Submitting to the material

I came back from a trip to the physiotherapist this morning – I have torn part of my achilles tendon on my left ankle – and the physio astutely enquired whether I had recently injured my right ankle. That occurred on January 6 this year, when I rather stupidly took the bike out in the snow and duly came off it, spraining my right ankle. It turns out that I have been compensating for a remaining weakness in the right ankle by using the left ankle more – and have now damaged that one. As the physio kindly pointed out to me, ‘this happens as we get older…’

I’m also currently recovering from a chest infection. In my usual way I resisted going to the doctor for as long as possible, but I find that I simply can’t get away with it any more. If I don’t get my maladies sorted out in a timely fashion, they now get worse, not better. No longer can I just amp up the willpower, adrenaline and caffeine, and power on through whatever is getting in the way. The body simply isn’t as resilient as it was, and I need to take more time and care in looking after it. ‘This happens as we get older…’


I was told recently that a phrase used in teaching art is ‘submitting to the material’. What this means is that in any medium certain things are possible, certain things are impossible. The materials that are being worked with dictate limits. What is possible for some blocks of marble are not possible for others; what is possible for an oil painting is not possible for a water-colour, and vice versa. For an artist to make any progress in their craft there is an essential humility that needs cultivating. It is no good having a wonderful vision for an artistic creation if the materials being employed are inadequate to the task. Actually, ‘inadequate’ is the wrong word – there is nothing wrong with the materials – ‘inappropriate’ is more precise. The inappropriateness lies in the judgement of the artist, in seeking to dictate to the material rather than cooperate with it. In a sense, what is needed in the artist is a spirit of service to the material, in order to enable the creation to emerge. Midwifery, not parenthood.


I’ve been pondering a similar lesson with regard to my ministry on Mersea, where I feel that I have been colliding with limits. I recently led an awayday for one of the PCCs here to talk about two things – how do we actually ‘speak truth in love’, and, how to discern the right way forward for differerent congregations, especially how they are to relate to each other. The most significant conclusion that I came away with was that I needed to abandon my vision for the congregations. I had seen the new congregation as being a bridge to the old one, which meant that the new service couldn’t get too complicated, and also meant that I had been pushing the more traditional service a little closer in spirit to the new. (Actually, I abandoned the latter some time ago – and that abandonment led to other developments – but there was probably still some remaining tension in the congregation.) Thing is, after more than five years, the people simply didn’t want to fit in with the vision – they were quite happy where they were, thank you very much – and my pushing the vision was simply amplifying friction. Letting go of it seems to be universally approved of.


I’ve been very struck by the nakedpastor’s posts on vision, especially this most recent one when he says “The greatest danger to the church is vision. Agenda. It is an idea for the church that certain people entertain that is the greatest danger to it. It is when different people have designs for the church, where they want it to be something other than what it is, that it destroys the fabric of the community. Even the most well-meaning people, believing that they want what’s best for the church, in actuality introduce what is worst for it.”


I have found letting go of the vision quite liberating, even though I don’t understand what is going on. My theology hasn’t changed – I still see the Eucharist as “’the richest and fullest expression of Christian faith” – but I’m realising that my view is largely irrelevant. What I want – even, what is most true – isn’t the most important factor here. I’m very fond of what Eugene Peterson teaches – work out what God is doing and then get out of the way – I just hadn’t applied it in this area fully (or, perhaps, I came here knowing it and then forgot). There is something kenotic in this, an emptying out, and also something very incarnational – a valuing of the local and specific. I am becoming more aware of the need to put my own desires to one side, ease off the willpower and drive, and take more care and time in simply maintaining the body. I need to learn to submit to the material.

4 thoughts on “Submitting to the material

  1. Thanks – a very timely post for me too, trying to work out whether I might not be working against the grain of my situation in some ways as well.

    Hope your ankle & chest improve soon.

  2. Always timely to be reminded of this, Sam. Stan-the-Man (as ever!!!) very good in his metaphor of working with bricks about how we go about our work…

  3. Great to see someone else finally recognising the ‘vision’ thing for the bogus and harmful idolatry it really is. Chimes in well with what I’m learning from this guy.

  4. Tim, yes I’ll have to seek out that book. It also chimes very strongly with Eugene Peterson, and I’m re-reading some of his stuff at the moment (and kicking myself for ever having become distracted from it!)

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