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.

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

Being in the public eye is clearly often a very uncomfortable experience, unimaginable by those who haven’t experienced it. Watching the storm raging around you – everyone having an opinion on your appearance, behaviour, person and value – can be debilitating even for the most experienced and hard-bitten individual. You feel powerless to correct misinformation or misjudgments.

There’s a bit in the 1989 film Jesus of Montreal where a beautiful young model is told by her director ex-boyfriend: “You are just a piece of meat; that’s all you’ll ever be.” Well, you don’t have to be a sex object to feel that you are dehumanised by the opinions and judgements of those who would shrink from subjecting themselves to the same.

It seems to me that one of the most common human predilections is to turn other human beings into commodities. It happens when groups of people – classes, races, communities, for example – are categorised, generalised, then lumped together for condemnation. It happens when sympathy and empathy are thrown to the wind as individuals are turned into objects for other people’s entertainment in a discipline-free arena of social judgmentalism.

The rights and wrongs of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision to take back control of their sovereignty, so to speak, clearly has a public interest element to it – simply by virtue of their identity and contingent responsibilities. But, there is also a deeper matter of their basic humanity. Whatever the wider considerations, this is still a young family concerned about protecting themselves.

It does seem odd to me that in a culture which venerates individual autonomy – shape your own destiny – a young couple who seek to do just that, and take responsibility for themselves then face a barrage of criticism. Or is it a case of ‘one rule for them and another for the rest of us’?

One of the shocking things about Jesus is that, in a culture that saw human life as cheap, he saw it differently. A woman caught in the act of adultery is dragged before him in order to test his legal purity. It ends well for the woman, but not for those who came to throw stones at her, but are embarrassed by their own failures. In story after story in the gospels it is the self-righteous judges who prove to be expert at missing the point. Stone throwing is not for grown-ups with humility or self-awareness.

However this current royal ruction plays out, the young family at the heart of it remain human beings, making hard decisions in a complex world in which their identity and status make them subject to the judgment of the rest of us. I don’t have to throw stones; I can choose to walk away.

I have just seen the report in today’s Times newspaper about Lord Singh’s withdrawal from doing Thought for the Day on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. I am sorry to see this and the terms in which he frames his reasons. His voice will be missed – although I suspect he has the same questions as I do about who might pick up from the next generation in due course.

In my experience of doing Thought for the Day I have only once felt pressed to speak on a particular issue and it didn’t turn out well for me. I wanted to talk about Steven Gerrard’s retirement (theme of loyalty), but there was some interfaith issue going on and I was persuaded to do a script on Islam. Two hours after delivery the Charlie Hebdo shootings took place in Paris and the criticism/abuse online led me to shut down all social media. Of course, had I known at 7.45am that there were to be shootings later that morning, I would have done a different script; but that sort of prophecy is not a gift I have been given.

Nevertheless, I fully understood the reasoning behind the request to address the issue in my script that day. Choices have to be made. The routine is that the contributor speaks on the phone with the producer for the next day’s slot and we agree a theme. Sometimes I have several possibilities up my sleeve – sometimes I have a blank sheet. Occasionally I have already written a script (or two) – just to get my mind working. Having drafted a script, there is then usually some back-and-forth about it before it gets signed off. Sometimes I argue with changes, sometimes I don’t. Usually the producer – who knows the medium and audience better than I do – reads what might be heard by particular language and advises a change. I always listen to this and learn from it. I have never been asked to say something I don’t agree with or edit inappropriately.

And, yes, I have had the phone call ten minutes before lift-off to ask for a tweak, but always in the light of other news that might change the way certain language is heard. We then negotiate. In my experience it is always a helpful and challenging conversation.

I always come away from the microphone wondering how I might have made my point better, more entertainingly or more clearly. I occasionally think I might have chosen a different theme, given the context on the programme and the nature of the news. But, I am clear that this is not a pulpit. The job of the contributor is to shine a different light on a theme – not to preach a sermon, but to stimulate thought, reaction, reflection, and so on. (My Inbox tells me that most reaction is knee-jerk and prejudiced … and sometimes abusive, but I get some intelligent stuff, too. Occasionally I get a critical response that is really helpful and moves me on. I think that’s called ‘being grown up’, even if sometimes it is painful.

And, yes, I sometimes wish it could be sharper and provocative, but there is a fine line to be trodden.

So, I am sorry Lord Singh is finishing. I hope this won’t be used as a further reason to malign the BBC when they do a thorough and mature job in working a difficult slot with sometimes difficult and opinionated people like me.

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

“And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green?” Well, no, actually – probably not. But, William Blake’s questions are not to do with historical event or fantasy, but with the need for a vision of England itself that transcends present miseries. Reality can only take you so far, after all.

A new Blake exhibition opened last week at Tate Britain in London and it has provoked huge interest. As someone who has never quite understood him, I look forward to seeing it and having my imagination opened more widely by seeing the world through Blake’s eyes. For what is clear about him is that his poetry, art and writing sees him wrestling with what it means to be truly human in a troubling world.

In his work we see Blake struggling personally with what was going on around him. Political oppression, public fear, uncertainty about the future in a changing world – he faced reality with imagination, vision and thankless political commitment.

However, vision wasn’t enough: he took seriously his own responsibility for addressing the world he questioned. The ‘satanic mills’ were a source of England’s prosperity, but they relied on draining human beings of life and soul; children might fit into chimneys, but that didn’t mean they should be sent up them – especially by people who then went to church to praise God.

It seems to me that Blake understood what is easily forgotten by Christians like me: that those who claim God’s name should at least begin to reflect the character and priorities of God. In other words, if I truly believe – and claim to be motivated by – the God of the Bible, in whose image every human being is made, then I cannot support or collaborate in language, policies or actions that diminish people.

Now, Blake recognised that this isn’t a black and white matter. None of us simply switches a moral dial and suddenly becomes perfect or consistent. We are not only fallibly human, but we also live in a particular social, historical and cultural context. The most we can do is try to see clearly – which means having the humility to allow the lens behind my eyes to be re-ground – and live differently, despite everything.

Blake worked out his salvation in vivid and glorious – sometimes terrifying – image. Words opened up the possibility of the divine – a spirituality of hope and justice in a world of grinding misery and material poverty. In looking through his eyes I hope we might find our own opened to look differently and see differently – what I would call the beginning of conversion.

Agreeing with Blake’s vision is not the aim. Engaging with its struggle is. Because in engaging with his mystical vision of God and humanity we might find ourselves inevitably driven to what these look like in real flesh and blood. To seeing “Jerusalem builded here”.

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

The other day I was browsing the German political journal Der Spiegel and found my attention arrested by an article the like of which I have not seen before. It was written by Niklas Frank, son of Hitler’s notorious General Governor of Poland Hans Frank. His father, a politician and lawyer, was executed as a war criminal at Nürnberg in October 1946.

The thrust of the article is that at the age of 80, having thought his father’s legacy had gone from the earth, he now discovers echoes of the same rhetoric in the mouths of some extreme right-wing politicians in Germany. And he is a very worried man.

The poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht ended his play ‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’ with the warning that the end of Nazism did not mean that its ideology died in a Berlin bunker. And here is Niklas Frank’s concern: that the same old ideas find their way back into our discourse while we are not looking, and sound reasonable in the midst of current uncertainties, crises and fears.

One of the things I began to learn many years ago is that my children might well have to forgive me for the wrong things I have said or done to them or others. Parents always make it up as they go along, seeking advice and trying their best. But, I doubt if any of us looks back with smug satisfaction at having got everything right. But, that is a far cry from having to live with the knowledge of a father’s crimes against humanity and the legacy this left for the whole world for ever.

When Shakespeare wrote in the Merchant of Venice that “the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children,” he was echoing the Hebrew Scriptures when they describe – rather than prescribe – reality. We inherit and cannot escape from the consequences of the sins of the fathers and mothers, and maturity involves coming to terms with this and living with or despite it.

For Niklas Frank, however, the matter cannot be left there. His inheritance, he believes, imposes on him a moral obligation to see through his father’s eyes the language and rhetoric that would have been as familiar as it was effective. So, when political language betrays a view of human beings that dehumanises them or dismisses their dignity, Frank sees the urgent need to identify where this thinking led in the past – his own family’s past.

I guess he would sympathise with WH Auden who once wrote: “All I have is a voice to undo the folded lie”. This tells me that I don’t have to have had a murderous father before listening for the language that turns people into numbers or objects, converts their inconvenience into disposability, or elevates my own self-righteousness above the dignity of those who have less power.

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

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of what is now called GCHQ – the Government Communications Headquarters. During that century the world – including the worlds of communication, espionage and intelligence – has changed radically. Even when I joined as a linguist specialist back in 1980 what we thought of as cutting-edge technology now looks quaint. As the world, driven by technology has developed, so have the intelligence services, their competences and self-understanding.

When I was at Cheltenham, working mainly in Russian and German, the place itself was so secret it didn’t even appear on Ordnance Survey maps. Now they have open days, social media recruitment and lots of other imaginative ways of communicating their existence, preoccupations and value to society.

What haven’t changed, of course, are the basic questions of national security and the need for any country to learn the languages of others. Whereas the need for national security, in one sense, speaks for itself, the “learning the language of others” stuff might not be so obvious. But, effective intelligence work demands that you get inside the head of those you suspect of threatening you, look out through their eyes, listen through their ears, and understand how this shapes or directs their language and behaviour.

Now, there is a risk to this exercise. If you learn about another people and enter into their experience, you begin to comprehend and, sometimes, even sympathise with them. It isn’t quite Stockholm Syndrome, but it is risky. For example, learning about the experiences and historical contexts of my enemy might reframe my understanding of why they behave or speak the way they do. We all speak in codes and the codes depend on common intuitions or understandings.

I think this goes to the heart of being human in society. If empathy gets lost, then we find it difficult to read each other. Instead of being exposed to reality – which is often complex and nuanced – I pigeon-hole or stereotype them and then feel justified in the security of my own trench.

“Loving my neighbour as myself” is neither easy nor obvious. It isn’t something that comes naturally, but demands hard and imaginative work – letting the other slip beyond the box I want to put them in.

I think this is also pertinent in other areas of our common life in these strange times. Instead of lobbing accusations from trenches at those who see the world – or particular policies – differently, a decision to invest in listening, imagining and understanding does not come naturally to most of us. Listen to debates in Parliament this last week and it becomes clear how hard and how important it is that we try.

I might have left GCHQ a long time ago, but the questions it fed me have not gone away.

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.