True story: The man who loved geography — Mark Roberts

Balshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt (PHOTO: WikiArt )

In 1954 Graham Sutherland was commissioned to paint a full-length portrait of Winston Churchill which was presented to him at a public ceremony celebrating his 80th birthday. Sutherland was a brilliant painter, but he had the reputation of capturing the “real side” of his subjects. He painted Churchill exactly as he was and not with the stately manner he was known for.

Neither Churchill nor his wife liked the painting very much and it was taken to their country home at Chartwell, but it was evidently never displayed. Only after the death of Lady Churchill did the truth emerge: They had destroyed it shortly after it was delivered.

 Joe came to the farm, suffering from an alcohol addiction and the portrait that life had painted of him over the years was neither liked by himself nor his family, but instead of denying the picture, he embraced its truthful portrayal of himself: A fifty-five-year-old drunk with shaking hands and broken teeth. 

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There was something charming about Joe; he had an infectious laugh and a great sense of humour that kept you in stitches of laughter long after you had left his presence. He was intelligent, had a master’s degree in geography and a general knowledge that was admirable to say the least.

Everybody loved Joe and although being the centre of attention most of the time, he remained somewhat humble. He was a natural leader, and the saddest thing was that he didn’t even know it. But Joe lacked three things that were imperative to his recovery: self-worth, purpose and confidence.

At night we would chat until late on topics ranging from history to philosophy but as the months passed, the topic strangely took a turn to Christianity. Joe was interested in religion, enjoyed talking about it and debating the subject, but that was where it ended, and we never seemed to progress much further than that. I began to realise that due to the fact that he was exceptionally intelligent and well educated, it made the simplicity of the Gospel just that: Too simple and yet too difficult to understand. 

My daughter Tammy was in her final year of school at that stage and struggling with geography, which created an ideal opportunity to help Joe. And so, that night I asked if he could help her by giving a few pointers on the subject. 

“I can try,” he said, looking a little distraught. “I’ve never really been in a situation where someone needs my help.” The next afternoon Joe arrived at the backdoor to the farmhouse and with clean clothes and aftershave, transformed geography from Tammy’s biggest nightmare to her most keen subject.

“I didn’t know geography could be so much fun.Thanks Joe, you’re amazing” said Tammy as Joe gave a big smile flashing some broken teeth that he was suddenly very conscious of.

Two days later Joe was still on a high and as we sat under the trees in the garden with our coffee he whispered as if no one was allowed to hear: “Mark, I really enjoyed the lesson. I actually taught someone something and they were keen to listen.” He looked at a bird singing on an overhanging branch, building its nest and continued: “It made me feel like I was worth something; like someone was interested in what I had to say. Like I mattered; like I was worth something”

“You have always been worth something Joe” I said, “you just lost sight of that fact for a few years” to which we both laughed.

Although we went to church together, Joe found Christianity hard to understand. He wanted to know small details about Jesus, where He had walked, what He had said but it was Jesus’ purpose that was unnerving to Joe. Accepting the whole narrative would drive a man to accountability and Joe didn’t like that. What he missed was that taking accountability didn’t lure judgement, instead it diverted it to the man who accepted it on his behalf two thousand years earlier.

I never force religious discussions with people and generally wait until they enquire of me and then it’s usually just relaying a love story. We have free will (which was an expensive gift) and we have the right to accept or reject the story and ultimately God honours our free will choices (and their consequences).

Working with Joe made me think of “Belshazzar’s Feast” by the artist Rembrandt, based on an Old Testament story about Daniel and the king of Babylon. The king demands vessels of gold from the Jewish Temple which he uses and desecrates at the feast when suddenly a hand appears and begins to write on the wall. The king is ashen and afraid with a look of horror on his face as Daniel commences with the translation of the writing on the wall: “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.”

Later that evening the king dies a tragic death at the hands of his enemies. Joe, likewise, had been weighed and he knew he had come up short in the balance: he was left wanting, but he couldn’t bring himself to admit the wrongs and damage he had brought to his wife and children. The writing was on the wall and judgement declared and yet unlike Rembrandt’s painting, Joe had no look of horror on his face. There was no fear and there was no sorrow. Physically, Joe was one of the best recoveries I have ever had the privilege of being involved in, but there was no deep, spiritual awakening.

What he needed was to peel back the layers of dirt he had accumulated over the years whilst rolling in the mud of his addiction and selfishness and see himself not only as he was, but how he had been. Most of all he needed to peel away the layers to get to the beautiful original layer that God had created and wanted to know. 

In St Mary’s Chapel in Lubek was a famous work of art showing the “dance of Death”. On its walls were traditional reminders of the temporary nature of life but it was destroyed during Alied bombings in WWII. The bells plummeted to the ground, shattered and broken.

They remain on the ground of that chapel to this day as a stark reminder of Death. Fire and the ensuing heat caused the plaster to break off the walls and fall to the ground. Many were devastated by the destruction but then an amazing discovery was made: There were beautiful paintings from the Middle Ages beneath that plaster that had been hidden for centuries and they were not pictures of Death, but of Life. Unfortunately, they hired an artist to restore the painting according to his interpretation and instead of a masterpiece, its beauty was destroyed.

A bomb had fallen, and it had destroyed the painting of Joe’s life and the ensuing fire had begun to reveal some of the beauty hidden below the surface for so many years. Instead of seeing the masterpiece through the eyes and hands of the scarred One who painted it, Joe tried to restore it according to his own interpretation and instead, he messed up the whole thing.

Joe recovered physically and we remained good friends for several years until we eventually lost touch. The last I heard he was divorced but still “clean”, very lonely and still busy trying to restore the picture under the plaster that he hasn’t fully removed yet. I guess all I can do for Joe now is pray.

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One Comment

  1. Always such a heartfelt read!