Author Archives: Chris Webb

Inside Story

We have just had two retreats back to back at Launde; one all through Holy Week and up to Easter Day and the other looking at the Resurrection stories in Easter Week. What really came alive for me was how vividly all the stories speak to us.  The gospels are not histories.  They are not simply the stories of the insiders who were there – the disciples and other witnesses.  We are inside the story and the story is inside us.  Yet again I am aware that the Bible is the story of Everyman (and Everywoman).

In reading the Holy Week stories you become aware that one of the main themes running through is failure – the failure of the disciples to understand what Jesus is about, to be courageous and to be faithful friends. Well that is probably most of us down to a tee.  In the Easter stories what comes through is the great mix of emotions – grief, fear, confusion, joy (when they see the Lord) and plain muddle.  The most common emotion, though, is doubt.  Not only can they not believe their eyes (and remember Jesus’ appearance has changed) they doubt themselves and him.  This is hardly surprising.  Everything they have ever known has been turned upside down.  It is almost as if they have to start from scratch as newborns.  They have to renegotiate all they thought they knew about Jesus, looking back at Jesus now through the cross and resurrection.  They have to understand the faith they inherited and the culture so closely aligned to that faith in a very different way.  It is a huge, earth shaking change when they actually begin to “get” that God is in Jesus on the cross! And even more of a challenge to see a dead man walking, eating, being alongside them and forgiving them all their failure and doubt.

But this story is for us, as John in his gospel points out several times. At the end of the story about Thomas in chapter 21 he writes that he has gathered these stories together so that we may believe.  John is talking to us down the centuries.

When we really give ourselves time to ponder the stories of Holy Week and Easter, it comes home to us that the stories are for us and about us. What is more it is possible to feel that same sense of the world turning over that the first disciples felt.  In the words of G K Chesterton, “The whole world turned over and came up right.”

Passionate Authors

One of the things we all seem to do as Christians is to collate the stories of Christmas, Holy Week and Easter. We have four gospels, each reflecting a very different character.  But when it comes to the big festivals we tend to merge all the stories into one – unless, that is, we are very specifically following one gospel writer.  So, for example, one of the most popular services of Good Friday is built around the Seven Words from the Cross: an amalgam of the seven different sentences Jesus is supposed to have said on the cross, from all four gospels.  In reality, Luke has three of the sentences, John has three quite different ones, and Matthew and Mark have their own sentence – which they share.

For the last few weeks I have been preparing to co-lead our Holy Week retreat at Launde Abbey. We decided to walk with Jesus through his last week and because Mark is the gospel writer who really delineates this week, day by day, even telling us the time of the day sometimes, we decided to go with Mark’s gospel.  But because this is the year of Luke the Reading of the Palms and the Passion reading in the Eucharist today were Luke’s story.

What struck me more than anything was how vividly Luke Passion narrative came alive because I have been steeping myself in Mark.  We do ourselves a dis-service when we tangle up the gospels in our services. Weight is lost.  Drive is lost; because the effect of running the stories together dilutes the passion (small p) of the gospel writers who all knew what they wanted to draw out from Jesus’ time on earth.  They were all writing for different audiences – but still audiences with whom we find we have much in common today, because some things never change – and they wrote of the Jesus who had changed their lives from their perspective, and my goodness, how Jesus empowered them and how their love for him comes out in their stories when we get to know them and their unique point of view.

So Mark is all about Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God as opposed to the corrupt powers of state and religion that dominated and subjugated the people of his time. Jesus is human, passionate and confrontational of the corrupt authorities.  His call to his disciples is to participate in his work, to walk in his way, to bring in the kingdom.  His cry from the cross is one of utter human desolation and failure.  Luke’s Jesus is tender, vulnerable, the servant king who calls his disciples into the same sense of service and humility. Luke’s Jesus speaks words of forgiveness (twice) from the cross and at the end lets go of his life in utter trust to his Father.  John and Matthew’s Jesus is different again.

Different as they are, these four gospel do not detract from each other. It is much more as if four people were talking about someone very important to them and a situation they all knew this person to have been in and we hear the same story different variations.  It is as if one story throws light on another which rather than detracting brings more depth to the whole.  We do not have to be afraid that different sentences appear in different gospels.  Together they make up so much more than a whole.


Mothering Sunday

In twenty-five years of ministry it never struck me until now, how (at first sight) odd the readings are for Mothering Sunday. I say “at first sight” because they are not really odd at all once you remember that this is also the fourth Sunday in Lent and that we are moving ever closer to the Cross.

What I think threw me was a kind of clash of cultures. I remembered years of Mothering Sundays in a parish church; “All Age” services that were often full of children and families who didn’t come very often; services that usually ended with gleeful children receiving little bunches of flowers from the vicar which were then passed on to their mums.  This was supposed to be a happy, attractive occasion.  What many of us clergy were trying to do was to give our rare visitors the kind of jolly experience that would make them come back again.

In this year of Luke there is a choice of two gospel readings for Mothering Sunday. The first, from Luke 2, is the couple of verses when Simeon says to Mary in the Temple in Jerusalem, “And a sword will pierce your heart, too.” Or from John 19 when we find Mary standing at the foot of the cross and Jesus gives her to the Beloved Disciple as his new mother.  Neither of these are cheerful, “hip, hip hooray” for the joys of motherhood type readings.  And the thing is I don’t ever remember preaching on the texts in my twenty-two years of parish ministry.  It is a great pity if I didn’t.

“Standing at the foot of the cross was Mary.” You could stop there and leave it to the imagination to paint the vivid picture of what she must be going through.  You could not do so without a box of tissues nearby.  All the disciples (bar John) have run away.  Only Mary, John and two other women have the courage to be there.

Someone once said that motherhood was 50% love and 50% guilt. Anyone who has been a mother knows this.  Perhaps as an adult child we also know guilt for the way we did not always respect, love and understand what our parents were going through.  Mothers and fathers look back on the way they let their children down and adult children look at the way they let their parents down.

What was going through Mary’s mind as she looked at her son? She had shown such faithfulness at the beginning but later there had been moments of friction (for example, at the Marriage at Cana, in Galilee), moments of real misunderstanding when she had listened to the negative things being said about her son to the extent that she came with his brothers to take him away because everyone was saying he was mad.  As she looked at Jesus now being executed as a criminal, was she confused?  Was a part of her saying, “Are these leaders of our religion right?  Is my son a blasphemer?

In a way, however disturbed Mary might have been, not only because of the horror in front of her but because of confusion in her own mind, does not matter. What matters is her faithfulness to the son she loved.  That she was there for him.

And Jesus is, of course, is faithful to her. In the rather formal words he says, “Women behold your Son.  Son behold your mother,” Jesus hands over legal responsibility for his mother.  He makes sure, in a country where women were utterly materially dependent on men that his mother will be looked after.  But, despite the fact that Jesus had younger brothers, he also hands her over to John:  someone who knows who Jesus is, who does understand what Jesus’ ministry was all about.

This a moment of profound reconciliation, where faithful love and care overcome all other considerations – all past hurts and misunderstanding. It is also a moment of hope for the future.  With John as her guardian Mary will from hereon in be at the heart of the little group of disciples who will change the world.  Jesus’ brother, James will become a leader of the Church.

Mary is like us with our own children: wanting the best for them, fearing for them; sometimes making the mistake of trying to take control for their own good! Church should be about telling it as it is; not always playing Happy Families to get the punters in.  This story of love and guilt is in the end about a mother’s profound love and faithfulness to her son and God’s overarching faithfulness to world.  Jesus does not only look after his mother’s legal and material future, but after that which has always given her hope and meaning, her faith in God.  In the midst of darkness the promise of tomorrow is beginning to take root.

Who or what is transfigured?

Many people, if not most people, have had a moment when life came vividly alive and they have the sense of something beyond this life, of some presence. “Time stopped still,” they will say.  Or, “I just knew everything would be alright.”  Very often these experiences take place when we are alone and, yes, up a mountain, or in what is described as a “thin” place – somewhere which feels closer to God.  Whatever others may think of these experiences, the person who has had them knows them to be real for themselves.  You never forget such experiences and you seldom, if ever, speak of them.

As I was preparing my sermon for this Transfiguration Sunday, I happened to have a couple of conversations, as well as doing the usual reading preparation. In one conversation a fellow priest reminded me of what the Orthodox Church thinks of the Transfiguration.  For them, it is the disciples who are transfigured / transformed / metamorphosed.  Jesus has always been what they see on the mountain.  It is just that the disciples have not been able to see it before.  My fellow priest suggested that when the disciples and Jesus go down the mountain and Jesus heals the Epileptic boy, this is also a moment of transfiguration.  Where Jesus comes close and heals, our lives are transfigured.  Now the three disciples who went up the mountain see Jesus in a new way and see what he does in a new way, even if they do not yet understand the way of the cross that he will take.  Lifelong conversion is done a bit at a time.

The second conversation was with someone who came to talk to me about the place she finds herself in, which is pretty dismaying. Like so many other people she is a carer for a mother with dementia.  Someone in the home where her mother is challenged her as to why she bothered to go and visit when she is not recognised.  “I do it because I know who she is,” she said to me.  “I know what soap she likes.”

The transformation story really starts with the stay at Ceaserea Philippi eight days before when Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. “But who do you say I am?”  asks Jesus, and Peter makes the great leap of comprehension and faith and recognises Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ.

Is the Transfiguration also about the question of identity? Thomas Merton asked the question, “Who am I?” and the answer he received was, “I am one whom Jesus loves.”

The lady who came to see me transfigures her mother life because she recognises who she is. God recognises who we are, despite our “dementia”, our muddle, our self-hatred, our sin.  God sees through and past all that.  He never forgets who we are.

On the mountain the disciples comprehend who Jesus is a little more. Because of what they see and experience they understand themselves differently.  The people down the mountain in their painful experience are transfigured by Jesus, even though they don’t recognise who he is.  And through his grace working in us, we are able to transfigure the lives of others, even in very small ways – like buying the right soap.

Reading Icons and Poetry

Writing some Christmas thank you letters this morning, I found myself falling into the trap of speaking of Christmas as a past event, which is not actually how I feel on this St John’s Day, 27th December.  What I was sharing, of course, was how Christmas Day was, and that day is past.  But the season of Christmas and the opportunity to engage deeply with the story, mystery and meaning of God’s self-emptying and becoming a tiny child in Jesus continues for another ten days.

There is a great temptation to rush into a new kind of frenzy immediately Christmas Day is over. But if we can just find a few minutes each day to pause, contemplate and reflect on the story of the Nativity, there is such treasure buried here, such spiritual food, that we will find ourselves nourished throughout the season; and we will be glad, so glad.

One way that I have found to support, direct and sustain me through all the seasons of the Christian year, is poetry, and particularly anthologies chosen and opened up to me by people who know a great deal more about the discipline than I do. You do not have to know anything about poetry to read and enjoy these books.  What poetry has the power to do is to link story and picture, imagination and meditation together so that we find ourselves approaching the old, old story of the Nativity, which we think we know so well, from a new and surprising angle.  The book I have been using this year is Malcolm Guite’s “Waiting on the Word: A poem a day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.”  Each morning in Advent was like opening a window of an Advent calendar but far better.  Who needs chocolates?  And now during Christmas we are unwrapping a variety of “takes” on the birth of Christ.

Today we had Nativity, by Scott Cairns, which is extraordinarily powerful, layer upon layer of words and plays on words, like rapt and wrapt.  Time also layered, so that we see the various visitors to the child before, during and after their visit.  How it changes them.  They are never the same again.  One is reminded of the end of T S Eliot’s poem, “The Journey of the Magi,” when the narrator, one of the Magi, says that this birth was more like a death than a birth.  He refers to the death mysteriously present in the birth of the child of Bethlehem: a life / death he cannot access.  But he also refers to the death he has now experienced, to his old self, his old way of life.  He cannot settle back into what he was.  Yet, he says,

I should be glad of another death

One of the images Cairn’s poem reminded me of, was of the medieval icon that would show the whole story of the nativity. So, for example, you see the shepherds in the fields, before and after the angels come; the Magi travelling and then arriving: different parts of the story in the same picture: the same characters but in different states.

When this wonderful and amazing story gets inside us; when we meet the Christ at his birth, at his cross or at his resurrection, or when we are given the gift of seeing that the life and death are all wrapped up in every stage of Jesus’ life, we too are changed. There is no going back. As Cairns puts it, the focussing star, directs all

slow pilgrims to the core

Where all journeys meet,

Appalling crux and hallowed cave and womb…


We begin to comprehend joy and power and the pain of this blessed season and the God who loves us more than anything.

Advent musings at Launde

Dark days, early mornings and the opportunity to reflect on this season of Advent go together.

We are all being told we need more exercise so every morning – well, strictly speaking, almost every morning – I take a short walk before I go to work. At present, it is still night when I go out and it seems to be getting darker and darker because we are a week off the shortest day of the year.  Today the cloud cover was very thick and without starlight or moonlight I couldn’t see the path at my feet until my eyes adjusted to the different densities of black, grey and silver, where overnight rain had gathered in puddles.  Once in front of the Abbey, however, the sharp profiles of the winter trees stood out against the sky, black upon grey-black.  A bird sloped soundlessly across the path and hid itself from me stealthily.  A plane droned high above and I wondered whether the passengers were enjoying a beautiful sunrise above the clouds or were caught up in the mist.

What is so amazing on these winter walks is not just what you see but what you don’t hear. Everything is silent.  As I already mentioned, one might see a bird: I often do.  But they are silent and hop about close to the ground as if safer there.  Every now and then there may be an owl’s hoot or my feet on the gravel may alarm some ducks or coots, but for the most part I walk through a deep and profound silence.  Mister Eckhart said, “There is nothing so much like God as silence,” and on these morning walks I feel he is absolutely right.  The silence is not empty but denotes presence.  It is full of….?

And the change comes as you walk. On a totally overcast day like today, you realise that as you have been walking, blackness has become different shades of grey.  Looking towards the east, you see bank upon bank, slice upon slice: hoary, ashen, steely, silvery, griseous, slate, pearl greys.  Despite the overcast sky, light comes.  As you look, as you walk, you know that everything you see belongs to you; that no one is seeing what you are seeing from your unique physical position on this day and at this moment.  This is God’s gift to you – and, of course, not just to you but to every person wherever they are who are looking upon this miracle from their unique angle.

And then the birds begin to sing.

It is a profound moment. The day may be overcast.  There may not be any sunshine today, but the light will come and we will walk in the light, even if it is not the full light from a cloudless sky.   And the time of waiting in the night is not wasted.  On the contrary, it is precious, for we find we are not alone in the dark.  There is a presence there with us in the silence, also waiting, biding his time, inviting us and full of grace.

The Three “W’s” of Advent

I feel before starting this blog that I must apologise for not having written it for three weeks.  Like other people sometimes the demands on time and energy are more than I can manage: something has to give.

Perhaps this is the way we go into Advent.  Life gets so busy and what gives is the spiritual side.  To begin with we determine that we are going to make this season very special: we are going to concentrate on the themes of Advent.  But then instead of preparing our hearts and souls for the birth of Christ we find ourselves yet again just thinking about Christmas Day and all the things we have to do to prepare practically – so that good wishes have been sent to everyone we should wish them for, presents are bought and wrapt and the turkey is on the table, cooked!

In a way the things that have demanded so much of my time lately are exactly the right opportunities for getting down to what Advent is about, Waiting, Watching and Wondering.  You see, I have been working on two retreats, both of them were dealing with Advent and incarnation.  There is nothing that helps make one as attentive to the subject in hand as either being on retreat or accompanying people on retreat.

These three “W” are God’s gifts to us in Advent.  The Waiting is not the kind of irritating waiting of the Post Office queue or the anxious consideration forward thinking, running out of time waiting.  This waiting is attention to the present moment, real attention to the gift of the present moment and all that is available to us in it.  As Dostoevsky said,

Love all that has been created by God, both the whole and every grain of sand. Love every leaf and every ray of light. Love the beasts and the birds, love the plants, love every separate fragment. If you love each separate fragment, you will understand the mystery of the whole resting in God.

You may be sitting in silence quietly waiting “for the God to speak” or out walking, but the important thing is that we wait attentively.

The second “W”, Watching, is to be alert to what God might share with us in any given moment.  Another way to put this is that we are invited to listen spiritually to God speaking to us through whatever medium God gives us.  This may be scripture, nature or an item of news.  It may be a sudden compassionate movement of the heart when we see an advertisement on the television asking for donations for a Syrian Child or Wateraid.  It may be that we receive a unexpected insight from the Holy Spirit or a deepening of faith.  To this end it is very helpful, I find, to have a special book to read for Advent or to look at paintings, listen to music or do whatever works for you.

The final “W” is for Wondering.  Of course we hope that all our waiting and watching will lead to a sense of wonder.  But this wondering can be of two kinds – the wondering which is about the state of the world, our own or others health, even, can I really believe this promise of the Child in the Manger?  Or it can be that heart bursting, breath taking “Ah” moment.  But instead of looking at it all out there, in the future, wishing that it may one day happen, perhaps the wonder is already here with us in the present moment; when we love “love each separate fragment, (and) understand the mystery of the whole resting in God.”  This is the sacrament of the present moment.  This is the moment when Jesus is born.  Potentially this moment is in every moment that God makes if only we can practice Waiting, Watching and wondering in Advent.


“There is no path to peace. Peace is the path.” (Mahatma Ghandi)

Today in preparing for our Remembrance Day service, I read about the man who wrote that famous First World War poem, “In Flanders Fields.” Named John MaCrea, a doctor, he was battalion surgeon to an artillery unit at Ypres.  For seventeen days he worked on wounded men in dug out holes in the canal banks.  He was in his mid-forties.  He didn’t have to enlist at his age.  Indeed, he had sworn never to go to war again after his experiences as a doctor in the Boer War.  There he had seen more men die of disease and the lack of care they got after being wounded then from the wounds themselves.

But when the call went out in 1914 John McCrea joined up again despite his fear because, he said, he was more afraid of his conscience. Later he describe the seventeen days at Ypres as being like Hades but it was the death of a young friend and former student of his, 22 year old Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, which led him to write the poem that has touched so many hearts.  Because there was no chaplain McCrae had to do the funeral rite. The next day he wrote the poem sitting on the step of the ambulance looking out over a landscape of makeshift crosses towards the one belonging to Helmer.  There were poppies everywhere and an East wind was gently blowing.

What struck me as I read McCrae’s biography was that here was an extraordinarily decent human being who found himself caught up in the most appalling horrors, not once but twice in his life, because he was a doctor. Here was a man who really saw, day by day, the utter cruelty and futility of war; who suffered his own losses and bereavements.  He didn’t die in battle but because he always had severe asthma he came down with pneumonia and meningitis and died before the war ended.  No doubt the time in the trenches did not help his already fragile health.

“There is no path to peace. Peace is the path,” said Mahatma Ghandi.  Every day ordinary human beings get caught up in war.  Every day they find themselves involved in something over which they have no control: another man’s quarrel, another man’s sin – but they are in the midst of it.  All anyone can do is try to keep their own sense of integrity, their own sense of what is a right way to behave.  They make peace in their own tents, among their own.  It is not much but to those round them, it makes a deal of difference.


Love is one of those words that has become devalued over time. Today we tend to use it mainly to describe the feelings between a man and a woman.  We are almost embarrassed to talk about love between friends, especially when they are of the same gender.  Yet some of the most powerful love I have ever come across has been between those on the front line in war; soldier, for example and colleague soldier, who would literally give up their life for their friend; who when they are fighting are doing so more for the person to the right and left of them then for any family member back at home.  Shared experience brings people together and the more powerful the experience the more strongly the ties are often felt.

Long before I was ever old enough to be attracted to a boy, I knew what it was to experience love. I was loved by my parents and siblings and I loved them back.  I didn’t think about it.  It was just there.  I knew I cared about my friends in a way that I didn’t care about the other children.  I loved the community I lived in, thinking it was special because it was special to me.  I loved people and places because they gave me a sense of belonging.

Love is about belonging. When two people fall in love they experience a sense of belonging to each other, of being at home with each other, in, what I describe, as their “right” skin.  They also belong to themselves, are at home with themselves in a way that they may not have experienced before.  If their love leads to a permanent relationship they set up a home together where they can root and grow their sense of belonging.  But this belonging is not simply about two people falling in love.  It is the family; growing up I belonged to my family and they belonged to me.  My family gave me a sense of trust and security but also I realised as I grew older an obligation to care to them.  It was at this point that I realised that love is as much about will if you are a Christian, as it is about feeling.  This is why Jesus could commanded us to love one another.

Belonging means attachment to the wider community, my friends, my workplace and those I work with, my home town, my culture, my football team. But seen like this it can lead the wrong way, into exclusivity.  You don’t belong to me if you don’t support my football team or if you weren’t born in this country.  This exclusive belonging is not love.

We know love to be most truly love when it is inclusive, not exclusive. When I think that love is about what I receive, what belongs to me as of right, I am in danger of becoming exclusive.  When I feel that belonging to this group is what sets me apart from others; when I know myself as over and against others because I belong to a certain crowd, this is not love.  There is so much of this wrong-headed sort of belonging amongst us – even in basically decent people, and it is the opposite of love.

When I realise that I belong to the other, just as much as they belong to me, and when I begin to consider the wider and wider circles to which I belong I find that there is no end to them. All of nature belongs to me.  Every time I take a walk and enjoy the autumn trees, birdsong, the breeze in my face and the sheer enjoyment of walking, all I see belongs to me.  At the same time it belongs wonderfully to everyone else.  But I also belong to nature in my responsibility to it and in my love of it.

Right at the centre of all this belonging is that I belong to God and he belongs to me. I can say, “My God,” and not feel embarrassed about it because I am not claiming exclusive rights to his love and attention.  Rather, I am taking up the place in his worldwide family he has given me and realising that I belong to him and to others.  He has made a place for me to abide in and he invites me to dwell there with him and all that he has made and loves.  It is where I most truly belong.

Abandoned love

The gospel reading this morning was the story of Blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 46 – 52) and one word jumped out at me that I hadn’t really ever taken in before, although I must have read the story many, many times over the years. The little word was, “again”; Bartimaeus says, “My teacher, let me see again.”  What this means literally, of course, is that there must have been a time when Bartimaeus could see.  Unlike the man born blind in John 9, Bartimaeus must have lost his sight due to disease.  He knew what it was to see and what he had lost.  His longing enabled him to cry out to Jesus and he would not be silenced.

Reading this gospel made me wonder what I once ‘saw’ but ‘see’ no longer. What have I lost that once meant so much to me.  I was not thinking specifically of people who have died, broken love affairs or disappointed hopes.  Rather I was thinking of Revelation 2: 4 where the message to the church in Ephesus reads,

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.

 Life hurts. We lose people we love.  Perhaps we don’t achieve what we hoped for.  The daily news is depressing and we feel powerless to change things.  Children grow up and leave home.  We age; our bodies ache and don’t do what they used to do.  We become cynical or cease to expect very much.  In fact, we are in danger of drying and shrivelling up if we don’t work quite consciously at remaining open and grateful.  And often our faith feels as though it is drying out, too.  We just go along with it and accept it.  It is this that Revelation challenges – our acceptance of the status quo.  The writer reminds us  that there was a time when everything seemed so vivid, life-giving and life enhancing and we don’t see that anymore.  The world vision has taken over.  It is as if we have lost our sight, our God sight.  The eyes through which we look out at the world have become veiled with disappointment.

I don’t think it has to be this way. One of the things I have experienced on occasions is very deep emotion: joy, love and sadness, in dreams.  It is as if it is all still there but can only be accessed when I let go of this tired, indifferent adult in sleep.  The waking times at which I can also experience life more intensely are when I am able to be awake to the present moment, aware of my senses, glad to appreciate all that is around me.  This can be practiced, and practiced over and over again.  Stop, pause, sense through sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste – stay with it, give thanks.  Jesus made a big thing out of saying thank you – gratitude.  Remember the story of the ten cured of leprosy and only one turns back to Jesus to give thanks?

But perhaps we also need to take a leaf out of Bartimaeus’ book and cry out with all our hearts to Jesus that we might see again because we, like Bartimaeus, cannot do this without Jesus.