It’s at times like this that the Psalms come into their own.

The thing about reading the Psalms every day, regardless of how we are feeling, is that the poets provide people with a vocabulary for the spectrum of human experience. From exuberant joy to the depths of despair, there is something for everyone.

One of the repeated laments that finds its voice in a coronavirus world is that unanswered question: “How long, O Lord, how long?” When will the pain end? When will the exile from familiar ‘home’ expire so we can return to ‘normal’? It is a simple human articulation of frustration.

So, we find ourselves now not knowing when the lockdown will be relaxed or end. In the UK we are now in week four or five and there seems to be no imminent end in sight. And therein lies a problem. If we knew when the rules might be relaxed, or when increased association might be encouraged, we could measure out the days and weeks. If I knew that I would have to live for ten weeks in lockdown, I could then shape the weeks and days in order to do certain things and mete out the space. As people keep saying, this is a marathon, not a sprint. But, as one of my colleagues observed, a marathon has a known end and the runner can train for each stage of the race. So, we might actually be having to run a series of mini-sprints just now.

What can we do about this, then? And which wells can we drink from as we seek to navigate these strange times?

Well, the biblical story begins with the bringing of order out of chaos. That’s what the creation narratives in Genesis are about. And, although human beings seem to have a propensity for reversing this (bringing chaos out of order), there is something in us that needs to shape, to order, to form.

But, we can only do this effectively if we also have a sense of perspective – one that does not arise within us naturally, but can be learned by looking and listening and studying. One of the key themes in the Hebrew scriptures is that of time. The Israelites spend over four centuries in Egypt before being liberated in the exodus. They spend forty years in the desert going round in circles before they can enter the land of promise. Exiled in the eighth century BC (and again in the sixth), several generations or more find themselves in unwelcome territory and hoping for a swift return home. And so the story goes on.

The question it raises is how we should live in ‘exile’ when we have no idea how long the exile will last? How were the Israelites to live meaningfully – and order their common life – when they had no idea for how long this exile might last?

The trick remains the same for us as it did for the exiles three thousand years ago: shape now in the light of the past and with a vision for the future. The prophet Jeremiah put it simply: “Seek the welfare of the city.” In other words, attend to what you can shape – now – and what is in your control. You can’t kill the virus or make the political decisions, but, you can shape your own life in small bits and in ways that do not militate against the common good.

So, for now, this suggests that even if I can’t speed up the process of lockdown, I can break down the uncertainty into smaller timeframes (mini-sprints). I can take the week ahead and decide what I want to have done by the end of it. I then break down each day of the week and create a routine that pencils in the things I have decided to do. I can then measure backwards after a week and see what shape I gave to the empty time.

This might sound like a luxury for those with the space or freedom to do it. Living in a large house with a garden is very different from living in a block of flats with loads of children or a difficult or violent partner. But, by creating some shape to ‘short time’, we take some control over what seems “without form and void”. And this is better for our mental health.

This shaping of now derives wisdom from the past and aims to fit us (by the reforming of our vision of who we are and what matters) for an uncertain future. We might not be able to control the future, but we can shape ourselves to cope better with whatever comes our way.

(I realise this is all obvious, but it shouldn’t do any harm to set it out again.)

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2 (but from my office in Leeds).

Do you know what it’s like when you get an entire soundtrack running round your head? I do. Maybe it’s got something to do with the strange times in which we live. It’s as if loads of the music in my memory now finds the space to peep out of the undergrowth and sniff the fresh air.

My kids will probably raise their eyes at this, but the loudest echo belongs to one Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian singer-songwriter very few people have heard of. He’s written all sorts of stuff over the last fifty years or more and some of it is fairly gritty. Then he does one with the great line: “Don’t forget about delight.” When you find yourself in times of trouble – as someone else once sang – don’t lose sight of the nice stuff, the delight.

It’s not a bad idea is it? Because it’s too easy just to hear the bad news and find the imagination heading in the wrong direction. What the poets and musicians do is tease us to look at a wider horizon – to expand the range of possibilities beyond the ‘now’. The thing about poetry is that, if you give a bit of time to thinking about words, it opens space for the imagination to get working.

I would say this, wouldn’t I? I read the Bible every day. It’s full of poetry and songs in which the writers express what lies deep within them. They don’t care too much about whether what they say is watertight morally all the time; they just get it out of their system and into the fresh air. Then readers can engage what being a human being looks and feels like to the poet – even if the poet lived and died three thousand years ago.

Most of us are going to need some routine during the weeks ahead. But, we also have a chance to do something new for which there normally isn’t time or space. Like reading a poem each day, for example. Or, how about trying to write my own? Get it onto paper and play with the words? Because when the news is not great, don’t forget about delight.

Speak of ‘strange land’ and musicos will immediately think of the great, anthemic album by Keane. Older people (ahem) might recall an echo of Boney M or, even, Don McLean, both of whole recorded versions of ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’. And anyone who wonders where that came from will remember that it comes from Psalm 137.

What do you do when your world falls apart? What can it look like when everything you assume to be ‘that’s just how it is’ collapses and, amid the disorientation, you find yourself living in a different country, looking out at different horizons and listening to different languages?

Well, we don’t have to face this for the first time when the great virus brings the world to a halt and changes the way we live, relate, touch, hear and smell … possibly for ever. As usual, the resources go back a long way – like 3,000 years in the Middle East.

The people have been exiled from the land that gives them history, identity and meaning. They now live in a strange land where their oppressors have a laugh at them: “If your God is so powerful, what are you doing sitting on our river banks and looking so miserable? Go on – sing us the songs of you cosmic God who appears to have been defeated by our tribal deity!” That’s the scenario. Everything that gave the people meaning and identity swept away to be replaced by bewilderment and fear, any future looking radically different and totally unwelcome.

Now, exile in Babylon, subject to an alien and oppressive empire, is not quite the same as being grounded by a virus. But, what many people are now experiencing is. The end of a way of life. The prospect of having to change the way we live and move and have our being in a world that we thought was familiar. Wondering how to fill time when the normal contours have been wiped out. Questioning what we are for when the things into which we had invested such meaning have dropped out of the picture.

It now begins to sound more familiar, doesn’t it?

Well, Psalm 137 is really uncomfortable. These people have both a loving memory of home – of how life used to be – and a recognition that they would now have to live differently. In this strange land they would need to get their bearings, find a way of life, then shape a different future. And while doing it they would have to re-think the resources their story held for them, re-imagine what their (land-rooted) faith now meant, and begin to sing new songs without forgetting the songs of home.

My chapel this morning. The light shines in and the darkness will not have the last word.

I think this is going to be the task for our times – for Christians, of course, but, actually, for everyone. Stripped back to the bare bones, why do we think we are here and why do we think we matter? How do we cope with mortality and contingency … even before we get to morality? How, then, shall we live?

Psalm 137 ends with a horror prayer: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us. Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.” Embarrassing? No – essential. The psalmist doesn’t vindicate the ethic; he expresses the emotion. In other words, tell God the truth. Don’t pretend to say “hallelujah” when your heart says “shit”.

Prayer in these days can become an expression of honesty that compels us to face the truth about ourselves – our rank selfishness in stockpiling, for example? The prayer might change over time as we seek to live faithfully in a strange land. But, it must always be rooted in reality and honesty, exposing us to the possibility of change and transformation as we learn to trust that the God of the past will be faithful in a different future – that the strange land might even become a familiar home.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Show as Rylan completed his karaokathon in aid of the Children in Need appeal.

Karaoke! I’ve never done it. Been tempted once or twice, but I value my life too much to inflict my inner Gloria Gaynor on anyone else. How Rylan has managed it for 24 hours is anybody’s guess. However, I did once get arrested in Paris for busking when I was younger – the police just didn’t appreciate my art.

My favourite karaoke experience is Bill Murray in the great film Lost in Translation belting out Elvis Costello’s ‘What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?’ in Tokyo.

But, even those of us who don’t do karaoke do sing other people’s songs – in the bath, quietly on the train, walking the dog. There are always those songs that creep up on you when you’re thinking about something else and then, like Kylie, you can’t get it out of your head. It always amazes me to watch Glastonbury on the telly and see thousands of people singing every word of a song I’ve never heard sung by someone I just don’t recognise.

We all have those songs – words written by other people – that give us a vocabulary for saying what we can’t frame for ourselves. This isn’t new, though. Go back nearly three thousand years and you find poems giving voice to experiences of joy, wonder, anger, frustration, fear, hope: you name it, you’ll find it in the Psalms. Which is why in churches and synagogues you keep hearing them read or sung. They get under your skin. Sometimes, feeling fine, you find yourself doing a Psalm that expresses different emotions or experience; but, sing or say it anyway and, after time, you find it whispering through the mist of misery when you’ve lost the words to say what you feel.

I guess this also inevitably leads me to think about what it might look like to sing my own song. Not just to go along with someone else’s poetry, but to write my own. Some of the Psalms were written by and for a people living in exile – keeping the songs of home alive in a strange land. They had to work at it, not letting hope be swamped by the ‘now’.

Give Rylan a medal … and I’ll find the words today that give voice to my own song.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show (in Mental Health Week):

It seems to me that some people are better at talking than others. I don’t mean just driving everyone else witless by endless rambling – the classic pub bore. What I mean is that some people find ways to open a valve and let the pressure out by putting into words what’s going on deep down inside them.

Remember that great REM song ‘Everybody hurts’? “Everybody hurts, sometimes, everybody cries.” There’s even a line about “Cause everybody hurts, take comfort in your friends.” It reminds me of that line in Crocodile Dundee when the Ozzie Outbacker responds to an explanation of New York ‘therapy’ with, “Haven’t you got any mates?”

Well, friends are important, but even the most gregarious people sometimes find themselves in a place best described as dark. And it’s easy then to think that you’re the only one who hurts – the only one who cries.

Now, I would say this, wouldn’t I, but anyone who reads the Bible will find utter realism here. People are portrayed as they are and stories are told that reveal a deep empathy with raw human experience – including what we now would call mental health challenges. Look at the Psalmists – poets writing three thousand years ago – who cry out of the depths and give us a vocabulary for pain and suffering. “How long, O Lord, how long” must we endure this suffering? “I feel like I am being hunted and there is no escape – who can I trust in this world?” These songs and poems are ripped from the heart of the sort of experiences many of us endure today.

But, the Psalmists also offer a different take. They shine a different light on this experience. “Where can I go from your presence?” one of them asks. “If I go up to the highest heights or down to the deepest depths, you are there. I go to the farthest east and the remotest west, and you are there, too.”

In other words, if you don’t find the words to express your own anguish, these guys have given you some. Everybody hurts, everybody cries, everybody bleeds. Just don’t believe the ones who say they don’t. And you are not alone. Everybody hurts. Sometimes.

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

I was on the train down from Leeds yesterday – at some unearthly hour – and caught a glimpse of someone else’s newspaper. The story facing me was that Manchester Town Hall is going to close for six years for massive refurbishment. A similar fate awaits the Houses of Parliament in London, but the details of that one haven’t been nailed yet.

Anyway, the bit that I saw about Manchester that grabbed my attention is that the Town Hall clockface has inscribed on it the words: “Teach us to number our days.”
Now, how miserable is that? You’re off to the pub or to do your shopping, happy as Larry, and you look up to check you’re not late, and staring back at you is a warning to dampen your enthusiasm! Good grief. Or, is there another way of looking at it?

“Teach us to number our days” wasn’t plucked from just anywhere. In fact, it comes straight out of the Bible – Psalm 90 verse 12 – and the full version says: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”

I think what this is saying is: come to terms with the fact that you are not going to live for ever! Despite all the self-help courses and ointments aimed at keeping us eternally youthful, you only get free once you face your mortality. And that, believe it or not, is very cheerful … because it sets us free from anxiety and let’s us live every day to the full. Which is not bad, is it?

So, I can’t gain wisdom – or wise up – until I face up to reality – that every day counts. Which, of course, works in a variety of ways, because it also says to me: don’t waste your time! Don’t let the sun go down on your anger (to quote the Bible again), but sort out your relationships now, while there’s still time. If you get the chance, learn how to play and not just work: do I work to live or live to work? Why let trivia divide us and break us up when time is relatively short.

You probably get the point. Let’s learn to number our days and we might even become wise!

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

It’s that time of year again. For me August slows everything down and I finally get some space. But, it’s also the time for long car journeys … and that means loads of time to listen to music. The great thing about your kids having grown up is that no one argues with your choice of CDs.

Well, what you’ll find in my car this morning – I have just checked – is a strange mix of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Richard Ashcroft, Elbow and the wonderful Imelda May. I got back from a trip the other day feeling that my emotions had been shredded, listening to songs that seem to have been dragged out from the depths.

And that’s the power of music. Words on their own can pack a punch, but add a good tune and some decent backing and your guts go on a different journey.

There’s nothing new about this. One of the other things I do during August is read all 150 Psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures. Why? Simply because I get immersed in a song book that doesn’t always reflect my mood or circumstances, but does provide a vocabulary for times yet to come. Whether howling with complaint about the injustices in life, or laughing with joy at the wonderful enormity of the cosmos, or weeping alongside those whose lives have been torn apart, or encouraging your mates to stick with it regardless of the hindrances … the whole of life is in there and there’s a song for everyone at every time and in every place.

Just over a week ago I was talking to child refugees in the countryside outside Khartoum in Sudan. Kids whose family have disappeared and who find themselves abandoned or orphaned through the violence of others. Yet, they still hear the echoes of a haunting melody that whispers of hope as they are taken in and cared for by strangers who meet them where they are. Lament is coloured by laughter; memory does not just belong to the past, but is being created for tomorrow.

So, in all the twists and turns of a fragile life, it is still possible to detect the sound of a plea uttered by Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn: “Love that fires the sun keep me burning.”

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 Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (written late last night after getting out of Parliament):

I entered the chamber of the House of Lords yesterday afternoon, ready to lead prayers. A colleague came in and said there had been an incident outside involving gunshots. Very quickly the whole of the Palace of Westminster was locked down. Over the next five hours we were moved from place to place, ending up for several hours in Westminster Abbey.

The normality of the day had been ripped apart in acts of wanton violence that beggar imagination. The ordinariness of life – tourists posing for photos with policemen at the gates of Parliament, people walking to and from work – collapsed in tragedy and misery. Words cannot comprehend the depths of shock as news filtered through of what had happened. Someone said to me: “the world feels less safe today.”

The world of words is not short of explanations or interrogations. Even before we know the facts, judgments are made. This is inevitable in a world of instant communication. But, words are also needed as we attempt to grasp what has happened.

I turn to the Psalms. This Hebrew poetry collection is not for the squeamish or those who like to keep their religion tidy. One minute these poets are laughing at the absurdities of human beings, the next they are raging at God because of the injustices and cruelties of this world. And they were certainly no strangers to violence or horror. They knew what it was to be hunted; but they also knew the power of mercy and love and hope.

And that reflects what many of us in Parliament witnessed yesterday. While we were being kept secure by a remarkable police force, they were outside dealing with the unknowns of terror and the loss of a colleague. The parliamentary staff were professional and, as always courteous. Visitors, including parties of school children, were looked after by MPs who managed to keep everything calm and human. The emergency services did their stuff with discretion, skill and humanity. Westminster Abbey took in over one thousand people and made the experience as good as they could.

Yesterday we saw the worst of human depravity – that empty, soulless vacuum from which joy has been sucked – but the Abbey was filled with conversation as we saw the best of human society and compassion. And maybe the Abbey was the best place for us to be – a place not only of refuge and mercy, but a locus of hope… a place whose very stones bear witness to the mess and muck as well as to the glory of human beings who struggle to make sense of it all. Here God is worshipped and here people laugh and weep and think and speak. Here is a space that refuses to stick God in a box where he can remain unsullied by the realities of a complex life.

Parliament will resume today and life will carry on. But, my prayers are for those whose lives are now for ever changed.

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, written in the face of the horrors of Gaza, Syria, Ukraine and all the other bloody conflicts filling the news screens, and with a strict word limit.

Way back in 1978 Boney M did a terrible thing: they took a song of desperate lament and turned it into a disco dance hit. ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ was a boppy little number with a very catchy tune, but the music bore no relation to the content or the meaning of the words.

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept… How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” This song – which is taken from Psalm 137 – is wrenched out of the guts of a people whose world has been lost – possibly for ever. Here they sit in exile, expelled from their homeland, being mocked by their captors while they weep in humiliation. After all, how can they sing songs of praise to their God when the evidence of their desperate experience tells them it has all been a big mistake?

Well, Boney M aren’t the only culprits when it comes to putting words to inappropriate music. But, this is the song that comes to my mind when I see the images brought to us from just about every corner of the globe by hugely brave journalists and film crews. Attempts to rationalize the immensity of human suffering in the world today must surely come second to some attempt at empathy. Our brains might be engaged, but our first response must be the surge of emotional horror and lament that is dragged from deep within us as we see the human suffering laid bare before us.

Now, Psalm 137 is not a comfortable song; nor is it a song for the comfortable. It ends with a shrill cry of pain and hatred: “God, I wish you’d take the children of my enemies and smash their heads against the rocks.” But, it isn’t there to justify an ethic. It isn’t there to suggest it is right to think such awful things of other people’s children. It is there for two reasons: first, to confront us with the reality of how deep our own human hatred can go, and, secondly, to tell us not to lie to God (thinking he can’t handle that reality or the depths of human despair).

If we thought the twentieth century of bloodshed and slaughter was bad enough, the twenty first is already proving pretty grim. Like everybody else, I have views on what is happening in the Middle East and closer to home in Ukraine – including the persecution of Christians in Iraq and elsewhere. And, having grown up in Liverpool in the aftermath of the Second World War with grandparents who well remembered the First, I am haunted by the human propensity for what historian Christopher Clark has called the “sleepwalking” into global conflict. Where does all this leave the myth of human progress?

“By the rivers of Babylon” perhaps gives us a vocabulary for times such as this – admitting the horror and the helplessness, but surrounded by other songs that compel compassionate response and action that is rooted in hope of a better future.

This last sentence is a reference to the fact that the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures tackle the hard task of imagining a future where one looks impossible.