This is the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show in the presence of Billie Piper, Lawrence Fox, David Dimbleby and the wonderful Nell Bryden:
I don't mean to sound trite, but it's quite important not to die on the wrong day, isn't it? I mean, no day is a good day, but it's a bit sad when the significance of your own demise gets lost because of some other news. Think of mother Teresa dying on the same day as Princess Diana… or the great Christian writer CS Lewis passing away on the same day as Aldous Huxley and … er … JFK.
Of course, Lewis and Huxley died of natural causes, whereas JFK died at the end of bullets fired by an assassin. And it is this brutality that has haunted us for the fifty years since that day when I was sent to bed early because the world had gone mad.
It must be hard for younger generations to imagine how it felt back in those days: the Cuban missile crisis convinced many that nuclear obliteration was coming. The world, less than two decades out of a shockingly destructive world war, seemed very fragile. And then the great American hope – the epitome of youthful vision and reforming energy – gets himself shot by an attention-seeker in Dallas.
Well, what do we do with this stuff half a century later?
I think one thing we can do is remember that an event of massive historical importance is coloured by small human details – a bit like the pixels on your computer screen. In the face of this human tragedy and the emotions it ignited, ordinary people did significant things. For example, Lieutenant Sam Bird, who was in charge of the honour guard for JFK, heard a woman in the crowd shout to the coffin “That's all right, you done your best; it's all over now.”
Simple and direct.
History is made of such stuff. When the varnish of routine and self-sufficiency is stripped away, exposing our fears and vulnerability, we say what we really mean. I don't know what JFK's last words were, but I do know the last words of another world-changer who cried out from the gallows: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Direct, but hardly simple.