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

Friday, May 24, 2019

Graciously Green part 2... the simplified version

Graciously Green (simplified… some practices!)         R is a magic letter!

You've heard of learning the 3 R's.... Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. Well a lot that we have learnt about going green can be learnt from learning some different R's!

1.       Rejoice: In all that God has given us.
2.       Repent : That we have not been content, and have consumed more than we need.
3.       Re-evaluate our lifestyles.. Using 7 more R's!
a. Reduce
c. Rent (Share)
d.Repair (refrain from buying new)
e.Re-train our diets...
f.  Recreate   (offset carbon)
g. Recycle as a last resort

You already are aware of the Plastics group we have formed in partnership with Village Action and the Parish Council. We are also hoping to start up a ‘Repair Café’ and also enter Zion for the Eco Church awards. (I’m hoping we may get close to a silver award!) If you’d like to be a part of any of these initiatives, please speak to Stephen or contact the office.

Graciously Green

Graciously Green (the thinking!)

I am aware that at times I am a bit of a bull in a china shop. I don't mean to be, and I certainly don't mean to hurt or demean others. The problem is I am passionate. It is the very thing that drives me forward.

One passion that I have felt for as many years as I can remember is a passion to see us care for God's creation more carefully. When we built the beacon, I harboured the dream that we could become a 'Carbon Neutral church.'

I don't think anyone can have watched David Attenborough's recent films and documentaries without feeling appalled at the damage we are doing to God's world. Some might argue that we've always lived off the resources in God's world, and that is of course true. The problem is that we are now doing so in 'industrial' proportions, without corresponding 'industrial' levels of care going into the consequences of our actions. Also rubbish in the past decomposed, plastic doesn’t! The question that I wish to pose over the next few months, especially during our Church Weekend away at Hill House (28-30th June) is whether there is a reasonable even a 'gracious' Christian response?

One of the reasons that I have a passion for this subject is that whilst I was training to be a minister I was privileged to have regular tutorials with the Revd. Dr Arthur Peacocke MBE. He was one of those brain the size of a planet people, he had at least 3 doctorates, in science and theology, and yet he could still sum things up rather simply. I always remember him commenting as the ecological movement was developing in the late 1980's that we as Christians should be far more passionate than others because we believe that creation is a gift that God has given to us all. In effect he would say, how dare we neglect the planet, it isn't ours to neglect, it's a precious gift to be cherished. He was a bright cookie, and was rightly made the President of the Science and Religion Forum from 1995 until his death.

So I'm passionate, but I get that passions put some people of, so I get that we need to be gracious! However the problem with this issue is that it is also a matter of justice. The people that suffer from our wilful neglect and woeful response to the issue of climate change, and indeed plastic pollution, are not the rich and powerful. As always it is the weak and vulnerable who suffer. (This isn't even to mention the devastation that we are inflicting on animal species and the biodiversity of nature itself.) In light of this a Christian response can never be to simply walk by on the other side of the road, and pretend it isn't happening, we are called to 'get of our donkey' and see what we can do.

This of course is where it gets tricky. What can we do? The very nature of society embeds us within its tangled worldview and practices so that we imagine ourselves only as powerless consumers. In effect although we know that stuff is happening, we feel unable to change things. This is of course false. As we've seen from the recent actions by Greta Thunberg and the extinction rebellion movement, we can create movements which makes the powers that be sit up and listen. Small actions change cultures, whether that is in a family, or in our workplaces, or as a whole society. As consumers we can act in ways which make change more likely. I think of the way Tradecraft has effectively helped the whole marketplace to understand its responsibilities to workers and the environment.  We can see increasingly ethical opportunities opening up, which if we choose to follow them will undermine other less enhancing models of working. Of course truly radical change often does require governments to legislate or intervene. But governments respond ultimately to the pressure that we place upon them. If we do nothing, so will they!

So what can you do? Well this is where Mel's now regular articles about plastics have been heading. A plethora of little shifts that we can make. We all make decisions every day, with better information many of us would make different decisions. I'm also aware that joy is a far better motivator than guilt. When we begin to teach on this area our starting place will be to Rejoice. Worship and awe are the richest motivators. The first thing we must do is open our eyes, ears, noses and taste buds, to see and taste the goodness which surrounds us. Only after that place of wonder will we advocate the great Christian discipline of repentance: an acknowledgement that we have missed the mark, and also that we want to take steps to rediscover ways to live in harmony once again. Rejoicing in beauty motivates us. Repentance isn't then about feeling guilty, it is the active acknowledgment that we need to change our ways.

After rejoicing and repentance comes the realisation that new responsible pathways need to be discovered.  We will explore many possible personal responses, I hope offered graciously not as a bull amidst your fragile china! As a whole church I hope we can also make some decisions. Maybe even to consider that we might realise my dream of 'carbon neutrality.' Since we installed solar panels several years ago, some of our energy is already carbon free, but by no means all of it. We have sought to reduce with better insulation, and more complex timers to avoid unnecessary heating. Another step we could take is to consider carbon offsetting. That is to invest some money to 'neutralise' our lifestyles. At its most basic carbon offsetting is about planting trees, but a Christian charity like 'Climate Stewards' also offer us opportunities to invest in other carbon reducing projects. One that I like the sound of is a 'cookstove' project. For the poorest families cooking with firewood is a laborious and often dirty occupation. A new stove will halve the amount of fuel needed, less time wasted collecting fuel and less carbon produced. It also radically changes an unhealthy living environment. A win on so many fronts, a simple but effective intervention. I'm hoping to do some maths and challenge Zion as an organisation to go carbon neutral at least for a year by buying new cooking stoves for Ghana, it'll probably cost less than you might think...I will try to present the idea graciously! I do hope that as a church we will consider this as one of the steps God is leading us to make. I also hope and pray we will all learn to rejoice in creation more alongside a repentance that leads to an active search for those truly holy and fulfilling lives that God has prepared for us.
Your brother in Christ

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The truth can set you free

I like Easter. It makes us think of new life, and new possibilities and fresh starts. It’s like a hyper charged ‘Spring’ if you like! It is also a very big deal. Either one of the greatest deceptions in history, or something truly awesome almost terrifying has taken place. Death has been reversed, and is no longer the ‘final say.’ This ‘resurrection’ debate is almost entirely a matter of faith, what is possible and what in this world bears the stamp of meaning.

I hope that as we celebrate the season of Easter you will be able to ponder the extra-ordinary meaning of it all. Sharing a quiet communion on Maundy Thursday or a People’s Passion on Good Friday, will I trust deepen our ability to wonder and marvel at God’s love for us all, which I for one, believe lies behind it all.

Alongside Easter there are quite a few other matters that are ‘quite big deals.’ The B word and the C word. (Brexit and Climate Change.) I have been struck just how polarised our responses to these areas have become, and I am uncomfortable. It seems that we are almost into Resurrection type debates. It all depends on what you believe to be true. Jesus (the man, or maybe the one who rose from the dead…you choose!) is recorded as having said, ‘then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.’ But what is the truth?  Are we really making the atmosphere warmer, is this really going to be a disaster? My answer to both of those questions is a big yes, but if yours is no, then we are going to argue as if we are discussing alternative realities.

On Brexit our understandings of what are the important points in the debate mean that most of what passes for debate is actually a dialogue of the deaf. These realities saddens me as I think both issues are important not simply personally but also for our neighbours near and far around the world, and down our street. Yet as we become more and more polarised, we seem to live in a world where alternative ‘truths’ seem to co-exist. It is tricky because the ‘Pastor’ in my heart says, compromise, and yet, using the example of my belief in the resurrection, the ‘Preacher’ in me knows you can’t really compromise. It’s either true or it isn’t.  I realise with Brexit for instance discovering what is true is difficult, some argue that it is all about how well off we will be whether in or out of the EU. For others the issue is not wealth but freedom, and national self-determination. I think all I can add to this debate is the insight that unless we understand what is motivating the ‘other’ person, we will get nowhere in our understanding. These different motivations result in different ‘truths.’  Ultimately someone or some group (Parliament or People) will have to decide which motivation must be honoured and taken forward.

Right that’s BREXIT sorted…. As IFFF!!!!! Climate change on the other hand is different. Or at least it is different to me. Because I believe the motivations that lie behind us denying climate change or indeed choosing, as most of us do, to do too little about it, are ‘unworthy’ motivations. (I realise I am making a value judgement here: PS we all do this most of the time!! J) Our motivation against acting, is often that it’s too hard, and will make us have to give up some of our lifestyle comforts. The motivation behind denial, is in my view, almost entirely economic: our vested interests will be compromised so we must deny this ‘scientific’ truth and thus excuse ourselves from acting accordingly. There are times when such motivations may be acceptable, when the consequences for us or for others may be described as moderate. However when the consequences run as deep as they seem to do in the Climate Change debate, then surely it is time to wake up. I think as Christians we simply need to wake up to the TRUTH, it is happening. And while you may expect that I, a man of ‘faith’ may argue: ‘Oh well God will sort it.’ I’m not so sure. In my reading of both history and the Bible God very rarely stops the consequences of our foolishness. On the positive side, I do believe that when we face up to our foolishness, and are honest, God does seem to strengthen us to make the changes we need to make. Climate Change is serious, it’s something that all of us should be concerned about, and willing to make fairly radical changes to our lifestyle about. For instance going veggie for 4 days a week, will probably save about .6 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year! I’m hoping this year that as a church community we can begin to learn from some of the people and groups that have begun to make these changes.

So yes I believe as Jesus said, the truth can set us free. But only if we accept the truth and act on it.  
Happy Easter, happy spring, happy Brexit day. (I suspect it won’t have happened yet.) But also let us be resolved to make each day a ‘Happy World day,’ as we choose to face the truth that our lifestyles are unsustainable and so resolve to do something about it.

Stephen Newell

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 Café, 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.)