The Piety of Pleasure

I have long been fascinated by Vincent van Gogh, and the sheer energy and passion of his art. Growing up, I was the “good child” – always proper, neatly dressed, obedient.  And I meticulously colored inside the lines. Perhaps, Vincent is my spiritual shadow –continually  encouraging me to splash paint and color – outside the lines –  in exuberant and unconventional ways.

A recent biography of Van Gogh, re-tells his tumultuous story.(Van Gogh: A Power Seething, by Julian Bell) The son of a rigid, Dutch Reformed pastor, the artist started out believing that he should follow in his father’s footsteps. And so as a young adult, he traveled to the coal mines of Belgium as a self-appointed “missionary,” where he labored to tend the wounds and the misery of the miners – caring for the unfortunate “with tireless but alarming piety…wallowing in his righteous squalor, and weeping at night.” When he returned home, his father tried to have him declared insane.

Fast forward to the last tumultuous years of Van Gogh’s life – where in the sun-drenched warmth of southern France, his soul burst forth on canvas with some of the most electrifying paintings ever created. As one reviewer (Michael Kimmelman, NY Review of Books, 2/5/15) says:

“The paintings no longer aimed toward instruction, but delight. Color made people happy.   Vincent wanted to spread pleasure. That was still God’s work.

Spreading pleasure – as God’s work? Wow – that is certainly a novel interpretation of discipleship! But it should not surprise us.  We have just celebrated the extravagant grace of baptism – in the life of Jesus and in the life of the church. And in Mark’s version of the baptism story, the God’s pleasure in drenching the life of Jesus is clear. After the dove, after the touch, after the vision came the voice: You are my Son, the Beloved – with whom I am well pleased.”

Delight, color, passion, pleasure – turbulent strokes of abundance – swirling into the world. Friends, this is part of our call.

When I am feeling low, tired, unsure of my worth or the purpose of my life, I often imitate the great reformer Martin Luther. Whenever he was depressed (which was often for him!), Luther would make the sign of the cross on his forehead and say to himself the words:
Sum baptismus est – I am baptized. That simple reminder of God’s delight and pleasure  brought Martin healing and hope – and led to a renewal of delight and pleasure in the heart of his own ministry.

May it be so for you and for me.

Susan Andrews serves as General Presbyter of Hudson River Presbytery. She is looking forward to coloring outside the lines with her three grandsons as she explores life beyond 65.

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