Rethinking the Kind of Person God Uses and the Kind of Work God Blesses (2/3)

Do you ever wonder how your life might have been different? I sometimes do. For example, I sometimes wonder what life might have been like if I had pursued the creative interests of my youth.

It was the summer of 1994. I was seventeen. I had been a Christian for less than two years. My public school art teacher called to let me know the school was given funds by a local organization to scholarship one student to go to Eastern Illinois University for summer art camp. I was the chosen recipient. It was a dream of mine.

Back then.

It’s stayed with me over the years, though I’ve often been a bit embarrassed of it. I’ve written more about that here.

Art School or Bible College?

Those days on that campus were exhilarating. I studied graphic design — the only course I’ve ever taken in it — with the guy who created the Big Ten logo. I made some good friends there, none that lasted through the years, but they were meaningful that week, for sure. I took one of my camp chaperones to church with me because as a student I wasn’t allowed to leave campus alone. She was an atheist. It sparked some really good conversations about life and meaning, the kind of talks I love to have with people today.

Later that summer I went to church camp. It was a great camp too. It was the week I surrendered my life to go wherever I thought God might lead me. I just wanted to serve. All my mentors seemed certain that could mean only one thing: Bible College. They all loved me and wanted the best, I really in no way doubt that. But I sometimes wonder, what if I could have seen those creative interests and gifts as a calling too? How might things have been different? What if I wasn’t embarrassed about that part of my life? Why did it take me so long to come back to that?

I believe God doesn’t waste a thing in our lives. Not a thing. Every past experience, good or bad, every passion, every talent, every relationship, is something he will use in our lives to bring about beauty and glory in the world. My idea of calling has expanded over the years, for sure.

Sacred or Secular, Reconsidered

My wondering about my past makes me really sensitive to the young person wrestling with their own life calling. I always encourage them to take those things placed in their hands, in their hearts, those passions and talents and skills, take them all, and, to borrow a line from the Sunday School song I mentioned in the last post, “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory . . . ” I encourage them not to quickly brush aside the things they love most and are the best at, even for work others might consider to be more intrinsically sacred.

I’m going to risk the embarrassment of including my name alongside a remarkable artist. My point isn’t comparison at all in terms of artistic legacy, but a similarity in experience. After all, I’m more of a sketchy guy. He was a painter. But he was also a minister for a bit.

Most people when they hear the name Vincent Van Gogh think about his more iconic masterpieces, or the fact that he cut off his left ear. It’s true, he struggled with mental illness throughout his life. He also struggled to make sense of his calling as a Christian. (Here’s a post I found helpful in writing this with links to other similar articles about Van Gogh.)

Vincent’s father was a rather stern Dutch reformed preacher. Vincent wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. He was considered inferior in by the theology faculty at the university in Amsterdam, as he refused to learn Latin and was thought to be emotionally unstable. But these shortcomings didn’t keep him from giving two years of the primetime of his life to help the poor. He devoted himself to serving a coal mining community in Belgium.

As their minister, he sacrificed his own resources to do all he could to meet their needs. So much so, they gave him the nickname “the Christ of the coal mines.” He gave away all his clothes except one outfit he kept for himself. That’s remarkable. He took the rent money the church gave him to a single mother with multiple children. He relied on the generosity of others for a place to sleep. Amazing.

But after a couple years, the Reformed church that sent him, called him home concluding that his ministry there was both undignified and ineffective. So much for that calling. A minister in a nearby village once recalled Van Gogh’s ministry in an interview. He spoke of his love and sacrifice for the mining community. But when asked about Van Gogh as an artist, the minister was mostly dismissive. He said that part of his life wasn’t taken seriously, and that, ”We noticed that he did not reproduce things of splendor, to which we attribute beauty.”

Vincent struggled as an artist after leaving the ministry. On one occasion he compared the challenges of the life of an artist to those of the life of an evangelist. And he continued to struggle with mental illness. He died at the age of thirty-seven of a fatal wound, most believe was self inflicted.

I wonder what his life might have been like if someone had pulled him aside, and helped him understand God’s kindness and tenderness in relation to his mental struggles. I wonder if there was that person, that one person who was able to get through to him, who could have walked with him through all that. And I wonder how his life might be different if his art wasn’t seen as a secondary calling, but perhaps viewed in such a way that his painting was some of his most sincere worship and service.

Don’t Miss Your Calling(s)

I believe we need a radical transformation in our perception of the kinds of people God uses and the kind of work God blesses. An old friend recently told me she wished she had a calling. Sometimes it’s the most sincere and caring people who say something like that, the kind of person who is keenly aware of others’ needs, who do what they can to meet those needs and serve. What a calling!

It’s funny, no, it’s tragic, that we sometimes miss the blessing of seeing all the little things God is using us to do, the calling to serve a person sitting next to us on a plane or a subway, a neighbor, a lonely elderly person who catches our eye and with one glance invites us into a desperately needed conversation, that we end up realizing wasn’t only, or even primarily, for their benefit. What a glorious calling.

The Apostle Paul once said, whether you eat or drink, do it all to the glory of God. Now that’s an expansive vision of calling. Let’s catch that vision and run with it. Maybe even today. Shall we? Let’s rise and shine and give God the glory, glory.