offer some bliss. Less forgivable.
However, I feel that through wrestling with all the thoughts that are in my head; taking the time to reflect and write out my thoughts; through learning, remembering, lamenting, and repenting I can be on a journey that takes me from darkness to the light.
2 thoughts on “Prophetic Voice: Starry Night”
Thank you, Joe, for these thoughtful, caring words.