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 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?

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.

 

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

I’ve just been away for three months on study leave. Apart from all the reading, writing, thinking, chatting and travelling, I also used the time to catch up on some long lost music. Crowded House, Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen got a lot of space, but it was Bruce’s Dancing in the Dark, played loud during a massive thunder storm in Tennessee, that sticks in my memory.

I think part of the reason this one stuck was because a couple of months before I left the UK I had a bit of a stroke – in my brain, not of the cat. As many people know, when something like that happens and is beyond your control, you feel like you are in the dark a bit – even if dancing is the last thing you think of doing.

In my case, it wasn’t a huge deal. It was a minor blip, but it came with consequences. I had to cancel travel and engagements abroad. But, on the bright side, I now have documentary evidence that I do have a brain.

Springsteen might have been singing about a different experience, but I spent a couple of months sleeping a lot, reading a lot and reflecting on what it means to be alive. Because the truth is, we all live all the time in the dark – not in any miserable sense, but just that none of us knows what is going to happen next. Not everything is in my control. I can make plans and imagine a future, but I can’t guarantee it will happen. Tomorrow I will be speaking on the phone with the Bishop of Colombo in Sri Lanka – a more dramatic illustration of my point.

Another Bruce – singer-songwriter Cockburn – once wrote: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you; sometimes the darkness is your friend.” And I know what he means. I didn’t worry when my brain blipped, simply because, as Easter whispers to a mortal world, my trust is not ultimately in me or my own security – it is in the God of resurrection.

Anyway, I am fine, back to work, back to Radio 2, and promising never to dance in the light. If you’ve seen me, you’d know why.

 

 

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. In the studio were Lee Mack, Paloma Faith, Tom Kerridge and Catherine Tate and the Kingdom Choir. Last time before Chris moves to Virgin after Christmas.

‘Tis the season to be joyful, ‘tis the time to be glad. Apparently. And so it should be, too. Christmas is about God surprising earth with heaven and leaking some hope into the stuff of human life.

A remote fairy tale? Some might think that, but the stories in the gospels tell of ordinary people – sometimes the unlikely people – finding light interrupting their darkness and opening up a new future.

So, ‘tis indeed the season to be joyful and a time to be glad. But, ‘tis also the season to have humdingers of arguments and family squabbles. How do I know this – when my own family exemplifies perpetual and imperturbable peace and harmony, (of course)?

I read in a newspaper on the train yesterday that it’s good to argue with your partner and bad to keep it all in. The article was actually about couples where one vents their feelings and irritations and the other keeps schtumm – keeping in what really needs to get out. It seems it’s bad for your health to do this.

And, as Christmas approaches with the speed of a kid running away from the sprouts, we all know that tensions rise and tempers flare. The pressures of money, time and relationships all pile on, and some people cope with it better than others.

I know people this Christmas who will be spending the day in a church or community centre with people who are alone, lonely or otherwise isolated. Many bishops will be going into prisons where ‘happy Christmas’ sounds a bit hollow. I will be in two cathedrals (because I am greedy and have three of the things in my Diocese), conscious that apparent joy can hide grief … and it needs someone to help it out.

So, ‘tis the season to look out for your neighbour – to look behind the tree and the tinsel to the flashes of pain and grief that might be lurking underneath. But, it’s also the time to belt out the carols – even the ones that have a baby who never cried – , be surprised by heaven, and to have your imagination grasped by a God who comes among us as one of us and whispers behind our defences: “I am with you, I am on your side.”