This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Show:

Perhaps one of the few upsides of these dreadful lockdowns is the explosion on social media of really funny stuff. The one that made me laugh yesterday was the journalist who got invited to have a vaccination because the NHS had thought he was 62cm tall rather than 6 foot 2 (and seventeen stone), which made him hugely obese.

While I was laughing at that one, a friend sent me a great list of the museums that just have to be visited before I die. Like the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia. Or the Museum of Bad Art in Massachusetts and the Museum of Failure in Sweden. And let’s not start on the Dog Collar Museum in Kent.

The thing here is that there is always a place for celebrating the stuff of ordinary life. I like going to places where I can see the evidence of extraordinary achievements, but sometimes it’s just the mundane that captures the imagination. In my neck of the woods you can go to the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford and see televisions and computers that look primitive, but even I can remember them being invented.

The Christian calendar has us now in the season of Lent. But, instead of filling my mind with thoughts of extraordinary feats of spiritual discipline, I am left thinking about how the tweaking of daily decisions and activities can make a much bigger difference. Yes, I might decide to give up booze or chocolate for a few weeks and feel proud of the health benefits; but, I can also choose to give away money to feed people who need it … or give my time to making sure my neighbours are OK. Simple, ordinary, routine, everyday stuff of life. But, one day we might look back and see that it made a real difference to someone.

The image that will guide me through this Lent is Jesus in the desert for forty days, checking how serious he is about what drives him – power, glory or giving his life for others. The Museum of Failure had better keep a shelf for my efforts, but, that won’t stop me asking the questions.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on Zoe Ball’s BBC Radio 2 breakfast show:

I grew up in Liverpool, by the sea. Even though I now live in Yorkshire – between the coasts – I can still smell the salt in the air and listen for the sound of seagulls enjoying target practice on unsuspecting children. Somehow it’s like a memory muscle that takes me straight back to the smells and sounds of my youth.

I remember being taught sea shanties at school and putting them in the same bracket as other hey-nonny-no folk music – something that didn’t appeal when I was discovering Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. It was what we used to call ‘sandals and socks’ music. So, I have ignored them for decades until – yes, you’ve guessed it – Nathan Evans sang one called ‘Wellerman’ on TikTok and it all kicked off. Now, just to add to my surprise, I keep seeing big names like Gary Barlow and Ronan Keating picking them up and doing their own.

What is going on?

Well, I think it’s brilliant. Not only have loads of people been getting together virtually to sing these old songs, but they’re also discovering a rich part of our tradition as an island people. Sea shanties aren’t merely romantic ditties about abstracted emotions. No, they’re rooted in and emerge from the working experience of ordinary people in local places. They’re about everyday things. They’re sometimes romantic in substance, but always coloured by the stuff of communal work and colleagues and hard lives.

In other words, they sing of what they know. And the singing has a raw authenticity because it’s drawn from the depths of real life with all its edges unrounded.

I think this is why I have rediscovered sea shanties with surprised joy. I come from a tradition which is sunk in poems and songs and stories of everyday life, human experience in all its richness and agony: the Psalms; Jesus telling stories and using images that people could relate to (usually called parables) because they emerged from normal life. And people got stuck in – together – talking, singing, playing.

Why don’t you try it? Sing along with a shanty and your spirits rise. And I still have no idea what a wellerman is.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on Zoe Ball’s breakfast show on BBC Radio 2:

There’s nothing quite like a ten year old looking at you as if to say: “Are you really that dim?” Well, that was my experience – trying to homeschool a grandson in maths. Not only was I always rubbish at numbers, but he seemed just to ‘get’ concepts I had to struggle to work out. And I think many people will understand the challenge of trying to teach children who end up teaching us.

Now, this made me laugh. Because it’s often the children from whom we learn the most. In the gospels Jesus brings a young child into the midst of a group of earnest adults and cheerfully tells them that if they want to enter the kingdom of God, they’ll have to become like this child. (I’ve often wondered if it was a boy or a girl, a three year old or a ten year old, a quiet one or a loud one … and so on. We’re not told.) But, I think what Jesus was getting at was simply that kids are curious, want to learn and find the world inexhaustibly full of things to wonder at.

So, I think that wise and curious adults should constantly try to look through the eyes of a child, asking the basic questions and being open to the joy of surprise. What I realised with my grandson was that maths hasn’t changed since I was young; but, the language used and the approach to learning has. The subject is the same, but the means of understanding have moved on. Other people can see through the equation to the reality it describes, whereas the best I can do is to colour it in.

This is obvious, really, isn’t it? But, sometimes I think we get so accustomed to things that we fail to see the wonder in it all. I need to look through a child’s eyes in order to see afresh. I need to keep listening for new ways to describe the world, always learning.

So, whether it’s maths, poetry, theology, music or biology, ask a child to explain it and enjoy what comes out.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on the morning after the Inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris:

Why is it that the same words spoken by two different people can have such a different effect.

For example, listen to me read Shakespeare … and then listen to an actor use the same words. It’s the same with liturgy: one person grabs the attention of a congregation and they go through the words to a different place; someone else does it and it’s like having the telephone directory read out.

I say this because yesterday’s inauguration ceremony in Washington was pregnant with resonant language. For example, that we should be judged not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. A truism? Maybe. But, the words create a space, suggesting a first word and not the final nail in a dogma. There is room to explore – as my own imagination did during the ceremony.

“Here we stand”, said the President. And I thought of Martin Luther, standing in front of the emperor five hundred years ago and articulating that all-too-human predicament: I hold to this conviction, but with vulnerability before the potential cost. We heard of St Augustine, often maligned as the original sinner when it comes to sex, but who couldn’t escape the depths of love and grace and mercy. We heard Amazing Grace – a familiar hymn which is dragged from the depths of a complex and conflicted man (John Newton) who knew that when all is stripped away, we are left with a human fragility that knows its need of unmerited generosity and mercy. As Jesus told his friends prior to his own death: if you are to live and give grace, you need first to recognise your own need of it and receive it.

The thing about yesterday was that, whether spoken or accompanied by music, words have the power to transcend mere pragmatism – policies and how to enact them in legislation, for instance; they inspire the imagination. This is language that resonates, that is spacious, that lifts our eyes and hearts to perceive an experience that might hitherto have eluded us.

I think this is what was being addressed yesterday. Not the language of settling scores. Not an articulation of pride or self-consciousness. Not an expression of dry dogma. But, as Amanda Gorman illustrated, a poetry that clears a way for hope.

Surely it’s the poets who penetrate the jungle of defended argument and debate. For the poet uses words to shine light from a different angle, surprising the imagination, subverting expectation, and opening our eyes to a new possibility.

In silent vigil for those who have died of Covid, Joe Biden said: “To heal, we must remember.” I would add: “ To heal, we must be surprised by subversive words of love.”

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Before the latest lockdown I watched a man painting white lines in a park. The reason I stopped was simply that I was curious to know what game the white lines were going to frame. Before working out where to put them on the grass, you first have to know what game you want to play.

Now, this sounds obvious, I know. But, in the current climate it perhaps suggests something useful as the whole country tries to work out how to behave, which rules to follow and what guidance is most important. Repeated mantras of “it is absolutely clear” fail to recognise that clarity is defined by the hearer and not primarily the speaker. Hence, the first rule of communication: it’s not what you say that matters, but what is heard.

I am used to this. The gospels are full of Jesus telling a story or offering an image after which he asks the audience: “Do you know what I mean? Have you got the ears to hear?” Clearly, some couldn’t hear, didn’t want to hear, or refused to hear.

This is pertinent at a time when many people are clearly struggling to know how to behave best – within the white lines of rules and guidance. Does ‘best’ mean ‘in a way that makes me comfortable’ or ‘in a way that protects me and other people’? The point about white lines on a pitch is that everyone in the game knows where the ball can be played, can choose where to run, and is free to be creative within the parameters.

Debates in the last week about compliance with government rules come down to this. If I am to choose well, I need to understand not only where the white lines are, but also what game I think I’m playing. Mature citizenship can be exercised where people know why they are being expected to behave in particular ways – what the game is and how to play it.

For example, if I think the most important thing in the world is my individual freedom, unconstrained by the security of other people in a common and interdependent society, I will filter out guidance that infringes that freedom to do as I like. If, on the other hand, I take seriously that inherent interdependence, I might be ready to sacrifice my individual freedom on the altar of the common good.

To reprise the white lines theme, I might sacrifice my moment of glory by letting someone else score the goal that gives the team a victory. In my terms, this means, in the words of St Paul: “Do nothing from selfish ambition, … but look to the interests of others”.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, written late last night.

To be surprised by events in Washington is to ignore the fragility of democracy. If Covid has taught us that both human life and a stable economy are vulnerable, then the incited mob attack on the Capitol must reinforce the vital need for democracy, the rule of law, and the peaceful transition of power to be treasured at all times.

I have shaken the hand of more than one dictator whose fall from power was swift. When it is stripped away, all that is left is the same mortal human being whose imperial clothes proved to be as thick as mist.

But, we don’t have to look far for wisdom at a time like this when the hint of a smile will be seen on the face of other dictators and power-merchants. The ancient wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures dig deeply into the cry for justice, generosity, peace and the common good. The prophets weep over how easily people can be seduced by words of strength or power or security that in the end undermine that very security itself.

I say this in the Christian season of Epiphany. Wise men travel from the familiarity and security of home to a place where, unlikely as it seems, they find hope in the scrap of humanity that is the baby Jesus. But, no sooner has the Christmas tree been cleared away than the violent King Herod sets his men in search of children to slaughter. The romance of the Christmas card crib gives way to the brutal reality of powerful people who are driven by fear and not drawn by hope or love or mercy.

According to this story – the one that has supposedly shaped those protestors carrying banners proclaiming ‘Jesus saves’ – strength and power have been powerfully reinterpreted in the scandal of a man on a cross. Not a man with a gun. This story challenges me to re-imagine what power looks like when coloured by love and mercy rather than entitlement and fear.

America is shocked today. But, the election to the Senate of Raphael Warnock, successor to Martin Luther King as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, offers an alternative vision. As a Christian, he knows that, “Jesus saves” us from ourselves. For the tradition of Jesus was rooted in people like Amos who, famously quoted by Martin Luther King, said: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Today might just hint at the beginning of a new awakening to the reality of the myths that power that great country. God bless America, maybe, but don’t just assume it.

This is an article commissioned by the Yorkshire Post and published today.

Last year my wife and I went to Germany where I conducted the marriage of two young friends. Just before lockdown. Recently they had their first baby (called Niamh – no idea how the Germans will pronounce it) and there is much rejoicing in the arrival in the world of this dependent little person.

And in that word ‘dependent’ we get a hint of what we might expect from Christmas this year – a year that has been challenging for many people on lots of fronts and in which our interdependence has been reinforced. The Covid pandemic has changed life in some way for everyone and we will be changed by the experience we have gone through – as individuals, families, communities, country and world. Life has been interrupted as the virus irrupted into the routines and ordinariness of ‘normality’, and we still don’t know what we will look like as we emerge.

In one sense, this is nothing new. The fact that we have come to harbour certain assumptions about life, the world and everything cannot supplant the reality that life is always fragile, uncertain and ultimately uncontrollable. For anyone who has suffered ill-health or the loss of loved ones, the brutality of this reality will be inescapable. The only certainty about the future is that it is always inherently uncertain.

Which is one of the reasons I am a Christian. Christian faith does not offer an escape from the uncomfortable or cruel contingencies of mortal life in a material world, but, rather, plunges us into that uncertain and fragile world. This is where Christmas comes in. Realistic, unromantic, brazen and with eyes open to all that life can throw at us.

In church or at home this Christmas I will be digging into the remarkable story of how the world was changed for ever by an event in an obscure part of the Roman Empire over two thousand years ago. The significance of it only grew through the ensuing years and centuries. We have often become so familiar with the narrative that it fades into some comfort-blanket romantic memory that warms the heart without intruding on real life and hard choices. Which is a pity.

For this story offers a radical challenge to anyone who is conscious of trying to navigate a complicated world with complicated people facing complex choices and no certainty that all will end well. It is the story of how God is more realistic than I am. Christmas tells of God’s unromantic coming – in “human dress” (as William Blake put it – into this uncertain and (often) unjust, cruel world. No hanging around in remote, uncontaminated purity, waiting for human beings to sort themselves out; rather, God opting into the messiness of the material world which brings us such glory and agony, pain and joy. No self-exemption.

This is important. Christian faith offers no escape. Like the baby Jesus himself, born in inauspicious circumstances in a violent and unjust world, growing up meant facing hard choices, making hard decisions, living through undeserved or unfair struggle, enduring loss and suffering. Yet, … this was described as bringing light into the world – light that the darkness cannot extinguish (as John’s Gospel puts it). No denying the darkness, its power or reality, but a defiant resistance to its ultimacy. Just read on in the gospel story and see what happened.

At the start I mentioned little Niamh, born just a few weeks ago in Germany. And I used the word ‘dependent’. Perhaps the defining characteristic of a baby is its utter dependence on those who love and care for it. A baby has no power, no claims, no negotiating demands. A baby has no shame in being totally dependent. But, dependence is sometimes seen in our society as a dirty word.

One thing we have learned through the pandemic is that we are all dependent on each other. I depend on a complex network of science, business, industry, finance, politics and social organisations in order to live and work – and for any vaccine to be administered across communities. If I become unwell, I depend on doctors, nurses and pharmacists to help me survive or die well. If I have to isolate, I need other people to provide food and moral support. In other words, we discover anew that “no man is an island, entire of itself” (as poet John Donne put it). We need each other. As Jesus grew he did so as an interdependent person in a society of mutual obligation and support. If, as Christians believe, Jesus is God incarnate, then this submission to interdependence becomes powerfully real. It suggests that Christmas is God’s invitation to everyone to get stuck into the world, loving our neighbours, serving our communities, giving up our lives for the sake of others. It is radical and challenging. It makes our choices harder, not simpler.

This Christmas will be different. But, the invitation remains the same. To open our mind to a different way of being, illuminated by the light who is born into our world as one of us, offering a different way of being together.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Zoe Ball Show on BBC Radio 4.

When I was a kid I found December a hard month. Waiting for Christmas was a sort of torture. Do you know what I mean? I’m not even sure I can remember what I was waiting for that made it so exciting: it was the ‘something’ that Christmas promised that couldn’t be nailed down to presents I might or might not get.

I now think it had something to do with just growing up and learning that some things can’t be rushed – they have to be waited for. You can buy cards and presents, but you can’t make Christmas Day come any quicker. A bit like pregnancy: you have to let nature take its course and wait for the time to come when the baby enters the world with a cry.

The Welsh poet RS Thomas wrote that in fact “the meaning is in the waiting”. The journey is as important as getting there. And if we simply waste the journey dreaming of what might meet us at the end, we’ll miss the surprises and mysteries along the way … if we keep our eyes and ears open for them.

But, waiting is really hard. Especially for children. And in a year when many families will have to reduce expectations of material gifts, this waiting might be coloured by a certain fear or regret. But, even this experience can bring its own gifts.

For example, lockdown restrictions can give us time and space to think afresh about what Christmas is for – not just a midwinter festival of light, but rooted in a story that changed the world. Like the teenaged Mary living through her pregnancy and not knowing what the future might hold for her or her child – probably just as well, really. Or her people longing for freedom from Roman oppression, but unable to bring it on. Or us wanting freedom from Covid and an end to restrictions, but finding any relaxation leading to further problems and the grinding pain of uncertainty.

Mary’s baby came when he was ready. And he came into a world as conflicted as ours to people as complex as we are.

So, we wait on. And mustn’t waste the waiting.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2 with Zoe Ball:

I don’t know about you, but I just find it impossible to read while listening to music which has lyrics. I can do it if the music is instrumental only, but I get stressed between the words on the page and the words in my ears, and lose out on both.

Unlike my kids who seem to have earphones in while doing anything … like work or study.

The other day I was trying to read Barack Obama’s new book, A Promised Land, and made the mistake of putting on Bruce Spingsteen’s new album, Letter to You. By the time I got through to the last song I gave up on the book. It was the words that got me.

One track – In My Dreams – is a beautiful song and I got distracted by remembering dreams I have had recently – especially since lockdown. I never usually remember dreams, but recently that has changed a bit, and I find it all a bit weird. Do my dreams really just replay the world as I would like it to be, or re-run things that have gone wrong in a subconscious move to put them right? I don’t know.

What I do know, though, is that dreams matter. Not just the line we keep hearing these days about “follow your dreams” and all will be well. Experience tells us that not everything in life works out as we would like. Not even dreams as vague hopes or aspirations. But, dreams have a habit of getting under our skin and shaking us up a bit.

In the Bible dreams are really important. They are often the turning points in someone’s life, offering a vision of how the future might be, or warning that trouble might be on the way. They sometimes provoke a crisis which demands action once the dreamer has woken up. Or they provide a way of checking if my vision is ambitious enough.

In my dreams I hope to glimpse how I might change in the real world, loving better, living better, choosing better. Like Obama, I might be energised by a vision of a promised land.  Or, like my kids, I might one day be able to do two things at once: listen and read.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Show:

Good news! In only four weeks the days start getting longer again. The light will start to grow.

But, for me, the next four weeks won’t just herald the end of lockdown or the approach of the Christmas juggernaut, it’ll bring something even more powerful as we look towards the end of a tough year for everyone. Advent – the season that dares to defy the darkening days and awaken our imagination to the possibility of hope – and it starts next Sunday.

I was once in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, engaged in a difficult conversation with the then deputy Foreign Minister, a rabbi. At one point he stood up and banged the table. He said: “Sometimes it seems as if there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But, it is not because the light is not there; it’s because the tunnel is not straight.” And I wrote it down as I thought it might be a good line for a Pause for Thought script one day.

It’s a vivid image, isn’t it? Drive through the Mersey Tunnel and you’ll get the idea as the road bends around in the darkness. (And ignore the late great Terry Pratchett’s line: “There was a light at the end of the tunnel, and it was a flamethrower.”)

But, Advent, as we anticipate Christmas, beckons us to wait – to look and watch and not be done in by the present gloom. For the people of the first Christmas this meant yearning for the end of military occupation and daily suffering or humiliation. The light was coming into the world and no darkness – not even imperial Roman violence – would be able to kill it off. Or, in the words of the songwriter Bruce Cockburn, in the darkness we are actually “closer to the light”.

So, in this sense, Advent needn’t just be for Christians. I think it offers an invitation for all of us in these days of gloom to lift our eyes towards the light that will come, however bendy the tunnel we are in.