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

Saturday was a bit of a nerve stretch, wasn’t it? Well, it was for me! Liverpool eventually winning the FA Cup Final after penalties and then Eurovision – which, whatever you think of the songs – is strangely compulsive viewing! I was a bit shredded by bedtime. Congratulations to Sam Ryder.

But, I must confess: I’m more of a blues man, myself – the sort of stuff that’s fifty years old this week: The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. It’s the sort of album that grows on you.

But, the blues are wonderful because they take us beneath the veneer of happy superficiality and open up the depths of our experience. Not just the words, but the tunes slow us down and expose the pain of life, the torments that can’t be tidied up or easily resolved. The blues recognise, as one track on the album puts it, that we are Torn and Frayed.

This is why so many blues songs took their lead from the haunting poetry of the Hebrew Psalms – unafraid to ask hard questions, to complain about stuff that happens, to stop pretending. Never without hope, but always with great, yearning emotion, unafraid of emptiness and silence.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the idea of exile finds its way into the album title. Because what the blues give voice to is the sense we all get at some point that we are not at home, that we are in exile – speaking the language of a different country, longing for the home where we feel we belong. OK, this can be merely romantic – a sort of nostalgia for when the world seemed simpler or kinder or less complicated.

But, I think it’s what an old saint – Augustine – meant when he said of God: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Not a rest that exempts us from reality, but one that takes it seriously – that even in exile we can sing the songs of home and know that we belong. That circumstances might change, but we are never abandoned by the God whose love cannot be extinguished.

Or, to twist another lyric by the Stones on their Sticky Fingers album: “Wild horses couldn’t drag [him] away”.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2 (at the new earlier time of 07.15.

Do you know what it’s like to live on the edge?

Well, that question can be taken in more than one way – especially so early on a Monday morning.

I got back late last night from Switzerland. I went out last week to do some work in Germany, then grabbed a short break with my wife and friends in Basel. We also managed a couple of nights in their holiday house by a lake in Italy. In the course of a few days we were exposed to English, Italian, German and a bit of French in a market.

Crossing borders and operating in different languages is an everyday part of life on the European mainland, but, whenever I am there I realise how unusual it is for me. In one sense, this is living on the edge. Walk fifty metres and the language, architecture and mood changes. You constantly have to navigate strangeness and respect difference.

But, I guess that when most of us talk of “living on the edge”, we mean something else. It’s to live dangerously or with a bit of risk. It’s about the excitement of not quite being in control of events or people. It seems to me that even people who like an orderly or predictable routine also like the odd instance of edginess.

Yet, for many people today, living on the edge is not merely a bit of entertainment. Not knowing if you can put food on the table, pay the rent or heat the house for you and your children is not the sort of edginess anyone would welcome. So, what do we do?

I unashamedly follow a Jesus who constantly crossed borders to be where people actually stood. And he never seduced anyone to go with him – rather, he told them that if they walked with him – edgily – things might get rough and they might lose everything. But, he also made it clear that “loving my neighbour as myself” means living on the edge of my comfort in order actively to love those whose own edge is too sharp.

So, today that’s my challenge: living and loving on the edge of other people’s lives.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2 on the day they announced that September will see Radio 2 Live in Leeds.

Did you know that today is National Read a Roadmap Day? No? Nor did I. Who dreams up these things?

I use satnav all the time, but I do recognise that technology changes the way you see the world. If you look at a map – on paper – you know which way you’re facing and where you are in relation to other places; with satnav you just follow a line ‘forwards’.

When we had just moved to Leeds eight years ago I really struggled with the road system. The city centre loop means that you sometimes find you’re driving in the opposite direction to the one you think you should be on. So, you have to trust your screen or map and suspend your instincts. It’s not comfortable, but it works.

And, given one or two disorientating driving experiences here, I always hear the echo of some lines by Bruce Cockburn in a beautiful song called ‘Pacing the Cage’. He says: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you; you can’t see what’s round the bend. Sometimes the road leads through dark places; sometimes the darkness is your friend.” Does that sound odd?

Well, none of us needs any lessons today about uncertainty or dark places, do we? Nearly five million people are on the move from just Ukraine. They have no idea what lies around the next corner, but are all too familiar with dark places … as they long for light and the warmth of love.

This is why refugees from war will arrive traumatised by experiences most of us can barely imagine. Yet, the darkness of loss can be illuminated by the light of love and mercy and friendship and hospitality. The Psalms of the Old Testament give frequent voice to the reality of terror and hope. As he approaches his probable execution in Jerusalem, Jesus knows that violence will not have the last word.

And just as many people here in Leeds are reaching out in compassion and mercy to individuals and families for whom the darkness is fearful, they shine a light that cannot be extinguished. Like the loop system, you get there in the end.

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

I remember hearing the late great Leonard Cohen explain how he delved into drugs and religion to alleviate his distress; but, he said, “joy kept breaking through.” I remembered this while watching a couple of videos from Ukraine this week.

One was a young woman in her coat and backpack, outside the railway station in Kyiv, playing the piano while the air raid sirens howl across the fearful city. The calm beauty of music defying the threat and the violence – music that, if silenced here by bombs, will be played somewhere else by someone else. The fragile but persistent beauty of music challenged the fear and threat in the air.

The second showed a group of soldiers playing instruments and dancing during a break from the grimness. The small crowd loved it – an interval of joy.

But, you might ask what’s the point? Is it defiance? Or sheer bloody mindedness? A gesture of order against a landscape of chaos?

Well, I’m not sure it really matters. What they do in these simple acts is point us through or beyond the immediate to a barely imaginable future. They light a fire that cannot be extinguished. They are gestures of hope. When things are closing in, they open us up – like a flower opening to the light of the sun which keeps burning anyway.

And there is a long tradition behind them. Three thousand years ago a prophet called Jeremiah was about to be sent off into exile with his people. Military defeat had led to loss and humiliation for a people who thought God had been on their side and couldn’t now understand the abandonment they felt. And, as loss dominated everything – as life seemed to be ending – Jeremiah bought a field. Pointless – the exile in Babylon might last for decades or, even, centuries? Stupid? Misguided by fantasy? Or brutally realistic and hopeful?

Jeremiah had no illusions about suffering, but he was also able to imagine a different future. I guess many of his friends – if he had any by then – thought he was deluded or making a pointless gesture. But, he was drawn by a vision of God and life that saw beyond the immediate, convinced that endings never end – that out of the trauma and out of the destruction new life will come. So, he buys a field that someone else might one day cultivate to feed a community or start an economy.

Jeremiah refused to let violence have the last word. So do the Ukrainian soldiers and the young pianist. In this sense, hope has a melody and life has a rhythm that makes us dance.

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

They say that radio wins over television because the pictures are better. Indeed, words can open up the imagination in ways that a photo or video cannot. But, some images leave me speechless.

I remember going into the cathedral in Almaty, Kazakhstan, a few years after it had been restored for its original purpose after decades of Soviet iconoclasm. It was the icons that moved me. Icons are meant to be looked through and not looked at. A glimpse is not enough; you have to stay with it, look deeply and go beyond superficial significance.

So, it is appropriately shocking that one icon doing the rounds at the moment has Mary Magdalene holding a Javelin missile launcher – an image not of comfort or piety, but a juxtaposition of redemption and violence. Mary Magdalene is the friend of Jesus who – as legend has it, at least – lived a morally questionable life who found new life, new hope, new identity and a new belonging in the company of the wandering Galilaean. Having found peace, here she holds a weapon of war.

It is right that this should shock. Anodyne statements about peace evaporate when an image confronts me with the moral dilemma facing so many people today: what place violence finds in shaping peace – and how redemption can involve such terror.

Two things come to mind. One is a line by the novelist Francis Spufford who wrote: “Some people ask what kind of religion it is that chooses an instrument of torture for its symbol, as if the cross on churches must represent some kind of endorsement.The answer is: one that takes the existence of suffering seriously.” In other words, even if we have become inured by familiarity to the offence of the cross as an image, it stands amid the smoke of destroyed lives and landscapes as a recognition of violent reality; but, this cross holds a man whose arms are open to the world as it is, offering a redemption that sees beyond the violence to a future in which love wins through. No romance; just brutal reality.

The second thing it evokes for me are the words of President Zelensky when he said at his inauguration: “I don’t want my pictures in your offices, for the President is not an icon, an idol or a portrait.Hang your kids’ photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision.”

So, I am left haunted by two images, two icons: redemptive suffering … and the eyes of my children and grandchildren as I help shape the world they will inherit.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, following publication of Sue Gray’s update on her investigation into alleged gatherings on Government premises during covid restrictions.

Publication of Sue Gray’s report yesterday poses questions for all of us. Put bluntly, what sort of society do we want to be? And what role should leadership play in shaping such a society?

These are tough questions that can’t just be addressed in the abstract. However, any answers must be built around a moral framework that delimits what is acceptable and what is not. Any living community in which competing values and convictions play for priority will have to agree on some moral parameters – what the late Jonathan Sacks used to refer to as “the moral limits of power”.

Around 3,000 years ago the Hebrew Proverbs asserted that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” – not the fear of terror, but what we might term ‘awe’ and ‘ultimate respect’. Such fear assumes a reference point beyond me and my interests; it takes responsibility for the consequences of decisions made and priorities set. And I think this applies not only to individuals like me, but also to whole societies which must choose whom they worship – that is, to whom or what they give ultimate value. Pragmatic reflex is not enough.

And there’s the rub. Character is shaped by the habits of a lifetime and must always be held against some commonly-owned measure of what society claims to believe about truth, love and justice … if you like, what we wish to teach our children about how to live well.

I was thinking about this on Sunday when celebrating Candlemas in two parishes in Yorkshire. Candlemas marks the transition from Christmas and Epiphany towards Lent and Easter. Christmas offers us the mystery of God coming among us in the vulnerability of a baby; but, we move on in the story to the child who grows up, makes choices, and ends up on the gallows.

The remarkable thing is that this child, Jesus, never wavered, even when the cost of leading others towards a radical change of life led, in the end, to his own death. Choices, consequences, costs. The victory of power is a sham.

The Christian story speaks of forgiveness for failure; but, it also speaks of repentance and change. Not for reasons of pragmatic convenience, but because ethics matter for both individuals and society together.

We live in challenging times on many fronts. The question to be faced is: what sort of a society do we wish to be?

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, guest-edited by footballer Raheem Sterling on themes of education and social mobility.

The American poet Robert Frost wrote: “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” I know what he means. I remember turning 40 and realising that my life was probably half way through; today my elder son is 40 and I look back with amazement at what has happened, what choices we all made, what experiences we shared, what relationships we forged.

Frankly, I think we did a good job: despite being born in Cheltenham and living around the country, he has always been a passionate Liverpool fan. What more could I want?

Well, quite a lot actually. To go back to Robert Frost, I remember looking at a baby and realising the responsibility asleep in my arms. And the uncertainty about what might lie ahead of him – not just in the choices we and he would make as he grew up, but also what might happen in the world that couldn’t be controlled but would shape or constrain those choices.

While celebrating Christmas over the last few days I was conscious of the fact that the baby of Bethlehem grew up into an argumentative boy who clearly learned by debating and questioning. The boy grew into the man who learned his trade before hitting the political arena and eventually getting nailed to a cross.

Growing up – and letting our own children grow up – is a nerve wracking business. We can’t control what will happen to the children we love. We do our best … and face our failures … recognising that this is a pattern they might also one day repeat. But, if uncertainty is the name of the game, then society has to give all children the best start, the best example, the best opportunity.

Which means what? Especially as no child can grow in isolation from other children, whatever their background.

Well, along with guest editor Raheem Sterling this morning, we might start with education and opportunity. The Germans have two words for it: ‘Erziehung’ has to do with nurture and learning, ‘Ausbildung’ is all about training for a skill. And both are valuable. Of course, at the heart of both lies a person – the roots of whom need to be watered by more than mere information or ‘knowledge’ – if they are to develop wisdom and character.

And this means enabling young minds to roam widely, dig deeply, face unwelcome challenges and hard questions. As Aristotle noted: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Or, as the Book of Proverbs puts it: “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding.” (3:13)

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

The house I live in in Leeds is a couple of hundred years old. It once belonged to a family – the Oates family – whose son became very famous for all the right reasons. I’ll tell you the story briefly.

A hundred and ten years ago tomorrow a Norwegian explorer called Roald Amundsen won the race to be the first person to stand at the South Pole. He got there a month or so ahead of his British rival, Captain Robert Scott. Not only was Scott’s party disappointed, but they also all died on the way back to civilisation. One of his men, Captain Titus Oates, was suffering from frostbite and gangrene and decided he was compromising the chances of the others moving more quickly and surviving. One day he left the tent in a blizzard, his last words being: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” It was his 32nd birthday.

If you really want to annoy me, when you’re leaving our house, just pause at the door, look solemn, and say: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” It was funny the first time …

Captain Oates was brave, but also realistic. He knew how his behaviour and his decisions would impact on the wellbeing and survival chances of his friends. He laid down his life in the interests of others.

Now, I think that Captain Oates has something to say in a week when, away from blizzards and frostbite, we face challenges to our own lifestyle and decision-making. The Omicron virus is … er … virulent, and there are renewed fears about public health. So, the public is being asked to look not only to their own interests, but to those of others to whom we might transmit an infection. My own rights or freedoms might thus be limited or restricted. But, it is not all about ‘me’ – rather, it’s about us.

Jeremy Thorpe once said of Harold MacMillan: “Greater love has no man than this, that he laid down his friends for his life.” Titus Oates thought differently, taking Jesus seriously and laying down his life for his friends. When it comes to loving your neighbour as yourself, I’m with Titus.

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

I have always felt a bit deprived. I don’t have a middle name. Apparently, I was called Guy for the first few weeks of my life; but my parents then decided that I was born too close to Guy Fawkes Night, so changed it to Nicholas … and didn’t give me a middle name. That means I had no options when I got fed up with Nicholas.

Unlike my youngest son’s Nigerian mate at school who had fifteen names and, technically, could have used any of them.

But, I was stuck with Nicholas. Over the years I got called Nick, but that was the only option for change. About forty years ago my in-laws gave me a glass paperweight on which was written something like: “Nicholas – winner of great victories; strong leader”. I thought they were having a laugh … or, at least, trying to make a point.

But, today my name comes into its own. 6 December is St Nicholas’ Day and is celebrated around the Christian world. Nicholas was Bishop of Myra and died in the year 343. And his story is where we get Father Christmas from.

If you’re looking for a powerful, triumphant leader in St Nicholas, you’ll have to change the way you think about strength, power and leadership. Nicholas turned it all upside down.

He was born into a wealthy family of Greek Christians in Turkey. Orphaned when very young, he used his inherited wealth to support sick and poor people. The Father Christmas bit comes from his dropping bags of gold coins down the chimney of three sisters whose father couldn’t pay their dowry, so risked them having to go on the streets. The rest, as they say, is history.

Well, if that’s how power, strength and leadership are to be understood, then I am proud to be a Nicholas. The old saint was a follower of Jesus who, rather than marauding around the planet with a sword, was born as a vulnerable baby in a cowshed … and opened his arms on a cross, welcoming all that the world could throw at him, but not throwing it back.

St Nicholas got it. And I got the name. Now, I have to live up to it.

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

So, we start this week with new Covid restrictions – just at the point when we were hoping to emerge into a brighter world. And, yet again, we have to learn to wait for the day when the misery will – somehow – pass. In the meantime, the uncertainty drags on – perhaps inviting us to learn that this is normal for most people on this small blue planet.

It’s perhaps fitting, then, that today marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of George Harrison and this month the anniversary of his great post-Beatles album All Things Must Pass. He got it, didn’t he? Everything is transient, everything changes, seasons come and go. You can’t come to terms with living and losing, longing and … er … laughing without accepting first that all things must indeed pass.

For me this is built in to the rhythm and seasons of the year. Yesterday marked the start of Advent in the Christian calendar. What now follows is a rather weird exercise in learning to wait (as if we don’t know what’s coming) whilst actually knowing how the story goes. That the people have been waiting for centuries for God to come among them again: praying, longing, looking for signs. They try to make sense of their story in the light of what is happening now, but it doesn’t seem to compute. Then a baby is born in Bethlehem and the world is taken by surprise.

But, and this is the point, we don’t know that yet – not in Advent. So, we Christians try to re-live that waiting experience, trying to be open to being surprised when Christmas eventually comes – that God’s coming could have been a bit more impressive … than a mere baby born in an obscure village in a corner of the Middle East.

And that’s the point. As the Welsh poet RS Thomas put it: “The meaning is in the waiting.” In other words – and for a generation that wants everything now: Advent slows us down, makes waiting active and not empty, and leaves us open to surprise.

All things must indeed pass, George, but the story ends with a comma and not a full stop.

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