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!

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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.

The sensitivity of the Spirit

I posted this 5 years ago and I’ve had the same Bible passages today.

Where will ‘The Dove’ settle?

JS Alan Wilson

Doves get a mention in both parts of my Bible reading today. First, in the Genesis reading, was the story of the dove that was sent out by Noah in an attempt to determine how quickly the flood waters were subsiding. Then, in Matthew, was the account of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove.

A couple of years ago I heard RT Kendall talk about the sensitivity of the Spirit. He has a book with that title. He tells the story of a couple, Sandy and Bernice, who went to be missionaries in Israel. They noticed that a dove had come to live in the eaves of their house in Jerusalem. They also noticed that the dove was disturbed by noise in the house. If a door was slammed or if voices were raised, the dove would fly off. They didn’t want to lose the dove…

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“Jesus, it’s Jim” (repost)

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I heard this preachers’ story a few years ago in a message on Mary and Martha from Steve Brown.

(There seem to be a few versions of the story around, including one that locates the story in a UK city).

Every day at noon Jim used to call into the sanctuary of his church. After just a few minutes he would leave. The pastor’s study was immediately above the door the the sanctuary and the pastor noticed Jim’s unusual (to the pastor) behaviour.

One day the pastor decided to ask Jim what the point of these short, daily visits was. Jim told him that he would come into the sanctuary and stand in front of the cross. He’d simply say, “Jesus, it’s Jim.” Then he would leave.

The pastor was on holiday when Jim was taken into the hospital. When he got back he called at the hospital. He noticed that things were different. Nurses were nicer and doctors were kinder. So he asked a nurse from his church what had happened. She told him to ask Jim.

The pastor went to the third floor where Jim was. He told him that people were saying it was because of him that things were different in the hospital.

“No, it’s not me,” said Jim. “Every day at noon, Jesus comes into my room and just stands there. He says, ‘Hi Jim, it’s Jesus.”

Lead like Joshua: a book review

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Of the writing of books on leadership, to paraphrase Ecclesiastes, it seems there is no end. That goes for Christian books as well as anything else.

A recent addition to the genre is Derek Tidball’s Lead like Joshua. In the course of 23 chapters, the book moves systematically through the story of Joshua and does a great job of combining careful attention to the biblical text with the author’s ability to draw on his wide experience of leadership as well as various contemporary authors. It’s not as though the world needs another leadership book, but the author believes that too few of them ‘hit the spot’ from a Christian perspective. Too many of them draw freely on secular ideas but fail to deal seriously with the Bible. Too many of them are too complex for the average church leader to gain from them.

Contra those who might wish to argue against the concept of leadership (at least business-style leadership) in the church, Derek Tidball affirms the significance of leadership in Scripture, though he is keen to point out that Joshua ‘was not written as a textbook on leadership for later generations’!

Be careful not to go away from studying Joshua having learned leadership lessons, but having learned nothing about the sovereign Lord who keeps his word and saves his people.

I’d like to say that that is one of the most important sentences in the book, and one which ought to sound a note of caution for anyone who wants to write a book or teach a seminar on leadership from a particular biblical text. I fear it is too easy to fall into the trap of losing sight of the reason particular texts have been given to us!

Lead like Joshua begins with a reflection on what it means for a leader to ‘assume responsibility’ and thereafter the chapters have similar, pithy titles: ‘build foundations’; ‘make decisions’; ‘recall history’; ‘trust God’; ‘demonstrate perseverance’.

By the end of the book, a careful reader could have assembled a 23-point checklist of good leadership practice: a checklist against which to assess his or her leadership.

But the book is more than a checklist! There is careful engagement with the biblical text, along with reflections of Derek Tidball’s considerable experience as an evangelical leader in the UK, and an ability to draw on various key voices on leadership themes. You’ll find church leader Bill Hybels, author and speaker Gordon MacDonald, leadership writers James Kouzes and Barry Posner: you will even find Sir Alex Ferguson!

Personally I was particularly chuffed to see a chapter devoted to leadership ‘crucibles’ the theme of my recent doctoral research.

Although I was sent a complimentary copy of the book, I am not on commission to suggest that as a new term gets underway, church leadership teams could do worse than set aside time in their regular meetings to work through this book (there are questions at the end of each chapter) in their own context.

Here is the list of chapters:

  1. Assume responsibility
  2. Build foundations
  3. Make decisions
  4. Gather intelligence
  5. Prepare thoroughly
  6. Take risks
  7. Recall history
  8. Gain respect
  9. Surrender status
  10. Trust God
  11. Face failure
  12. Confront sin
  13. Re-energize people
  14. Renew vision
  15. Correct mistakes
  16. Fight battles
  17. Demonstrate perseverance
  18. Manage administration
  19. Honour others
  20. Display compassion
  21. Guard unity
  22. Mentor others
  23. Keep focus

 

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!

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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.