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 script of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show in the presence of David Walliams, Jack Whitehall, Jodie Foster and Richard Ashcroft:

I think I'm the only bishop to have been arrested for busking on the Paris Metro. OK, I was only nineteen or twenty and I was living and working near the Eiffel Tower for a few months as part of my degree. Fantastic job – paid by a telecommunications company for a full week, but only working two days and spending the rest of the week busking my way around the city. I loved it.

But, just to be clear, I didn't get stopped by the police because I was rubbish – or that my singing offended French sensibilities. It was just that the King of Denmark (I think) had arrived in the Elysee Palace above us, and I was the only busker who didn't know he was coming. It was a security thing.

When they stopped me I'd done a couple of Beatles songs and was half way through a John Lennon song that went deep at the time. On his 'Imagine' album there was a song called 'Crippled Inside' which basically says that you can put on all the appearances you like – “shine your shoes and wear a suit” -that sort of thing – but one thing you can't hide is when you're crippled inside.

A bit miserable, maybe. But, John Lennon was what I call an honest hypocrite – in other words, he never pretended not to be one. Writing “imagine no possessions” on a Bechstein grand piano took some nerve, didn't it? But, he had a knack of going to the heart of being human. In a culture that too often appears to value only success, beauty and appearances, my fellow Scouser stripped off the veneer of respectability and owned up to the pain of being a mess underneath it all.

For a Christian like me this should come as no surprise. We're all a mess really. The first question in the Bible has God walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day asking the hiding Adam: “Where on earth are you?”

In other words, stop hiding, come on out from behind the bushes, don't worry about being seen through, or being a mess. We can all see it anyway. Perhaps freedom is to be found in facing the reality deep within us and not trying to hide it away, pretending to be what we are not.

Imagine that.


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

Today has been designated 'Buy Nothing Day' in over sixty five countries. By now, of course, it might have spread even further afield.

I like the idea of 'Buy Nothing Day', not because I'm one of those miserable people who damn consumerism in a script written on an iPad while sitting in a warm room on comfortable furniture with music playing on the stereo and my smart phone buzzing. Every time I hear John Lennon's 'Imagine' – usually being highlighted for its encouragement to imagine no religion – I wonder how he ever got away with “imagine no possessions” written on a grand piano in an exclusive Central Park apartment.

Well, 'Buy Nothing Friday' is a reaction to what has become known as 'Black Friday' – a day of mass consumerism rooted in encouragement to greed as opposed to 'Good Friday' which roots us in self-denial and loss rather than self-fulfilment at all costs. Black Friday is a transatlantic import that many people hoped would die the death of British good taste and a sense of proportion; but, it seems to have taken hold in a culture whose consumerist monster can never be over-fed.

Well, apart from the obvious observation that for many of our poorest people Black Friday will come and go like Thirsty Thursday or Sad Sunday, we do seem to fall prey all too easily to the advertisers' siren seduction – that more stuff will make our lives more complete. We are more than the stuff we have. Shopping doesn't make us more human.

But, if I was going to indulge today, there's only one thing I would go for: Adele's long-awaited new album 25. I admire her for not allowing it to be dribbled out on music apps, and insisting on holding to the integrity of the album in the mode of its release.

But, the real reason is that her music doesn't just entertain – it stirs the soul and evokes some very human experiences.

Her last album gave a voice to the strangled emotions of love and loss and regret and wounding. She not only experienced “losing in love”, but lived with the pain of it. No cheap resolutions, no easy pretence that being dumped puts an end to love. And in her poetry she reminded me of the Psalmists of old: owning up to the agonies and fragilities of human experience – not something you necessarily get from buying a bigger telly or more clothes.

Like those Psalmists, we have to learn to live with what is actually happening in us and to us, and not simply try to wish it (or buy it) away. I guess whether we indulge in Black Friday or abstain on Buy Nothing Friday, there's something about Adele's lingering expressions of grief and joy that could still make it quite a good Friday.


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

You know what it's like when you keep telling people some story about when you were younger, but after a while you begin to wonder if it every really happened? I have to admit that as I get older this does happen a bit.

One of my abiding memories of secondary school – a big comprehensive in Liverpool – was an English teacher called Mr Burrows passing a school exercise book around the class one day when I was about fourteen or fifteen. We just glanced at it, flipped the pages and passed it on. Old Mr Burrows kept telling us to keep scribbling, keep writing things down, keep doodling, keep being creative. I think we were just bored teenagers.

The reason it has stuck in my memory is that the book he passed round had belonged to John Lennon and was full of his scribblings. Mr Burrows had taught him English.

Now, I think I started to doubt whether this ever happened simply because nobody really believed me. But, then I read an epic biography of John Lennon and there it was in black and white. All true.

Of course, now I wish I'd paid more attention. Or, at least, nicked the book. But, Mr Burrows' point was well made and I never forgot it. Being creative is something some of us have to practise – it sort of doesn't come naturally.

And yet, we are born to be creative. This is partly what is meant way back in the book of Genesis in the Bible when, in that great poetic account of what made human beings be human, it says that we are “made in the image of God” – who can't help creating and to loving what is created.

This actually lies at the heart of a Christian response to things like the disappearance of the Malaysian aircraft and the human tragedy of it all. Every person matters because they are made this way and loved infinitely for no other reason.

So, I am with John Lennon and Mr Burrows. Keep on doodling. We're made for it.


I did Pause for Thought on BBC's Radio 2 Chris Evans Show this morning.

I wanted to think about the importance of imagination – for good or ill. Having been in Eisenach, I wanted to contrast the imagination of Johann Sebastian Bach and Martin Luther with the horrors of Hitler's boys – birthed in the same place. But, the tone wasn't right for the particular medium of the Breakfast Show. S, I re-wrote it on the train to London yesterday evening. And this is how it ended up this morning:

Don't ask me why – cos I can't stand the thing – but I can't get John Lennon's Imagine out of my head. I have to forgive him a bit, though, because when Liverpool were rubbish at the beginning of last season, the line “Above us only sky” etched into his statue at John Lennon Airport was added to with the words “and below us only Wolves and West Ham”.

But, the reason I can't get the song out of my head has to do not with Lennon or his fantasies, but rather with the importance of imagination in shaping our lives and our society. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I've just got back from Germany where I was preaching in the church in Eisenach where Johann Sebastian Bach was baptised and where Martin Luther preached.

Now we're talking! Johann Sebastian was one of many Bachs, but his vision of God, the world and what human life is all about fired his creative imagination to write some of the most sublime music in history – he saw behind the mundane and the music soared.

Luther, too, rebelled against powers and authorities that turned people's eyes down into the muck of human failure instead of up into the sheer generous freedom of forgiveness and a new start. What's more, he did a bit of a Bach and wrote loads of songs to celebrate it all.

Of course, the place of Bach and Luther was later the place where unspeakable things took place – as happens when our imagination goes bad. Yet, with Bach and Luther, the Old Testament prophets provoke our imagination to see beyond the present reality and be held by a vision of a better, more just and merciful future. Jesus does the same by teasing our curiosity with images of a different way of being and loving and living.

I want to keep my imagination fired up. Like Bach and Luther. And even John Lennon.

I am coming to the end of a run on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. Picking Fridays was a good move: Chris has started getting guests in and, so, without any effort at all, I’ve managed to meet Elton John, Peter Kay, Rick Astley, David Walliams, Selina Scott and loads of others. And the production team is always generous, welcoming and open. It’s a good gig and gives me a window into a different world.

The problem with Pause for Thought is that the BBC won’t let me post the scripts on my own blog. They post them for seven days on the BBC website, but it’s not the same. So, I’ll paraphrase. The thing is, 320 words makes you think concisely about what is going on in the world (or, at least, in my head) and it’s a good discipline for someone like me who produces an awful lot of words (one way or another) during any day.

What has been running through my head during the last couple of weeks is how we explain what is going on in Tunisia, Egypt and the rest of the world. What is it that leads people to rebel now as opposed to three months ago or two years from now? Is it simply something to do with the confluence of events, economics and public mood?

I think that behind all that there is something about ‘imagination’.

I’m a great fan of John Lennon – an honest hypocrite, if ever there was one. (I have written more fully about him in my book Finding Faith: Stories of Music and Life.) But, Imagine is a load of nonsense: ‘Imagine no possessions’ he wrote on an expensive grand piano in a mansion worth millions. But, this doesn’t mean that the song doesn’t tell some truth.

What Lennon recognised is that it is the imagination that makes us human. We aren’t made simply to accept the status quo or to live fatalistically in the world as it presents itself. Rather, we are made to imagine a different way of being – a better way of shaping the world and its ways.

Imagination is not the same thing as fantasy. Imagination can become fantasy – especially if it doesn’t lead to action in any way. But, imagination can transcend fantasy and shape the way we see who and how we are in the world as it is and as it might become. Imagination shapes vision.

Without imagination – as I put it this morning:

The Berlin Wall would still be up. Tunisians and Egyptians would stay at home and make the tea. The corrupt and the powerful would rule the roost, hoping to anaesthetise people into believing that nothing can ever change.

But human beings are made with imagination. In the creation narratives of Genesis God has a ball imagining everything into being. The Old Testament prophets beg people to wake up and dare to believe that the powerful empires are transient. The poets and musicians awaken and keep alive the echoes of another world – ringing in the memory and minds of oppressed and depressed people. Jesus dares people to live now as if heaven were already here.

Jesus was no fantasist. His invitation to us to imagine, then inhabit and create a world that reflects God’s self-giving character, has never been a form of cheap seduction. Rather, it led him and his friends to a cross. It radically challenged (and continues to challenge) a world that believes that only the powerful can change things – usually in the interests of their hanging on to power. The naked man standing before the might of the violent Roman Empire might look absurd, but he messed with their heads and changed the world for ever.

Of course, the biggest challenge lies not with those who don’t ‘get’ Jesus and the Kingdom of God. It lies with those who claim his name, but show no sign of having been grasped by his imagination.

The Egyptians are demanding their own exodus. But, at the heart of all the brutality and uncertainty and sacrifice and struggle lies a battle for the imagination.

It’s been a busy week and there hasn’t been much time for hitting the keys.

I even managed to miss the 30th anniversary of the killing of John Lennon. Not that I forgot,  but just didn’t have time to say anything about it or reflect on the ongoing significance of Lennon’s life and music. I was going to ask Chris Evans about it when I stood in at the last minute to do Pause for Thought on his Radio 2 breakfast show yesterday morning (Friday) – he once expressed to me the irony of John Lennon writing ‘Imagine no possessions’ at a massively expensive piano in a massively expensive house on a massively expensive estate. But, he had Rick Astley (who neither gave us up nor let us down) and the very funny Peter Kay in the studio and there wasn’t time.

On the way to the BBC studios I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through the streets around Oxford Circus because of the violence of the previous night’s riots and destruction over education cuts and increased university fees. But, the roads were clear and all evidence of trouble had been cleared away. Anyway, I got there, did the broadcast and then carried on in a cafe with a meeting about interfaith work in Kazakhstan. Weird, I know.

The script I did on Friday was about Advent: Putting the waiting back into wanting. I nicked the phrase from a major credit card advert from some years ago which promised to ‘take the waiting out of wanting’ (while failing to point out that the ensuing unnecessary debt might eventually be bad for you). Advent beckons us to slow down and not rush the story: don’t get to Christmas before you’ve worked through the story that makes sense of it. After all, you can’t get to summer without going through spring.

These are not actually random thoughts about the last week. Each event is connected by at least one idea: imagination.

  • John Lennon, for all his absurdities, hypocrisies and contradictions (for which he is not exactly unique…) at least imagined a world that was different from the one he lived in. Yes, some of this was more fantasy than hope, but his restlessness with how things actually are compelled him to imagine a different world.
  • It looks like the genuine anger and frustration of students is being hijacked by the usual ‘let’s-spark-a-riot’ suspects. But, it also seems that underneath all this protesting lies a genuine frustration with the way things are and the apparent impotence of ordinary people to do anything about it. Put bluntly, I wonder if the (unarticulated?) root of this anger is that the generation that created – and benefitted from – the disastrous greed culture of the last couple of decades is now compelling the succeeding generations to pay the price for this massive miscalculation. A case of ‘the sins of the fathers (and grandfathers) being visited on succeeding generations of the innocent? Dissatisfaction with the way things are provokes a casting around for what might be.

This longing for a different future seems to be fundamental to human existence. It’s almost as if we are made that way. Augustine recognised it when he said that ‘Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in [God]’. Maybe it is the same impulse that makes us pursue the scientific, philosophical or anthropological project – the restless search for understanding why the world is the way it is and why it came to be this way.

And this is where Advent comes in. Christmas is meaningless if it is just the pointless (if touching) story of a baby being born out of wedlock. Advent offers four weeks in which we can rehearse the story  – of people’s experience of God, the world and each other – which then make the Christmas events comprehensible and explicable. Four weeks in which we get to put the waiting (for God coming among us as one of us) back into wanting (the light we keep hoping, working and longing for).

We anticipate Christmas. But we won’t rush it. Because we need the time and space to allow our imagination to be re-shaped – beginning to see the way the world could be, the person I could become.

Imagination isn’t fantasy. Imagination is what some of us think God applied when he said, “Let it be” and smiled with pleasure at what emerged.

Lennon book coverI have just finished reading Philip Norman’s brilliant biography of John Lennon (John Lennon: The Life). I mentioned my initial reaction (when part way through) earlier and wondered at the sheer complexity of any single life.

What comes out of the book is the sadness of Lennon’s complex make up. Damaged by all sorts of relational deficiencies, he grew into an angry man who directed his anger at any convenient target. Yes, it also produced some wonderful music; but it caused such terrible pain for him and anyone near him.

But, if it is hard not to read the book without a grudging sympathy for Lennon himself, it is impossible to emerge without serious doubts about his treatment of his first wife, Cynthia, and his first son, Julian. The book ends with a reflection by Lennon’s son with Yoko Ono – Sean – but conspicuously has no similar contribution from Julian. I wonder why.

Julian Lennon coverThe sins of the fathers are visited upon the following generations, we are told. If Lennon was (mis)shaped by his own parents’ choices, then why did he so easily treat his own son so poorly? I came out of the book wondering about the damage done to Julian, but unable to find anything on the internet to fill this gap in my own understanding.

Given this complexity in one life, one family and its effects on generations, it makes it utterly remarkable that anyone anywhere manages to get through life in one piece without causing too much damage somewhere along the line.

I’ve found a cafe in Kendal that has wi-fi if you buy a drink. I’ll be buying loads. The sky is emptying its load on the old town and walking in the hills is not an option.

What I love about holidays is the sense of perspective you get from stopping, reading, sleeping and thinking… all without the pressure of the next deadline or the next appointment. It frees the mind and lifts the soul. But is also sends me back into questioning my memories – which I’ll explain in a moment.

So far I have read Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father and am nearly half way through Philip Norman’s excellent John Lennon: The Life. What both books demonstrate is the complexity of any individual life. Obama’s search for his origins and his evolving ruminations on his own identity are beautifully recorded; but it is the emotive power of his emerging questioning that impresses most. I read this wonderful book reflecting constantly on how impenetrably and (ultimately) unresolvably the identity of any human being is constructed – shaped both by nature and nurture.

This makes me even more suspicious of the drive we all seem to have to categorise people or force them into conforming to a particular anthropological ‘shape’. What often looks ‘good’ always turns out to have a dark side, and vice versa probably. The oft-lauded community and extended family character of African society is shadowed by the lack of responsibility it engenders in favour of dependence on (or exploitation of) the ‘head’ (which means ‘most successful or affluent’) of the clan. Obama confronts this and it is hard to hear his speech in Ghana a week or tow ago without reflecting on his own experience in Kenya as it is recorded in the book.

Obama reflects on the origins of humanity in the Rift Valley and comments: ‘If only we could remember that first common step, that first common word – that time before Babel’ (p.357). Wherever human division manifests itself in all its greedy and self-promoting pettiness, that question needs to be heard.

I’ll come back to that in another post. But the thing about John Lennon is that Norman’s description of Lennon’s school days involves a roll call of people and places I grew up with. I also went to get my hair cut by Harry Bioletti at Penny Lane. Mr Burrows, formerly his English teacher at Quarry Bank, also taught me at the Holt Comprehensive. I remember him showing us an exercise book of poetry and doodlings by John Lennon, but this memory has been questioned by people who think I must be making it up. Philip Norman records it and my own doubts can be put to one side.

Lennon was complex, too. Reading about him, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for the complexity of his own upbringing, loves and losses. If such a mess can be made of one individual, how is it possible to generalise about anybody?

I actually think this is something Jesus rumbled in the Gospels – in the face of opposition from those who found that categorising people (in their own interests, of course) was politically or religiously more useful.

But for now, back to the valley where we don’t even have mobile phone signals…

Buddy_HollyWhen Buddy Holly died in a plane crash on 3 February 1959 the young songwriter Don McLean wrote his searing and enigmatic tribute, American Pie. (This was one of the songs I was doing when I was arrested for busking on the Paris Metro when I was 20.) The death of Holly was the ‘day the music died’.

john_lennonWhen John Lennon was shot on 8 December 1980 a part of my adolescent life closed down. I had grown up in Liverpool with the Beatles as the soundtrack companion and we were still hoping for some sort of reunion one day. The angry resentments of Lennon would never now mature into new avenues of musical creativity and poetry. Something died with Lennon.

Last night Michael Jackson died at 50 – 10 years older than Lennon and 28 years older than Buddy Holly was when he passed away. It is perhaps not surprising that the dominant mood in the media this morning is focused on the sadness of Jackson’s lonely life. It almost feels like a mercy that this troubled man has been released from a life that brought him a host of personal problems and public humiliations.

Michael Jackson was bullied by his father, propelled into stardom and fame before he even reached his teens and even seemed to spend the rest of his life trying to recover the phantom of a missed childhood. The wonder of his music and dancing was always overshadowed by the prurience of a public that loved to build up the artist and humiliate the man.

When Jackson announced his intention to attempt yet another career revival with fifty concerts in London, I wasn’t the only one to think this was ridiculous. No surprise, then, that they began to get cancelled before they even began. But the speed with which tickets were sold at least gave the hope that Jackson might be wanted more for his music than the stories of weirdness that always accompanied him.

Jackson won the spoils of stardom, but he also paid a heavy and miserable price. Despite all the weirdness and his complex inability to cope with the world as it is (to say nothing of his body as it was), he was a human being made in the image of God and infinitely valuable – regardless of the judgements of those whose miserable lives are spent trying to destroy those who achieve something in life.

May he rest in a peace he never knew in life. And may he be remembered above all else for his wonderful artistry and the gift he gave the world through his music.

Michael Jackson