I have just done this morning’s Pause for Thought on the BBC Radio 2 Chris Evans Show. I probably should have done something on ‘leap year’, but I did it on ‘stories’ instead.

Having been reading the Bible for a very long time now, I often wondered why Jesus chose to talk in images and with stories, rather than making points and telling people to agree with them. I used to think it was just a local cultural preference of his time, but I there’s actually something deeper going on – something that nagged away at me during the last week as we heard about Nelson Mandela and Marie Colvin.

Mandela went into hospital and the world waited to see what would happen. Clearly, there’s nothing unusual about an old man whose health is failing. But this isn’t just any old man. This one has become a global icon of selfless reconciliation – a man who suffered for three decades, but emerged as one of the strongest men in the world, enabling South Africa and other countries to look for radically new ways of behaving. Behind the name of the man is a story that moves us deeply in our hearts and our imaginations.

Then the Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin was killed in Syria whilst trying to tell a story – not of dry political arguments or power struggles, but illustrating these with stories of real women and children, real people being brutalised, defenceless people in an ordinary place being subjected to the merciless power of heavy weaponry… and those who control it.

As I have observed elsewhere, she is a fantastic example of good journalism. Marie Colvin put herself in danger in order that the wider world might see and hear how the decisions of others – the powermongers of this world – impact the lives of people like us. And it is that power of storytelling that gets into our heads and scratches away at our imagination.

Which is why, I think, Jesus taught with stories and parables and pictures. Words and statements just go in and get accepted or rejected. Stories scratch away and tease us until we grapple with what they are all about.

He once told a story about a man wanting to build a tower and asked if he would begin without first counting the cost. Mandela and Colvin certainly counted the cost of their commitment. And their stories just won’t let us go.

So, nothing too deep there. Something that will no doubt be appreciated by the Sunday Times which, pleasingly but surprisingly, highlighted my Lent address on BBC Radio 4 tonight as their ‘Pick of the Day’ for today. The caption praised me with faint damnation – something about the Lent talk showing more theological depth than is evident in my ‘inveterate blogging’. Interesting, then, that nothing in the Lent address has not appeared at some point in blog posts here. Maybe I should start using longer words…

I was doing Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2′s Chris Evans Show this morning and arrived while some fun was being had at the expense of ITV. I caught the last half an hour or so of the Brits last night and was astonished when Queen Adele was interrupted so James Corden could introduce Blur for their epic finale.

 

When a sports event over-runs, or the Eurovision Song Contest drags on a while, they simply re-align the schedule and cope with it. So, what was the thinking behind cutting Adele (who deserves every second of her glory) and not just adding a few minutes to the programme? I am not a media expert, but my jaw dropped at that disaster.

Anyway, that wasn’t my business – I just came into the studio on the back of it. I was there to talk about Lent. Just before I went in I was asked whether Lent actually includes the Sundays, or if we can have Sundays off and still do the forty days. The good Christian answer is that we can choose. Forty consecutive days from Ash Wednesday (today, of course) takes us to Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week which runs up to Easter. If you take out the Sundays, you can count Holy Week in. Wonderful flexibility. But, I did remark to Chris that taking Sundays for celebration is a recourse for wimps – and that his intention to start next Monday is a bit sad. (At least he’s starting, though!)

I began my script with a reference to my eighteen-month old grandson, Ben, who vomited all over me a couple of weeks ago. He was with us again last weekend. We live in a big house in Bradford and he loves to charge around the space that was just made for little kids to charge around. He is learning how to be naughty – a natural reflex – and has that look in his eye that says: “You’re not going to like this, but I’ll do it anyway and see how far I can push you.” I think it’s written into his job description. He is pushing the boundaries and unwittingly working out what he is about and how far he can go. (It should end when he is about 30…)

And this is where Lent comes in. The forty days of mirrors follow Jesus mirroring Israel centuries before and spending forty days and nights in the desert wondering what life was all about really. What happened to Jesus was that, stripped of all the distractions that even an Internet-free first century Palestine offered, he had to face himself, what really drove him, how far he would really go in taking seriously the vocation he believed was his. OK, he’s tired, cold and hungry. Then the voice in his head says: “So, you’re really not interested in the short cut to glory and fame? Really? Why go through all the suffering when you don’t need to?” It actually is really hard: “You – of all people – don’t need to go hungry! Just turn this stone into bread and get fed. Put your own material needs first. Come on – don’t be so hard on yourself!

I think Jesus knew this wasn’t the sort of stuff to prepare him for a cross.

But the connection here between him and us and Lent is simply that if we take the time and make the space to drill down deep into our own choices and motivations, we might find it both uncomfortably challenging… and extremely profitable.

Lent isn’t magic and it isn’t primarily about giving up chocolate as some form of narcissistic aecetism. It simply offers the space in which we can take the time to reflect more seriously and deeply on what is really going on deep within us – especially those bits that we are usually too busy to examine.

Which is a theme I treat from a different angle in the BBC Radio 4 Lent address going out at 2045 on Wednesday 29 February and at 0545 and 1445 on Sunday 4 March.

 

I was driving over to a primary school in Ilkley this morning (dribbly rain and mist over the wild moors) and listening to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was being interviewed about the British Government’s apparent approval of the idea of a new London airport (after Heathrow, Gatwick and City – Luton and Stansted don’t count as they are nowhere near London). The wisdom and feasibility of such a new venture will continue to be debated, but that isn’t what grabbed my attention.

Boris responded to an insinuation that it would take decades to build the thing and would, therefore, not be worth starting. He said that just because it might take a long time didn’t mean it shouldn’t be started. And this reminded me of something else: cathedrals.

When the architects and builders of our great cathedrals began their work – driven by imagination and a vision for a future – they knew they probably would never see the finished article. They would be dead – the building would take generations. Liverpool Cathedral (Anglican) was started in 1904 and almost everybody involved in imagining, designing and building it was dead by the time it was finally completed at the back end of the twentieth century.

Or think of gardens. Capability Brown designed some of Britain’s most glorious gardens, but knew he would never see what he had designed because by the time the trees and plants had grown, he would be long gone. This didn’t stop him doing it.

I took a couple of academic friends to the pub this evening to talk about a range of matters. At one point the conversation ran onto the shortsighted utilitarianism of current university funding methods in England. It seems as if the ‘now’ is all that matters and the Market will control all our destinies. Any idea of vision (what should a university actually be – and for whom and for what end?) or long-term constructiveness gets lost under the pressing immediacy of instant financial viability. Yet, I guess this is just one more example of a pragmatic culture which has lost track of its guiding narrative, its traditions and memory – living in and for the ‘now’ and hesitant about building for someone else’s future that can’t be guaranteed anyway.

Pessimistic? Maybe. But, any culture needs people who imagine a future, invest in it, know why they are doing it and who it is for. They must be driven by a vision for a society that doesn’t confuse ends (people/society) with means (the Market).

I don’t know if Boris is right about the airport. But, he has the right perspective on time and investment.

Just for the record, I note the following:

1. On BBC Radio 4′s excellent ‘The Report’ programme, broadcast last night, I was introduced as having been a vicar in Southwark before moving to Bradford. Not true. I told them I had been Archdeacon of Lambeth for three years and then Bishop of Croydon for eight years.

2. In the same introduction to my contribution to the same programme it was said that I had kept in close touch with clergy at St Paul’s Cathedral – which was part of the theme of the programme (whcih was really about the Corporation of London). In fact, I had said I had been in touch with Giles Fraser on the day of his resignation announcement and that I had met Graeme Knowles several times in the past, but didn’t ‘know’ him. I had also said that the Cathedral Chapter was autonomous and that the Diocese of London was not the same as the Diocese of Southwark – and that my real connection with St Paul’s was having been consecrated there in May 2003.

3. During the chit-chat on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 yesterday morning I said that we can see toward Ilkley from our house in Bradford. Well, that’s true in the same sense that you can see towards the North Pole from where I live in Bradford. I meant to say Bingley – and the moors that lead over eventually to Ilkley. Locals who listened must have thought I am seriously geographically challenged.

Neither of those is a moan about the media! Although the first two need clearing up in case anyone connected with St Paul’s wonders what is going on that they don’t know about. It wasn’t me who said it, guv.

But, here’s a plug:

4. My daughter and son-in-law gave me a CD for my birthday which I listened to in the car today. Called simply Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, it is a brilliant, atmospheric recording of some great (almost primitive) rock and roll. It says on the back:

We took a year to record and mix this album in our back room. Over a period of time we collected a lot of ribbon microphones, tape recorders and ancient sound equipment and eventually built a workable studio inspired by Sun studios in Memphis and Chess studios in Chicago along with the makeshift chaos of Joe Meek’s studio in the Holloway Road in London. Our main objective was to capture the energy of our live gigs.

It is excellent, moody, raw – and I would never have come across if it hadn’t been given to me!

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