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

I’m off on holiday soon – with my eldest son and his wife and their two young kids. I can’t wait. But, before I go I’ve got to do the job I dread every summer: sort out my office, sift the books, and decide what I want to read on the beach. (Although I suspect I might get buried in sand more times than I’ll get books read.)

So, what would you choose, if you were me? A bit of heavy theology or philosophy to keep my brain in gear? The epic book on history I have just been sent, but haven’t had the time to get stuck into? Or the poetry books I have had sitting on my table waiting for “the right moment”? Or the biography of Eric Clapton and the two books about Bob Dylan  I’ve been waiting to read for months?

You know what? I’ll probably take a few novels and give brain-strain a rest. Something that has a good plot and makes my imagination run riot without the interruptions of work and the phone and Twitter.

Because it’s the imagination that too easily gets squeezed out in my line of business. And yet it’s the imagination that fires the soul and keeps curiosity alive.

This matters to me because, as a Christian, I follow someone who kept prodding behind the mundane and the routines of everyday life and framed questions that went beyond mere ideas about God, the world and us.

For example, Jesus never defined where God is to be found in statements that had to be agreed with or denied. He kept saying: “The kingdom of God is like…” and then told a story or tried out an image. The idea was to subvert those who wanted to use argument about God and the world and get behind the words to the imagination. So, he grabbed their attention, awoke their curiosity, teased their imagination, and left them with questions. They had to work it out for themselves. No wonder people wanted to come out of town to hear him.

So, saying all this has helped me to decide. One history book, four poetry books and a pile of novels. It’s my imagination that’s going to get a work out on the beach this time.

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

This weekend I was a little surprised to read in a German magazine that democracy might be under threat … from silence.

The silence referred to is the anecdotal evidence that people are declining to engage in argument or debate – even with friends and family – because dispute and disagreement in the public sphere have become so toxic. Here in the UK this perception might be attributed to a reaction against the divisive discourse around Brexit. But, in Germany it has a different root: although their media do comment on events in the UK, they are primarily occupied with the end of Angela Merkel’s reign – and the transitional time when the Far Right are pressing their case for change and the Left are falling apart.

If the silence this generates is real, then worry about the future of democracy might be well-grounded. Why? Well, I can understand people saying that arguments in private are not of the same order as those in the public or political sphere. And, of course, there is some truth in that.

But, the point is that we learn how to argue and debate in private well before we test out how to do it in public – how to do it as individuals before we try it out in a complex public arena where the voices might be loud and multi-accented. So, if we don’t practise arguing with our family and friends, we don’t learn the skills of differing and disputing … and we risk not learning the behaviours that go with it.

As a Christian, I sometimes wonder who argued with Jesus in the thirty years or so before he began his controversial and short lived public ministry.  We know he was an argumentative child, but, I wonder who helped sharpen his wit, shape his stories, steel his mind and hone his rhetoric. It doesn’t happen by magic.

This is important because ideas – even silly ones and heresies – need to be articulated and tested if I am to learn what will hold water and whether an idea or ideology will stand the test of contradiction or rebuttal. In other words, argument and debate are positive things that should be encouraged and learned in order that matters of common life and order can be properly understood and their consequences explored ahead of any commitment to them. After all, as we are experiencing now, the only alternative to arguing or disagreeing well is simply arguing or disagreeing badly. And then everyone suffers.

This is why I think our children need to be encouraged and taught early not only to argue a point, but to learn how to lose an argument – and that this can be a strong thing, not a weakness.

Silence can be golden, but not when it is born of fear.

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

Well, Glastonbury seems to have gone well. I caught up with bits of it on the telly, but would love to have been there.

Instead, I found myself a few days ago speaking at the launch of a literature festival. I didn’t know I was speaking until shortly before it began. So, I cast around a bit for an opener and landed on Billy Ocean … if you see what I mean.

I was once in a studio with him and was waiting for him to launch into ‘When the going gets tough the tough get going’, but he didn’t. So, I offered: “When the going gets tough the tough … write poetry.” He laughed.

What I was getting at was that I grew up thinking poetry was a bit wussy – a bit indulgent and fancy – only to discover that it’s actually the poets who deal with the hard stuff of life. And you can include lyricists in that, too. Because they use words and images that get behind the defences and have the power to move and surprise us, shining a different light on something we take for granted or think is just ‘normal’.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the books I read every day – those that make up the Bible – are full of poetry. Jesus never defined the kingdom of God; he just kept saying “It’s like this…” and offered a story or image. And he knew that once you have told a story or evoked a picture, you’ve also given it away and lost control over what people might do with it.

If poetry enables me to look differently, to see differently, and to think differently about God, the world and people, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that scriptures are full of it. The poets tease the imagination and dig into the complex experiences and emotions of people’s lives. They refuse to let us get away with compartmentalising – you know, keeping your mind in one box, faith in another, experience in another. The poets hold us together.

As Leonard Cohen famously put it: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”

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

Only four years, almost to the day, after tens of thousands of allied troops had sat on a beach at Dunkirk, being bombed and strafed and hoping for evacuation, 6 June 1944 saw many hundreds of the same men preparing to fight on the European mainland again. Imagine their feelings – about to face the guns once more. That’s courage.

Like young Albert Kings of the 1st Worcester Regiment as his troop ship pulls out of Newhaven Docks, thinking of his wife of less than three months and wondering if she will soon be a widow. Later he wrote: “I tried to look ahead to better times, but I knew it would only be brought about by our efforts. I was determined to do my best.”

What strikes me, reading the stories of D-Day again, 75 years on, is that these guys didn’t have the luxury of offering opinions or passing distant judgment on the whole operation or those who had planned it. Whatever their feelings, whatever their fears, whatever their thoughts, they got into boats and sought to land on enemy territory in France. They weren’t given opt-outs or asked to fill out a feedback form.

The point is that these men – they were mostly men – looked out across the water into the unknown and committed themselves wholly to the mission.

Now, I really admire them for this. They knew they might never come back, but they went. They imagined the cost. And they went.

But, this notion of commitment didn’t just emerge from anywhere. This sacrifice was rooted in the Hebrew and Christian notion that belief is not simply about accepting a doctrine about God or an ideology; no, to believe was to commit yourself, body, mind and spirit, to what you believed (however feebly or tentatively) to be true or right. Today belief is largely seen as something going on in your head, but that is a bloodless understanding.

Albert Kings trusted that, as he played his part, others would play theirs. They were interdependent and had to trust, knowing the mission might also fail.

I don’t have to invade France today. But, I might consider whether it’s braver to observe from a distance or get stuck in when it comes to helping and loving my neighbour.

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

You know what it’s like when you get a song running round the inside of your head and you can’t stop it? Well, I’ve got one and it’s driving me a bit mad. It could be worse, I suppose – it could be something like an obscure national anthem – but this one is a hymn. It’s one everyone knows – it’s ‘Amazing Grace’.

I think what’s happened is that I heard a writer talking about it on the radio and it triggered something. I have known ‘Amazing Grace’ since I was a kid – a slave trader’s discovery that life could be different and that he didn’t have to be trapped in guilt for ever. Anyway, hearing it mentioned on the radio prompted me to go to the flicks and see the film of Aretha Franklin stirring hearts and souls (including a very young Mick Jagger) at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972. It is an intense experience and wonderful music.

Judging by the response of the cinema audience, grace is what you experience while watching. OK, you’ve paid to get in, but what you get is a massive dose of freely offered generosity and joy. What Aretha Franklin does is open your heart to the possibility that, despite all the rubbish in life, we are loved to death and beyond.

Grace is a word that, apart from being a popular girl’s name again, sounds religious. That’s because it is. For Christians it speaks of forgiveness and freedom – offered by a God who has no illusions or fantasies about human messiness or failure, but crosses it all out with a love and mercy you can only call outrageously reckless. In a world in which everything seems calculated or quantified – even love and affection: what will I get out of it if I put this amount into it? – how do we account for the unpurchasable, unearnable, unmanipulable love of one who breaks the bonds of guilt and fear and shines the light of newness into the darkness of loss? The Beatles hit on a similar idea when they sang “Can’t buy me love”.

Amazing Grace. ‘Slightly interesting grace’ wouldn’t have worked, would it?

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

I’m not sure if a confession this early in the morning is wise, but I have never watched Game of Thrones. I have no idea what the story is, who the characters are, or what the plot line is. So, I can’t comment on any aspect of it … except the response to its ending.

Social media seem to be full of people who are angry that they didn’t get the ending they wanted or hoped for. I have even seen passionate pleas with the producers to fire the screenwriters, pull the last series and re-write (and re-film) the thing so it ends properly. What on earth is this about?

I guess in a world of custom-made this and custom-oriented that, we too easily believe that everything revolves around me and my satisfaction – that somehow I should have a life of individual personal fulfilment that makes everything nice. And, of course, it’s obvious from experience that this is nonsense.

It’s not only nonsense, but I think it’s boring nonsense. I recently read a lot of books while on study leave and a couple of the novels I read left me hanging, wishing for a different denouement. But, the joy of story is the element of surprise – shock, even.

For a Christian like me, this shouldn’t be a novel idea – especially in the current Easter season. Follow the gospels through and we see a story developing that keeps twisting and surprising. Get to the end – Jesus dead and buried – and there’s no airbrushing the powerful human brutality of it all. It’s not exactly escapism, is it? But, while the bereft friends of Jesus are trying to make sense of what shouldn’t have happened, they are further surprised by their women coming home and saying that the dead man seems not to be finished after all.

But, this is no ‘happy-ever-after’ deus-ex-machina make-us-all-happy resolution. In fact, it causes more problems. These people have to keep wrestling with reality, experience and their whole understanding about God and the world, and try to make sense of it all. This isn’t the script they were following, but it is forcing them to choose between their expectations and their experienced reality.

That’s how endings work. Surprise, challenge, discomfort. And it’s the ending that makes you go back to the beginning and re-read the whole narrative in the light of the twist.

We can no more control the endings of our own stories than we can compel writers to change their books. We are supposed to be challenged, arrested, surprised and intrigued. That’s the point. The story goes on in our imagination. And if we simply say: “Oh, there you go then,” then the story hasn’t worked. As true for resurrection as it is for Game of Thrones. Whatever that is.

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

I’ve got two sons – both of them well grown up now (that’s what I tell them, anyway) – and they’re both seriously colour blind. It’s great to play snooker against them. The thing about colour blindness is that you can’t tell from looking at them that they’ve no idea which is the red, the green or the brown.

Well, I’ve just learned that tomorrow is Face Equality Day. Now, my first response was boredom that every day seems to be ‘something day’. But, because I didn’t understand the title, I looked it up. And it’s all about people whose face doesn’t conform to so-called normal expectations of beauty or normality. Perhaps because of medical or accident reasons, they suffer unwelcome attention or unkind responses from people in public.

I’m trying to get the words right here, because those people working for change in this area use the term ‘visible difference’ to refer to this phenomenon. It’s a way of challenging the assumption that some people who look different are worth less. The evidence is that when you find your own face has changed, people treat you differently.

Well, we all know how important our face is. According to Shakespeare, “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face” – in other words, look past the appearance and you might detect the mind or soul of the person. I think he got this from his familiarity with the Bible which is full of stuff about faces. Try: Proverbs 27:19, “As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart.”

But, it’s too easy to avoid the point here by saying simply that it’s what’s inside you that counts, not what you look like. Well, most people who say that sort of thing are probably OK with their own appearance. Perhaps I should try putting myself inside the skin – or looking through the eyes – of someone who gets stared at or, worse, avoided.

How we appear to other people does matter – especially in a culture which constantly bombards us with images of normal beauty. But, how other people look at those who are visibly different matters enormously.

Let’s face it, we can light up someone else’s face by loving who they are and the uniqueness of how they look.

 

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