The Painting Pastor: Medford D. Neher

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Article from Ft. Lauderdale Sentinel: https://sun-sentinel.newspapers.com/paper/fort-lauderdale-news/4752/

By Brian Nixon —

The name Medford D. Neher may not ring a bell to many contemporary Christians.  I had no idea of his name or paintings in my early ministry.  As a young, newly licensed minister within the Church of the Brethren, I had an abiding interest in the arts, but found no practical outlet in the church.

At the time my Brethren hero was Vernard Eller.  Eller was a philosopher, author, translated poetry, and penned plays. To me, Vernard Eller was the artistic Brethren, albeit a word-centric artist.

Vernard Eller. Photo owned by Brian C. Nixon

It wasn’t until much later—largely through a book published by Camp Alexander Mack, A Mural History of the Church of the Brethren— that I was introduced to Medford D. Neher, a painter and pastor.

Neher was born on July 25th, 1892, in Carrol County, Indiana. After attending Manchester College and Bethany Seminary, he entered the ministry, starting the Eastwood Church of the Brethren and pastoring in Ohio, Illinois and Florida. Writing for the Maple Grove Church of the Brethren blog,[1] Marilyn Kettering Badger states, “At Bethany Medford drew a picture to illustrate a lesson. The professor turned to Medford and almost shouted, ‘Young man, go be an artist.’ Encouraged by the professor… Medford enrolled in the Chicago Art Institute.”

Pause.  For those unaware, the Chicago Art Institute is a big deal in the art world.  Un-pause.

Camp Mack Chapel. Photo credit: James Schuster

According to Badger, Neher stated, “I had my art training and was a minister but at that time our church paid neither the preacher nor the artist.’ So, he worked as a sign painter in Akron, Ohio.”

Badger tells us that Neher “had a dream of painting the history of the Church of the Brethren…” The murals at Camp Alexander Mack are the result of that dream.  Consisting of twelve panel murals, the paintings convey the story of the Brethren from their beginning in Germany to their expansion around the world.

Alexander Mack panel. Medford. D. Neher.

According to A Mural History of the Church of the Brethren, Neher’s “work as an artist has always been his delight and avocation.” Thankfully, Neher’s pursuit to paint translated to our pleasure in his paintings.

Neher went on to successful tenures in both preaching and painting, receiving his beatific vision in 1983 when he passed from this life.

When thinking about the connection between painting and pastoral ministry, a convergence of four “Ps” comes to mind.

First, painting and preaching cause us to ponder, assessing a particular medium, be it a page, canvas, a sermon, a Biblical text, or musical score.  Painting and preaching give us room to think and imagine, challenging our hearts, minds, and souls.

Second, painting and preaching cause us to pause, to slow down.  Both preaching and painting point out specific details of life, drawing our attention to objects as simple as house or as outstanding as heaven.  And in pointing out the details of life, painting and preaching allows silence to take a seat, giving room for rest and reflection.

Third, painting and preaching cause us to peek, to look deeper into a topic or theme, to develop an understanding of what it means to be human. Painting and preaching affords us the opportunity to discover new landscapes, visit uncharted worlds, climb high mountains, or descend into the lowest valleys—eavesdropping on God’s grace as it washes over the world.

Mural by Medford D. Neher

Finally, painting and preaching can lead to prayer.  In my practice as a painter, prayer is an intricate part of what I do, slowing me down to plead on behalf of my subject or as simple as seeking solace.  In New Mexico there’s a group of Christian artists known as Santeros.  They depict Biblical and Christian themes through their art.  Most Santeros have one thing in common:  they use their time of painting as a time of prayer; they pray with the paintbrush.

And what is true with painting is true with preaching.  Pastors, lay leaders and other Christian ministers, pray, sculpt, and position their teachings to have the greatest impact:  the transformation of the human heart, reminding us that we are God’s masterpiece (Ephesians 2:10), God’s poiema, positioned—dare I say, painted—upon creation with the greatest care.

Medford mural at Camp Mack. Photo credit: https://blog.brethren.org/2019/youth-peace-advocate-camp-mack/

People like Medford D. Neher paved the road, the pastor-painter; we do well to ponder, pause, peek, and pray with them along the way.

To learn more about the murals of Medford D. Neher, click here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFiE_w1NJ5Y

[1] https://www.maplegrovecob.org/blog/2016/01/11/whats-with-that-painting

 

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