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

Only four years, almost to the day, after tens of thousands of allied troops had sat on a beach at Dunkirk, being bombed and strafed and hoping for evacuation, 6 June 1944 saw many hundreds of the same men preparing to fight on the European mainland again. Imagine their feelings – about to face the guns once more. That’s courage.

Like young Albert Kings of the 1st Worcester Regiment as his troop ship pulls out of Newhaven Docks, thinking of his wife of less than three months and wondering if she will soon be a widow. Later he wrote: “I tried to look ahead to better times, but I knew it would only be brought about by our efforts. I was determined to do my best.”

What strikes me, reading the stories of D-Day again, 75 years on, is that these guys didn’t have the luxury of offering opinions or passing distant judgment on the whole operation or those who had planned it. Whatever their feelings, whatever their fears, whatever their thoughts, they got into boats and sought to land on enemy territory in France. They weren’t given opt-outs or asked to fill out a feedback form.

The point is that these men – they were mostly men – looked out across the water into the unknown and committed themselves wholly to the mission.

Now, I really admire them for this. They knew they might never come back, but they went. They imagined the cost. And they went.

But, this notion of commitment didn’t just emerge from anywhere. This sacrifice was rooted in the Hebrew and Christian notion that belief is not simply about accepting a doctrine about God or an ideology; no, to believe was to commit yourself, body, mind and spirit, to what you believed (however feebly or tentatively) to be true or right. Today belief is largely seen as something going on in your head, but that is a bloodless understanding.

Albert Kings trusted that, as he played his part, others would play theirs. They were interdependent and had to trust, knowing the mission might also fail.

I don’t have to invade France today. But, I might consider whether it’s braver to observe from a distance or get stuck in when it comes to helping and loving my neighbour.

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

You know what it’s like when you get a song running round the inside of your head and you can’t stop it? Well, I’ve got one and it’s driving me a bit mad. It could be worse, I suppose – it could be something like an obscure national anthem – but this one is a hymn. It’s one everyone knows – it’s ‘Amazing Grace’.

I think what’s happened is that I heard a writer talking about it on the radio and it triggered something. I have known ‘Amazing Grace’ since I was a kid – a slave trader’s discovery that life could be different and that he didn’t have to be trapped in guilt for ever. Anyway, hearing it mentioned on the radio prompted me to go to the flicks and see the film of Aretha Franklin stirring hearts and souls (including a very young Mick Jagger) at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972. It is an intense experience and wonderful music.

Judging by the response of the cinema audience, grace is what you experience while watching. OK, you’ve paid to get in, but what you get is a massive dose of freely offered generosity and joy. What Aretha Franklin does is open your heart to the possibility that, despite all the rubbish in life, we are loved to death and beyond.

Grace is a word that, apart from being a popular girl’s name again, sounds religious. That’s because it is. For Christians it speaks of forgiveness and freedom – offered by a God who has no illusions or fantasies about human messiness or failure, but crosses it all out with a love and mercy you can only call outrageously reckless. In a world in which everything seems calculated or quantified – even love and affection: what will I get out of it if I put this amount into it? – how do we account for the unpurchasable, unearnable, unmanipulable love of one who breaks the bonds of guilt and fear and shines the light of newness into the darkness of loss? The Beatles hit on a similar idea when they sang “Can’t buy me love”.

Amazing Grace. ‘Slightly interesting grace’ wouldn’t have worked, would it?

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

I’m not sure if a confession this early in the morning is wise, but I have never watched Game of Thrones. I have no idea what the story is, who the characters are, or what the plot line is. So, I can’t comment on any aspect of it … except the response to its ending.

Social media seem to be full of people who are angry that they didn’t get the ending they wanted or hoped for. I have even seen passionate pleas with the producers to fire the screenwriters, pull the last series and re-write (and re-film) the thing so it ends properly. What on earth is this about?

I guess in a world of custom-made this and custom-oriented that, we too easily believe that everything revolves around me and my satisfaction – that somehow I should have a life of individual personal fulfilment that makes everything nice. And, of course, it’s obvious from experience that this is nonsense.

It’s not only nonsense, but I think it’s boring nonsense. I recently read a lot of books while on study leave and a couple of the novels I read left me hanging, wishing for a different denouement. But, the joy of story is the element of surprise – shock, even.

For a Christian like me, this shouldn’t be a novel idea – especially in the current Easter season. Follow the gospels through and we see a story developing that keeps twisting and surprising. Get to the end – Jesus dead and buried – and there’s no airbrushing the powerful human brutality of it all. It’s not exactly escapism, is it? But, while the bereft friends of Jesus are trying to make sense of what shouldn’t have happened, they are further surprised by their women coming home and saying that the dead man seems not to be finished after all.

But, this is no ‘happy-ever-after’ deus-ex-machina make-us-all-happy resolution. In fact, it causes more problems. These people have to keep wrestling with reality, experience and their whole understanding about God and the world, and try to make sense of it all. This isn’t the script they were following, but it is forcing them to choose between their expectations and their experienced reality.

That’s how endings work. Surprise, challenge, discomfort. And it’s the ending that makes you go back to the beginning and re-read the whole narrative in the light of the twist.

We can no more control the endings of our own stories than we can compel writers to change their books. We are supposed to be challenged, arrested, surprised and intrigued. That’s the point. The story goes on in our imagination. And if we simply say: “Oh, there you go then,” then the story hasn’t worked. As true for resurrection as it is for Game of Thrones. Whatever that is.

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

I’ve got two sons – both of them well grown up now (that’s what I tell them, anyway) – and they’re both seriously colour blind. It’s great to play snooker against them. The thing about colour blindness is that you can’t tell from looking at them that they’ve no idea which is the red, the green or the brown.

Well, I’ve just learned that tomorrow is Face Equality Day. Now, my first response was boredom that every day seems to be ‘something day’. But, because I didn’t understand the title, I looked it up. And it’s all about people whose face doesn’t conform to so-called normal expectations of beauty or normality. Perhaps because of medical or accident reasons, they suffer unwelcome attention or unkind responses from people in public.

I’m trying to get the words right here, because those people working for change in this area use the term ‘visible difference’ to refer to this phenomenon. It’s a way of challenging the assumption that some people who look different are worth less. The evidence is that when you find your own face has changed, people treat you differently.

Well, we all know how important our face is. According to Shakespeare, “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face” – in other words, look past the appearance and you might detect the mind or soul of the person. I think he got this from his familiarity with the Bible which is full of stuff about faces. Try: Proverbs 27:19, “As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart.”

But, it’s too easy to avoid the point here by saying simply that it’s what’s inside you that counts, not what you look like. Well, most people who say that sort of thing are probably OK with their own appearance. Perhaps I should try putting myself inside the skin – or looking through the eyes – of someone who gets stared at or, worse, avoided.

How we appear to other people does matter – especially in a culture which constantly bombards us with images of normal beauty. But, how other people look at those who are visibly different matters enormously.

Let’s face it, we can light up someone else’s face by loving who they are and the uniqueness of how they look.

 

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

I was checking my diary for this week when the news came in of the death of Doris Day. Whether it’s significant or not that this happened in Eurovision week, I have no idea. But, as we Brits will be exercising our foreign language skills again – nul points – in preparation for the big night, we might recall that it was Doris who introduced many of us to Spanish.

My late dad was a fan when we were kids and one of the first vinyl records he bought was one of her’s. And that’s where I heard Que sera sera – pronounced like a true Brit ever since. Que sera sera – what will be will be.

As a child I thought this was deep philosophy. You can’t change the future; what will be will be. Resign yourself to whatever comes. We call it fatalism.

Well, I liked the tune and I liked her voice. But, as I grew up I began to realise the idea was wrong. It’s a human responsibility to shape the future and not simply be a victim of other people’s decisions and choices. In Christian terms – which I was also exploring decades ago – the kingdom of God is not about some airy-fairy spirituality for when you die; rather, it’s about transforming the world here and now … thus creating a future that is more just and peaceful and fruitful for our children and grandchildren. After all, Jesus is all about God opting into the real world of matter and politics and muck and bullets and not exempting himself from it. Try sticking that into a Christmas carol.

Of course, this involves real commitment to the stuff of life and society. Fatalism is a denial of responsibility. Commitment to playing my part in building what has been termed ‘the common good’ becomes an obligation that goes beyond simply claiming my rights. Belief, in Hebrew terms, means committing oneself – body, mind and spirit – to the vision of the world that I believe to be true.

I think this is why politics gets fierce. After a couple of generations of little mainstream political choice we now find ourselves full of noise and fury about things that matter. If the choices currently facing Europe weren’t serious, we wouldn’t be getting up in arms about them, would we? It’s because the choices matter, the consequences matter, how we enact our collective priorities and decisions matters. In one sense, it’s heartening.

So, Doris Day nearly made her century. She lived through a century of wars and much more besides, and was part of the generation that exploded with optimism about a glorious and peaceful future. But, apathy and complacency have proved to be the enemy of peace-building. Que sera sera is a great song, but a disastrous way to think about living together.

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

When the news of the royal birth was announced yesterday part of the excitement focused on the couple’s decision to break with tradition and do things their own way. And why not?

Well, this welcome royal baby arrived in a very royal week.

After a three-day coronation ceremony, I imagine the new King of Thailand is taking it a bit easier today. And I imagine I am not alone in the world outside Thailand to have observed some of the rituals on television without really understanding what was going on and why. As an outsider it was fascinating to watch, but hard to follow.

What I found most curious was the powerful appeal to tradition – tradition that goes back a very long way and roots the present vocation in a collective national, ethnic and religious memory.

One of the misconceptions about the word ‘tradition’ is that those who value it simply want to live in the past – held captive by some nostalgic notion of a golden age of simplicity and clarity that promises security.

But, tradition has to do with the collective experience and wisdom of the past which then informs and shapes the future, giving roots to the values that underlie our common life – better seen as a fanning of the flame in the present rather than a holding on to the ashes of the past.

Tradition goes deep. Having regard to the experiences and wisdom of past generations – their successes and failures, strategies and accidents – instils the caution needed if history is not to repeat itself and change is to be properly, intelligently and soberly appraised.

For example, the central section of Isaiah in the Hebrew Scriptures is addressed to a people in exile in Babylon, proclaiming the promise that freedom is coming, that exile is ending, that they will soon go home – which sounds great.

Yet, when we dig down into the reality of the exiles’ experience, the promise also becomes something of a threat. For example, what will this mean for those who were born in Babylon and for whom the place of exile is and always has been ‘home’? How will the returning exiles – immigrants – be received back in their ethnic homeland by those who never left and regard the land as theirs? How will they negotiate a common society when, having been exiled, their notions of ‘home’ might have become stuck in a nostalgic past?

In other words, the tradition might root the people in a memory, but they still have to shape today and tomorrow by facing questions none of them has had to face before.

None of this is alien to the politics of our time. Slogans that implicitly promise that we can return to a golden age of the past are, literally, fantastic. We can shape the present and future in the light of the past, but this always demands courage, corrective and competence.

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

I’ve just been away for three months on study leave. Apart from all the reading, writing, thinking, chatting and travelling, I also used the time to catch up on some long lost music. Crowded House, Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen got a lot of space, but it was Bruce’s Dancing in the Dark, played loud during a massive thunder storm in Tennessee, that sticks in my memory.

I think part of the reason this one stuck was because a couple of months before I left the UK I had a bit of a stroke – in my brain, not of the cat. As many people know, when something like that happens and is beyond your control, you feel like you are in the dark a bit – even if dancing is the last thing you think of doing.

In my case, it wasn’t a huge deal. It was a minor blip, but it came with consequences. I had to cancel travel and engagements abroad. But, on the bright side, I now have documentary evidence that I do have a brain.

Springsteen might have been singing about a different experience, but I spent a couple of months sleeping a lot, reading a lot and reflecting on what it means to be alive. Because the truth is, we all live all the time in the dark – not in any miserable sense, but just that none of us knows what is going to happen next. Not everything is in my control. I can make plans and imagine a future, but I can’t guarantee it will happen. Tomorrow I will be speaking on the phone with the Bishop of Colombo in Sri Lanka – a more dramatic illustration of my point.

Another Bruce – singer-songwriter Cockburn – once wrote: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you; sometimes the darkness is your friend.” And I know what he means. I didn’t worry when my brain blipped, simply because, as Easter whispers to a mortal world, my trust is not ultimately in me or my own security – it is in the God of resurrection.

Anyway, I am fine, back to work, back to Radio 2, and promising never to dance in the light. If you’ve seen me, you’d know why.

 

 

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