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:

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:
                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  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

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 CafĂ©’ 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