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

I grew up in Liverpool, by the sea. Even though I now live in Yorkshire – between the coasts – I can still smell the salt in the air and listen for the sound of seagulls enjoying target practice on unsuspecting children. Somehow it’s like a memory muscle that takes me straight back to the smells and sounds of my youth.

I remember being taught sea shanties at school and putting them in the same bracket as other hey-nonny-no folk music – something that didn’t appeal when I was discovering Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. It was what we used to call ‘sandals and socks’ music. So, I have ignored them for decades until – yes, you’ve guessed it – Nathan Evans sang one called ‘Wellerman’ on TikTok and it all kicked off. Now, just to add to my surprise, I keep seeing big names like Gary Barlow and Ronan Keating picking them up and doing their own.

What is going on?

Well, I think it’s brilliant. Not only have loads of people been getting together virtually to sing these old songs, but they’re also discovering a rich part of our tradition as an island people. Sea shanties aren’t merely romantic ditties about abstracted emotions. No, they’re rooted in and emerge from the working experience of ordinary people in local places. They’re about everyday things. They’re sometimes romantic in substance, but always coloured by the stuff of communal work and colleagues and hard lives.

In other words, they sing of what they know. And the singing has a raw authenticity because it’s drawn from the depths of real life with all its edges unrounded.

I think this is why I have rediscovered sea shanties with surprised joy. I come from a tradition which is sunk in poems and songs and stories of everyday life, human experience in all its richness and agony: the Psalms; Jesus telling stories and using images that people could relate to (usually called parables) because they emerged from normal life. And people got stuck in – together – talking, singing, playing.

Why don’t you try it? Sing along with a shanty and your spirits rise. And I still have no idea what a wellerman is.

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

There’s nothing quite like a ten year old looking at you as if to say: “Are you really that dim?” Well, that was my experience – trying to homeschool a grandson in maths. Not only was I always rubbish at numbers, but he seemed just to ‘get’ concepts I had to struggle to work out. And I think many people will understand the challenge of trying to teach children who end up teaching us.

Now, this made me laugh. Because it’s often the children from whom we learn the most. In the gospels Jesus brings a young child into the midst of a group of earnest adults and cheerfully tells them that if they want to enter the kingdom of God, they’ll have to become like this child. (I’ve often wondered if it was a boy or a girl, a three year old or a ten year old, a quiet one or a loud one … and so on. We’re not told.) But, I think what Jesus was getting at was simply that kids are curious, want to learn and find the world inexhaustibly full of things to wonder at.

So, I think that wise and curious adults should constantly try to look through the eyes of a child, asking the basic questions and being open to the joy of surprise. What I realised with my grandson was that maths hasn’t changed since I was young; but, the language used and the approach to learning has. The subject is the same, but the means of understanding have moved on. Other people can see through the equation to the reality it describes, whereas the best I can do is to colour it in.

This is obvious, really, isn’t it? But, sometimes I think we get so accustomed to things that we fail to see the wonder in it all. I need to look through a child’s eyes in order to see afresh. I need to keep listening for new ways to describe the world, always learning.

So, whether it’s maths, poetry, theology, music or biology, ask a child to explain it and enjoy what comes out.

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 the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2.

I think I need to watch more telly. When the Emmys were announced the other day I realised I had never heard of most of the programmes that won. The problem is, though, that I’ve recently gone back to watching the whole box set of The West Wing and anything else seems to get in the way. I know what I like and I like what I know.

The West Wing – which first broadcast on this very day in 1999 – follows a fictional US presidency and is great for learning how the White House works – or doesn’t. But, of the many great lines in it, my favourite is: “What’s next?” President Bartlet, whatever crisis he has just had to deal with, comes out with the question all the time: “What’s next?”

Now, I know the feeling. And I admire the people who just move effortlessly on to the next thing on the agenda. But, I also think it isn’t that easy … and maybe isn’t always wise.

Most of us will know what it’s like when life feels like being trapped on a hamster wheel – or a conveyor belt to nowhere. You want the world to stop – to give you a break. But, things keep happening, time rolls on, and you just get thrown around by it.

And that’s life in the real world. But, I also hear the whisper of Jesus telling his friends to live in the moment: “Don’t worry about tomorrow; … today is enough to cope with.” Well, for some people that’s fine. They are sufficiently comfortable to know where the next meal is coming from. Yet, there is a rising number of people for whom tomorrow is a threat – today brings enough of a challenge.

This uncertainty makes me confront my own fragility. I am not in control of the world … or even my own life. So, when I see people for whom tomorrow brings only fear or failure, I might look for a way to make today better … for them.

Maybe that’s the answer to my own “What’s next?” question … while I continue to be haunted by the relentless pace of the West Wing.

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 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.