From the Village and Church News February 2021 - March 2021
I know cold weather is not everyone’s cup of tea but I have enjoyed the cold snap we had just after Christmas. Much as I loved being in the garden in the first Lockdown; and sorting out some house bits and pieces in the second Lockdown; the third Lockdown threatened to be more tricky... Or it would have been had I not just heard about an Icelandic practice which took me back to childhood.
The winter is clearly for snuggling in front of a fire ( or with a hot water bottle!) and every winter in Iceland, usually Christmas Eve to be precise, the whole country does exactly that and waits with expectation for a particular sort of gift. It’s a tradition called (wonderfully) Jólabókaflóꝺ, or: 'The Christmas book flood’. In mid-November the Reykjavik book fair allows everyone to order books to give to their family and friends on Christmas Eve. It started during World War 2 when paper was the only thing not rationed, and therefore the only present possible! Now it still continues and is the best excuse for losing yourself in another world, in the coldest part of the year.
We used to do a similar thing when I was a child. Each Friday evening we would go to the library as a family, choose four or five books and the minute we got home again all curl up and start reading. I loved it, and I am enjoying a book fest again. (Icelandic hot chocolate also sounds good.)
I love books because they open our horizons, they give us perspective and they teach us things. My current spiritual book, by Irish priest and poet John Donohue, is one for savouring slowly. He begins:
“Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world waits. A world lives within you. “
And he goes on to encourage us to develop our inner world, because that is what will give us balance in hard times, and the nerve to keep on going. “ This book,” Donohue says, “is intended as an oblique mirror in which you might come to glimpse the presence and the power of inner and outer friendship.”
And by this, he is is referring to God, who not only walks with us in our external journey through the ups and downs of life, but also is to be found speaking and encouraging and comforting us in our innermost being, if we open ourselves to this friendship.
And true friendship is above all else what we need to accompany us into this still uncertain year.
From the Village and Church News December 2020 - January 2021
There is a verse in the Bible where God says to the people: “I give you the treasures of darkness.”
I’ve just come back from a walk with the dog, just at twilight on a day when the sky is clear. First of all in the east, there was that wonderful gradation of colour from the black silhouette of the fields and trees against the sky, to a streak of lemon yellow from the sun that has just set, and then tones fading into each other: from lemon, to grey to blue to navy. In the west, the sky was already that dark black-blue, and the stars were coming out. It gives me real pleasure to watch how many are out at the beginning of the walk, and how many at the end. They are the treasures of darkness at this time, tiny glittering diamonds in the dark sky, the stars which will always come out.
Following our Autumn Village Exhibition, as a church we’ve had a month of reflection. We’ve given ourselves time to process this year, all that has changed, and all that we’ve done, and not done…. and how uncomfortable we have felt in a kind of dark uncertainty. Now it is Advent, four weeks of waiting and watching the signs before Christmas. Watching, if you like, for the stars to appear, the glimmers of light in the dark sky: smaller and larger points of hope.
And interestingly, although Christmas is all about hope, it doesn’t look like hope. In fact the Christmas story starts darkly. It begins by showing us the view into all sorts of doors. We see John the Baptist’s parents alarmed by a late-in-life pregnancy; Mary and Joseph worried by a completely unexpected pregnancy; the whole population anxious about a new Roman census -and what was behind that? The ruling Herod paranoid when foreign visitors ask about another king; and farm labourers terrified by lights and noises in the sky….
But the angels, as they appear out of the darkness, speak one message into each of these doors and to the people beyond them.
"Don’t be afraid," they say.
And this year we are all waiting in the darkness of the uncertainty that has dogged us all year. Waiting to see if the Coronavirus numbers will be low enough for us to come out of lockdown and celebrate all the things we have so missed; wondering if the vaccine will be available for us.
There was huge uncertainty at the first
Christmas, and plenty of darkness. But into the darkness God spoke to
individual people and said : “Elizabeth, Joseph, don’t be afraid.. much better
things are coming." And God was suddenly present in towns and villages:
Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, rolling out for them an alternative future.
As the day approached when God was born as a baby, there was a lot of light -
really bright starlight, eye-wateringly bright angelic figures, and inner
light, that realisation that something has for once and for all shifted, and there
is hope, and peace, and joy and life, wonderful growing yelling exploring
baby-to-man healing, laughing, reconciling life.
Do not miss the treasures of darkness.
And do come and join us to celebrate Christmas in church, it will be so good to see you!
From the Village and Church News October 2020 - November 2020
Last week (as I write) in the neighbourhood where I spent most of my childhood, a quiet village between the two quiet towns of Woodbridge and Ipswich in Suffolk, a 15-year-old boy was shot, by a fellow teenager. He was airlifted to Addenbrooke's for treatment of a complex wound.
This still seems to me completely unreal.
I mull on this, as I do the Government seeking to change legislation in order not to adhere to a previous electoral promise; as well as all sorts of statements being made by other international leaders that appear not to match with reality.
It starts to seem as if their rule of life is ‘anything goes’.
And I wonder about the implications of a leadership in particular in any setting that does not appear to have standards that it adheres to? Don’t get me wrong; there are a lot of benefits of flexibility in a system. I am the first to see if there are creative ways (and I don’t mean devious ways) of working.
We used to joke when we were first parents that all the standards we had for our home: of aesthetics, tidiness, routines, etc; had to be lowered in order to maintain all our sanity. By the time we got to four very active and creative children, we wondered if we had any standards left . . . !
But, actually, that was a joke, because if there are no standards, chaos will ensue. As a gardener, I see that. If I leave that patch of nettles and brambles they will spread everywhere until it becomes almost an impossible task to bring back order or even light to a garden.
I am reading a fascinating - for a vicar! :) - book about a group of men and women who lived in the deserts of Egypt and Syria in the 3rd century onwards. They were known affectionately as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, because they were revered for their wisdom. Their lives are extraordinary. They lived on very little, they had no possessions, except what they needed for their work of making baskets, which they sold to buy the little food they ate. But they were not masochists, they lived as they did in order that they might focus entirely on prayer for the world, and for their particular visitors. I think they were extraordinary characters, extraordinarily self-controlled, to the point of seeming odd to us, and extraordinarily wise. They have left cameo stories of their lives. Let me introduce you to Abba Agathon:
“Whenever his thoughts urged him to pass judgement on something which he saw, he would say to himself, ‘Agathon, it is not your business to do that.’ ”
“It was said of Abba Agathon that for three years he lived with a stone in his mouth, until he had learned to keep silence.”
They knew that we do need something good on which to focus in order to live healthily and to benefit others. As Christian men and women they lived by the Ten Commandments and by Jesus’s guidelines: the Beatitudes. In the weeks before Advent we are studying each of these sayings of Jesus, and you can find what we uncover about them on the website Sunday service . We began with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” - happy are those who do not think of themselves more highly than others.
They are all challenging, but that doesn’t mean we don’t take them on board. As Paul says elsewhere in the Bible, make it a rule of your life that you live as Jesus did, focusing on ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’
Good standards held by us all, allow us all to live in order and relative peace. I hope we don’t allow the unsettledness of these times to unsettle us from a good focus for our own lives.
From the Village and Church News August 2020 - September 2020
Self-congratulation isn’t often a good thing, but I think we may be allowed it for a moment in recognizing that under Lockdown we’ve become multi-skilled. Home-schooling may never have been on your radar and yet so many have risen to the challenge. Well done, you! Many of us have taken up the skills needed to do our jobs at home; or to build ourselves a life without going out! A lot of us have plunged into the cloudy world of IT, learning how to communicate online. These new skills benefit ourselves and others: that’s great!
One of my sidelines has been butterflies. They are beautiful and vulnerable and just a little crazy. They are also phenomenally difficult to catch on film, or even to follow, which makes them sort of addictive. There are 59 species of butterfly in Britain. So far this year, I have seen 12 . . . and something blue which moved really fast . . . I have a little way to go! It takes skill, patience, a quick eye, long trousers, and focus, to become adept at identifying butterflies. A nano-second later they are off. It’s fantastic! But it does require focus, and focus is a quality that I really admire in people.
In the Church, this last month, we’ve had readings from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The essence of his teachings is summed up as: ‘Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you’ and the whole sermon in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7 is about focus . . . ‘take a long hard look at how you live, keep focused’ . . . not on ourselves, but more on others and how we can help them.
As a response to Black Lives Matter, I’m immersing myself in the experience of other cultures through books. I’ve just read ‘The School of Restoration’. It is the true story of one woman’s focus, surviving years of terror in Northern Uganda, to the point where she sets up a school. It educates girls who were abducted and enslaved by rebel forces, but then escaped with their lives and sometimes their babies. Alice Achan had almost every excuse not to be focused on helping others. Her own childhood involved hiding from the rebels under prickly bushes, or in snake-infested swamps; seeing violence and cruelty all around her; going without food, water and necessities; and, through it all, pursuing her own education, then giving that opportunity to others. It certainly put my life in perspective.
It also reinforces my belief that reflection (something Alice is constantly doing) is crucial for our healthy development. Covid-19 isn’t going to disappear overnight and I really believe it’s really helpful for us to record what we’ve done and how we’ve been together, what helped and what didn’t, and what we have learned. In October, the whole village is invited to a day of focus and sharing. After coffee in the morning, we will have a discussion with input from people across the village. Do please record your thoughts and pass them on (email me, please, or send to Harstonlookingout@gmail.com), because it’s about all of us. Terry Waite has happily agreed to make another visit to Harston to add his own reflections. Come along and, meanwhile, write it down!
From the Village and Church News June 2020 - July 2020
It is only when I see certain films that I realise I have lived through more history than I thought. People would say, "Ah, everyone can remember what they were doing when President Kennedy died . . . " When the film of Margaret Thatcher came out, I saw my childhood. (It wasn't that pretty!) And I remember exactly what I was doing when the planes were flown into the twin towers. My instincts told me that day, as I walked down the school path to pick up the children, holding one on one hip as I walked, that what I had seen would change things for ever. And it did change things, for much as we like the idea of stability, our human story does not stand still. That is not necessarily a bad thing, and from everything that is difficult and awful, there are good changes, and sometimes we don't even notice we need to change.
As I write, someone has sent me a short video that you may also have seen. In it, a young father is asked by his little boy to read him a story. "Tell me the one about the virus again," he asks. And his father picks up an old volume called, 'The Great Realisation', and as the son is sitting comfortably, he begins: "The story starts before then," he says, "in a world of waste and wonder, of poverty and plenty, back before we understood why hindsight's 2020." And he paints a picture of trade and tower blocks, of instant response to shopping online, of families all alone on their phones, pollution, and too much plastic . . . Then the virus came and people dusted off their instincts, they remembered how to smile, they started clapping to say 'thank you' and calling up their mums, and while the car keys gathered dust, they looked forward to their runs."
We have experienced a re-ordering of priorities, and much of that has been really good. We've come to understand that there isn't a quick fix to coronavirus. Worldwide, we're going to live uncomfortably with it for a while, adjusting our habits and practices to stay as safe as we can.
I hope we keep changing our habits and practices until we match the sense of perspective that we may have gained in these last two months. I hope the Great Realisation may pervade our souls. John O'Donohue is a poet I was recently introduced to, and he makes a lot of sense:
You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but ret
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken in the race of days.
Jesus told many stories, parables, to shake up people's perspectives and tease them with new ones, and usually at the end of them, he would say to the pin-drop crowds: "You who have ears to hear, listen."
Listen to what these times say to you and to us, and together may we shape a new time ahead.
From the Village and Church News April 2020 - May 2020
A film I saw was Military Wives. It drew on real examples of military bases
where, when the spouses and partners were on tour, the women in that tense time
got together and started a choir. The
film is so realistic it feels like a documentary. The group don’t even want to sing to start
with, and, when they do, they’re terrible. Then, the power of music and lyrics,
and having a common purpose, pulls them ahead.
We get a sense of how they live a roller-coaster life of normality, followed
A few months ago, that would have been an alien concept to most of us. Our everyday lives have a pattern that may not be completely straightforward, but we are not generally held by fear. The soldiers of the military wives were on tour in Afghanistan, often out of communication, and that silence might be broken at any point by bad news.
This year, on top of our political upheaval and our bad weather, has come this new virus. Suddenly, our ordered and protected lives in Britain seem open to threat from outside ourselves. As I write, the possibility of future measures that will change our everyday patterns completely for a while, as in China and Italy.
How strange this time is. It is easy to become afraid. However, that is not how we have faced unusual challenges in Britain, during the war, or when facing terrorism now or in the 1970s. Instead, there has often been a pulling together for the common good. Jesus would call it ‘loving our neighbour’, and one of his closest friends, John, later wrote to the early churches about the power of love. The perfect love that God has for all of us expels fear, explains John. Love gets rid of fear and draws us together, understanding that each one of us is valuable. In March 2020, the Bishop of Ely writes to the churches and Christian people in this Diocese in the face of coronavirus and says:
One: Each one of us can think about how we protect and support our neighbours.
Two: Think about who may be suffering more than me. Can we share out the responsibility to phone them each day? There’s nothing like a friendly voice to offer solace when someone is worried.
Three: Don’t give in to panic and start hoarding; practise the Christian discipline of sharing.
Four: Live today to the full. Every time we are tempted to give in to fear we need to make a conscious choice to respond in trust and openness.
‘Do not let your harts be troubled,’ Jesus said to his friends, just before his own death, ‘and do not be afraid.’ There is more than one way to live through extraordinary times.
May you know the love of God for you, a love that gets rid of fear.
From the Village and Church News February 2020 - March 2020
From the Village and Church News December 2019 - January 2020
What a curious year this has been for us as a nation. So many times in recent months people have said: ‘I have never seen this before!’… of well established politicians removed by their party, of personnel change, new parties arising, the use and abuse of the system of government by a prime minister, of deals proposed and rejected in a loop; and of such a long uncertain relationship with our nearest international neighbours.
Not since the suffragettes has such tangible campaigning taken place across Britain as demonstrated by Extinction Rebellion for climate change. And do we ever remember a time when a child stood up and was heard not by their community but by nations across the world? Such is Greta Thunberg. In the year we were plagued with wildfires in Yorkshire in February - highest temperature 21.2°C; an Easter Monday of 25 C; the highest June temperatures; the hottest day on record, 38.7 C (101.7 F) at Cambridge; an August bank holiday of 33.3 C; and torrential rain and flooding in the Autumn.
retail has been mainly down, including the loss of Debenhams, Jamie’s, and Thomas
There were some high points: mainline stations abolished a charge to use the toilets. Women’s footie scored 11.7 million viewers. The Isle of Wight is awarded "Biosphere Reserve" status; and John Henry Newman is the first English person for centuries to be sainted by the Roman Catholic Church.
For me the year was taken into a different realm in July with the anniversary of the NASA shuttle and moon landing. It was pleasant to be taken away from the struggles and difficulties of life on earth, to a different perspective. We saw again those struggles and difficulties against the realisation of the extraordinary beauty and vulnerability of the Earth.
As we come into Advent, the four weeks of preparation for Christmas, I am reassured of two things: that we do not walk alone through any difficulties and struggles; and that our help comes from outside our earthly sphere.
The Gospel of John starts: ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ our help is a mysterious force, our creator, our life-force, our ultimate history and a light that darkness cannot overpower. We tend to call this life force ‘God’. In ancient times this was ‘El’ and ‘Yahweh’. After creating and enabling the beautiful physical world into being, this extraordinary force for good was squeezed into human form and ‘lived among us.’ This Jesus, whose ordinary birth we celebrate at Christmas.
Various aspects of the Christmas story have been popularised and emphasised and we may not think of Jesus’ birth as being ordinary, but it was, at the time. Animals occupied the lower part of the main house room of ordinary folk, so a baby in a manger was not such a daft idea, a bit like the rumour in our family history that more than one of my great grandmothers’ children were put into open drawers for their crib. (Cribs are expensive!) Angels appear a lot in the Christmas story, to accompany the main characters through difficult decisions, but that doesn’t make Mary and Joseph or even the wise visitors from the east any less normal. It simply means that at this crucial time the Word was given when and how it could be, to help them through. Because after the initial wonder of the birth with its visitors, came the massacre of the innocent children of Jerusalem, the night escape into a neighbouring country as refugees, and the eventual return into rural obscurity. There was nothing over-protected about this experience, it was unsettling and troubled and extraordinarily modern.
I find it helpful to understand as I go into Advent this year that our help to help and save ourselves from ourselves does not come from us, but comes from outside ourselves, from a good force, a personal God who loves us for who we are.
From the Village and Church News October - November 2019
I am very conscious, now we have come into September, that the year is really rolling round. Our family wedding, full of joy has come and gone, the season is beginning to change again. My tomato plants are producing fantastic amounts of fruit, the sunflowers are still blooming, but the poor diseased chestnuts have curled brown leaves already, and we’ve had some definite dips in temperature! The stubble has green growing through it and I wait to see the brown furrows after ploughing. The squirrels in our garden have exhausted themselves in a frenzy of hazel gathering and I noticed just this week a vibrating wall of sound from the bees on the ivy flowers over a fence.
There are real treats in each change of season. Like the refrain of a favourite song there are things to look forward to. Thank God for seasons and change and good things to come! I think it is important at the moment, in our bizarre political life and our unknown political future, that we ground ourselves in what is known and what is good.
One of the psalms in the church readings this week was 107. It is a really long Psalm, which speaks of a lot of ways in which God is at work in communities and different people’s lives, scooping them up at times of desperation to remind them of love. And punctuating that Psalm is a wonderful refrain:
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his goodness •
and the wonders he does for his children.
It is almost a saga psalm and brings a more hopeful perspective of the times moving on in the stream of the goodness of God.
For it is all too easy to be despondent when we feel uncomfortable about the future; all too easy to be brought to the low level of sniping at one another as we have seen modelled to us in Parliament. But the cycle of life will roll on, times will change, leaders will come and go and we need to do all we can to the good, that we are not decreased and despondent, but manage to show in our lives, our community and even our nation a people’s thankfulness for beauty, grace and gifts of nature given to us.
Please do join us in the village hall on October 6th in Harston for a Harvest Thanksgiving Lunch. The two village churches are providing the food, but we’d love to have your company. Come and be thankful for what is good, a time genuinely to eat, drink and be merry! Equally Newton Harvest Supper (with entertainment) will as usual be in the Village rooms on September 21st, and the festival in church on the 22nd at 4pm with two choirs. Hauxton have their harvest service on October 13th and then, on November 16th, St Edmund’s Fair at the Village Hall.
Meanwhile in All Saints’ Harston we are starting Story-church at 4.30 on October 13th (and the second Sunday of each month). If you would like to bring your children to a story-telling, with music and ending with refreshments at 5 you would be so welcome. Over the months we will gradually see that love and goodness of God rolling through the Bible stories and into our lives.
What a great time of year this is!
From the Village and Church News June-July 2019:
How lovely that we are rolling into the summer season! I love the seasonality of Britain; it never fails to fascinate, and sometimes challenge – especially if the weather does not match our expectations. I have been particularly busy, in spare moments, starting to prepare our garden for our daughter’s wedding. Certain eyesores had to be cleared, other so-called ‘cleared’ spaces had to be properly dug and then all sorts of things needed to be planted . . . fortunately, an August wedding means that things I planted a little late may be late coming into flower, which may work . . . but those of you who have done Open Gardens are allowed a wry smile on my behalf!
More predictable is the church calendar and what will definitely happen on which days. Again, I love the Anglican Church foundation on a religious calendar. I love our times of preparation (like Lent and Advent} and our celebrations. In our national calendar, most of the Holy Days (and therefore, all importantly, the public holidays) have disappeared. Life in rural Britain was peppered with possibilities for partying, and all thanks to the Church. What a nice position that was, to be the provider of merriment and relaxation! I find it interesting that our extra days’ holidays these days are linked to whether our financial institutions are working or not . . .
However, I am finding a real joy in Harston, Hauxton and Newton through our Music Group and Choir. They help to centre our thoughts and our moods appropriately. Music and song are wonderful things, and I am so pleased that they have already been the source, not just of raising my spirits, but also allowing me sometimes to go deeper into the experience of a particular time, like Easter Saturday. If you like singing or playing and would like to come and join the Music Group for Harston/Hauxton, or the Choir for the special occasion moments in Newton, you are really welcome! We are now in conversation about further possibilities for the use of music in some more informal services in our churches. Maybe in the next issue, I can let you know some details, as well as my chances of flowers at the wedding!
It was tragic, earlier this year, watching the devastation of Notre-Dame, and for many French people it was a realisation of the importance of sacred buildings. Our Church buildings are really important on so many levels. They will always be the place where people can go to be quiet and aware of the deeper soul stuff of our lives, a place to meet with God. They need to be there exactly for that, but also as the repository of the history of the lives of people who have lived in the village over the centuries. They are places where community can gather, places of joy and sadness, places of art and beauty, places that have marked the passage of time in our land. St Edmund’s Church in Hauxton is 1050 years old this year. It is a beautiful church architecturally and shows in its building how it has been over time. Even if you have no affiliation with the Christian faith do come along and see our village church on Saturday July 13th. There will be exhibitions of history, a chance to go up the tower, live music and a very special exhibition of craft (not for sale), along with a constant supply of wonderful food throughout the day (11.00 am – 4.00 pm).
From the Village and Church News April-May 2019:
A message from the Rev'd Susan Bowden-Pickstock, Associate Priest for the Benefice of Harston, Hauxton and Newton
How lovely for us as a family to be making new changes at this time of year. We moved into the Harston Vicarage at the end of February and have been so grateful for the very warm welcome we have received in the villages and churches. Thank you!
Moving is not a new thing for us as a family. In fact, family life is a constant development, isn't it?
I am an East Anglian, born and bred in villages in Suffolk. I went to school in Felixstowe, and then off to university first time round in Chichester, to read English Literature; one of my great loves is stories. Following this, I moved to London to study nursing at Guys Hospital, and then back to Cambridge, as Philip and I had met, married and he was working in finance here. For the last thirty years we have lived in Cambridge itself, in Fulbourn, Lode, Earith, five years in North Norfolk, and now in Harston. We have four adult children, three born in the Rosie and one at home. The first three knew mostly Cambridge itself, as Philip's work and my career in nursing, then BBC local radio, kept us close; but Joel has known the full impact of moving that ordination has given us. It has been fascinating finding the differences in attitude and lifestyle in each place we have lived, and we're really pleased now to be in South Cambridge, as there is a hint of hills out this way!
For, as well as stories, I love the outdoors and exercise. I have been fortunate to be able to enjoy trampolining, cycling, swimming, riding, and mountain hiking with two of our sons. We particularly love Snowdon; there is just one route we have yet to climb, the slightly pecipitous Crib Goch, but it's difficult to find a day when the wind allows that one! However, Cambridgeshire is very good for cycling, and our dog has proved really good for getting us out walking locally. Meanwhile, I am back studying. another joy, and our children all move on in jobs, and relationships, and this year Charlotte will be married in Harston Church.
This has been a time for me to take stock, to reflect on who we are as human beings in relation to ourselves, to God, and to each other. A time for me to be thankful for all the aspects of life, family, community, nature, and culture that have shaped me and delighted me. We look forward to our time here, with its inevitable challenges and its many joys.