Paying attention

There are many ways to pay attention, but one of the ways that I have found myself exploring more recently is paying attention through art. The more I draw and paint, the more I find that it allows me to pay attention, and I want to reflect very briefly on four of those ways:

Attending to one thing
I am easily distracted. What I see out of the window or the corner of my eye will always take me away from what’s right in front ot me. Except when I’m painting. When I paint, I often find myself in a state of intense, yet calm, concentration. I’m able to focus on the thing in front of me, and distractions fade away, I lose my habitual impatience, and time starts to flow in a way that isn’t demanding or controlling or threatening. The texture of the paint on the pallet, and feel of the brush on the canvas, the smell of the paint, the way the brush feels in my hand, the emerging image and its shapes, colours and contours: these are my horizson, and I am rooted in the moment in a way that almost feels timeless. I know that painting doesn’t do this for everyone, and that there are many activities that have the capacity to offer something of the same experience. I hope that there is something that does this for you, especially if much of the time you struggle, as I do, to ‘monotask’, or if the circumstances of your life make this hard.

Attending to place
In Church of England ministry there is a concept called the ‘cure of souls’. It’s hard to put into ordinary words what this means, but to me it has been a shorthand for the love that I have always felt for the places and their people that have been given to me, as a priest, to love and care for. As a vicar I felt it as I walked the streets of my parish, my footsteps becoming a prayer of blessing on the physical location and all that happens there, as well as in my interactions with the people of that place. It felt as if my presence there was (or, at least should be, if I was doing it right!) a means of God’s blessing. That place, and those people, had my attention, my care. I am now chaplain of a College, and I feel the same way about that as I did about my parish. During the initial COVID 19 lockdown, I couldn’t be in College at all – almost nobody could. And some instinct led me to paint the places I could physically get to. I started by creating some line drawings of the College, to offer as colouring-in pictures on the welfare pages of the College website. Then, I painted my Chapel, and the view from my office window. It gave me back a sense of the place for which I had cure of souls, and allowed me a way to emotionally, psychologically and spiritually reconnect with that place and its community, dispersed though we all were. As I drew and painted, I found my thoughts and prayers echoing the blessing that I would usually express through my footsteps.

Attending to stories
Before COVID most of my paintings were biblical. I would use the act of painting as a form of scriptural theological reflection, finding that the process of working out how to convey a story on canvas raised many more questions than I would have thought of without that physical process. Even the question of which moment in a story to choose carries with it a whole set of things to reflect on – and there are some stories that I have painted several times, choosing different ‘moments’. And there are some ‘missing scenes’ that I have also tried to fill out – the gaps in scripture, the parts of the story that we know must have happened, and yet are left to our imagination. I’ve also really loved it when people have asked me to paint a particular story, or part of a story, or missing scene, because it gives me a chance to engage with how the story sounds to someone whose life experience and theology may be very different from mine, and who may be connecting with scripture in ways I’ve not thought of. This paintings below are: the risen Jesus meeting his mother just after he’s seen the disciples in the upper room; the woman with the bleeding, and Mary in the garden.

Attending to people
Finally, I wanted to reflect briefly on using art to attend to people – real people. With my biblical paintings I started looking at photographs of real people to enable me to learn how to paint human faces – and this immediately confronted me with how white most of the western art tradition is (and also, that trying to make everyone look ‘middle eastern’ also isn’t quite right either – when we treat people generically we are straying into the territory of stereotyping, which can lead to much worse). I looked back at the wonderful resource ‘The Christ we share’, which gathered images of Jesus from a huge range of traditions and cultures, and started trying to pay more attention to this diversity in my paintings. I stopped looking for a Jesus who looked like me or like the stereotyped image of someone from the middle east, and started trying to see Christ in all people – not just as a theological idea, but as an enacted idea, through painting.

This month I have set myself a further challenge. Having become reasonably competent at painting people who do, at least, look like people, it’s another whole level of skill to depict actual people in such a way that they are recognisable! So for Black History Month I am trying to draw or paint or sketch one mini-portrait a day to help me celebrate or learn about someone I hadn’t celebrated or learned about before. I won’t be sharing all the pictures, but I’ll try and share some of them. Here is the first: Alfred Francis Adderly, CBE, who was the first black student at St Catharine’s College, and in whose honour the College flew the flag of the Bahamas on October 1st (and will do so again of October 31st). You can read more about him here. It’s just a pencil sketch, but it’s my first attempt during this BHM to start paying more attention not only to the diversity of humanity, but to particular people from whom I could learn a lot.

All these ways of paying attention are works in progress – but they are things I’ve thought about for a while and never quite felt able to commit to in writing. Maybe something in one or more of these forms of attention-paying through art will have resonated with you. Maybe you’ve not picked up a paintbrush for a long time and this has made you want to try it again. Or maybe this whole post has made no sense at all! Comments and disagreements are always welcome, but remember to be kind, because we are all works in progress, still learning, still making mistakes.

Away in a manger?

The other day I was asked (by the Church Times) to comment on a twitter thread about doctrine and heresy in Christmas carols. I did so, but as always, quotations in newspapers never really capture the nuance of what one tried to say! So with no disrespect intended to the Church Times, I decided to write something myself.

It started with a Twitter poll, seeking to identify which was ‘the most egregious/heretical line’ in a Christmas carol. The hands-down winner, with 51% of the vote, was ‘no crying he makes’ from Away in a manger, which many people interpret as an example of Docetism – a heresy that denies Christ’s full humanity.

So let’s start there.

Is this line really intending to communicate that Jesus never cried? This would be a strange assertion to make, because we know from various of the gospel accounts that Jesus would later weep at the death of Lazarus, and over Jerusalem, and cry out in despair on the cross – the writer of the carol presumably knew these passages, so is probably not intending to say that Jesus never cried.

One possibility is that the writer was implying that Jesus never cried as a baby.  This would imply that they were going along with the idea that a baby demanding attention through crying is a symptom of original sin, and that Jesus, as sinless, could therefore never cry.  We see this idea lingering in folk-religion: when a baby cries at their baptism it is still considered by some to be a good sign that evil is departing from the child.  This isn’t the Church of England’s understanding of the meaning of crying. If the line really is about original sin, it’s a little odd, as the rest of the carol doesn’t seem to focus particularly on sin and redemption – there are plenty of carols that do follow this idea through, so if this was the writer’s main focus they could certainly have made more of it.

So for me the most likely explanation is that the writer is trying to convey a particular moment of stillness and calm, during which Jesus was not, in fact, crying.  From my own experience as a parent I can vouch for the fact that babies don’t cry all the time, and that some of the most beautiful moments of early parenthood are those times when the baby is awake but peaceful – perhaps he’s just been fed – and lying in a parent’s arms. Babies can’t see across a room when they’re newborn, but they can focus really well on the face of the person who is holding them. There is also something about the depth of colour a newborn’s eyes that makes it feel like you’re looking into the depths of the universe.  In my own mind, that’s the moment being described. The cattle start lowing, Jesus starts to stir, and either Mary or Joseph picks him up and their eyes meet. Jesus feels safe and warm, the sound of the animals is forgotten, and they are blessed with a moment that feels like heaven touching earth.

There is no biblical record of this moment. But there is also no biblical record of a donkey or a stable. And nowhere does it say there were three kings. Or that they were kings at all.  That Mary and Joseph experienced a moment of stillness with the newborn Jesus doesn’t feel like that much of an imaginative leap to me, in the grand scheme of things.   One could argue in this case that the line can sound docetic if you choose to hear it that way, but that there are other ways we can choose to hear it.

So much for the first argument in the carol’s favour. Now on to the criticism.

The poetry isn’t great. In fact, the line in question suffers from ‘Yoda speak’ – odd word order for the sake of rhyme, metre and scansion. This leads me to suspect that ‘makes’ was included as a rhyme for ‘awakes’. This lends credence to my point above (that it’s unlikely the writer was trying to make a statement about Jesus’ lack of original sin).  As a hymn writer myself, I know exactly how tempting it is to prioritise rhyme over sense. We’ve all been guilty of Yoda-speak at some point or another, or clinging desperately to a rhyme at the cost of everything else. Quite possibly the writer in this case had no idea that their work would prove so universally known and (to almost everyone) so well loved.  If they had, they might have worked on it for longer and found an alternative line that would not be so open to misinterpretation. Who knows?

I also suspect that we may be more tolerant of fuzzy doctrine if the poetry is good. We want to sing carols that are rich in imagery, sound in doctrine, and linguistically beautiful – and that are heartwarmingly familiar, to a wonderful tune, with a great descant. And there are a few that tick pretty much every box. But often we may have to compromise slightly on one parameter for the sake of another.  If the doctrine feels a bit imbalanced or lacking in clarity, but the carol does well on all the other parameters, we’re more likely to give it the benefit of the doubt- otherwise ‘veiled in flesh’ would likely have won the twitter poll. (Veiled in flesh sometimes considered problematic, because again it doesn’t seem quite to capture the ‘fully God and fully human’ nature of the incarnate Christ – it sounds like Jesus’ humanity was somehow a ‘covering’ that he could put on and take off – but that’s all for another article sometime).

It’s also worth bearing in mind, though, that we are talking about the incarnation here. It’s mysterious, paradoxical, hard to get one’s head around. People fought really hard over the precise wording of the creeds because of the difficulty of expressing in words something that is basically beyond the capacity of language to convey.  If we want to access the technical details of the doctrine that is our ‘best try’ at understanding who God is, and expressing that in words, then we have the creeds to help us, and the church is pretty strict about using only authorised versions of those.

On the other hand, the Church of England also stores its doctrine in its liturgy, and certainly many people learn their doctrine from hymns, simply because repetition, rhyme, rhythm, metre and music all make what we sing more memorable than what we say, and generate an emotional and embodied association with the words in the way that happens less profoundly with the spoken word. This does mean that those of us who write hymns for congregational use must be careful not to write complete rubbish that merely sounds plausible because of the way we’ve written it. We must be careful not to write a lie that will be sung as truth.

Is there some good doctrine in the carol?

‘Be near me, Lord Jesus’ might hint at some. Emmanuel means ‘God with us’ and is one of the titles in scripture to describe the coming Messiah, as well as one of the key ideas around the incarnation. The Word became flesh and ‘dwelt among us’. One of the criticisms levelled at many carols is that they leave the baby in the manger and never let him grow up to accomplish his work of salvation. ‘Be near me, Lord Jesus’ is, I think, addressed not to the baby in the manger specifically but to the incarnate second person of the Trinity more broadly, and relates to the risen and ascended Christ. This interpretation is supported by the signed version of this carol which switches from the sign for ‘baby Jesus’ to the sign for ‘adults Jesus’ (based on the nail marks in his palms) part way through the carol. Clearly, the baby in the manger is not a different Christ from the adult Jesus, or the crucified, risen and ascended Jesus, but at least in this carol we can trace a longitudinal understanding of who Jesus is ‘in heaven’ where we also desire to be (as in the last line of the carol). The carol begins with the incarnation but ends eschatologically (with a side order of redemption and ethics).

But what about hymns that are not, primarily, trying to convey doctrine – even during a time in the church year that focuses on such an important doctrine as the incarnation?  Is it possible that (despite the paragraph above)  Away in a manger had a different aim?

‘Be near me Lord Jesus’ also indicates that the carol switches from narrative to prayer part way through. ‘Be near me Lord Jesus’ is a prayer, made by someone who desires to be loved, especially through the long hours of darkness (which may be literal or metaphorical or both). My contention would be that that the carol’s chief aim is to connect the baby in the manger with the promised ‘Emmanuel – God with us’, and the Christ who is our heavenly intercessor, in order to open up for those who gather around the crib the possibility of prayer, comfort, salvation, and eternal life.  There is doctrine in this, of course, but in this case the doctrine is an undercurrent beneath a surface that is essentially pastoral.

If Away in a manger fails, it is perhaps because the wording is just a bit too clumsy to express all this with the nuance of great poetry. But in three short verses that even a little child can sing it makes a pretty good attempt, and if it turns out to be the one moment that gives someone who hasn’t prayed for years permission to say to Jesus ‘love me’ then it will have been worth it.

“Safeguarding the integrity of creation” in children’s ministry

I’m hosting #Churchkidchat this week and, inspired by a great question from Sarah Green about how we might use less plastic in children’s ministry, I thought we’d focus our chat on the general area of making children’s ministry more environmentally friendly. There are a few directions this could go – here are some of them, to get us all thinking:

THE THEMATIC CONTENT of our children’s ministry might be focused on care for creation, sustainability, stewardship of the earth, delight in God’s world, which is identified as an essential aspect of Christian idenity and living in the Five Marks of Mission.

THE PLACE where we do children’s ministry might give us opportunities to engage with the created world in new ways, for example by holding sessions outdoors.  We might go a step further and reframe children’s ministry along the lines of wildchurch or forestchurch, intentionally inhabiting the place so that it is formative of our thinking and praying and action.

THE TIME when we undertake children’s ministry may also be an interesting thing to reflect on – we may or may not have the chance to explore ministry with children at a variety of times and days, but it the changes of the seasons and the relationship between dark and light, growth and decay, warmth and cold can still be explored if our children’s mininstry is taken out of a controlled environment and allowed to be shaped by the natural environment. There may be ideas we can encourage our church families to use at home, for those times when having group sessions isn’t practical.

THE MATERIALS we use can reflect our care for the environment in a number of ways: at a basic level it might mean involving fewer single-use items, less plastic, etc, but taking it on a stage we can also activitly encourage engagement with creation, whether or not the thematic content is specifically to do with the environment.  Just as using colouring pens to make art doesn’t mean our session is actually about the pens, we can also use natural objects (stones, sticks, leaves etc) as the materials for a session that is not explicitly about the materials we use. We may find, however, that using such materials helps us and our children to think and reflect and pray in different ways from when they are given pens to use.

Here are some of the ideas, questions, and resources that we talked about, captured from the twitter feed and put together into a pdf.

CHURCHKIDCHAT eco stuff twitter feed



How big is a tree?

How might we measure
a mustard tree, Lord?
By metres or cubits?
Why, no, he replied,
For the measure that matters
Is this: hospitality.

How big is a tree?

Can it offer a perch to bird on the wing?
Can the pair of small sparrows
(once bought for a penny)
Have room here to build
an affordable nest?
Can they nurture their young,
In safety away from the predators
Prowling the night?
That is the way that we measure a tree.

Like the wilderness oaks
That offered their shelter
to Abraham, Sarah, and all that they had,
In order that he would be able
to offer the same to the visiting strangers
Who brought them the promise of hope
And the chance to fulfil the command
To be fruitful and fill all the land.

Like the wilderness broom bush
That gave to Elijah permission to stop,
And to sit and give voice to his grief and despair,
a place to find rest and be nourished
So he could continue his journey
To and come to the cleft in the rock
Where he met God in silence.

Like the sycamore tree
That was sturdy enough
To carry the weight
of a man who was rich
but had nothing of worth.

Like the tree that was felled
To be shaped like a cross
And offer a place
For all the world’s pain
to be faced and embraced
by the man who said,
That’s how you measure a tree.

When we measure with numbers
And money and cost
And reduce all the value
To what can be counted
We’ll find we have lost
All sense of what counts:

Our chances to offer the shade of a tree in the heat of the sun;
the grace to receive, sit down and admit that we cannot go on;
a way to stand tall when we’re burdened by all of the things we have done.
A place to feel safe, to love and be loved: a place to call home.

Hands holding a hazel nut

The seed is so small.
It’s a universe held
in the palm of God’s hand.
A hand that’s the only hospitable scale
for the measure of worth
For the God who loves everything.