James’s Blog: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants.

James’s Blog:  Standing on the Shoulders of Giants.

I was discussing with someone who suggested that, as an atheist, he at least was ‘…thinking for himself’. I pointed out that, unless he had invented atheism, he actually wasn’t. None of us really think for ourselves, I told him. There are thousands of years of history and debate and experience behind each of us, and all we can ever do is just pick a side.

I don’t think that there are any truly original thoughts left. We’re all just building on what’s gone before and I try to be open about this. I am very happy to name and shame those who have influenced me. The truth is that everything that I write on this blog, even the really good stuff, has had its origins – at least – in something given to me by others. Even the conclusions that I have arrived at on my own have been built on foundations laid by books I have read and people I have known. The other day I jotted down some thoughts on the internal conflict between good and evil, but those thoughts came to me while I was reflecting on what I had been reading in Connected by Larry Crabb. My earlier posts about the Parable of the Talents were my own thoughts on the subject, but it was people in Cornerstone who got me thinking in that direction.

This is exactly how God intended it to be. No man is an island, wrote John Donne; as human beings we do nothing and go nowhere without others around us. There’s no discipline on the planet, whether it’s music, sport, writing, medicine or anything, where you can become an expert by distancing yourself from its community. You can’t withdraw from the world and then teach yourself brain surgery (well, you can, but probably only once). You can’t get better at something without knowing what’s worked and what hasn’t worked before. Growth does not occur without interdependence. In the same way, we will never become expert disciples by rejecting the community of believers, whether that’s our local Christian community, the global Church or the Communion of Saints in whose footsteps we tread.

Be patient, watch and learn, and then go and build something grand on the foundations of those who have gone before.

James’s Blog: Gam Zeh Ya’Avor.

James’s Blog:  Gam Zeh Ya’Avor.

Life has its own rhythms. There are creatively fruitful times, where the inspiration flows; there are times where I feel jaded and uninspired. There doesn’t always seem to be any reason for the transition. Sometimes, it’s just suddenly different. A couple of weeks ago, I had ideas. This week, I don’t have any, and the ones I had a couple of weeks ago sit there on my desk like paperweights. What to do when it feels like you’ll never have a good idea again?

One thing I’ve found helpful is this apocryphal story. It exists in many forms throughout the world, but this is one version:

Benaiah Ben Yehoyada was King Solomon’s most trusted advisor, but the King thought he needed a lesson in humility, so he set him an impossible task. He asked Benaiah to find him a specific ring in time for Sukkot, which was six months away.

“The ring I’ve heard of,” said Solomon, “has magical powers. A happy man who looks at it becomes sad, while a sad man becomes happy. Find me this ring.”

Benaiah left to search for the ring but could not find it, for no such ring existed. The day before Sukkot he wandered through a poor district in Jerusalem, distraught. He passed a jewellers shop, and in desperation went in to ask the jeweller if he had ever heard of such a ring. The jeweller smiles, produces a plain gold band and engraves something on it. He then passes it to Benaiah, who reads the inscription and smiles.

The following day, Benaiah presented the ring to his King, and when Solomon read the inscription it was he that was humbled.

The Hebrew inscription read gam zeh ya’avor, which means ‘This too shall pass’.

James’s Blog: The Wisdom of Old Ladies.

James’s Blog:  The Wisdom of Old Ladies.

When I was at Spurgeon’s, our Pastoral Care lecturer told us that he had spoken to his mother on the phone recently. She had told him that she had gone to an evening fellowship group at someone’s house, and when she had arrived, the young assistant minister was already there and had made himself at home in the most comfortable armchair available. “Tell your students not to do that,” she told her son. He passed this on to us, not because it had anything to do with pastoral care but because he was just doing what his mum had told him to do. My time at Spurgeon’s was very beneficial to me, but as far as practical lessons go, that was one of the few that I can remember.  I’ve always chosen my seat very carefully since. There’s wisdom in some of these old ladies.

Rev. Tim Ditchfield was the chaplain at my university. I remember him saying that if you asked him who was the holiest person that he knew, he would have to pick an old lady who had been at the church where he was a student. He said that she didn’t have the appearance of holiness, being a old lady who lived in a block of flats and smoked like a chimney, but she and God had an understanding. He told a fantastic story to back this up. I’m not 100% sure of some of the unimportant details, but it’s too good a story to not share.

Coincidentally, this is also a fellowship group armchair story. They were meeting at this old lady’s flat and the group was one chair short this particular evening. Tim offered to sit on the floor, but the old lady wouldn’t hear of it. “Let’s pray about it,” she said. She then proceeded to lead the group in a prayer that went something like this: “God, you know we need another chair for this meeting, so please provide one. Oh, and make it a green one, because green is my favourite colour.” She then said to Tim, “You’d better go and get this chair then.”

Tim left the flat and wandered up and down the corridor outside totally at a loss as to what to do. What a crazy situation to find yourself in. Then just as he was passing the lift he heard a ping. He watched as the doors slid open. The lift was empty, except for a single green armchair.

Some of those dear old ladies are dangerous.

James’s Blog: Passion.

James’s Blog:  Passion.

Back when I was at university I somehow, somehow, ended up as the Prayer Secretary for the Christian Union. You may as well give Mr. Bean the keys to your Porsche.

At that time there was, amongst certain circles, a devout belief that a spiritual awakening akin to the great Welsh Revival was on its way. Our Christian Union leadership believed this, and decided that we should have a weekly prayer meeting to pray specifically for revival in London. This was, as Prayer Secretary, my responsibility, so I duly arranged the meeting and attended as often as I could, despite my characteristic cynicism. It became apparent that the conviction among the leadership that revival was coming was so solid, so unshakeable, that turning up to prayer meetings was obviously unnecessary for them. Three was a good turn out. I liked the times when it was just me who showed up, to be honest. It was good for my misanthropic soul.

One day, there was a new face at the prayer meeting. A guy who’d just started at the university. He began by telling me how passionate he was for revival, how he longed for nothing more than to see God do something amazing in the city. I looked at the clock. It was 6:05pm. The meetings would go for anything from half an hour to forty five minutes, and if this guy’s enthusiasm was anything to go by this one might be decent after all. But my initial hope was very soon dashed to pieces on dull rocks. We had awkward silence, uninspiring muttered prayers, lots of looking down at your feet in what Adrian Plass calls ‘the Shampoo Position’. Pick a random page from the ‘Dull Prayer Meeting’ play book, we did it. We struggled through for what seemed like half an hour, and then I looked at the clock. It was 6:07pm. Have you ever been in a prayer meeting like that? George Harrison once said, “The Beatles saved the world from boredom.” He was wrong.

After the meeting finished, we had a few minutes of awkward chat and went our separate ways. He didn’t come to the meeting the following week, or the week after that, or ever again. I didn’t blame him, but still, he’d said that he was passionate about revival. Eventually, the prayer meetings fizzled out due to lack of interest. I’m not sure what God thought about it all, but I do know one thing. Talking about how passionate you are doesn’t count.

James’s Blog: It’s Finished when it’s Finished.

James’s Blog:  It’s Finished when it’s Finished.

I’ve been working on a short story recently. It’s a story based on a scene from a screenplay that I wrote, which in turn was based on a short story  that appeared in The Listening Book. It’s all very confusing.

One of the problems that I have when writing is knowing when something is finished. I imagine that other creators feel the same way. I can keep playing with a story indefinitely, like a cat with a dead mouse. I’ll cross out the word ‘stalked’ and replace it with ‘walked’, and then I’ll swap the order of two sentences. Two weeks later I’ll come back to the story and cross out the word ‘walked’ and replace it with ‘ambled’, and then I’ll put the sentences back in their original order.

I wonder if God went through a similar process when He created the world.  Was there a first draft where the sun was red and the grass was blue? A second draft where men didn’t have nipples? A third draft where He put the nipples back? But it’s finished when God declares that “…it is good.”

I know people who reject good things on the basis that they aren’t perfect. I think that the Church gets unfairly hammered with this a lot. Because someone somewhere did something bad in Jesus’ name, it justifies throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Perhaps it’s just an excuse really; it’s a way of being able to dismiss something that you’d prefer to dismiss, while at the same time making it look like you have the moral high ground. But doing something imperfectly is often better than doing nothing. No-one who moans about people doing something while they do nothing ever has the moral high ground.  When it comes to writing, and creating and the Church, ‘good’ can be good enough.

News from Elsa in Publishing: Second Listening Book out this Autumn

News from Elsa in Publishing: Second Listening Book out this Autumn

Following Rev Giblet’s illuminating musings on preaching, I thought another Summertime guest post on James’s Blog might work – sure he won’t mind.

The Second Listening Book will be released in October and continues James’s storytelling mission. There will be a whole load more fab tales with gorgeous line drawings from Carys Jenkins, Alice Journeaux and Josh Gauton, as well as lovely photos from Mark Lewis. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, these are rather good coffee table books. This time you notice it’s dark blue, so beverages of all description don’t show up on it. You can even put it on top of the first TLB to cover up any stains. But enough of my house tidying tips – the back blurb sums up what’s inside better than I can:

I enjoy reading James Webb, not just because he is a gifted and imaginative storyteller, but because he provides nourishing soul food for the journeys we all make through the deserts of life.  With his creative imagination he provokes a range of emotions in the reader and I invite you to step inside and be prepared to find something for which your soul has cried out.

David Coffey OBE – Global Ambassador for BMS World Mission

There are very few books I read that can make me laugh and think profoundly at the same time. This book however is one of them. As a child I used to watch Tales of the Unexpected and loved the twists at the end – James’ book easily surpasses them. It is very easy to read and yet worthwhile at the same time as each story contains spiritual truths (which aren’t at all preachy and sometimes not obvious!). ‎This is a book you have to try – you won’t regret it.

Eric Harmer – Pastor of Barton Church, Canterbury and Author of Build-Your-Own Bible Study

If you would like to pass on a foretaste of the joy to a friend, why not send them the free Little Book of Listening eBook or point them to James’s Blog – the regular one, that is, but not necessarily the guest postings.

Happy Reading!

Much love from

Elsa Lewis

PS. Get in touch if you’d like a batch of books for your church and I’ll get them dropped off in time for the launch – especially if you’re in Aus or the US – I’d just love to pop over 🙂


James’s Blog: A Guest Blog from Rev. Ulysses Giblet.

James’s Blog:  A Guest Blog from Rev. Ulysses Giblet.

I’ve been told that every good blog needs a guest blogger now and then. Fortunately, I’ve been able to convince a long time friend, the Reverend Ulysses Giblet, to contribute to my page. Here’s some of his thoughts on preaching.

When James asked me if I’d write something for his blog, I was happy to help. I decided I should write a short article on a topic that James knows nothing about – preaching.

Why Church Leaders Need to Be Good Preachers:

There are many qualities that are desirable in church leaders, such as punctuality, good personal hygiene and great hair & teeth, but the most important quality for a church leader is the ability to crank out top quality sermons on demand. Here are three reasons why this is the case:

  1. A good Sunday will make people forget about what you did on Monday to Saturday.

We’ve all had a bad week at some time. Perhaps we chose our words poorly during a difficult church meeting. Maybe we punched someone in the face during a complicated pastoral situation. What if people are asking tricky questions about why that money from the building fund is resting in your personal bank account? We’ve all been there – I know that I have. Thankfully, when you’re a good preacher, Sunday morning becomes an opportunity to remind people why they employed you. If you can milk a few tears out of the congregation when preaching then they’ll be more than happy to overlook your minor failings, such as being unapproachable, pastorally insensitive and morally bankrupt.

  1. Ca Ching!

If you’re anything like me, then you went into the ministry because it involves no heavy lifting and presents fantastic money making opportunities for the right people. If you want to make the big bucks you need to find your way into one of the top tier churches – you know, those mega churches where the congregation is big enough to comfortably employ fifteen full-time members of staff. Some churches also have such distinguished historic reputations that they’re full of rich people (who love all that stuff). All the best (i.e. richest) churches have one thing in common – they love excellent preachers. That’s what they’re looking for in their ministers, so put a bit of effort into improving your preaching and wait for the lucrative job offers to come rolling in. It’s even better in America, where an English accent can be worth as much as an extra $10,000 a year. Money for old rope!

  1. You only have to be visible one day a week.

If you’re an excellent preacher, in a church with a reputation for excellent preaching, then people are happy for you to ‘delegate’ most of the work of the church to others while you focus on the truly important job of preparing for Sunday’s sermon. In fact, they’ll probably insist on it. Here’s a line that you might want to memorise – “I’m sorry, I can’t come and help you with that difficult situation, because Mondays through to Thursdays are my sermon preparation days”. Fantastic. As added good news, the more experience you have, the quicker you can prepare sermons. After a while, you’ll be done by Monday afternoon and have the rest of your ‘sermon preparation’ days for important spiritual tasks, like sleeping in, eating chocolate and binge watching TV.

Hopefully you can now see why, if you’re in church leadership, developing your preaching ability should be your number one priority.

Rev. Ulysses Giblet.

James’s Blog: Walking with God Again.

James’s Blog:  Walking with God Again.

I was out on one of my walks one evening, and I saw something unusual. Down below me, in her front garden, was an elderly woman, wrapped up against the cold, standing behind a lawn mower. It was a strange sight, seeing this tiny old lady about to start mowing her front lawn in the autumn twilight.

I almost kept walking, but I knew what I had to do.

“Do you need some help?” I yelled down to her.

She didn’t hear me. In for a penny, in for a pound. I walked down her steps, got her attention and walked across her lawn until I was standing next to her.

“Do you want me to mow your lawn?” I asked.

It wasn’t a big lawn. It wouldn’t have taken me long. I explained that I lived just down the road, and that I was often out and about for a walk this time of evening.

At first the lady responded warmly, and made comments about how kind it was of me to offer, but as the conversation went on, something changed. I recognised it. From somewhere, an element of fear had snuck into her mind. In a way I don’t blame her. It was probably intimidating, to have this ugly stranger appear out of the darkness and offer to mow her lawn for her. I mean, who does that? Perhaps she thought that I would want to be paid? I don’t know. The conversation went politely, but she said that she didn’t need my help. Never mind. I had done what was expected of me, and that’s all.

I walked on, a mix of conflicting emotions inside. There was the mild embarrassment that comes from having a gift rejected, coupled with the instant self-criticism that told me that it was all my fault. Those were quite easily banished, and then I was just left with sadness as I reflected on how easily we reject the outstretched hand of God because we’ve allowed the Enemy to whisper lies of fear into our hearts.

On my way back, in the darkness, I saw that the lawn had been freshly mowed and the old lady was nowhere to be seen. This is the kind of thing that happens when you go walking with God.

James’s Blog: Tell the Galatians that School’s Out.

James’s Blog:  Tell the Galatians that School’s Out.

I wrote this little verse a while ago. It’s inspired by Galatians 3:23 to 4:7. Read the passage first.

The law is done?

The pedagogue is agog.

The school uniform doesn’t fit any more,

Lay it aside.

Put on the clothes of a son; a daughter,

The attire of a child about your Father’s business,

You have come of age.

Get out from behind the nanny’s skirt.

Don’t go back to the playground,

The classroom.

School’s out.

You’ve been given a fantastic inheritance,

Get out there and claim it.

James’s Blog: Thin Places.

James’s Blog:  Thin Places.

I believe in Thin Places. I have two favourites. One is old and one is new. One is inside and one is outside. One is here and one is there.

Canterbury Cathedral is old, at least in terms of this country and its identity. It’s been rebuilt several times over the years, but for nearly one and half millennia it has been a site set apart for the service and worship of God. As you wander around it, you can be thinking about the excesses of the established church, the corruption and insipidity of the Anglican faith at its worst, but why should you not be awed by this building? By the size and the beauty. By the devotion that its construction required. (The idea that God cannot be glorified by good old fashioned ingenuity and hard work is nonsense by the way). Even in this enlightened day and age, hundreds of visitors are daily looking at stained glass windows and reading Renaissance graffiti. There is something special here. Fifteen hundred years of prayer and song and liturgy? That has to leave a mark.

I will stroll down into the crypt and amble to the Chapel of St. John. I may pause to look at the prayers that people have written to be placed on the altar. I will sit and look at the window that shows the harlot drying Jesus’ feet with her hair. Even though there may be tourists, I can be silent and listen. I can meet with God. Fifteen hundred years of prayer and song and liturgy, and I add mine to become part of something greater than myself. A blink of the eye for God, but an eternity of praise.

The second place is on the other side of the world. On a small farm on the Belubula, in a place called Canowindra. Many of you won’t have heard of it, or of a missionary couple named Ian and Irene, who gave part of their farmland over to Cornerstone. Over forty years ago they planted a grove of poplar trees on that farm. I believe that the plan was for the trees to be sold for matchsticks. That was the plan, but those trees are still there, dead and dangerous, and still very flammable. But that grove has seen more than twenty years of prayer and worship and weddings. I have been involved in all three. Australia is a beautiful country, yet so alien compared to England’s green and pleasant fields, and I have sat in the silence of that grove on many a summer morning. I have shed tears and sang songs. I have sat with kangaroos and sheep and birds. I have heard God in some very specific ways, and He and I have wrestled in that place many times. He usually won, but not always.

Thin Places, the Celts called them. Places where the boundary between this life and the next is worn and frail and the freshness of the Kingdom bleeds obviously into the mundane beauty of this world. These places are real, and so is the God who can be found in them.