On a recent interview with a Christian radio station in England I was asked to choose a song to play.
I chose a golden oldie, ‘The Servant King’, by popular English song-writer Graham Kendrick. For three reasons.
Firstly, I was personally involved when the song was originally recorded in 1984 in the Netherlands. The vocal backings were provided by the YWAM Heidebeek community where I lived at the time. Graham came across from England with his producer Les Moir and backing tracks of his worship songs, ready for us to add the vocals. The result was the second album of the Kingsway ‘Songs of Fellowship International’ series, Let God arise!
The year before we had recorded the first in that series for Kingsway, In through the veil, an English-language version of the first of a number of Dutch worship recordings we produced at Heidebeek in the 1980s. These recordings, called ‘Muziek voor de Koning’, and the ‘Concerten voor de Koning’ we held through all the Dutch provincial capitals, helped establish in Holland the new genre of music now well-known as ‘Praise’.
This year YWAM celebrates 50 years of youth missions in the Netherlands. On May 18, Ascension Day, current staff and students will gather at Heidebeek with hundreds of former staff and students from all over the world to thank God for the fruit of this half a century. No doubt the worship times will be sprinkled with such golden oldies!
Graham wanted to emulate Charles Wesley by teaching good theology through the texts of his songs as a refreshing alternative to repetitive and predictable choruses. The Servant King is about the radical revelation of a God who came, ‘not be served but to serve’; and who calls us to do the same. Those same ‘hands that flung stars into space’ surrendered ‘to cruel nails’… ‘that we might live’.
The second reason I chose that song was its current resonance with the servant leadership model Volodymyr Zelenskyy has thrust into world consciousness. It has brought hope to millions suffering under autocratic leaders. ‘Servant of the People’ is the satirical comedy series, now available for the world to see on Netflix, in which Zelenskyy himself played a humble school teacher who was thrust by popular acclaim into the presidency of Ukraine. For three seasons Ukrainians followed the unlikely antics of Vasily Petrovych Goloborodko as he refused the usual presidential perks and privileges, battled corruption, oligarchs and old-style Soviet-thinking, to promote justice, truth, public trust and equality. The series culminated in a life-imitating-art election of Zelenskyy as president on 21 April 2019, winning seventy per cent of the second round vote.
The series helped awaken the imagination of the nation to see an alternative future. Riding the Maidan ‘Revolution of Dignity’, Zelenskyy appointed young, fresh-thinking officials, just as in the television series. That in itself was remarkable enough. But within three years he found himself becoming a war president and surprising everyone with his churchillian resolve and rhetoric. So far he has continued to model servant leadership to Ukraine and the world.
Could we be witnessing another ‘moment of grace’ in modern history, alongside the post-war German-French reconciliation, and the collapse of the old communist bloc?
Waiting on tables
The third reason was that I am helping prepare an exhibition for the 400-year anniversary of the Noorderkerk, the historic church my wife and I attend in Amsterdam. A most creative 360-degree visual production, Vincent meets Rembrandt, merging art from Rembrandt and Van Gogh is shown in the church building most week days. My part is to show what if any relationship the two masters had with the church. Vincent’s letters reveal that he often came to the 7am Sunday services during the year when he lived in the city as a student. He wrote his brother Theo about the inspiration he received from sermons there, particularly concerning the parable of the sower, a theme he reproduced some 30 times in paintings and etches.
A widespread misconception is that Vincent later broke with Christian belief. Various scholars including Anton Wessels (Van Gogh and the art of living) argue that Van Gogh ‘rejected the unhealthy, sickly forms of religion, electing instead to embrace authentic forms of piety’.
Just two years before his death in 1890, for example, Vincent wrote to a friend that ‘Christ … lived serenely, as an artist greater than all other artists, scorning marble and clay and paint, working in the living flesh. (He) made…living men, immortals.‘
Around the same time, he painted his Cafe terrace at night, set in Arles, focused on a waiter serving tables under a gold-yellow awning (the colour of the divine presence) and a dark blue night sky (the colour of eternity). If you google ‘Van Gogh’, ‘last supper’, you can follow a rabbit-trail of scholastic papers establishing that the waiter is none other than… the Servant King.
Till next week,