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

When I visit schools – usually primary schools – I always get asked what is the best thing about being a bishop. I usually say: it’s this! Visiting schools. And I mean it. I genuinely think that teachers do one of the most important jobs in any society and we should value them accordingly.

The main thing about teaching is that, obviously, it is really about learning. We give our children into the hands of other adults for hours every day and expect them to be nurtured – body, mind and spirit. Because teaching is not about force-feeding information into soon-to-be economically-active receptacles, but, rather, about curating character, shaping a world view, forming a mind, opening up the world, stimulating curiosity. And this can only happen if children learn to learn.

At a time of uncertainty on just about every front, I think it is wise to stop and think about what education is and what it is for. Questions about teachers’ pay and conditions are not to be confused with the deeper questions of what they are actually doing and what the rest of us expect of them. As I hinted earlier, a society that sees the economy as an end (rather than a means to an end – human flourishing) will never value the intangible work of shaping personality, character and community.

I come from a tradition that sees children as more than potential workers. Jesus warned against offering a stone to a child who asks for bread. Three thousand years ago the Hebrews placed priority on teaching your children from a very early age – but as part of a community that shared a view of love and justice and mercy that was rooted in a memory of humility.

It’s easy to say, isn’t it? But, any child who listens to the news can be forgiven for being fearful of a secure future. A Czech philosopher, Jan Patočka, came up with a striking description of this fragility when he wrote of “the solidarity of the shaken”. Teachers are also part of this solidarity, and bring to their task all the same uncertainties everyone else feels. But, the children we entrust to them can only find security if the wider society sees them as vital human beings and not just potential commodities – shapers of human futures rather than cogs in a merely economic wheel.

And that’s why I am gripped by the value placed on children in the scriptures I read. It’s also why I think teachers do important work on behalf of the rest of us.

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

I always get nervous as the end of the year approaches. I’m sure you know why. It’s people asking what resolutions I’m going to make when I know that I am not going to make any at all. Like every year.

I guess I never quite got over the story of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia who wrote in his diary on New Year’s Day 1917: “The year 1916 was cursed; 1917 will surely be better!” It wasn’t! Google it.

So, no resolutions I am bound to get wrong or fail to fulfil.

But, that isn’t the end of the matter. On New Year’s Eve I will join hundreds of other people in Ripon Cathedral for a short Watchnight Service before we process up to the city’s square and see in 2023 with the bishop’s blessing, lots of fun in the rain, and fireworks. It’s wonderful, and, apart from getting soaked, it’s a great start to the new year with all that it might hold for us.

The best bit for me is in the cathedral when we all stop, and reflect on what happened since we last did this. None of us knew what 2022 would hold when we began it. All of us will have had great celebrations and, almost certainly – in one way or another – suffered losses. The realities of life and death will have piled in on us as time went by, and we now start again, not knowing what lies ahead.

So, it seems to me that what matters more than me dreaming up unachievable resolutions – join a gym, win the Mercury Prize, etc. – is to address a more basic question: who will I trust? I need to keep it simple: I resolve to trust the God who has made us all in his image and who loves us to death and beyond. I will follow the way of Jesus, whatever life throws at us, messing it up along the way. And we’ll see what happens.

So, along with hundreds of others, I will stop, watch, wait … and hope.

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

In the last week I had one big miss and one big hit.

Jools Holland was in Leeds and I couldn’t go because we were hosting a Christmas party. That was the miss. The hit was attending the absolutely brilliant Huddersfield Choral Society’s performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’. They have done this every year without fail since 1864. That’s a lot of singing.

What the hit and the miss have in common is that they involve people bringing their talents together to make wonderful music that moves the heart as well as shakes the feet. I want to dance to boogie woogie, but I want to weep at the beauty of Handel’s oratorio. In both cases the audience is an essential part of the event – not just listening or being entertained, but responding in body, mind and spirit to what is being performed.

This might sound odd, but I think every person in the country should experience Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at least once in their life. It’s really hard to explain, but the intricacy of the orchestra and voices combining creates a sound that is greater than the bits that make it up. And key to this is that playing in a band or an orchestra, and singing in a choir, offers a unique experience of listening to others around you, moderating your own voice or instrument in order to fit in to the whole, creating together something that transcends any individual contribution.

I take two things from this. First, that every child should have an opportunity to sing or play in a band or choir. Nothing compares to it. But, secondly, the content of what is sung or played matters.

There’s a lot of darkness and understandable anxiety around at the moment: strikes, energy and food costs, inflation, war in Europe, and so on. Handel looks the darkness in the eye and, quoting the prophets of 3000 years ago, boldly affirms: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light…”

Christmas calls us to come together, to face the challenges, but to light a defiant candle as we hear: “the light has come, and the darkness cannot overcome it.” 

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

I was struck in the last few days by the coincidence of two events. First, the remarkable news from Germany about the rumbling of a far right plot to oust the German government and return to a pre-war state. The second was hearing that the last of the Dambusters has died and listening to his firsthand account of the bombing raid in May 1943.

Both of these reports provoke a challenging question: how does our telling of history shape our perceptions about who we are?

In one sense, it is surprising that we are surprised by the organised plot in Germany involving the Reichsbürger movement. The far right have not exactly been asleep, and political movements building on conspiracy theories are not a phenomenon confined to only one country. But, when choosing which ‘state’ in their romantic history to go back to, how and why did they choose the Reich? I guess the answer lurks somewhere in the mists of trying to recreate a lost world which they think justifies their values and grievances about today’s world.

Reporting on the Dambusters raid rightly praised the courage and ingenuity of the bombers, but made little mention of the human consequences. It is hard to look through the eyes of those on the receiving end and listen to the story that they might tell of the same event.

We all do this to some extent or other. As a Christian I read scriptures that tell a particular story from particular perspectives and I have to do the hard work – easily avoided – of wrestling with how to handle it as “the Word of the Lord”. This, of course, involves struggling with it – not just forcing it through the prism of my prejudices today in order to make me feel justified or godly or even right.

For example, I see myself reflected in the story of the exodus where a people, liberated from four hundred years of captivity and slavery in a strange land, start complaining – within weeks – about the menu and mutter that maybe Egypt wasn’t so bad after all. Anyway, fantasies of an idealised golden future, fossilised in a past myth, always hit against reality. Later readers are also invited to wrestle with how this story was experienced by those who were on the receiving end of the new world.

In other words, both individuals and communities – entire countries and continents – look for the narrative that makes sense of now, or, at least, of what they would prefer ‘now’ to be. 

The stories we choose to tell about ourselves must be open to scrutiny and challenge. Partial truths have consequences and damage everyone.

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

Recently my daughter gave birth eleven weeks prematurely. Both mum and baby are doing well. Then, last Sunday afternoon my mother died at 90, with all five of her children around the bed in the home she had lived in since getting married in 1955.

I had just returned from meetings in Estonia, where locals spoke about the threat from Russia and their perceptions of the invasion of Ukraine. For me, there was the whole of life, contracted to a birth, a death, and everything uncertain in between.

The evening of my mum’s death I was surprised to recall a Bill Viola video installation at Tate Modern when I was living in London. Created in 1992, it was called Nantes Triptych. The screen on the left recorded the last thirty minutes of a woman in labour. The screen on the right displayed the last thirty minutes of his mother’s life; the screen in the middle showed a humanoid form swimming through the mysterious course of life, accompanied by sounds of the two women labouring towards a beginning and an ending.

The installation was intended to be lived with for thirty minutes. While I was in there I was the only person who stood from beginning to end as people walked in and out. I have often wondered what that was about. Was it, for example, that we are bad at contemplating the pains of birth and death? Or that the life in-between is complicated enough without having to think about it’s meaning? Or something else?

I was once asked, in the wake of some violent global tragedy, what happens when we die. I helpfully said, “I don’t care.” She responded: “Given your job, (I was Bishop of Croydon at the time) don’t you think you should?” Well, I think now as I did then that we need to keep it simple. So, I said that Christian hope is rooted in the person of the God who raised Christ from the dead – not in some formula for working out what happens next. But, death – not a vague ‘passing’ – is not to be avoided as if it marks the end of everything. The first truth of human existence, made in the image of God, is that we shall die. How we get there matters.

My mother did not rage against the dying of the light, but, rather, saw it as a welcome next step on the journey. She went gently into that good night and confidently.

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

Some years ago on a visit to the United States, I drove from the Gulf Coast down through Florida. A massively destructive hurricane had powered its way through this part of the state only a few months before and we drove for fifty miles through utter devastation. For miles on end every tree had been snapped like a pencil, leaving the tops pointing into the earth and creating triangles of dense wood. Towns and settlements stood abandoned, leaving shattered wooden houses derelict against the now quiet sky.

Hearing of Hurricane Ian has brought it all back to mind. Solid looking buildings in permanently inhabited communities get boarded up in an attempt to withstand the torment. But, ultimately, weather will not and cannot be tamed. In the end, we are at the mercy of the elements.

The problem is that, unlike most people who live in vulnerable parts of the globe, some of us have got used to thinking we can control the world and our life. Dangers simply have to be managed in order to maintain what we dare to call ‘normality’.

But, if we learn one lesson from the Covid pandemic and the obvious effects of climate change, it surely must be that (a) human beings need to learn a bit of humility about their fragility, and (b) respect for the creation might just relativise our collective hubris. I guess humility emerges from realism and a proper acknowledgement of our human contingency.

This goes to the heart of one reason I am a Christian. Acceptance of my and our collective need of grace and one another means that arrogance and pride can be put to one side. My personal self-fulfilment might not be the ultimate goal in life, after all. Facing mortality compels me to face this fragility – not with misery, but rather with liberation. Equally so when we face the current threats caused by energy, money and violent conflict.

Fatalistic escapism? I don’t think so. Knowing our need and accepting the fragility of the world can in fact drive us to what I would call incarnational commitment. That is, a commitment to get stuck into living in the world as it is, loving our neighbour as ourselves, shaping a better and more just common future, but without any sense of entitlement to security.

How we respond to the challenges of the coming months and years – which most of us can’t control – will tell us what we really believe and whom we truly love. For Jesus, loving one’s neighbour was not a suggestion – it was a command.

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

Well, this has been a weird couple of days. Yesterday I was at a house in Leeds that has been there for over 500 years – Temple Newsam where we should have been ‘live’ with Radio 2 a couple of weeks ago – and today in Seacroft at a building that is brand new. Two stories in one city.

It’s astonishing what Nick and his team of experts and volunteers have done here. Building a place from scratch for The Getaway Girls is significant for many reasons. The need is urgent – and we can’t take 500 years to develop the idea. The new space will provide refuge, encouragement, education, entertainment and much more for girls in Leeds and beyond who need to know that they matter, that their lives are as important as anyone else’s, that their vulnerability is noticed and attended to.

The trouble with buildings, though, is that of themselves they achieve nothing. Shelter from the elements might be useful sometimes, but it is the people who use the space who fill it with life. As Luther Vandross famously sang, A House is not a Home; only people can turn bricks and mortar and plaster and wood into somewhere people can belong.

That’s why this matters. Every person – every girl – is unique. As a Christian, I start from the premise that every person is made in the image of God and is, therefore, infinitely valuable. Even when things go wrong. Even when people are abused or taken for granted or exploited or told they are useless. Even when they make bad decisions or dangerous choices.

We live in the real world where things are messy, people are messy, and the rest of us get invited to care for and support those who get stuck.

I’ve got to get away to London this morning, and there’s a cab waiting to get me to the station. But, now there is a new place here in Leeds where girls can getaway and find security, support – even love. Because, at the end of the day, it’s love we all need – a home, not just a house.

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

I don’t know about you, but the summer gives me a bit of space to get off the treadmill and reflect on questions like: why do I do what I do … and in the way that I do it? I think back to what has gone well and what has been disastrous or, at least, could have been better. And I see this as positive stuff, not miserable self-absorption.

But, this summer – I have just got back from a couple of weeks in Germany by a lake – all reflection has been overshadowed by the threatening stuff around us over which ordinary people have little or no control: energy prices, conflict on the continent, and so on. The next few months and years suddenly look more worrying and less certain.

It seems to me that there are two responses to this. One is to worry and get fed up with it all; the other is to join with others in doing something about it. Both responses are understandable, but the latter offers hope.

For example, a group of Christian organisations (along with other faith and civil society groups) have just launched a new initiative aimed at offering a warm welcome in local communities. This recognises that in the next few months and, possibly, years many people will face huge problems keeping their heating on and feeding their families. Already we are hearing stories of fear about what is happening. But, rather than simply assess the size of the problem, this initiative encourages organisations with building resources to provide places of welcome – warm, welcoming, safe and free of charge – for anyone who needs it.

So, many community groups are coming together to encourage this generous opening of resources in order to give people refuge. For Christians it is a response to the stark call by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel to care for those in need – whoever they are: those who are sick, unclothed, hungry, thirsty, trapped. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

At a conference this summer I misheard someone quoting Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers in the Night’. I heard ‘Strangers in the Light’. ‘Warm Welcome’ chooses not just to curse the darkness, but to light a candle by which strangers can see each other and become friends.

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

Next week sees the tenth anniversary of the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. To my shame – so I am told – I can’t remember much about the athletics, but, like millions of people, I found the opening ceremony unforgettable. We were presented with a vision of Britain that, in one sense, we wanted to see – of civilisation and development, of community resilience and a generous collective altruism.

Inevitably, it represented a particular take on our island histories. But, few came away from it unmoved – if not for the history depicted, then at least by the scale of the drama.

Looking back on how the opening ceremony was conceived, one of the key participants said: “If you didn’t know what Danny Boyle looked like, you wouldn’t know who was leading the meeting … He didn’t lead by dominance or by being extrovert; he led by listening. We all felt heard. I think this work turned out the way it did because Danny was a great listener.”

Interesting, isn’t it? Leadership by listening.

I think there are several strands to this phenomenon.

First, good leadership starts with learning the language of the led. We can’t know how to speak if we haven’t taken the time to learn what might actually be heard.

Secondly, it’s in the telling of stories that we begin to piece together a narrative that connects with the audience and makes sense of their experience of the world. Only having listened to people telling their story can I begin to shape what I might call The Story.

Now, none of this is new. As a Christian I can’t escape the constant reminder that in the Gospels Jesus puts time into gathering or walking with his friends and taking them and their questions – even their fantasies and misconceptions – seriously. He never derides them. But, in re-framing stories, he treats them like adults – making their own mind up and taking responsibility for what they do about it.

In Luke’s Gospel, for example, during dinner at the house of a religious leader a woman bursts in and pays embarrassing  attention to Jesus, the guest. The host sneerily questions Jesus’s moral rectitude in not rejecting the woman. But, rather than point out the host’s hypocrisy, he asks if he can tell a story. The host agrees … and thereby opens himself up to making a judgment on his own arrogance.

So, as we celebrate the anniversary next week, it’s worth reflecting on how stories shape our memories, but also shape our view of what we want to become.

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

Listening to the news about Sri Lanka this last couple of weeks, three symbols haunt my memory and imagination: tears, ammunition and a flower.

Although it was the name of a late 1970s band, The Teardrop Explodes evokes current events on the beautiful island of Sri Lanka – which, with a population of around 22 million, is shaped like a teardrop in the Indian Ocean.

In May 2009 a thirty-year civil war finally came to a brutal and bloody end, and hopes were strong that peace and ethnic reconciliation might – in time – ensue. For me this is personal as the Anglican Diocese of Leeds has a long-standing and strong link with the church there, and I have visited the island, met people from all sides of the divides, and witnessed the aftermath of extreme violence.

When I was there in autumn 2015 the second symbol – ammunition – spoke powerfully into this space. There is a monument near Jaffna in the north and close to where the final battles of the civil war were fought. Erected by the triumphant Singhalese military, it represents a shell or bullet penetrating a very large wall. The warning to the defeated Tamils was clear: we won, you lost – and you are vulnerable. As a gesture of future reconciliation it wasn’t helpful; indeed, it is solely and intentionally a reminder of past grievance and humiliation.

However, for me, the third symbol – that of a flower – hangs over this. The Bishop of Colombo gave me a pectoral cross – which reflects Christ’s suffering at Calvary. But, rather than standing alone, this cross is set into a lotus flower. And, for our link church in Sri Lanka, the lotus is a powerful symbol of the reality of violence, but rooted in the promise of resurrection – that out of suffering can come new life. In other words, death, violence and destruction do not have the final word. There is always more to be said. Resurrection isn’t just a fantasy – wishful thinking or vague hope – but new life that demands response, commitment and sacrifice if beauty and flourishing are to have half a chance.

It would be too easy artificially to resolve the tensions inherent in these three symbols: the teardrop exploding again today in frustration with corruption and the abuse of power; the penetrated wall; and the cross set in a lotus flower. But, all three speak of realism in the face of despair. A realism that takes hope seriously and commits itself to making it real. A reminder not just of historic pain, but a call to future life.

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