Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Year of living Sustainably

Welcome to our first 2019 edition of Zion News. I would like to make an announcement; that is that 2019 will be a year when we focus upon the beauty of Creation. However this is not to be simply a naval gazing, or indeed a sunrise or hillside gazing exercise we hope that together we will grasp afresh God's commission for us to 'Care for the Creation.'

The world that we live in is indeed deeply beautiful, this morning when I awoke and pulled back the curtains I was faced with the lingering splendour of a nearly full moon. Just days ago people around the world marvelled at a lunar eclipse which created a 'Super Blood Wolf Moon.' It happened at 3.30am UK time, so many of us caught the effects only via newsreel, but it struck me just how glorious and mysterious the world in which we live really is.

However alongside the beauty and awe of our delicate, glorious world, we are also more and more aware of the impact that our unfettered lifestyle is having. Last year the BBC program 'Drowning in Plastic' served as a wake up call for many. Even within the trailer the presenter when faced with a river totally rubbished in plastic announced, 'My God, just look at it.' Sadly God does look at it, just as Whales and sea birds have to swim in it and Turtles seem prone to digest it. Eve in the Mythical garden of Eden was faced with the dilemma of whether to consume the apple, now we must ask do our lifestyles really demand that we need to  consume plastic in such vast quantities.

Of course plastics are just one symptom of humanities ability to degrade the gift of life that we have been given. The problems are immense. However I believe an awakened church can support an awakening world. Jesus said his followers were to be 'The light of the world.' (LED lights of course!) Our hope during the course of the year is to encourage each one of us to consider what steps we are called to take, to move the balance of our earthly footprint away from degradation and back towards cherishing sustainability. I also hope that we may be able to build some partnerships with others towards a common cause of sustainability.  (Ideas are already beginning to bubble including a Repair CafĂ©, Waste Partnership or even a one of 2nd hand book fair, but I'm sure God can guide our imagination and our partnerships.)

So how may you get involved. Well of course we are all already involved. Our lifestyle determines how much we consume and whether we try to reduce this or reuse and share things. Are we serious about recycling or making sustainable decisions around transport? As a whole church we will focus on Care for Creation particularly in the summer, around our Church Weekend away at Hill House.  We want to make this whole weekend adventure as close to Carbon Neutral as we possibly can, so we're already planning a coach to transport us alongside inspiring teaching and activities. It is my prayer that each of us will individually decide to modify at least one aspect of our lifestyle, as well as that we become a church which takes this issue as seriously as we have taken Fair Trade and whole life discipleship in the past. They are after all, all connected.

In our magazine Eric has written a review of Ruth Valerio's book, 'Just Living.' Her teaching may well help to guide us. We will also highlight this theme in our daily prayer guide. So please pray with me that God will guide us and help us to address this urgent demand upon our discipleship that we cherish this beautiful world he has gifted to us. May we be good stewards in order that all life may flourish. On which note I am delighted to also announce that on 15th and 16th June we will host a Flower Show: beautiful!

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Practicing Gratitude

              It was the entertainer Ken Dodd, he of the ‘Diddy Men’ who made popular a song written by Bill Anderson: ‘Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess
I thank the Lord I've been blessed with more than my share of happiness.’
Happiness is a wonderful thing, if we’ve been granted that gift, but what if we haven’t, can happiness be cultivated?
          I read an article today by Moya Sarner, a self-confessed atheist and cynic. The title was ‘Is gratitude the secret of happiness.’ This lady basically spent a month trying to reflect on the things in her life that she was grateful for. Initially she found it very hard, she was sceptical as to whether it was even a good thing, let alone whether it was the panacea that could help countless thousands that some lifestyle gurus are suggesting. She writes, ‘Even hearing the word “gratitude” makes my shoulders tense and my eyes narrow. I am too cynical to get on board this particular Oprah bandwagon-too British, too atheist, too sensitive to schmaltz.’
However despite this initial ‘reticence’ she started practicing, making time each day to record the things in her life that she was grateful for. I found her conclusions fascinating. She acknowledges that there are pitfalls to an approach which says that in all situations the key to happiness is gratitude. After all in some situations it is harder to be grateful than others. Some people have never learnt gratitude because as children they have never received love. Simply telling people to be grateful could actually add guilt to go alongside whatever real life struggle they were already facing. However the core of her conclusion for herself, was that even for a British, cynical, schmaltz averse atheist, this practice was really powerful and really beneficial. As she learnt to reflect and think about the things in her day for which she was grateful, she soon noticed that she simply ‘felt’ better.
So why do I bring this to your attention in this Thought for the Month! Well I couldn’t help noticing that Moya Sarner felt that in a discussion of gratitude it was necessary to include that she was an atheist. (In all other areas, cynical, British, Oprah averse and deeply suspicious of schmaltz, she and I are at one!) Implicitly she acknowledged that ‘Thanksgiving’ has been part of many religious practices, reflecting each day or season on those things that have been good. I have just had the privilege of sharing in our annual ‘Harvest Thanksgiving.’ I gave each person the opportunity to add to a ‘Thankfultree’ their leaf of gratitude, a place to record ‘before God’ the things for which they were thankful. It was a great moment, such a variety of thoughts and observations, such a ‘wealth’ of things to be thankful for; encompassing, food, family, shelter, love, laughter, beauty… the lists could go on and on.
Whether you share my faith or not, I believe that learning and practicing ‘thankfulness’ is actually a very spiritual thing. As if to confirm this I recently awoke from sleep, and in that half-light between waking and sleeping I felt myself, ‘giving thanks’ in a way I’d never done before. It was as if I was part of a river of thanksgiving that was pouring out through my heart, it just seemed to go on and on. It was both strange and yet deeply wonderful.
One comment in the above article amused me somewhat. The question was asked why was gratitude a good thing, and how did it develop? Apparently the economist and philosopher Adam Smith had a theory that gratitude has an evolutionary purpose. He argued that society only really works ‘if we repay the aid we get from other people, but since we have no legal or financial incentive to do so, we have evolved a sense of gratitude that makes us do it.’ I totally recognise this concept but to me it is nonsense to suggest this is genuine gratitude. I had the privilege of living in a Chinese culture in Taiwan when I was younger. Within that culture there was a massively powerful sense of this powerful force. It went by the name of ‘Gwanshi.’ Rather than gratitude I would describe this as ‘obligation.’ If something happened and it was fine you were left with no ‘obligation’ the phrase used was ‘Meyo Gwanshi’ (no obligations.) (Apologies if I have misspelled these Chinese words.) This was a really common phrase… akin to our phrase of OK, or OK there are no strings attached.
In my view contrary to any obligations Jesus nailed what really creates gratitude and indeed where it ultimately comes from! He advocated an attitude towards giving which expects nothing in return: ‘If you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that…. If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that ……do good to your ‘enemies’ and expect nothing back…..then you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.’ (Lk 6)
There is so much in life that we have neither earnt nor really deserve, a beautiful sunset is one example, someone forgiving us when we’ve messed up is another, my wife bringing me tea in the morning another. Gratitude is simply a ‘natural’ response, and something most of us would discover is actually really good for us as well, beautiful.
Stephen Newell (British Cynic but learning to be deeply grateful.)

Friday, September 14, 2018

Not religious but REAL

       I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but the Bible starts with a picture of a garden, but then ends with a vision of a city. Now even though I am or was a city boy, having just moved my daughter into a tower block in a city, I have some reservations, is it really a city that best represents the place where we will all live in harmony, God’s kingdom finally established?

          One thing that does now make the city image a whole lot more vibrant and appealing to me is that the city is the location of a cosmic marriage, Christ is the bridegroom and we are the bride. As I’m sure many of you are aware I have just had the utter privilege of facilitating and conducting a wedding, for my son. We prayed and prayed for a sunny day, even though I did point out that other things like world peace, and healing were probably more important. The weather was rubbish, as the beautiful bride arrived the heavens simply opened, and yet she still looked transcendent.

          However, the weather notwithstanding the day was simply glorious. To watch two people who clearly love each other was beautiful and then to witness their families and friends ensure that we have a great party whatever the weather, was exhilarating. Prior to this day I was pretty sure that the best days of my life were my own wedding day and also the birthdays of our three children. I now have a new day, a new contender, as I watched my son simply absolutely in love, and along with family and friends have such a great day.

        So why was this day so special? Well it was a day of Covenant, a day of celebrating love being promised, given and received. It was also a day for a family banquet. A day when a very ordinary village hall in deepest West Wales was transformed, by flowers, decorations and of course by lots of people. Ultimately it was one really great party, and once Matt’s choice of live music got rocking, the whole place was dancing. Even 91 year old Grandpa’s on their walkers…as the picture I hope illustrates! I must admit when I’m dancing I often have a simple feeling of joy, as if somehow I was made to dance. Those watching my awkward flapping are forgiven that they may not have the same impression. But with water turned into wine, great music and absolute love for those around us, dancing is a deeply beautiful joyous thing.

        Actually when you think about all these reasons why a wedding is so special you can see that these are all totally biblical images about our relationship with God. A God of complete covenant who longs to welcome us into his family. A God whose love transforms rainy days and sunny days, with flowers and acts of grace. A God who says that if we come to him there will be a party in heaven, all ending with a marriage here in a restored earth. A God who invites us all to a banquet where there is enough for everyone to share. A God who puts music and dancing into our hearts. There is no greater truth than to know that, ‘The joy of the Lord is our strength.’ For me Jesus’ first miracle makes so much more sense now, transforming stone water jars for ceremonial cleansing, into the wine of abundance flowing freely and clear. I began the day asking myself why on earth I bought so much alcohol. Then as the day progressed I began to panic that there wasn't enough. Finally there was the satisfaction of person after person simply wanting to tell me how happy they were and how much they'd enjoyed this Wild Wet West Wales version of a Wedding, whilst enjoying a drink and savouring a Pizza. If I'd have been given a £1 for every time someone said ‘I'm not religious, has been absolutely wonderful,’ then maybe I could afford to throw a party every week! (Over indulgence every week, is clearly not a good idea!)

       You see the travesty of this, ‘I’m not religious’ comment, is that we've allowed the world to believe that Jesus's friends are actually the friends of Pharisees not the friends of 'tax collectors' and 'sinners.’ Jesus was attacked as a friend of gluttons, even though he did point out that it was the sick who needed a doctor! And yet we have made our following of him into a seemingly moral crusade, stripped of joy and love. We’ve allowed ourselves to get caught up in protecting some fake standard of morality where we choose who is invited to the feast, and we keep the riff raff out. We were called to be lovers, lovers of God for his abundant goodness and grace and lovers of all those he places around us. After all the one who allows us to have a beautiful Wild Wet West Wales Wedding, is also the exact same God, who freely gave his life so that riff raff like you and me could discover the joy of being loved like a bride and dancing like a Gangly Grooms father and Grandfather!

       I pray that there may be days for you of sheer joy either to look back to, or look forward to. And I pray as well that you may sense the deep joy that God has for you here and now. After all his love for you flows so deep that he’s planning on transforming a city to make it a place filled with a bride fit to welcome home her lover.


Thursday, July 12, 2018

Football didn't come home

Frome Valley Voice Article Aug 2018 Well Football didn’t come home, our Andy didn’t win, or indeed even participate in Wimbledon, and surely by the time you read this in August, our incredible heat wave will have come to an end. Nothing lasts forever. Even the best things come to an end. The good news is that so do all bad things as well. There are two possible responses to this reality, one is to bemoan how everything is changing, the other is to decide to live and make the best we can of each moment and day. I am now officially a grumpy old man, I was only two when England last won a world cup semi-final, and I seem to be naturally improving at the bemoaning option! But this really doesn’t help me, and frankly is a pain to live with. So with help I try to find a way to make the best of each day. The trouble is this is easier said than done, especially when our hopes or dreams have been shattered. So how can we change our mind-set, and improve our attitudes. Here I have some advice. The first is, get a dog! I am only slightly joking. Wandering home after Croatia pipped us to the post in a semi-final, suddenly became more bearable, when my dog looked at me with her tilted head saying, ‘you’ve left me in, all on my own, while you were out enjoying yourself, will you play with me now?’ ‘Please!!’ Even at my grumpiest, I can’t resist a dog! Another thought that helps is to have in mind each day the things that are really important and treasure them. I realise this is in danger of becoming a circular argument. For if the things you treasure are the very things that you have lost, like the hope of England ever winning a world cup, ever! Then you are in trouble. Here perspective is required. I barely dare say this, but football is, ‘only a game.’ A great game, I’ll grant you, but nevertheless, a game. Here is my great sadness, for I fear that for some of us, we treasure nothing more than our tribe, our team winning. Or else we treasure something else, of really limited meaning or worth. I think this is related to what the Bible talks of as Idolatry. Making something your treasure that ultimately has very limited value. So if you can’t get a dog, then my advice is look deep and find something in your heart that you really treasure, something that is valuable and gives deep meaning. For many people this treasure is their relationships or friends. But I know people who become champions, passionately engaged in all manner of worthy pursuits. Find something that fulfils you and work a little towards it each day. For me this treasure is Jesus. I realise to some this sounds strange, but Jesus is not really a religious conviction, more a personal friend and guide. When I’m feeling grumpy, I can meet him in my heart and catch a whiff of his love for others. He expands my heart whenever I notice him in the beauty of creation that surrounds us, from the tiniest flower to the entire sky mottled in an evening sunset. But most of all I treasure Jesus when I encounter him in the people I meet, both Christians and non-Christians, whenever they display a richness of generosity, love or just simple fun. On a gloomy day when I’m feeling grumpy (so for me that is most mornings!) I need to look for my treasure. Once the dog has licked me or chewed my sandals, I need to open my eyes and find the richest thing that I can imagine and invest my heart into that treasure. As Jesus said, ‘for where your heart is, there your treasure will be.’ So football didn’t come home. But I came home and found peace in my dog and my God! Stephen Newell

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

50 Anniversaries 100 Covenant Services and many Baptisms

(All are invited to our Coffee morning and Exhibition Sat 27th Jan 10-12. And our 50th anniversary service Sun 28th 10.30am)

Happy Birthday to us, Happy Birthday to us.... Thank the Lord for all his blessings, Happy Birthday to Zion.

50 years is a lifetime... Well nearly all my lifetime! The folk who brought Zion together from different churches are simply to be congratulated. In a world where division and enmity are so prevalent 4 families coming together is surely a worthwhile moment to celebrate.

50 years also proves that God has blessed our unity as Psalm 133 says: God rejoices when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity he calls it, wonderful and beautiful. I believe our history shows that God has poured out his blessing, his costly anointing oil of love.

Our story involves people who have been blessed to experience the Holy Spirit, blessed with an attitude of generosity and blessed with a willingness to learn from each other. Our two parent denominations have both gone through times of considerable decline and yet Zion has welcomed many new worshippers over the years. Even recently we have had the privilege of welcoming Maria by Baptism, alongside our annual service of recommitment and covenant.

Mind you reflecting on past blessings should not make us arrogant, or complacent. The attitude that was prepared to see things change which facilitated four churches uniting, or the attitude which believed in a God of abundance not austerity, and so insisted that we give to others 10% of our income must continue. A mind-set of Fair Trade which receives freely of God's love and grace in the hope that we can then share generously with others is the only one which can ensure our health and celebration for 50 more years!

As Paul wrote to the Philippians: 'Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who although he was God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself. Taking the form of a human servant, and became obedient even to the point of death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8 my paraphrase.) Here we see the example, or the blueprint of Jesus. He was by nature God and so chose to give, in order that others may share in his life. The willingness of those who have gone before us to sacrifice 'their' church to discover a new life together, should inspire us. As I have said many times, the core reality of being a Christian is that we are deeply blessed: we receive from God, a deep love, an invitation and experience of a wonderful relationship. We are filled, we are blessed, we are made new by His grace and love. This is a free and wonderful gift. The only right response is to be prepared to respond in love towards others. The depth of God's love for us, should be matched only by our willingness to love those he places around us. We are blessed to bless.

Please do not misunderstand me, I am aware Zion, like every other family is very much an imperfect church. We suffer the same weaknesses as any other grouping. However over the years there have been those who have sparked us forward, with generosity, valour and deep grace. It is time for us to pass this flame forward. As the hymn says, we are ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven... So we must by God's outpoured grace become those who heal, set others free from shame, restore and forgive. If we do this, with God's on-going help, I believe we may yet serve God's wonderful kingdom purposes of love for yet another 50 years.

We are truly blessed. O lord God send your spirit to help us once again share that blessing with others.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Malcolm Strange's New Year Greeting

Happy New Year

As you read this article the echo of that greeting will have faded, the empty bottles will have been put out for collection (recycling I hope), the party popper streams cleared up, the final cold turkey consumed and fancy nibbles safely tucked away inside our tummies! The celebrations are over and a New Year has begun. What will the New Year bring I wonder?
Well you don’t have to be a prophet to know that Brexit and Trump will dominate the headlines, with political posturing being at the forefront of negotiations and rhetoric, like some kind of ritual performed by strident males looking for a mate or cock birds showing off their plumage in a courting dance to attract the attention of a disinterested female. Sadly, in the political world very little changes, there is very little reflection on the mistakes of the past, just excuses and buck passing!
If I dare, lets forget the international stage for a moment and just reflect on ourselves. New Year is a time for new beginnings, drawing a line in the sand as it were, a fresh page and a new start. We reflect on the old and embrace the new in away which goes well beyond the trivia of New Years resolutions so easily broken.
Ironically this annual ritual of reflection that many engage in is somewhat Christian in its nature, in that it reflects what is at the heart of the ‘Christian Faith’ and the story we celebrate at both Christmas and Easter. God forgives and loves his creation and all he asks in return is that we reflect that same love to each other and by doing so become a transformed people. As Christians we reflect on what we get wrong, lay it at the foot of the cross and then strive to walk in the light of the Gospel.
It has been said the main purpose of the Church is to be; ‘A People of Forgiven Sinners’. If you have messed up and hurt someone there is no greater joy than to know you have been forgiven by them, to receive that loving embrace that says it is ok, the experience is quite liberating. Christians believe that through Christ, God imparts spiritual forgiveness and amazingly it is freely available for all. Now that’s what I call good news.
So as you reflect on what this ‘New Year’ holds for you take a few moments to consider what needs letting go off in your life, what is holding you back from embracing the new with a renewed hope. Be prepared to draw a line in the sand, say sorry, let go and be prepared to forgive yourself. Remember the love shared in the Christmas story and take heart that ‘To all and to each where regret is real, God pronounces pardon and grants us the right to begin again’. Happy New Year.
Revd Malcolm Strange
Rector of the Fromeside Benefice

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Only 'humans' welcome

I read this morning, on Facebook admittedly, that some people are planning to boycott Tesco because their Christmas advert includes pictures of Muslims. My friends response was less than helpful: “FANTASTIC!! Now we won't have to rub shoulders with quite as many ignorant Islamophobic bigots while we queue to buy our sprouts! RESULT!”  Contrastingly Tesco’s campaign is entitled ‘Everyone Welcome!’
To me this raises massive questions of identity and how we define ourselves. Are we a ‘Christian’ country? Are those who object to Muslims (interestingly they seem to ignore that Sikh’s were also depicted in the ad!) regular church goer’s, and thus bastion supporters of the Christian faith? I doubt it, or more accurately I really hope not. Worshipping God should teach us of love and respect for each person whatever their beliefs and wherever they are from, as fellow citizens made with God’s image within us. Sadly I fear that too often we define ourselves by what we are not, ‘like them’ rather than who we are and what we value and love. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbour and even our enemies, as we love ourselves, he indicated that ‘the poor’ were people who would possess the kingdom of God. His rule was that we are never ‘good’ or ‘righteous’ because we are not like ‘them.’ Real goodness (dare I say Christianity) is discovered by finding ways to treat other as we would like to be treated ourselves. It can’t work if in Frampton and Coalpit Heath we define ourselves as happy simply because we don’t live in say Yate, or that we don’t want a huge new building development on our doorstep, or even dare I say that we are not from one of the ‘fairground families,’ we are not refugees, we want to be out of Europe, we are not like America, and we really really are not ‘terrorists’ or Muslims. (I place the words Muslim and terrorist close together as I wish to highlight the foolishness of thinking that these two words may be equated together.)
I am a natural optimist, and I hope I’m right in detecting that younger generations are struggling against some of these old stereotypes. I detect a healthy desire for communal solutions that include the ‘other’ with initiatives which offer hope to all.  Although this generation does not seem to be turning back to the church, I certainly believe that the church needs to learn from this development, and indeed repent of some attitudes towards those who were once seen as different. I admit I am no fan of huge corporations like Tesco, I do suspect that they have their finger on an important pulse with their slogan, ‘Everyone Welcome.’
A more careful look at the Christmas story may be helpful. Mary was almost certainly an unmarried, albeit betrothed pregnant teenager. She arrived in the wake of a huge influx into Bethlehem as practically a refugee. Does the refrain, ‘there is no room’ ring any bells when we consider the housing situation in our country, with housing accounting for vast swathes of personal wealth and yet where increasing numbers are either homeless or living in poor quality rented accommodation. As a Christian I believe this is the story of Messiah, the liberator. I cannot operate with the idea that those who are different from me are not welcome, because if that is the case, I have no room for a homeless poverty laden Jesus. Even his first guests are from the wrong side of town, night security staff who had seen visions of angels and left their post to find a baby. Can you even imagine the scorn that their HR department would have given in the disciplinary that followed!
I recently prayed for myself that I might become more righteous. (Those who know me will recognise this is a prayer long overdue for a ‘Man of the Cloth.’ Even my wife never believed I was going to be a minister when I first met her!) But then I realised what do I mean by that prayer? Do I want a righteousness that somehow thinks of myself as better than others, defined by all the things I am not! Or do I want a shining love that always draws others up seeing the potential in everyone whoever they are, whether they are Muslim or Atheist, rich or poor. Oh Lord, give me the latter and help me to rid myself of the former. And thank you that Christmas really proves that everyone is welcome.  

PS There are of course other supmermarkets… and indeed many other Christmas Ad’s oh that there weren’t and we’d all learnt the contentment of shopping locally, with ethically sourced Fairly Traded goods…. But that’s another thought all together!