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Ths is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme – delivered five minutes after the announcement that Tory MPs have triggered a vote of no confidence in Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party.

Today Russians are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their post-Soviet constitution. Russians tell a powerful and emotional story of their past – of their identity, the “soul of Russia” – a story that gives meaning and direction to who they are in the world today. For them, the idea of the Motherland is everything.

But, Russians aren’t unique. Every country, every community lives within a narrative – a story that shapes their unconscious worldview and directs their affections … for good or ill.

Christians inhabit a narrative that emerges from particular stories in their scriptures. The liberation theologians who sided with the poor in South and Central America in the 1970s onwards were fired by the story of Israel – held captive in Egypt for four hundred years before being liberated to freedom in a new land.

As these people prepared to start a new life there, they developed narratives and rituals to remind them of their fundamental story and identity. For example, they would always bring the first 10% of their future crop harvests to the priests and recite a creed that began with a founding statement: “My ancestors were homeless nomads.” So, inhabiting this story today, backed by ritual, should suggest how poor homeless people should be seen in the society being shaped.

Later, in the New Testament account, when Jesus invited his friends to share bread and wine in memory of himself – what we call Communion or the Eucharist – he did so knowing that they would filter this through the story of the exodus.

So, Motherland, Exodus, Communion: our guiding narratives grow out of what’s gone before and now shape our behaviour and values. But, what happens when stories collide or pass each other by? For example, the current mismatch between understandings in the UK and Europe of their shared history of the last century – particularly over the purpose and value of shared EU institutions. In a UK that itself comprises a number of national identities, we must ask if it is possible now to create a shared story that can challenge the clashing assumptions feeding our current confusions.

The thing about the Christian narratives I mentioned earlier is that they are spacious. That is, they demand human agency and commitment, and they do not remove moral accountability from those who claim or inhabit their narrative.

So, can the British agree on a story that will guide us in the future, reminding us where we have come from, who we are and who we want to be? Faced with a crisis that demands an immediate fix, it is probably this deeper story that will fire our affections and drive our allegiances.

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

Some years ago a Church of England report confidently asserted that people increasingly live in networks rather than localities. According to this thinking, people relate to people with similar interests and commitments rather than being constrained by geography. The growing power of the internet and the massive explosion of social media communication enabled us to transcend mere physicality and the limits of place.

Of course, this is questionable. Although we can now communicate across the globe instantly and with people we have never met, human beings still have bodies and – as Neddy Seagoon* once put it – “everybody gotta be somewhere”. In other words, place still matters.

This notion lies at the heart of a recent report from the think tank Theos. It is called People, Place and Purpose – three words that encapsulate what it means to live well as individuals in community. The report is based on research done in the North East of England, but the title offers a lens through which to look at any community – recognising that even those who prioritise social networks still live in a physical place.

You have to be pretty well off to ignore your immediate environment. One of the lessons to be learned from the whole Brexit experience is that communities who feel ignored, left behind or deliberately disadvantaged will eventually remind the complacent secure that place matters to those who are privileged or condemned to live in it.

This is hardly new. Way back in the Hebrew Scriptures a simple ethical dynamic lay at the heart of social order and religious ritual, and we might describe it like this: human beings live in particular communities that find their common life shaped by the physical environment and the people who inhabit it; their common purpose is aimed at mutual thriving with the freedoms and responsibilities that make it work. Being realistic about human nature, these scriptures don’t hide from the need for restriction or sanction if all in a community are to flourish. And this is why the Ten Commandments still make moral sense – they take people seriously and recognise reality with all its fragilities and failures. It’s why many of the seemingly obscure rituals of this community make sense when you start to think about how we might create a society that works for everyone.

What I learn from this is that if people, place and purpose are reduced to slogans or political categories, then we begin to lose the plot. If political purpose reduces people to mere economic consumers, human identity is diminished.

Amid the loud voices claiming attention in the week ahead, we could do worse than to defy any kind of reductionism and insist on the priority of real people in real places seeking real purpose for our common life.

*It wasn’t (as many pointed out) – it was Eccles.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 (with Sara Cox):

Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing? Coming down to London on the train yesterday, I had a quick look for 16 October 2018 and discovered – to my amusement – that today is Dictionary Day, Steve Jobs Day, Boss Day, Department Store Day, and Feral Cat Day. Can you believe it? Who invents these things. And does anyone actually do anything on Department Store Day other than go shopping? As someone once put it: Tesco ergo sum … or ‘I shop, therefore I am’.

But, it’s also World Food Day, and here it all gets a bit more serious. World Food Day was first launched in 1945 to celebrate the start of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. Its focus has been on food security and how agriculture needs to be developed a round the world in order for growing populations to be adequately fed.

Now, it’s easy to quote Jesus in the gospels praising those who feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but someone else then has to do the economics. Food banks around the country are absolute life-savers for individuals and families and are usually run by volunteers who believe that no one should go hungry in twenty first century Britain. But, we need to ask why they are so necessary and why use of them is increasing so markedly. But, World Food Day draws attention to the fact that global measures are needed if all people are to be fed. Look at Yemen and other places where famine and hunger are appalling, and food banks are in short supply.

Well, I can hear the voices already telling me that “I can’t change the world’s agricultural policies!” And I get that. But, today I could use my iPhone – or any other mobile phone, obviously – to celebrate Steve Jobs Day and locate a decent department store (hopefully without feral cats hanging around) where I could buy some food and take it to my nearest foodbank.

This way I can pay a small price for making a big difference to someone who otherwise will go hungry. And, in doing so, I’ll also be changing the world.

Anyway, it’s food for thought, isn’t it.

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

Of the thousands of photos in my phone one I return to time and time again is of a single rose planted alone in dry soil on a parched farm in Zimbabwe. I was walking with a group from farm to farm back in 2007 – somewhere near Gweru in the Midlands Province – and listening to stories of political oppression, fear, suspicion and hope. There was no water in town (the pumps had all broken), you couldn’t get fuel, and inflation was then at only 10,000%.

Later in that trip I found myself misrepresented all over Zimbabwean media, we had problems with the secret police, and we strengthened our ties to the Church under pressure there.

That rose, watered regularly, surrounded by aridity and barrenness, spoke of defiance, of hope, of a future.

Zimbabwe was always a very beautiful land. Under Robert Mugabe it had been transformed from the breadbasket of Africa into what some have described as a basket case. Yet, no one seemed to know what to do about it. People repeatedly expressed ‘hope’ that something would change; but, few seemed ready to be the agents of change. It was all too paralysing, too threatening.

It seems a long time ago. Mugabe has retired, so to speak. Emmerson Mnangagwa has led the country into elections that appear to have been free and fair, but has been challenged by opposition parties. It looks like Mnangagwa has won a majority of seats in Parliament, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that he will continue as president. The question my Zimbabwean friends will be asking, of course, is whether the future will be bright … or a further disappointment.

And this is where hope comes in. Hope is not the same as wishful thinking. Hope for many Zimbabweans was what kept them believing that freedom would one day come. For others, it was what motivated them to put their lives on the line in order to make change happen. For neither was it entirely cost-free.

Standing by the rose near Gweru I remember hearing the words of Isaiah 40 from the Hebrew Scriptures: “Comfort, O comfort my people,… she has served her term, her penalty is paid.” It is always hard for people to hear words of comfort when the evidence of the reality around them is so bleak. But, biblical hope was never fantasy. Rather, it was always about defying ‘reality’ and being drawn by a vision of how the world might be – even when the so-called realists around you just keep saying, “the world isn’t like that”. And it has always meant getting stuck in to the world as it is.

That single rose is an emblem – an investment in the future. We will have to wait and see if Zimbabwe’s rose will continue to bloom in the new world.

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

Television does not do justice to the reality of fire. Nor does what we might call ‘reasonable proximity’.

I once played with my children on a beach in Greece whilst watching aircraft try to extinguish a forest fire on the hills beyond the bay. It was interesting to watch – while we played and swam – and only became more than a spectator event when we later saw pictures of the destruction and learned the names of those who had died in the flames.

In his remarkable ‘Paradise Lost’ John Milton uses a phrase that has haunted many imaginations through the centuries. He speaks of ‘darkness visible’ – a term that has been used subsequently to depict severe depression, among other things. I think it speaks powerfully here, too. Fire, as it consumes and rages, often beyond control, sucks the light and oxygen to the extent that the dark emptiness it generates is only visible to those who spectate from beyond.

We don’t know who or what started the fires in Greece. There have been suggestions that they were started deliberately – either out of sheer wanton destructiveness or criminality. But, voices are also being raised in favour of climate-change. Who knows?

Whichever proves to be the right explanation in the end, each brings its own moral culpability. Of course, it’s easier to deal with criminality because we can blame the arsonist and distance ourselves from any responsibility for the destructiveness. Climate change, on the other hand, is harder to duck.

None of this is much comfort to those who have lost property, land or loved ones to these terrible conflagrations. It is interesting that newspapers have been describing the fires as ‘biblical’ without anywhere explaining why that word has been chosen or what it might mean. I assume it refers to certain biblical images of the end of the world – the apocalypse, hell or hades. Fire and brimstone, burning and darkness and dust. Darkness visible.

Yet, perhaps the word ‘biblical’ might actually point us to a different meaning. Even if the Greek fires do not presage the end of the world, they certainly represent the end of a world – someone’s world. Family members lost, homes and communities destroyed, businesses consumed. Yet, biblical warnings of fire and loss are always accompanied by defiant words of hope – language that holds out a future beyond the immediate darkness. What one theologian calls ‘newness after loss’ … so that the last word does not belong to destruction.

This is human experience throughout all time. And compassion for those who suffer is what should burn in the hearts of spectators, shaping the collective will of people and nations who seek to end the suffering and open a future.

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

I know it was a week or two ago, but I am still – somewhat perversely – amused by Donald Trump’s ‘mis-speaking’ in a press conference with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Do you remember it. He missed the word ‘not’ off. Easily done, obviously.

The funny thing is that as soon as you hear the … er … wrong statement, it makes your mind search for the real thing.

I remember speaking at a dinner for charitable financiers in London and concluding with the words of Jesus: “It is easier to put a needle through your eye than for a rich man to pass a camel.” Silence was followed by laughter as the mental cogs turned in search of what Jesus had actually said.

Or, do you remember Jeremy Thorpe’s famous judgement on Harold Macmillan’s so-called ‘Night of the Long Knives” when he sacked loads of ministers in order to stay in power: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life”?

Or Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ where the people at the back of the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount think Jesus said: “Blessed are the cheesemakers”?

I love it. Being so familiar with the real thing means we sometimes don’t listen and catch the power of the words or the idea any more. We just hear “blah blah blah”.

It’s a bit like drawing. My wife is an artist and she once tried to get me to draw a chair. I drew it … and it looked terrible. When I showed it to her she told me to go away and this time draw the spaces around the chair. I did it – still badly – but the chair emerged from the spaces and I got the point.

The point here, of course, is that we become surprised and curious when we see and hear things differently. So, if Jesus didn’t bless the cheesemakers, who did he bless? Isn’t the startling truth that love is seen in the sacrifice of my life for my friends?

I think misspeaking can, if handled right, shine a light on something even more powerful and true. Anyway, didn’t Jesus also say: “Let your yea be nay, and your nay be yea?” Didn’t he?

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

As we approach the 70th anniversary of the founding of the National Health Service, millions of words are being written and spoken as its merits are being either celebrated or debated. But, I was struck by something said by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. I quote: “of all the words used by Bevan to describe the benefits of the NHS, the one he returned to most was a word we rarely use today – serenity.” He goes on to say: “After years in which great-grandparents, grandparents and parents had no peace of mind when their loved ones were sick, because they simply could not afford the treatment, serenity was what the NHS provided. It still does.”

What an odd word to use about a massive national enterprise that swallows enormous quantities of money, employs thousands of people and provides the source of endless stories of human living and dying in every community. Serenity. Yet, isn’t that the word that sums up the aspiration as well as the oft-criticised reality of the NHS – a peace of mind that is easily taken for granted by people who have not experienced any other system of national health care? Or the constant fear that illness or debility will necessarily provoke massive anxiety about affordability on top of that of mortality?

I think this is where health professionals and priests have something in common: neither can avoid those deep questions about the meaning of living and dying or of life and death. Meeting people at their greatest points of need and vulnerability, questions of suffering and pain cease to be merely academic and become people with faces, families and stories. Not just a lump of inconvenient chemicals stuck on a stretcher, but a human being whose ultimate value cannot be counted merely in economic numbers.

I think this is important. Debates about the health service often revolve around the experience or demands of those in receipt of care; yet, those offering care through the NHS (in its local manifestations) are themselves intimately caught up in confronting their own humanity, their own mortality. Adam Kay, in his funny and sobering book ‘This is Going to Hurt’ remarks at one point: “Remember [health professionals] do an absolutely impossible job, to the very best of their abilities. Your time in hospital may well hurt them a lot more than it hurt you.”

It will come as no surprise that a Christian approach to health and illness begins with an acceptance of mortality, but sees people as a body/mind/spirit unity. Hurt one part and the rest is hurt. So, serenity is as important for the doctor and nurse and hospital porter as it is for the patient in their care. It is a rare word that needs to be revived.

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