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

This Sunday sees the birthday of the National Health Service – a poignant moment given our collective experience of the last few months. And those who put themselves in the way of mortal danger in order to care for the sickest in our society deserve every round of applause and every demand that they be properly valued for their commitment.

This is why there is planned to be one final round of applause at 5pm on Sunday to express our collective gratitude to all those who serve us so well and, often, sacrificially.

This is being led by a new coalition called ‘together’, which brings together people from across some of our political and cultural divides – recognising some of the fractures in British society at the same time as affirming the commonalities that need to be held onto if a society is to thrive and not just survive.

Interestingly, following a decade of disconnection, a call for ‘reconnection’ usually gets quickly translated as an appeal for ‘unity’. But, this is to make a fundamental mistake. Unity can too easily represent a cheap glossing over of differences; reconnection accepts difference, but still urges the need for community. A lack of agreement on certain fundamental issues is no excuse for not holding together in an ongoing mutual commitment or conversation.

Now, as a Christian, this is obvious. Back in the Hebrew Scriptures we read that God calls people to reflect his character in the world. And this is never a matter of private entertainment or enterprise; rather, the people God calls reflect the messiness and conflicts of real humanity, but their task – their vocation, if you like – is to work at reflecting that character in spite of their differences and conflicts.

The same can be seen in the Gospels. Jesus calls people to walk with him on a relatively short-lived journey of tough realism, having to get on with the other people he’d chosen. Interestingly, Jesus didn’t give any of his friends a veto over who else he might invite along – their job was to make it work. This was no walk in the park as people with different character, personality, priorities and preferences annoy each other, but have to stick together.

So, ‘together’ might sound a cosy word – a comfortable way of avoiding conflict – when, in fact, it is deeply realistic. It assumes difference and disunity. It is not afraid of tension. It brings us out on our doorsteps and brings people together in a common space, but not as an escape – rather, as a commitment to a common humanity and citizenship, with all the mutual obligations these demand of us.

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

I know this isn’t the place for confession, but I do have to admit to a weird fascination with knowing what has happened on any particular day in history. And today’s epic is this: on 30 June 1859 the French acrobat Charles Blondin became the first person to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He followed this up by doing it on stilts, a bike, and in a sack. He even once carried a stove and cooked an omelette.

Why on earth would anyone want to do such a thing. I can’t even look at videos of people looking down from high buildings without feeling sick.

But, Blondin didn’t leave it there. On one occasion he pushed a wheelbarrow over … while blindfolded. Naturally, there was an audience and he asked them if they believed he could carry someone across in the wheelbarrow. They all shouted “yes!”. So, he asked who would like to get in … and no one volunteered.

Now, that rings bells for me. You’ll see what I really believe by what you see me doing and how you see me living it out – putting my body where my mouth is, so to speak. It’s easy to believe something when it demands no follow-up that might cost me.

There’s a bit in the gospels where Jesus and his friends go to a place called Caesarea Philippi and he asks them who people say he is. They come up with a few suggestions – a reincarnated prophet, for example – but he then looks them in the eye and says: “But, who do you say that I am?” And that’s where the problems started.

These friends of Jesus found out that being his friend was going to change their life and might lead them to the same fate as he was going to suffer. In other words, faith means action, and action comes with consequences.

So, I look at Charles Blondin and his wheelbarrow and I think he was mad. But, his question to the audience put them on the spot. Belief needs action. It’s not enough to trust without exercising it. I can’t just sit there and claim to believe.

Still not sure I’d have got into the wheelbarrow, though.

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

I am now on my tenth listen of Bob Dylan’s new album Rough and Rowdy Ways. And one of the lines that jumps out at me is this: “Be reasonable, mister, be honest, be fair, Let all of your earthly thoughts be a prayer.”

One of the surprising things to emerge from lockdown so far is the massive surge of people searching online for prayer or connection to some sort of collective worship. Researchers in Copenhagen saw a 50% increase in Google searches for ‘prayer’ over 95 countries.

And maybe this shouldn’t be so surprising, after all. For when things get tough, or life breaks down in some uncontrollable way, so the distractions from deeper questions fall away. But, I want to ask, what is this prayer thing all about, anyway?

When I was younger I used to think of prayer as an attempt to change God’s mind – urging an improvement in my own or others’ circumstances. When I grew up, and had a bit more experience of both the world and prayer, I moved to seeing prayer as essentially about changing me. The great writer CS Lewis once wrote: “I pray because I can’t help myself… I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

Why did he think that? I think it’s because prayer involves being exposed to a view of oneself, the world and other people that challenges me to see, think and live differently. This is why Christians pray “in the name of Jesus” – you know, trying to see through the eyes of the Jesus we read about in the gospels. And the world looks different when seen through that lens.

Bob Dylan goes on to sing about a “gospel of love”. And by this he doesn’t mean something sentimental. Love is the costly outpouring of oneself and ends up being – in Christian terms – cross-shaped.

So, when I pray – wherever and however that might be … and whether alone or in a group – my eyes look to God and the world, but the change has to happen to me … so I can be part of changing the world.

Amen to that.

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

Well, I don’t know what you’re doing today, but I am busy waiting for tomorrow.

Now, this isn’t just me procrastinating or not living in the moment. Tomorrow – wait for it – is the day Bob Dylan releases his latest album. And it’s his first with original songs since Tempest in 2012. So, it’s been a slow train coming and I bet it was worth the wait.

It’s called Rough and Rowdy Ways and I have no idea – apart from hints in an interview I read – what it will be like. But, his Bobness never disappoints. His lyrics address the themes of the times and cut through the sentimentalities of life, offering a vocabulary for questioning, wondering and, sometimes, worshiping.

But, it’s the title that grabbed me when I saw it recently. Dylan has never shied away from dosing us with reality. If the answer is blowing in the wind, then it has to be found under the hard rain that’s gonna fall. When we want to settle down, he reminds us that the times do keep a-changing. So, rough and rowdy ways does sum up, in a pithy way, the world we seem to inhabit now.

Since lockdown began we have had to invent new ways of living, communicating, associating and, even, thinking about the world and what matters. And for many people this has been a real struggle. We’ve had to be inventive – discovering new technologies and ways of working – and it remains rough and rowdy, disruptive and untidy.

But, this is how life usually is for most people. One of the things that always hits me when I read the Bible is its utter realism. Right from the start, ordinary people are called to leave behind their familiar world and journey to an unknown destination. Jesus invites people to walk with him, but into a future they can’t control … and might end badly. People go into exile or suffer oppression. And, yet, the constant is that God never abandons them even when the loss is more powerful than anything.

Rough and rowdy might describe the way ahead, but this can be exciting, too. And if Bob can still see the possibilities at 79, then I’ll give it a go, too.

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

I was once in the foreign ministry of another country asking hard questions of the deputy foreign minister. He was a little evasive and so we pushed harder on how a particularly challenging situation might be addressed, if not resolved. Eventually, he stood up, banged his fist on the table and said: “Sometimes it seems there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But, it is not because the light is not there; it is because the tunnel is not straight.”

Fair point, I thought.

And it’s not a bad image to hold onto during the current uncertainties. It is hard to spot the light when the bends shorten our vision.

But, today we celebrate the birthday – and, with remarkable symmetry, the death day – of someone who looked at his ‘now’ with a vision that has spanned centuries. William Shakespeare developed characters who couldn’t always see around the next bend or whose light turned out to be a source of violence rather than illumination. Think, for example, of Macbeth whose “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself” blinds him to the tragedy he has already set in train.

But, Shakespeare was a genius at imparting wisdom subversively. He never dumps moralising aphorisms on his audience. Rather, he lets the drama roll on, the language surprise, and the characters reflect back to the audience the truths about human nature and society that sometimes are uncomfortable to acknowledge. And he often does this while making us laugh.

Which makes Shakespeare a man for the moment. Steeped in the language of the Bible, he delved into the messy realities of human motivation and choices. His characters are never one-dimensional. And they pose questions four hundred years later that are pertinent as we look now to the post-pandemic future. Which motivations are noble and need to be held onto as we shape a different future? How, as the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures illustrates, might we as a society not lose sight of the gains and gifts this crisis has offered: togetherness, social solidarity, care for the marginalised, self-sacrifice, valuing people and jobs differently?

None of this is abstract. It invites a conversation – an argument, even – about how we want to be. I remember a business leader once telling me that the most important person in his business was the cleaner who had his office ready for him every morning. I asked if the cleaner’s remuneration reflected this value, but got no answer.

So, as some parts of the world now enter the maelstrom of infection and others think about emerging from the worst experience, the light at the end of the tunnel invites both hopefulness and realism about the nature of the task ahead.

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

“April is the cruellest month” is how TS Eliot began The Wasteland – written in the wake of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Well, this April presents challenges that no post-war generation would have considered even conceivable only a couple of months ago.

A few years ago I was in another place that knew something of suffering and hardship. Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe had gone from being the breadbasket of Africa to what can only be described as a basket case. Inflation was running at over ten thousand per cent and the infrastructure in the country was broken. So were many of the people we met.

One day we visited the school and farm run by the Church just outside Gweru in the Midlands Province. Our guide took us to the cattle dip which by then was disused, breaking up and a bit sad. He explained that they needed money to put up fences around the farm to stop the neighbours’ cattle coming in and infecting the others with ticks and other diseases. Until they kept the others out, they wouldn’t be able to use the dip.

But, then one of our group – a Zimbabwean – asked why they needed fences. Instead, why not get the neighbours to pay a small fee to have their cattle dipped – that would mean that all the cattle would be clean, no infections would intrude onto the farm, money wouldn’t be wasted on easily breached fences, and the farm would gain a little income. 

I stood there wondering why I hadn’t thought of this. Instead of closing down, the best response was to open up. The best defence was to support the interests of the neighbours.

This shouldn’t have surprised me. The Hebrew Scriptures tell how a people prepare to enter the land of promise. But, before going in they are told that the society they shape must be one in which everyone counts – in which “loving one’s neighbour as oneself” (which Jesus quoted much later) was a command and not a policy suggestion. Peace and prosperity could only be secured if the mutual interests and accountabilities of all were promoted and defended. Counter-intuitive it may well be, but God’s call to look after the interests of those who are poor, marginalised, homeless and strange was essential. Only if they were cared for could the new society be considered just or godly.

A society that thinks it can secure itself by excluding (or, even, scapegoating) others simply erects fences. And as the world eventually moves into a post-pandemic world, big choices will have to be faced – and the cattle dip might offer a lens through which to look at them.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2 (but from my office in Leeds).

Do you know what it’s like when you get an entire soundtrack running round your head? I do. Maybe it’s got something to do with the strange times in which we live. It’s as if loads of the music in my memory now finds the space to peep out of the undergrowth and sniff the fresh air.

My kids will probably raise their eyes at this, but the loudest echo belongs to one Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian singer-songwriter very few people have heard of. He’s written all sorts of stuff over the last fifty years or more and some of it is fairly gritty. Then he does one with the great line: “Don’t forget about delight.” When you find yourself in times of trouble – as someone else once sang – don’t lose sight of the nice stuff, the delight.

It’s not a bad idea is it? Because it’s too easy just to hear the bad news and find the imagination heading in the wrong direction. What the poets and musicians do is tease us to look at a wider horizon – to expand the range of possibilities beyond the ‘now’. The thing about poetry is that, if you give a bit of time to thinking about words, it opens space for the imagination to get working.

I would say this, wouldn’t I? I read the Bible every day. It’s full of poetry and songs in which the writers express what lies deep within them. They don’t care too much about whether what they say is watertight morally all the time; they just get it out of their system and into the fresh air. Then readers can engage what being a human being looks and feels like to the poet – even if the poet lived and died three thousand years ago.

Most of us are going to need some routine during the weeks ahead. But, we also have a chance to do something new for which there normally isn’t time or space. Like reading a poem each day, for example. Or, how about trying to write my own? Get it onto paper and play with the words? Because when the news is not great, don’t forget about delight.

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

I have just returned from speaking at a convention in the United States. Apart from spending a couple of nights in the Watergate Hotel in Washington – and I didn’t even need to break in – I was in Virginia.

One of the things that strikes me every time I am there is that we don’t speak the same language. When I first heard someone refer to ‘the recent unpleasantness’, I assumed that something dodgy had happened which people didn’t really want to talk about directly. Eventually I asked what had happened and they said it referred to the Civil War – which ended in 1865. That’s 155 years ago.

This made me listen even more carefully to what people were saying – because I realised that not everything I was hearing meant what I thought it did. “Two nations divided by a common language,” was how George Bernard Shaw put it.

But, this repeated experience makes real a question put in one of the gospels when Jesus is talking in parables – pictures, stories, images … you know the sort of thing. In the middle of explaining something to his friends he suddenly says: “Pay attention to how you listen.” I must have read this a million times, but I didn’t notice it until very recently. “Pay attention to how you listen.” Not what you listen to, but how you listen.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll listen to all sorts of stuff and assume that you’re hearing what is being said. But, this can be dangerous. How we listen isn’t obvious or self-evident. Jesus clearly got it.

What this says to me is that I have to listen more carefully to people and why they might be saying what they appear to be saying. Because it might not be obvious and I might actually be missing the point. Like the audience at the Sermon on the Mount in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, it’s easy to hear the cheesemakers being blessed instead of the peacemakers.

Well, let them all be blessed. But, I need to pay attention to how I listen today.

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

I live not far from Haworth, home of the Bronte sisters. The youngest, Anne, was born two hundred years ago today. One line from her writing stands out for me: “He who does not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose” – which is a bit more poetic than “Get stuck in, whatever the cost.”

This is the sort of notion that hit me when I was out in Sudan last year, speaking at a diplomatic conference on freedom of religion and belief at a time of protest and instability there. Meeting with protesters, academics and lawyers, it became clear that they held a variety of views on how a future Sudanese society should be shaped. They were united in wanting freedom and justice, but that unity got thorny when conversation got onto detail and process.

Of course, the other thing they had in common was a willingness to put their body and life where their opinions and convictions lay. So many of the Sudanese people I knew there shared this understanding: that opinion has to be backed up with action, and action might incur a cost.

After this week in Khartoum I went to Jena in Germany. On arrival I was asked to take part in the dedication of a memorial to the young German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer at Buchenwald Concentration Camp near Weimar. Bonhoeffer was hanged a month before the end of the war. For him, theology was not a matter of an internal world of vague spirituality; rather, it involved discerning the character and call of God in the real world of the Third Reich and then committing himself to its consequences. Put crudely, if human beings are made in the image of God, then destroying them is not on.

It is this element of commitment that appears to be absent from much of what passes for debate in the ‘any dream will do’ generation. The vision I have for people and society must demand of me the sort of action and commitment that must in turn cost something.

When I read the gospels, this screams out of every text. It’s why the child Jesus argues with the theologians in the Temple; why he stands silently in front of Pontius Pilate, questioning who is actually being judged and where power really lies; why he never sweetens the vocational pill, but tells people that if they do choose to come and walk with him, then they’ll probably share his fate. No illusion, fantasy or seduction – just reality. Don’t crave the rose if you aren’t prepared first to grasp the thorn.

It seems to me that today every opinion is valid. But, I suggest, the only ones worth taking seriously are those that cost.

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

Being in the public eye is clearly often a very uncomfortable experience, unimaginable by those who haven’t experienced it. Watching the storm raging around you – everyone having an opinion on your appearance, behaviour, person and value – can be debilitating even for the most experienced and hard-bitten individual. You feel powerless to correct misinformation or misjudgments.

There’s a bit in the 1989 film Jesus of Montreal where a beautiful young model is told by her director ex-boyfriend: “You are just a piece of meat; that’s all you’ll ever be.” Well, you don’t have to be a sex object to feel that you are dehumanised by the opinions and judgements of those who would shrink from subjecting themselves to the same.

It seems to me that one of the most common human predilections is to turn other human beings into commodities. It happens when groups of people – classes, races, communities, for example – are categorised, generalised, then lumped together for condemnation. It happens when sympathy and empathy are thrown to the wind as individuals are turned into objects for other people’s entertainment in a discipline-free arena of social judgmentalism.

The rights and wrongs of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision to take back control of their sovereignty, so to speak, clearly has a public interest element to it – simply by virtue of their identity and contingent responsibilities. But, there is also a deeper matter of their basic humanity. Whatever the wider considerations, this is still a young family concerned about protecting themselves.

It does seem odd to me that in a culture which venerates individual autonomy – shape your own destiny – a young couple who seek to do just that, and take responsibility for themselves then face a barrage of criticism. Or is it a case of ‘one rule for them and another for the rest of us’?

One of the shocking things about Jesus is that, in a culture that saw human life as cheap, he saw it differently. A woman caught in the act of adultery is dragged before him in order to test his legal purity. It ends well for the woman, but not for those who came to throw stones at her, but are embarrassed by their own failures. In story after story in the gospels it is the self-righteous judges who prove to be expert at missing the point. Stone throwing is not for grown-ups with humility or self-awareness.

However this current royal ruction plays out, the young family at the heart of it remain human beings, making hard decisions in a complex world in which their identity and status make them subject to the judgment of the rest of us. I don’t have to throw stones; I can choose to walk away.

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