Copyright © 2016 James Webb
Photography copyright © Mark L Lewis
Published by Lioness Writing Ltd
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For Ruth, the best friend I’ve ever had.
“Stories are equipment for living.” Kenneth Burke
Why does storytelling work?
Why did Jesus use parables when he told his followers about God’s Kingdom?
James Webb’s The Listening Book is a collection of parables, told in the style of Fred Craddock or Walter Wangerin Jr., that attempt to capture some of the mystery and excitement of the master storyteller.
This is a cut-down version of The Listening Book: The Soul Painting and Other Stories, available in Hardback, Softback, eBook and Audiobook online and via good bookshops. Visit the website below for James’s Blog (weekly) and more details.
Canterbury UK, 2016
Are you listening?
I hope so.
We can spend a lot of time concerned with whether or not God is paying any attention to us. It’s probably better to spend that time being concerned about whether or not we’re paying any attention to Him.
You see, God is speaking. He’s always speaking. It was the first thing He did. What about us? Do we fill the silence with the sound of our own voice, or do we listen?
Do you know what God does when He has something really important that he wants to say to us? Do you know what miracle He performs; what amazing sign He uses? When God has something important to say to us, He tells us a story.
It works, doesn’t it? Stories are a guaranteed way to get someone’s attention. When you’re talking to someone and their eyes are glazing over, looking this way and that for an escape route, try the line, “That reminds me of a story…” and see what happens.
The Bible itself is a story. An adventure story. A war story. A love story. Jesus never taught about the Kingdom of God without telling a story. Read the book of Acts and see how the early Church shared Jesus by using people’s own stories. You see, stories aren’t really about communicating facts. They’re really about communicating a vision of how things could be. You just need to listen carefully. We shouldn’t be surprised that such tiny things as stories can carry such a big vision. After all, when you put a shell no bigger than your hand to your ear, don’t you hear the entirety of all the oceans?
So here are some stories. Read them and listen. This is not a place to find doctrine, but it may be a place to hear a still, small voice. This may not be a place to find answers, but it may be a place to have your curiosity aroused and to start you off on a life-changing quest. I can’t guarantee that God will show up while you’re reading them, but it may be a place for the Holy Spirit to confirm something that He has already been whispering to your heart. It may be a comfortable place. It may be an unsettling place. It may just be a place that brings a smile to your face. They are just stories after all. God does the heavy lifting, as long as we are paying attention.
So, pick up that shell and listen. Will you hear the sea, or just silence? Or maybe something else entirely…
There was once an Artist who believed in people. He believed that every single person who had ever lived had within them one great masterpiece, a Soul Painting, and he devoted his life to this belief. As an in-demand artist of considerable talent he could have committed himself to his work and lived in comfort for the rest of his days, but he rejected such things to travel, to be with people and to pass on the message of the Soul Painting.
One day the Artist met a woman whom no-one had ever believed in. She was enchanted by the Artist and his message of the Soul Painting. Although her wounds were still too fresh and raw for her to believe in herself, she dared to believe in his belief and began to paint. It took her many years but eventually she had finished her Soul Painting. It was strikingly beautiful, tragic and unique; one of the most amazing works of art that anyone had ever seen. During this time the woman had learned to love the Artist and his message and devoted the rest of her life to spreading the story of the Soul Painting. Wherever she went, people clamoured to see her. Many were amazed by her story, and many more captivated by her beautiful Soul Painting.
One of the men who heard her speak wanted more than anything to possess his own Soul Painting. He had heard her talk about the Artist and the beliefs which had led to her painting, but he was too afraid and intimidated by her amazing Soul Painting to pick up a paintbrush himself. “I could never paint anything as good as her,” he told himself, torn between his desire and his doubt.
One day he had an idea and, at a time when no-one was watching, he took out his camera and snapped a good photo of the woman’s Soul Painting. He took the camera home, printed out the biggest, best quality copy of the Soul Painting that he could afford and had it framed. He told his friends of the Artist and invited them to come and see his own Soul Painting. His friends visited his home and were awestruck and touched by the beautiful masterpiece on his wall. They too wanted their own Soul Painting. The man only knew of one way to pass on the magic of the Soul Painting, so he invited his friends to take their own photo of his photo and then it could be their own Soul Painting. His friends readily agreed, as it seemed like an easy way to get a masterpiece.
The friends took their photos home and showed their friends, who in turn asked to take a photo of the photo of the photo. They in turn invited their friends to take a photo of the photo of the photo of the photo, and so on it went. With each layer of photos, the detail and beauty of the original painting was distorted further and further until there was a crowd of individuals, each clutching photos showing nothing more than an ugly splodge of random colours. The beauty had been lost a long time ago.
Over time the number of people wanting to take photos declined. Every now and then another person would be convinced to take a photo of one of the photos, but whatever their motivation, it was now never because of the beauty of the Soul Painting.
One day the Artist will travel from town to town crying out, “Bring me your Soul Paintings,” and he will be crowded by a mob of people waving grubby, crumpled photographs shouting, “Master, Master, look at my Soul Painting, my beautiful Soul Painting!” The Artist will look at them and say, “Get away from me. I never knew you.”
No-one used the bridge any more. Instead they trekked the extra mile downstream to where the river was shallow enough to cross. People got wet, but at least they didn’t get eaten. Everyone knew that the Troll who lived under the bridge was angry and mean and always hungry. Everyone would rather get wet.
Sometimes, in such times as this, everything changes because of someone who didn’t know what everyone else knew. Or, perhaps, because of someone who knew what everyone else knew, but refused to accept it. One such person was the carpenter’s young son, Rufus.
“Has anyone ever seen the Troll?” Rufus asked the townsfolk. They would look at one another, and no-one would speak.
“So how do you know there’s a Troll under the bridge?” To Rufus, it seemed like the logical question to ask.
“I’ve heard him! I’ve been to the bridge and heard him, hollering and yelling and screaming. He told me that he was a Troll and he was going to eat me!” the baker spoke up, as the latest witness to the monster that lived under the bridge.
“But did you actually see him?” asked Rufus.
“Well…no,” admitted the baker, “but if it screams that it’s a Troll and that it’s going to eat you, it’s a Troll!”
“And it lives under a bridge,” the butcher piped up, “which is where Trolls live. Everyone knows that.”
“It’s the plain facts,” offered the baker.
Rufus was sceptical. The thing is, he had no real reason to be sceptical. The townsfolk were convinced, and he had to admit that if you took the evidence at face value then it seemed that they were right. Yet Rufus remained unsure. There was only one way to find out for certain. So, Rufus resolved that the next morning he would head out to the bridge and see for himself.
The sun rose and Rufus packed. The bridge was not far, so he was confident that he would arrive by mid-morning. He packed some cake and an apple so that he could sit by the river and eat if it turned out that there was no Troll after all, and he set out with his faithful dog, Parakletos, at his heel.
The bridge was further than he’d thought, and the sun was nearly at midpoint in the sky when he finally arrived. Parakletos barked with delight as he splashed in the river by the bank, and Rufus looked for a suitable place to sit and eat. His eyes were drawn, of course, to the crumbling, ivy covered stone arch that formed the bridge over the river. No time like the present.
Rufus wondered down to the bridge and cleared his throat. A booming voice responded:
“I am the Troll who lives under the bridge, and I will eat you!”
Rufus was certainly taken aback and more than a little frightened by this declaration. His thoughts about cakes and apples were pushed aside and the idea of running away presented itself.
Thankfully, Rufus had not come alone. Parakletos was not dissuaded by the threat of being eaten. He scampered down to the bottom of the bridge and barked loudly.
“I am the Troll who lives under the bridge, and I will eat you!”
Parakletos barked louder.
“I SAID, I am the Troll who lives under the bridge, and I will eat you!”
Rufus knew something was up. Parakletos was by far the smartest dog in the village, and he was not one to hang around if there was even the slightest chance of being eaten. More likely, his fine nose had detected the smell of something other than Troll.
“Well,” said Rufus, his courage returning, “you’re going to have to eat me then.” There was a prolonged silence, punctuated only by the sound of Parakletos barking.
“Really?” came the uncertain voice from under the bridge.
“Oh…OK…well…ummmm…right then. I’ll eat you.”
“That’s fine by me,” said Rufus, though it certainly wasn’t fine by him. Sometimes courage makes you call a bluff so that a greater wrong can be righted.
“Ummmm…it’s just that…well, I’ve never eaten anyone before,” the Troll explained.
“Yes. To be honest, this is the longest anyone’s ever stayed around. I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to do next.”
“Why don’t you come out? That would be a fine place to start,” suggested Rufus, feeling a little sorry for the bridge-dweller.
The Troll crawled out from beneath the bridge, while Parakletos jumped up and down and barked. The Troll emerged, with white fluffy wool and a black, meek face.
“You’re not a Troll!” exclaimed Rufus,
“Yes, I am! I’m a Troll! A mean, people-eating Troll! Baaaaaaa!”
“No, you’re not a Troll. Unless I’m very much mistaken, you are a sheep.”
“A sheep? Why would you say such a thing?”
“Because you are!” It seemed very clear to Rufus.
“Are you sure?” the ‘Troll’ asked.
“Very sure. I know the shepherd in our village. I play chess with him every Tuesday while he’s watching the sheep. I have seen sheep at dawn and at dusk and from every conceivable angle. Well, almost every conceivable angle, and you are most certainly a sheep,” Rufus said with a firm voice.
“Huh!” the ‘Troll’ seemed thoughtful. “Well, that would explain a few things…”
“The wool, for starters. And the fact that deep down, if pushed you understand, really pushed, I would much rather eat some lovely green grass than a person,” the ‘Troll’ admitted.
“So why are you telling everybody that you are a Troll?”
The ‘Troll’ seemed to be thinking hard.
“I remember one day coming to the river to get a drink, and I found a lovely place to drink in the shade under the bridge. Someone came along and I made a noise—”
“What kind of noise?”
“Well, now that you mention it, I suppose it was a kind of ‘Baaaa’ing noise,” the ‘Troll’ explained.
“I see.” Rufus smirked, “Continue.”
“So then someone said, ‘What made that noise?’ and someone else said, ‘It came from under the bridge,’ and someone else said, ‘It’s a Troll!’ and they ran away. A Troll! So I looked around in terror, and I couldn’t see anything, so I realised that they must be talking about me.” The ‘Troll’ took a deep breath before continuing.
“Well, I was afraid to leave the bridge. If I was a Troll, then I should stay under the bridge. That’s where Trolls belong. When people came to the bridge, I called out to them, and they all said the same thing, ‘The Troll! There is a Troll under the bridge! Run away!’ and they ran away. So, I came to the only logical conclusion, namely that I was a Troll and I should live under the bridge and behave accordingly,” the ‘Troll’ concluded.
“I can definitely say that you are not a Troll. You are a sheep. If you don’t believe me, have a look in the river. Look at your reflection. And Parakletos, you can stop barking now,” Rufus said. Parakletos was not an obedient dog, but he was a clever one and that’s nearly as good. He stopped barking.
The ‘Troll’ looked at his reflection in the crystal water and saw himself as Rufus saw him and as Parakletos had smelled him.
“Well I never…” the sheep said.
The villagers had said, ‘If it lives under a bridge and threatens to eat people, it must be a Troll’.
Not always. Sometimes it’s just a sheep who’s been made to believe that he’s a Troll.
The troubles started with the old man’s cow. It got really sick, very suddenly. We all felt sorry for him. Things were hard and none of us could afford to lose an animal. The vet came out and wandered around the beast, looking and touching and measuring, and his conclusion was that it wasn’t promising. I commiserated with the old man. “Looks bad,” he admitted. “Tough loss,” I replied. He looked at me and said, “There’s always hope”.
The cow died.
A little while after that we began watching the weather with concern. The clouds were full and black and the harvest was just around the corner. A pounding rain would be bad news for most of us. The old man had been around for a while, brought in a lot of harvests, so I asked him what he thought. “Looks bad,” he agreed. “We’re in trouble,” I sighed. He looked and me and said, “There’s always hope”.
The heavy rain came and we suffered.
Some of us went hungry that season, but we made it through. All of us, except the old man’s son, that is. The doctor came with a smile on his face, and left with grim and stony features. “What did he say?” I asked the old man. “Looks bad,” the old man said. I didn’t say anything else. He looked at me and said, “There’s always hope.”
His son died.
The rains continued. The dams were full, but so were the rivers. It wouldn’t take much more for them to break their banks and then we’d all be in trouble, even the smart ones who had questioned the wisdom of settling in the foothills. I asked the old man if he’d ever seen anything like this. He admitted that he hadn’t. “Looks bad,” he nodded. I wondered aloud whether the storms would break before we did. He looked at me and said, “There’s always hope.”
The floods came. I drowned.
The first thing I did after I walked through the Pearly Gates was sit on a log next to Jesus and begin complaining. “The old man’s crazy,” I ranted, “Bad things just kept happening and he just refused to face up to it. He lived in denial of the truth. At first it was inspiring, but then it just became annoying.”
I asked Jesus, “Do you think he’ll ever realise that life is actually a bleak and difficult thing?”
Jesus looked at me and said, “There’s always hope.”
My hands were full, but the mustard seed looked so tempting. The man was giving them out for free, and how could I refuse a bargain like that? True, the seed did not look nearly so attractive as the precious gems that I was already carrying around. I could only carry so much, so I had to be discerning. I had already discarded everything but the most beautiful and valuable treasures, and I had hardly enough strength to carry even those.
But the seed was so small, and the man made it sound so good. And it was free. I was sure that I could make just a little space, just a little more space for the mustard seed. So, I jammed it in there, just between the sparkle and the shine of my treasures.
Years passed, and sometimes some of the treasure changed. I would exchange something I had for something that was even more valuable, and then on rare occasions I would exchange it back again. But the mustard seed I never gave away. It stayed there. It was so small that I always had room for it, and it did give me some comfort having it there. Like a lucky charm, it gave me some peace and some calm in times when I needed it. The man had been right about that.
Then one day I met a man carrying nothing but a bush. He looked so out-of-place, so silly in the world in which I moved; the world of the valuable and the beautiful. I asked him about the bush.
“This grew from my mustard seed,” he told me.
“I have a mustard seed too!” I said. “But it is just a seed, and always has been.”
“I used to be like you,” the man said, “my mustard seed didn’t grow either. Then I realised that while my hands were full it couldn’t grow. No room, you see. It needs space.”
“But, that would mean letting go of my treasure!”
The man looked grim, as he nodded.
“But I wouldn’t know where to begin. Which one should I put down first?”
“You can do it that way,” the man agreed, “but it’s better to let everything go at once. If you want the bush, you’ll have to let it all go eventually.”
There was once a small town in the midst of a drought-stricken land. In this town lived a man known to the locals as Old Fool. Every morning Old Fool would emerge from his ramshackle cabin dragging a pickaxe behind him, and he’d spend the day digging a hole. Under the harsh sun for years, his skin had become like cracked leather. His white hair and beard were permanently matted with red dust, and the same hard work that had bent his back double had given his limbs a wiry strength. If anyone ever asked him why he spent his days engaged in such back-breaking labour under the unforgiving glare of the sun, he would give the same answer that he had first given back when he was known as Young Fool. He would tell you that he had heard an Ancient Word which had told him that there was water under the ground, if you would just dig for it.
Every day some of the townsfolk would come and watch Old Fool hard at work, and get some amusement from throwing insults in his direction.
“I’m sure he’ll break the drought any day now!”
“Maybe he forgot where he planted his crops!”
Every day Old Fool would dig and dig, and every evening he would return home even dryer than when he had left. After many years of his digging, the dust bowl was covered in pockets and craters, so many that from the sky it looked like the surface of the moon.
One day Old Fool was out carving the red soil with his pickaxe. As usual, a small crowd of those with nothing better to do had gathered to mock.
“I’m sure he’ll break the drought any day now!”
“Maybe he forgot where he planted his crops!”
Old Fool has been doing this for so long the townsfolk had run out of new insults many years ago. On this morning, as on every other morning before, Old Fool ignored the insults and continued to dig. Just as the sun was reaching its highest point, the mockers were interrupted by a low and threatening rumble beneath their feet.
“Feels like an earthquake!”
But before a single soul could move, a huge and violent jet of water gushed forth from the hole that Old Fool was digging. It reached into the sky for at least a hundred metres before showering everything. The ground got wet. The townsfolk got wet. Old Fool got wet.
The topic of conversation changed abruptly. Old Fool didn’t seem so foolish anymore.
“Well I never. He was right after all!”
“Did you see the water? He’ll be rich! He’ll never have to work again!”
“Well, I do remember telling you that we should be nicer to him…”
The next morning the townsfolk gathered in great numbers to see Old Fool’s geyser. The water had continued gushing forth all through the night, and the townsfolk were amazed to see that the holes that Old Fool had dug throughout the years had become pools and ponds, full of fresh life-giving water. Then the door to Old Fool’s cabin opened, and out came Old Fool dragging his trusty pickaxe behind him. He nodded at the townsfolk, then turned and walked off towards the dry and dusty distance.
“What’s he doing?”
“He’s still digging? Even after yesterday?”
“I told you he’d still be Old Fool.”
Many months passed. The water that Old Fool had found continued to flow, and the countryside that he had been digging in had become lush and green. Flowers grew, animals grazed and people came from miles around to drink. Yet Old Fool continued to head off alone each morning, carrying his pickaxe into the desert to keep digging.
One day some of the townsfolk followed him to ask him why he kept going. “Why do you keep digging? You’ve found water. You don’t need to dig anymore.”
Old Fool glared at them and replied, “Your mistake is in thinking that I was digging for my own benefit. I was digging so that others could drink.” The townsfolk shook their heads, shrugged their shoulders and walked off. They did not understand.
Soon after this, Old Fool died and was buried in the dust bowl where he had spent his life digging. His grave is a nondescript plot of dirt in the middle of nowhere, marked only by a headstone that has been crudely formed from a large boulder. People continue to visit his oasis, but no-one bothers to visit his grave. If you ask the townsfolk, not one of them can tell you who buried him or who placed his headstone there. But if you ask, a few of them might be able to tell you what has been engraved on it. An Ancient Word. “His labour was not in vain”.
Are you still listening?
Do you have time for one last story?
Once upon a time, Man and Woman lived in a wonderful garden with the God who had created them. Every day they would walk with Him through their amazing world. His voice, the voice that had called everything they knew into being, was the only voice in their world. But one day they met a serpent, and the serpent brought with it another voice; a voice that set itself against the Creator.
“He told us that it was good,” said the Man and the Woman.
“But could it be better?” asked the serpent.
“He has given us everything that we need,” said the Man and Woman.
“Are you sure?” asked the serpent.
The Man and Woman had to choose who to believe, and they made a bad choice. Since that time, men and women have found that the voice of God is now just one voice amongst the many.
But the story doesn’t end there. Many years passed and then there was a man who heard God calling his name. This man had the same choice as the Man and the Woman. Would he listen or not?
“What do you want of me?” asked Abram.
“I want you to go,” replied God. Abram went, and in doing so he became a different person. He became Abraham.
In the years that followed, there were men and women who listened to the voice of God, and men and women who listened to other voices.
Eventually along came one who made his whole life revolve around listening to the voice of God. He had a different name for God, however. He called Him ‘Father’. Everywhere that this man walked, he made sure that he was walking with his Father. In the wilderness; by the lake in Galilee; on the Temple Mount; in a garden called Gethsemane and on a hill called Golgotha, wherever he went, his Father’s voice was the only voice He listened to. He said, “I can do nothing except what I see my Father doing.”
Jesus taught his followers that to have seen him was to have seen the Father, and by extension, that to have heard him was to have heard the Father. One day Jesus had to leave his followers, but he didn’t leave them alone. He sent them the Comforter. Jesus, the God With Us, sent the Holy Spirit, the God In Us. To this very day, wherever the followers of Jesus go, God goes with them, and like the Man and Woman at the beginning of the story they can hear God, if they listen carefully, because they carry the voice of God with them.
Listen. The story goes on.
“The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught. The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back.”
James has had a variety of interesting learning experiences in his life, some from being a Baptist minister in the UK and then some from being a member of Cornerstone Community, a mission and discipleship community in Australia. He fancies himself as something of a storyteller, and this book is his first attempt to put some of the things he’s learnt into words. James currently lives in Canterbury with his wife and five (yes, five) children.
…let us know. Why do you think storytelling works?
James would love to hear from you.
This is the email link: [email protected]
Why did Jesus use parables when he told his followers about God’s Kingdom? Have you ever thought of using stories in this way?
If you enjoyed this shortened version, why not enjoy the whole thing – 20 more stories to remind you of things that need remembering. The Listening Book: The Soul Painting and Other Stories, available in Hardback, Softback, eBook and Audiobook online and via good bookshops.
Ready for some more? Sign up for James’s Blog and get a FREE chapter of The Second Listening Book, which is out later in 2016: http://www.thelisteningbook.org.uk
Canterbury UK, 2016.
James Webb’s ‘Little Book of Listening’ is a shortened version of 'The Listening Book', a thought-provoking and beautifully written challenge to the way in which we live our lives in a complex world. Through a set of parable-like short stories, Webb offers us an innovative and creative insight into God’s word and, while being engaging and captivating throughout, the stories never lose their subtlety and charm. These tales are an exploration of some of the ideas we find in the Bible, with each one carrying the essence of God’s word. Webb uses his background in Bible teaching to combine both scriptural integrity with an enchanting written style to create what is, without doubt, a unique and perceptive book. In addition to being beautifully written, ‘The Little Book of Listening’ is stunningly presented, with astounding photographs throughout. ‘The Little Book of Listening’ aims to present some of the concepts found in Christianity in a new and intuitive way and, with themes ranging from love to evangelism, it really does have something for everyone.