All posts by danbalsdon

Christian. Methodist Minister (Presbyter) serving in the Bognor Regis area, South East, UK. Husband, Father of 2. Book hoarder. Wanna-be chef. Heart for living in community and for seeing the presence and activity of God in day to day life.

Recommended Read: Unapologetic

Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense.
Written by Francis Spufford.

Published by Faber & Faber, 2012

I have loved reading this fresh and bold story and exposition of why belief in God matters and makes a difference. Loved it, but struggled to work out how to share it with you – because it is not a book that is easily reviewed – it simply needs to be read and experienced for yourselves.

I’ll be honest – it is a challenging read – not that the words are hard to read – in fact quite the opposite, you may well struggle to put it down. But it is challenging because every page has at least one line, idea, or phrase that will make you stop and need to think about – possibly even want to disagree with – and then find your mind blown and read on to the next bit that makes you stop and think.

Spufford offers a unique presentation on how to make sense of God, faith, Jesus, bible and church for today – challenging any reader to look in a mirror, recognise our brokenness and need for mending and to find that mending in the grace of Jesus.

Unapologetic will make you think deeply and differently about life and relationships and faith. It asks questions about the existence of God, how we understand sin, why there is suffering in the world and how on earth Jesus dying is what brought redemption to the world. And to those questions there are few definitive answers offered, but there is a whole lot of Jesus , and a whole lot of hope offered in the questions, the mystery and the uncertainty that emerges. Oh, and a whole lot of unconditional, unwavering grace.

Church, Spufford argues, is a space of failed people seeking to perpetuate the unlimited generosity of God. it is a messy place, where the institution messes up (actually, Spuffords language is more colourful than that!), but Christ is still looking at and God is still shining.

Spufford concludes (and this gives you a flavoyr of all the book explores):

“If that is, there is a God. There may well not be, don’t know whether here is. And neither do you, and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins, and neither does anyone. What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if He’s there; to dare the conditional. And not timid death-fearing emotional sense, or cowering craven master-seeking sense, or censorious holier-than-thou sense, either. Hopeful sense. Realistic sense. Battered-about-but-still-trying sense. The sense recommended by our awkward sky fairy, who says: don’t be careful. Don’t be surprised by any human cruelty. But don’t be afraid. Far more can be mended that you know.”

Freedom – taking personal Responsibility

With ‘freedom day’ upon us, I’ve been thinking a bit about the word freedom and what we may mean by it. I typed ‘freedom’ into an open source image site and found it quite ironic that freedom was depicted almost entirely in terms of isolated individuals in nature – not a crowded bar or theatre in sight! (a sample of the images offered to me above!) 

Words like freedom are a bit like onions with layers of meaning…  but perhaps also like a kinder egg… because if we unpack what it may mean for us we may be surprised at the diversity of meaning among us. 

Freedom is a deeply theological concept for us as Christians, strongly driven by scriptures story. Much of the bible comes from people and communities seeking freedom, but restricted from it by the geo-political and social structures of the day. Ruth and Naomi restricted by famine and grief yet subverting the cultural restrictions of the day. The Israelites enslaved in Egypt , longing for the promised land. Paul, Peter and many others imprisoned writing to inspire the early church… 

Some parts of the Old Testament are packed with rules for the community of God; don’t eat unclean animals, no mixed fibre clothes, rules for bathing… there is even an instruction not to boil a baby goat in its mothers milk. There’s all sorts of ways to explain why these rules may have been necessary at the time, some very practical – for example some rules may have helped stop the spread of disease.

By the time Jesus came, these rules had become so restrictive to the people of God they had become a mill stone around the people’s neck, and the religiosity of the system had taken away any sense of freedom. So Jesus comes and turns everything upside down, freeing God’s people and all the world from restriction – God did not send the son into the world to condemn it, but that it might be saved (John 3:17) , and offering freedom ‘if the Son makes you free, you are free indeed’ (John 8:36).

But what do we do with that freedom? Do we go off and do whatsoever we like? That is the choice we have. That is the personal responsibility we bear. But how do we bear it? What does Christian personal responsibility look like? 

These quesitons are not new questions – it seems that the early church asked them too, and while maybe not in the context of a pandemic, Paul writes to the Galatians that as God’s people we are called into freedom. Not merely earthly freedom (e.g. from mask wearing and social distancing), but to the Spiritual freedom of belonging not to the kingdoms of earth but the kingdom of God. To be called into freedom is to embrace the liberating, redeeming power of salvation we find through belonging to God’s kingdom. 

But, says Paul, we are also called to choose use our freedom responsibly – to take personal responsibility and not keep our freedom for self-indulgence, but to live out God’s law that Paul and Jesus both sum up in one phrase ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ 

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Galatians 5:14-16

In light of the emphasis on ‘personal responsibility’ for mitigating covid risk, moving away from laws that dierct us, I’m minded that personal responsibility is not about only thinking about self, but also taking personal resposibility for ensuring our personal actions also love our neighbours. 

As we enter this new phase of pandemic, I encourage you to reflect on 2 things:
1, reflect spiritually and on your relationship with God: what does Christian freedom mean for you?    
2. reflect practically, how do you demonstrate to the world the personal responsibility we are called to exercise?  

Weekly Reflections from Rev Dan, also published in Tues News 20/7/21.
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Standing against racism

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 3:28 (NRSVA)

Weekly Reflections from Rev Dan, also published in Tues News 13/7/21.
Sign up for the weekly Tues News here.

Friends, 

“At the heart of the Methodist community is a deep sense of the place of welcome, hospitality and openness which demonstrates the nature of God’s grace and love for all.

Our church communities are called to be places where the transformational love of God is embodied and life in all its fullness is a gift which is offered to all people.

There are no distinctions based on race, gender, disability, age, wealth or sexuality, or any discrimination associated with this gift.”

Extract from the Strategy for Justice, Dignity and Solidarity, Methodist Conference 2021, p782. 

After some weeks of incredible football and an intense match last Sunday evening, where England played their hearts out against the team that were always tipped to win, to end up at a penalty shootout and come second in the tournament seemed to me to a pretty good result. Not only that, but even more importantly, the way the whole team have sought to live with integrity, solidarity and ownership of their decisions is an example we need to see more of. 

So it has been devastating to witness yet again the systemic racism that is present, and seemingly becoming more prevalent in society. To ‘blame’ England’s loss on a trio of gifted footballs because they are black is abhorrent and should have no place in our society, I hope you would agree. 

But how will we respond? How do you stand against racism in your living and daily activity in your community?

This morning I feel convicted to recognise that to do nothing, to ignore or let it pass by in the hope things will change, or that someone else might do something about it, is the collude with the racists themselves. To do nothing is to deny the truth that all people are made in the image of God. 

Rooted in Christ, we can have confidence that despite worldly opinions, the invitation to God’s table is for all. So let us stand up, speak up and live with confidence in justice, dignity and solidary for all God’s people. 

In peace and hope,Rev Dan 

Mysterious Spirit

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Today, 23rd May, is Pentecost Sunday. A day Christians will often remember the story we read in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit is outpoured upon the disicples of Jesus like tongues of fire and 3000+ people joined the community of the saved, the followers of the way.

This painting is called Pentecost, dating from 1962 and was painted by Dennis Hawkins. It one of the many paintings we find among the Methodist Modern Art Collection. This Painting from Hawkins comes from a larger series of paintings, here’s some explanation about the painting and story behind it…

Pentecost, Dennis Hawkins, (c) TMCP

The descent of the Holy Spirit, on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, marked the birth of the Church, and is represented by an intense circle of white light, painted on the top of an old school desk. In this way Hawkins represents the success of the Church penetrating unlikely nooks and crannies and dark corners throughout the world and illuminating them with the light of the Holy Ghost. In the 1960s Hawkins produced dozens of “Pentecosts”. The traditional iconography of Pentecost was tongues of fire, but instead he chose to use the circle or sphere. He saw it as a numinous object, mysterious without beginning or end and all-embracing, an ideal symbol for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Commentary based on ‘A Guide to the Methodist Art Collection’. from Pentecost – Dennis Hawkins (methodist.org.uk)

I love way Hawkins demonstrates the coming of God’s Spirit in this endless and timeless way, echoing the truth that while we have the Acts 2 Pentecost, God’s Spirit is at the beginning in Genesis, and through many different images and metaphors threads its way throughout scripture, throughout time, And throughout our very lives.

I also love the way this sphere of light appears as graffiti on ‘normal’ objects to the 1960s world. From being an ordinary day to day object, this old school desk is now marked and becomes something unique and special, carrying a hallmark of the life-giving, all-embracing spirit of God.

This image, this art, this metaphor, reminds us that today, Pentecost, is not merely a day where we may read Acts 2 and be reminded of the story we sometimes call the birth of the early church. Today is a day where we remember and celebrate the timeless, endless, all-embracing and life-giving presence of God – which we know as God’s Spirit, that rests on and within each of us – ordinary people, who become marked, special and unique, carrying the hallmark of the all-embracing presence and power of God everywhere we go.

Jesus prays for us

Read: John 17:6-19

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‘Fool of God (Christ in the Garden)’
Mark Cazalet (1964- )
Methodist Modern Art Collection 
Image Copyright © Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes. The Methodist Church Registered Charity no. 1132208

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Read: John 17:6-19

As a parent of two young girls, I have a duty of care to them. Before they were born my wife and I would fairly often both be out of the house in an evening; we were both in a choir, my wife did some amateur dramatics, I would sometime have church meetings, most months we would head out for a meal or to the cinema, or have an evening out with friends.

But having children means we can no longer choose to head off on our own paths without considering others, because we now have a duty and responsibility to care for these small people we have the privilege to call ours.

The combination of moving away from friends in Cornwall, my becoming a minister, as well as the more recent pandemic means that;

A) only one of us can be out in an evening unless we make arrangements for someone else to look after them for us, and

B) that most evenings now involve Louise and I binge-watching the latest series we’ve take a fancy to on Netflix.

Our commitment to, and love for, our children leads us to ensure at least one us is present to care for them.

Here in these words from John 17, we find part of a long and winding prayer the gospels records Jesus prays to his father for his friends. For his band of disicples, and for all those who call Jesus friend. Because Jesus knows he is about to be taken from them. These people, his friends, who he loves and has been committed to are soon going to be without him.

Jesus is painfully and heart wrenchingly praying to the father for his friends who he will soon depart from. That they will be entrusted to God’s care, that they will belong to God and God will protect them as they seek to live out Christ’s example to them in the world.

I firmly believe in this moment of heart-outpouring prayer of Jesus 2000 years ago, Jesus prayed a prayer that was prayed beyond the confines of time and history – that in that moment Jesus prayed for each of us too.

That each of us who call Jesus friend was held in his mind, his heart, his voice, his prayer. Jesus prays for us, for me, for you.

Jesus prays that just as he belongs to the father, just as he has a close relationship with father – so too might his friends have such a relationship.

So too might his friends belong to God, and all that is light and truth and freedom, while living and serving in the world. 

Jesus makes a distinction between those who belong to the world, who seek and serve the earthly kingdom of materiality, individualism, greed and selfishness, and those who belong to God, people who seek God’s kingdom. Those who recognise, affirm and respond to the stirrings of God’s Spirit abiding within them.

Jesus’ prayer for his friends and for us, and asks that we may be in the world, in the thick of human life and activity, yet belonging not to the world, but to God. That we may be distinctive in the world – ‘sanctify them in truth’ he prays – which means make them holy. (17:17)

What does it mean to be Holy?

We’ll, let’s be honest, perhaps it will take a lifetime of living as friends of Jesus, and experiencing for ourselves what it means to belong to God to know what it means to be holy.

But I suggest to you, that to be holy, as a disticntive of God’s people, is about a heart for seeking God and God’s kingdom. Responding to God’s reaching for us, by reaching for God, and allowing God to inhabiting within ourselves, and bear the fruit of the very goodness and graciousness of God as we live and walk in the world.

And that goodness, that fruitfulness, that abiding connectedness between us and God is what Jesus prays over us.

Half-baked prayer

‘Half Baked Prayer’ – a reflection on prayer
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My prayer life is Rubbish.
There isn’t enough of it.
I never know what to say, or how to say it.
My prayer list is always so long, and I never feel like I ever get to the end of it.
I don’t know what to pray, or if I’m praying right.
I don’t know if God is doing anything anyway.

Ok – so that may not be how you expect me to start, but I wonder, can you relate? Do you have similar self-depreciating thoughts that make you feel guilty about your prayer life, or lack of it.

If you have thoughts like I do, then I also want to suggest to you, that like me, there’s a mistake in your understanding of prayer.

The mistake comes when we assume there is a right and wrong way to pray.

But there is no definitive right and wrong way to pray – there are simply lots of ways to pray, and we each find different combinations of those ways are what works for us as individuals.

Prayer is, for us, conversation with God and seeking God’s kingdom,
listening to God and looking out for the signs of God’s kingdom
responding to God and living for God’s kingdom.

When I was training as a local preacher I remember going through different types of prayer…

  • intercession and petition – prayers for others and the world
  • adoration, praise and worship – words to adore God
  • confession – recognising the fragility of our humanity
  • thanksgiving – giving thanks for who God is

And at times I felt as if there was this list of ingredients that, if all were included in the recipe of a service, it meant the service worked and would successfully bake a good cake for the congregation.

But actually, thinking about forms and types of prayer is not about a recipe to success at all.

I wonder if we’ve failed ourselves by overthinking prayer – and not grasping it’s joy, it’s flexibility, it’s breadth and depth, and its uniqueness for each of us as individuals.

What all those types of prayer do helpfully remind us of though, is that they, along with many others, are tools in our toolbox to resources us in our relationship with God, as worshippers and as disicples.

You see, prayer is not following a recipe to make a successful cake for others, prayer is a tool from the disciple making toolbox that we used to help us as disciples to nurture a relationship with God. To make our relationship with God a good cake.

And for prayer, it’s not actually the ingredients that matter, but the heart from which they come, and to which God speaks and responds.

I wonder, if prayer sometimes too easily becomes a list of wants and desires. Well-meant and good to be prayed, but if wants and desires for others and the world is all prayer is to us, then prayer becomes so focused on the earthly kingdom and asking God to intervene, that we miss out so much more.

Because if we are too focused on the earthly kingdom our attention is drawn away from also seeking God’s kingdom – the kingdom and way of living that God calls us to seek and live out in the world… 

When Jesus was asked by his disicples how to pray, he begins: ‘Our Father in heaven, you are holy, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.’

Prayer is a mutli-resourced way of life with a heart focused first on seeking God, and God’s kingdom, and partnering with God in bringing about that kingdom on earth.

Prayer can be conversation, it can be thoughts and feelings,
prayer can come while we’re shopping or talking, cycling or swimming,
using a prayer book or a mobile phone app,
it can be when we are alone of with others,
with other disicples, or with those who have not yet met Jesus,
via podcast, Youtube video, facebook or a paper book.

May prayer be a tool for us, not to fill us with guilt and shame,
but to empower us and nurture us as worshippers and disicples.
That we will seek first God, and God’s kingdom.

Reflecting on Vocation

Marking Vocation Sunday 2021. To explore the theme of vocation further head to the Methodist vocation website

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On Sunday 2nd May the Methodist Connexion marks Vocation Sunday. A day when we celebrate and reflect on the vocation of individuals and communities.

What do we mean by vocation?

it’s perhaps a church-y word – but it’s an important one.

it differentiates from the idea of work, of job, and of economic activity.

Vocation connects with our very selves, our identity, our humanity, and says this is what I am created for at this time, in this place. My collection of gifts and skills suits me to this role, this function, this way of being – this vocation.

And of course, all of that, within our faith, is encompassed in the belief that God gives each of us life and breath and gifts and skills. The truth and belief that God gifts us and equips us for the vocations he calls us to.

But not only that, but also the belief that God is active in the world inviting us to notice and respond by getting involved with what God is doing. For getting involved in what God is doing is indeed our vocation as Christian people. Noticing where God is at work, the places where there is evidence of the fruit of God’s Spirit – and joining in.

Words like calling and vocation can scare us sometimes. Perhaps it is helpful to think of it like this: the primary call of a Christian is to follow Jesus, and the journey that emerges from that, for each of us, is our own unique vocation.

Do you see your journey with Jesus as a vocation?

Or do you think that vocations are just for Ministers, and nurses and teachers?

A couple weeks ago my daughter Lydia lost a particular soft toy – dog from TV programme Paw Patrol, – and we searched high and low for it. The last time we knew we’d had it was on a bike ride and we wondered if it had fallen out of the seat it have been sat in.

We looked and looked but could not find it anywhere. After 4 or 5 days of looking, Louise and I had just about settled that it was lost, and gave up looking. Then, one evening Louise noticed something behind the pedestal sink, and there was the toy. We’d been looking in the wrong places.

Do we sometimes look for a sense of vocation where it is not?

In John 15 we read of Jesus presenting himself as the true vine and that those who follow him are the branches.

A vine is a plant that bears grapes. For a vine, or any plant to grow strong, it needs to be well fed with nutrients, water and sunlight. Different plants can require different combinations of this food to grow and, if fruit bearing, to produce fruit.

On this Vocations Sunday, I wonder where our life is bearing fruit.

‘could this be evidence of my vocation?’

Sometimes a plant needs its branches cutting shorter, to be pruned – because this helps the new branch that grows to have more fruit. Sometimes there are things in our lives, and the lives of our faith communities that were once bearing abundant fruit, that were once our vocation, but are not anymore.

Are there things you are doing or were doing, possibly in the name of God and church, that are actually now a burden & chore that bring a sense of gloom, and either don’t bear any fruit or the fruit is no longer abundant and juicy?

If so, it might be time for change, time to have those branches pruned.  Sometimes pruning plants looks and feels brutal, but it is sometimes necessary if the plant is to grow new and delicious fruit.

Vocation is not only something that is about you and me as individuals; it is also about the vocation of the church.

As we emerge from lockdown, this is the time to ask, what is the vocation of my church in the time and the place we find ourselves?

Footnotes

Some material in this weeks reflection developed from material for celebrating Vocation Sunday 2021 vocations-sunday-2021-english-language.pdf (methodist.org.uk)

Called Deeper

Part 3 of a 3-part series reflecting on the ending(s) of John’s Gospel, ch20 & 21.

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Last week our journey through the ending(s) to John’s gospel took us to the shore of Galilee to Peter and some of the other disciples having fun fishing on the lake, meeting the risen Jesus and enjoying fresh fish with him around a campfire. Friends enjoying breakfast together as the sun breaks on the shore.

This week we pick back up where that scene left us, because as breakfast is finished and the campfire moves from flames to glowing embers, Jesus turns to Simon Peter and asks him ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

It feels like a change of pace in the story – we move from an intimate breakfast with friends perhaps having fun and laughter together, to an intimate and deep 1 to 1 between Jesus and Peter.

“Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” comes Peters’ reply.

I wonder how he spoke those words. What his tone and body language was? Was Peter filled with confidence and conviction, as he must have been moments before when he had jumped into the water and waded to shore. Or was he filled with remorse and guilt, his denying Jesus that night in the Jerusalem courtyard coming back to haunt him?

This conversation repeats, 3 times in total Jesus ask Peter do you love me, each time Peter responds, “yes Lord you know me, everything about me, you know, you know I love you.”

It is interesting and perhaps not surprising given how we often find numbers used within scriptures storytelling, that after Peter 3 times denied, Jesus asks him 3 times ‘do you love me’.

I wonder if, for Peter, there was something redemptive and transformative in that being asked 3 times – if it helped him to find forgives and wholeness after his 3 times denying Jesus. But let’s not get Jesus wrong, there is no suggestion here that our wrongdoing, our guilt, our sin, needs to then be corrected by actions, words and works that go in the other direction – as if we have to rebalance the scales. That’s not how Jesus’ love and care for us works.

Jesus is not reprimanding Peter. Yes, he is asking a question, but it seems to me that this conversation is a gentle, friendly, loving one between 2 friends in a corner on the beach after sharing fish sarnies.

Each time Jesus responds to Peter in a similar way.

Feed my lambs. (v15b)

Tend (or shepherd) my sheep. (v16b)

Feed by sheep. (v17b)

Different words – and there may be some significant to the nuances there, but a common thrust. In just a few small words Jesus calls Peter deeper, responding with love, acceptance, welcome, forgiveness and commissioning to serve the flock of Christ.

Sometimes I wonder if, as we see this encounter move from the fun and laughter of breakfast to this 1 to 1 with Jesus, we think Peter is expecting to get his comeuppance for his denying. But Peter knew Jesus, and I wonder if Peter would have been expecting the exact opposite. Expecting Jesus would forgive and love and accept him, and still call him deeper – and feeling guilt and shame because he didn’t think he was worthy of it.

I wonder if this challenges some of our assumptions as Christians about how we think about our own worth. I wonder if we too often feel guilt and shame more intensely than we should or than Jesus ever intended us to. I wonder if we expect reprimand when Jesus just wants us to receive his love, and love him too. I wonder if we have allowed the notion of sin to become a barrier in our relationship with Jesus and our responding to his call to go deeper.  

Jesus says to you today: do you love me?

Friend, no matter what I love you. I forgive you and I still call you. Come deeper with me, serve me, follow me.