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

I was on the train down from Leeds yesterday – at some unearthly hour – and caught a glimpse of someone else’s newspaper. The story facing me was that Manchester Town Hall is going to close for six years for massive refurbishment. A similar fate awaits the Houses of Parliament in London, but the details of that one haven’t been nailed yet.

Anyway, the bit that I saw about Manchester that grabbed my attention is that the Town Hall clockface has inscribed on it the words: “Teach us to number our days.”
Now, how miserable is that? You’re off to the pub or to do your shopping, happy as Larry, and you look up to check you’re not late, and staring back at you is a warning to dampen your enthusiasm! Good grief. Or, is there another way of looking at it?

“Teach us to number our days” wasn’t plucked from just anywhere. In fact, it comes straight out of the Bible – Psalm 90 verse 12 – and the full version says: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”

I think what this is saying is: come to terms with the fact that you are not going to live for ever! Despite all the self-help courses and ointments aimed at keeping us eternally youthful, you only get free once you face your mortality. And that, believe it or not, is very cheerful … because it sets us free from anxiety and let’s us live every day to the full. Which is not bad, is it?

So, I can’t gain wisdom – or wise up – until I face up to reality – that every day counts. Which, of course, works in a variety of ways, because it also says to me: don’t waste your time! Don’t let the sun go down on your anger (to quote the Bible again), but sort out your relationships now, while there’s still time. If you get the chance, learn how to play and not just work: do I work to live or live to work? Why let trivia divide us and break us up when time is relatively short.

You probably get the point. Let’s learn to number our days and we might even become wise!

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

A few years ago I found myself in the Foreign Ministry of a Middle Eastern country having what we would probably call a robust conversation with the deputy foreign minister of that state. At one point he stood up, banged 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.”

I have never forgotten that. I admit that when I mentioned this recently someone responded by saying that the light in the tunnel might actually be the oncoming train. But, taking a more positive view, I think it is helpful to recognise that sometimes life is pretty complicated and messy, and that the present darkness isn’t the end of the story.

This month of all months this should be clear. Our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate Hanukkah, and they do so with candles and lights. Christians are living through Advent – which, even in the word itself, is about waiting and not running out of the darkness in order merely to escape it.

There’s a great Bruce Cockburn song called ‘Closer to the light’ which actually focuses on the dark stuff. In a different song he says: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you; sometimes the darkness is your friend.” I think as I get older I understand this more and more. Rather than look for instant escapes from difficulty or challenge, I try to stay with the reality, trusting that even though the tunnel is not straight, … the light will come and, in the words of John’s gospel that will be read at Christmas, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

A different way of putting this was told to me by a guy who said: “When you’re in the desert, look for the flowers that grow only in the desert.” What he meant was: if you spend your time in the desert looking for daffodils, not only will you be disappointed, but, you will also miss out on what could be experienced or learned only in the desert.

This isn’t easy or romantic, is it? But, I do think it’s powerful.

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

What day is it today? Wednesday? Just ‘Wednesday’? It can’t be – I thought every day now has to have a tag: Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Buy-more-stuff Saturday, and so on. So, surely, today can’t be just ‘Wednesday’, can it?

Well, I just had a quick look online to see if today is significant for any other reason in history, and this is what I found: in 1775 Sir James Jay invented invisible ink. (Not that anyone noticed as they couldn’t read the press release …)

See what I mean? Not a great day – ever – in history. The sooner we get through to St Andrew’s Day tomorrow, at least the Scots will be happy.

Or have I got this wrong? I think we try to bring order and significance to dates, looking for patterns and sequences, but the truth is that one day follows the next and most days are very similar to the days that have gone before them. In other words, most days are ordinary – the everyday is what matters, not the rare dramatic excitements.

I once published a book of scripts and called it ‘Speedbumps and Potholes: Looking for Signs of God in the Everyday’. I bent the title from an Asian thinker called Kosuke Koyama who wrote a book called ‘Water Buffalo Theology’ in which he says that westerners do their theology (that is, thinking about God, the world and us) sitting in a university library reading dead German theologians … whereas in the East they start by looking at the world around them … and everywhere you look there are water buffalo.

Well, I was living in Streatham in South London. There were no water buffalo to be seen anywhere; but, life was shaped by dodging speedbumps and potholes in the roads where we lived.

The point is simple. Most days are routine – sometimes boring – but I reckon the knack is to take the everyday as a gift and look for signs of God in the ordinary … for example, where there is healing, or where people hear for the first time that they are loved and infinitely valuable, where injustice is confronted and truth told.

Today might turn out to be wholly unremarkable – just like any other day. Yet, it can be shot through with light and hope and grace and generosity. It’s our choice.

Happy Nothing Wednesday!

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

I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of Halloween. It’s not the spooky stuff or the violence done to a generation of turnips; its the Trick or Treat stuff that gets me. Isn’t the trick for me to not be at home that night … and the treat that the kids knocking on the door don’t have to meet me?

On the other hand, I love Halloween. I love the fact that it takes darkness seriously and compels us to face the reality of life and death.
OK, that’s not exactly what Halloween has become; but, it is what lies behind it all. All Souls night is when, traditionally, Christians remember those who have gone before them, face the power of bereavement and loss, and confront their own death. Here is where the rubber of faith hits the road of really tough human experience. As I know only too well – my dad died only a few weeks ago – the loss of people you love brings you face to face with your own mortality and the fragility of what it is to be human.

Well, that has the potential to plunge us into misery first thing on a Tuesday morning, doesn’t it? But, actually, All Souls (Halloween) can’t be separated from the day that follows it – by which I don’t just mean ‘Wednesday’, but All Saints Day. The darkness is followed by the light of celebration. For Christians this is all about our mortality – that death and fear don’t have the final word. At Christmas – now only seven or eight weeks away – we hear the great Gospel reading that defiantly whispers into the messiness of the world: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish it.” Carry on with the story and we eventually get to Easter and the darkness of crucifixion being transformed by the quiet eruption of resurrection.

To live as if all were darkness is to cave in to the joylessness of fatalism; to live as if all were happy-clappy light is to prefer fantasy over reality. The celebration of All Saints – ordinary people discovering that light and love are eternal – only makes sense once we have taken seriously the darkness of All Souls that is all too real.

Anyway, I am missing Trick or Treat this year because I am here in London and not in Leeds.

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 script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show:

I came across a great line the other day. A hundred years ago GK Chesterton wrote: “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” And can you blame them, we ask?

Well, I actually have no idea if any of the greats ever expressed themselves on the matter of dairy products; but, I do know that nothing is out of bounds when it comes to words teasing the imagination and sending the mind off in directions it didn’t know were there. As I once said to Billy Ocean: “When the going gets tough, the tough write poetry.”

The point of this is that some people are gifted in being able to look at the world differently – then to shine a light on it from a new direction.
We have just had a group of students from a German university staying with us in Leeds. They all study theology, but, shaped by their own experience of living not in England and emerging from a cultural memory that is coloured by a century of unspeakable violence, they look at things differently. And the gift of it all is that by looking at God and the world through their eyes – filtered through their perceptions – I get the chance to see differently. It is wonderful – as are those students.

And, believe it or not, that is the point of reading ancient texts like the Bible. You enter a different world, and then have to work hard at looking through the eyes of people from a different age and world in order to catch the glint of a glory too easily hidden behind the familiarity and busyness of ‘today’.

I have heard it said that if something is too hard to understand at first glance, then it isn’t worth bothering with. Well, I beg to disagree. Precious stones do not pop out of the ground and on to a jeweller’s display tray. Novels don’t leap effortlessly onto the page and appear in a bookshop. Wisdom does not drip from the Magic Meaning Tree, but has to be learned and dug out and refined and learned.

So, I go with the poets on this one. Nearly three thousand years ago one of them wrote: “The price of wisdom is above rubies.” I say: “Get digging.”

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

I have just got back from ten days in Germany. The first half was work – speaking engagements in Halle, Jena and Berlin; the second bit was holiday with friends. Now, I know this wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of fun, but one of the best bits was a tour of the German Foreign Ministry – used to be Hitler’s bank, then became the HQ of the East German ruling party. History haunts the corridors here.

But, the absolute best bit of the trip was a Bible exhibition in Wittenberg. Yes – a Bible exhibition in Wittenberg.

Wittenberg is where 500 years ago an angry monk got fed up and started a row with the Pope. Martin Luther triggered the Reformation, and the Reformation changed Europe and the world for ever. So, last weekend 100,000 people came together in a field outside the town to celebrate under the blazing sun.

While there we popped into the exhibition where, among other things, we saw Elvis Presley’s Bible. In fact, two of them. In one of them he has written against the note of his mother’s death: “I love you Mama.”

Now, Elvis recorded a lot of Gospel music, but it’s hard to know how he related what he read and believed to how he lived. I sympathise with him, and no one should stand in judgment. And we should remember that, 61 years ago yesterday when he introduced his new single Hound Dog on the Milton Berle Show and shocked the world by wiggling his hips, he probably wasn’t thinking about world revolution. Yet, he changed music for ever, didn’t he?

Now, Martin Luther and Elvis Presley are not equals in what they achieved, but they both knew about what Christians call grace. Both show that the world can be changed by ordinary people who take the risk of doing something extraordinary – usually without calculating the cost or the consequences. Both men were conflicted – a bit of a mess in many ways. Which makes them just like you and me.

You can see why Elvis called his home Graceland, can’t you? Maybe ‘Love me tender’ was a plea. Hounded by the dogs of other people’s demands on him, he still, ultimately, found himself in the same place as Martin Luther… and me: all shook up by mercy.