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This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on the morning after the Inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris:

Why is it that the same words spoken by two different people can have such a different effect.

For example, listen to me read Shakespeare … and then listen to an actor use the same words. It’s the same with liturgy: one person grabs the attention of a congregation and they go through the words to a different place; someone else does it and it’s like having the telephone directory read out.

I say this because yesterday’s inauguration ceremony in Washington was pregnant with resonant language. For example, that we should be judged not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. A truism? Maybe. But, the words create a space, suggesting a first word and not the final nail in a dogma. There is room to explore – as my own imagination did during the ceremony.

“Here we stand”, said the President. And I thought of Martin Luther, standing in front of the emperor five hundred years ago and articulating that all-too-human predicament: I hold to this conviction, but with vulnerability before the potential cost. We heard of St Augustine, often maligned as the original sinner when it comes to sex, but who couldn’t escape the depths of love and grace and mercy. We heard Amazing Grace – a familiar hymn which is dragged from the depths of a complex and conflicted man (John Newton) who knew that when all is stripped away, we are left with a human fragility that knows its need of unmerited generosity and mercy. As Jesus told his friends prior to his own death: if you are to live and give grace, you need first to recognise your own need of it and receive it.

The thing about yesterday was that, whether spoken or accompanied by music, words have the power to transcend mere pragmatism – policies and how to enact them in legislation, for instance; they inspire the imagination. This is language that resonates, that is spacious, that lifts our eyes and hearts to perceive an experience that might hitherto have eluded us.

I think this is what was being addressed yesterday. Not the language of settling scores. Not an articulation of pride or self-consciousness. Not an expression of dry dogma. But, as Amanda Gorman illustrated, a poetry that clears a way for hope.

Surely it’s the poets who penetrate the jungle of defended argument and debate. For the poet uses words to shine light from a different angle, surprising the imagination, subverting expectation, and opening our eyes to a new possibility.

In silent vigil for those who have died of Covid, Joe Biden said: “To heal, we must remember.” I would add: “ To heal, we must be surprised by subversive words of love.”

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

Before the latest lockdown I watched a man painting white lines in a park. The reason I stopped was simply that I was curious to know what game the white lines were going to frame. Before working out where to put them on the grass, you first have to know what game you want to play.

Now, this sounds obvious, I know. But, in the current climate it perhaps suggests something useful as the whole country tries to work out how to behave, which rules to follow and what guidance is most important. Repeated mantras of “it is absolutely clear” fail to recognise that clarity is defined by the hearer and not primarily the speaker. Hence, the first rule of communication: it’s not what you say that matters, but what is heard.

I am used to this. The gospels are full of Jesus telling a story or offering an image after which he asks the audience: “Do you know what I mean? Have you got the ears to hear?” Clearly, some couldn’t hear, didn’t want to hear, or refused to hear.

This is pertinent at a time when many people are clearly struggling to know how to behave best – within the white lines of rules and guidance. Does ‘best’ mean ‘in a way that makes me comfortable’ or ‘in a way that protects me and other people’? The point about white lines on a pitch is that everyone in the game knows where the ball can be played, can choose where to run, and is free to be creative within the parameters.

Debates in the last week about compliance with government rules come down to this. If I am to choose well, I need to understand not only where the white lines are, but also what game I think I’m playing. Mature citizenship can be exercised where people know why they are being expected to behave in particular ways – what the game is and how to play it.

For example, if I think the most important thing in the world is my individual freedom, unconstrained by the security of other people in a common and interdependent society, I will filter out guidance that infringes that freedom to do as I like. If, on the other hand, I take seriously that inherent interdependence, I might be ready to sacrifice my individual freedom on the altar of the common good.

To reprise the white lines theme, I might sacrifice my moment of glory by letting someone else score the goal that gives the team a victory. In my terms, this means, in the words of St Paul: “Do nothing from selfish ambition, … but look to the interests of others”.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, written late last night.

To be surprised by events in Washington is to ignore the fragility of democracy. If Covid has taught us that both human life and a stable economy are vulnerable, then the incited mob attack on the Capitol must reinforce the vital need for democracy, the rule of law, and the peaceful transition of power to be treasured at all times.

I have shaken the hand of more than one dictator whose fall from power was swift. When it is stripped away, all that is left is the same mortal human being whose imperial clothes proved to be as thick as mist.

But, we don’t have to look far for wisdom at a time like this when the hint of a smile will be seen on the face of other dictators and power-merchants. The ancient wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures dig deeply into the cry for justice, generosity, peace and the common good. The prophets weep over how easily people can be seduced by words of strength or power or security that in the end undermine that very security itself.

I say this in the Christian season of Epiphany. Wise men travel from the familiarity and security of home to a place where, unlikely as it seems, they find hope in the scrap of humanity that is the baby Jesus. But, no sooner has the Christmas tree been cleared away than the violent King Herod sets his men in search of children to slaughter. The romance of the Christmas card crib gives way to the brutal reality of powerful people who are driven by fear and not drawn by hope or love or mercy.

According to this story – the one that has supposedly shaped those protestors carrying banners proclaiming ‘Jesus saves’ – strength and power have been powerfully reinterpreted in the scandal of a man on a cross. Not a man with a gun. This story challenges me to re-imagine what power looks like when coloured by love and mercy rather than entitlement and fear.

America is shocked today. But, the election to the Senate of Raphael Warnock, successor to Martin Luther King as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, offers an alternative vision. As a Christian, he knows that, “Jesus saves” us from ourselves. For the tradition of Jesus was rooted in people like Amos who, famously quoted by Martin Luther King, said: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Today might just hint at the beginning of a new awakening to the reality of the myths that power that great country. God bless America, maybe, but don’t just assume it.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Zoe Ball Show on BBC Radio 4.

When I was a kid I found December a hard month. Waiting for Christmas was a sort of torture. Do you know what I mean? I’m not even sure I can remember what I was waiting for that made it so exciting: it was the ‘something’ that Christmas promised that couldn’t be nailed down to presents I might or might not get.

I now think it had something to do with just growing up and learning that some things can’t be rushed – they have to be waited for. You can buy cards and presents, but you can’t make Christmas Day come any quicker. A bit like pregnancy: you have to let nature take its course and wait for the time to come when the baby enters the world with a cry.

The Welsh poet RS Thomas wrote that in fact “the meaning is in the waiting”. The journey is as important as getting there. And if we simply waste the journey dreaming of what might meet us at the end, we’ll miss the surprises and mysteries along the way … if we keep our eyes and ears open for them.

But, waiting is really hard. Especially for children. And in a year when many families will have to reduce expectations of material gifts, this waiting might be coloured by a certain fear or regret. But, even this experience can bring its own gifts.

For example, lockdown restrictions can give us time and space to think afresh about what Christmas is for – not just a midwinter festival of light, but rooted in a story that changed the world. Like the teenaged Mary living through her pregnancy and not knowing what the future might hold for her or her child – probably just as well, really. Or her people longing for freedom from Roman oppression, but unable to bring it on. Or us wanting freedom from Covid and an end to restrictions, but finding any relaxation leading to further problems and the grinding pain of uncertainty.

Mary’s baby came when he was ready. And he came into a world as conflicted as ours to people as complex as we are.

So, we wait on. And mustn’t waste the waiting.

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

I don’t know about you, but I just find it impossible to read while listening to music which has lyrics. I can do it if the music is instrumental only, but I get stressed between the words on the page and the words in my ears, and lose out on both.

Unlike my kids who seem to have earphones in while doing anything … like work or study.

The other day I was trying to read Barack Obama’s new book, A Promised Land, and made the mistake of putting on Bruce Spingsteen’s new album, Letter to You. By the time I got through to the last song I gave up on the book. It was the words that got me.

One track – In My Dreams – is a beautiful song and I got distracted by remembering dreams I have had recently – especially since lockdown. I never usually remember dreams, but recently that has changed a bit, and I find it all a bit weird. Do my dreams really just replay the world as I would like it to be, or re-run things that have gone wrong in a subconscious move to put them right? I don’t know.

What I do know, though, is that dreams matter. Not just the line we keep hearing these days about “follow your dreams” and all will be well. Experience tells us that not everything in life works out as we would like. Not even dreams as vague hopes or aspirations. But, dreams have a habit of getting under our skin and shaking us up a bit.

In the Bible dreams are really important. They are often the turning points in someone’s life, offering a vision of how the future might be, or warning that trouble might be on the way. They sometimes provoke a crisis which demands action once the dreamer has woken up. Or they provide a way of checking if my vision is ambitious enough.

In my dreams I hope to glimpse how I might change in the real world, loving better, living better, choosing better. Like Obama, I might be energised by a vision of a promised land.  Or, like my kids, I might one day be able to do two things at once: listen and read.

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

Good news! In only four weeks the days start getting longer again. The light will start to grow.

But, for me, the next four weeks won’t just herald the end of lockdown or the approach of the Christmas juggernaut, it’ll bring something even more powerful as we look towards the end of a tough year for everyone. Advent – the season that dares to defy the darkening days and awaken our imagination to the possibility of hope – and it starts next Sunday.

I was once in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, engaged in a difficult conversation with the then deputy Foreign Minister, a rabbi. At one point he stood up and banged the table. He said: “Sometimes it seems as if there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But, it is not because the light is not there; it’s because the tunnel is not straight.” And I wrote it down as I thought it might be a good line for a Pause for Thought script one day.

It’s a vivid image, isn’t it? Drive through the Mersey Tunnel and you’ll get the idea as the road bends around in the darkness. (And ignore the late great Terry Pratchett’s line: “There was a light at the end of the tunnel, and it was a flamethrower.”)

But, Advent, as we anticipate Christmas, beckons us to wait – to look and watch and not be done in by the present gloom. For the people of the first Christmas this meant yearning for the end of military occupation and daily suffering or humiliation. The light was coming into the world and no darkness – not even imperial Roman violence – would be able to kill it off. Or, in the words of the songwriter Bruce Cockburn, in the darkness we are actually “closer to the light”.

So, in this sense, Advent needn’t just be for Christians. I think it offers an invitation for all of us in these days of gloom to lift our eyes towards the light that will come, however bendy the tunnel we are in.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Show as Joe Wicks was about to begin his 24 hour PE workout to raise cash for Children in Need.

A quick question: what is Joe Wicks wearing for the next 24 hours of PE?

I just hope he’s comfortable, that’s all. I once played a game of football when I tore my shorts and wouldn’t run – but was too embarrassed to tell anyone why not.

Well, if Joe wanted to wear a leotard, he’d be accidentally celebrating the very first flying trapeze act on this day in 1859 when Jules Léotard flew above Paris without a net. And the one-piece bit of kit he wore became known as the leotard. Of course, it descended eventually into Borat’s mankini, but let’s not go there.

He may not realise it, but whatever Joe wears for his marathon workout, he will also be demonstrating some deep thinking. Many people have understood human beings to be made of different components – body, mind and spirit (or soul) as if they can be separated out and that what happens in one bit has no impact on the others.

I come from a tradition that has had to learn afresh that you can’t divide people up into separate and independent bits. The writers of biblical books are absolutely clear that body, mind and spirit belong together. This is why people 3,000 years ago in the Middle East were being told to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength.” Jesus repeated it years later. Loving God meant paying attention to how the body (heart) affects the mind and the spirit … and so on. They belong together and how we exercise the body or the mind or the spirit will determine how fit we are.

This isn’t pseudo-psychology. It assumes that if our children – particularly those in need – can’t exercise their body, flex and grow their mind and imagination, and aren’t given space for spiritual wonder and discipline, then don’t be surprised if they end up with problems.

Joe, whatever you’re wearing, go for it. And we’ll support you as you raise the cash to help kids keep body, mind and spirit healthy.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme as the uncertainty over the US presidential election continues.

A few years ago, while staying with friends near Philadelphia, we visited the place where the Constitution of the United States was signed on 17 September 1787. Famously, the Constitution opens with the words: “We the people…”. I remember standing in the chamber itself and wondering who the Founders had in mind when they used that phrase.

Well, in a sort of odd symmetry, tomorrow is the anniversary of the election of probably America’s most revered president, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860. And it was this simple-but-problematic phrase that posed Lincoln with his biggest challenge: does ‘the people’ include black people and slaves? The next few years saw civil war and the tearing apart of a country over precisely this question.

It’s not a question that has since gone away. What was remarkable about Lincoln, though, was the way he treated his political opponents. As Doris Kearns Goodwin demonstrates in her exceptional book A Team of Rivals, Lincoln brought into his close cabinet the very people who had run against him for the presidency and who variously undermined him, fought against him and tried to compromise his leadership. He knew that a country for all the people included his opponents and not just his supporters.

Lincoln summed up this approach when he said: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” In another context he said of an opponent: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”

Some would say this is politically naive. I think Lincoln understood something vital to a good society – that ‘the people’ has to include all the people and not just the winners in an election. And in this understanding Lincoln drew from a biblical tradition that explored how societies are built from mutual obligations, common commitments and the privileges of belonging.

In the Old Testament the liberated people of Israel take forty years in a desert learning not only the need for social order based on freedom and responsibility, but also for establishing common rituals that re-frame their story, remind them why people matter, and impose boundaries of value and behaviour within which their newly-found freedom can be enjoyed.

Lincoln also draws on Jesus seeing his enemies as people to be loved and not rejected or despised. Naive? In a world that worships power and glory and glamour? Maybe. Both Jesus and Lincoln paid a heavy price.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the US election, Lincoln’s courage might have something to offer.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on the anniversary of the Aberfan disaster in 1966.

Some things we see or hear in the news stick in the mind for ever. I was a small child when JFK was assassinated and I remember the fear in my home about what it might mean for the world. But, one of the images that has haunted me since this day in 1966 is the destroyed town of Aberfan in Wales when a coal tip slid over houses and a school and killed a generation of children. The images of that day – and since – evoke a terrible empty pain.

I now live in Yorkshire where evidence of the pits that mostly closed in the 1980s has disappeared. Hills of black stuff have long been landscaped and children in those communities now see fields and hills and playgrounds where a previous generation saw their life and livelihood.

Beautifying a landscape does nothing to wipe out the past and all it represented. Memory of community life and belonging goes along with the tragedies and losses of an industry that was dangerous and costly for many people. Lives lost and society built are, literally, buried in the seeds that grow the grass on the redeemed hills.

What these communities and their landscapes demonstrate, however, is that brokenness can be transformed by beauty. Ugliness and tragedy need not have the final word. Time moves on and we transform the landscape in order not to wipe out the past or de-value previous generations. Scars bear witness to both the wound and the healing. New life can come.

This is particularly pertinent as we live through a time of uncertainty when we have little or no idea what the future might hold or what it might look like for the generation of children who are at school or university now. Yet, it is essential, surely, that we hold out images of hope, of re-creation and future beauty that will see some healing of the scars of the current brutality.

For a personal image on which to hook my hope, I turn to the encounter of Thomas with the risen Jesus. Propaganda would have had the body of the risen Jesus looking beautiful and clean, with all traces of horror or suffering removed. What we get, however, is not some opiate for the people. Jesus is the same, but different. Remarkably, he still bears the wound marks of crucifixion in his hands and feet and side. And he isn’t squeamish about inviting Thomas to touch the wounds.

Like the landscaped scars of Yorkshire and Aberfan, the past cannot be romanticised. But, our children need to know it can be healed.

While staying with a friend in Basel once I visited the home of the late Protestant theologian Karl Barth. In the basement, where his personal library is kept, I looked through his marked-up copy of Mein Kampf and other significant books – Barth had been deprived of his university chair by Hitler and had then left Germany. The warden then handed me a box in which I found the original draft manuscript of what is considered to be one of the twentieth century’s most important political documents: the Barmen Declaration. It led to Christian opposition to the Nazis by asserting theological principles.

Together, a number of theologians found the courage to challenge dominant assumptions about power, human value and the meaning of it all. Many of them suffered from the consequences of their decision that order needs to be brought out of chaos and that this can only come at personal cost.

In a different context, the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka speaks of “the solidarity of the shaken”.* In other words, the experience of a common challenge brings with it the courage to stand up and stand out. The “solidarity of the shaken” is, I think, a phrase pertinent to today’s world.

What both Barmen and Patočka hold to is the conviction that faith is not a spiritualised escape from the demands of a challenging material world. Those who complain when religious leaders get involved in politics often assume that faith takes us out, rather than commits us to, the real world. But, it is impossible to see Christianity, for example, as a merely spiritual creed when at the heart of every Christian narrative is incarnation – God committing himself to the world in all its chances and contingencies and not opting out of the inconvenient consequences of materiality. The word Jesus says it all.

The current uncertainties of the world have blown a hole in western assumptions about control – of life, the environment and progress – and have shaken individuals and entire societies to their roots. The big themes, so easily hidden while we (in Neil Postman’s words) amuse ourselves to death, are now resurgent: mortality, fear, love, hope, faith, and so on. And through it all there is the possibility of a solidarity of the shaken – as we recognise the fragility of life and the common need for human interdependence.

It has been said that a crisis does not create character; it reveals it. Actually, both are true. But, as we navigate uncharted waters in the months ahead, it is the solidarity of humility that must trump the sham of hubris.

*Quoted in Night of the Confessor by Tomáš Halík

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