The joy of the Lord

I dare say one of the most popular verses in the OT book of Nehemiah is 8:10: ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength’.

It’s normally understood as referring to the joy that the people gathered in Jerusalem should be expressing. They experience, and express joy that comes to them from the Lord.

But what if that’s not exactly what the verse means?

Another suggestion (GCI Wong in an Old Testament journal in 1995) is that the verse is referring to joy experienced by the Lord: he is the one who is rejoicing. ‘Strength’ could also be translated along the lines of a place of shelter, in which case the Jews, previously weeping in response to the reading of the Law, could find shelter in the fact that the Lord was rejoicing – so they too could rejoice. You think of the reference to God’s joyful singing in Zephaniah. Or – a NT illustration – the fact that the returning son in Jesus’ famous story found safety in his father’s joy.

I’m far from an OT expert, and I don’t know if any translators have followed this outlier, but it’s an interesting thought!


8 things Christian leaders can learn about ministry from Moses

Your Leadership Journey

Yesterday I had been invited to a gathering of a dozen or so Baptist pastors: I shared some things I’ve learned about leadership, framing them with the story of Moses.

Here is a little summary of my thinking:

1 – We don’t get there by ourselves.

Moses’ survival, his eventual faith in God, and his leadership of God’s people would not have been possible had not been for the faith of his parents, the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter, and the ingenuity of his sister.

Nor do we get there by ourselves. Whether it is the faith, example and witness of our family, the faithfulness of teachers, or the investment of mentors, we don’t get far on our own.

2 – God can meet us in deserts.

For Moses, the middle years of his life represented the loss of his vision and passion. Exile in Midian was not what he was…

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Here’s part three of a series of podcasts with Malcolm Duncan.

Your Leadership Journey


Malcolm Duncan, Senior Pastor of Dundonald Elim Church, is back for a third week.

He talks about some of the impressions of the Northern Ireland he has returned to. He suggests that there is a lot of hope (‘if you see cranes in a city, it’s a sign of hope’), while there is also a degree of uncertainty.

We discuss the theme of exile: how do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Malcolm suggests that here is a difference between a church that sings and a church that shouts and he argues that we need to spend more energy telling the Church to get its house in order than telling the world to get its house in order.

He offers some ideas on how the Church needs to respond to the secularisation of society: the Church in Northern Ireland needs to be a hopeful community and a source…

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A triumphal arrival in Jerusalem


Yesterday was Palm Sunday, when Christians around the world will have reflected on the Sunday when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem at the start of the most dramatic week of his life.

What is often missed or overlooked is the likelihood that another significant person may have arrived in Jerusalem was arriving in Jerusalem for Passover around the same time.

Pilate, the Roman governor, would have lived in a palace, constructed by Herod in Caesarea, on the coast. But we know that he was present in Jerusalem during Passover: famously he presided over Jesus’ trial that week.

In addition to his presence in Jerusalem to hold court at that time, it is possible that he chose to be there, accompanied by extra soldiers, to keep a lid on any nationalistic over-exuberance among the large crowds that had gathered for the feast: Jerusalem’s population increased dramatically during Passover (it’s still a busy season in the city today).

On his arrival he may have been accompanied by up to 1000 soldiers, some on foot and some on horses: a display of Roman imperial power that would have left no one in any doubt who was in charge. Doubtless, whether the inhabitants of the city liked Pilate or not, it would have been expedient to ensure that he received an appropriate welcome!

Given that Caesarea was on the coast, Pilate would have approached from the west of the city.

Contrast that with the Palm Sunday arrival on the other side of the city. Jesus arrived from the Mount of Olives on the east. As with Pilate, there were crowds to welcome him, with excited acclamations of ‘Hosanna’ and reference to Psalm 118 (one of the psalms sung at Passover time).

Unlike Pilate, Jesus arrived without the trappings of power. More than once along the way he had taught his disciples that in his kingdom the greatest was the least and the first was the servant of all. Now he arrived – not with the trappings of military might, but riding on a donkey. A humble, gentle king arriving in peace, but to a city that would shortly violently reject him.

O what a mystery,
Meekness and majesty.
Bow down and worship
For this is your God,
This is your God.

The Crucible: A Morning for leaders in Dublin


A morning for leaders, with leaders.

Following several previous events over the past 18 months, including one in Edenmore Golf Club, the next ‘crucible’ conference for leaders is planned for Dublin on May 8, 2018, beginning at 10.30 am and running until 1.30 pm.

The conference will be hosted by the Irish Bible Institute and will include tea/coffee on arrival, and a light lunch.

The morning will explore the question of how Christian leaders are shaped by various people, events  and experiences they encounter in the course of their leadership journey.

Dr Alan Wilson (whose doctoral research explored this subject) will interview three experienced Christian leaders:

  • Roz Stirling director of Cleopas, a ministry dedicated to helping people – not least leaders – to cultivate their relationship with God;
  • Bishop Ken (Fanta) Clarke, mission director for SAMS (UK and Ireland) and formerly Church of Ireland Bishop of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh;
  • Dr Trevor Morrow, Minister Emeritus of Lucan Presbyterian Church and former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

You can expect to be encouraged, as you listen to stories of God at work in leaders’ lives, and challenged as to your own leadership and relationship with God.

Among comments from previous attendees …

‘… incredibly moving, humbling and thought-provoking … a significant marker in my own journey’

‘good for my soul’

Please use the contact form if you would like to have more information about the event.


Turn these stones into bread

1Henri Nouwen’s little book In the Name of Jesus, takes a fascinating look at the temptations Jesus encountered in the desert. I’m not going to simply regurgitate or summarise what he says here (you will have to read it for yourself), but here are some thoughts on ways in which the incident might speak to Christian leaders.

Go it alone!

The temptation to ‘go it alone’. When Jesus turns down the opportunity to turn alleviate his hunger by turning stones into bread, he quotes from Deuteronomy 8: we don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. I don’t think that verse means what we usually think it means: he is not saying that, just as we have our breakfast in the morning, so we should make sure to read a verse or two before heading into the day. The context in Deuteronomy seems to teach that this is a lesson in dependence, and that throws light on the nature of the temptation.

It was not the simple fact that they had bread to sustain them that kept the wandering Israelites from starving: it was the fact that God spoke and gave them the bread that kept them from starving. Their lesson was about learning the art of humble dependence on God.

Hence this was a temptation for Jesus to ‘go it alone’. Since he was the Son of God (that’s what God had just said), it was within his power to turn stones into bread. But his reference to Deuteronomy appears to suggest that for him to do so would be to act independently of his Father – and even to use his status as Son to this end.

How often are leaders tempted to ‘go it alone’? To take our gifts and abilities and use them independently of God?

One of the Christian leader’s most significant lessons is the lesson of dependence. At times God allows a leader to get to the end of their resources so they learn to trust him.

Be spectacular!

The second temptation was the temptation to be spectacular. Imagine an angelic rescue as Jesus fell from the pinnacle of the temple! A sure way to catch the imagination of the people!

How many leaders are lining up to be completely insignificant? How many are indifferent to whether or not they make an impact? The opportunity to look good, to be (even a little bit) spectacular probably carries at least some allure for many leaders. What’s the harm in jumping off a high building if it makes people notice us?!

In this regard, I imagine that many of us are familiar with the adage that ‘excellence honours God and inspires people’: I have no doubt that is true, but I think excellence might be one of those tricky things that forgets its subordinate function and becomes an idol! And the leader is on a quest to be spectacular.

Take a short cut!

The third temptation is the most brash: just fall down and worship and the kingdoms will be yours. Imagine – a short cut to power and glory that sidesteps the cross!

Short cuts that avoid pain and discomfort can be enticing. But leaders cannot afford to sell their souls in a compromise that seems to promise a quick route to success!

Preaching that Moves People

I’ve just finished reading a new book on preaching. It’s written by Yancey Arrington (I’m told Yancey is a good ol’ Texas name) who serves as teaching pastor in a church in Houston.

It’s not a book about the tasks of assembling the content of sermons, but focusses instead on their delivery: you will need to look elsewhere for books that cover issues of exegesis and hermeneutics. It’s not that Arrington thinks these are unimportant, it’s just that he thinks not enough attention has been paid to how we better connect with our listeners. While teaching may be content-centred and aim for comprehension, preaching should be people-centred and aim for engagement.

All good preaching includes teaching … However, unless the preacher calls for a response … to those truths, what happens in the pulpit remains more lecture than sermon.

Arrington makes his point under four main headings:

  • Arrange for tension – which I think in a sense is a call for more inductive preaching where we don’t give away the point right at the start. It’s a move away from the old advise that the preacher should tell the people what he’s going to say, say it, then tell them what he has just said.
  • Build for pace. Here is where he develops the skiing analogy that is hidden in the book’s title. The sermon’s main idea is the skier’s path down the mountain. Get down too quickly and the sermon is superficial; get down too slowly (too many turns and digressions), and you may lose your listeners.
  • Chart for bandwidth – in which he explores the emotional content of a sermon and argues that the preacher needs to engage a range of highs and lows (as well as some steadiness in the middle) through the course of a sermon. Too much steadiness and it’s boring; too many highs and it’s exhausting; too may lows and it’s sad.
  • Find your voice. Preachers need to be themselves. Influencers (other voices) can help us to find our own voice, but if they become idols, they can prevent us from finding our voice.

The book is clearly written in an American context and primarily for an American audience, but you shouldn’t be put off because he talks about getting hot dogs at halftime when your football team has scored a touchdown, or because he hasn’t referred to your favourite European preacher!

It’s a refreshing read and I think it will probably be of most benefit to preachers who are familiar with more technical material by people like Bryan Chapell (who has written an endorsement) or Sidney Greidanus.