Nativity – He Qi

He Qi is a Chinese artist who spent the years of the Cultural Revolution painting pictures of Mao Tse Tung in the day time as an alternative to forced labour, and in the evening painting pictures of the Madonna inspired by his fascination with Raphael’s Madonna and Child.

He Qi’s Nativity is typical of his work in terms of colour and vibrancy. His painting resembles stained glass and always feel they have an element of fun. In this picture you can see the sheep virtually dancing in response to the angels. Listening is an important element of this piece. Of course, the sheep stand for all those who know the Lord as their shepherd.

The light in this Nativity comes from heaven and is far more intense than the light any of us can hold. The light Joseph holds is dim compared to the light that Mary holds. – but then Joseph is fading from the picture with his work well and faithfully done.

Mary is pictured in the pink. Normally Mary is dressed in blue, but here He Qi picks up pink as a symbol of marriage and shows Mary as the archetype of the church who holds and treasures Jesus. Jesus is offering a red apple to Mary and the church. This is a reference to the Garden of Eden signifying Jesus as a new Adam and Mary and the church as a new Eve. This is new creation.

The apple is blood red to indicate the nature of God’s offering. Is there also an ambiguity in the shape of the apple? Is it also heart shaped to indicate that this is the new heart promised by God to his disheartened people (Ezekiel 36)?

This is the Nativity. Christus natus est. This is Christmas. Happy Christmas.

Seeing ourselves as others see us

This is Dobri Dobrev who begged in the streets and churches of Sofia, blessing those he met with the words “Rejoice in the Lord!”. He raised thousands for churches and monasteries.

Imagine this.

“A formerly homeless theatre workshop participant searches out the right characters for his tableau; he scans the group, and points to me. He places me in the scene; he lifts my arms and shapes my hand into a dismissive wave; he adjusts my hips and torso; he sculpts my face with his fingers, gently, until I am scowling scornfully. He crouches low, cowering in front of where I stand, and we hold this image. I hold this stance, I become this character.

I feel in my body how he sees people like me, I feel in my body that I am this character. My arms begin to ache; I try to look for cracks in the mould to overwrite this position of scorn, but I am frozen in character before the group. I am implicated.”

That is from Emily Beausoleil’s book The Politics, Science and Art of Receptivity. It was brought to our attention by Al Barrett during a residential conference he facilitated exploring Theology post-Grenfell, post-Brexit (!).

Imagine that. Imagine being so contorted in the eyes of a brother or a sister – someone who is homeless. Imagine what we look like as we step aside, as we look the other way, as we pretend to search our pockets for “no change”. Imagine what we sound like with our feeble excuses and dismissive words. Imagine the ugliness of ignorance and arrogance. Imagine the ugliness of being too busy.

Imagine the hands sculpting our face into scowling impatience and our imposing presence towering over the cowering and crouching.

Then imagine those rough hands at our face again – this time taking our cheek for a kiss, and a “thank you, friend”. What change would there have been in our face, posture and behaviour?

Show me the way to go home.

Reservoir 13

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor is set in an unnamed village in Derbyshire’s Peak District. On the surface this is a story about what happens to a village community when tragedy strikes. Buried deep is the question of how a community can sustain a compassionate interest in the aftermath of tragedy.

Reservoir 13 opens with a search for a missing girl, Rebecca Shaw. It happened at least thirteen years ago. It’s a common enough tragedy, as evidenced by Jon McGregor’s careful punctuation of the story with reports of similar events on the television news. There are thirteen chapters – one for each of the years since the girl’s disappearance. Each chapter begins with the same words: “At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks” (including arson) and each chapter follows the same chronological formula. There are no paragraphs, just long lists of observations of events and relationships.

Life does go on. Weather happens, birds carry on nesting, children grow, relationships change, cleaning has to be done, bridges need mending, the reservoirs need maintaining and the cricket team keeps losing. People come and go.

Life goes on. Is that cliche, or is that proverb – wisdom hard won in the teeth of bitter experience? The author is omniscient. He sees it all. There is no moral judgement – except in his poetic retelling of this village life in details which are compellingly compassionate.

This is a book which focuses on what doesn’t happen, rather than what does. A girl goes missing. What are you supposed to do after the search party? This is a story where a girl goes missing twice: when she is on holiday with her parents and when she goes missing from the story.

I remember a similar search where I was living in the Manor estate in Sheffield. A boy had gone missing. Local residents wore themselves out for weeks, joining in search parties, day and night. I can’t remember what happened. I can’t remember whether the boy was found, whether he was dead or alive. I can’t remember his name. Is that to my shame, or is that what happens? Life goes on.

A boy or girl goes missing, but it is only those closest to them who will miss them. We barely remember. That is how we re-cover.

Reservoir13 was winner of the 2017 Costa Novel Award and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017. It was published by Fourth Estate in 2018.

Self-Supporting Ministry – a practical guide by John Lees

John Lees has written a truly practical guide to self-supporting ministry and here I am reviewing it as someone who sees himself far more clearly as a self-supporting minister after reading John’s challenging chapters. John Lees is Bishop’s Officer for Self-Supporting Ministry for the Diocese of Exeter. He has served as an SSM for fourteen years. He is a career coach well known for his books including How to Get a Job You Love and Secrets of Resilient People.

There is considerable lament in this guide for the ways in which the energies and expectations of self-supporting ministers are increasingly focused on the support that they give to local churches. Lees explores what has happened in the twenty years since the publication of Tentmaking in 1998. The authors then, Francis and Francis, focused on worker priests, MSEs (ministers in secular employment) and bridge ministry. Lees traces these preoccupations of ministry further back and leaves us with a sense that we have lost missional opportunities as energy has focused on local churches rather than ministry which is more liminal. He reminds us that self-supporting ministry is the New Testament model, with Paul being the first self-supporting minister.

Lees reports on the findings of Teresa Morgan’s research[1] (2011). Part of her summary states “few respondents [her sample of self-supporting ministers] saw themselves as having much, if any ministry outside the formal structures of the church”, (Lees, p39), yet “most SSMs spend much of the time outside formal church structures. They are, together with lay people, the natural missionaries to our society.” (p40). The case studies with which John concludes each chapter are testimony to the enormous range of contexts of ministry, but also, there is a unanimity that there is very little done to prepare or encourage SSMs and lay people for this ministry.

Lees is particularly strong when he talks about ministry in the world. His confidence in the world is borne from his ministry in the secular. He writes: “We seem to have lost some of the eagerness of past generations to find God in contemporary life, and we may have lost sight of the way Church and society learn from one another.” (p59). We have become a “frightened church”, an institution under stress, and institutions under stress “respond like human beings, becoming more self-protecting”. (p59).

I was left wondering what the influence of Tentmaking was on John Lees’s call, theology and ministry and what the effect on vocations would be if we were to support, encourage and celebrate the ministries that so many tentmakers, teachers, hairdressers, bankers and waiters have. I was left feeling affirmed in my understanding of my own ministry as being “self-supporting” (albeit with many freedoms and privileges).

And I was left with a strong sense that the most common model of ministry is that of self-supporting ministry, and the context of that ministry being secular. Just a small proportion of those self-supporting ministers are licensed. An even smaller proportion of them are ordained. They represent 29% of licensed parochial clergy in the Church of England (2016). It seems a shame if ministry training, formation and deployment is seen to be organised around stipendiary clergy – a small part of the ministry of the church of God which by and large has to be “self-supporting”.

Arguably Lees should have had a wider focus on other forms of self-supporting ministry than those who are ordained, but John writes from the heart, from his experience as a coach and a priest, and his heart has gone out to his fellow priests who are often left unsupported. There is challenge, care and common sense suggestions that merit a reading for the sake of all those who are self-supporting ministers (often unrecognised) and particularly those who are ordained self-supporting ministers.

This is adapted from a review I wrote for Parson and Parish Magazine.


[1] Self-supporting ministry in the Church of England and the Anglican churches of Wales, Scotland and Ireland: report of the national survey 2010.Oxford: Teresa Morgan.

70 or 72? Do numbers count in Luke 10?

Is is 70 or 72, that is the question? I’m quite fascinated by numbers. Chapter’ 10 in Luke’s Gospel recounts the number Jesus sent out “like lambs in the midst of wolves” with “no purse, bag or sandals” with the greeting “peace to this house”.

Were there 70 or 72? I am just asking for a friend.

Of course, the answer begins with 7. Anything beginning with 7 is the right answer because 7 marks all our time. We have 7 days in a week – as God took 7 days for creation, 6 days work, then a day’s rest. 7 carries with it the meaning of perfection and completion.

According to some texts the answer is 70 – and there is good reason that there should be 70 because there were thought to be 70 nations – the descendants of Noah’s children who settled the earth after the flood. Is then the sending of the 70 the Godsend to all people who on earth do dwell? (And Jesus did send out the “70” two by two, didn’t he?)

According to other ancient texts the answer is 72. And there seems to be good reason for that as well. If there were 72 Luke 10 would read “after this the Lord appointed 72 others”. What is the “after this” referring to, and who are the others? The previous chapter (Luke 9:1-6) recounts Jesus calling “the twelve” together and sending them out with no staff, bag, bread, money. I am putting 2 and 2 together here and thinking that Luke might have intended “72”, because 72 plus the others (12 of them) makes 84.

84=7×12. There is the 7 again, that number signifying completion and satisfaction. But there is also 12, the number of the apostles, the number of the tribes of Israel (because of the number of Jacob’s sons). 84 is mentioned elsewhere by Luke – as the age of Anna the prophetess, who prayed in the temple night and day and who spoke about the child Jesus “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem”. (Luke 2:36-40). Anna’s age adds further significance to the number 84. It becomes a number of wisdom and proclamation.

If 72+12 = all the people of God, this becomes a passage not just about the sending out of 72, but the sending out of the whole people of God, you and me, sent out two by two.

If the answer is 70 then this become a passage about the destiny of peace’s greeting. “Peace to this house” then becomes a greeting for the whole world.

Is it 70 or 72? I’m just asking for a friend (to whom it matters).

Or do we treasure the happy ambiguity presuming that Jesus and Luke meant both: that the good news of the coming of peace should and would be carried to all nations, and that all God’s people are commissioned to be bearers of peace, even as lambs amongst wolves, even eschewing all the usual self defences?

Refugees: a poem by Brian Bilston

Refugees can be read two ways. Every refugee story can be read two ways. Usual media accounts tell the story such as “migrants have been prevented” – or, as here, “Illegals have landed”. Little is told of the desperate back stories of the refugees. Their voice is unheard.

Refugees can be read two ways. It can be read as if you don’t care. And it can be read as if you do. You can read it from top to bottom, or you can turn the world upside down and read it from bottom to top, depending on how you read the world. This poem can be read two ways. That is the way with this poem exploring two very different ways of reading the situation.

Brian Bilston is known as the Twitter Laureate. You can find more of his poems at his Poetry Laboetry

North Star Fading – a poem to watch for Refugee Week

During Refugee Week I have been posting a poem a day. Today’s poem is one to watch. It highlights misleading promises, extreme dangers and dashed hopes than many refugees have to face.

Please click the image to see and hear North Star Fading – a zoom comic from PositiveNegatives who tell true stories drawn from life – this from the lives of Eritrean refugees.

Karrie Fransman did the visuals and Lula Mebrahtu was responsible for the words and sound. Interviewed about the work Karrie explained “I’m Jewish and my grandfather was a political refugee. Our festival Passover commemorates our history as refugees, so there is a personal link.”

Lula has this to say. “My own experiences play a big role when I am creating. I remember a few years back, I watched a news report about a ship that had caught on fire and sunk near the border of Italy. A lot of ‘illegal immigrants’ onboard died. There were no names, pictures or interviews with those who survived, just factual news, and the narrative was focused on the immigration crises. That same day, my mother got a phone call. It transpired that a family friend had a son on that ship, and he died. His mother didn’t even know he made the voyage. My mother had to break the news to her.”

There is more from their interview at https://www.soas.ac.uk/blogs/study/north-star-fading/

Some poems I have posted for Refugee Week are shown below this post.