Coronavirus


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

I went for a walk the other day.

You’re supposed to be impressed! Most days for the last year or so I’ve been stuck in my house behind a screen, talking to people or ‘enjoying’ meetings. I know we’re supposed to get exercise, but it hasn’t always worked out.  And that app on my phone that tells me how many steps I haven’t done each day – well, it’s an embarrassment.

Thirty years ago we lived in the Lake District and one of the great pleasures – when it wasn’t raining – was to get out into the fells. I’m not good at walking on my own, but loved doing it with family or friends. I actually discovered that you have a different sort of conversation when you’re walking than when you’re sat in a room.

This is why I am taken with the story at Easter of the couple walking home the few miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus, deep in conversation about how to make sense of what had been going on at the weekend. They couldn’t work out how Jesus, in whom they’d invested so much hope, had got himself nailed to a cross and killed. It didn’t compute. Nor did the stories of him now being seen again by his friends.

While walking and talking, a stranger joined the couple and asked what they were discussing. They were surprised he didn’t know the gossip about the dead man walking, so they told him anyway. And it was only when they’d finished trying to explain it all that the stranger offered to re-tell the story in a way that did make sense. But, it meant they had to risk seeing God, the world and themselves differently. Not easy.

One element of this is simply that walking and talking is good for us. Given the last year in which many people have felt trapped or stuck between four walls and a screen, the spring opens up the space to walk and talk. To express what has been going on. And possibly, by talking about it, to draw some of the sting of loss. And share the hard questions of what it all means.

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

Winston Churchill is famous for many things and renowned for his way with words. It is a little ironic, then, that what I always associate him with is a brick wall.

If you go around the back of his house at Chartwell in Kent, there is a walled garden. One wall was built entirely by him as he tried to cope with the black dog, his deep depression. The first time I saw this wall I wondered: why a wall?

Well, it struck me eventually that if you are building a wall in solitude – and remember there would have been silence rather than the ubiquitous noise and talk and music we carry around with us today – you have to stop thinking about other things, focus on one point, and pay attention to detail. It slows you down, narrows the focus for a time, shuts out the distractions that can debilitate a fragile mind. You have to look and stare and coordinate hand with eye and material stuff.

Silence and paying attention to one thing.

Around the world today, Good Friday, Christians will contemplate the events and meaning of the day when Jesus, having celebrated a final meal with his friends – a meal, ironically, heralding liberation – is brought to trial before an imperial governor. It is clear where power lies in such an encounter. Yet, Jesus remains silent in the face of questioning and, subsequently, goes to his execution.

Betrayed, denied and deserted by his close friends, he suffers in silence. Today many Christians will sit in front of a wooden cross and, in unhurried silence, look at the wood, recall the events of the first Good Friday, and let their imagination run while the questions are fed by the mystery of meaning.

But, this is no idle staring at some material idol. Rather, it is the quiet space in which we refuse to fill the gaps with noise or words, decline to run away from the agonising reality of human suffering, resist the powerful urge to avoid the pain. Contemplation of the cross is no empty escapism; in fact, it is the opposite.

The Welsh poet RS Thomas, in his poem The Letter, writes: “I gaze myself into accepting that to pray true is to say nothing.” This is the same poet who once wrote: “History showed us / He was too big to be nailed to the wall of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him between the boards of a black book.”

Today’s gazing and silence creates a unique space in which, coloured by the story in the gospel books, I can face the realities of a fragile world, own the undeserved suffering of too many people, and refuse to give in to easy answers.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Breakfast Show with Dermot O’Leary standing in for Zoe Ball.

If you have a thing about round numbers and anniversaries, then today is going to have you shouting bingo out of the window.

150 years ago today the Royal Albert Hall was opened in London – ten years after the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, and a visible expression of her grief. It’s a reminder of the fact that grief is a process and not an event.

I’m glad she decided to honour Albert in this way because when I lived in London for eleven years I always went to Jools Holland’s gigs there and they are unforgettable. Just like the said Albert.

But, Victoria’s grief speaks to us today because it recognises that loss has to be marked. This wretched pandemic has cost the lives of nearly 130,000 people – and that represents a lot of hurt and pain and mourning. Our ability to mark this has been limited, of course, because of all the restrictions.

Grief can’t be “defeated” like an enemy. It has to be lived with, gone through and accommodated, knowing that it is an unavoidable consequence of love.

In a beautiful song about this sort of stuff, the Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn wrote: “Each one’s loss is everyone’s loss, you see; each one lost is a vital part of you and me.”

This week for Christians is called Holy Week. We follow Jesus and his friends as the tensions grow, the emotions get fired up, and a cross is planted in a rubbish tip called Calvary. You can read it in the gospels. There is no romance or wishful thinking, no bargains with God for an easy life or an exemption from suffering. The utter realism of Jesus – although, to be honest, his friends weren’t quite on the same page – is striking. He grieved his own impending loss and tried to prepare his friends for their own grief and how to navigate it.

And what did he urge them to do? To love one another, to wash the feet of the undeserving, to recognise that we belong together.

At the end of it all is love and mercy. And that is where the healing begins.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme as the uncertainty over the US presidential election continues.

A few years ago, while staying with friends near Philadelphia, we visited the place where the Constitution of the United States was signed on 17 September 1787. Famously, the Constitution opens with the words: “We the people…”. I remember standing in the chamber itself and wondering who the Founders had in mind when they used that phrase.

Well, in a sort of odd symmetry, tomorrow is the anniversary of the election of probably America’s most revered president, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860. And it was this simple-but-problematic phrase that posed Lincoln with his biggest challenge: does ‘the people’ include black people and slaves? The next few years saw civil war and the tearing apart of a country over precisely this question.

It’s not a question that has since gone away. What was remarkable about Lincoln, though, was the way he treated his political opponents. As Doris Kearns Goodwin demonstrates in her exceptional book A Team of Rivals, Lincoln brought into his close cabinet the very people who had run against him for the presidency and who variously undermined him, fought against him and tried to compromise his leadership. He knew that a country for all the people included his opponents and not just his supporters.

Lincoln summed up this approach when he said: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” In another context he said of an opponent: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”

Some would say this is politically naive. I think Lincoln understood something vital to a good society – that ‘the people’ has to include all the people and not just the winners in an election. And in this understanding Lincoln drew from a biblical tradition that explored how societies are built from mutual obligations, common commitments and the privileges of belonging.

In the Old Testament the liberated people of Israel take forty years in a desert learning not only the need for social order based on freedom and responsibility, but also for establishing common rituals that re-frame their story, remind them why people matter, and impose boundaries of value and behaviour within which their newly-found freedom can be enjoyed.

Lincoln also draws on Jesus seeing his enemies as people to be loved and not rejected or despised. Naive? In a world that worships power and glory and glamour? Maybe. Both Jesus and Lincoln paid a heavy price.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the US election, Lincoln’s courage might have something to offer.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on the anniversary of the Aberfan disaster in 1966.

Some things we see or hear in the news stick in the mind for ever. I was a small child when JFK was assassinated and I remember the fear in my home about what it might mean for the world. But, one of the images that has haunted me since this day in 1966 is the destroyed town of Aberfan in Wales when a coal tip slid over houses and a school and killed a generation of children. The images of that day – and since – evoke a terrible empty pain.

I now live in Yorkshire where evidence of the pits that mostly closed in the 1980s has disappeared. Hills of black stuff have long been landscaped and children in those communities now see fields and hills and playgrounds where a previous generation saw their life and livelihood.

Beautifying a landscape does nothing to wipe out the past and all it represented. Memory of community life and belonging goes along with the tragedies and losses of an industry that was dangerous and costly for many people. Lives lost and society built are, literally, buried in the seeds that grow the grass on the redeemed hills.

What these communities and their landscapes demonstrate, however, is that brokenness can be transformed by beauty. Ugliness and tragedy need not have the final word. Time moves on and we transform the landscape in order not to wipe out the past or de-value previous generations. Scars bear witness to both the wound and the healing. New life can come.

This is particularly pertinent as we live through a time of uncertainty when we have little or no idea what the future might hold or what it might look like for the generation of children who are at school or university now. Yet, it is essential, surely, that we hold out images of hope, of re-creation and future beauty that will see some healing of the scars of the current brutality.

For a personal image on which to hook my hope, I turn to the encounter of Thomas with the risen Jesus. Propaganda would have had the body of the risen Jesus looking beautiful and clean, with all traces of horror or suffering removed. What we get, however, is not some opiate for the people. Jesus is the same, but different. Remarkably, he still bears the wound marks of crucifixion in his hands and feet and side. And he isn’t squeamish about inviting Thomas to touch the wounds.

Like the landscaped scars of Yorkshire and Aberfan, the past cannot be romanticised. But, our children need to know it can be healed.

While staying with a friend in Basel once I visited the home of the late Protestant theologian Karl Barth. In the basement, where his personal library is kept, I looked through his marked-up copy of Mein Kampf and other significant books – Barth had been deprived of his university chair by Hitler and had then left Germany. The warden then handed me a box in which I found the original draft manuscript of what is considered to be one of the twentieth century’s most important political documents: the Barmen Declaration. It led to Christian opposition to the Nazis by asserting theological principles.

Together, a number of theologians found the courage to challenge dominant assumptions about power, human value and the meaning of it all. Many of them suffered from the consequences of their decision that order needs to be brought out of chaos and that this can only come at personal cost.

In a different context, the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka speaks of “the solidarity of the shaken”.* In other words, the experience of a common challenge brings with it the courage to stand up and stand out. The “solidarity of the shaken” is, I think, a phrase pertinent to today’s world.

What both Barmen and Patočka hold to is the conviction that faith is not a spiritualised escape from the demands of a challenging material world. Those who complain when religious leaders get involved in politics often assume that faith takes us out, rather than commits us to, the real world. But, it is impossible to see Christianity, for example, as a merely spiritual creed when at the heart of every Christian narrative is incarnation – God committing himself to the world in all its chances and contingencies and not opting out of the inconvenient consequences of materiality. The word Jesus says it all.

The current uncertainties of the world have blown a hole in western assumptions about control – of life, the environment and progress – and have shaken individuals and entire societies to their roots. The big themes, so easily hidden while we (in Neil Postman’s words) amuse ourselves to death, are now resurgent: mortality, fear, love, hope, faith, and so on. And through it all there is the possibility of a solidarity of the shaken – as we recognise the fragility of life and the common need for human interdependence.

It has been said that a crisis does not create character; it reveals it. Actually, both are true. But, as we navigate uncharted waters in the months ahead, it is the solidarity of humility that must trump the sham of hubris.

*Quoted in Night of the Confessor by Tomáš Halík

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

What does it feel like when the shape of your world changes overnight and everything you take to be normal disappears – a familiar experience in the pandemic?

I ask the question because we are now marking two connected anniversaries: the formal creation of the German Democratic Republic on 7 October 1949 … and German reunification on 3 October 1990. The GDR only existed for half a century, but, for some people, it was their lifetime … and then it was gone.

For many people in the east of Germany reunification was a takeover that valued little from the GDR and sowed seeds of resentments that are being watered today. Ostalgie is a hankering for value.

This is not new. In these times of uncertainty I’ve been re-reading one of the foundational stories of the Bible: the exodus. Moses, the reluctant liberator, led his oppressed people out of slavery in Egypt towards a life of freedom. Yet, they now found themselves not in some instant shangri-la, but in an empty desert. And gratitude did not last long.

Almost immediately the people started complaining. And moaning about the current shapelessness of their life soon led to romanticism about the past and a form of nostalgia that quickly forgot recent reality. And while this was going on, poor old Moses had to pay attention to how to shape a future in an uncertain world. Freedom from does not lead inevitably to freedom for. How to create a good society depends on more than a dislike or selective remembering of an old bad one.

Well, according to the story, a whole generation of nostalgics had to die off before the next generation could disempower nostalgia and look to creating a different future.

Which brings me back to the German question. Was the GDR a desert experience between National Socialism and Merkel’s land? Or is the current arrangement also a transitory journey towards another land – for good or ill? No society knows what will come next. The present is always transitory – we know what we are ‘post’, but we don’t know what we are ‘pre’.

Moses’ people had to unlearn the dependencies of captivity and take responsibility for their common life. This involved the hard stuff of enshrining justice and mercy in community, polity and law – protecting poor and marginalised people, ensuring that justice could not be bought and that powerful people can be held to account.

Past glories – imagined or real – do not shape a good future. Only a humble commitment to justice can do that – however often we might fall short.

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

I had a chat with a mate recently when he was facing a hard choice. In the end I said: “Well, it’s in your hands, isn’t it?” I doubt if this statement of the obvious was very helpful.

But, when I rang off what stuck in my mind was the phrase about hands. Don’t ask me why – it just did.

Now, I’m rubbish at remembering poetry or quotes from Shakespeare; but, I’ll never forget doing Macbeth at school and being shocked by Lady Macbeth murdering the King of Scotland and then going mad trying to wash her hands of the guilt. “Out, damned spot!” she cries as her life disintegrates and she finds that all the hand washing in the world won’t rid her of her guilt.

And that takes me to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate who also tried to wash his hands of responsibility for chickening out of setting Jesus free when the crowd wanted blood.

In other words, hand washing hasn’t had a great press, has it?

Well, as things seem to be closing down again in pandemic Britain, hands are making a big new appearance. Our hands hold a key to learning to live with a virus that isn’t going to go away – how we behave is literally in our hands; I am responsible for how I decide to love my neighbour by being responsible for their safety. Secondly, washing my hands might seem insignificant, but it isn’t. It’s the small steps that make the biggest difference.

As a Christian, of course, hands make another appearance in my memory. And, for me, this is the answer to both Lady Macbeth and Pontius Pilate. When the friends of Jesus meet him after the resurrection, he shows them his hands and, shockingly, they still have the wound marks of crucifixion. He is not ashamed to show the world the marks of loss and hurt and pain. And healing does not simply wipe away the wounds – the scars remain.

So, today I want to put my hands up. No need to hide the pain or the failures. How I love my neighbour actually lies in my hands.

 

 

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

One of the unexpected things I did during lockdown was watch the sort of television programmes for which I usually have either little time or sufficient interest.

I love art, but I can’t do it. When I was younger, in an attempt to slow me down and distract me from working, I was given a sheet of paper and a pencil and told to draw the chair that stood in front of me. I did my best – even using my thumb the way real artists do to measure size or perspective. The result wasn’t great. I was then told to look differently and not draw the chair, but the spaces around and between the elements of the chair. What then emerged was something that looked less precise, but more real.

What I began to learn from this is that the point of art is to invite the artist or the audience to look differently in order to see differently in order to think differently in order then to live differently in the world. And this perspective also began to impinge on ways of approaching theology or politics or just about anything else. Instead of looking at the thing itself, look at the spaces around it and new perspectives begin to open up.

Now, I think this is what many people discovered – often to their surprise – when Grayson Perry did his excellent Art Club – a six-part series during lockdown. Apart from the vulnerability of the exercise on his part and the huge numbers of people who joined in – often sending in their own productions – he touched on something important about human being and creativity. Commenting on the series he said: “Art is a powerful tool for expressing what is going on in the world and identifying what really matters.”

In other words, art and the arts have vital economic value in and for a society, but  cannot be measured in purely economic terms. They change the way we see and think. They reach into the depths and re-grind the lens behind our eyes through which we see – in my words – God, the world and us.

For a Christian this is not a new idea. The creation narratives in Genesis show an almost playful God, creating such variety, but then, for example, giving people the responsibility of naming the animals. Co-creators whose humanity is only being fulfilled when open to art for art’s sake. The Bible is full of examples of beauty and craftsmanship – valuable in their own right. Jesus invites people to look differently at everything – changing their mind and how they think. This awakens curiosity, teases the imagination, enriches experience.

It is what we are made for.

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.

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