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

This Sunday sees the birthday of the National Health Service – a poignant moment given our collective experience of the last few months. And those who put themselves in the way of mortal danger in order to care for the sickest in our society deserve every round of applause and every demand that they be properly valued for their commitment.

This is why there is planned to be one final round of applause at 5pm on Sunday to express our collective gratitude to all those who serve us so well and, often, sacrificially.

This is being led by a new coalition called ‘together’, which brings together people from across some of our political and cultural divides – recognising some of the fractures in British society at the same time as affirming the commonalities that need to be held onto if a society is to thrive and not just survive.

Interestingly, following a decade of disconnection, a call for ‘reconnection’ usually gets quickly translated as an appeal for ‘unity’. But, this is to make a fundamental mistake. Unity can too easily represent a cheap glossing over of differences; reconnection accepts difference, but still urges the need for community. A lack of agreement on certain fundamental issues is no excuse for not holding together in an ongoing mutual commitment or conversation.

Now, as a Christian, this is obvious. Back in the Hebrew Scriptures we read that God calls people to reflect his character in the world. And this is never a matter of private entertainment or enterprise; rather, the people God calls reflect the messiness and conflicts of real humanity, but their task – their vocation, if you like – is to work at reflecting that character in spite of their differences and conflicts.

The same can be seen in the Gospels. Jesus calls people to walk with him on a relatively short-lived journey of tough realism, having to get on with the other people he’d chosen. Interestingly, Jesus didn’t give any of his friends a veto over who else he might invite along – their job was to make it work. This was no walk in the park as people with different character, personality, priorities and preferences annoy each other, but have to stick together.

So, ‘together’ might sound a cosy word – a comfortable way of avoiding conflict – when, in fact, it is deeply realistic. It assumes difference and disunity. It is not afraid of tension. It brings us out on our doorsteps and brings people together in a common space, but not as an escape – rather, as a commitment to a common humanity and citizenship, with all the mutual obligations these demand of us.

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

I know this isn’t the place for confession, but I do have to admit to a weird fascination with knowing what has happened on any particular day in history. And today’s epic is this: on 30 June 1859 the French acrobat Charles Blondin became the first person to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He followed this up by doing it on stilts, a bike, and in a sack. He even once carried a stove and cooked an omelette.

Why on earth would anyone want to do such a thing. I can’t even look at videos of people looking down from high buildings without feeling sick.

But, Blondin didn’t leave it there. On one occasion he pushed a wheelbarrow over … while blindfolded. Naturally, there was an audience and he asked them if they believed he could carry someone across in the wheelbarrow. They all shouted “yes!”. So, he asked who would like to get in … and no one volunteered.

Now, that rings bells for me. You’ll see what I really believe by what you see me doing and how you see me living it out – putting my body where my mouth is, so to speak. It’s easy to believe something when it demands no follow-up that might cost me.

There’s a bit in the gospels where Jesus and his friends go to a place called Caesarea Philippi and he asks them who people say he is. They come up with a few suggestions – a reincarnated prophet, for example – but he then looks them in the eye and says: “But, who do you say that I am?” And that’s where the problems started.

These friends of Jesus found out that being his friend was going to change their life and might lead them to the same fate as he was going to suffer. In other words, faith means action, and action comes with consequences.

So, I look at Charles Blondin and his wheelbarrow and I think he was mad. But, his question to the audience put them on the spot. Belief needs action. It’s not enough to trust without exercising it. I can’t just sit there and claim to believe.

Still not sure I’d have got into the wheelbarrow, though.

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

I am now on my tenth listen of Bob Dylan’s new album Rough and Rowdy Ways. And one of the lines that jumps out at me is this: “Be reasonable, mister, be honest, be fair, Let all of your earthly thoughts be a prayer.”

One of the surprising things to emerge from lockdown so far is the massive surge of people searching online for prayer or connection to some sort of collective worship. Researchers in Copenhagen saw a 50% increase in Google searches for ‘prayer’ over 95 countries.

And maybe this shouldn’t be so surprising, after all. For when things get tough, or life breaks down in some uncontrollable way, so the distractions from deeper questions fall away. But, I want to ask, what is this prayer thing all about, anyway?

When I was younger I used to think of prayer as an attempt to change God’s mind – urging an improvement in my own or others’ circumstances. When I grew up, and had a bit more experience of both the world and prayer, I moved to seeing prayer as essentially about changing me. The great writer CS Lewis once wrote: “I pray because I can’t help myself… I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

Why did he think that? I think it’s because prayer involves being exposed to a view of oneself, the world and other people that challenges me to see, think and live differently. This is why Christians pray “in the name of Jesus” – you know, trying to see through the eyes of the Jesus we read about in the gospels. And the world looks different when seen through that lens.

Bob Dylan goes on to sing about a “gospel of love”. And by this he doesn’t mean something sentimental. Love is the costly outpouring of oneself and ends up being – in Christian terms – cross-shaped.

So, when I pray – wherever and however that might be … and whether alone or in a group – my eyes look to God and the world, but the change has to happen to me … so I can be part of changing the world.

Amen to that.

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

Well, I don’t know what you’re doing today, but I am busy waiting for tomorrow.

Now, this isn’t just me procrastinating or not living in the moment. Tomorrow – wait for it – is the day Bob Dylan releases his latest album. And it’s his first with original songs since Tempest in 2012. So, it’s been a slow train coming and I bet it was worth the wait.

It’s called Rough and Rowdy Ways and I have no idea – apart from hints in an interview I read – what it will be like. But, his Bobness never disappoints. His lyrics address the themes of the times and cut through the sentimentalities of life, offering a vocabulary for questioning, wondering and, sometimes, worshiping.

But, it’s the title that grabbed me when I saw it recently. Dylan has never shied away from dosing us with reality. If the answer is blowing in the wind, then it has to be found under the hard rain that’s gonna fall. When we want to settle down, he reminds us that the times do keep a-changing. So, rough and rowdy ways does sum up, in a pithy way, the world we seem to inhabit now.

Since lockdown began we have had to invent new ways of living, communicating, associating and, even, thinking about the world and what matters. And for many people this has been a real struggle. We’ve had to be inventive – discovering new technologies and ways of working – and it remains rough and rowdy, disruptive and untidy.

But, this is how life usually is for most people. One of the things that always hits me when I read the Bible is its utter realism. Right from the start, ordinary people are called to leave behind their familiar world and journey to an unknown destination. Jesus invites people to walk with him, but into a future they can’t control … and might end badly. People go into exile or suffer oppression. And, yet, the constant is that God never abandons them even when the loss is more powerful than anything.

Rough and rowdy might describe the way ahead, but this can be exciting, too. And if Bob can still see the possibilities at 79, then I’ll give it a go, too.

A couple of years ago I did a session at the Bradford Literature Festival with Professor Paul Rogers and Shashi Tharoor. I had never heard of Shashi Tharoor. It turned out he had been a deputy to Kofi Annan at the United Nations, but had now returned to India and was involved in domestic politics. The session we did was on where the world was heading … and no one mentioned a pandemic.

The day before the event I was sent Tharoor’s new book, but didn’t have time to read it until afterwards. Inglorious Empire opened my eyes to the reality of the British Empire. The question was: why did it take a book like this to inform me?

I grew up in Liverpool where we were taught something vague about the slave trade and the transatlantic routes that brought such wealth to my home city and England. I loved the buildings in the city centre without ever asking where the money came from to build them. I used to get my hair cut at the barber shop at Penny Lane, but never wondered who the street was apparently named after. It was after I had left at 18 that I found out that James Penny was a slave trader.

Reading Tharoor’s book I found myself cutting through some of the complacent mythology about the British Empire to some actual facts. We often hear reference to Britain as “the greatest trading nation” – without any reference to those who paid the price. The blood of slaves and the exploitation of people didn’t get a mention – as if the noble Brits went around the globe doing their best for people at no expense, civilising them and giving them railways. For example, I didn’t know that prior to the British taking over India had twenty three per cent of global trade; when the British left it had only three per cent. Look around our great cities to see where the money went.

So, this is what I am thinking while the Black Lives Matter protests go on. The USA has its own history of exploitation, segregation and racism; the UK has its own unique history. But, they are inextricably connected in the common experience of the slave trade itself.

Ignorance is no excuse. Yet, silence does not necessarily signify acquiescence; it can also be a response to facing the truth and having no excuse for not having enquired or understood in the first place. I am uneasy about making gestures that cost nothing – which is why I have not rushed to action or reaction, but need to think and consider and plan what might make an actual difference. (I know many people have ‘taken the knee’ as a mark of solidarity with black people; I have to be honest and say that I feel uneasy about appropriating someone else’s experience in this way, but recognise that I might be wrong and misreading the iconic power of it.) But, I find Reni Eddo-Lodge’s words powerful: “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” (From Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race.)

History is complex and can be appropriated for ideological ends by anyone. But, however some times and periods are open to debate and interpretation, there are some facts that cannot be ignored. Behind the numbers are people. And many of their successors still pay the price today of other people’s privilege gained yesterday.

This might be a pivotal moment in our history – on both sides of the Atlantic. Justice cannot be reduced to gestures. Our teaching of history clearly needs some serious attention – and that would only be a start, but not a conclusion. As James Baldwin said in As Much Truth as One can Bear (quoted by Susan Neiman in Learning from the Germans: Confronting Race and the Memory of Evil): “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Today is Trinity Sunday in the church’s calendar – part of Christians’ journey through the year, giving shape to the narrative of God’s engagement with people.

The Trinity is not merely a theological conundrum, dreamed up by weirdos for people with an interest in mathematical paradoxes, but rather relates to the whole of God and our common life in church and society. To put it simply (which, of course, begs a whole load of other questions), the mutuality of relationship between God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit depicts what has been referred to elsewhere as a network of mutual obligations that bind them together in a single, common life.

Mutuality is essential to our common life in the church. Why do we in the Church of England begin every act of worship with some form of repentance – holding up our hands and admitting publicly to hypocrisy, weakness and failure as individuals and as a community? Because we assume this relationship of obligation and compensation, and recognise that it imposes upon us responsibilities from which we cannot duck. We bring different gifts and contribute our unique limitations, too; but, together, we somehow hold together and serve the world we are in.

So far, so good. But, what does this say to a society that widely considers theological ideas to be esoteric, but of only private application to those who choose to be interested?

Without getting too complicated, I think the answer begins here. Human society in a contingent world can only thrive if the networks of mutual obligation are (a) recognised and (b) seen to transcend my individual preferences, needs and desires. The rest of the church’s year involves wrestling with the implications of this – not just for the church, but also for our public and political life nationally, and for the good of the world beyond our shores. That’s why we work through the Bible, being confronted by the difficult and discomfiting bits as well as those that reassure or comfort.

It is appropriate, then, to conclude this brief piece with an appreciation of a man who has challenged and encouraged both church and society to examine our assumptions and blind spots, to live out our common mutuality, and to live better together. The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, who retires today has inspired people to think bigger, to be encountered by the love and call of God, to take responsibility for our common political and ethical life, and to work hard for a better and more humane world. His personality, character and conviction will be missed – although I doubt it is about to disappear from our public life. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude and, as he would particularly want to affirm, give glory to God for all he has been and done in the name of Jesus in the power of the Spirit.

It’s been an ‘interesting’ and revealing week.

And now in the Christian journey we move on from Ascensiontide to Pentecost.

See it from the perspective of Jesus’s friends. They put their hopes in the man from Galilee, beginning to look at God, the world and people differently. Then they watched him bleed into the dirt of Golgotha. And the big question: how did a man of God end up executed on a political charge?

And now they are alone, bereft, terrified – with no idea how to make sense of the past, hiding away in the present, and fearful of what might be coming their way next. After all, Jesus had warned them that they might end up suffering the same fate as he did, hadn’t he? Their encounters with the risen Jesus – who was somehow the same, but different; not cleaned up, but still bearing the wound marks of unjust human suffering – complicated their theology, but offered no enlightenment as to the future.

Then, Jesus commissions them on a hilltop. He leaves them – basically telling them that the time has come for them to get out of the audience and onto the stage. Commissioned, but not empowered; given responsibility, but no equipment. So, once again, they have to wait and wonder. No certainty, no assurance, no clue. No business plan, no strategy, and no resource audit.

And now we come to Pentecost when the Spirit comes upon these scared people and they are driven out into the streets. To do what? Explain theology? Build a sect? Recruit members of a closed society preoccupied with esoteric notions about the end of the world? No. What becomes clear as the story develops is that these people told the world that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Well, that’s OK then.

Except that it isn’t. To say that Jesus Christ is Lord was to say that Caesar isn’t. And that is a political statement. Their empowered conviction about God and the world drives them out to challenge the power structures of the world as they know it.

Of course, they were simply caught up in the tradition that runs through the Hebrew Scriptures and was picked up by Jesus in his manifesto sermon (Luke 4). It reflects the song Mary sang when she heard she was to give birth – the Magnificat. It assumes the Beatitudes are not mere spiritual sentiment. This tradition took the prophets seriously and didn’t reduce their warnings to the level of some spiritualised private piety.

Pentecost is not just another festival. It marks that point when the Christian Church owns its story and, despite the dangers, commits itself to speaking and living in the name of the Jesus about whom we read in the gospels.

Many, if not most, of these friends of Jesus ended up executed. Not because they were religious fanatics, but because they insisted that Jesus Christ was their ultimate authority in this world, not Caesar. It was for this that they were empowered at Pentecost.

The mandate hasn’t changed.

It feels like we are living between times again. Lockdown is giving way to an easing of restrictions – now thrown into chaos by the hypocritical shambles of Dominic Cummings’ breaching of the instructions given to the whole country (and the government’s defence of him). Enough on that for now.

Christians always live in what we might call ‘in-between times’. There is always a ‘not yet’ element to whatever is happening in the world. What is surprising is that people should still be surprised that provisionality is always the name of the game for mortal human beings living in a material and contingent world.

Last Thursday was Ascension Day – Jesus leaves his friends to get on with the job. It’s as if he tells them it’s time to get out of the audience and onto the stage, or out of the stands and onto the pitch. They have watched and listened to him during these last couple of years,  it now comes the time for commitment to the cause. It involves conscious choice.

If you read the narratives, these were a people whose lives were in turmoil. Having put their hope in Jesus being the one to liberate them, they then watched him bleed into the dirt of Golgotha, their faith draining away with it. Then they start experiencing his presence again in various ways, discovering that they can no longer hold onto him or possess him – and certainly not appropriate him for their own sense of security or prosperity. Then, just as they are getting their heads around that one, he takes them up a mountain and leaves them.

Now, if I was one of them, I might be justified in thinking that the promised Holy Spirit would come immediately and empower me/us to do what Jesus told us to get on with. No chance. There’s now another wait (and we don’t know how long this might be, if ever). So, we have to learn to let him go, live with ourselves and each other, wondering how we are supposed to do what he left us with.

Pentecost will come. The friends of Jesus will be empowered to speak of the Jesus revolution in ways that everyone can understand. But, for now, they have to live with the double-whammy of (a) having been given a commission whilst (b) living with complete uncertainty about the future.

We don’t know what the future will look like for our society, our economy, our politics, our church. But, we do know that we are called to be creative, bold and adventurous. Will we make mistakes, misunderstand the calling, head in the wrong direction at the wrong time? Probably. But, Jesus in the gospels shows little surprise when his friends mess it up. What we can’t do is just go back to the fishing grounds of the old certainties.

Ascensiontide – between Ascension and Pentecost – asks us if we are up for it? Before we know what’s coming.

Lockdown means working back through the films I thought we’d seen often enough. The other impetus is that we have a young Austrian student friend living with us and most of these films are new to her.

Last night I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so we watched Shadowlands, the beautiful film about CS Lewis and his relationship with Joy Davidman. I am not an easily weepy man, but the final scenes have me blaming the hay fever again.

The story shows how a cerebral man, an intellectual apologist for Christian faith, comes up against experience and finds that tidy rationality – even in matters of faith – is inadequate when confronted by love and pain and loss and uncontrollable grief. The unarticulated inhibitors of emotional freedom, displaced into the secondhand living-through-literature (which is not to diminish it), slowly dissolve into helpless exposure of weakness and need. Lewis finds that he has been found by love.

We know from what followed that Lewis’s apologetics were humanised – fired in the fulcrum of loss. A Grief Observed remains one of the most beautiful accounts of the power of grief and the uncontrollable experience of powerless submission to raw truth.

A bit like coronavirus, grief can’t be “fixed”or “defeated” or “controlled” – it has to be lived with and gone through and accommodated. And at the end of it all lies what Christians call grace – being found by love.

Lockdown is a challenge. But, for me it also allows space for some conversations that might usually get squeezed between meetings and then forgotten.

Yesterday I had two. Both ran around how the current situation impacts us now and might do in the future. My question (or one of them, at least) is this: when life and its routines are disrupted or taken away, which wells do we draw from to sustain life and meaning? While everything changes above the surface and the shape of the future is uncertain, can we locate the underground streams that keep flowing anyway?

There is probably a better way of putting this. But, in a really stimulating conversation with a BBC friend yesterday morning we were wondering if this crisis has revealed the shallowness of many of our cultural or personal wells. It’s a question, not a statement.

For me, as a Christian, the wells – the underground streams – go back a very long way. The creation narratives in Genesis speak of order being brought out of chaos. The Exodus has a people’s settled world being ruptured and them being driven out of the familiar into the strangeness of a desert where they had to lose before they could gain – to lament the loss of a world before being in a position to reorientate towards a different future in a different place. (It took forty years.) Later the people get exiled from the land of promise (twice, in fact – in the eighth and sixth centuries BC) and take time to live with their loss … before settling in the strange land … and then, generations later, having to leave again. They return ‘home’, but discover that home is no longer what they remembered.

I could go on. The Christian tradition lives and feeds from these narratives of leaving and moving and settling only to be disrupted and moved again. And this experience is rooted in an acceptance of mortality and contingency and what goes with the freedom of living in a material world.

But, we don’t usually transition straight from one world to another. We have to stay with the loss, lamenting what has been lost, grieving for a world (or way of life) now gone. People will take a shorter or longer time to live with this. There will be anger, powerlessness and disorientation. And while this is going on some people will accept the new reality and start orientating towards creating a new world.

So, what are the narratives or assumptions that keep us nourished while all this goes on around and above us?

Christian faith does not assume a life (or world)of continuous security and familiarity. It is fed by scriptures that speak of transience, mortality, provisionality, interruption and leavings. But, they also whisper that the endings are always beginnings – the leavings open a door to arrivals that could not have been experienced otherwise. In other words, the loss can be seen as a gift – what Walter Brueggemann calls ‘newness after loss’.

So, as I have suggested to clergy in the Diocese of Leeds, we might be helped in articulating this by asking four questions: (a) what have I/we lost that we need to regain in the weeks and months ahead? (b) what have we lost that needs to remain lost – left behind in another country? (c) what have I/we gained that we need to retain in the future? (d) what have we gained recently that was useful for this season but needs to be lost if we are to move forward?

We might feel sometimes that we don’t have much to go on. The photo below is one I took on a visit to a farm in Gweru, Zimbabwe, back in 2007. During a drought and amid economic collapse, someone had planted a rose in arid ground and watered it each day. It was a prophetic challenge to the desert; it was an act of hope, of prophetic imagination. Today is not the end.