When passion and self-confidence are not enough!

Peter never thought he would deny Jesus. He never planned to. He assured Jesus he never would. He would be the exception when his weaker colleagues’ courage gave way. Supreme self-confidence.

‘Even though they all fall away, I will not.’

As if to show that he meant it, the gospels show him using his sword to stand up for Jesus. Confidence, determination and passion.

I remember hearing that wonderful Bible teacher, Stuart Briscoe talk about Peter’s removal of Malchus’ ear. We shouldn’t imagine that this was a careful piece of surgery – it was clumsy swordsmanship. The result was not meant to be the removal of an ear: it was meant to be the separation of Mal and Chus – one on either side!

That’s passion!

‘Even though they all fall away, I will not.’

Summer in this part of the world can be like a spiritual greenhouse. The conferences and festivals. Summer Madness for the young. A whole series of camps for the even younger. New Wine for the charismatics, Northfield for the Brethren, Keswick at Portstewart for the reformed and reformed-ish Baptists and Brethren. New Horizon somewhere in the middle.

Preaching and teaching. Challenge and encouragement. Seminars and worship. Prayer and coffee times with friends.

Not to mention the teams: maybe a couple of weeks in a far-flung city (at least an EasyJet flight away) with a zealous group of like-minded people involved in an exciting outreach programme. All those people who turned up to watch the Jesus film; the people who signed up for Bible study in the autumn; people who came to faith. You’re ready to take on the world.

And now today is the final Bank Holiday of the summer (why do banks need all these holidays and why do some people who don’t work in banks get them too?), and September is just around the corner. Back to school. ‘Traffic is slow on the M1 into Belfast.’ Evenings drawing in.

Will the spiritual passion of the summer greenhouse be enough?

Don’t get me wrong: most of us could do with a lot more spiritual passion than we have (if in doubt, compare your response to watching the winning goal/try in a final to your enthusiasm for the fact that Jesus has been raised again!). We really ought to be passionate about our faith. Read the Psalms – especially the ones that talk about noise and joyful shouting. Think about trees clapping their hands and stones crying out. Why is joy part of the fruit of the Spirit?

We could use a lot more spiritual passion.

It’s just that – as in the case of Peter – there can be a level of passion that makes us think we are stronger than we actually are.

‘Even though they all fall away, I will not.’

It’s so much easier to be ‘all for Jesus’ when you’re singing a great hymn or song in a crowd of hundreds or thousands than when you’re part of a shrinking rural church where almost everyone has their bus pass. It’s easier to be confident in your faith when you’re in a crowd of hundreds or thousands, listening to one of the most gifted Bible teachers in the country, than when when you’re the only Christian in an arts class at university.

Peter’s failure was bitter and painful. He wept. How could he let down his friend? Might he also have been aware of the way his failure had demonstrated that he was not as strong as he thought he was? That’s an insight that failure gives us.

Mercifully his story has further to run: much further. That’s why John appears to tag on an extra chapter when it looks as though he’s said all that needs to be said by the end of chapter 20. Peter finds grace by a charcoal fire.

Sometimes we sing, ‘Jesus, I will never let you go’: which is fine. It’s a good answer to Joshua’s ‘who will you serve’ question.

But sometimes it’s not enough.

Just as often we need to be asking him never to let go of us.

Welcome to autumn! Get your roots down deep!



How not to do religious journalism

Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph ran an article about the discovery of 4th century Latin commentary on the gospels. The approach of Fortunatianus of Aquileia was allegorical rather than literary, and the suggestion was that this might something that modern readers could learn from. The article’s title: ‘Don’t take the Bible literally’ says scholar who brought to light earliest Latin analysis of the Gospels. The implication seems to be that the gospels would be a bit easier to handle if we read them as allegory rather than history.

I’m not a professional biblical scholar, nor am I an expert in journalism, but it seems a few comments are in order:

  1. From a journalistic point of view, it might have been a good idea to have invited comment from a scholar or two who might have offered a different perspective. For example, someone who could have explained why not everyone thinks an allegorical approach is necessarily the best approach.
  2. The article referred to the idea that ‘the Bible had to be “understood in the context that the authors were working in.”‘ Fair enough, but it wasn’t written in the 4th century!
  3. What, exactly is meant by reading the Bible literally? The article talked about ‘the trend of biblical literalism adopted by modern evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, which interprets the Bible as the literal word of God which is not open to interpretation’. Much more nuance is needed here. I doubt there are any evangelicals who take references to trees clapping their hands as ‘literal’! Of course there are evangelical Christians who believe that the Bible has to be interpreted.
  4. There are allegorical aspects to the Bible: think of Paul’s discussion of Hagar (though there is no requirement to say that it is either allegorical or literal). But care is needed. One of the classic (and most fanciful) examples of an allegorical approach relates to the story of the Good Samaritan. By the time you have figured out what the two coins mean and who the innkeeper is, you run the risk of missing the whole point of the story!
  5. Surely it’s more important to take account of the gospel writers’ own view of what they were trying to write rather than put so much weight on the views of people writing a few hundred years later. Frankly, it’s hard to believe that Luke thought he was writing anything less than an account of what actually happened.
  6. Christianity’s claims are founded in space and time. At its core is the belief that Christ died and was raised again. It matters that those events happened.

A visit to Serbia

IMG_0227Not that I have a bucket list of countries I want to visit in whatever time remains to me on earth (I’ve been to Hawaii), but I never really thought of the possibility of visiting Serbia.

Until an email from a pastor friend forwarding a call for help from a small Bible school just outside Belgrade. The visiting teacher who had been due to teach Hebrews had had to cancel his visit. Like the Irish rugby team (!) I answered the call.

So it was off via Zurich, with the opportunity for coffee and a catch up with a former member of our church in Nyon, three days in country, and back via Frankfurt.

I managed to get a visit to Belgrade on Friday: it’s an impressively located city, built at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.

The evangelical community in Serbia is small. To be Serbian is practically the same thing as to be Serbian Orthodox. In a nation of 7 million, it’s reckoned that there are may be 10000 who are part of the evangelical mainstream: for more on the situation of evangelicals in Serbia, the European Evangelical Alliance published this interview with the director of the Serbian Evangelical Alliance a couple of years ago. Interestingly, a friend suggested to me that Serbia may not have had as much attention in terms of Christian mission as other parts of the area, given what he suggested was the Church’s propensity to be drawn to the underdog. It’s actually been suggested that many Western Christians in fact lost interest in Serbia during the 90s.

The school is hosted in a former 3-star motel around 35 minutes’ drive from the airport. It’s part of the work of The Belgrade Christian Trust (HUB for short – in Serbian) and has been running for 21 years (the current school year concludes at the end of this week). It was started, and initially run by an English couple (Andy and Faye Mayo) who’d been visiting Serbia under the auspices of Oak Hall, the Christian Holiday organisation. These visits involved bringing humanitarian aid to the area during the wars of the 90s.

After 10 years, the Mayos left Serbia and handed the leadership of the school over to a young local leader – Sladjan Milenkovic. He has continued to lead the work for the past 11 years.

Students work hard (the photo shows the director on his lunch!):  the first year of study aims to cover every Bible book (I think they told me they had missed one), and students work hard. Most days they have 6 45 minute classes. We had 18 classes on Hebrews: other books have 30 classes. There is a day for practical service and on Sundays they get around various churches to help (the Sunday before my visit they had been in Bosnia). Over the course of the academic year, they have 950 classes (compare that with the number of lectures in an average university year in the UK!!). A second year allows the possibility for increased ministry involvement and the focus is on more practically-oriented subjects. Days are bookended by early morning devotions and evening prayer.

Unlike many Bible colleges in the UK and Ireland, the school has chosen not to seek external accreditation: they are not convinced that would help them to maintain their focus on the mission of training disciple-makers.

Beyond the school, the HUB centre hosts summer camps and has recently opened a coffee shop in the small nearby town of Opovo – a way of facilitating contact with local residents.

There were just 8 students in the class I taught – at times the school has bigger numbers. Students range from having left school to at least one with experience in ministry. Since my Serbian is limited (!), I taught via translation. My translator did a good job. I’ve no way of knowing how accurate she was, but she worked quickly without hesitation (my Northern Irish pronunciation of ‘cow’ stumped her towards the end of the week).

Over the 21 years of its existence, the HUB Bible School has seen around 35 students graduate and some 60% of these are serving in ministry: around this time a year ago they celebrated their 20th anniversary.

For a bit more about HUB, you can click here.


The crucible of success

Your Leadership Journey


A leader’s response to success and prosperity are as significant as his/her response to failure and adversity.

Success can distort our hearts, leading us to forget that apart from God we can do nothing of significance. It can lead us to become proud, not only to forget who God is, but to forget who we are. I spoke to a leader who told me that he had been reluctant to consider himself as a leader (even though he led) and that part of the reason for that was his observation of people whose success and status changed them for the worse: their ego took over as they were increasingly celebrated as leaders.

External success might draw a blind over what may be going on in the hidden parts of our lives. It might even lead us to think that the hidden and inner parts of our lives don’t really matter too…

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Leadership 101: The Making of a Leader

Leaders don’t simply drop out of the sky, fully fitted with all they will ever need. For sure some of them seem to be born with a clear predisposition to leadership. But there is a journey of shaping and formation and the best leaders will go on learning.

Your Leadership Journey

14_leadership-01Last week’s post explored some of the questions around the definition of leadership. This week explores another question in the form  of one of leadership’s old chestnuts: are leaders born or made? Apparently a Google search for an answer to the question could fetch you millions of results!

If, with Thomas Carlyle, you subscribe to the Great Man theory of leaders, you’re likely going to say that they are born. They land on the planet, equipped with ‘the right stuff’ and lead simply by living.

It’s probably more than an academic question. After all, why bother with leader development programmes if leaders come pre-programmed to lead? Is there any value in leaders participating in such programmes? On the other hand, if leaders are made (at least in part), even those leaders who are born with an impressive array of leadership traits oozing from their pores will be able to benefit…

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