December 2021


This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, guest-edited by footballer Raheem Sterling on themes of education and social mobility.

The American poet Robert Frost wrote: “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” I know what he means. I remember turning 40 and realising that my life was probably half way through; today my elder son is 40 and I look back with amazement at what has happened, what choices we all made, what experiences we shared, what relationships we forged.

Frankly, I think we did a good job: despite being born in Cheltenham and living around the country, he has always been a passionate Liverpool fan. What more could I want?

Well, quite a lot actually. To go back to Robert Frost, I remember looking at a baby and realising the responsibility asleep in my arms. And the uncertainty about what might lie ahead of him – not just in the choices we and he would make as he grew up, but also what might happen in the world that couldn’t be controlled but would shape or constrain those choices.

While celebrating Christmas over the last few days I was conscious of the fact that the baby of Bethlehem grew up into an argumentative boy who clearly learned by debating and questioning. The boy grew into the man who learned his trade before hitting the political arena and eventually getting nailed to a cross.

Growing up – and letting our own children grow up – is a nerve wracking business. We can’t control what will happen to the children we love. We do our best … and face our failures … recognising that this is a pattern they might also one day repeat. But, if uncertainty is the name of the game, then society has to give all children the best start, the best example, the best opportunity.

Which means what? Especially as no child can grow in isolation from other children, whatever their background.

Well, along with guest editor Raheem Sterling this morning, we might start with education and opportunity. The Germans have two words for it: ‘Erziehung’ has to do with nurture and learning, ‘Ausbildung’ is all about training for a skill. And both are valuable. Of course, at the heart of both lies a person – the roots of whom need to be watered by more than mere information or ‘knowledge’ – if they are to develop wisdom and character.

And this means enabling young minds to roam widely, dig deeply, face unwelcome challenges and hard questions. As Aristotle noted: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Or, as the Book of Proverbs puts it: “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding.” (3:13)

This is the text of my article in today’s Yorkshire Post.

Nearly three thousand years ago a Middle Eastern poet wrote words that must have sounded like nonsense to his audience: “The people who walked through darkness have seen a great light.” It goes on to say: “those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”

It sounds alright in a candle-lit church during a carol service, but does it mean anything when you get out of the building and back into the realities of life?

Well, Isaiah was addressing people who were fearful about the future. They belonged to a small territory which was always being squeezed by neighbouring powers or the competing great empires. They were unsure to which side of the latest threat they should pledge their allegiance. And, of course, this meant political, economic and military allegiance. The question these people faced every day was how to ensure their security and freedom in an uncertain world in which the future was often shaped not by themselves, but by others. Calculation was always a bit of a gamble.

Isaiah wants to warn his people to remember who they are, what they are about and where they have come from. And, running through their story was an apparently ridiculous notion that however dark their circumstances became, the light of God’s presence couldn’t be snuffed out. Not just God’s presence when everything was going well for them, but when the darkness descended and the future seemed to be shutting down. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

I think this is pertinent to where we find ourselves in Yorkshire this Christmas. If 2020 was a challenging and dark year for so many people, 2021 promised much before delivering little certainty. Promises of a return to ‘normal’ gradually got forgotten as the world came to terms with continuing uncertainty and viral predominance as the only norms. We continued to learn that human beings cannot control everything and are not invincible kings of the world. Infections, illness, bereavement, death, isolation can’t be organised according to convenience.

But, the interesting thing here – to which we become inured by familiarity – is that this is precisely the sort of world Isaiah wrote in and into which a baby was born in Bethlehem. The story of Christmas is not essentially about making us feel comfortable, but, rather, about God opting into the radical discomfort of a world such as this. The real world we know and enjoy and endure. Darkness is part of that reality and can’t be avoided. Indeed, light has no reference if there is no darkness against which it becomes meaningful.

Which, in itself, sounds all a bit miserable. But, the Christmas story is one to surprise us in every generation. For it invites us to look for the light that is there when the going is tough and the gloom seems all-powerful. One of the radical challenges the grown-up Jesus would bring to his people was simply this: don’t just look for the presence of God when all is well, your problems are solved, your mum is healed or you think all is going to be OK in the world; look for the presence – the light – of God even while the darkness persists. In terms of Jesus’s first friends, this sounded like: “Can you spot the presence of God in your world even while you remain under Roman military occupation, your freedoms are curtailed, illness is all around and the chances of your children surviving infancy are pretty low?

This is why I think Christmas should be a great celebration. It is a defiant rejection of the notion that darkness always wins. It dares to see through the immediate and re-frame ‘reality’ in the light of the light that, as John’s Gospel puts it, cannot be extinguished. This isn’t fanciful romanticism or, even worse, some form of easy escapism – religion as an opiate to keep people calm; rather, it takes the world seriously, looks tragedy in the eye, and still insists that this is where God is to be found.

I once got into big trouble for suggesting in a book that the carol ‘O come, all ye faithful might usefully be rephrased to say ‘O come, all ye faithless.’ I wasn’t actually proposing we sing different words to it, but musing that all the people in the Nativity story are odd. They don’t fit the bill when it comes to contemporary expectations of kingship. Wouldn’t God go for the people who are likely candidates for sainthood? Instead, he draws in shepherds (while at their work – not in church), foreign (pagan) stargazers, hotel owners, probably ordinary family members, and whoever else was around at the time. These weren’t people who had found all the answers, but they knew the daily struggle to survive in a complex and contingent world. And it was to them that the light appeared, interrupting the routine of the everyday and illuminating the hint of a possibility that the darkness doesn’t have the last word after all.

Go to a carol service this Christmas and this is the story to be discovered, the experience – light in the darkness – to be had. It might seem to be hidden behind a screen of tinsel and candle wax; but it draws us into the light that guides us through uncertainty and fear.

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

The house I live in in Leeds is a couple of hundred years old. It once belonged to a family – the Oates family – whose son became very famous for all the right reasons. I’ll tell you the story briefly.

A hundred and ten years ago tomorrow a Norwegian explorer called Roald Amundsen won the race to be the first person to stand at the South Pole. He got there a month or so ahead of his British rival, Captain Robert Scott. Not only was Scott’s party disappointed, but they also all died on the way back to civilisation. One of his men, Captain Titus Oates, was suffering from frostbite and gangrene and decided he was compromising the chances of the others moving more quickly and surviving. One day he left the tent in a blizzard, his last words being: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” It was his 32nd birthday.

If you really want to annoy me, when you’re leaving our house, just pause at the door, look solemn, and say: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” It was funny the first time …

Captain Oates was brave, but also realistic. He knew how his behaviour and his decisions would impact on the wellbeing and survival chances of his friends. He laid down his life in the interests of others.

Now, I think that Captain Oates has something to say in a week when, away from blizzards and frostbite, we face challenges to our own lifestyle and decision-making. The Omicron virus is … er … virulent, and there are renewed fears about public health. So, the public is being asked to look not only to their own interests, but to those of others to whom we might transmit an infection. My own rights or freedoms might thus be limited or restricted. But, it is not all about ‘me’ – rather, it’s about us.

Jeremy Thorpe once said of Harold MacMillan: “Greater love has no man than this, that he laid down his friends for his life.” Titus Oates thought differently, taking Jesus seriously and laying down his life for his friends. When it comes to loving your neighbour as yourself, I’m with Titus.

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

I have always felt a bit deprived. I don’t have a middle name. Apparently, I was called Guy for the first few weeks of my life; but my parents then decided that I was born too close to Guy Fawkes Night, so changed it to Nicholas … and didn’t give me a middle name. That means I had no options when I got fed up with Nicholas.

Unlike my youngest son’s Nigerian mate at school who had fifteen names and, technically, could have used any of them.

But, I was stuck with Nicholas. Over the years I got called Nick, but that was the only option for change. About forty years ago my in-laws gave me a glass paperweight on which was written something like: “Nicholas – winner of great victories; strong leader”. I thought they were having a laugh … or, at least, trying to make a point.

But, today my name comes into its own. 6 December is St Nicholas’ Day and is celebrated around the Christian world. Nicholas was Bishop of Myra and died in the year 343. And his story is where we get Father Christmas from.

If you’re looking for a powerful, triumphant leader in St Nicholas, you’ll have to change the way you think about strength, power and leadership. Nicholas turned it all upside down.

He was born into a wealthy family of Greek Christians in Turkey. Orphaned when very young, he used his inherited wealth to support sick and poor people. The Father Christmas bit comes from his dropping bags of gold coins down the chimney of three sisters whose father couldn’t pay their dowry, so risked them having to go on the streets. The rest, as they say, is history.

Well, if that’s how power, strength and leadership are to be understood, then I am proud to be a Nicholas. The old saint was a follower of Jesus who, rather than marauding around the planet with a sword, was born as a vulnerable baby in a cowshed … and opened his arms on a cross, welcoming all that the world could throw at him, but not throwing it back.

St Nicholas got it. And I got the name. Now, I have to live up to it.