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 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.

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

What does it feel like when the shape of your world changes overnight and everything you take to be normal disappears – a familiar experience in the pandemic?

I ask the question because we are now marking two connected anniversaries: the formal creation of the German Democratic Republic on 7 October 1949 … and German reunification on 3 October 1990. The GDR only existed for half a century, but, for some people, it was their lifetime … and then it was gone.

For many people in the east of Germany reunification was a takeover that valued little from the GDR and sowed seeds of resentments that are being watered today. Ostalgie is a hankering for value.

This is not new. In these times of uncertainty I’ve been re-reading one of the foundational stories of the Bible: the exodus. Moses, the reluctant liberator, led his oppressed people out of slavery in Egypt towards a life of freedom. Yet, they now found themselves not in some instant shangri-la, but in an empty desert. And gratitude did not last long.

Almost immediately the people started complaining. And moaning about the current shapelessness of their life soon led to romanticism about the past and a form of nostalgia that quickly forgot recent reality. And while this was going on, poor old Moses had to pay attention to how to shape a future in an uncertain world. Freedom from does not lead inevitably to freedom for. How to create a good society depends on more than a dislike or selective remembering of an old bad one.

Well, according to the story, a whole generation of nostalgics had to die off before the next generation could disempower nostalgia and look to creating a different future.

Which brings me back to the German question. Was the GDR a desert experience between National Socialism and Merkel’s land? Or is the current arrangement also a transitory journey towards another land – for good or ill? No society knows what will come next. The present is always transitory – we know what we are ‘post’, but we don’t know what we are ‘pre’.

Moses’ people had to unlearn the dependencies of captivity and take responsibility for their common life. This involved the hard stuff of enshrining justice and mercy in community, polity and law – protecting poor and marginalised people, ensuring that justice could not be bought and that powerful people can be held to account.

Past glories – imagined or real – do not shape a good future. Only a humble commitment to justice can do that – however often we might fall short.

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

I am probably not alone in being haunted by film of the explosion in Beirut on Tuesday evening. The fearful images are powerful in themselves, but they also provoke a terrible sense of awe – at the destruction and death wrought by the apocalyptic suddenness of such a violent event. Observing from a distance is bad enough; being there must surely be appalling at every level.

As the shock turns yet again to musings about meaning, every witness will have their own vocabulary – their own associations – as they try to articulate the impact on their own sense of mortality or fragility.

I was probably also not alone on Tuesday in associating images from Lebanon with those from Hiroshima 75 years ago today. I remember seeing film of that first atomic bomb and reading John Hersey’s harrowing account from 1946 of the aftermath. Even at the time this provoked both scientists and ethicists to question whether technology had once again outstripped morality. In the light of our proven technological ability to do something, how do we then ensure that the question as to whether we should do it is properly addressed – and in which terms?

This is not easy. In the real world things don’t happen tidily or sequentially. But, I think there are other images that might help in the search.

In the Christian calendar, today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. This recalls when Jesus took three of his friends up a mountain where his appearance was transfigured by light before their eyes. They were dazzled. But, they didn’t quite get what they had just witnessed. Jesus had to explain to them, but also urge them not to rush around telling everyone what they had seen. Don’t leap to judgment when you don’t have the full picture or you haven’t had time to think it through.

What is also significant here is that Jesus leads them back down the mountain and they head towards Jerusalem where he knows that horrors await him and them. No fantasy idealism. No seduction by an ideological dream. Just – how to live with the vivid experience as cold, unpredictable (and perhaps incomprehensible) reality unravels before them.

The question whether we should do what we can do has not gone away since Hiroshima. Nor has the warning not to rush to judgment or blame simply because of a prior association. And nor has the need to share fragile humanity by prayer and practical care for those who suffer what they might never understand.

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 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.

We never walk alone. One of the things discovered by many people in the recent strange weeks of Covid-19 lockdown is that we have the time and space for a new questioning.

Four resources might help us along the way. We can look at them in the company of others who might be wanting to do their own ‘walk to Emmaus’. This isn’t just for Christians; it is for the curious. And it doesn’t predetermine an outcome. That’s the point.

The first is Francis Spufford’s wonderful Unapologetic – a race through the emotional appeal of Christianity. Funny, sweary, intelligent and passionate – it can be read alongside other resources of apologetics.

Secondly, Tom Holland’s brilliant account of the way Christianity has shaped the world and much that we take for granted in our now-secular culture: Dominion. It is surprising, erudite, but genuinely unputdownable.

Thirdly, Rhidian Brook’s new collection of Thought for the Day scripts: Godbothering. I do Thought for the Day (on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme) from time to time – I am doing next Friday – and I know how tricky it is. I read Rhidian’s scripts and wonder why I can’t write like he does. Beautiful use of language, vivid storytelling and imagery, imaginative theological reflection on the stuff of life. No wonder he is a novelist and screenwriter.

Fourthly, a book of sermons. I have a problem with books of sermons: preaching is an event – you have to be there; context and audience matter. Reading them later, almost as a flat script rather than a spoken event, can render them interesting-but-dull. Not when the preacher is Mark Oakley. His recent collection of sermons, The Way of the Heart, demonstrates the power of language beautifully and powerfully deployed. Moving, challenging, arresting – I wanted to stop in every paragraph and meditate on the way the words go deep. This is a wonderful book and a challenge to all preachers.

Of course, there are many more resources. But, that’s a start. Readable, accessible books for helping us on the journey from Easter.

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.