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.

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

It’s funny what floats up to the surface of the memory when you’re bored. I was stuck on a train the other day and the words I couldn’t get out of my head were the repeated cry of a poet three thousand years ago: “How long, O Lord, how long?” Now, I guess his plight was more existentially challenging than mine; but, they were the words I couldn’t shake off.

A bit like the blues, really.

I well remember sitting in my car on holiday listening to Eric Clapton’s album Pilgrim. I was haunted by one song in particular which went by the miserable title of River of Tears. That perfect combination of weeping guitar and a voice wrenched from the depths of the heart tore through my soul. It still does nineteen years later.

What is it about the blues that cuts through the rubbish and distractions of a busy mind and brings tears to the eyes?

The other day I was driving through the Yorkshire Dales on a gorgeous sunny day – someone has to do this job – listening to the new Imelda May album, written after her divorce and coloured by the sadness of loss. Where did my tears come from?

I think what’s going on here is quite simple – and common. Life is a rollercoaster of joy and sadness, hope and despair, creativity and loss. We all know what it’s like to run through the daily routine only to have it disturbed by unwelcome news or worse. We discover that we are not in control after all and that we are more fragile than we thought we were. It’s as if the veneer of self-sufficiency is stripped away and the rawness of reality exposed.

And that’s why the blues get straight through the skin and move the heart. It’s why the words of the poet, the Psalmist, offer a vocabulary for when words fail us: how long, O Lord, how long? And, I think, we can find amid the pain that we are never alone in this experience – that it isn’t to be feared – that even God cries out in cross-shaped grief.

Or, in the words of Imelda May: “I’m damned if I show it but I can’t shake this feeling away.”

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

If you are anything like me, there are times in the day when you just need to switch your mind and give your ‘serious head’ a bit of a break. That’s what the internet is for – social media in particular.

One I turn to simply posts clips from local newspapers or photos of newspaper billboards. I can’t tell you the title because it’s a bit rude – but it always makes me laugh. Try these genuine headlines:

“Dog ate pair of giant knickers”

“Delight as man grows banana in garden” (That’s Surrey for you.)

“Chaos as badgers snub their new home”

Chaos?! Life must be quiet in Macclesfield.

The best of the recent ones – actually from the Somerset Gazette – has to be: “Village People upset at YMCA plans”.

It’s not exactly at the level of North Korea and the threat of nuclear conflict, is it? Or even how many full-time jobs a man can have?

But, for most people the local is as important as the national or the global. What happens in the neighbourhood has an impact on your day in a way that Russian espionage against Hillary Clinton does not. ‘Nude man’s rampage at tea rooms’ might be a bigger story in Cambridge than Harrogate in the same way that windy weather in London is irrelevant to the hardy northerner.

Why does this matter? Well, principally because it reminds us of what a songwriter once called “the greatness of the small”. For Christians this is bread and butter to the way we see our faith and the world: God comes among us, as one of us, at a particular time and in a particular place – in Jesus of Nazareth.

The small matters – just as the local matters. In a world that trumpets greatness, power, wealth and image (if not always truth), I believe we can make a powerful difference to one person by paying attention to what lies before our very eyes. As the proverb goes: change the world for one person and you change the world. Which is the spirit in which to understand Comic Relief this week.

So, today I’ll laugh when I read the hot news that “Puddle splash victim vows revenge” and remember that loving your neighbour starts just here.

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

Well, we’re one day into Lent and I’m already struggling. The next five weeks give us time for self-examination – not the same thing as selfish introspection – and I never find this comfortable. And it reminds me of a very long car journey (from Leicestershire to Linz in Austria) with my family nearly twenty years ago.

The biggest surprise was not my youngest son marvelling for hundreds of miles down the Autobahn at the size of the place called ‘Ausfahrt’ – it actually means ‘Exit’ – but when the same small voice asked me: “Dad, in Star Trek why do they say ‘Beat me up, Scottie’?”

How we larfed.

What it proved, of course, is how easy it is to mishear or misunderstand what is really going on or what someone is actually trying to say. Just how long my son had mused on the masochistic nature of Star Trek I have no idea; but, it clearly coloured his take on sci-fi.

This isn’t new, is it? A reading from the Bible yesterday complained that God’s people had got the wrong end of the stick. They were supposed to fast and pray in order to expose themselves to the real stuff deep within them and examine their common life; but, they had turned this spiritual discipline into a way of showing off how pious they were. And Isaiah the prophet asks: can’t you see the irony when you pray to God for the poor while trampling all over them? If the language of your worship contradicts the living of your life – or the shaping of your society – why aren’t you embarrassed?

The point is that it is dead easy to spot the gaps between the talk and the walk of other people, and really hard to spot our own. It’s what Jesus pointed to when he suggested people should pay attention to the plank in their own eye rather than the speck of dust in someone else’s.

Well, that’s easier said than done. But, while hoping that Scottie recovers from his self-generated beatings, I now have the next month or so to shine a light on my own gaps and see what – under the gaze of a merciful God – can be done about them.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 with Sara Cox (and after a nice chat with Strictly dancers Ian Waite and Natalie Lowe):

Guess whose birthday it is today?

OK, yeah, Paris Hilton and swimmer Rebecca Adlington … and probably a few thousand people listening to the programme now – in which case, happy birthday to you.

But, the one I am thinking about is Ed Sheeran. 26 today. How do I know? Well, someone told me he originally comes from Hebden Bridge in my patch of West Yorkshire, and I thought I’d check it out. They’re right … and I noticed that it’s his birthday today.

So, open your ears: I’m going to pause for a thought (which means thinking out loud) about one of his best-known songs – recently nominated for a Grammy. Love yourself is a great command … or invitation. After all, there are plenty of people who don’t love themselves – or don’t believe themselves to be lovable – and who sometimes then find it difficult to love others.

There is a link here that Jesus got in one when he asked his followers to love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Actually, he was picking up on a maxim that had already been around for a thousand years or more, but he gave it a new twist – and it goes a bit like this:

Loving yourself can turn you into a narcissist who sees everyone and everything through a lens shaped only like yourself. (Apparently, even leaders of countries are not exempt from this.) This makes me the centre of the world – even other people’s worlds. It isn’t attractive, and it can produce dreadful selfishness.

So, this is why Jesus gets the order right: loving God turns your attention away from needing to justify your own worthiness and focuses on something much more fundamental. I matter because I am made in the image of God. Therefore, I see myself through God’s eyes: infinitely valuable and eternally loved. So, what do I do with this? Well, it turns me outwards to love other people whose value is to be found in the same way. I am loved, therefore I love.

So, Ed has got it right: love yourself, but only once you know you are loved. And then pass it on.

So, happy birthday Ed Sheeran. Have a good one, and may it be filled with love.

I have a weird life.

Last Monday I chaired a Bishop's Staff Meeting in Leeds before getting the train to London to record BBC Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage (Christmas special) with Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox. I got the first train back to Leeds for the formal opening of our new diocesan office on Tuesday morning. Wednesday saw me back on the train to London for the House of Lords (also on Thursday) covering a number of issues facing the country and the world. Thursday evening I was on a panel at City University, London, on the ethics of migration – with some excellent panellists that made me want to do more academic work again. Friday morning I did Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 (always a privilege) before having coaching and then doing a shed load of emails and other work. Saturday and Sunday were spent at Limehouse with my cell group, and Monday I spent in bed feeling like death. Today was the House of Bishops at Lambeth Palace, followed by a meeting with the government's Lord Bourne on faith issues'. Now I am back on the train to Leeds.

Me and Nick Baines

Why do I tell you that? Well, few people get an idea of what a bishop does – or the range of stuff that he/she is expected to cover. Simply illustrative. Back in Leeds, I start at 8am tomorrow and have meetings all day in the Diocese. Never boring.

But, while all this is going on the world bleeds.

One of the recurring conversations at the moment is whether democracy works. Well, of course it does. It delivers what people vote for. However, it is not necessarily truthful, intelligent or wise. It does not necessarily deliver what people thought they were voting for. Nothing new there. But, one of the glaringly bizarre questions emerging from both Brexit and Trump is why people didn't question the language used by the elite who led the campaigns. For example, who exactly is “the establishment” if it isn't the very people who were slagging off the establishment? How is “the elite”, if it isn't hugely privileged and economically comfortable people who will not suffer one iota from the consequences of what they persuaded people to vote for!

How many billionaires are there in the Trump administration? Why is President Putin so happy?

And all this finds focus in the cries of the children of Aleppo. While the blood flows today in the final brutality of war, the rest of us are confronted with an unpalatable challenge: we tell our government not to apply military power in Syria … only to complain that the Russian/Assad violence on our screens has been exercised without opposition. The West doesn't know what it believes. No wonder Sergei Lavrov (Russian Foreign Minister) was quoted on Twitter this afternoon as saying: ” We are fed up with the constant whining of our American colleagues.”

We will see what happens. In the meantime, Christians will find a vocabulary in the Psalms for the conflicted cries of “how long?” and “why do the poor suffer?” and “why are we so rubbish at getting things right for the sake of the weak and vulnerable?” (which,I admit, is a rough translation).

As I mentioned in a debate in the House of Lords some weeks ago (on the admission to the UK of unaccompanied Syrian refugee children from Calais), the generation of children who suffer from our inactivity will not forget what we did not do for them. The seeds of the next three or four generations' violence are being sown now.

And we cannot pretend ignorance.

 

This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show in the company of the Kaiser Chiefs, actors Michael Fassbender and Strictly judge Bruno Tonioli:

What I am about to tell you is seriously unlikely to change your life, and I don't predict a riot.

90 years ago today – 9 December 1926 – the United States Golf Association legalised the use of steel-shaft golf clubs. I assume that before then only wood was used. Or maybe papier maché? My source wasn't clear on the matter.

Now, the reason I mention this world changing event is simply because it illustrates how difficult it is to change. Apparently, there was considerable resistance in some quarters to any move to change the material used in golf clubs. But, before you wag your head in disbelief, just consider how difficult it is for most of us to get out of what has become known as our “comfort zone”. For example, what are the chances of me, a red Scouser, responding well to the suggestion that I should in future support Chelsea?

Most of us find it hard to change our mind, let alone our behaviour. Yet, the clearest invitation we get in Advent – we don't get to Christmas for another couple of weeks – is to do precisely this. The word used by John the Baptist and Jesus in some of their first recorded words is 'repent' – and it means simply that: change your mind in order to change your ways.

Easy to say, but hard to do. It's easier to see where other people ought to change than to spot our own need. Didn't someone once say something about taking the plank out of your own eye before focusing on the speck in someone else's?

OK, Jesus also told a story about someone who was mugged and who was not helped by the people you would expect to be generous, but in the end was aided by the Samaritan – the outsider who nobody trusts. In other words, we should be open to surprise and to changing the way we look and see and think and live.

So, we have a couple of weeks left to consider how, strictly speaking, we might open our mind to be surprised by Christmas – by the sight of a God who doesn't look like we might have expected. If I was a bit more trendy, I might even look into a manger and go: “Oh my God”!

 

This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show in the company of Robbie Williams, Anne Robinson, Mark Strong, Michael Pena and The Shires:

This might mark me down as a sad man, but one of my favourite film scenes is Bill Murray doing karaoke in Tokyo in Lost In Translation. The song he gets is the Elvis Costello version of What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding? which he belts out with a tunefulness guaranteed to close down any hope of a music contract. It's brilliant, even if it's not heavy entertainment. Certainly better than declaring war on everyone.

But, to answer his question: there's actually nothing funny about peace, love and understanding – it's just funny that they sound like a good idea.

Peace, love and understanding. Where on earth do we go with that?

Well, we've just opened a new office in Leeds and everywhere you look you see three words: Loving. Living. Learning. A bit like peace, love and understanding, they sum up how we want to be.

For Christians like me it means loving God, the world and one another.

It also means getting stuck into the world as it is, but fired by a vision of what it could be. So, we work hard at enabling individuals and communities to flourish and thrive. That's living.

But, all this loving and living is done with the acknowledgement that we keep making an almighty mess of it and can't seem to help getting it wrong. We are all learning together and from one another. In other words, we need a huge dose of humility in our attempts to love and live.

To twist the words of a well-known album, we need to sing when we're losing as well as when we are winning. Or, as I discovered again this week while driving down a no-entry road in Cambridge, I learn better from my mistakes than from my successes.

So, loving, living and learning shape a lens through which we can look at what we do, why we do it, where our priorities are, working out what and who really matters. Not three words that imprison us, but words that open up the possibility of living differently in a complicated and messy world.

Perhaps, if we did a bit more loving, living and learning, we might end up with a bit more peace, love and understanding. And it wouldn't seem funny at all.

 

This is the script fo this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show in the company of Mo Farah, Tamsin Greig, Robert Winston and Jamie Lawson:

I have a theory about children's books. It's not original: children's books are mainly read by adults. By adults, for adults. Remember when Harry Potter was just starting out on literary life and the publisher had to use two covers: one for kids and a different one for grown-ups … just so the latter wouldn't get embarrassed on a train?

I think part of the reason for this might be that loads of adults are learning that imagination is not just for the little ones, and words open up new worlds of wonder.

I remember being accused of using simple language in one of my books. Accused, I think, because the reviewer thought I should posh up a bit and be more academic. But, the genius of good communication is to make the complex simple, not the simple complex.

I am no stranger to this. Every time I open the gospels I am confronted by stories and images. This stuff isn't meant to hit you with some solid truth, but to get your imagination working – sneaking round the back of your mind when you're not expecting it, and scratching away at your memory. “Where God is,” says Jesus, “is like a mustard seed.”

What?! What's that supposed to mean? Use your imagination! Something tiny grows in unlikely places into a whacking big tree in whose branches the birds make their nests – and the tree doesn't get to choose which birds. Get it? God is to be found where there is hiddenness, outrageous growth, unlikely generosity, hospitality. You get the idea?

A couple of days ago I was in a primary school at Low Moor in Bradford. I was giving certificates to young leaders who, together, had made a difference to their local community in a variety of ways. They had learned to look for what others didn't see – like litter and the absence of birds – and did a rubbish collection and built bird boxes. They learned to be surprised by the difference they could make. Leading meant taking responsibility instead of waiting for others to do it for them. Brilliant.

And they were full of imagination at a world they are still discovering.

So, keep the books coming. Keep the stories rolling. Keep the imagination fired up – and try growing up into a child.