As I’ve been preparing to share thoughts about listening with you, I read several interesting stories. Some of them were about listening. Others were about the lack of listening.
One of those stories was about Vincent van Gogh.
Before I share what I learned by “listening” to his story, I want you to know that I draw some parallels regarding his life and the life of leaders of our congregations.
It is my hope that as you read this story you will find places to stop and to ask yourself, “Am I listening to God in and through the people around me?”
Is van Gogh a Teacher?
At age twenty-four, Vincent Van Gogh was struggling with what to do with his life. Although he was a successful art dealer, he felt there was more he needed to do with the life God had given him.
At this point, no one seemed to question is restlessness. His brother, Theo, who seemed to know him the best, encouraged him to become an artist. But Vincent refused his brother’s advice. Instead, he left a promising career as an art dealer and began studying to be a teacher.
Now, please know that being a teacher was a great life decision, but for Vincent, it was the beginning of a harmful pattern.
Is van Gogh an Evangelist?
Within the year, it became apparent that Vincent would not make it through the rigorous training required of teachers. He neither had the temperament nor the talent for it. Again, he asked his brother, Theo, for advice. But against the encouragement of Theo, his parents, and other relatives, Vincent decided to become an evangelist.
Again, I want to say, being an evangelist would have been a great life decision, but for Vincent, it was a continuation of a harmful pattern.
Who Am I?
Vincent van Gogh had a difficult time receiving the counsel and coaching of others. It seems as if he had a strange sense of who he was. At this point in his life, as religious as he was, instead of trusting God and others with his life, he trusted only himself with himself.
He refused to listen to the people around him, particularly the people who loved him and cared about him. No matter what his vocation, his behavior was a sign, not of spiritual maturity, but of well-masked pride and arrogance.
Am I Listening?
Here is where I want you to ask yourself the question, “Am I listening to God in and through the people around me?”
Only as an example and not to be overly critical, I want to say that over my years of ministry, I have met people like Vincent van Gogh. People who have been greatly talented and skilled for what they are doing, but who think they can maintain a personal relationship with God while avoiding the relationships of everyday human interaction.
I have heard them say, “My faith is private. It is between me and God.”
They believed they could experience all that God had for them without receiving the love of others. Vulnerability was seen as a weakness. They isolated themselves. Sometimes the isolation was based upon ideas of purity or hard work and at other times it was based upon spiritual superiority. I have heard them say, “I have worked hard for what I have. I am blessed.”
Are You Listening to God?
My question is, “Are you listening to God in and through the people around you?”
A quick look at the life of Jesus might help answer the question. Jesus intentionally chose to live and work with fallible and ordinary people.
According to the stories in the gospels, the twelve disciples were not the model of perfection. Jesus broke with the customs of his day and allowed women into his inner circle. Even in the home of the rich and famous, Jesus allowed Mary Magdalene to minister to him. There are many other examples of vulnerability. He chose a lifestyle of isolation over vulnerability.
Van Gogh recoiled from vulnerability. He chose to abandon all his relationships, except the one with his brother. Even with that relationship, he refused to listen to Theo’s ongoing insights into his artistic gift.
Van Gogh rejected the counsel and coaching of church leaders regarding his service. In his isolation, he wallowed in self-pity. He said he wanted to live for others but all is actions proved differently.
Ultimately, his remorse brought him to the point of giving up his faith. He became disappointed with God because God did not reward his self-denial and pure aspirations to love his fellow humans.
I find it interesting that van Gogh never considered that God did not abandon him but rather was speaking to him in and through the people who loved him and who counseled and coached him.
Let me ask you again: Are you listening to God in and through the people around you?
Is van Gogh an Artist?
Van Gogh finally found his calling as an artist. In a particularly dark moment in his life, he wrote to Theo, “I said to myself, ‘I’ll take up my pencil again, I will take up drawing,’ and from that moment everything had changed for me.”
He finally found his calling, but in doing so, he abandoned the relationships he longed for and needed, including his relationship with God. As a result, his capacity for creating art become a curse to him instead of a blessing.
Through his artistic career, van Gogh persisted in ignoring the advice of those who cared deeply for him, leaving a trail of broken relationships. He pursued his painting with such an obsession that he demanded people accept his terms for living and loving. His lonely life became representative of a person misunderstood and unloved by an antagonistic culture.
Was it Art or the Heart?
One tragedy of van Gogh’s career was his refusal to listen to the guidance of others. If he had listened to those who he could trust, he would have begun painting much earlier in life, avoiding the frustrations and pain of choosing unwisely.
But the greatest tragedy of his life was he could not love others because he was not fulfilled himself. He would not allow God or others to meet his deepest needs.
Can you image what he could have produced had he found his dream community of artists pursuing art for the common good?
But his desire to control and manipulate the lives of others got in the way. Van Gogh drove people away. He would not allow people to come close to him, alongside him, to help him develop his real talents and strengths. He would not allow those closest to him to address his personality flaws, weaknesses, or poor habits. So ultimately, it was not his art that brought him down, it was his heart.
Ask Yourself: Am I Listening?
So, here is the question, “Am I listening to God in and through the people around me?”
That is a question, not only for you as a leader but for your congregation. Are you listening to the community in which you are located? As local churches, we can no longer be isolated, doing our own thing, and expect the community to pay attention to us.
What would happen if we began to listen to God in and through one another and the community?
We might just find our true calling.
Are you listening?