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

I know it’s easy to get out of touch, but I was a bit boggled to read the other day that Ed Sheeran’s song Shape of You has been streamed 2.4 billion times. 2.4 billion! But, the most streamed artist of the decade is Drake – 28 billion streams. That is an utterly boggling number.

Now, this makes me feel a bit off the page, but the most auspicious musical event of the last couple of weeks – for me – was the launch of Leonard Cohen’s album, three years after his death, of Thanks for the Dance. It is funny, poignant and wonderful -however few streams he gets. His deep, old voice articulates the stuff of living and dying in colourful poetry and the language of joy.

Try this: “No one to follow and nothing to teach except that the goal falls short of the reach.” Now, isn’t that what we all feel most of the time? The goal falls short of the reach; we get disappointed that we aren’t all we want to be. We mess things up and get stuff wrong, and wish we could be better. Or am I the only one?

I was once asked in a radio interview about Leonard Cohen if he had “hijacked religious language” – like in his song Hallelujah. My answer was that, rather than hijacking it, he had actually understood it! “The holy and the broken hallelujah”. That’s what we all are, isn’t it? As we prepare for Christmas in a few weeks’ time, this goes to the heart of my longing: a God who in Jesus comes among us as one of us and subjects himself to all that the world can throw at him … without throwing it back. Taking broken people and making them whole. Running with the grain of who they are, but opening up a world of being infinitely loved and valued. Challenging the prejudices of powerful men and giving life to people who thought they were worthless because their goal fell short of the reach.

I guess Ed Sheeran would agree with that. Whatever form you take, the shape of you is unique and uniquely loved. Broken, forgiven, restored. And that, I think, is very good news.

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

Well, Glastonbury seems to have gone well. I caught up with bits of it on the telly, but would love to have been there.

Instead, I found myself a few days ago speaking at the launch of a literature festival. I didn’t know I was speaking until shortly before it began. So, I cast around a bit for an opener and landed on Billy Ocean … if you see what I mean.

I was once in a studio with him and was waiting for him to launch into ‘When the going gets tough the tough get going’, but he didn’t. So, I offered: “When the going gets tough the tough … write poetry.” He laughed.

What I was getting at was that I grew up thinking poetry was a bit wussy – a bit indulgent and fancy – only to discover that it’s actually the poets who deal with the hard stuff of life. And you can include lyricists in that, too. Because they use words and images that get behind the defences and have the power to move and surprise us, shining a different light on something we take for granted or think is just ‘normal’.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the books I read every day – those that make up the Bible – are full of poetry. Jesus never defined the kingdom of God; he just kept saying “It’s like this…” and offered a story or image. And he knew that once you have told a story or evoked a picture, you’ve also given it away and lost control over what people might do with it.

If poetry enables me to look differently, to see differently, and to think differently about God, the world and people, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that scriptures are full of it. The poets tease the imagination and dig into the complex experiences and emotions of people’s lives. They refuse to let us get away with compartmentalising – you know, keeping your mind in one box, faith in another, experience in another. The poets hold us together.

As Leonard Cohen famously put it: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”

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”.

 

The great thing about getting away on holiday is the time to think, reflect and consider. Arriving on holiday to the mother of all thunder storms (started about four hours ago and still hammering), there isn't much to do other than think, reflect and consider.

Or read and think and consider.

At a business breakfast in Huddersfield last month I was given a book – strongly recommended as powerful and moving. That's usually enough to turn me off. After all, I have more books still to read than there is time to live. But, this one has proved its hype.

Nick Coleman is a man who lived music – then lost his hearing. But, his memoir isn't miserable or cloying; rather, the radical loss of music sent him deep into exploring. – sometimes explaining – how music works on the soul. Actually, it isn't just about music; it's about art and taste and love and growing up and mortality and loss. I don't want to quote it here, or give page references for a quick dip into its pages. It has to be read from the beginning. Don't miss his observations on Christmas carols or Soul music. And it is beautifully written.

The book is called The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss.

I read it against the backdrop of two recent albums: Leonard Cohen's Popular Problems and Robert Plant's Lullaby … and the Ceaseless Roar. Both are differently preoccupied with mortality, joy and loss – both with an honest realism that puts regret and self-pity in their place.

Someone said recently that this is the album Cohen's (now 80 year old) voice was made for. I thought that of both Live in London and Old Ideas. Seeing him live at the Manchester Arena last year will live with me for ever – as will having to leave before he finished in order to get the last train back to Bradford, thus missing nearly forty minutes of encores.

They used to say that Cohen's earlier recordings were “music to slit your wrists to”. Of course, they never were. The humour was always there. But, age has brought it out as he has relaxed from the demands of … er … probably his libido. He sings:

There is no G-d in Heaven / And there is no Hell below / So says the great professor / Of all there is to know / But I've had the invitation / That a sinner can't refuse / And it's almost like salvation / It's almost like the blues

Robert Plant, on the other hand, responds to the break up of a long relationship in his new album Lullaby … and the Ceaseless Roar. Again, this is a working out of the experience of loss and renewal, but with the edge that only the artist can bring to us. No wonder, then, that the Old Testament prophets were the ones to scratch away at the memories and imaginations of the people, using words that – in the words of Walter Brueggemann – “linger and explode”.

Anyway, this all comes on the back of seeing Caro Emerald live at the Leeds Arena a couple of weeks ago. The support act, Kris Berry, was lovely-but-bland and couldn't manage to hold the audience – it felt like the audience was trying to help her feel OK. Then Caro Emerald hit the stage with her eight or nine piece band and occupied the space with sheer force of musical personality. You couldn't take your eyes off her. Every song, every arrangement, coursed through your veins, lighting up the imagination and firing the bits of you that want to get up and dance even if to do so would have been unseemly. In my case, that is.

So, that is the soundtrack running through my mind while I begin a holiday from the relentlessness of establishing a new diocese in West Yorkshire and the Dales (and Barnsley and a slice of Lancashire and a bit of County Durham and North Yorkshire…).

(The thunderstorm stopped at 9pm allowing wifi to work…)

 

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

When I was a kid in Liverpool I always felt I must be the stupid one. What could possibly be good about Good Friday? A bloke gets tortured and executed; his best friends – having sworn undying allegiance to him – all run away and leave him to the women (who obviously had stronger stomachs); then he gets buried and it all seems such a useless, tragic and embarrassing waste. He was only in his early thirties and all the raised hopes just lay bleeding in the dirt.

Not exactly for the fainthearted, is it? But, that is what Good Friday is about: Jesus of Nazareth coming to a grizzly end. That'll teach him to stand up to the authorities and to question the way the world is.

You know, the best bit about this story – the story that gives today its name – is that none of the people involved in it knew what might happen next. Jesus's friends never quite grasped what he was on about, and Jesus himself felt abandoned during his final moments.

Now, how real is that? I mean, let's not be squeamish – we've all heard on the news just now about Syria and Ukraine and the ferry tragedy in South Korea as well as other places where human suffering is all too real.

But, the story doesn't end here. Sunday is coming. And what looks like an ending is transformed into a surprising new beginning in which we are confronted at the heart of human grief with a man telling us not to be afraid. As I put it in an article recently, Easter cries out to us with the invitation to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear.

The great Leonard Cohen encourages us in one of his best songs to “give up your perfect offering; there's a crack in everything – that's how the light gets in.” He's right. And the beginning of freedom seems to come with the acceptance that all of us are cracked – or not all that we are cracked up to be.

Maybe that's why this Friday is Good. It reminds us to lose our pretensions and illusions. The story doesn't end with the cracks – Sunday is coming.

 

Monogamy is not the first word that comes to mind when the name Leonard Cohen is heard. He was, to say the least, a bit of a lad.

I have just finished Sylvie Simmons' excellent and very readable biography of the great poet and musician. She quotes the Guardian's Robin Denselow describing Cohen's London gigs on his first European tour as being about “self-obsession, cynicism, non-communication; it is two strangers frantically making love in a shadowy hotel bedroom.” Perhaps this observation was more prescient than the critic knew at the time.

Leonard went through women like the London to Edinburgh train goes through stations. He was insatiable. And the tortuous process of writing, thinking and – eventually – performing accompanied his relationships with a self-referential singlemindedness that is both impressive and shocking. His approach to sex is as hard to admire as his stamina is hard to ignore.

But, as with many great artists, it is out of the flawed humanity, this wrestling with spirituality and sensuality, that their pips get squeezed and the fruit is pressed out.

Or is it?

What is clear with Leonard Cohen is that not once does he dissemble, lie or pretend to be what he is not. Selfish and self-interested he might be (although the way he fulfils his responsibilities towards his children is honourable and his generosity to friends and disadvantaged people – see the stuff about his gigs in mental institutions in Europe – remarkable), but he is not a hypocrite. His walking out on commitments to women seems to me to be deplorable, but none of his women seems to be surprised.

What I found moving about his 'pension restoration' world tour in 2008 was that here was a man of 75 who is now at peace with himself. Maybe, as George Melly once observed with evident relief and gratitude, age silences the torment of a rampant and enslaving libido. Cohen performs with humour, generosity, humility and wonderful skill – at ease with himself and the musicians who bring his music to life.

When I once expressed my admiration for Cohen in a blog post, I got a blasting response to the effect that he is simply a shameful louche. All I can say is: so was Mozart, but I haven't heard anyone suggest his liturgical settings should not be used in church.

Cohen comes over as a remarkable artist and a man whose suffering and searching has lasted a life time, leaving in his wake as many casualties as credits. But, I guess, like the older men in John 8, who, having demanded that the woman caught in adultery be stoned (and not in the sense that Cohen regularly got stoned), began to leave first, those of us who have lived longer recognise our own catalogue of failings and should be less swift to judge. Cohen, at least, is relentlessly honest.

So, now I am on to Christopher Browning's 'Ordinary Men' – another shocking exploration of the human condition and our easy acquaintance with avoidable cruelty. More anon.

 

So, we read yesterday that the Israeli government has given permission for another thousand settlement homes to be built. And the outside observer might be forgiven for wondering if peaceful coexistence between Israeli and Palestinian can ever be more than wishful thinking.

Or, to put it differently, is it ever possible for one generation, haunted by nurtured histories of enmity and mutual injustices, to choose to create a memory for the next generation that breaks the cycle of hatred, suspicion, provocation and self-justifying violence?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, noting the death of the last person to fight on the First World War (I think) once spoke about “when memory becomes history”. His point was basically that once the bearers of memory have died, we are left with history as a commodity to be re-shaped, traded and totemised. When there is no living witness to refute the nonsense, it is left to the ideologues to shape the history narrative in such a way as to justify current preoccupations or priorities.

(As an aside: when clergy move to a new post I encourage them to learn the history of the new parish, but to recognise that people there will speak and act from the memory – the newly-appointed priest might learn the history, but an not share the memory.)

I guess this is on my mind today because I have just finished reading Tony Horwitz's excellent pursuit of the American Civil War, 'The Confederates in the Attic'. Funny it may be, but there is something disturbing about the way we – and not just the people we think are mad – appropriate 'memories' regardless of the accuracy or propriety of doing so. Horwitz illustrates well how the myths about the Civil War are more powerful than the facts or the reality. (You'll have to read the book to see what I mean.)

As always, the language tells its own story. The Civil War is known in the South variously as 'the War of Northern Aggression', 'the Lost Cause' and 'the Recent Unpleasantness'. We write the 'history' in order to create a 'memory' that justifies who and how we behave now – especially in relation to those who (inconveniently) share 'our space'. Closer to (my) home, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland view the Battle of the Boyne in 16XX differently.

Anyway, I am now on to Sylvie Simmons' 2012 biography of Leonard Cohen. And what raises its head at the beginning of Cohen's story in Montreal, Canada? The segregation of French and English in Quebec. However, she does also quote Canadian poet Irving Layton, speaking about Cohen and defining 'genius' in the same way I have previously described a prophet: “the ability – a very rare ability – to see things as they actually are. You are not fooled.” (p.51) If a genius is rarely appreciated in these terms, a prophet is rarely welcome in his/her own home.

There is no escape. This is how tribal human beings are. We don't have to be. We can choose not to be. But, this demands a self-sacrificial decision to prioritise the future over the past and to create a reality that will prove to be a more hopeful and positive 'memory' for those who will inherit the history we are making now.

 

Last night Rory Butler did a lounge gig in my house. Around 20 of us knocked back the wine while listening to some wonderful guitar playing and great songs by the 22 year old Scot.

I have posted about him before – and can’t work out how to upload the video from my iPhone to this blog (yes, cos I am technologically challenged). So, here’s a link to the previous post; here’s a link to his website; and here’s a couple of badly lit photos of last night’s gig, followed by a YouTube clip recorded some time ago.

Rory Butler 1Rory Butler 2

If you like John Martyn, Nick Drake, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen (without the… er… ‘life experience’ in the voice), you’ll love Rory Butler.

If you fancy a lounge gig from him, contact him through his website. While you’re at it, tell him he needs to be on Twitter, too.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hn3L8GlTHHk

Here is a photo from last week of a young friend from Austria standing beside a road sign in Liverpool last week.

Penny Lane is famous the world over because the Beatles sang about it. But, when I was a kid, it was the place we went to the barber’s or the shops. The ordinary became the extraordinary. And, despite the Beatles tours, it still is a place ordinary people go to the bank, the barber’s, the shops… and engage in the stuff of ordinary life.

Why start with this? Partly because it formed the starting point for my book Finding Faith: Stories of music and life – in which I try to write about life and God and the world in ways ordinary people can understand. In other words, I am not writing for academics or people familiar with church. Secondly, however, is the reminder that there are two ways of addressing human questions: one is to start with God or the Bible or texts and go from them to our experience, the other is to start with human experience and then relate it to the other things. The former is OK for people already ‘in the club’, or who ‘speak the language’; the latter is where most people naturally start – with the experience they have, the questions they face, the life they live.

(In writing this I am reminded of my initial attempts as a vicar to write baptism preparation materials for our baptism preparation teams to use with the parents of those wanting their children baptised. The first materials failed – they began with biblical texts and were largely alien to those unfamiliar with them. I re-wrote them, with each session beginning with the experience of the parents, and then finding a biblical story or analogy that provided a vocabulary to express – or a framework in which to play around with – God, the world and us.)

Having watched the remarkable, soulful, poignant, funny, colourful, magnificent triumph that was last night’s Olympic Games Opening Ceremony (our Austrian friend was there), I turned to a book by Rosemary Lain-Priestley which she had kindly sent me, and which is called Does My Soul Look Big in This? I have a problem with books that look as if they will indulge in introspective narcissism and the title and cover didn’t encourage me. The reality was different.

Rosemary Lain-Priestley is a well-known broadcaster and writer, and I know her as a trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust which I currently chair. She begins where people are, uses her own experience as a springboard for ruminations on spiritual development that is rooted in the real stuff of life, relationships and society. Taking the whole person seriously, she muses around the things of life that make or break us, that build or demolish us. She starts with real human experiences, real questions, then digs down a bit and rummages around what is thrown up. She draws on biblical (and other) stories to illustrate or amplify, often bringing to life images that had become over-familiar.

En route she quotes from people like Richard Rohr, Andrew Rumsey, Purple Ronnie and others. She considers what feeds the soul when we endure or enjoy experiences such as change, loneliness, depression, pilgrimage, joy, connectedness and gift. It brought to my mind people such as Mike Riddell and evoked Leonard Cohen’s “there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”. Like Danny Boyle’s Olympic representation of Britain, it is self-deprecating and humane throughout.

Written by a woman, most illustrations are self-consciously female. But, as a bloke, it is always vital to be compelled (or invited) to look through the lens of someone ‘not like me’. The Church of England gets a kicking I would want to argue with, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I would commend the book to anyone – it offers a recognition of common experience and invitingly suggests a way of living in and from that experience.

Last week I interviewed fourteen ordinands prior to their ordination as priest (yesterday evening) or deacon (this morning) in Bradford Cathedral. Since Thursday they have been on retreat at the gorgeous Parcevall Hall.

One of the questions I asked them (apart from: “Why should we ordain you?”) was how they might summarise the gospel – or the biblical story – in a single sentence. It wasn't easy. But, I still remain convinced that if the church and its ministers are to communicate into a sound bite and visual culture, we must work harder at the words we use – especially when put on the spot by people who have no idea about Christian faith (even if they think they do).

One good one came after some discussion and is the sort of line that opens up, rather than shutting down, further inquisition: “You can't pin God down… but we did nail him.”

I still come back to something I once said on the radio when unexpectedly asked what was the point of the church. I simply blagged: “The job of the church is to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God.”

I am open to other creative suggestions! But the point is that we need to work hard at finding and shaping language, then using it repeatedly to see how it works and if it resonates.

In similar vein, I was watching a DVD of a film about the great Leonard Cohen – my daughter and son-in-law gave it to me recently. Towards the end Cohen said with a smile: “For many years I was known as a monk. I shaved my head and wore robes and got up very early. I hated everyone, but I acted generously and no one found me out.”

Discuss.