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This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 with Sara Cox (and after a nice chat with Strictly dancers Ian Waite and Natalie Lowe):

Guess whose birthday it is today?

OK, yeah, Paris Hilton and swimmer Rebecca Adlington … and probably a few thousand people listening to the programme now – in which case, happy birthday to you.

But, the one I am thinking about is Ed Sheeran. 26 today. How do I know? Well, someone told me he originally comes from Hebden Bridge in my patch of West Yorkshire, and I thought I’d check it out. They’re right … and I noticed that it’s his birthday today.

So, open your ears: I’m going to pause for a thought (which means thinking out loud) about one of his best-known songs – recently nominated for a Grammy. Love yourself is a great command … or invitation. After all, there are plenty of people who don’t love themselves – or don’t believe themselves to be lovable – and who sometimes then find it difficult to love others.

There is a link here that Jesus got in one when he asked his followers to love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Actually, he was picking up on a maxim that had already been around for a thousand years or more, but he gave it a new twist – and it goes a bit like this:

Loving yourself can turn you into a narcissist who sees everyone and everything through a lens shaped only like yourself. (Apparently, even leaders of countries are not exempt from this.) This makes me the centre of the world – even other people’s worlds. It isn’t attractive, and it can produce dreadful selfishness.

So, this is why Jesus gets the order right: loving God turns your attention away from needing to justify your own worthiness and focuses on something much more fundamental. I matter because I am made in the image of God. Therefore, I see myself through God’s eyes: infinitely valuable and eternally loved. So, what do I do with this? Well, it turns me outwards to love other people whose value is to be found in the same way. I am loved, therefore I love.

So, Ed has got it right: love yourself, but only once you know you are loved. And then pass it on.

So, happy birthday Ed Sheeran. Have a good one, and may it be filled with love.

This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show on the day Leonard Cohen died. In the studio were actors Rufus Sewell and Sarah Parish, musicians Sir Cliff Richard and Emeli Sandé:

Well, it's not been a boring week on the news front, has it? And it's not bad that it will end with us looking to remember the reality of human life: often fragile, conflicted and uncertain. [As Leonard Cohen put it: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything – that's how the light gets in.”]

On Sunday I'll be standing in the rain – it usually rains – in Leeds as we stand in silence and bring to memory those who have lost their lives in conflict. No sentimentalism, no romanticising war, no escapism into a glorious past – just silent reflection in the face of enormous loss.

But, did you know that Sunday also has another designation? I have no idea who decides on these things, but apparently it is World Kindness Day. Really.

Now, I realise this might sound a bit out of place, given the lack of kindness that has characterised political debate and filled our headlines recently; but, don't mock it too quickly.

I reckon kindness is one of the most underrated virtues in today's world. It isn't bland or soft or feeble or weak. It isn't about namby-pambyism or avoidance of conflict. Kindness comes when, even where it isn't deserved, we dare to offer an opening to humanity and mercy, regardless of cost or reward. It is more than being nice and it can be very demanding in certain circumstances. If you want a different definition: kindness is what you usually don't see on social media when people you don't know have a big axe of aggression to grind.

Can you imagine what a kinder world would look like? Less suspicion and more openness? More generosity and less selfishness? Try it. It should come as no surprise that one New Testament writer included kindness among other hard-to-do virtues (he called them “fruits of the Spirit”) such as love, joy, peace, patience, generosity and faithfulness. None of them easy; all of them costly.

Maybe these fruits should form the pillars of the earth on which we build our lives. In the words of one of Cliff's old songs, they might also help us to travel light in a burdened world, and open space for hope to people who worry that it is all closing down on them.

Remember kindness.

 

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

It is said we live in interesting times. Europe is on an uncertain political trajectory, the Middle East is challenging, Russia is flexing its muscles, and the United States are about to choose a new president whose influence will reach far beyond their own shores. Who'd be a leader?

But, what is interesting about what the Nobel laureate Bob Dylan called 'Modern Times' is how the arts play around with the world's big issues, shining different lights onto what we see in the news. Jude Law's new film series in which he plays the fictional first American pope appears to be less interested in the power politics of the Vatican and more in what religious power does to the people who wield it. Bruce Springsteen uses music to express protest against the lot of ordinary people in parts of America that are remote from Washington's eyes. Gospel music itself was a creative expression of lament, hope and confidence on the part of people suffering human injustice for generations.

I mention this because I suspect the world needs more poets and artists. And possibly fewer lawyers – although the lawyers I know are wonderful.

Hymn-writer extraordinaire Charles Wesley maintained that we learn our theology not from what we hear from the pulpit, but from what we sing. Put a good tune to it and we'll happily sing anything – occasionally even nonsense. So, he wrote hymns and songs in order to help Christians find a vocabulary for their experiences of God, the world and each other.

Bruce Cockburn, the award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter does a similar thing with words and music, though not to be murdered by a congregation. One song he wrote thirty years ago suggests that the poets and musicians shine a different light on experience and dare us to look differently in order to see and think differently. The chorus goes like this: “Male female slave or free / Peaceful or disorderly / Maybe you and he will not agree / But you need him to show you new ways to see.”

The prophets of the Old Testament got it straight away: use words, images and stories to expose reality and prompt the questions that easily get overlooked by those with the power to preserve.

Jesus got it, too. He told stories and used images that don't just prod the intellect, but scratch away at the imagination.

But, perhaps what this shows us is simply that political vision needs more music and poetry if it is to haunt the imagination and capture hearts. Argument and shouting won't do it. Or, as Byron put it: “What is poetry? – The feeling of a former world and future.”

 

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

I went into a bookshop last week to get a book I'd seen reviewed and, on a first look around the ground floor, couldn't find it. So, I went to the assistant and asked if they had the new biography of Martin Luther by Oxford academic Lyndal Roper. The conversation went something like this:

“You mean Martin Luther King?”

“No, I mean Martin Luther.”

“I've never heard of him. Who is he?”

“He was a German monk who set off the Reformation in Europe.”

“A German monk? He's probably in 'Religion'.

Eventually I went upstairs anyway and found it myself under 'German History'.

Well, I was a little alarmed about this. Not so much because of the religious illiteracy it demonstrated, but the historical ignorance. When I tweeted this exchange, a friend reminded me of the occasion when someone went into a bookshop and asked where he could find Oscar Wilde. The answer? “He's not in today.” Other funny comments followed.

Call me old-fashioned, but it is impossible to have any understanding of the modern world – especially modern Europe – without some reference to the German monk. And for me this is personal: I will be speaking in Luther's Erfurt at the end of October this year to kick off the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Europe.

The challenge this presents is this: which histories need to be known if we are to know who we are and what got us to where we are? I lived and worked in the Cold War, so inhabited a divided Europe: my kids did not, and for them the Soviet Union is as remote as the Boer War. Yet, some histories shouldn't be ignored.

Luther was a complicated man: intense, argumentative and bad-tempered. He said some terrible things about Jews (which in turn had terrible consequences even four centuries later) and wasn't exactly a proto-feminist. He challenged one political power only to find himself colluding with others. He was brave, disciplined and sharp as a knife. He changed the German language for ever, and shaped what became the modern world by following up on an idea: that God loves us anyway.

In other words, Luther was a complex human being – just like the rest of us. We don't have to ignore his faults or take him out of his times in order to make him palatable to twenty-first century sensibilities. Praise him or damn him, we still have to take seriously what he did at the time he did it.

Essentially Luther was empowered by one simple discovery: we can never be perfect, but we can be liberated by knowing we are freely loved by God. 'Grace' it was called. It changed him, and he changed the world.

We see around us plenty of anger, strife and disputation. Surely it wouldn't be a bad thing to re-discover grace. And also to re-discover history.

 

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

It's been an interesting couple of weeks, hasn't it? I never thought I'd be interested in people riding bikes around a track, but I got drawn into the Rio velodrome. There is a massive upsurge in pride in the flag the athletes carry, even if some of the national anthems do go on a bit.

Maybe it was while the world's attention was on Rio that a North Korean diplomat chose to shine a different light on national pride by defecting to South Korea last week. Later described as “human scum” by his old regime, Thae Young Ho had managed to escape with his family from the North Korean embassy in Watford before his defection had been noticed by his erstwhile masters.

This is interesting stuff. At the same time I saw this in the news I also heard about a guy who couldn't get into his national Olympic team, so joined that of a different country.

So, where does loyalty lie? And what, when we celebrate loyalty to Great Britain in Rio, does that loyalty actually mean?

The reality is that most of us live for most of the time with multiple loyalties. Just watch the battle on social media between Lancashire and Yorkshire over which county has done better than the other in Brazil. When does loyalty to Yorkshire trump fidelity to the nation? Or when does my commitment to my family or myself take priority over that devoted to the wider community? I come from Liverpool, but live in Yorkshire – I just have to deal with it. But, there is a serious point about where we draw the lines and where the lines need to be crossed.

The truth is that we live all the time with a complex hierarchy of loyalties: to oneself, to family, to community, to religion, to nation and to the world. The North Korean defector clearly decided that the balance of these priorities had changed. Yet, his experience also illustrates that in real life we sometimes have to live for a time with commitments that are conflicted – or that, for various pragmatic reasons, we hold a line with our voice when our head and our heart have moved elsewhere.

I have been wondering how to express this, and kept coming back to the lawyers trying to compromise Jesus over the conflict between his commitment to Israel and that demanded from the Roman Empire in the form of taxes. His reply: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's” was not a cop-out. It crystallised the conundrum. It made clear that those who claim a commitment to God in any way have to evidence that commitment in the choices they make and the ethical priorities they live to.

So, within the hierarchy of loyalties, raising a flag actually raises as many questions as it answers.

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

I have just got back from the reading of fat books on holiday. The one that grabbed me this time was Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar'. It all sounded so contemporary. The voice in my head kept repeating the plaintive phrase from the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun”. Power, violence, subterfuge, ego, leadership struggles, populism and politics – it's all there. It always is.

I also kept hearing the line from Proverbs: “Where there is no vision the people perish.” The problem with vision is that it emerges from memory. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said this week that Judaism is a religion of memory. So, I would argue, is Christianity. Both remind us, for example, that empires come and go, that hubris is ultimately embarrassing, and that history sadly repeats itself. Christianity makes no sense at all without rituals that are there to compel compulsive amnesiacs to re-member their story: in this case that by recalling that we were once slaves, we will refrain from treating other people like slaves; that we are set free to serve; that we are to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God (and one another). For Jews the Passover goes to the heart of this memory; for Christians the Eucharist re-tells the story into which we fit ourselves and shape our future.

We can only know who we are if we know from where and from whom we have come. The problems emerge when either we think we have been born into the ultimate 'now' – that nothing valuable went before us – or we choose the bits of memory that are convenient to our present or future self-justifications.

And that is as dangerous for nations, continents and communities as it is for individuals or religions.

With this in mind, and having read about the Caesars, I wonder if every government should appoint a Cabinet Historian to remind it of the past and challenge policy for the longer-term future in the light of experience.

Of course, all readings of history are partial, and memories are always susceptible to selectivity. But, some of the challenges we face (for example, in the light of Brexit) would be informed by a sober re-membering. Memories are short, but how will anyone born in this millennium understand Russia and Ukraine when they have no experience of the Cold War – and a world divided not just by affluence but by starkly competing ideologies? Memory is not quite the same as history, but both can become commodities in struggles for power, as the biblical narrative reminds us.

Well, I won't hold my breath, but without a memory the people cannot form a vision. And without a vision the people perish.