This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Breakfast Show with Zoe Ball.

This has been a great last month for me with a new album by Imelda May and Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday (which doesn’t seem to have cheered him up at all). Then, this week one of my best bands, Crowded House, released ‘Dreamers are Waiting’. The problem with this album is that it makes me want to listen to the whole back catalogue stretching into the mid-1980s.

The title itself is evocative. Every generation needs dreamers – people who can see beyond the immediate challenges and imagine a different world in the future; people who  don’t agree that we just have to accept the way the world is now, but envisages something better. And, as the album title suggests, dreamers have to have the patience to wait and work for that future, not just stamp their feet when they don’t get immediate satisfaction.

One of the songs on the album goes even deeper. ‘Love isn’t hard at all’ is a beautiful song, but – and maybe this was the intention – the sentiment struck me as wrong. Love is hard. To love someone means to put them and their interests first. The Beatles knew that “you can’t buy me love” – it’s a relationship to be struck, not a commodity to be acquired.

Actually, the song goes on to get it right. “It feels like love isn’t hard at all” – I get that. When all is well or romance is high, loving feels easy. But, love demands more than sentiment or casual ease … as anyone who has ever loved another person knows all too well. Love is costly; love, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in a letter often read at weddings, “is patient, love is kind, … is not envious or boastful or arrogant, … it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

So, to go full circle, love lies at the heart of patient dreaming, too. Love draws us into a place of openness and vulnerability, a place where others might ridicule us or call us naive for our longing for mercy.

In other words, love hurts, but is worth the cost. So, I’m going to dream on and learn to wait.

Palm Sunday. Normally Christians would be walking through the streets with a bemused donkey before beginning Holy Week in church. Not this year. This year we have the unwelcome and uninvited gift of stepping back and re-focusing on what Christian faith – rooted in this Jesus who enters Jerusalem with us friends – says to us while the church is being the church differently.

When Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem he knew what might await him there. You don’t challenge religious authority or the military powers of the Roman Empire without considering the likely cost. Messiahs were popping up all over the place (see ‘The Life of Brian’) – all offering ultimate solutions to those who ‘believe’, but all ending up on crosses. Jesus was, like the Old Testament prophets, open-eyed about power and resistance and cost.

The trouble is that his friends don’t get it. They have invested their hopes in the Galilean carpenter being the best chance of messianic liberation. When the crowds come out and cheer, they think they are on to a winner. Jesus suspects differently. This always makes me recall Cromwell’s remark to Fairfax when riding through cheering crowds, that they would equally have shown up to see him hanged. Crowds are fickle; affections and convictions can be turned over in seconds; people who think acclaim has the final word are usually shortsighted.

I can only imagine the loneliness of Jesus – accompanied by friends who just don’t get what is going on here … in the words of the great Crowded House song, ‘Together Alone’. It is often harder to be lonely in a crowd when you see what no one else sees.

So, Jesus is alone in company. His friends don’t spot this aloneness and read the ‘now’ as the end. And the crowds will soon turn when the wind blows in a different direction.

Jesus is going to challenge power – social, political, military, religious – right at its heart. But, he is not going to do it in the way anyone might suppose. He will look feeble and ridiculous. He will look like he has lost the argument. The crowds – even some of his friends – will suspect he’ll has been a fraud all along. And Jesus knows they won’t even begin to understand all this until much, much later.

I think Palm Sunday opens up the space to re-think who Jesus is and what he is about. If I think he really is the messiah, then is this because he simply confirms to an image (an assumption?) of what messiahship looks like? Is it because I find it convenient to my theological preferences? Or am I as open as his friends ultimately needed to be to re-think, re-imagine, re-conceive what hope, freedom and commitment look like through the eyes of this Jesus?

Am I with the crowd – Jesus to offer quick entertainment and easy solutions; with his friends – hopeful, but stuck with a prejudice of what Jesus ought to be, do and say; or with Jesus himself – prepared to stare even my own convictions in the eye and examine them afresh under the silent gaze of the man heading toward a cross?

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

I’ve just been away for three months on study leave. Apart from all the reading, writing, thinking, chatting and travelling, I also used the time to catch up on some long lost music. Crowded House, Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen got a lot of space, but it was Bruce’s Dancing in the Dark, played loud during a massive thunder storm in Tennessee, that sticks in my memory.

I think part of the reason this one stuck was because a couple of months before I left the UK I had a bit of a stroke – in my brain, not of the cat. As many people know, when something like that happens and is beyond your control, you feel like you are in the dark a bit – even if dancing is the last thing you think of doing.

In my case, it wasn’t a huge deal. It was a minor blip, but it came with consequences. I had to cancel travel and engagements abroad. But, on the bright side, I now have documentary evidence that I do have a brain.

Springsteen might have been singing about a different experience, but I spent a couple of months sleeping a lot, reading a lot and reflecting on what it means to be alive. Because the truth is, we all live all the time in the dark – not in any miserable sense, but just that none of us knows what is going to happen next. Not everything is in my control. I can make plans and imagine a future, but I can’t guarantee it will happen. Tomorrow I will be speaking on the phone with the Bishop of Colombo in Sri Lanka – a more dramatic illustration of my point.

Another Bruce – singer-songwriter Cockburn – once wrote: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you; sometimes the darkness is your friend.” And I know what he means. I didn’t worry when my brain blipped, simply because, as Easter whispers to a mortal world, my trust is not ultimately in me or my own security – it is in the God of resurrection.

Anyway, I am fine, back to work, back to Radio 2, and promising never to dance in the light. If you’ve seen me, you’d know why.

 

 

Yesterday I did Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. Normally, you have to be in the studio at Western House in London to do this piece. However, yesterday Zoe Ball was standing in for Chris, and we couldn't make the holiday train schedule work to get me back to Bradford afterwards. So, I was asked to do it from the studio in Leeds. Which I did.

Imagine my grief when I got in and heard that the studio guests were the very funny Ross Noble and the magnificent Neil Finn. I have every Crowded House album and every Neil Finn solo album. And the stuff he has done with his brother. And there he was, performing live in the studio. And I was in Leeds. Oh, mercy…

It was while listening to Neil Finn singing Distant Sun that I remembered the first time I heard Together Alone – still my favourite Crowded House album. If you haven't heard it and loved it, you are a Philistine!

Anyway, 'together alone' seems a phrase that resonates through Holy Week to Easter and beyond.

  • Jesus is surrounded by friends, but is totally alone in understanding the reality the others cannot begin to imagine or to face.
  • Jesus celebrates with his friends, resignifying the meal and the story it tells; but, he is alone in seeing what it all means.
  • Surrounded by crowds, Jesus stands alone before Pontius Pilate. Surrounded by crowds, he is tortured and crucified. His friends mostly abandon him.

Yet, the friends are also together alone.

  • Judas Iscariot ploughs a lone furrow in betraying the friend who truly knows him and yet not belonging with those who pay him off. He dies alone.
  • Peter stands surrounded by people, but experiences the brutal loneliness of realising that he isn't the big man he thought he was. He is isolated, even when faced by a young girl who asks the embarrassing questions.
  • The women stay with the agony of watching the man they love die slowly as the object of public humiliation. Surrounded by crowds, they suffer the solitude of grief that cannot be shared.
  • In the days following this disaster Jesus's friends hide. In a familiar city they feel isolated and afraid. The company of friends who shared the fear and disillusionment cannot hide the loneliness of fearful mortality.

Being alone in a crowd can be deadly.

Today, Saturday, is a day that has to be lived through. The sheer emptiness should not be avoided. The friends of Jesus woke up on Saturday not knowing that Sunday was coming. And Easter cannot be properly lived or understood unless, first, we have stayed with the empty agony of being together … alone.

 

It’s a bank holiday, the weather is mixed, the house is empty and I am trying to put off doing some work.

I’ve been reading up on some of the responses to the Mark Thompson speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival the other day. The Guardian leader gets it right: the debate is not just a little skirmish between a couple of bruisers, but is of huge significance for our society as well as the media: ask the Italians if Berlusconi’s media dominance is just a personality matter. It is also interesting that Murdoch’s newspapers seem not to have carried Thompson’s speech or addressed the issues – which speaks for itself.

However, the gaps in today have made it possible to catch up on some new music. This is an unashamed plug for three very different bands.

Whatever the Weather is the title of the latest offering by Nottingham-based ska band Jimmy the Squirrel. Ska is the sort of music you can’t help smiling to – even when the lyrics are miserable. It’s like a fun version of reggae. I have to declare an interest in this band, though, because the songwriter and singer is my son-in-law, Liam O’Kane. But, I wouldn’t dream of plugging his stuff if I thought it was rubbish or I didn’t like it; after all, I have my own critical credibility to consider! (Er… hmmm….) This band – which has a great reputation for ‘live’ gigs – is getting better with each album and deserves a wider audience. Fantastic, fun stuff.

I remember getting into big trouble for suggesting that 19 year old Alexandra Burke couldn’t possibly sing Leonard Cohen’s epic song Hallelujah because she hadn’t lived long (or hard) enough. I maintained (and still do, for what it’s worth) that some songs bear the depth of experience and can’t be sung by someone who hasn’t been there. For example, would Bob Dylan’s Modern Times album be worth listening to without that rugged, rasping voice? Some of the great blues music is the same: a 19 year old Londoner couldn’t do justice to any of John Lee Hooker‘s stuff.

So, I was a bit surprised to hear the eponymous debut album by Bournemouth-based blues band Paint it Blue (name nicked from the Rolling Stones?). They have a great local following and I haven’t heard them live (I was sent a copy of their CD); but, the idea of just-post-teenagers doing justice to the blues was questionable. Until I heard the album, that is.

The music is tight, the technique sound and the music mostly original. The moody voice of singer Hannah Robinson puts into question the ageist prejudice I mentioned earlier: her voice might yet be young and have years of maturing ahead, but she grabbed my attention – she has a rich, working voice that allows an unexpected emotional depth. This is an unassuming band that, again, deserves a wider audience. Turn down the lights, turn up the volume, open a bottle of Rioja…

Crowded House have now put out their second CD, The Intriguer, since they re-formed. I hadn’t had a chance to listen since it came out a couple of months ago, but it was worth the wait. I could listen to Neil Finn’s voice all day and his astute lyrics are always intriguing. But, even if the sound is typically Crowded House (what else should it be?), they play a damned good tune. I love hearing good acoustic music, too, and these guys have it all: melody, harmony, rhythm and wit. Even if, as they sing in Amsterdam, “the grey men are shadowing us”, music like this breaks out into the daylight of simple creativity.

The bank holiday work-avoidance strategy is paying off. Now for Cockburn, Clapton and Springsteen…