Remembering Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter and is among the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art. In the last 10 years of his life he created 2,100 works of art including 860 oil paintings. His most famous works include The Starry Night and Sunflowers. Vincent was a complex person who struggled with poor mental health and depression for much of his life. He was always poor and died tragically at the age of 37.

Vincent was a serious, quiet and thoughtful child. His father was a Dutch Reformed minister and Vincent developed a fervent faith and a passion for ministry. He wanted to study theology but failed the seminary entrance exam, so he became a missionary to coal miners in Belgium. In these impoverished communities Vincent lived a life of radical self-sacrifice and servanthood. He sold everything he had so he could care for the needs of the people.

Vincent was a very generous man. He understood the unconditional love of God and showed unconditional love for others. He would never recognise love that was not seen in actions. Despite his commitment to Christ-like sacrifice, Vincent was rejected by the church for being overzealous, and for his ineloquent speech and scruffy appearance. He suffered a nervous breakdown and struggled with depression for the rest of his life.

Vincent died in unusual circumstances in what was thought to be suicide, but he may have been accidentally shot by two boys who later made a statement admitting they were target shooting near where Vincent was found. As he lay dying Vincent told the police, “I’m hurt, but don’t blame anybody else.”

The Christian message is not about what God demands that we do, but about what he has done for us in Jesus. It offers hope to us all, however troubled our lives may be. One song sums it up well, “Upon a life I have not lived, upon a death I did not die; another’s life, another’s death, I stake my whole eternity. Not on the tears which I have shed, not on the sorrows I have known; another’s tears, another’s griefs, on these I rest, on these alone. O Jesus, Son of God, I build on what your cross has done for me; there both my death and life I read, my guilt, and pardon there I see. Lord, I believe; O deal with me, as one who has your Word believed! I take the gift, Lord, look on me, as one who has your gift received.”

True happiness

All people long to find true and lasting happiness. The American Declaration of Independence says all people have been endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights including the “pursuit of happiness.” However, many people around the world are unhappy. The UN World Happiness Report 2018 asked people in every country in the world how happy they were. People living in Finland, Norway and Denmark were the happiest. People in these countries live in stable society with a high standard of living. People living in Yemen, South Sudan and Burundi were the unhappiest. People living in these countries are experiencing terrible conflicts and are very poor with no immediate prospect of improvement.

However, people living in affluent countries also experience profound and tragic unhappiness. In South Korea many elderly people commit suicide. The tradition of children caring for their aging parents has declined in the 21st century. Elderly parents are ending their lives because they don’t want to be a financial burden on their families. There is also a higher-than-average suicide rate amongst students. One reason is the pressure put on them by their parents to succeed academically. When students fail to achieve the goals set for them by their parents, they feel they have dishonoured their families and commit suicide.

True happiness is not found in economic prosperity or academic success but in knowing God and in experiencing his grace when we fail, as we all do. King David sinned very greatly when he committed adultery with another man’s wife and then arranged for her husband to be killed in battle. After he had committed these sins David tried to hide them and to carry on as normal. But God sent a prophet to confront him and then David confessed his sin to God and experienced God’s gracious forgiveness.

David wrote about his experience of forgiveness in Psalm 32, “O, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty! When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat. Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, ‘I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.’ And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.”

The love of money

There is an epidemic of child gambling. The Gambling Commission says that 450,000 children aged 11-16 bet regularly of whom 55,000 are “problem” gamblers. This represents a quadrupling of child problem gamblers in two years. The average stake is £16 a week each. Experts blame the sharp increase on the explosion of television adverts. Betting company adverts dominate the commercial breaks in televised Premier League football matches. 60% of the teams in the Premier League and Championship now have betting companies’ names on their shirts and receive large sums of money for doing so.

The exploitation of children and others by betting companies is shameless and is attended by hypocrisy. Betting companies say, “It means more when you have a bet on it” and “Betting should only enhance the enjoyment.” Even while encouraging people to place a bet, including offers of a free first bet, they encourage people to “bet responsibly” and say, “When the fun stops, stop.” In an effort to reduce gambling addiction Italy and Albania have recently placed restrictions on the activities of betting companies and football teams.

Betting companies make big profits for their owners and shareholders and most gamblers lose money they can’t afford to lose. I remember meeting a young man who had received compensation for serious injuries he had sustained in a road accident. A good friend had died in the accident. He told me he had been depressed and had started gambling online. When he lost money he would place another bet in the hope of recouping his losses. In a short time he lost all the money he had received. Some young problem gamblers have even taken their own lives.

In perfect justice, God will judge those who use their wealth and power to exploit the poor and vulnerable. The book of Proverbs says, “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case and will exact life for life.” We all need to guard against the temptation to want to be rich and to help and protect young people who are being tempted. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

Being loved and accepted

A Cardiff University study has revealed an increase in the number of children and young people who are self-harming. Tragically some young people have even taken their own lives. The increase in self-harm is greatest among young girls. Some social media sites show examples of self-harming which encourage other young self-harmers to injure themselves even more seriously. One teenage girl told researchers that looking at the websites left her feeling that one small cut was “not nearly good enough.”

The desire to self-harm arises from a feeling of sadness and rejection. Many years ago, before social media, we knew a young girl who would sometimes injure herself causing her great pain. We couldn’t understand why she was doing it. A consultant psychiatrist told us that she was doing it to punish herself when people didn’t like her. Other girls in school were being very unkind to her, and were excluding her, so she didn’t like herself. She felt it was her fault that she was being treated in this way and so she inflicted pain on herself.

We all have a deep need to be loved and accepted but, in our increasingly aggressive society, we may experience rejection and even active hostility. In his ministry Jesus revealed a tender love and warm acceptance of those who had been rejected by the society of his day. He was accused of being a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.” In response he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do. I have not come to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”

One day Jesus was invited to the house of a Pharisee called Simon. While he was there an immoral woman came into the house and knelt at Jesus’ feet weeping. As her tears fell on his feet, she wiped them with her hair and anointed his feet with expensive perfume. Simon was appalled that Jesus would allow such a woman to touch him. Jesus said to him, “Look at this woman kneeling here. I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown.”

Being inspired by the Invictus Games

The fourth Invictus Games has just been held in Sydney, Australia. The Games is an international event created by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, in which wounded, injured or sick armed personnel and veterans compete in a wide range of sports. Invictus is a Latin word meaning “unconquered” or “undefeated.” The Sydney Games drew 500 competitors and 1000 family and friends from 17 countries and featured 11 sports.

The stories of the competitors are inspiring. Some have suffered terrible life-changing physical injuries in armed combat, others have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and chronic illness. Invictus has inspired them not to be overcome by their injuries and suffering but to become overcomers and to do it together. There is a wonderful spirit of friendship and mutual encouragement amongst competitors in addition to the loving and persevering support of family and friends. People who thought their lives were over have found new hope and joy.

Davin ‘Bear’ Bretherton was one of the Australian competitors at the Sydney Games. He was seriously injured while serving in the military and had an amputation. He suffered from PTSD and found it difficult to face each day. He hit rock bottom when he attempted suicide. He said, “I was left lying on my shed floor crying and thinking to myself, ‘I need help and I need to do something about it. I need to try to find a way to regain my life.’ The biggest thing that I found on my road to recovery was how tough it was to ask for help. You know, I think that probably the manliest thing I’ve ever done in my life, was to reach out and physically ask someone for help. This is my life, I’ve only got one and I nearly lost it. So, I wish I’d asked for help a lot earlier.”

When bad things happen to us, as they have to ‘Bear’ and other competitors at the Invictus Games, we, too, need to ask for help. Many people have asked God to help them when they have been going through dark times in their lives and he has given them new strength and hope. The Bible says that Jesus “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same trials we do”, and so we can “come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy and will find grace to help us when we need it most.”

Love lifted me

It is interesting to read the obituaries of people who have recently died. Many, who are not well-known, have lived very interesting lives. The obituaries usually do not give details of the cause of death and often make no reference to the person’s faith in God. However, the Daily Telegraph recently published an obituary of Joan Winmill Brown, who died at the end of June at the age of 89. I had never heard of the lady, but her story was unusual.

Joan was a successful actress. In the years following World War II, when she was a rising star of the British stage and screen, she was introduced to Bobby Kennedy. He was attracted to the beautiful young actress and she became his secret girlfriend. When Bobby’s father, Joe Kennedy, found out about their relationship he ordered his son to end it. Their break-up, in early 1950, hit Joan hard; she sank into a depression during which she drank too much. She even considered suicide. She said, “At that time my world fell apart, but in hindsight I don’t believe I truly loved him. I think I was infatuated with his aura of wealth as much as the man himself.”

In 1954, a friend persuaded Joan to go to a Billy Graham Crusade in Harringay Arena. She recalled, “As I walked in the crowds were singing Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. I didn’t get it at all.” That night she was introduced to Ruth Bell, Billy Graham’s wife, and a lifelong friendship began that helped turn Joan’s life around. Later Joan received Jesus as her personal saviour and said, “God in Jesus showed me the way to happiness.” In 1952, she met Billy Brown whom she married. They both worked with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and, after they retired, lived in Hawaii. Billy died just a few months before Joan.

A hymn often sung at Billy Graham Crusades well expresses Joan’s testimony; “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry, from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. All my heart to him I give, ever to him I’ll cling, in his blessed presence live, ever his praises sing. Love so mighty and so true, merits my soul’s best songs. Faithful, loving service, too, to him belongs. Love lifted me! Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, Love lifted me!

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away

This week there will be a debate in the House of Lords on a Bill to legalise “assisted dying” which would allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to terminally-ill patients. If passed, the law would apply only to those who it is judged have less than 6 months to live and would have to be signed off by two doctors. The patient would administer the substance themselves, although they would be able to receive help if they could not lift or swallow it. So the Bill would legalise assisted suicide.

Compassion is at the centre of the debate. What is the compassionate thing to do for someone who is terminally ill and, possibly, in great pain? Over my years in the ministry I have pastorally cared for many people in such situations and their families. I have witnessed the amazing courage of terminally-ill people and seen the loving care of their families which has surrounded them. The skill and commitment of the medical team and the palliative carers has been wonderful to see. Even though everyone involved knows that death is drawing near, they have committed themselves to showing compassion and love to the dying person.

The proposed Bill presents a very different picture of compassion. When a terminally ill person feels they cannot go on those who are with them, both family and medical team, will agree that the compassionate thing to do is to allow them to end their life, even though they may have as much as six months to live. Lethal drugs will be prescribed and, then, the person, either on their own, or with assistance from those nearest to them will take the drugs and, within a short time, die. A husband or wife or son or daughter will have to live with the realisation that they played an active role in the death of someone they loved very deeply.

As I have visited terminally ill people it has been amazing to see how God has wonderfully sustained them. He has given them grace to face each day as they have experienced the deep love of their family and friends. When, finally, they have died the family had no sense of guilt but have been able to trust God to comfort them in their deep sense of loss. They could say with Job, when he suffered great personal loss in the death of all his children, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Do not be anxious about anything

A report from The Mental Health Foundation provides an insight into the extent of depressive illness in Britain today. 1 in 4 people experience a mental health problem in the course of a year, with anxiety and depression being the most common. 1 in 10 children have a mental health problem, and depression affects 1 in 5 older people. Women are more prone to anxiety and depression than men, but suicide rates are 3 times higher amongst men than they are amongst women.

The Bible provides real help to those who are anxious and depressed. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Paul knew that it is not helpful to simply tell people not to worry, so he gave good advice about what we should do. When we are anxious or afraid we should pray to God. We should talk to God about “everything” – big things and small things. When we pray, we should give thanks, remembering all the good things God has given us. We can thank him for the gift of life, a beautiful world, our family and friends, food and clothing, and his amazing love shown in the gift of his Son, Jesus. This puts our situation into a proper perspective, because when we are anxious and depressed we tend to forget all the wonderful blessings God has given us.

Then we can ask him for his help and strength to face our problems. Anxiety and fear can paralyse us, but God can help us to overcome them. When we pray, God also gives us his peace, which transcends all understanding. Some years ago I visited a friend who had suffered a heart attack. He was in the coronary care unit and I could see his monitor. I asked him whether the doctors had told him when he would be able to go back to work. Immediately his heart rate jumped to double the rate it had been, although there was no apparent change in his face. He was obviously very anxious about the future. We read together Psalm 56, verse 3, “When I am afraid, I will trust in you.” Then we prayed and asked God to take away his anxiety about the future and to give him his peace.

The God of Hope

The news that someone we love has taken their own life is devastating. I have ministered to families facing such a tragic loss. Some had been aware that the one who died was depressed, but, for others, there had been no indications. Some felt a sense of guilt because they had not been able to help. Others felt angry that the one who died didn’t think of the consequences their loved ones would have to face. All feel an overwhelming sadness at the loss they have experienced and a sense of the helplessness of being unable to do anything to change the situation.

In the past 45 years suicide rates worldwide have increased by 60%. The World Health Organisation estimates that one million people die by suicide every year – one person every 40 seconds. By 2020 this rate may have doubled. In the USA suicide is the third highest cause of death for young people between 15 and 24. The Samaritans report that suicide rates in the UK are increasing amongst men born in the 1960s and 70s and suggest that the changing role of men in our society may be a contributing factor.

When the apostle Paul was in Philippi he and Silas were severely flogged and put in prison. The jailer was told to guard them carefully, so he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in stocks. If his prisoners escaped, he would be executed. At midnight, while Paul and Silas we’re singing hymns to God, there was a violent earthquake. The prison doors flew open and everybody’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up and, thinking his prisoners had escaped, drew his sword to kill himself.

Paul shouted to him, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul asking, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.” The jailer brought Paul and Silas into his house, bathed their wounds, and gave them food. Then he was baptised and was full of joy because he had believed in Jesus.

This story shows that when we come to the point of utter despair we are not seeing things clearly. When it seems there is no hope, there always is. God is the God of hope. He saves from death, destruction and despair. He can give us joy again even out of the deepest darkness.

God is our refuge and strength

Some new stories are very sad and reveal how vulnerable we all are when we are exposed to exceptional pressure. Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse at King Edward VII hospital who answered a prank phone call from two Australian DJs, took her own life just 3 days later. Frances Andrade, a mother of 4 sons and a very talented violinist, committed suicide after giving evidence against the music teacher who abused her when she was a teenager. Both Jacintha and Frances were living fulfilled lives until they were subjected to pressures with which they could not cope. Both deaths are tragic and have devastated the families.

The apostle Paul was once imprisoned in Philippi. He and his friend, Silas, were in the deepest cell with their feet fastened in stocks. At midnight there was an earthquake which shook the foundations of the prison. All the prison doors flew open and the chains of every prisoner fell off. The jailer woke up and, seeing the prison doors open, assumed the prisoners had escaped. He drew his sword and was about to kill himself when Paul shouted to him, “Don’t do it! We are all here!”

Under great pressure the jailer made a mistake, which any of us can do. He had experienced an earthquake, saw the prison doors open, and assumed all the prisoners had escaped when, in fact, none of them had. All of us can be brought to a situation where we are in the depths of despair and feel there is no way forward, no hope for the future. It is so important to be sure we have really understood the whole situation. It is easy to think that we need to do something drastic and to do it now!

It is also important to be able to talk to those who love us, our family and friends. Feelings of despair and hopelessness are strongest when we are alone. Those who are tempted to take their own lives often feel that everyone would be happier if they were not around, but nothing could be further from the truth. We can also ask God to help us and give us strength. He is a refuge for all in need. One hymn writer, who had experienced great troubles, wrote, “How oft in the conflict, when pressed by the foe, I have fled to my refuge and breathed out my woe! How often, when trials like sea-billows roll, have I hidden in Thee, O Thou rock of my soul!”