Thursday, May 28, 2020

View from a NEEDY WORLD


View from a NEEDY world


              I know what you say you want, but what do you NEED? If someone were to ask you what you NEEDED right now, how would you answer? I think my answer may refer to my morning with the dog. I gave her a big hug, which was great, then I imagined rather than hugging her I was hugging my children. That was lovely for a moment, then I thought about a ‘socially distanced’ walk with my children (w5hich may be the next steps..… and it didn’t feel quite so good.)
Of course I hear some, indeed many of you say, you are lucky Stephen, you have a dog (and a cat as it happens) and a wife… we are all alone.

I could respond, that those who are alone, are blessed indeed… as this time becomes an opportunity to turn, loneliness into solitude, perhaps the most important spiritual journey of all.
(I begun this journey whilst abroad and struggling to live alone many many years ago… the journey is outlined as a chapter in a truly wonderful book, called Reaching Out, by the late Henri Nouwen.)
              Anyway back to our present reality, everyone has needs. I believe that is inherent in our make-up. We were never MADE for independence. For the moment if I may dispense with our physical needs, of food, sleep, exercise etc. I want to concentrate on what I believe are our ‘deepest’ needs. Another way of referring to these is our deepest longings. In the study, These Three Things that we are exploring at the moment, we are offered a window into our deepest longings, to feel secure, significant and of value. This is a theology of the human person that has deeply influenced my life, based on teaching by the late Selwyn Hughes. Here’s a quote from the book I’m encouraging you to buy and read: These 3 things, by Mick Brooks,
‘When we really think about what is it we long for in life, we keep on coming back to these three things: security, self-worth and significance. The more deeply we are loved, the more secure we feel. The more we are valued, the more self-worth we experience. And the more we understand that there is a point to our existence, the more significant we feel. When all three needs are met by human love the soul begins to flourish….. but’
              Human love and support, the fellowship of family, friends, church and colleagues can all help to meet these needs. Sadly these same fellowships, can also radically undermine them. However even with the proverbial ‘best will in the world’ the argument of this book is that human love alone can never fully meet these needs. There comes for all of us a moment of ‘existential’ lostness. I believe this is part of what is meant when the writer of Ecclesiastes says, ‘He has also set eternity into the hearts of men.’ Please don’t switch of at this point, and think Stephen is going too deep. This isn’t about anyone else, this is about YOU, your deepest longings, your heart of love and indeed those places where your heart is still longing to be loved.
              For me this is why the Gospel is so wonderful, genuinely good news. Because God offers us a love that can deeply meet these longings in our hearts. We don’t earn this by making ourselves secure, or by establishing a portfolio of goodness that makes us significant, or even by acting to show that our lives are of great worth. As a child is loved by their parents, so we are simply made to receive God’s love. As John says, ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us.’ God’s love for us was never passive, he is the one who created, who called, who came, who loved us so much as to die. At Pentecost we remember God also fills us. Our lives are significant, secure and of value because God has made them so. Indeed he has made it so that all life is of value… for he breathes his life into us.
              Lockdown, and indeed coming out of Lockdown is hard. But as Sue reminded us in her sermon recently from Romans 8… nothing can separate us from the love of God…. You are loved and so your life and all life is held secure in God’s arms, we are significant to God, so much so that he weeps and came himself to find us, there is a point to our lives, because he has made us for a relationship, with him by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and with others by the overflow of love.
              I hope you will allow me a diagram to finish: This love that meets our deepest needs really can impact the whole of our life, indeed the whole of life. Here is a standard, , SPIRIT, SOUL, BODY diagram of the human person, but it also includes the teaching that Selwyn Hughes articulated that our thinking, our choosing our feeling and indeed even our physical bodies are all connected to our inner sense of security, significance and self-worth. If you’d like to explore more… please do buy Mick Brooks’ book, These Three Things and discover for yourself the impact that knowing God’s deepest love can have on your life.
Stephen

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Practising Hope in a time of Uncertainty


I will  share briefly my story: At the beginning of this Pandemic I was faced with three challenges, firstly my children and their partners were working in the front line, albeit in other parts of the country. My elderly Father is increasingly dependant on Debbie and I. And the church was clearly not going to be able to continue as 'normal.' When stuff happens in the news I normally pride myself on getting clued up to what is happening. In this instance, the more I knew, the worse and more anxious I begun to feel.  I thus had to make a decision, what would I do about my ANXIETY. I decided upon the one thing that I ought to do all the time: Prayer. (after all I am a minister!)

My first concrete action was a commitment to myself that I would not begin each day in anxiety, after reading about all the latest deaths. I would begin each day drawing close to God and praying for those I love, near and far, and for all those who are serving us during this crisis. It turns out, for me at least, this was a very good decision! My levels of anxiety dropped, and I was much better able to support my loved ones, and indeed cope with the myriad of changes that seemed to come each day. It also turned out that I had chosen a pathway which suited 'lockdown' rather well. I listened to astronauts, arctic explorers, soldiers and even Monks who had all lived in isolation, say that a crucial aspect of surviving isolation is to create a rhythm in each day and week. Morning, Midday and Night Prayer did this for me, alongside the very different rhythms that soon developed on a Sunday and weekend.

Of course I am not suggesting that I have lost all my anxiety. Not at all. However within a rhythm and practice of prayer and reflection, I  stumbled upon a reality that I am quite sure has helped me. To this end, I would like to invite others to join me in this Ancient Practice. I have decided to make myself as available as I can to anyone in the Frampton, Coalpit or Winterbourne area who wants to explore a practice of prayer.

I call it: Practising Hope in a Time of Uncertainty.

If you would like to find out more please contact me via Zion United Church's website or phone line: www.zuchurch.co.uk or 01454 776618.  at present I am arranging these meetings 'virtually' and will offer this help to anyone who is willing to honestly admit that 'there may be a God!'

I pray God's blessing and healing upon you and all you love, and I ask that you too may find a pathway to Peace in a time of great Uncertainty.

With love
Stephen Newell (United Reformed Church Minister, Zion United Church, Frampton Cotterell)

Friday, March 20, 2020

Corona Virus letter


To the church of God at Zion, scattered among our communities, yet united in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you. (1 Thess 1:1)

This is one of the strangest weeks of our lives. In response to the dangers of Covid-19 we are of course cancelling all of our services.  In weeks to come we may offer  opportunities for private prayer in the sanctuary, whilst maintaining strict rules on social distancing. However for now, our building is closed. However you the church are needed as much, if not more than ever.

We remain in the season of Lent, and whilst our 'normal' expectations of Easter have been shattered, we are indeed in a 'Lentern' wilderness. I implore you during these wilderness wanderings to make sure that you resist the temptation merely to look after yourself, we are the people of God, we are called to love one another. I know we cannot visit and express that love in so many of the established ways, but I hope that all of us will make sure that we keep in touch, using whatever technology appropriate, particularly with those who LIVE ALONE and are rightly self-isolating.

For the wider community efforts are being made to make sure that any self-isolating, will be able to receive shopping, or pick up from pharmacies, or receive phone calls. In Frampton alone over 170 volunteers came forward from Facebook, in less than 24 hours. Covid-19 is a wicked virus, but it is heartening to see the community response. I am one of the co-chairs of this steering group. (Please pray for us.)

There are many pressures on us all at present, but also some opportunities. Many of us are not as busy as we'd expect to be. I encourage us all to build a fresh rhythm of prayer and personal devotion.  It's strange, we have asked God for years to show us 'new ways of being church,' well now we are having to find them. Going to church on a Sunday can no longer define what we are as Christians... We need new patterns and practices. With so much interaction now barred, could we reasonably build a routine of Morning, Lunchtime and Evening Prayer: an almost monastic discipline. Indeed some of us must be feeling that we are 'confined' to our prayer cells!  Attempting this prayer discipline has been a great  help to me over the last few years: how about refreshing or taking on a new devotion, as we stand together and ask God to have mercy on us, and bring healing. Here is a link to the prayer I use.  https://www.northumbriacommunity.org/offices/how-to-use-daily-office/ 
I particularly urge you to join me in prayer at 12 noon. Either using the daily office link above, or simply praying the Lord's Prayer. (Others are encouraging prayer at 19:00 hours to stand against Covid-19.)

Although there are no live Sunday services at Zion the churches together in England have nominated this Sunday, Mother's Day, as a day of prayer. All are encouraged to light a candle (if safe to do so) at 7pm (19:00) and place it in a window of our home as a visible symbol of the light of life, Jesus Christ, our source and hope in prayer.

Lord Jesus,
In the midst of a storm,
You said, ‘Peace be still.’
Bid our anxious fears subside,
Sustain your church in faith, hope and love,
Bring our nation through this tumult,
Grant wisdom to those with heavy responsibilities,
And healing and hope to those who are infected.
Amen.


Also the Methodist church and the URC have produced prayer and worship materials, including livestreamed services, which I will offer links to below.

Finally although we feel in a wilderness, we may yet discover that our God is GOOD.  Please contact us if you have any problems.

Your brother in Christ
Stephen


Links for Worship from Methodist and URC church: please click these links and follow instructions etc.
In the future we may open Zion for prayer and reflection and in future weeks I may produce a podcast for those who can’t bear to miss my sermons… but for now God is leading us to find new ways to worship and serve him.

Methodist link here.     (PS I don't know whether these links will work... if not go via Zion's website www.zuchurch.co.uk  

Thursday, January 23, 2020

God sets the lonely in families




Families, don’t you just love them? Well sometimes we do. I’m sure the Queen, who is clearly devoted to ‘The family’ must be left pondering as for the second generation in a row things have gone a bit haywire. As a rule I try to avoid talking about the royal family. My views and those of others can be quite at odds. I am an avowed democrat who believes we are all equal. I dislike privilege and elites in any form. That notwithstanding I have a level of sympathy with the characters involved. Especially given the level of public scrutiny that they are under.

So what’s gone wrong? Well as we all know when things go pear shaped in our families it’s complicated. Things are no doubt said that shouldn’t be said, and they are heard in a way which was not probably exactly as intended, resentments and frustrations grow and bingo… a family is in turmoil. It may help to consider what families are for, why they are actually so precious to us. I consider one of the greatest things about families is that they are places where we should feel that we belong. The very essence of what it means to feel ‘At Home!’ They should also be places where we can be challenged and encouraged. This is the heart of our formation as people. We all develop when given the right balance of encouragement and challenge. Sadly finding that balance is less easy, especially as we all seem to need varying amounts at various times in our life. My children have sometimes commented that I was too strict, and at other times too soft! However family should also be places where it is OK to be ourselves. Once we have to ‘put a mask on’ we are not really feeling at home. Family ought to be the place where it is OK to fail, at least sometimes.

I wouldn’t dare speculate what’s happened in the royal family. After all, if I get it wrong I could be sued, or worse, hung drawn and quartered for TREASON!! However it troubles me that one aspect seems to be that Megan Markle, or Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Sussex doesn’t feel as if she belongs or fits in. Is it because she’s American, or Coloured or because she’s a ‘commoner?’ I doubt anyone really knows for sure but we all know how uncomfortable it can feel not to fit in.

Anyway leaving that particular family aside, hopefully to discover reconciliation, what does all this mean to us? Well family principles are the same for us all, the only question is how wide we understand our family to be? Is our family, nuclear, or extended, does it include the people who live near us, or our friends? What about our country is this a family where we feel we belong, where we are nurtured and challenged and where we can be ourselves?

I have the privilege of being a church leader. I often describe the church as being a family, or at least we should be. A place where people feel they belong and can be nurtured and be honest to themselves. Another aspect of family which is true of church is we intend to be multi-generational. It doesn’t always work but when it does, it’s great. For the young to learn from the ‘older’ and the old to learn from the young. I am proud that I think most of the people who are part of the church feel that it really is good to be ‘together!’ The challenge I keep trying to give us is to extend our family. By this I don’t mean just getting more people to come along, although of course we hope people would feel welcome. But how can we extend that sense of belonging to others around us? The Bible says, ‘God sets the lonely in families.’ However we live in a time of great loneliness, too many feel isolated and ‘not included,’ which creates the opposite of nurture, it creates anxiety and fear. In Frampton we have the excellent ‘Good Neighbour Scheme’ where volunteers simply try and befriend those who have become, often with age, more isolated. It is great, but it is the tip of the iceberg.

So my thought for the month is simple…love your family. Yes of course those near and dear, but look around you in your neighbourhood or in your workplace. Does someone need to feel that they belong? Can you encourage them or challenge them to see things in a new way, can you help them to feel that it’s OK for them to be who they are? If there is a yes to those questions then my challenge is clear, go for it. We do have a problem in our ‘family’ our society. Too many are lonely and isolated feeling they don’t belong. Maybe you are even one of those. But in ‘families’ most of the ‘solutions’ are internal, not just what will others do about it, but what can I do. So pick up the phone, or send an email, or even better bake a cake and ring on a doorbell or meet someone for coffee. If all that sounds ‘too much.’ You could start by something as simple as a smile and greeting, every little helps!

Stephen Newell (Minister of Zion United Church, Frampton Cotterell)


Friday, November 15, 2019

Advent: time to take a breath



                This year during Advent we are going to post a short advent poem on Zion’s Facebook page. These poems are written by Amy Scott Robinson and published by Engage worship. Here is perhaps my favourite:
 Advent:

The conductor raises his baton, the choir takes a collective breath.
                Perhaps I like it, because it is so far from my reality. My own version might read something like this:
Advent:
                The clock ticks into December and the minister tumbles down the stairs in surprise and horror!
                December always seems to come as a shock to me. Those of you who know me are aware that preparation and organisation are not my strongest suits. I am the original last minute.com.  However Advent helps, it reminds us to get ready for something special. (I’ve been helped in recent years by the discovery of ‘Celtic Advent’ a full 40 days beginning on the 16th Nov.)
Getting ready is a really important discipline. It’s something we should really practice every day. Just as we prepare to celebrate the coming of God in Jesus at Christmas, we ought really to prepare to encounter God in our daily lives. The first snowflake, the smile of a stranger, the smell of sweet wet grass, a spiders web glistening in the sunlight, all of these and so much more besides could, if we were more prepared, act as windows to help us encounter God’s love. The fact that we often miss them is because we have forgotten to anticipate, we do not see because our hearts are dulled and we do not expect to see. 
                What will help us is the reminder that there is a conductor who longs for us to be a part of his choir. Each day he raises his baton hoping that our eyes will turn to him. When we do notice him we take a breath, still our hearts, and prepare ourselves to overflow with his love. We become, if you like, similar to the spiders web, a thing of beauty out of which the glory and goodness of God may shine.
This is advent, the reminder to watch for the conductor, and whenever we see him to take a breath ready to overflow. (Elsewhere in the magazine I have included a piece from our URC Synod Moderator, Ruth Whitehead, which she shared recently at a Synod meeting. In it she shares a little of a simple technique of ABCDE which she uses to raise her expectations of meeting with God.)
Finally may I take this chance to say thank you to P-j, for all his wonderful work, love and support. For me he has been one like the smell of sweet wet grass, who so often has reminded me of the goodness and love of God. I pray God will continue to bless him. May I also wish you and all those whom you love a peaceful and happy Christmas

Stephen Newell

A way to pray each day:  by Ruth Whitehead, URC SW Synod Moderator (Stephen’s boss!!)


You will find many variants on the “Examen” of St Ignatius, and some people like to end the day with this – I prefer to do this in the morning as I stay awake better!

At Synod recently I spoke about a method that uses the letters of the alphabet for the 5 stages:
A… Become aware of the presence of God.
B…Look back on the day with gratitude
C…Pay close attention to your emotions
D… Choose one aspect of the day and pray from that
E… Look forward to tomorrow with expectation that God will be with you.
You can do the Examen in just a few moments, or spend longer on it, and I would just remind you that the prayer at point D can be asking for help for yourself, for the world, for others; asking forgiveness; or simply giving thanks, whatever seems right that day…..





Friday, August 23, 2019

Keep Asking the Questions... and stay young!



I want to begin by reflecting on a wonderful holiday club that we shared at Zion in early August. The theme was pretty straightforward, we are not robots. We are Human beings, made with dignity and with the ability to make free choices. The word Robot can actually mean Slave, we offered to the children the thought that God didn't make us to be slaves, but rather to be free.

If we are free it should be no surprise then that we have questioning minds that seek meaning and purpose. That search is nothing short of Spirituality. It was wonderful to share our Christian understanding of all that means. You may think we were trying to 'brainwash' the children. You can think that if you like. I prefer to think we were offering them stories and questions so that they could make their own decisions. Lots of them did, both ways so to speak!

I found the children to be wonderfully questioning and willing to engage... They were given  opportunities each day to send in jokes and questions. I must admit they were mostly jokes, and bad ones at that: ie why couldn't they play cards on the Ark.... Because Noah standing on the deck. But there were questions. For instance, 'Why did God put the tree in the garden?  This came after we reflected on the amazing story of Adam and Eve and the choice she made to eat the apple and not to obey the one command that had been given.  Great question. It led to a great discussion with one of the teenage helpers. I remarked that you don't have to read every story as literal truth... (that is not a comment on the world of fake news and facts that we are living in!) but we might look for the meanings that these stories can teach us. ie. The reality that even if we were only given one rule, there is something in us that would want to break it.

So why is that? Or to put it another way, why was there a tree in the garden? Well, why? What do you think? For that is where my sadness begins. As I write this article I'm expecting mostly adult readers, and the sad sad reality is that most of us don't give this sort of question anywhere near enough thought. I fear we've been sedated by a predominantly materialistic consumer society and we've stopped asking questions.  Every day I pass people out running or going to gyms or feeding their minds on endless loops of music or news or whatever else we are in to, but not searching for meaning. In effect we have almost become robots. Or we seem to be trapped by the robots that we feed on every day, our phones and our tablets. We've stopped being children who play and learn and love and question and discuss.

Towards the end of the club we had a picnic on Beesmoor Rd field with some of new play eqpt. It was a wonderful community event. As one grandfather left, he said 'I loved that.' He had been playing on a rainbow coloured parachute, twisting people in circles as if they were in a washing machine. But most importantly he was simply having fun, he was playing like a child again.

So I ask again why, why the tree in the garden, why the love we feel in our heart, why the awe that we still experience in beauty or music... Why?

You tell me... And if you can't answer those most basic questions, how about plucking up the courage to start exploring again.
It was a pleasure to work with some of your children or grandchildren, they had loads of questions, as I expect you do. Surely it's time to start discussing faith again and seeing if we can make some sense of this beautiful shared world that we live in.

Stephen Newell (Minister Zion United Church Frampton.)

Friday, July 19, 2019

What is our calling in life: Friendship!



I was asked to preach recently with the theme, what is our calling in life? It all sounds rather grand, and it's the sort of thing that you'd expect a 'church minister' to talk about. But in truth it's a key question for us all. What are the things that makes life feel meaningful and good? What gets us out of bed in the morning? (For me this is basically nothing... I am NOT a morning person, I only feel called to more bed in the morning!!)

Of course our calling depends on the stage of life we are at. But I do think there are some principles. Strangely I would summarise these as fun and friendship! For instance a child at school is called to have fun. Now I realise that they also need to learn stuff, but relationships and friendships and family are often the key that unlocks fulfilment and potential. When kids aren't enjoying life, something is seriously wrong.  Indeed I would add that for all of us a massive part of our calling is to love and enjoy those around us. While I don't like some of the nuances that attend the phrase, 'charity begins at home' (it may begin there but for most it shouldn't end there!) certainly it is true that a big part of our calling is to love and enjoy our friendships, families and work colleagues. Doing stuff that we enjoy is great, but if we do stuff we enjoy and help someone else as well, isn't that a double blessing?

I suspect most would agree with this, but perhaps you think that this doesn't sound like a very 'grand' calling. Surely as a minister I should be 'saving' something or someone! Well in my view no one ever got saved without friendship. Friends, real friends help us to discover who we are and unlock our often hidden aptitudes. To cherish the people around you and invest in them becoming their best, is at the heart of our calling. If you want to think deeper then these ideas of friendship are mirrored in the best understandings of faith. The first statement from the Westminster Confession 1647, a very ancient 'confession' from my faith tradition, asks: 'What is the chief and highest end of man? Answer: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.' Obviously here the friendship and enjoyment is with God rather than with people, but it is definitely about enjoyment and relationship. I suspect for some readers the idea of 'enjoying' God may seem strange. This deeply saddens me. A bit like when people describe a friend or a person that we love in derogatory terms... We want to add, 'but you don't know them like I do.' The trouble is, those of us who claim to know God, haven't really presented God very favourably. We've often forgotten to enjoy life ourselves, like a marriage hanging together by the finger nails we've replaced joy and laughter and love with duties and a charade. It can look solid on the outside, but inside it's become empty.

The story I was asked to preach on about calling is the story of two sisters, Mary and Martha. Jesus the famous preacher and healer came to their house. They were thrilled, Mary sat like a disciple at his feet and listened to his stories, Martha on the other hand set to getting everything ready for dinner. Then she lost it and complained to Jesus. 'Tell my sister to help me' she said. But Jesus was pretty harsh with her, he said 'that she was always distracted by many things, only one thing is needed and Mary has chosen rightly.' (Spoiler alert... Later on when their brother Lazarus dies... The roles are almost reversed and Martha is the one who shows faith.)

So what does Jesus mean by the 'one thing that is needed?' I suspect he means friendship with God. Mary was looking for this, Martha was just busy and so missed an opportunity. At another time Jesus summed up all Jewish teaching and rules by saying Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. What he was saying was, a relationship with God and a kindness towards others, is the place to start... That's the reason we clean the house or share our food, so that we can enjoy the company. Not so we look good on the outside.

I realise some struggle to understand and grasp the whole relationship with God idea. I suppose that is understandable, especially when we have often painted God in such an unfriendly light. However, I argue that we discover our true calling in radical friendship. Perhaps if I paint friendship with God, as friendship with the world he has made, some will find that easier. We discover ourselves when we offer friendship to whatever and whoever God places in front of us, especially when that friendship takes on the form of going the extra mile, or turning the other cheek, or dancing with joy at a beautiful sunset, or choosing to live more gently in our world.

So discover your calling in life by developing your friendships.. Enjoy them, cherish them, be interested in them. What better time to do that than over the summer. Why not go the extra mile and invite someone round, share a drink, enjoy a few laughs. If you know someone isolated or lonely pop over or send a card, and dare I say it, have a think is their something that you can enjoy about God or his wonderful world... If so... Enjoy it!
Stephen Newell