They think I’m a madman, because I wanted to be a true Christian

Yesterday, March 30, was the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, born in Zundert, Holland (1853). As The Writer’s Almanac reports it, as a young man, he was deeply religious and went off to do missionary work in a coal-mining region in Belgium. One day he decided to give away all of his worldly goods and live like a peasant. But his religious superiors thought he was having a nervous breakdown. They kicked him out of the mission and he had to go home. Van Gough wrote in a letter to a friend, “They think I’m a madman, because I wanted to be a true Christian.”

It was then that he started to draw and paint. He taught himself with art books and by studying the masters. He was especially interested in painting the daily life of peasants. He finally decided to move to the village of Arles in the south of France, because he said, “I want to look at nature under a brighter sky.” It was in Arles that he began to develop the style he became known for, in which the images of flowers and trees and landscapes were exaggerated by extremely rough brush strokes and vivid colors.

Vincent Van Gogh said, “I have a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.”

The Bookmobile was the tip off!

I can still hear it and feel it – the quiet hum of the bookmobile while I was safely inside enjoying the air conditioning on a hot summer day. Air conditioning was a different world for me – it said, “take your time, relax, read, think.” I think I still have that conditioned reflex – turn on the air conditioner, and in no time I’ll start reading.

The bookmobile parked in the lot by the school I attended on Wednesday afternoons after school. Nothing could keep me from showing up, hoping that they stocked the shelves with some new books. I had read every history and biography on the shelves, but every once in a while they would throw in something new. I would take it down and sit on the wheel well, which had been made out to be a seat – not comfortable, but it was off the floor and no one would have to step over you to reach a book. Strange, but I don’t remember anyone else ever being in the bookmobile other than the traveling librarian. It was all mine.

Many years later it occurred to me that bookmobiles went to certain kinds of neighborhoods, the kind where kids are not considered so privileged. Of course, I thought the opposite as a child. The bookmobile meant that we were special. I mean, they drove the library to you. You must be unique, extraordinary, with special potential. And they even air conditioned itfor you, and the driver was like a chaffeur. Talk about personal service.

My mother-in-law sent me an article out of the hometown newspaper. It was about the neighborhood I grew up in, a place that has fallen on even harder times. It describes my neighborhood this way. “It was a destination for the working man, machinists, cafeteria workers looking for affordable one-story homes with one-car garages [we had no garage], all surrounding a school.”

Now it occurs to me that someone out there in Norfolk was thinking about the kids growing up in that neighborhood. They knew that there were some things that we were going to do without. So they sent us a bookmobile. They made one kid feel very, very rich. They gave him the gift of learning, of going beyond the small world of Coleman Place neighborhood. And they threw in an air conditioner, just to top it off.

Whoever you were, thank you.

A poem a day for 30 days

This is the text of an email I received from Knopf poetry. I signed up last year and really enjoyed it. You might, too. 

Nine years ago we began a Knopf tradition. To celebrate National Poetry Month, we sent a poem a day by e-mail for 30 days to anyone who asked to receive them. Now, with over 25,000 subscribers, we are proud to continue with a whole new series of daily poems. Each day during the month of April you will receive a poem from some of the best poets in the world including Mark Strand, Sharon Olds, and Laurie Sheck, as well as classics from
Langston Hughes, Robert Burns and more. This year, we’ll also be featuring audio clips from The Knopf National Poetry Month Collection, special printable broadsides, signed books and more.

If you know of someone who might like to join the poem-a-day party, they may visit to sign up.

Rats, I’m sick!!!

Got a Springtime cold, and it’s a whopper! It started coming on Sunday morning during the message. It’s rare that the congregation and I get sick at the same time. While I was making them sick preaching, I got sick. Sounds only fair.

I was home on Monday and Tuesday, except that Tuesday evening I helped lead DivorceCare. On Wednesday I went into the office midmorning and stayed until I went to teach my evening course at Eastern Nazarene College. My voice gave out 30 minutes into the four hour course. It was a long night!!! And now it’s early Thursday morning, and I can’t sleep with my stuffy head and sore throat.

On Monday and Tuesday I began reading Anne Lamott’s Plan B and Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind.I enjoy Lamott because she does a great job expressing how uneven the life of Christ-following is. She is about as far away from my fundamentalist upbringing as anyone could be. At times she makes me wonder if we are actually in the same camp. But she says things that makes me think she understands how frustrating this life of faith can be and how exasperated I can be – will I ever get it right? She expresses brokenness in the most creative of ways.

She writes of her mother this way.

I’ve spent my whole life trying to get over having had Nikki for a mother, and I have to say that from day one after she died, I liked haivng a dead mother much more than having an impossible one…I prayed to forgive her but didn’t – for staying in a fever dream of a marriage, for fanatically pushing her children to achieve, for letting herself go from great beauty to hugely overweight woman in dowdy clothes and sloppy mask makeup. It wasn’t black and white. I really loved her, and took great care of her, and was proud of some heroic things she had done with her life. She had put herself through law school, fought the great good fights for justice and civil rights, marched against the Vietnam war. But she was like someone who had broken my leg, and my leg healed badly, and I would limp forever. I couldn’t pretend she hadn’t done extensive damage – that’s called denial. But I wanted to dance anyway, even with a limp. I know forgiveness is a component of freedom, yet I couldn’t, even after she died, grant her amnesty. Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You’re done. It doesn’t necessarily mean you want to have lunch with this person. If you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare-which is a tiny problem with our Israeli and Palestinian friends. And I guess I wasn’t done.

Again she writes:

Grace means you’re in a different universe from where you had been stuck, when you had absolutely no way to get there on your own.

And again:

One secret of life is that the reason life works at all is that not everyone in your tribe is nuts on the same day. Another is that laughter is carbonated holiness.

She curses a bit, and I don’t mean using the word “darn.” John MacArthur she isn’t. And the Billy Graham organization isn’t going to invite her to speak at a conference. (Though a lot of the BG people will have her book in their briefcases, safely hidden under their big Bibles). When “ten-easy-steps-Christianity” gets a bit too much for me and the Christian speaking circuit is filled with impossibly holy people who for some reason seem terribly oppressed to me, Anne Lamott is a good antidote.

She has a new book just out titled Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. I have put a hold onto it through the library so at some point here they’ll have it for me.

As to the book of Freud, I picked it up because I do some teaching on Freud in my class on philosophy. Both Freud and Darwin dominate the landscape of twentieth century thought. Darwin at the level of biology and Freud at the level of the “spiritual” sought to give an explanation of mankind without a God hypothesis. And by and large our culture has bought in. Freud called religion the universal neurosis of mankind. In other words, religion makes people sick. But we have a love-hate relationship with Freud and increasingly many of his ideas are passing from the scene. Publisher’s Weekly reviews the book this way: 

Looking closely at Freud’s approach to specific patients and revisiting some of his lesser-known publications (including a vigorous campaign in support of cocaine as a mood-enhancer and anesthetic), Kramer finds in this irreverent biography a man who “displayed bad character in the service of bad science.” Kramer’s task is a difficult one, in large part because, in anticipation of his own legacy, Freud began destroying his personal documents at an early age. It’s this kind of hubris (“as for the biographers … we have no desire to make it too easy for them”) which enabled him to hide the fact that he was “more devious and less original than he made himself out to be;” it also makes him a fascinating subject. Kramer is careful to give Freud’s major contributions-including the recognition that symptoms can “reveal hints of thoughts and feelings pushed out of awareness” and that psychoanalysis’s unfettered exploration of the subconscious can offer patients a haven for exploring otherwise repressed thoughts-their due. But he is unsparing in his assessment of Freud’s errors in judgment: “there is a disturbing consistency in Freud’s indifference to inconvenient facts. … he bullied his patients and misrepresented his results.”

Peter Kramer is best known for his book Listening to Prozac. He is a psychiatrist in Providence, RI, ready to take on some of the sacred cows of the mental health profession.

By the way, Ben, my youngest son, is going to accept the offer from the Univ of California-Santa Barbara to do his PhD work in material sciences. He showed me a picture of his campus and pointed out his lab building, which is directly by the seashore. He can literally walk out of the building onto the beach. Not bad!!!!

Jon is having cadaver lab work at the University of Chicago. It keeps things interesting, for sure.


It’s about the light

This poem by Michael Blumenthal reminds us that the light given by God is what gives the beauty.

“Light, at Thirty-Two” by Michael Blumenthal from Days We Would Rather Know.

It is the first thing God speaks of
when we meet Him, in the good book
of Genesis. And now, I think
I see it all in terms of light:

How, the other day at dusk
on Ossabaw Island, the marsh grass
was the color of the most beautiful hair
I had ever seen, or how—years ago
in the early-dawn light of Montrose Park—
I saw the most ravishing woman
in the world, only to find, hours later
over drinks in a dark bar, that it
wasn’t she who was ravishing,
but the light: how it filtered
through the leaves of the magnolia
onto her cheeks, how it turned
her cotton dress to silk, her walk
to a tour-jeté.

And I understood, finally,
what my friend John meant,
twenty years ago, when he said: Love
is keeping the lights on. And I understood
why Matisse and Bonnard and Gauguin
and Cézanne all followed the light:
Because they knew all lovers are equal
in the dark, that light defines beauty
the way longing defines desire, that
everything depends on how light falls
on a seashell, a mouth … a broken bottle.

And now, I’d like to learn
to follow light wherever it leads me,
never again to say to a woman, YOU
are beautiful, but rather to whisper:
Darling, the way light fell on your hair
This morning when we woke—God,
It was beautiful. Because, if the light is right,
Then the day and the body and the faint pleasures
Waiting at the window … they too are right.
All things lovely there. As the first poet wrote,
in his first book of poems: Let there be light.

And there is.

Thoughts on Spring

Emily Dickinson wrote, “A little Madness in the Spring / Is wholesome even for the King.”

Margaret Atwood wrote, “In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,
“Spring still makes spring in the mind,
When sixty years are told;
Love wakes anew this throbbing heart,
And we are never old.”