Letter from Lizzie – March 2020

Dear all,

Storm Ciara has blown out, but storm Dennis is still blustering around causing mayhem and misery. I sit in my warm, dry kitchen and I wonder who is it that chooses the names of storms? Dennis? Ciara? Maybe someone at the Met Office has a grudge against their daughter or husband that week – and in revenge they name the incoming storm! That’ll teach ‘em!

Names and naming things is an interesting business. And it’s not easy! Deciding the names for my daughters was reasonably straightforward, but it took a bit of negotiation to keep everyone who was invested in this happy. It could be far more complicated, though. I have only had two children and (recently) a dog to name – think about the difficulties of poor old Adam in the creation story:

The Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and He brought them to the man to see what he would name each one. And whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.

Some of us from St Mary’s told this story from Genesis the other week, at an “Open the Book” assembly in Burley & Woodhead School. The children’s version of the story we presented, showed how difficult this was for Adam – particularly when he had to decide what to name the skunk. Thankfully, in the end he thought it best not to settle for ‘stripy-stinky-bottom’….

Adam’s story also made me ponder the nature of names and naming. It’s clearly an important business, something that God intends us to take seriously. So perhaps I shouldn’t be wondering about the name of these storms, but why we choose to name them in the first place? What do we gain by giving weather a name?

I suppose when we name a storm, we give that storm an identity – a character even – which makes it easier to talk about, easier to describe, easier to blame. When Adam names the animals, it is in part an act of his power over them. Earlier in Genesis we learn that “humanity is to rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

I feel with these recent storms, though, that we are kidding ourselves if we believe that we have any power over them at all – regardless of whether we name them or not. However amusing the name, storms are dangerous, sweeping in with a destructive force beyond our control. The Met Office states:- “a storm will be named when it has the potential to cause an amber or red warning.”

In other words, we name what is dangerous, as though somehow it makes it easier to understand and harder to fear. A bit like why Harry Potter insists on calling Voldemort by his name!

Whatever we believe or don’t believe about how the world was created or the Genesis story, it is undoubtedly true that human beings are responsible for what happens to our planet and all the creatures and eco systems that it sustains. We can’t control storm Dennis, but we can look at how we contribute to preventing climate change. We can’t control storm Ciara, but we can look at how we respond to those suffering from the floods and storm damage in her wake. I wonder what steps you might take to live up to those responsibilities?

Love from Lizzie

Letter from Barry – February 2020

Every day is an extra

Everyone (or at least everyone with access to Google) knows that the earth takes 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds to circle once around the sun. This is known as the ‘Tropical’ year. For convenience sake we disregard those hours, minutes and seconds to come up with our ‘Common’ year. To get things back in kilter we therefore need a February 29th every four years, with a few exceptions.

If we didn’t do that we would be almost six hours awry every single year. After only a hundred years we would be twenty four days behind ourselves. Or is it ahead? My ‘O-Level’ maths (grade 6 on a re-sit) isn’t helping me here.

Leap years lend themselves to legends and folklore. The best known leap year tradition allegedly originated in fifth century Ireland. Some aggrieved women complained to Saint Patrick that the men were dragging their heels when it came to marriage proposals. To speed up the process, albeit by not very much, Patrick decreed that the ladies could make the running every February 29th.

But we don’t necessarily need a leap year to focus our thoughts on an extra day. People who have had a particularly close shave with death are acutely aware of that fact. One such person is Kwame James. He is a six feet eight inches Trinidadian professional basketball player. He was on the December 2001 transatlantic Paris to Miami flight when fellow passenger, Richard Reid, bungled his attempt to detonate the plastic explosives which he had smuggled on board hidden in his shoe. Kwame James was one of those who overpowered and restrained the so-called ‘shoe bomber.’ Reflecting on that experience later, he said, ‘To know that you were that close to not being here. That sinks into you. Everything can change in a split second, so you need to live every day to the fullest.’

The Dutch priest and counsellor, the late Henri Nouwen, put flesh on the bones of that idea by saying, ‘Every day should be well lived. What a simple truth! Still, it is worth my attention. Did I offer peace today? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentments? Did I forgive? Did I love?’ The hymn writer, Thomas Ken, put it in a nutshell with, ‘redeem thy mis-spent time that’s past, and live this day as if thy last.’

The time it takes for the earth to orbit the sun is fixed and guaranteed. The time of our lives is neither, making every day an extra.

Barry Overend

The Vicar’s Letter – December 2019

Dear friends,

One of the most amazing and hope-filled prayers has been used over the last few weeks in Church in the preparation for Communion.

For you are the hope of the nations,
the builder of the city that is to come.
Your love made visible in Jesus Christ
brings home the lost, restores the sinner
and gives dignity to the despised.
In his face your light shines out,
flooding lives with goodness and truth,
gathering into one in your kingdom
a divided and broken humanity.
Therefore with all who can give voice in your creation
we glorify your name, for ever praising you and saying:
Holy Holy Holy…

This prayer seems very appropriate as we move into the time of waiting, Advent.

Advent is about staying present. So many of us fall asleep spiritually during the run up to Christmas because the seduction of the material world takes hold. Most of us (me included) will spend money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t need so that we can stay on the endless and life-sapping road of comparison and consumption. There are moments, if we stop long enough to be present, to pick a gift with care, thinking and maybe even praying for the person who will open it. There are more and more opportunities to buy presents through charities (buy a seed, some chickens, some ointment or a food package) that are really a gift to someone we don’t know, but whose needs are far greater than my own. There are opportunities with schemes like Reverse Advent where we can think of others closer to home or volunteer to support the homeless in Bradford. These moments help us to remember God’s love made visible in Jesus Christ who brings home the lost, restores the sinner and gives dignity to the despised. God loves us to join in with that mission, praying and loving our neighbours in Burley, Bradford and maybe even Burundi!

Advent this year will be punctuated by a general election with all its political intrigue, statistics, promises, fake news, in-fighting and slandering of opponents. However, at its best we hope and pray that our politicians, local and national, will be articulating a vision for the future that is more hopeful than the present. One in which some of the brokenness and division of humanity is addressed with compassion and action. However, for Christians we recognise that our attempts to fix the problems in our own families and communities, let alone our country and world can only ever be partial. As we approach Christmas we invest in the baby born, the Prince of Peace, Immanuel. We know that Jesus is the only true hope of the nations, the builder of the city that is to come. As we search out for the light that shines in the darkness, we come to realise that it is only in Jesus’ face that God’s light shines out flooding lives with goodness and truth and gathering into one in God’s Kingdom a divided and broken humanity.

One of the challenges of waiting, especially as we get older, is that w are tempted towards routine, we are less open to the surprise, to the new thing (apart from something bought from Amazon!). Advent causes us to stop and wonder what God is going to do next. The baby born in the manger is a surprise. He brings life and restoration out of the most unlikely places and it is certainly not mundane or ordinary. But God doesn’t come when we want him to, he is not under our control, but boy, when he turns up, it is well worth the wait.

Wait with anticipation and may the joy, light and peace of God revealed, Jesus Christ, pour into your hearts.

Alastair

Letter from Mary – November 2019

Dear Friends,

November has arrived and autumn is well and truly here, it’s colder, the leaves have turned golden brown and many are falling, the clocks have gone back, and the evenings are much darker. November is a month we begin by looking back and remembering, it starts with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, then Remembrance Sunday, and as we celebrate these occasions we look back to people who are no longer on earth with us.

On All Saints’ Day we remember and give thanks for those who kept the faith alive in sometimes terrible situations, and through their witness they carried the Christian light in their own times and communities. Despite facing all sorts of challenges, even persecution, they remained faithful to Jesus Christ. Their faith cost some of them their lives.

On All Souls’ Day we remember and give thanks for those who have gone before us, for all our family members and friends who have died, for all those who have been a part of our lives, and for all who have contributed to the life and worship of our Christian community. People perhaps whose lives have inspired and encouraged us. Each of us, I am sure, can call to mind ordinary men and women we have known personally, who have had a real impact on our own faith. I think of a housebound elderly man in a previous parish whose life, although full of physical pain, was a life of prayer. He was an inspiration to me as I became aware of his tremendous ministry of prayer, interceding for the life of the parish and for so many individuals for whom he prayed on a daily basis.

On Remembrance Sunday we remember those who gave their lives in armed conflict, protecting a way of life which we now enjoy freely and those who fought to further the cause of freedom and justice. It is important to remember and to value people both for the things they have done and the people they have been. In remembering we honour them, but the greatest honour that we can bestow on those we remember is to allow our lives to be influenced by the way they lived their lives. As we remember those who are no longer with us we honour them by seeking to live lives of peace and encouraging individuals, communities and nations to live at peace with one another. We also honour them by standing up to those who would deprive the weak and powerless of their freedom to live their own lives.

Sometimes when we are confronted by the enormity of all that needs to be done on an international, national and local level to alleviate suffering, we are tempted to give up and feel there is nothing we can do about it. That is when we need to remember the story Jesus told us about the mustard seed and how it can grow to a great tree from a tiny seed. If our faith is like that, Jesus says, we too can do great things and help to move the mountains of problems that people face.

November calls us to remember those who have gone before us, and all that God was able to do through them. But it also encourages us to do what we can to plant seeds, trusting that God will bless their growth. Sometimes, from tiny beginnings and apparently hopeless situations, impossible things happen.

The last Sunday in November this year is the Feast of Christ the King, when we celebrate Christ as King and Lord of the Universe who rules over all things in heaven and on earth. The feast of Christ the King marks the end of the Church’s liturgical year and heralds the season of Advent. So in contrast to the beginning of the month when we are looking back and remembering, the end of November calls us to look forward, to a time when God’s kingdom is fully realised and the reign of peace and justice on earth is brought into being.

Mary Brooks

Letter from Lizzie – October 2016

Dear Friends

Today, I went out and picked a load of blackberries. It was something I hadn’t done for ages and for the last week they had been ‘winking’ at me every time I passed the bushes in Burley House field. They were on the other side of the stream so I had to wear wellies to get at them, which added to the fun. As I filled my container, I found myself thinking how grateful I was for unexpected joys that we come across – the instances where in something really simple turns out to be something really good. Bacon sandwiches for breakfast, hearing your children killing themselves with laughter, smelling bonfire smoke or the last cut of the lawn, someone making you a cuppa, clean bedsheets, a good pint (insert your favourite alternative here!) after work, sharing a joke with a friend, intricate frost patterns, easy parking spaces…there are loads of little pleasures in life – feel free to drift off as you add your own to the list!

Our world can seem a pretty miserable place at times, with politics, wars, natural disasters, environmental changes looming over us. It is all too easy to find we are caught up in the fear, confusion and despair that surround us, and it can feel overwhelming. Whilst it is vital we acknowledge all the things that upset us, and do what we can where we can to make a difference, it is also important to pay attention to the good that we find day to day in our life. To pay attention to kindness or to beauty. To really notice and enjoy our friends and families, to find pleasure in the good things in life and to be thankful for all of them.

When Jesus tells us to trust God, he talks about not worrying too much about the days ahead, but to pay attention to the day in which we find ourselves. He describes the beauty of the simple things around him in the world to draw attention not only to how lovely they are, but how much God cares for them and for us. He says: –

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you?

The good things in our world are not always strictly necessary – we don’t need beauty like we need water – but that’s what makes them blessings. There can only be a positive effect on our lives and the lives of those around us when we take time to notice the blessings and look for more ways to be grateful, more ways to be kind, more ways to be thankful and more ways to spread happiness. I hope you enjoy trying this out.

Now, back to my list…

Love, Lizzie

The Vicar’s Letter – September 2019

Dear friends,

The school holidays are coming to an end. Many will have had time off or time away with family. Grandparents will have looked after grandchildren and other children will have been on clubs and camps. The summer, even with its high volume of rain during August, will have given opportunity to think through life from a slightly different vantage point. Not everyone will have had time off; some choosing time outside the school holidays and many, probably not so far away, just unable to afford to get away.

Taking time out is vitally important to our lives. We live in a culture which demands more and more of us and many of us work hard precisely so that we can enjoy time off. Because holidays are anticipated with so much expectation means that there is also much to lose if things don’t go right. Again our frantic existence doesn’t leave much contingency time. Often we only slow down if we are forced to by our health, the health of loved ones or by a bereavement.

God, however, hasn’t created us as human ‘doings’, but human ‘beings.’ Yet our culture generally gives more value to what we do than who we are. Christians are reminded to ask: am I living with God’s rhythm and am I living in a way which is in tune with the environment in which we live? These two questions should make us stop and think because for most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, know that our current ways of doing life are not healthy for us or our planet.

Over the summer I have been incredibly fortunate to have a three-month sabbatical. As I mentioned back in my May letter, sabbaticals are routed in scripture and are given to be a time of restoration; for rest, relaxation, for retreat and for personal reflection. The challenge for me is how do I live and work differently in light of a significant time away; an opportunity to view my life, my family, my work through a different lens.

I have been reading a book called emotionally healthy spirituality by American pastor, Peter Scazzero and he focuses not on work-life balance per se, but on faith-life balance. He commends seeking a slower pace of life, not so much to have more recreational time, but so that our lives can be permeated by God’s presence. He recommends that our lives should have foundations of solitude, stillness, scripture meditation and prayer and that we have a good rhythm of sabbath rest built into our weekly, monthly and yearly cycles. Who manages that I hear you cry! This is not easy because much in our society bleeds us dry, but if we begin to intentionally put these habits into practice, we will find that they will be transformative.

I will be trying to live a different way of life so you will no doubt hear and see more in the coming months, but I do commend living life with a different focus and adapted priorities. Don’t just let the ‘rest’ of summer holidays be a thing that we leave in the past, but let’s find new and innovative ways of incorporating into our present.

As I sign off can I say a big thank you to all those who have played a part in keeping St Mary’s going in my absence as we continue to offer life, hope and faith to our community. Can I particularly thank John, Val, Becky and Joyce, my lay-readers Lizzie and Mary, and the retired clergy, Chris, Barry, Malcolm and Graham.

Looking forward to seeing you all soon

Alastair

Letter from Lizzie – July 2019

It’s June and summer has begun – apparently. Although I am not sure I have noticed anything that would confirm this weather-wise. There might be loads of summer clothes in the shops, there might be sports days and cricket matches, the Lido might well be open – but in terms of summer happening – well, the weather has yet to make an entrance!

Our church has just finished the Jesus Shaped People course. The course looks at different aspects of Jesus’ life and mission, and we are encouraged to follow his lead on issues such as social injustice, prayer or working together. And with this course has come all sorts of challenges and questions. Some of these were raised in our new housegroups, some were raised in sermons and talks, some came from one another. The aim of the course, however, was not to look inwards towards our needs as a congregation, but to look outwards towards our community and our world.

Something that struck me as we worked our way through the course was how easy it is for us to keep Jesus for church on Sundays. How easy it might be to simply go to a service for an hour or so and let that be sufficient. That approach would be exactly the sort of complacent hypocrisy Jesus condemns.

“Hypocrisy” is a word that often comes up when people think about church goers. People who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, as it were. There are millions of wonderful, caring, helpful people who work to bring joy, justice and love to the world. You don’t have to be a Christian to behave in a Christ-like manner. Burley is filled with people who are kind and neighbourly, who might not feel they belong in church or would never profess to have a faith.

However, I believe that all good things come from God, and any small loving action is a sign of God’s greater love. And I also strongly believe that God is rather fond of us human beings and would rather like to get a bit more involved in our lives – which is massively to our benefit. And if I believe that, then I should try and live my life in a way that shows as much of this love to others (whoever they might be) as possible, in the hope that God might show up for them, too. And definitely not simply in church on Sunday.

As I noted at the start of this letter, it’s June and there are lots of signs of summer in the shops and the events but the weather itself is yet to show up as summery. We have no sun. It would be really tragic for our church if we had all the signs of Jesus being important to us, but somehow, when people look at us, Jesus just doesn’t show up. We have no Son.

So for all of us, this soggy summer, let’s try and bring some light and warmth to the world.

Love, Lizzie

Letter from Barry – June 2019

Our Daily Bread

You could call it the best thing before sliced bread: the pop-up toaster. It was invented by Otto Rohwedder, from Iowa, in 1912. His toaster pre-dated the invention of the single loaf bread-slicing machine by sixteen years.

Bread, toasted, sliced or otherwise goes back a long way. The ancient Egyptians hit upon the idea of a grinding stone, called a quern, and the first grain was crushed upon it about ten thousand years ago. The modern Indian chapatis and the Mexican tortillas bear the closest resemblance to the bread produced by the Egyptians.

Ten thousand years is long enough for bread to have become not only the staff of life but also the stuff of legend. For example, an old Russian fable gives a new twist to the biblical ‘bread of heaven.’ The fable has it that when we arrive at the gate of heaven, whether or not we are allowed in depends on how much we have used our loaf. Literally. All the bread that we have wasted down here somehow magically appears up there. Then it is weighed by an angel. If the amount of our wasted bread comes to more than our body weight we get turned away from the Pearly Gates.

Somebody holy, I’ve forgotten whom, once said that there is no such thing as my bread because all bread is ours. It should therefore be fairly shared among us. Perhaps that weighing angel could be persuaded to off set the bread we’ve shared against the bread we’ve wasted. Certainly the distribution of bread falls a long way short of equitable. For far too many people being out of bread is more than just an easily remedied short term inconvenience, and to them the term ‘bread winner’ is incomprehensible. Knowing that to be the case ought to prompt us to take bread gratefully rather than for granted.

According to one ‘Food and Drink’ website, ‘handling bread gracefully is the test for a well-bred diner.’ But handling bread gracefully is more than just good table manners, as this old Scottish meal time Grace acknowledges: ‘Be gentle when you touch bread. Let it not lie uncared for, unwanted. There is so much beauty in bread. Beauty of sun and soil. Beauty of patient toil. Wind and rain have caressed it. Christ so often blessed it. Be gentle when you touch bread.’

Barry Overend

The Vicar’s Letter – May 2019

Dear friends,

As you read this I will embarking on my sabbatical. The Church encourages all clergy to receive the gift of three months away from their Parishes once every ten years (I have been ordained 12 years). The word sabbatical comes from the ancient Jewish theological concept of Sabbath, which recognises the need for everything in creation to have the opportunity to rest.

Enshrined in creation, we are encouraged to rest one day in seven and one year in seven and ultimately, in the year of Jubilee, after 50 years (following seven sabbatical years), everything is restored to its original owners. This concept is still followed in the farming community where crops are rotated
and land given rest. It is also followed in the academic world where it is recognised that, in order to encourage creative and innovative thought, one needs to be given time away from the normal administration of the University. For clergy a three-month sabbatical is primarily given so that one’s spiritual, emotional and family life can be restored and so be a better and more refreshed Priest at the end of it.

So I am heading off to Egypt on the 6th May, leaving my family and Parish behind for three weeks to spend some time in the desert before travelling to Jordan to see friends and ending up in Jerusalem. Why the Middle East you may ask – not a place many would choose to go! Well, having lived in the Middle East for more than four years of my adult life, it has a special resonance with me. My faith was deeply enriched as a young man living in a Christian community in northern Israel. It was tested as I lived amongst the Jordanian Bedouin doing my doctoral research and then as I spent three years in Iraq at a very challenging period of history. Later as I went back to theological college I wrote about some of the early Christian teachers who lived and worked in and around the Middle East. This fascination has remained with me so it is a real gift to be able to re-connect with that part of the world.

When I return I have the opportunity to go on a couple of retreats in Britain, to go and see friends and very importantly have quality time with my family. One of the challenges of being a Priest with a young family growing up in Burley is that we almost never get to go away for a weekend, something many of us take for granted. So I am looking forward to getting away with Sara and the children, camping or going to the seaside.

While I am gone, we have a number of visiting clergy taking services including two bishops, an archdeacon, the dean of Bradford Cathedral as well as clergy friends such as Steve Proudlove, who is vicar of our neighbouring Parish of Menston. I hope it will be really good to hear different perspectives as they give you fresh insight and perspective. And when I come back, I expect I will have lots of new ideas and vision myself – you have been warned!

I hope the sabbatical will bring new imagination to me and my family, an opportunity to intentionally do things differently and I expect it will add some spice and freshness to all those who are part of the St Mary’s community. If you need any pastoral support over the next three months don’t hesitate to ring the office or contact one of my faithful wardens.

God Bless

Alastair

The Vicar’s Letter – April 2019

I am sure there are many who were touched by the news story of Keira and Max back in February as their names were used to head up a new Government Bill to encourage more organ donation – a welcome relief from the tedium of Brexit!

Keira Ball was 9 years old when she tragically died in a car accident. Max was one of four people who received one of Keira’s donated organs and for him it was literally life-saving. He and his family had waited 7 months for a new heart and had almost given up hope, Max was in the last hours and days of his life.

Even in our post Christian society where, generally speaking, we have placed our faith and hope in ourselves rather than the God who created us, we are still taken with this story. Even though we don’t necessarily recognise it, we are drawn by the deep truths and hope of resurrection. I believe this is because God has placed sacrifice and resurrection at the heart of the universe. The God willingly sacrifices his own divine nature to come amongst us in the person of Jesus and then ransoms his life so that we might live. Surely that is the best news that any of us could experience. It is the ‘scandal of grace.’

Keira’s dad, when asked whether the family wanted to donate her organs recognised that, if they had asked Keira the question, she wouldn’t have hesitated to give life to others. If we are attentive to what God is doing in our lives, we begin to recognise that there are many moments, when we are given opportunity to sacrifice something of ourselves in order to give life to others. That is what it means to participate in resurrection. That is what it means to be a Christian; to be so inspired by Jesus who gave his life so that others would receive life, that we go and do likewise.

This Easter, I pray that we might be so inspired by the future reality of heaven, that we seek to bring a foretaste of that heaven into our world now. That is what Christians hope for. That is what God promises for those who put their faith in the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. As we discover what it means to follow Jesus, may we become life-givers in every sense of the word – to our families, our friends, our neighbours, our communities.

God Bless

Alastair