Category Archives: All Posts

The unexpectedness of God

A couple weeks ago we were surprised to wake up to over 5 inches of snow, with more still falling. We knew it was coming but hadn’t expected it to be quite such a significant quantity!

Have you ever considered how disruptive Mary’s encounter with Angel Gabriel must have been? What was most likely a normal, mundane day was turned upside down by an unexpected encounter with God’s messenger. This unexpected encounter changes Mary’s life.

The Birth of Jesus Foretold

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34 Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35 The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38 Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

Luke 1:26-38 (NRSV)

It seems to me that the Christmas narrative as a whole is filled with God being and doing the unexpected…

  • Elizabeth and Zechariah expected to never have children, yet along comes John…
  • I doubt anyone expected Augustus to announce a census where everyone must return to their home town…
  • Mary came from Nazareth, and in John’s gospel we find Nathaniel’s questions of ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ – indicating that people from Nazareth weren’t expected to achieve anything…
  • The Shepherds were having a normal night watching their flocks when unexpectedly an angel stood before them…
  • The magi expected Jesus to be born in a palace in Jerusalem, but found him in Bethlehem…
  • Herod was frightened by his unexpected visit from the magi suggesting a new King of the Jews was to be born…

If there’s anything that the Christmas story tells us it is that God comes into the unexpected….God is in the unexpected…God is unexpected…

And nothing says that more clearly that the unexpectedness of the Christ-child, Jesus, born as a baby, who was, and is, God.

How do we respond to God’s unexpectedness? In the midst of the commercial hype of Christmas, how ready are we to even recognise the unexpectedness of God?

Upon receiving her unexpected message, Mary was both perplexed and questioned Gabriel. The Luke narrative doesn’t show Mary rejecting the message, ignoring or running away, but on hearing it seeking to engage with and understand the message. After Gabriel responds to Mary’s questions, Mary’s response is simple, humble, obedient and heroic…

‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

Luke 1:38

Mary’s receptiveness seems admirable. She responds to this unexpected and life changing encounter with grace and acceptance.

And remember the stakes were high here. She was betrothed to Joseph, and now she was going to be pregnant, and he’d know it wasn’t his child…What would her family, neighbours, community say and think of her.

So today, consider how ready you are to encounter the unexpectedness of God. Not to be consumed by the festivities of the Christmas season but to be able to see beyond the tinsel, turkeys and wrapping paper to encounter the manifest and unexpected presence of God, in the unlikeliness of Christ Jesus.

Receive afresh God’s promised gift, to receive afresh God’s revelation to humanity.

Be ready to respond with grace to the unexpectedness of God.

Adapted from a Sermon preached at Bethel Methodist Church, St Austell Circuit, Cornwall on Christmas Eve 2017.

Image: Trees at the Queens Foundation, Birmingham, December 2017.

A message for Pentecost 2017

The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2 is the classic text for Pentecost Sunday, and the text I began reflecting on this week as I started to prepare a sermon. As I read the text I was struck by the surprises in narrative…

  • The surprising sound of blowing, violent wind, tongues of fire. (Acts 2:2)
  • The various reactions of the gathered people, amazed and perplexed by what was happening around them, surprised that they could all hear what was being said in their own languages. (Acts 2:11-12)
  • The surprising transformation of Peter from the impulsive, put his foot in it disciple who ran away, to preaching here with power and conviction. (Acts 2:14-36)

But this week I also noticed another surprise I hadn’t consciously noticed before, how God’s Spirit seems to transcend human divisions and labels in the narrative.

The Acts narrative highlights geographical differences…

  • ‘Jews from every nation under heaven’ (Acts 2:5)
  • ‘Are they not Galileans?’ (Acts 2:7)
  • ‘Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs’ (Acts 2:9-11a)

The narrative also seems to highlight the distinction between Jesus followers gathered together, (Acts 2:1; this includes the disciples and others, see Acts 1:12-13), and the Jews and Jewish converts staying in Jerusalem (Acts 2:5 & 11).

As Peter begins his preaching he quotes from the Prophet Joel…

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and daughters will prophesy,

your young men will see visions,

your old men will dream dreams.

Even on my servants, both men and women,

I will pour out my Spirit in those days,

and they will prophesy.

Acts 2:17-18, from Joel 2:28-29. Emphasis added.

This scripture seems to highlight societal divisions of age, gender and class.

Yet God’s Spirit will be poured out on all people. The gathered crowd, no matter what their nationality, geographical origin or language, they could all understand what Jesus’ followers were saying.

Labels of age, gender, class, geography, language, nationality…descriptors that in many ways are still used to define us today, but can also divide us. There are many more labels in use in society today too…

  • Employed or Unemployed…
  • Teacher,  accountant, shop assistant, nurse, farmer…
  • Student, Apprentice…
  • Child, teenager, Adult….
  • Lesbian, Gay, Straight…
  • single, celibate, married…
  • Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist…
  • Evangelical, Liberal, Fundamentalist…
  • Tory, Labour, Green, UKIP, Lib Dem…
  • Disabled, Depressed, mentally ill…
  • Rich, poor…

To name but a few…a comprehensive list would seem almost endless…

Sometimes these labels are helpful. We use them to define ourselves, explain who we are, understand and communicate our identity. But I wonder how often we apply labels to other people in ways that are not helpful. Ways that reinforce stereotypes and personal prejudices, perhaps not even realising we are doing so.

Now I want to take that a step further…

How often does the Church apply labels to the work God’s Spirit is doing?

Do we limit our experience of God’s Spirit by our own assumptions or expectations?

In Acts 2 we seem to see a picture of God’s Spirit working outside of human labelling and division…

The Spirit, poured out on all people. (Acts 2:17)

No sub-clause – all people.

God’s Spirit is in and among all people.

Regardless of our expectations.

In the book of Numbers we read about a group of elders gathered together by Moses, who are physically overcome by the power of the Spirit. (See Numbers 11: 24-30) Two elders, Eldad and Medad, were not gathered with the others but were in the camp and they too were overcome at that moment. Joshua runs to Moses and says ‘my lord, stop them!’ (Num 11:28).

Moses seems to call Joshua out quite directly…

‘Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’ (Num 11:29)

Reading of Joshua’s reaction reminds us that we are human, that we respond and react as human beings, that we need to be aware of our human response to the work of God’s Spirit.

This poses us with a great challenge.

What is our response to God’s Spirit?

When God’s Spirit is at work, do we recognise that and celebrate it with joy, wanting to see more?

Or do we respond with jealousy, rejection, ignorance, finding other explanations, asking if people are drunk as the crowd did. (Acts 2:13)

God’s Spirit is most certainly at work all around us.

Working outside of the barriers and boundaries, divisions and human labels that exist in society.

God’s Spirit challenges us to live in a way that celebrates and embraces all God’s Spirit is doing.

In the last 24 hours the attack in London has highlighted division in society. In the coming days as the country goes to the polls, differences in opinions, views and convictions are highlighted and can very easily become divisive.

Yet God’s Spirit is working to draw us together when others seem to be seeking to divide us and violate life. Whether we have casted our vote by post already, or not yet decided how to vote, we all hold various views and come to various conclusions, based on a variety of rationale. Whatever the result we wake up to on Friday morning (or wait up for on Thursday night!), we must guard against the result leading to further division.

As happened on that Pentecost when God’s Spirit came down like tongues of fire, we are challenged to overcome the divisiveness and prejudices of human labels – to encounter the Spirit of God, living and active, uniting us and reconciling us to God.

As a new day dawns…

The birds break out with their dawning chorus,

The flowers awaken once again in their diverse array of colour,

Light breaks forth as morning comes,

As a new day dawns…

I breathe in the refreshing morning air,

I hear the sounds of life around,

I stay still a while as morning comes,

As a new day dawns…

What will this day bring? Busyness or rest?

Work or play? Challenge, opportunity?

Questions arrive as morning comes,

As a new day dawns…

Lord, be with me in all that comes my way today,

Be in all I do, all I think, all I say,

May I know your presence in my life as morning comes,

As a new day dawns…

© Dan Balsdon, April 2017

Finding my voice

It’s a long time since I last wrote or posted anything here, on what is meant to be a place where I intended to share something of my journey as I undergo formation for presbyteral ministry. It would be easy to say I’ve been too busy studying at college to have time to write, and while that would be true in part, it isn’t the whole story.

The truth is that I lost my voice. No, not literally, but spiritually, theologically, personally. Many times I’ve desired to post, but I have lacked inspiration and conviction to know what to write. I’ve struggled writing sermons too.

Among the cacophony of voices in the multitude of books, articles and writings from the centuries of Christian tradition, along with the wonderful voices of those I am learning and journeying alongside and being taught by, I’ve lost my voice, my confidence and conviction. I’ve been left feeling that so many other people say things so much more beautifully than I believe I ever can, what can I say? What use is there me adding my little, inexperienced voice to this cacophony, won’t I just muddy the waters?

But in the last few weeks I’ve begun to feel different; as if the tide has been changing. Having finished our second term I’ve been on what has felt like an essay marathon, but as I’ve approached the end I’ve come to realise I have a voice, a voice God has given me and I need to use it, and to make space to use it.

Holy Week this year has so far been very different to the past few years. I’ve not been selling Easter eggs and cards as I have since I left college, and nor have I been busy in church life, previously either preaching, organising or stewarding for various events This year I’m at Queens in the midst of the Easter holidays, at the tail end of my essay marathon without anything to specifically ‘do’ this Easter.

But that has been a wonderful thing, because not doing has meant I could ‘be’. While there are no lectures and few people on site at Queens, a part-time group have been here for ‘Easter School’ and I’ve taken the opportunity to join them for worship on a number of occasions, and I’ve benefitted from dipping into some of their services as holy week has progressed. Today I joined the Easter School’s ‘hour at the cross’, which consisted of a collection of readings, mediations music, prayer and silence which lead us through an hour of reflection. As I sat in the stillness I sensed the Lord speaking to me, reminding me that he called me, for who I am, made in his image, and that includes my voice.

So while I still struggle to know what to say and feel my voice isn’t as good as others, I know that that isn’t how God sees me, that I need to overcome my feelings of unworthiness and rediscover my God given voice, because he’s called me for being all that I am.

I hope sharing where I am in my journey at the moment will help and encourage others of you too. And hopefully…as I find my voice…I won’t be so quite on here any longer…

Trusting God’s direction

A few days ago I went on a short prayer walk with some friends to pray for our local churches, and in particular the youth work within them.

We met at the bottom of a china clay tip near St Austell, walked to the top together then split up for about 20 minutes to walk, wander, pray and listen to God, and we were asked to think about 2 questions… 1) what is God saying to you, and 2) what is God saying to the churches.

I’ll be honest and say often at these sorts of things I’m grappling around trying to discern God’s voice from among my own thoughts, but this time was different. Continue reading Trusting God’s direction

Nothing can Separate

I remember a time about 3 or 4 years ago when I had a great feeling of what I now describe as loneliness. I felt distant from God and other people and while I was incredibly busy do many things, much of what I was doing felt somewhat empty. Coupled with a great uncertainty about the future of my life I was not in a great place spiritually or emotionally.

I’d been running SACREdplace, the Christian Bookshop in St Austell for 2 or 3 years and while it had been a dream come true to have that job, finances in particular were struggling and the pressure was taking it’s toll on me.

Looking back, it was around that time that deep down I began to realise that God was going to call me to leave the shop and on to pastures new, but while I say I began to realise it, it was so deep down I couldn’t grasp hold of it. I was still feeling lost. I remember daily on my walk to work passing same azalea rain or shine and praying, ‘Where are you Lord, I can’t feel you. I feel like a fool. I feel false when I preach and lead things, I feel incomplete, un-holy.’

One day I was sat at my desk, those similar thoughts and prayers going around my mind and for a moment I looked up and took notice of the picture frame that sat on my office window. A number of years before I had design a number of Bible texted pictures and this was one of them, quoting Romans 8:39 (below). As I read those words a new sense of peace came over me. It was a verse I saw almost daily, yet didn’t truly see until now. The struggles and feelings of loneliness didn’t disappear, but I did feel a renewed strength to deal with them, knowing however I feel, nothing can separate me from God’s love.

Romans 8v39.jpg

I’ve been thinking about that this week because a friend gave me these verses only a few days ago, reminding me of the picture…

38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39, NIV UK

Reading those verses again it’s been a reminder of just how far God has lead me over these few short years. As I and my family prepare to move to Birmingham and I begin training for full time ministry there are so many things to think about, organise, work out and at times worry about. But in and through it all, I am comforted and strengthened in the knowledge that nothing can separate me and my family from the love of God.

I hope you can be strengthened and comforted by that too.