Vincent Van Gogh painted his remarkable Wheatfields With Crows in the summer of 1890. This was his last painting before his untimely death in July of that year. At the time of the painting, life seemed to spiral further downward for him. He felt abandoned by his beloved brother Theo. He felt profoundly alone, sick, disturbed, surviving bursts of fresh expectations, only to sink once again into despondency. He turned to his familiar brushes to provide a semblance of balance for which he yearned.

“My life is threatened at the very root,” he said during this time, “my steps are wavering.” Even though he had been released from the disturbing confinement of a mental institution, clearly he knew he was not well. He moved to Auvers, France. He and his brother both hoped the rural setting might offer a new start. He picked up his brushes once again, but this time “to express sadness and extreme loneliness.” This painting tells that story.

Van Gogh died July 29, 1890, at the age of 37, two days after he apparently shot himself, in the same season he painted Wheatfields With Crows. Perhaps he knew what was out ahead, as he stood, brushes in hand, in the very fields where he tried to take his life.

Sharon and I had the privilege recently of standing in front of this stunning painting in the museum in Amsterdam dedicated to the life and work of Van Gogh. The museum sits, by the way, within a stone’s throw of the grand Rijksmuseum, where Rembrandt and Vermeer and other Dutch Masters reside in all their glory. As I stood before Wheatfields With Crows, I was captivated. The painting is surely bright with Van Gogh’s signature colors, the vibrant yellows, the deep blues, the reds and greens, all of it accentuated with the swirling black dots of the crows. And yet there is something haunting here.

The scene is at once vibrant yet menacing. The light teases as if it just might just break through but never does. The picture portends a threatening storm: It is turbulent, chaotic, the crows swirl about with a frenzied lack of purpose. Van Gogh talked toward the end of his life about the “horror” that life had become. Yes, this painting tells the story.

Notice that the roads seem to lead nowhere. It is those red roads, and the fork in the road, moving off in three different directions, with no apparent end-point in any direction—this is what I find so disturbing. There may be some glimmer of hope breaking through on the distant horizon—but there is no path that leads the way forward. The roads are dead-ends. This is a picture where all direction is lost.

When there is nowhere to go, despair sets in, doesn’t it? When the roads of our lives lead nowhere, the landscape seems threatening. Don’t we all need to know we are headed somewhere? Don’t we all need a goal, a destination? Don’t leaders need to lead with a vision for something out there that will restore health to our organizations, our country, our schools, our cities? Perhaps this is one of the traits of the despair of our age—we stand at the many forks in the road and yet have little idea how to sort them out.

My Christian faith embeds this profound need for direction in the very structure of living. Yes, we have somewhere to go. We can get better, despite all our faults. We can set goals that get us toward something good. We come to those forks in the road, to be sure, but we can make a choice. We can make mistakes, no doubt about it, but then we backup, pick up the pieces, start again. We need confidence that we not alone as we sort through the options.

I am reminded of these poignant lines from great Jeremiah:

Take your stand and watch at the crossroads;
enquire about the ancient paths;
ask which is the way that leads to what is good.
Take that way, and you will find rest for yourselves.

I would like that rest for Van Gogh. This painting says he had lost that rest. There seems no path here that “leads to what is good.” There is no one out there to point the way. The ancient paths have been obliterated, for his life, for our age, and we stand at the crossroads, with nowhere to go.

That’s the tragedy of Van Gogh’s final painting. Everyone needs somewhere to go. Let us return again and again to enquire about the ancient paths that point the way toward what is good.