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The Starry Night

Commencement for Graduate Students

Congratulations on this day; a day to celebrate your accomplishments, as well as to mark a beginning of your career, and your path to reveal your particular calling. This is a genesis moment. No matter what your journey has been, this marks a moment of a new beginning. So we celebrate both what you have accomplished and the pregnant possibility of this day.

To mark this genesis moment, I want to speak to about a painting I consider to be a Genesis painting, “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh. This famed painting by Vincent has been discussed, sang about and given much attention over the years since it was painted in 1889. The painting is at MOMA in New York City so I do hope that all of you will get to see it first hand at some point. A poor reproduction would not do justice; and even a great reproduction will not do justice to the physicality of the surface, painted with the best pigments available in Vincent’s time, hand mixed and hand poured in newly invented form of technology called tubed paint.

Though this image is well known, we may miss seeing the deeper significance of this painting, to be able see it as a genesis moment painting. First, let me speak a bit about the artist, details of Vincent’s life that you may not know about. Not many know that Vincent was born in a lineage of Dutch Reformed pastors and he himself trained for and desired to become a pastor. It was only when the church rejected his plea, that he instead opted to work as an evangelist to the poor. Among the poor, he lived with them in a Franciscan devotion, living in squalid conditions. The church authorities who sent him there was appalled by the conditions Vincent chose to live in, rejected him again, and pronounced him “unfit for the dignity of the priesthood.” Vincent spoke five languages and wrote fluently in three. Today, his many letters are considered by Dutch literature experts to be one of their masterpieces of epistles. He might have been graduating from this university today with a graduate degree. If it was not for, of course, mental illness he was plagued with all his life.

Though he was rejected by the church authorities twice, it was while he toiled to work with the poor in the coal mines of Belgium that he began to draw the miners. He was not formally trained in painting and drawing at that point and yet, as he drew, he discovered that he could communicate visually more deeply about the compassion he felt for humanity and God’s presence in the lives of the poor than when he was attempting to do so in the pulpit. Art became, then, a way to capture their genesis moments, hidden behind every darkened face, even in the candlelight. Art gave to Vincent a way to tap into the potential of each moment, to see afresh life’s struggles in light of Christ’s presence.

To Vincent, Christ was the ultimate artist. He wrote to a younger artist Emile Bernard later in a letter, advising him:

“You do very well to read the Bible - I start there because I’ve always refrained from recommending it to you … Lived as serenely as an artist greater than all artists - disdaining marble and clay and paint - working in LIVING FLESH. I.e.-this extraordinary artist, hardly conceivable with the obtuse instrument of our nervous and stupefied modern brains, made neither statues nor paintings or even books … he states it loud and clear … he made … LIVING men, immortals … this great artist-Christ-although he disdained writing books on ideas & feelings - was certainly much less disdainful of the spoken word-THE PARABLE above all. (What a sower, what a harvest, what a fig-tree, etc.)”

And I might add, what a Starry Night. His paintings are color- filled parables of genesis moments generatively given to us in flesh with canvas and paint.

By the time his untimely and tragic death came, he only had three full years to have devoted his life to paintings that he is known for, the works in collections of museums all over the world.

So let us consider the Starry Night, the famed landscape he painted in Arles. Notice that at the very center of the painting is a white Dutch Reformed church, which did not exist in Arles. Vincent imported a church building of his childhood, pasting it into the landscape of Arles because he wanted to create a parable of his own life.

If you are to take out the church (place a pinky over the church) from the painting, the whole painting falls apart visually. It is the only vertical form, aside from the dominant cypress tree on the left, which juts out to break the horizontal planes. The cypress tree and the church are two forms that connect heaven and earth. Without the church, the cypress tree takes over the swirl of movement, and there’s no visual center to hold the painting in tension between heaven and earth.

Notice, too, that homes surrounding the church are lit with warm light, but the church is the only building in the painting that is completely dark. Herein lies Vincent’s message: the Spirit has left the church (at least the building), but is alive in Nature. If you follow the visual flow of the painting, your eye will cycle upward, but still anchored by the church building. Our gaze will end up on the right upper hand corner, at the crescent moon. Notice it is more than just a moon, refracting a sun. Vincent wanted to show that the Spirit of God transcends even Nature herself, that in resurrection, in the New Earth and the new Heaven, a complete new order will shape things to come.

Vincent wrote to Bernard:

“(But seeing that nothing opposes it -) supposing that there are also lines and forms as well as colors on the other innumerable planets and suns - it would remain praiseworthy of us to maintain a certain serenity with regard to the possibilities of painting under superior and changed conditions of existence, an existence changed by a phenomenon no queerer and no more surprising than the transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly, or of the white grub into a cockchafer.” (23 June 1888)

You and I are caterpillars about to be transformed into butterfles. We are in a threshold of seeing what NT Wright called the post-Resurrection reality of “Life after Life after Death.”

Vincent painted this “superior and changed condition of existence,” already here but not fully yet. He developed a visual diction that serves as a bridge between our current condition and a future transformed, genesis condition. In other words, he envisioned the transformation before it happened, and by faith painted the world to come. By doing so, Vincent depicted a world that he was intuiting, a world in which the church still structurally holds things together, but one in which the light has gone out of our church building.

Art poses questions; art probes into our lives as living parables. So the question I ask of you is this: What do we do if Vincent is right; what do we do in a culture in which the light of the Spirit has gone out of the church buildings and instead went swirling into Nature and into the margins of the life? What do you do in a culture in which the church stands as a structural homage to the moral underpinning which keeps the world from falling apart?

Many have noted that your generation is not eager to sign up to join a church. The fastest growing denomination, I am told, is of “none.” Your generation do not show interest in denominationalism, and yet it does not seem that you are done with Jesus or spirituality. You have far more invested interest in seeking justice and caring for our environment than my generation.

I pose to you today, you are living in a world that Vincent depicted. The church has kept the structure of the Truth in society, but we have lost the Spirit in creating beauty. The church is no longer where masses come to know the creator of beauty. Tim Keller, my pastor, says that we have invited Jesus as our Savior but we also need to invite him as our Creator.

Every challenge is also an opportunity to exercise generative thinking, to think through the fears, and seek out the light that shines, however hidden. The psalmist tells us that “The Heavens declare the Glory of God.” (Psalm 19) If the church is darkened, perhaps we should focus on where the Spirit is truly moving, and pay attention to where the colors are the most intense. The Gospel reality not just speaks of what we do inside a church building, but to the presence of the Divine already evident in Nature and in Creativity. Instead of speaking of God just in private spheres, and speaking of him only inside church buildings, we must proclaim him into the very fabric of your calling as teachers, as nurses, as engineers, as artists and as writers; we must see our occupations as part of the glorious reality in which God has already manifested the Spirit’s incorruptible visage. In a world in which the churches may be darkened, we cannot have “Sunday” faith and live as if Christ is not Present on the rest of our days. We need to acknowledge the presence of Grace in the darkest of areas, even in the areas we would rather hide from God. The church is not a building, but the collective souls of the people of God. Whether we are politicians, dancers, entrepreneurs or plumbers, we are called into the Starry Night of our complex existence, as we, too, swirl into the darker mystery of our 21st Century vista. Because the “Heavens declare the Glory of God” we must carry the torch of truth, justice and the aroma of beauty outside of the walls of our institutions.

Christianity in the Twentieth Century has been turned into an “adjective” existence. We have Christian music, Christian art, Christian plumbers. And I am speaking at a Christian college. I am not saying we should not use these terms. But we need to realize these categories in themselves are the device of pluralism, and they can ultimately undermine our desire to infuse all of life with Christ’s presence. I am not a Christian artist. I am a Christian, yes, and an artist. I do not like to use the powerful Presence of Christ in my life as an adjective. Instead, I want Christ to be my whole being. Vincent was not a Christian artist either, but in Christ he painted the Heavens declaring the glory of God.

Let Christ be a noun in your lives. Let your whole being ooze out like the painted colors with the splendor and the mystery of Christ. The Spirit welcomes you into the margins, into the liminal spaces far away from the doors of the church. And yet there you will be met by a Shepherd/Artist who will guide you into a wider pasture of culture. He will guide you into the night skies in which the sun and the moon are held together by his hand. Create in Love, as Vincent so loved the world that rejected him, as he so longed to be home in the church, the only building without light.

In such darkness, we may be overwhelmed: but precisely because it is dark, and precisely because we must look up, we experience a genesis moment. This genesis reality is Vincent’s gift to us, given to your journey forward. Especially in the dark, churches must be lit up. Many of you will be called to do such a work within churches; such work is important, as it connects us to the central skeleton of the Truth, barely holding the world together. May your efforts, however small, light a candle inside that darkened church. May your sacrifices be an offering to fill the vacant room with the aroma of Christ. May a banquet table be prepared with a feast fit for a King, to welcome the marginalized, oppressed and the poor, including artists like Vincent. Even though your labor may be in the thick dark night; may you be like the stars in the deep skies of the Starry Night giving genesis moments to those who see and admire them. God bless you.