From Dandelions to Daisies: Celebrating Flower Communion

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To Savor or to Save the World?

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Vincent’s Creativity, on Canvas and In Life

  I completed my bachelor of social work degree in Kansas City several decades ago and I remember having[…]



I completed my bachelor of social work degree in Kansas City several decades ago and I remember having to choose a field placement site at which to do a several month-long practicum.

I wasn’t sure what kind of social work I was interested in, but there was availability in an agency that provided outpatient services to chronically mentally ill people, and that was fine.

One never knows how significant such seemingly arbitrary choices can be, but they can set the course of one’s career, and in ways, the course of one’s life.

Whenever I’m in Kansas City I’m reminded of my experiences with people I served at jobs as a mental health clinician, particularly the job of providing case management to inner city chronically ill clients.

There was Jeff, who slept on a mattress on the floor and preferred to urinate in a series of pans and containers around that not-so-aromatic mattress, instead of getting up to use to the bathroom.

Ed, who suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and had very poor social boundaries and self-preservation instincts regarding when to and when to not let his racially-biased views be known.

I wondered how long he would survive in the city.   Not long after I left my job as his case manager I learned that he had gone missing.  My heart grieved for this challenged man, because his life had likely been taken by someone who did not take kindly to racial bias.

This idea of survival and mental illness is not one to be taken lightly. Just ask the families of Robin Williams, Naomi Judd, Vincent Van Gogh, and many others, some of whom we could perhaps personally name.

Everyone here knows that such struggles aren’t at all unusual in our culture.

In the U.S. anxiety touches 29% of us over our lifespans, and 1 in 6 people suffer from depression.

Throughout history people have always struggled with swimming in the deep and sometimes dark oceans of emotions.

Our man of the hour, Vincent Van Gogh, certainly did..

He once said, “To find relief if the storm within roars too loudly, I drink a glass too many to stun myself. It’s being crazy, compared with what one ought to be.”

He would have days of being active and painting, but also days feeling what he called “thoroughly discouraged” saying…

“My life is restless and anxious.  It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day.”  (To underscore this, during one of his sleepless nights in his cell in a mental health facility -known in those days as an asylum- he painted Starry Night).

Often the case with people who have mental health challenges, Vincent would have alternating pattern of mental distress:

“I have a clarity of mind at times, when nature is so lovely those days, when I’m no longer aware of myself and the painting comes to me as if in a dream.  But I am indeed somewhat fearful that that will have its reaction in melancholy when the bad season comes.”

These are the parts of Van Gogh we know more about….his work and his illness.

The story of him cutting off of his ear is sensational…his mental illness set him apart, and that became part of his persona.

How often those are the things that are retained in the public’s mind, and one has to mindfully go beyond the public domain to get to the full story.

Despite the problems of his illnesses, Van Gogh was not only a great and influential painter, but biographers say that he also had enormous willpower, resilience and perseverance,

willing himself to remain creative even during some of his most difficult periods.

Those who knew him knew of his deep compassion for the less fortunate.

Who knew that Vincent Van Gogh was a humanitarian?

He was known to say, “To save a life is a real and beautiful thing. To make a home for the homeless, yes, it is a thing that must be good; whatever the world may say, it cannot be wrong.”

I didn’t know that during his younger adulthood before the illness became exacerbated, he was drawn to the religious life, and as this deepened within him,

his interest in the sophisticated life of material pursuits – which his wealthy art-dealing family was grooming him for- all of that fell away.

We don’t tend to hear as much about these things…the beauty in a heart, in a soul that lies beyond the fame, and the diagnosis.

I received a poem and an accompanying image in my inbox that immediately brought to mind today’s dual focus of Van Gogh and mental health challenges.  I’ll read an excerpt to you and show the image and then explain.

Twigs by Taha Muhammad Ali

And so

it has taken me

all of sixty years

to understand

that water is the finest drink,

and bread the most delicious food,

and that art is worthless

unless it plants

a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.

Art planting a measure of splendor in our hearts.

This  takes me back to experiencing the Van Gogh immersive exhibit.

The exhibit is a myriad of his paintings, brought to life with movement, and the shimmering of the moonlight on the water in the Starry Night Over the Rhone certainly planted splendor in this heart, and tears in these eyes.

So, the poem makes me think of Van Gogh.   And the image, for me, is a visual representation of what it must feel like to experience mental dis-ease.

The color in the fuzzy background is the rest of the world in its color and fullness, and in the foreground is one’s emotional self… brittle, alone, stark, void.

You see this void in one of Van Gogh’s last paintings of himself, entitled Oslo Self-Portrait.

Only in a few paintings in his entire portfolio reflect his mental challenges, and this is one.

This was painted one year before his death by self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, from which he died two days later.

There’s another of his later paintings that I’d like to share with you.

It’s the unfinished ‘Tree Roots,’ Van Gogh’s last work, painted on the morning before his death.

One must wonder if he was trying to depict on canvas his inner chaos and struggle.

Van Gogh’s struggles are well-known to us…cutting off his ear, taking his life.           The brighter parts, such as him saying, “How beautiful it is after a rain.  I ought not to let a single shower pass me by,” are less known.

Sometimes, though, it goes in the opposite direction, where we rarely hear about the shadow side.

Here are some real-life glimpses of that playing out:

Daniel Radcliff (of Harry Potter fame) decided to finally get help for his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when one day it took him five minutes to turn off a light.

Similarly, fellow actor Leonardo DiCapri walks through doorways numerous times and compulsively steps on chewing gum sidewalk stains.

Winston Churchill’s Bi-Polar disorder is believed to have influenced his appeal to the masses, and to have influenced some of his controversial decisions that a more stable person likely would not have made.

Abraham Lincoln suffered from severe and incapacitating depressions that on numerous occasions led to suicidal ideation.

So we’ve name-dropped with famous folks who have struggled with mental health.

These challenges know no bounds…the benefits of fame and fortune are no safeguard.

Whomever the afflicted may be, it can leave loved ones wondering, “What more can I do besides love them, and what does love even look like here?”…                                                                when you sense that someone is in a long, lonely fall.

One idea is embedded in this brief poem Rupi Kaur…

When the world comes crashing at your feet
it’s okay to let others help pick up the pieces.
If we’re present to take part in your happiness
when your circumstances are great,
we are more than capable of sharing your pain.

Sharing pain.  I remember my favorite professor in my social work master’s program saying,

 “It’s not so much about ‘healing’ someone or offering unsolicited advice.

But it can be hugely significant to simply let someone know that you are there with them, and asking what would make them feel most comfortable.

In this person’s classes we learned the importance of simply listening and indicating understanding.

How important it is for people – all of us – to feel heard and understood. It sounds so basic, but is primary to alleviating a person’s sense of aloneness.

That’s from an academic standpoint.

Our spiritual sources point us in the same direction by calling us to compassion, inclusion, recognizing every person’s dignity and our interconnectedness to them.

Christian author Joshua Jipp wrote an article about Jesus and mental illness, and I like his take on things.

He states:

To put it simply, the whole point of Jesus’s presence is to bring to our earthly realm the “kingdom of God” (otherwise known as God’s love).

And the imperative for his ministry was for vulnerable people (the poor, blind, incarcerated, mentally ill…in a nutshell, oppressed people).

Then Jipp poses the question… What is the logic here? Why would releasing someone from sickness necessarily be enacting God’s love?

Well, a lot of scripture might have you think that Jesus is actually ridding sick people of their symptoms of illness.

But Jipp says no.  He says, “Of primary importance here isn’t Jesus’ healing from actual physical ailment, but rather the implications of healing.

It’s not so much that the sick person was suddenly rid of any trace of disease.

Instead, what was changed was their movement from a place of marginalization to being in full communion with their people.

The healing, paradoxically, turns out to be not in the oppressed, but in the minds and hearts of those who turned them away.

It brings meaning to the loving invitation to ‘Come as you are’ that people of God such as us would and do offer.

This morning we’ve heard about the mental challenges of Van Gogh and others.

Others.  The fact of the matter is, we all have been challenged in these ways in some measure.

Haven’t we all experienced times when our emotional state feels like the twig photo or Van Gogh’s Tree Roots?

Haven’t we all at times felt internal, emotional disarray that was difficult to overcome?

It’s like Neil Diamond sings… Song sung blue, everybody knows one.

Song sung blue, every garden grows one.

It is true that me, and you, are subject to the blues now and then.

This is part of our human experience, alongside the brighter parts.

May we strive to remain connected to those parts of ourselves, and those parts of others, seeing the beauty all the while in the lighter and darker hues that paint the canvas of our lives.


I’ll leave you with this excerpt from a poem by Rev. Marcus Liefert.


This piece reminds me of the creative Vincent, of people who, like him, struggle with mental wellness, and of people who aspire to love those who struggle.

Blessed are the makers.


Oh you who are makers;

Makers of beauty,

Of paintings and pottery and sculpture,

Blessed is the making.

Blessed are those who make messes, and who make mistakes.

Who make trouble, and when needed, make up.

Blessed are those who make time for others.

And those who make love.

Blessed are those who make meaning in the face of difficulty;

who make and awaken joy.


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