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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.

Today is Thanksgiving in the USA – the 400th celebration. I wrote this script for Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme while in the House of Lords in London. By the time I got back to Leeds late evening, the news had moved on and this script was no longer appropriate. As I said in the last post, here is the original script which I publish simply to illustrate how this slot works and how a new script is sometimes required in the early hours of the morning.

Every time I hear the term “peanut butter and jelly” I want to shout “it’s jam!” – quite a lot in the last few days as they are the names given to the American turkeys whose lives have been spared by the President for Thanksgiving. I gather they are now living in a hotel – but, we’d better leave that thought for another time.

Peanut Butter and Jelly are probably unaware that today is the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving event. The early settlers in America had good reason to be grateful. They had escaped the old world of monarchy and religious control, and had overcome the initial challenges of shaping a life in their new world. And their instinct was to be grateful for their new freedom … which, of course, brought with it new limitations and challenges. It was a beginning, but not an end.

However, there is a clue in the phrase “their new world” that not everyone had reason to be grateful for this new settlement. I guess the 90 indigenous people who sat down with the 53 new settlers 400 years ago could not have imagined what was to follow – violence, dispossession and a legacy of cruelty and tension. It won’t come as a surprise, then, that many indigenous Americans celebrate a National Day of Mourning instead of Thanksgiving.

If anything, this recognition should evoke in anyone a certain humility in the face of a complex history. As we know, the scars of our ancestors’ continue to bleed for generations to come. And it is really complicated to work out what ‘justice’ or healing might look like for people who live now in a different world, but a world shaped by the grievances or victories of the past. But, complexity doesn’t solve the paradox. Closer to home, look at Sathnam Sangera’s ‘Empireland’ or the continuing injustice experienced by the Windrush generation.

I have to apply imagination and empathy to this exercise. The legacy of my own ancestors has not landed me in a bad place, after all. But, I come from a Judeo-Christian tradition that compels us to look through the eyes of the other. The Israelite settlers in the Land of Promise instituted rituals – involving body, mind, spirit and economics – so that they would never forget that once they had been slaves and must not enslave others. They didn’t learn quickly. Mary’s song – the Magnificat – makes clear that good news for the poor will be costly for the rich, and Jesus’s own ‘manifesto’ in Luke’s gospel recognises that liberation for some causes a problem for others.

If Peanut Butter and Jelly understand anything of their happy situation today, they might also see that not all turkeys will be celebrating their joy. Thanksgiving and humility belong together.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. I had already written a different script that became inappropriate as the day’s news developed. I got back from London late, wrote a new one and got it out by 1am. This is what can happen with Thought for the Day. I’ll post the original one shortly, so that this change will make sense.

I was on a train back from London to Leeds last night when I caught up with the news that some people had drowned in the Channel while trying to reach England from France. By the time I got home the number had risen to over twenty and a song of lament was going around inside my head.

Some years ago the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn was in Afghanistan.  He happened to be at Kandahar Airport as the coffins of fallen soldiers were taken on board an airplane for repatriation – that is, the return of the bodies to those who loved them back home. He wrote: “Each one lost is everyone’s loss, you see; each one lost is a vital part of you and me.” It is a hauntingly simple and beautiful elegy in the face of human mortality. It’s full of empathy for those whose world would now have changed for ever and whose grief would be unbearable.

But, the point he makes is that if we don’t have our basic humanity in common, what is then left? This reflects the famous John Donne assertion that “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…”

It seems that both Cockburn and Donne were able to penetrate through the dominant politics and positioning of their day and find the truth at the heart of it all – that whenever people die, a hole is left into which pour the tears of the bereaved. The difference between the fallen westerners in Afghanistan and the drowned easterners at Calais is that we label the latter, question their choices, and forget their identity.

The French President, Emmanuel Macron, put it well when, recognising human solidarity, he offered first his sympathy to the families of those who drowned. This isn’t just a time for politics; rather, it is a time for digging deeper emotionally and being touched by tragedy. I don’t know the names or circumstances of those who have died, but their death changes the world.

This goes to the heart of Christian faith when faced with tragedy and loss. The Judeo-Christian tradition begins with people being “made in the image of God” and, therefore, being of infinite value – a value that goes beyond their economic or utilitarian function. Every person matters absolutely – not just those we deem acceptable.

Naive sentiment? Maybe. But, it also happens to go to the heart of what Christian faith refuses to negotiate.

Each one lost in the Channel had a name, a history and people who loved them. God knows their name even if I don’t.

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

Last Sunday evening we held a celebration in Bradford Cathedral. Christians, Muslims and Jews and many others came together – not an unusual phenomenon – to remember Dr Rudi Leavor who died recently in his 90s. Rudi was loved by people across our communities and he is greatly missed.

Rudi was a refugee to this country from Germany. He and his parents escaped what became the Holocaust. He grew up, set up a dentistry business, chaired the Bradford Synagogue for over twenty five years, and was a crucial holder of the memory in West Yorkshire, insisting that we recognise the fragility of our democracy and civility. He was loved by all who knew him.

Did he “game the system”? I ask the question because the phrase is being used frequently at the moment. Not only is it applied to politicians and PPE contracts, but also to the Iraqi asylum seeker who tried to attack a hospital in Liverpool a couple of days ago. Systems, it seems, are there to be gamed.

In the case of Emad al Swealmeen, the allegation is that he converted to Christianity in order to ‘play’ his asylum application. Inevitably, this has raised questions about the motives of all asylum seekers. Yet, the Refugee Council has also published research this week that indicates that 70% of those landing on our shores are demonstrably fleeing persecution. Which then raises the question as to why it is easier to extrapolate from one example – Emad al Swealmeen – rather than another – Dr Rudi Leavor? Or the huge majority of those who do not go rogue, but become good citizens who make our country stronger?

Gaming the system is an easy conclusion for me to draw, but only if I lack empathy or imagination. Living on this island seems to make it hard for many to look through the eyes of those whose experience drives them to extreme decisions – like leaving home and crossing the globe in order to survive, let alone thrive.

The three Abrahamic traditions that gathered in Bradford Cathedral last Sunday have much in common. One is the mandate in our scriptures to pay attention to people who are poor and marginalised. In the Hebrew Scriptures a people approaching settling in a new land are commanded to make provision for those who are hungry, homeless or – for whatever reason – in need. A tenth of the harvest is to be left in the ground so that there is always something for the dispossessed to eat.

In other words: yes, mistakes will be made; systems will be gamed; good will will be mocked. But, that doesn’t remove the moral obligation to love our neighbour.

FW de Klerk

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


As I get older I discover that people and events that were crucial to my own experience and understanding of the world are unknown to a younger generation. I guess that the death of FW de Klerk fits in that category.

For my generation the curse of Apartheid and the cry for the liberation of oppressed people rang out from South Africa. Shaped by a particular Christian theology and an ideological commitment to a particular form of the nation state, white Afrikaaners fought to defend the land they dominated. Just as many of us caught up in the Cold War could not envisage how change might come, so did the South African regime seem impregnable.

Yet, change can come quickly. When de Klerk succeeded PW Botha as head of the National Party in 1989 few would have imagined what was to follow. This ideologically conservative white man recognised that the need for peace and justice transcended even deeply-held and culturally-entrenched worldviews. Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, multiracial elections took place in 1994, Mandela became President … but de Klerk continued to serve with him as a Vice-President.

I think I learn two things from this remarkable transition of power and culture: the first is about what I would call ‘repentance’; the second is about the nature and demands of leadership.

The word ‘repentance’ comes from a Greek verb meaning ‘to change your mind’. It basically means changing the way I look at God, the world and us in order to change the way I see God, the world and us in order to change the way I think about God, the world and us in order to change the way I live in the world with God and everyone else. It takes immense courage to repent – not least because, especially for a leading politician, this will invite abuse, opprobrium, and charges of betrayal. But, integrity and wisdom sometimes demand such courage. Christian theology certainly does.

Leadership is not for the romantic. At the heart of good leadership lie the virtues of ethical integrity and moral courage. In dismantling not only a political culture, but also a theologically underpinned cultural construct, de Klerk challenged the very foundational myths of a people … and did so knowing there might be a high price to pay.

He apologised for the effects of Apartheid, but not for Apartheid itself. He wasn’t perfect; but, given that leadership has to be exercised by real, complex and conflicted human beings, he had the courage to repent in action and open the door to a new generation and a new, more just world.

His death might evoke mixed memories for some. But repentance and courageous leadership should not be ignored.

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

So, the Olympics are over and the Paralympics are soon to begin. And I still find it odd to keep hearing the title “Tokyo 2020” in 2021. I know the reasons why, but it stops me every time.

It’s not the only thing that has been strange about these Olympics, either. I learned the other day that the Spanish national anthem doesn’t have any lyrics; they couldn’t agree what they should say, so they do without. Given the weirdness of some anthems, maybe that’s a good idea.

But, what’s amused me most about these Games was how the prophets of doom – “They should be cancelled because of the pandemic, etc.” – are now celebrating a brilliant couple of weeks of sport and competition … without a hint of memory or, even, irony.

It smacks of Arthur C Clarke’s observation about every revolutionary idea being filtered by critics through three phrases: first, “It’ll never work;” second, “It might work, but isn’t worth doing;” and, third, “I said all along it was a good idea.”

Well, I put my hand up to that one. I well remember questioning out loud why anyone would want a camera in their phone; a phone is a phone and a camera is a camera. That ended well.

 But, this is just how life is and how people are. If the Olympics are a test of many things – including stamina and determination – they certainly shine a light on character. You can’t just turn up in Tokyo, get off the settee and run a marathon. Some personalities are naturally optimistic and visionary; others need time and persuasion – like me and technology. A good society needs both early adopters and late developers: the former make things happen, the latter ask the hard questions.

One of the reasons I keep reading the Christian Gospels – apart from the fact that it’s my job – is that this diversity of character is taken seriously. The first followers of Jesus have their own distinctive personalities – which is why they often clash. Peter is impetuous and harbours illusions about how strong he is … until he discovers that he actually isn’t. Judas is impatient and wants to force Jesus’s hand into bringing the revolution now. At the cross, when the men do a runner, it’s the women who stay and attend to the painful detail of miserable death and surprising resurrection.

They all have their place and their role: early-adopting visionaries and hindsight-persuaded pessimists. The rash get slowed down and the slow get drawn along. Somehow it works.

Which is just as well, really. As the apostle Paul wrote and every athlete knows, the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you.”

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

Who’d have thought that the Summer Silly Season would begin with a social media debate about Latin?

The Education Secretary’s announcement that Latin will once again be taught in 40 more state schools ignited an explosion of opinions about its value. The cynics see it as a nod to conservative nostalgia, others see it as utterly pointless – teaching children a dead language. I have to confess, my first reaction was: if Latin can make you as happy as Mary Beard and Tom Holland, why not make everyone do it?

But, there is a serious argument to be had about learning ancient languages – and I speak as a former professional linguist who didn’t learn Latin or Greek at school and regrets it.

Yes, it’s understandable that some people think it a waste of time to learn something that has no economic development potential (unless, of course, you happen to have invented the Asterix franchise – to which I say hic, haec, hoc). But, despite current assumptions, economic value is not the ultimate goal of civilisation or the acme of human meaning. Character cannot be cashed out.

Educating a person is not the same thing as training her for a job. And isn’t it strange that the term ‘vocational courses’ – from the Latin vocare, of course – now usually refers to technical qualifications? Are our children really destined only to be cogs in an economic wheel – commodities in a competitive market? Or are they people whose mind and imagination need essentially to be teased and stretched and ignited and kindled – because, in Christian terms, they are made in the image of God … to be creative?

I well remember my first day at university – studying French and German, but not very good at either.  The professor told us bluntly that there is no point speaking a foreign language if you have nothing to say in it.

This goes to the heart of what is known as the Wisdom Literature in the Bible. The book of Proverbs nails it in its opening words when the writer extols “learning about wisdom and instruction, … understanding words of insight, … gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice and equity…” So, when his contemporaries marvel at the wisdom of the young Jesus, this is the tradition that explains what they meant.

So, the learning of Latin is, in and of itself, not a useful end. But, it is a means to an end – opening up the mind and imagination; giving access to the wisdom and follies of past civilisations; reminding us what education is really for.

Producat illum, I say: bring it on.

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