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

I’m off on holiday soon – with my eldest son and his wife and their two young kids. I can’t wait. But, before I go I’ve got to do the job I dread every summer: sort out my office, sift the books, and decide what I want to read on the beach. (Although I suspect I might get buried in sand more times than I’ll get books read.)

So, what would you choose, if you were me? A bit of heavy theology or philosophy to keep my brain in gear? The epic book on history I have just been sent, but haven’t had the time to get stuck into? Or the poetry books I have had sitting on my table waiting for “the right moment”? Or the biography of Eric Clapton and the two books about Bob Dylan  I’ve been waiting to read for months?

You know what? I’ll probably take a few novels and give brain-strain a rest. Something that has a good plot and makes my imagination run riot without the interruptions of work and the phone and Twitter.

Because it’s the imagination that too easily gets squeezed out in my line of business. And yet it’s the imagination that fires the soul and keeps curiosity alive.

This matters to me because, as a Christian, I follow someone who kept prodding behind the mundane and the routines of everyday life and framed questions that went beyond mere ideas about God, the world and us.

For example, Jesus never defined where God is to be found in statements that had to be agreed with or denied. He kept saying: “The kingdom of God is like…” and then told a story or tried out an image. The idea was to subvert those who wanted to use argument about God and the world and get behind the words to the imagination. So, he grabbed their attention, awoke their curiosity, teased their imagination, and left them with questions. They had to work it out for themselves. No wonder people wanted to come out of town to hear him.

So, saying all this has helped me to decide. One history book, four poetry books and a pile of novels. It’s my imagination that’s going to get a work out on the beach this time.

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.

 

 

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.”

Given the awful news in the last week of deaths in Afghanistan (6 British soldiers and then 16 Afghan civilians), I wasn’t sure what to write for Pause for Thought on this morning’s Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. How do we address something like this in a couple of minutes in the context of a lively, fun show?

 

I immediately thought of the blues – I was downloading an Eric Clapton CD to my iPad at the time. Whihc is why I began my script as follows:

 

You know what it’s like when you listen to an album time and time again, but you never really take any notice of the song titles – and then you have a look at the back of the CD box… and you wonder what you’ve been listening to? Well, I was getting an Eric Clapton album onto my computer (Me and Mr Johnson, if you must know) and, apart from the epic They’re Red Hot (er… let’s not go there), the one that caught my eye was the intriguing Milkcow’s Calf Blues. I still don’t know if this refers to the baby cow born to the milkcow, or the lower rear leg muscle of the cow itself…


The blues often have odd titles. When I was a teenager I played trumpet in a jazz group and one of my favourite tunes was St James Infirmary Blues – a Louis Armstrong classic. I have no idea which St James Infirmary it referred to, but I guess it wasn’t the one in Leeds.


The thing about the blues is that they always dig deep into human experience and the everyday stuff of our lives. Like the Psalms of the Old Testament, they lend a vocabulary to the profoundest – and often most painful experiences of loss and love and longing. They give a voice to those bits of life we find it hardest to express – especially if such expression makes us sound weak or miserable or, worst of all, a failure.

 

I have written about the blues elsewhere. The power of the blues is in the raw honesty, the lack of fear of exposure or ridicule. They often strip away the veneers of human self-sufficiency. They go deep. Try listening to Clapton’s River of Tears (on Pilgrim) and you hear the music weeping.

 

Anyway, how should we apply this briefly to events of the last week – especially as the news came in this morning of an appalling tragedy in Switzerland in which 28 Belgian people were killed in a coach crash, 22 of them children?

 

In a week in which six soldiers were killed in Afghanistan – five of them from West Yorkshire – and a rogue American soldier systematically killed 16 innocent people in Kandahar, and the dreadful news from Switzerland this morning, perhaps we need the blues to give us a voice. Otherwise, how do we say something useful about such horrors and the agony of sudden loss?


There is a time for simply voicing the pain – not trying to make some sense out of it. The psalmists cry out at the injustice of this world – the same now as it was three thousand years ago – and tell us that God invites us to be honest, not correct.

 

It doesn’t exactly nail theodicy. But it is a rather feeble example of how to try to say something useful when rationalising is inappropriate, but something needs to be said that shines some light on our reaction to events that tear at our heart. The context shapes the content.