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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.

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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.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show (in Mental Health Week):

It seems to me that some people are better at talking than others. I don’t mean just driving everyone else witless by endless rambling – the classic pub bore. What I mean is that some people find ways to open a valve and let the pressure out by putting into words what’s going on deep down inside them.

Remember that great REM song ‘Everybody hurts’? “Everybody hurts, sometimes, everybody cries.” There’s even a line about “Cause everybody hurts, take comfort in your friends.” It reminds me of that line in Crocodile Dundee when the Ozzie Outbacker responds to an explanation of New York ‘therapy’ with, “Haven’t you got any mates?”

Well, friends are important, but even the most gregarious people sometimes find themselves in a place best described as dark. And it’s easy then to think that you’re the only one who hurts – the only one who cries.

Now, I would say this, wouldn’t I, but anyone who reads the Bible will find utter realism here. People are portrayed as they are and stories are told that reveal a deep empathy with raw human experience – including what we now would call mental health challenges. Look at the Psalmists – poets writing three thousand years ago – who cry out of the depths and give us a vocabulary for pain and suffering. “How long, O Lord, how long” must we endure this suffering? “I feel like I am being hunted and there is no escape – who can I trust in this world?” These songs and poems are ripped from the heart of the sort of experiences many of us endure today.

But, the Psalmists also offer a different take. They shine a different light on this experience. “Where can I go from your presence?” one of them asks. “If I go up to the highest heights or down to the deepest depths, you are there. I go to the farthest east and the remotest west, and you are there, too.”

In other words, if you don’t find the words to express your own anguish, these guys have given you some. Everybody hurts, everybody cries, everybody bleeds. Just don’t believe the ones who say they don’t. And you are not alone. Everybody hurts. Sometimes.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (broadcast from Berlin and focusing on the impact on Germany of Brexit):

I was in Vienna recently and saw something that sums up the challenge of Germany in the last century. At one end of the Judenplatz is the haunting Holocaust Memorial by Rachel Whiteread; facing it, twenty metres away, is a statue of the philosopher, poet and Enlightenment hero Johann Gottfried Herder who re-shaped German education and culture. The question that cries out is this: how did Germany go from Herder to Hitler in a mere century?

This is the question that Germany has been unable to escape in the last seventy years or so. Walk around any German city and you will find yourself stepping on small brass plaques in the pavement bearing the name and dates of Jews deported to their deaths from the houses before which you now stand. They are everywhere – and they are called Stolpersteine: stumbling blocks that get in your way and compel you to face responsibility for what happened to your neighbours only a generation or two ago.

Because of its history Germany has had no option but to confront its past and choose its future. Yet, as time moves on and memory becomes history, revisionism becomes easier for some people. Recent changes in the political landscape come on the back of concerns about immigration in general and Islam in particular. Yet this phenomenon was almost inconceivable only a decade ago.

What it demonstrates is that human beings all too easily re-shape their worldview according to the world they now live in. We can accommodate all sorts of challenges to our ethics … until we find their foundation has been undercut and we have given away too much. Perhaps history teaches us that it is not a big step from ‘every human being matters’ to ‘some matter more than others’ to ‘these are not really people of value’.

If you go into Berlin Cathedral and look up at the dome, you will see in gold lettering words from the Lord’s Prayer: “Dein ist das Reich” – “Thine is the Kingdom”. I have sat there and thought of the generations of people – from the Second Reich through Weimar and the Nazis, through the GDR and the now-reunited Germany – and wondered what Christian worshippers thought that meant. And how could they so easily confuse the Kingdom of Caesar with the Kingdom of the Jesus we read about in the gospels? Whose Reich/Kingdom do we really serve?

The question goes to the heart of how human beings make sense of themselves and the world – and whether, when the heat is on, the foundation of our ethical frameworks is as sound as we like to think it is. Humility, generosity, loving your neighbour, protecting the weak – or self-preservation at all costs?

Every generation faces the same question. So does every nation.

 

* I originally wrote two scripts for this. The first I set in Weimar where you can stand by the statue of Herder and look to the hills beyond … and Buchenwald concentration camp. I decided this was not the right introduction, so went to Vienna instead. However, I didn’t change the statue from Herder to Lessing. Only one person pointed this out. It doesn’t change the point, but the error should be noted.

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