This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show.

It’s that time of year again. For me August slows everything down and I finally get some space. But, it’s also the time for long car journeys … and that means loads of time to listen to music. The great thing about your kids having grown up is that no one argues with your choice of CDs.

Well, what you’ll find in my car this morning – I have just checked – is a strange mix of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Richard Ashcroft, Elbow and the wonderful Imelda May. I got back from a trip the other day feeling that my emotions had been shredded, listening to songs that seem to have been dragged out from the depths.

And that’s the power of music. Words on their own can pack a punch, but add a good tune and some decent backing and your guts go on a different journey.

There’s nothing new about this. One of the other things I do during August is read all 150 Psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures. Why? Simply because I get immersed in a song book that doesn’t always reflect my mood or circumstances, but does provide a vocabulary for times yet to come. Whether howling with complaint about the injustices in life, or laughing with joy at the wonderful enormity of the cosmos, or weeping alongside those whose lives have been torn apart, or encouraging your mates to stick with it regardless of the hindrances … the whole of life is in there and there’s a song for everyone at every time and in every place.

Just over a week ago I was talking to child refugees in the countryside outside Khartoum in Sudan. Kids whose family have disappeared and who find themselves abandoned or orphaned through the violence of others. Yet, they still hear the echoes of a haunting melody that whispers of hope as they are taken in and cared for by strangers who meet them where they are. Lament is coloured by laughter; memory does not just belong to the past, but is being created for tomorrow.

So, in all the twists and turns of a fragile life, it is still possible to detect the sound of a plea uttered by Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn: “Love that fires the sun keep me burning.”

This is the text of an article published in the Yorkshire Post today:

A couple of years ago a book was published that offers readings, prayers, poems and reflections for Remembrance. It is called ‘Hear My Cry’ – a repeated and heart-felt wrenching of the spirit taken from the Psalms.

But, it is the subtitle that grabs the attention: ‘Words for when there are no words’.

It sounds like a ridiculous paradox, yet anyone who has ever found themselves in despair will know exactly what it means. There are times in life – and always in the face of death – when we find ourselves empty and silent. As human beings we seem made to make shape out of chaos; but, bereavement can leave us simultaneously speechless and desperate for order. And we find we cannot control the grief or make it better.

In such circumstances we sometimes need the words of others when we have no words for ourselves. Someone else needs to provide the vocabulary for grief, the words for when we have no words and silence is too painful.

If this is true of most bereavements, it is particularly true when death is violent and distant. To lose a son or father or daughter or wife or husband in the course of military conflict brings a particular silence, a particular grief. The distance and the unknowing of the context makes the death more grievous – even if death is always death.

I have never lost anyone close to me in war, but my parents lived through the bombing of Liverpool during World War Two. I also took part in the intelligence support for British forces in the South Atlantic, and saw the consequences for those who were involved and had to live with the deaths of friends and colleagues.

If Remembrance Day did not exist, I think we would need to invent it. For two reasons:

First, we need to create a public event of remembering the people and events that have shaped the society to which we belong and in which we invest. Those whose loved-ones have died in conflict on our behalf need that public recognition of their loss. For their loss is our loss. Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn watched the coffins of slain Canadian troops being carried off a military aircraft in Afghanistan several years ago, and wrote a song about it. Having described in the most moving language the tragedy and dignity of what he had witnessed, he writes: “Each one lost is everyone’s loss, you see; each one lost is a vital part of you and me”. That’s why need to remember publicly.

The second reason is that we simply cannot know who we are if we don’t remember where we have come from. It sounds obvious, but it isn’t easy to do. Our memories are selective and some memories do need to be left where they belong: in the past.

The story of Israel in the early chapters of the Bible is one in which public acts of remembering are integral. Prior to entering the Land of Promise the people are warned that they will too easily forget that once they had been migrants and slaves in a foreign land. Once they got their own land and built new lives they would prosper … and forget their own origins. Basically, they would then begin to treat other people as their slaves. So, the year was broken down into festivals that would compel the people to re-tell and re-enact their story, passing it on to their children and future generations. It would cost them the first and best ten percent of their harvest. And the edges of their fields would be left for homeless, hungry and sojourning people to find sustenance. That sounds like a twenty percent tax for starters.

Most religious communities shape the year similarly, celebrating festivals that shape our memory and remind us of what matters – especially that we are mortal, that we shall one day die, that a good society might be worth dying for. The loss of such festivals in secular society might be more costly than we realise.

The point is that we as a society need at least one day a year when we re-member – literally, put back together the parts (members) of our own story. We need to recall the cost that people have paid and continue to pay for preserving the freedoms we have. We need to recall with honesty and integrity those things which we should celebrate and those of which we should be ashamed – from which we might learn for the future.

That is where Remembrance Day fits in. Whether directly connected to the dead or bereaved, we come together in local communities to create space for remembering our common story. It stops the routine of life and creates silence in which we drop words for when words need to stop and silence reigns. We do it together, conscious of how fragile our lives are and how fragile our civilisation is.

It is said that we should know for what we would die. I think we should ask ourselves for what we, in the light of our mortality, will live for.

 

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

It is said we live in interesting times. Europe is on an uncertain political trajectory, the Middle East is challenging, Russia is flexing its muscles, and the United States are about to choose a new president whose influence will reach far beyond their own shores. Who'd be a leader?

But, what is interesting about what the Nobel laureate Bob Dylan called 'Modern Times' is how the arts play around with the world's big issues, shining different lights onto what we see in the news. Jude Law's new film series in which he plays the fictional first American pope appears to be less interested in the power politics of the Vatican and more in what religious power does to the people who wield it. Bruce Springsteen uses music to express protest against the lot of ordinary people in parts of America that are remote from Washington's eyes. Gospel music itself was a creative expression of lament, hope and confidence on the part of people suffering human injustice for generations.

I mention this because I suspect the world needs more poets and artists. And possibly fewer lawyers – although the lawyers I know are wonderful.

Hymn-writer extraordinaire Charles Wesley maintained that we learn our theology not from what we hear from the pulpit, but from what we sing. Put a good tune to it and we'll happily sing anything – occasionally even nonsense. So, he wrote hymns and songs in order to help Christians find a vocabulary for their experiences of God, the world and each other.

Bruce Cockburn, the award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter does a similar thing with words and music, though not to be murdered by a congregation. One song he wrote thirty years ago suggests that the poets and musicians shine a different light on experience and dare us to look differently in order to see and think differently. The chorus goes like this: “Male female slave or free / Peaceful or disorderly / Maybe you and he will not agree / But you need him to show you new ways to see.”

The prophets of the Old Testament got it straight away: use words, images and stories to expose reality and prompt the questions that easily get overlooked by those with the power to preserve.

Jesus got it, too. He told stories and used images that don't just prod the intellect, but scratch away at the imagination.

But, perhaps what this shows us is simply that political vision needs more music and poetry if it is to haunt the imagination and capture hearts. Argument and shouting won't do it. Or, as Byron put it: “What is poetry? – The feeling of a former world and future.”

 

The great thing about holidays is the space to switch off and read stuff that has nothing to do with work.

This time I am starting with Elvis Costello's brilliant autobiography Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. It was a bit of a silly choice to bring to the beach – an enormous fatty of a tome. But, it follows on from Philip Norman's excellent biography of John Lennon and Sylvie Simmons biography of Leonard Cohen – both perfect, intriguing, funny, poignant and entertaining. They were followed by Bruce Cockburn's epic memoir that laid bare the life and mind behind the poetry and music.

Like Cockburn, Costello wrote the book himself and the same lyrical humour pervades the text. I am only half way through, but can't put it down. Not the usual beach book, but it provides a mental soundtrack that doesn't require sticking headphones in my ears.

Not so much “watching the detectives”, but, in the light of what's going on around the world, more a case of “Poor Fractured Atlas”.

 

This is the text of the morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2:

I think I'm probably not alone in having from time to time a song going round my head that I can't shake off. Not that I want to, particularly, but it can sometimes be a distraction when you're supposed to be concentrating on something else and the song keeps interrupting.

The one that's buzzing through my consciousness this week sounds a bit twee, but it isn't really. It's a Bruce Cockburn song called 'Don't forget about delight'. Basically, it recognises that the world we live in is complicated, that the news crowding in on us from all sides is usually bad, that the world can often look a bit bleak. But, says the poet, don't forget about delight.

It seems to me that this is a necessary reminder, a timely prompt. To use a different metaphor, the darkest night can be illuminated by the faintest light. Or, as someone else put it, don't just curse the darkness – light a flame.

I picked up a book recently called Hope without Optimism. It's written by Terry Eagleton and makes an important distinction. Optimism is, in one sense, wishful thinking – a belief that things will get better. Hope goes deeper and is more realistic. Hope doesn't depend on a set of circumstances working out, but keeps us constant whatever the circumstances life throws at us. That's why Christian hope is rooted in the character and person of God, not in a formula for a successful life.

So, I go along with both Bruce Cockburn and Terry Eagleton – the poet and the professor. When the darkness crowds in I need to remember not to forget about delight. When the news is dominated by fear and cruelty, I must spot where love and light burn through and refuse to be extinguished. When horizons begin to narrow, I can open my eyes to the rich possibilities that lie ahead – even if hidden at the moment.

So, hopeful rather than optimistic. And, whatever else happens, never forgetting about delight. And I am quite happy for such a song to haunt my memory and imagination, making me restless for the light.

This is the text of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show – with Chris just having returned from the Monaco Grand Prix:

Well, there I was at the weekend, listening to some old Bruce Cockburn stuff, when, in one of those coincidences you just can’t plan for, Lewis Hamilton’s face came on the telly while Bruce was singing his epic song Anything can happen.

Basically, Anything can happen simply makes the point that when you go out in the morning, anything can … er … happen. And, as Lewis discovered in Monaco, we can’t control everything all of the time. The best laid plans, and all that… I mean, I’m a Liverpool fan, so I know what I’m talking about.

But, why should this be a surprise? And what are we supposed to do when things don’t go according to plan?

I guess people fall into two camps. There are those who whinge and moan and think the world is against them; and there are those who just get on with it – whatever the ‘it’ is, and however good or bad ‘it’ is. After all, we can’t change the world to make it suit us, and we can’t control other people to make them fit in with what might make us feel happiest.

This isn’t exactly new, is it? You sometimes hear people speak as if you only have to get the formula right (pun intended) and everything will fall into place. Follow these seven steps to success, and you will be healthy, wealthy and wise! But, we know that nothing can be guaranteed and formulae don’t work. There can even be a temptation – for people of faith – to think that if you press all the right ‘God buttons’, life will go well and you will be spared the messiness and sickness and fragility that being mortal brings with it.

But, the reality is that even for the faithful, there are no promises other than that: whatever the world throws at us, we will not be abandoned.

So, anything can happen and anything can happen! No deals, no bargains and no fixes. Frightening? Maybe. Exciting? Definitely. But, the good news is – and I say this through gritted teeth – that you’ll never walk alone…

This is the text of a commissioned article published yesterday in the Yorkshire Post.

“God surprises earth with heaven!”

Now, that would be the sort of headline that might provoke either interest or ridicule. At any time of year it would sound odd. Yet, that is what Christmas is essentially all about.

In the tweet generation, when everything has to be expressed concisely, it doesn't tell the whole truth about everything, and it doesn't pretend to close down all argument. Instead, it opens up the mind and the imagination to the possibility of surprise.

The rumour abroad is that Christians either want to spoil the fun of Christmas for themselves and everyone else, or endlessly bang on about a fairy story in which God and Santa Claus suffer an identity crisis. Neither is true – as any actual experience would confirm.

Christians just want to hang on to the reason for the season; but, they want to do so with all the celebration we can manage. And why? Because, having spent the four weeks of Advent preparing – opening our minds and hearts to the coming mystery of God's surprising presence among us – we want to let joy erupt through the present darknesses and fill our life with light.

Which brings us back to tweeting and surprise. How do we express something of the mystery, challenge, joy, celebration, misery of Christmas in simple sentences that can be understood … but that scratch away at the back of the mind and awaken our curiosity? The discipline of tweeting helps.

For example, in a country that faces an obesity epidemic in the face of supermarkets that waste thousands of tonnes of food every week, too many people go hungry. Not a little bit peckish, but hungry. Children turn up at school unfed. Parents with several low-paid jobs between them are humiliated into using foodbanks, feeling they have let themselves and their children down. And the same people feel the commercial pressure to buy the 'right' things whatever the cost. How might we reflect this in 140 characters? “No room at the inn? Room for everyone in church – where all will be loved.”

This Advent and Christmas the churches across many of our Yorkshire towns and cities have been running, hosting and resourcing shelters for homeless people. They have made space for medical attention and changes of clothing. They have opened up their sacred spaces for camp beds, kitchens and care. These have been staffed by volunteers, and in several cases food has been provided by local mosques. Without shouting about it – and with no ulterior motives – churches have been making real something of the mystery of Christmas: “God with us, God among us, God one of us, God for us.”

And it is here that we are brought back to the element of surprise that has escaped many at Christmas. We have been anaesthetised by the saccharine of Christmas kitsch into accepting our role as advertising fodder and consumers of stuff. Yet, pop out of home and shops into the unfamiliar place where the story is re-told by people you know and see every day, and see if there might be the slightest glint of surprise. Is there anything in the Christmas narrative – even in the school nativity play, full of sheep, towels and the odd intrusive alien – that opens us to a glimpse of something bigger and deeper?

For example, we just accept that in the original gospel stories there are shepherds and wise men. OK, despite the obvious time gap between their appearances, we lump them together in the stable in Bethlehem and don't think any more about it. Yet, shepherds were the workers in the fields – managing and defending with their life the sheep they didn't own – and the Magi were foreign astrologers. In some cases shepherds did the dirty work with the animals so that their bosses could attend to their religious duties and keep themselves clean. Magi came searching in (for them) strange places and, finding their pilgrimage's end in a slum rather than a palace, then discovered just how dangerous being an immigrant traveler can be: the local power brokers tried to have them dealt with.

It sounds familiar, doesn't it? So much for human progress in the two thousand years since then – especially when it comes to our treatment of 'foreigners'. We too easily think God (and our satisfaction) must be found in places of holiness and cleanliness, of brightness and comfort; yet, Christmas tells us that God meets us where we are, in the places of agony and muckiness, of loneliness and fear, and welcomes first those whose curiosity leads them from the familiar places of security into the places of risky vulnerability.

And this goes to the heart of Christmas. We can celebrate with joy only when we are open to surprise – not only the surprise of God coming among us as one of us, but the risk that he might still do so through us to those who are still the most vulnerable in our society. And that includes our neighbours whose loneliness or fear might be hidden from us by the veneer of sufficiency.

I think Christmas is about “being drawn by hope and not driven by fear”. It is about “the Christmas presence you've always wanted”. At Christmas “redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe” (Bruce Cockburn) as “the eternal breaks through into time – and time bleeds into eternity”. Here “the light mugs the darkness and there's nothing the darkness can do about it”. Like the shepherds, it is about “hearing songs of light in the nighttime of fear” and “daring to dance in this world to a tune that haunts us from another”.

As “hope looks despair in the eye … and doesn't blink first,” may this Christmas be happy and holy.