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.

Playing Power, Playing God

Today is Palm Sunday, the day we remember Jesus’ Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. You can read the story for yourself in all the gospels, including Luke 19:28-40.

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This week is Palm Sunday, so named after the palm branches people picked up from the ground or cut from trees to wave and shout with triumph as Jesus’ rode on a donkey and entered the city of Jerusalem.

But this week my mind has been as much on the Christmas story as it has been on the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.

Why? Well, last Sunday was Census day here in England and Wales. And as I filled in my census, I was reminded that according to Luke’s gospel it was a census called by Emperor Augustus that led to Mary and Joseph taking a journey from Nazareth in the north, the Bethlehem in the south to register. (Luke 2)

There is no mention of a donkey in Luke’s gospel, but it is perhaps a faux-pas that is helpful for us today – linking these two journeys – Christmas and Palm Sunday – together for us.

You see, I was thinking about how the call for a census, in some way, can be seen as the people in power using that power to play God – by seeking to know who is who. For Joseph and Mary it was the first census, the first time people had been asked to ‘register’. By registering, the ruling powers now knew who was who, and perhaps even where they were – certainly, because the people had to go to their hometown, where they had come from was now known.

Living in 21st Century we’re quite used to other people having details about us. Type “Dan Balsdon” into a Google search and it will soon tell you much about me!

But up to this point in history to be known was not something that would be seen in the same way. You might be known by your local community, a few traders in other places perhaps, family if they lived elsewhere, and for the faithful – by God. The idea of being registered in a society or country was not normative.

The opening line of Psalm 139 hold much more significance when we recognise that to be known had a very different emphasis and meaning before that first census.

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” (Psalm 139:1)

And so I wonder, given all of time and space, why God chose this moment, when a census was to be taken that would make the unknown known, that would change the societal and economic map, that would have an impact on the dynamics of power for the future, as the time for the Word to be made flesh and dwell amongst us. (John 1)

30 or so years on, Jesus journeys on a Donkey into the city of Jerusalem. Depending on which gospel account you read there are palms waved (though not in Luke’s account) and cloaks laid on the ground (but not in John’s account). And it is commonly titled something along the lines of Jesus’ Triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

But actually, it’s not the triumphal entry we might expect. The moment is once again a particular one, because as Jesus entered Jerusalem by the east gate, Pilate was entering by the west, in full military procession, with soldiers in armour and sword, probably horses and chariots.

Jesus’ entry is distinctive and different, almost to the point of comedy. Instead of swords there are tree branches. Instead of soldiers in clothed armour, people de-clothed and laid them down on the ground. Instead of horse and chariot, there are disorganised crowds and Jesus rides a donkey.

Jesus is playing with power by subverting expectations – saying ‘I’ll be king, I’ve be a Saviour, but not the king or Saviour anyone will expect – just you watch’.

Jesus had been challenging power in many ways for many months, and it finally comes to a head in Jerusalem, where Jesus is arrested, put on trial and crucified. But while Jesus can be said to be playing with power, he was not playing with God. Jesus was God.

For mere days later – what happens – well, spoiler alert – Jesus’ shows the true power of God – and is raised to life again. Much to the surprise of everyone!

While the sort of society we live in today is a far cry from that of Jesus day, Jesus’ call continues to us, to pick up our palms and challenge misuse of power, to challenge institutions and regimes that play God, and put our one true God who truly knows us for who we are, beautiful and wonderful beings made in God’s image, with capacity to love and do amazing things, at the centre of our very being.

So friends, what palm are you going to pick up and wave today?

My Soul is…

A reflection based on John 12:20-33.

Reflect: how does your experience of ‘feeling’ through the pandemic echo with or conflict with what you believe or know to be true of God?

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In John 12, after being approached by Andrew, who has been approach by Phillip, who has been approach by Greeks wanting to come to the Passover festival (are you still with me!?), Jesus begins to talk about his coming death. Or at least, we know that he was talking about his coming death. The author of the gospel of John knew. The disciples, the Greeks, the crowd? Perhaps not so much.

In a moment which, in the text, takes us from a conversation with those around him to a conversation with his Father, Jesus says ‘Now my soul is troubled’. (John 12:27)

Though troubled is perhaps an understatement and under-interpretation of the truth of Jesus’ feeling here. A more literal interpretation of the Greek might be agitated, or more crudely, in shock, turmoil or distress.

Jesus wasn’t troubled in a trite and simplistic way. it wasn’t simply that the shopping delivery had arrived and they had swapped your beloved smokey bacon for your less favoured unsmoked.

Jesus was feeling turmoil and anguish in the depths of his soul because of what was looming on the very near horizon. He was soon to be glorified – which to the Author of the gospel, Jesus’ being glorified was the being ‘lifted up’ – the cross.

As Christians we talk of glory, often, as a good thing – ‘To God be the glory, great things he has done!’ goes the popular hymn. But Jesus was not feeling good – despite knowing what was to be gained through this moment.

Jesus has already talked about how useless a single grain is unless it falls into the earth and dies, to then come forth and bear much fruit. (John 12:24)

Jesus seems to know here, what needs to happen – but his feeling – his feeling was pain. His feeling was turmoil. His feeling was fear. His feeling was urging him to say to his Father ‘save me from this hour, this time that I know is at hand’ John 12:27.

In a moment of pain and fear, Jesus was honest with God about how he felt, despite what he knew was to come.

Friends, when was the last time you told God how you feel? How you really feel? Asked ‘where are you God?’ when you’re struggling to feel God with you, despite knowing that God is there?

Jesus’ experience shows us that it is ok to be feeling something that is contrary to what we know, or think we should be feeling. We can’t deny the truth. Can’t suppress the reality of our feeling – if we do, we start to be dishonest with God, and dishonest with ourselves.

Friends, be honest with God today, just as Jesus was, because through being honest with God about how we feel, we are honest with ourselves.

Socks, Shirts and Skirts

Each of us, daily, clothe ourselves. At least, I think we all do!

What we wear each day is often influenced by the activity of the day, though over the last 12 months that fact has likely been diluted for many of us!

In ‘normal’ times we might put smarter clothes on if we were going to a party or the theatre; more casual clothes if we’re catching up with a friend; older, more worn out clothes if we’re gardening or decorating; more comfy clothes if we’re relaxing with a book of in front of the TV.

With the daily ritual of clothing ourselves, comes the purpose we are clothing ourselves for.

In Colossians, we read words that encourage us to clothe ourselves, not in socks, shirts and skirts, but virtues that help us to live fruitful lives which nurture and build us and each other up.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

Colossians 3:12-15

The Hebrew verb that can occasionally be understood to mean a change of clothes is more commonly translated as renew. I wonder, when these words in Colossians were written in Greek, if this Hebrew word play was also in mind.

These virtues were alternative and subversive in the militaristic society where power and dominance were seen as the signs of success.

But the call to live in the fruitfulness of these virtues was because of a new activity and purpose – one that would lead to a renewed and transformed way of living that was disticntive and alternative, and intrinsically intentional.

These virtues are not simply about niceness, the niceness and goodness that perhaps comes somewhat naturally and passively. They are about real, intentional discipleship. Being committed and disciplined to clothing our character around the life and character of Jesus – with the ever-present help of God’s Spirit.

And through that renewing of ourself, the constant attentiveness to how we clothe ourselves in light of the renewing Spirit of God in us, we bear fruit which nurtures and build us and each other up.

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3:17

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Faith in the fog

Faith in the Fog
I drew away this morning, thinking I was going to a quiet place.
When I got there I could see only a few metres, the wind was howling, the rain soaking in.
Where was God in all this?

Then I realised. My life is a bit like that at the moment. I can’t see where I’m going.
This blowing at me from all directions.
Yet I hear the Lord say ‘have faith in the fog’.

So I will. I will have faith in you Lord. I believe.
I believe you will provide for me. I believe you have a plan for me.
I believe you hold my life in your hands.

So I stand in the cold.
The wet, the wind, the fog and say here I am. I am listening.
I will have faith in the fog.

Out of the Way

In the gospels we read the story of Jesus turning over the tables in the temple courtyard.  Perhaps the closest we get in the gospels to seeing Jesus express his frustration in a physical way.

It was coming to the festival of Passover, when Jews would remember how God passed over the land of Egypt and led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

It was an important festival, and Jesus heads to the temple – where he finds a menagerie of traders. And what does Jesus do? He overturns the tables; he drives the animals and traders out of the temple and declares ‘stop making my father’s house a market place’.

Why does he do this? Why does he make such a scene?

The trading that was happening in the temple courtyard had become a distraction from worship, and for some even a barrier to worship.

People were having to buy animals in the courtyard to then go to make their sacrifices, and to buy the animals they must get temple currency – like me as a Brit going to China and trying to use Pound Sterling to buy my dinner – I wouldn’t get what I needed.

The temple traders which may well have begun as a practice to enable those who didn’t have access to animals for sacrifices to be able to access them, have become part of a system of injustice.

Reflection on this gospel story might poses for us various quesitons about worship, economics, justice and injustice, anger and frustration…

But today I want us to briefly reflect on the words of Jesus: ‘Stop making my father’s house a marketplace’. Get this stuff out of the way, it is distracting us, distracting you, from God.

As Christians we have a different relationship with buildings than Jews did with the temple in Jerusalem. Church buildings are a gathering place, and can become sacred space to us, through our encountering God through worship and through lives of others. But we also know that God is no more present in these buildings than all the world. Yet buildings have a significance and value for many.

In the last 12 months as Christians, we have been faced with learning to have a different relationship with buildings that we have done before. When we have gathered in them, we have done so under restrictions which restrain us from singing and even talking with one another. For much of the time they have not been gathering places at all.

For me personally, the restrictions and particularly the responsibility of leading worship within them when I have done, has distracted, and limited me from being able to encounter God through worship and interaction with God’s community.

I encourage you to reflect today – what distracts you from worship and encountering God? What can you do to overcome those distractions?

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Habits

What habits do you have?
Habits can be both good and bad – and sometimes that’s different for different people…

For me, in the last year because I’m working from home more I’ve definitely got into an unhealthy habit of snacking, but I have spent more time reading and walking, which is, I think, a good habit for me.

The important thing when it comes to habits, is are we in control of it, or is the habit controlling us?  

I was reading information on a study this week that suggested adults look at their phone every 6 and ½ minutes. I made me aware how often I look at my phone, and made me wonder whether I’m in control of the habit, or if the habit is controlling me.

In Mark 8 Jesus says to his disciples and the crowd around them:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

Mark 8:34b-36

This call to deny ourselves initially might feel like Jesus is saying ignore your own thoughts and desires they don’t matter when you follow me. But I don’t think that’s quite what Jesus is saying. Actually, I think Jesus is saying we do matter, and it’s because we matter, that Jesus wants to help us to keep our desires and habits in check and under control – and guided by the life that Jesus lived on earth – that becomes a blueprint for how he calls us to live.

To deny ourselves is not about us not mattering, quite the opposite – it’s about ensuring we develop healthy habits that benefit the physical and spiritual wellbeing our ourselves, and those around us.

During lent we sometime stalk about giving something up – chocolate is common – but that’s not really what Lent is about. The period of Lent is really about self-discipline, and reflection – asking ourselves are we developing and living in healthy habits that help our physical and spiritual wellbeing, and asking God to help us.

Jesus goes on to ask what benefit there is to have the whole world, but forfeit life. In his worship song, Tim Hughes words it “What good is it to gain the whole world, But lose your soul?”.

If we don’t work to ensure we develop healthy habits, we can fall into a hole of building up our earthly, worldly kingdoms – healthy bank accounts, homes filled with treasures, but loose sight the Kingdom of God – which trades not in cash and material possessions – but in justice and love.

Pray today, and ask God to help you reflect on what healthy habits to nurture and developed to benefit the physical and spiritual wellbeing our ourselves, and those around us.

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Faithful on the Ocean

O Lord God of hosts,
who is as mighty as you, O Lord?
Your faithfulness surrounds you.
You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them.

Psalm 89:8-9

Last weekend a friend sent me a link to a song, saying God had placed it on his heart to send to me. It’s a song I knew, but in that moment the song was just the thing I needed, and I’m so grateful I received it.

We’ve just begin lent, which we often begin by reminding ourselves of Jesus’ period of solitude in the wilderness. We may imagine a deserted, desert like place – where there is little sign of life and furitfulness – where Jesus is temped and tormented after his Baptism.

For me, my wilderness right now feels less of a desert and more like an unchartered ocean, as we continued to navagate the unchartered waters of pandemic, it’s longevity, it’s impact on community, church life, on relationships and human connection.

In some ways, now that we’re almost a year on from the first lockdown here in the UK, it feels like I may be cracking an old nut going on abour the unchartered waters of pandemic. Surely we’ve got beyond some of the new-ness and unexpectedness of the pandemic, we’ve learnt to use new technology, and while we’d still prefer to sit across from one another with a  fresh coffee, we’ve got used to spending more time on the phone.

But despite how long we’ve been navigating these unchartered waters, the storm is continuing, and while there are signs of hope, past signs of hope have already been knocked back by new, larger waves crashing onto the deck.

Despite being about a year into the pandemic, life and ministry still feels to me like a journey in the unknown. While each week holds within it joys and blessings, there is still a common feeling of muddling through and making do. Trying to be satisfied when I feel that I’m not serving grieving families with the ’best’ I can offer, despite knowing I’m doing all that I can within these restrictions. Knowing how much people long to be able to gather face to face and share fellowship, yet having to live with burden of reality that the fellowship we really want, where we can sing and talk with one another is just not possible at the moment. That’s all without even beginning to think about all the uncertainties about how to lead and shape future ministry as we emerge from this pandemic sometime in the future.

That’s why the song I received last weekend was so helpful for me. The whole song is filled with a reminder that life can feel like a stormy voyage on the ocean, but whether water is still or raging God is faithful – always. God is guiding us – always.
God is with us – always.

Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed and You won’t start now

I encourage you to take a few moments today to listen, and draw close to God who is faithful to you and says to you ‘you are mine’.

In the unknown, in the wilderness of this Lenten season and as we continued our voyage on these unchartered waters, may you find God’s unfailing grace strengthening you, encouraging you and upholding you.

I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever;
with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.

Psalm 89:1-2

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(Without Song)

Why ‘Shrove’?

You may or may not be like me, in sometimes wondering why we use certain words for things… and this week I was wondering why today is ‘shrove’ Tuesday.

A quick bit of research (Thank God for Google!) has discovered ‘shrove’ is another form of the word ‘shrive’, meaning to be absolved of sins through confession and penance. We talk little about penance these days, because we’ve come to understand more of the faithful, loving character of God, rather than one who wants us to suffer for our missteps and misgivings. 

But one thing this meaning may highlight for us is that Shrove Tuesday is a reminder to us reflect to on our own lives and ask God to guide us in how to live our lives differently that we may further grow spiritually.

Lent as a season of the Christian year holds within an important emphasis on self-examination of our life lived with God, and our shared discipleship as communities of faith. That’s why Lent courses are often common place (remember our Lent course is coming up! – please do sign up if you can, we’d love to see you!) 

Our girls have ben asking for about a fortnight for pancakes, they have been counting down the days in anticipation. I wonder if we approach Lent with that same anticipation? Are we excited to reflect ourselves on how God may be speaking to us, challenging us and encouraging us? 

However your shrove today, I pray that as we enter Lent 2021 you will know yourself shriven – covered in God’s grace and absolution, and feel the strength of God’s Spirit as you continue your journey of faith. 


Love, No Distance

This week I talk about God’s love for us and how Jesus came because God wants to be close to us.

Last week was exciting in our houshold because I became an Uncle for a second time – and had a wonderful video call with my second niece, who at the time was just one and a half hours old.

Even through a video call, we just wanted to reach out and have a cuddle, but of coruse we can’t. We’re in lockdown, and our niece is in Ireland, sadly it’s going to be some weeks before we are even able to begin conteplating the idea of a visit.

We heard the news of the pregancy on a video call, we saw the scan pictures by messenger, now we’ve seen her on video calls, but we’re stuck at a distance and can’t reach out our arms and hold her. We can’t feel her heartbeat, or feel hands wrap around our fingers. Yet.

One of the most familiar verses in the Bible is John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.                 

Because of God’s love for the whole world, God was not satisfied with our feeling that he was at a distance from us – and so sent Jesus, to be close to us, and not just close to us, but to live as one of us, to experince human emotion and feeling and relationship.

Through Jesus coming to live with us on earth, God makes crystal clear that his heart is first and foremost for the world, and for us. God is interested in us. God wants us to believe in him, to experirence the fullness of life we can experience with him – now, and in eternity. God loves us, with depth and care.

The following verse in John 3 is perhaps a little less well known:

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.                                   

  John 3:17

There’s sometimes a belief that God sits up at a distance from us, on a throne somewhere in the clouds, pointing his finger at us – but that’s just not the truth I find in the bible, and in my relationship with God.

God sent Jesus not to bring condemnation, not to point a finger, but to save the world – because God loves the world, and God’s heart is to love us too.

If you want to know more about God’s love for you, or have questions about God, church or faith, please get in touch on any of our media channels – we can’t promise to have all the answers, but we’ll listen, and we’ll try.

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