July 2021


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

The Power of Words

“Actions speak louder than words”. I hear that quite a lot; but, although I know what is meant, I think it is wrong. To speak is to act. Language is performative – it does something, changes something. For example, it is the speaking of the vows in a wedding that makes the marriage.

The story goes that St Francis of Assisi told his friars to “Go out and preach the Gospel; use words, if you have to.” Well… if he did actually say it, was he right? We use words all the time to think and speak and make sense of the world; so, language matters – words matter. They do something. The fourth Gospel begins with: “In the beginning was the word…”. Go back to Genesis and the word is: “Let there be.”

A few weeks ago I convened an online conference led by scientists for a couple of hundred clergy about the current pandemic. We started off asking why we use particular metaphors as a lens through which to see or think about what is happening. In brief, why is it that in the UK we use language of conflict and combat – fighting, struggling, defeating, cowering, bravery, and so on – whereas in Germany, for example, they seem to have used imagery of “damming a flood” – particularly pertinent at the moment? An enemy is personalised, a flood isn’t.

We normally just accept the language presented as the frame through which we then interpret what is going on. But, like cancer and serious illness, words of combat and fight might not be the best. If your loved one dies, have they been defeated? Were they not up to it? You see what I mean? Words are never neutral and always carry consequences – think of the impact of blessing or cursing. They also have limits.

One of the metaphors I take from my reading of the Bible is that of “running the race that is before you” – and not just because the Olympics are on in Japan. This image insists on agency, seeing value in how I live and behave in whatever circumstances I find myself. Yet, racing conjures up different notions: a sprint is pure competition; a relay involves both competitiveness and cooperation.

At the heart of all this is an appreciation that we cannot control – or win – everything. Coming full circle, words matter because they unconsciously shape how we see and look and think and act. The question I am left with is: do I pay enough attention to the words and metaphors I use – and the way they shape the world?

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on the morning after England beat Denmark in the Euros semi-final at Wembley.

“Stressful. Very, very stressful”. That’s what the commentator said during the England match last night. But, I wondered who he was referring to. The players looked OK – hard-working, disciplined and determined, but my heart was racing, my stomach felt rubbish, and (a bit like some recent dental treatment I had) I just wanted it to end. It isn’t easy being a spectator at times like this.

Powerful emotions all around the country as the seconds ticked away. But, isn’t it funny how those tense nervous headaches, the knots in the stomach, the sheer fear explodes so suddenly into joy and celebration and relief? All the angst gets forgotten in an instant. The pain evaporates in a blast of adrenalin. It’s just brilliant.

I remember the manager Gareth Southgate once saying: “We always have to believe in what is possible in life and not be hindered by history or expectations.” And, after 55 years of disappointment, his team managed both to ignore a history most of them can’t remember and not be over-awed by the expectations of a hungry nation. The key, he says, is character – character forged by absorbing all that’s thrown at them, but not being defeated by it. It’s quite an achievement – and we haven’t even won anything yet.

Yet, Gareth Southgate’s observation – and isn’t he the model of a confident humility? – triggered in my own mind a line uttered by an elderly German theologian who, referring to another crowd of hopeful, often-disappointed dreamers, said that “prophets don’t foresee realities; they anticipate possibilities.” In other words, there are no guarantees about the future, but it’s all there for the taking. To use two other words heard a lot last night, you can only approach the uncertain future with resilience and creativity. We absorb the wounds of past experience, but we don’t have to be defined by them.

I don’t know if football really is coming home – we have to wait until Sunday night and the Italians to know that. But, if football is about passion, love, hope, longing, struggling – physical and mental fight – then it’s already home. Because that’s what this week and last night have proved as the emotional rollercoaster has been ridden to breaking point. And there’s more to come.

I don’t know how I’m going to manage the final on Sunday. Probably with a copy of the Psalms on my knee – that wonderful collection of poems in which everything is given expression … from the depths of misery to the heights of promise.

On the other hand, I might just use the opportunity to learn to pray better.