radio


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

I have just returned from speaking at a convention in the United States. Apart from spending a couple of nights in the Watergate Hotel in Washington – and I didn’t even need to break in – I was in Virginia.

One of the things that strikes me every time I am there is that we don’t speak the same language. When I first heard someone refer to ‘the recent unpleasantness’, I assumed that something dodgy had happened which people didn’t really want to talk about directly. Eventually I asked what had happened and they said it referred to the Civil War – which ended in 1865. That’s 155 years ago.

This made me listen even more carefully to what people were saying – because I realised that not everything I was hearing meant what I thought it did. “Two nations divided by a common language,” was how George Bernard Shaw put it.

But, this repeated experience makes real a question put in one of the gospels when Jesus is talking in parables – pictures, stories, images … you know the sort of thing. In the middle of explaining something to his friends he suddenly says: “Pay attention to how you listen.” I must have read this a million times, but I didn’t notice it until very recently. “Pay attention to how you listen.” Not what you listen to, but how you listen.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll listen to all sorts of stuff and assume that you’re hearing what is being said. But, this can be dangerous. How we listen isn’t obvious or self-evident. Jesus clearly got it.

What this says to me is that I have to listen more carefully to people and why they might be saying what they appear to be saying. Because it might not be obvious and I might actually be missing the point. Like the audience at the Sermon on the Mount in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, it’s easy to hear the cheesemakers being blessed instead of the peacemakers.

Well, let them all be blessed. But, I need to pay attention to how I listen today.

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

I live not far from Haworth, home of the Bronte sisters. The youngest, Anne, was born two hundred years ago today. One line from her writing stands out for me: “He who does not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose” – which is a bit more poetic than “Get stuck in, whatever the cost.”

This is the sort of notion that hit me when I was out in Sudan last year, speaking at a diplomatic conference on freedom of religion and belief at a time of protest and instability there. Meeting with protesters, academics and lawyers, it became clear that they held a variety of views on how a future Sudanese society should be shaped. They were united in wanting freedom and justice, but that unity got thorny when conversation got onto detail and process.

Of course, the other thing they had in common was a willingness to put their body and life where their opinions and convictions lay. So many of the Sudanese people I knew there shared this understanding: that opinion has to be backed up with action, and action might incur a cost.

After this week in Khartoum I went to Jena in Germany. On arrival I was asked to take part in the dedication of a memorial to the young German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer at Buchenwald Concentration Camp near Weimar. Bonhoeffer was hanged a month before the end of the war. For him, theology was not a matter of an internal world of vague spirituality; rather, it involved discerning the character and call of God in the real world of the Third Reich and then committing himself to its consequences. Put crudely, if human beings are made in the image of God, then destroying them is not on.

It is this element of commitment that appears to be absent from much of what passes for debate in the ‘any dream will do’ generation. The vision I have for people and society must demand of me the sort of action and commitment that must in turn cost something.

When I read the gospels, this screams out of every text. It’s why the child Jesus argues with the theologians in the Temple; why he stands silently in front of Pontius Pilate, questioning who is actually being judged and where power really lies; why he never sweetens the vocational pill, but tells people that if they do choose to come and walk with him, then they’ll probably share his fate. No illusion, fantasy or seduction – just reality. Don’t crave the rose if you aren’t prepared first to grasp the thorn.

It seems to me that today every opinion is valid. But, I suggest, the only ones worth taking seriously are those that cost.

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

Being in the public eye is clearly often a very uncomfortable experience, unimaginable by those who haven’t experienced it. Watching the storm raging around you – everyone having an opinion on your appearance, behaviour, person and value – can be debilitating even for the most experienced and hard-bitten individual. You feel powerless to correct misinformation or misjudgments.

There’s a bit in the 1989 film Jesus of Montreal where a beautiful young model is told by her director ex-boyfriend: “You are just a piece of meat; that’s all you’ll ever be.” Well, you don’t have to be a sex object to feel that you are dehumanised by the opinions and judgements of those who would shrink from subjecting themselves to the same.

It seems to me that one of the most common human predilections is to turn other human beings into commodities. It happens when groups of people – classes, races, communities, for example – are categorised, generalised, then lumped together for condemnation. It happens when sympathy and empathy are thrown to the wind as individuals are turned into objects for other people’s entertainment in a discipline-free arena of social judgmentalism.

The rights and wrongs of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision to take back control of their sovereignty, so to speak, clearly has a public interest element to it – simply by virtue of their identity and contingent responsibilities. But, there is also a deeper matter of their basic humanity. Whatever the wider considerations, this is still a young family concerned about protecting themselves.

It does seem odd to me that in a culture which venerates individual autonomy – shape your own destiny – a young couple who seek to do just that, and take responsibility for themselves then face a barrage of criticism. Or is it a case of ‘one rule for them and another for the rest of us’?

One of the shocking things about Jesus is that, in a culture that saw human life as cheap, he saw it differently. A woman caught in the act of adultery is dragged before him in order to test his legal purity. It ends well for the woman, but not for those who came to throw stones at her, but are embarrassed by their own failures. In story after story in the gospels it is the self-righteous judges who prove to be expert at missing the point. Stone throwing is not for grown-ups with humility or self-awareness.

However this current royal ruction plays out, the young family at the heart of it remain human beings, making hard decisions in a complex world in which their identity and status make them subject to the judgment of the rest of us. I don’t have to throw stones; I can choose to walk away.

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

I know it’s easy to get out of touch, but I was a bit boggled to read the other day that Ed Sheeran’s song Shape of You has been streamed 2.4 billion times. 2.4 billion! But, the most streamed artist of the decade is Drake – 28 billion streams. That is an utterly boggling number.

Now, this makes me feel a bit off the page, but the most auspicious musical event of the last couple of weeks – for me – was the launch of Leonard Cohen’s album, three years after his death, of Thanks for the Dance. It is funny, poignant and wonderful -however few streams he gets. His deep, old voice articulates the stuff of living and dying in colourful poetry and the language of joy.

Try this: “No one to follow and nothing to teach except that the goal falls short of the reach.” Now, isn’t that what we all feel most of the time? The goal falls short of the reach; we get disappointed that we aren’t all we want to be. We mess things up and get stuff wrong, and wish we could be better. Or am I the only one?

I was once asked in a radio interview about Leonard Cohen if he had “hijacked religious language” – like in his song Hallelujah. My answer was that, rather than hijacking it, he had actually understood it! “The holy and the broken hallelujah”. That’s what we all are, isn’t it? As we prepare for Christmas in a few weeks’ time, this goes to the heart of my longing: a God who in Jesus comes among us as one of us and subjects himself to all that the world can throw at him … without throwing it back. Taking broken people and making them whole. Running with the grain of who they are, but opening up a world of being infinitely loved and valued. Challenging the prejudices of powerful men and giving life to people who thought they were worthless because their goal fell short of the reach.

I guess Ed Sheeran would agree with that. Whatever form you take, the shape of you is unique and uniquely loved. Broken, forgiven, restored. And that, I think, is very good news.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Show as Rylan completed his karaokathon in aid of the Children in Need appeal.

Karaoke! I’ve never done it. Been tempted once or twice, but I value my life too much to inflict my inner Gloria Gaynor on anyone else. How Rylan has managed it for 24 hours is anybody’s guess. However, I did once get arrested in Paris for busking when I was younger – the police just didn’t appreciate my art.

My favourite karaoke experience is Bill Murray in the great film Lost in Translation belting out Elvis Costello’s ‘What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?’ in Tokyo.

But, even those of us who don’t do karaoke do sing other people’s songs – in the bath, quietly on the train, walking the dog. There are always those songs that creep up on you when you’re thinking about something else and then, like Kylie, you can’t get it out of your head. It always amazes me to watch Glastonbury on the telly and see thousands of people singing every word of a song I’ve never heard sung by someone I just don’t recognise.

We all have those songs – words written by other people – that give us a vocabulary for saying what we can’t frame for ourselves. This isn’t new, though. Go back nearly three thousand years and you find poems giving voice to experiences of joy, wonder, anger, frustration, fear, hope: you name it, you’ll find it in the Psalms. Which is why in churches and synagogues you keep hearing them read or sung. They get under your skin. Sometimes, feeling fine, you find yourself doing a Psalm that expresses different emotions or experience; but, sing or say it anyway and, after time, you find it whispering through the mist of misery when you’ve lost the words to say what you feel.

I guess this also inevitably leads me to think about what it might look like to sing my own song. Not just to go along with someone else’s poetry, but to write my own. Some of the Psalms were written by and for a people living in exile – keeping the songs of home alive in a strange land. They had to work at it, not letting hope be swamped by the ‘now’.

Give Rylan a medal … and I’ll find the words today that give voice to my own song.

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

I don’t often get the chance, but I went to the cinema the other day to see Judy, the new film about Judy Garland. I found it really hard going. Why? Well, mainly because I wanted to weep … almost from the first scene. It reminded me of two other films about two other brilliant women: the story of Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose and the documentary about Amy Winehouse. Each story ended in tragedy; each woman experienced exploitation and cruelty to an extraordinary degree, but each woman showed remarkable courage in the face of what looks now like inevitable doom.

I inhabit a Christian tradition that sees every person as infinitely valuable – made in the image of God and loved infinitely. Human dignity lies at the heart of this. And it is the fundamental reason why nobody should ever be seen as an object or an instrument of someone else’s self-satisfaction. When I read the gospels I constantly see rejected and sometimes abused people – usually women – meeting the wandering rabbi from Nazareth and finding healing, renewed dignity, unconditional love, mercy. And for treating people this way, Jesus got it in the neck from the religious authorities. Eventually, of course, they nailed him.

I find the Judy film powerful because there seemed to be few people looking after her as a human being, as opposed to a product on stage and screen. Her search for love is heartbreaking. But, it also leads me to think about how, especially in the current febrile political atmosphere, we see individuals being vilified, humiliated, threatened and attacked just for doing their job. Behind every MP, every journalist, every radio presenter, every judge, there is a human being who has their own life, family, relationships and insecurities. When we dehumanise them, we dehumanise ourselves.

‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ bluebirds may well fly. And ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ there might even be a land of lullabies. But, romance aside, the longing of the child star, disappointed by life, drugs and five marriages, at least expressed some hope of a future – a future that other people dimmed. But, it is this hope that I have a responsibility to awaken and keep alive in the people I meet today.

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

“And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green?” Well, no, actually – probably not. But, William Blake’s questions are not to do with historical event or fantasy, but with the need for a vision of England itself that transcends present miseries. Reality can only take you so far, after all.

A new Blake exhibition opened last week at Tate Britain in London and it has provoked huge interest. As someone who has never quite understood him, I look forward to seeing it and having my imagination opened more widely by seeing the world through Blake’s eyes. For what is clear about him is that his poetry, art and writing sees him wrestling with what it means to be truly human in a troubling world.

In his work we see Blake struggling personally with what was going on around him. Political oppression, public fear, uncertainty about the future in a changing world – he faced reality with imagination, vision and thankless political commitment.

However, vision wasn’t enough: he took seriously his own responsibility for addressing the world he questioned. The ‘satanic mills’ were a source of England’s prosperity, but they relied on draining human beings of life and soul; children might fit into chimneys, but that didn’t mean they should be sent up them – especially by people who then went to church to praise God.

It seems to me that Blake understood what is easily forgotten by Christians like me: that those who claim God’s name should at least begin to reflect the character and priorities of God. In other words, if I truly believe – and claim to be motivated by – the God of the Bible, in whose image every human being is made, then I cannot support or collaborate in language, policies or actions that diminish people.

Now, Blake recognised that this isn’t a black and white matter. None of us simply switches a moral dial and suddenly becomes perfect or consistent. We are not only fallibly human, but we also live in a particular social, historical and cultural context. The most we can do is try to see clearly – which means having the humility to allow the lens behind my eyes to be re-ground – and live differently, despite everything.

Blake worked out his salvation in vivid and glorious – sometimes terrifying – image. Words opened up the possibility of the divine – a spirituality of hope and justice in a world of grinding misery and material poverty. In looking through his eyes I hope we might find our own opened to look differently and see differently – what I would call the beginning of conversion.

Agreeing with Blake’s vision is not the aim. Engaging with its struggle is. Because in engaging with his mystical vision of God and humanity we might find ourselves inevitably driven to what these look like in real flesh and blood. To seeing “Jerusalem builded here”.

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