This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Recently my daughter gave birth eleven weeks prematurely. Both mum and baby are doing well. Then, last Sunday afternoon my mother died at 90, with all five of her children around the bed in the home she had lived in since getting married in 1955.

I had just returned from meetings in Estonia, where locals spoke about the threat from Russia and their perceptions of the invasion of Ukraine. For me, there was the whole of life, contracted to a birth, a death, and everything uncertain in between.

The evening of my mum’s death I was surprised to recall a Bill Viola video installation at Tate Modern when I was living in London. Created in 1992, it was called Nantes Triptych. The screen on the left recorded the last thirty minutes of a woman in labour. The screen on the right displayed the last thirty minutes of his mother’s life; the screen in the middle showed a humanoid form swimming through the mysterious course of life, accompanied by sounds of the two women labouring towards a beginning and an ending.

The installation was intended to be lived with for thirty minutes. While I was in there I was the only person who stood from beginning to end as people walked in and out. I have often wondered what that was about. Was it, for example, that we are bad at contemplating the pains of birth and death? Or that the life in-between is complicated enough without having to think about it’s meaning? Or something else?

I was once asked, in the wake of some violent global tragedy, what happens when we die. I helpfully said, “I don’t care.” She responded: “Given your job, (I was Bishop of Croydon at the time) don’t you think you should?” Well, I think now as I did then that we need to keep it simple. So, I said that Christian hope is rooted in the person of the God who raised Christ from the dead – not in some formula for working out what happens next. But, death – not a vague ‘passing’ – is not to be avoided as if it marks the end of everything. The first truth of human existence, made in the image of God, is that we shall die. How we get there matters.

My mother did not rage against the dying of the light, but, rather, saw it as a welcome next step on the journey. She went gently into that good night and confidently.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Some years ago on a visit to the United States, I drove from the Gulf Coast down through Florida. A massively destructive hurricane had powered its way through this part of the state only a few months before and we drove for fifty miles through utter devastation. For miles on end every tree had been snapped like a pencil, leaving the tops pointing into the earth and creating triangles of dense wood. Towns and settlements stood abandoned, leaving shattered wooden houses derelict against the now quiet sky.

Hearing of Hurricane Ian has brought it all back to mind. Solid looking buildings in permanently inhabited communities get boarded up in an attempt to withstand the torment. But, ultimately, weather will not and cannot be tamed. In the end, we are at the mercy of the elements.

The problem is that, unlike most people who live in vulnerable parts of the globe, some of us have got used to thinking we can control the world and our life. Dangers simply have to be managed in order to maintain what we dare to call ‘normality’.

But, if we learn one lesson from the Covid pandemic and the obvious effects of climate change, it surely must be that (a) human beings need to learn a bit of humility about their fragility, and (b) respect for the creation might just relativise our collective hubris. I guess humility emerges from realism and a proper acknowledgement of our human contingency.

This goes to the heart of one reason I am a Christian. Acceptance of my and our collective need of grace and one another means that arrogance and pride can be put to one side. My personal self-fulfilment might not be the ultimate goal in life, after all. Facing mortality compels me to face this fragility – not with misery, but rather with liberation. Equally so when we face the current threats caused by energy, money and violent conflict.

Fatalistic escapism? I don’t think so. Knowing our need and accepting the fragility of the world can in fact drive us to what I would call incarnational commitment. That is, a commitment to get stuck into living in the world as it is, loving our neighbour as ourselves, shaping a better and more just common future, but without any sense of entitlement to security.

How we respond to the challenges of the coming months and years – which most of us can’t control – will tell us what we really believe and whom we truly love. For Jesus, loving one’s neighbour was not a suggestion – it was a command.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Next week sees the tenth anniversary of the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. To my shame – so I am told – I can’t remember much about the athletics, but, like millions of people, I found the opening ceremony unforgettable. We were presented with a vision of Britain that, in one sense, we wanted to see – of civilisation and development, of community resilience and a generous collective altruism.

Inevitably, it represented a particular take on our island histories. But, few came away from it unmoved – if not for the history depicted, then at least by the scale of the drama.

Looking back on how the opening ceremony was conceived, one of the key participants said: “If you didn’t know what Danny Boyle looked like, you wouldn’t know who was leading the meeting … He didn’t lead by dominance or by being extrovert; he led by listening. We all felt heard. I think this work turned out the way it did because Danny was a great listener.”

Interesting, isn’t it? Leadership by listening.

I think there are several strands to this phenomenon.

First, good leadership starts with learning the language of the led. We can’t know how to speak if we haven’t taken the time to learn what might actually be heard.

Secondly, it’s in the telling of stories that we begin to piece together a narrative that connects with the audience and makes sense of their experience of the world. Only having listened to people telling their story can I begin to shape what I might call The Story.

Now, none of this is new. As a Christian I can’t escape the constant reminder that in the Gospels Jesus puts time into gathering or walking with his friends and taking them and their questions – even their fantasies and misconceptions – seriously. He never derides them. But, in re-framing stories, he treats them like adults – making their own mind up and taking responsibility for what they do about it.

In Luke’s Gospel, for example, during dinner at the house of a religious leader a woman bursts in and pays embarrassing  attention to Jesus, the guest. The host sneerily questions Jesus’s moral rectitude in not rejecting the woman. But, rather than point out the host’s hypocrisy, he asks if he can tell a story. The host agrees … and thereby opens himself up to making a judgment on his own arrogance.

So, as we celebrate the anniversary next week, it’s worth reflecting on how stories shape our memories, but also shape our view of what we want to become.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Listening to the news about Sri Lanka this last couple of weeks, three symbols haunt my memory and imagination: tears, ammunition and a flower.

Although it was the name of a late 1970s band, The Teardrop Explodes evokes current events on the beautiful island of Sri Lanka – which, with a population of around 22 million, is shaped like a teardrop in the Indian Ocean.

In May 2009 a thirty-year civil war finally came to a brutal and bloody end, and hopes were strong that peace and ethnic reconciliation might – in time – ensue. For me this is personal as the Anglican Diocese of Leeds has a long-standing and strong link with the church there, and I have visited the island, met people from all sides of the divides, and witnessed the aftermath of extreme violence.

When I was there in autumn 2015 the second symbol – ammunition – spoke powerfully into this space. There is a monument near Jaffna in the north and close to where the final battles of the civil war were fought. Erected by the triumphant Singhalese military, it represents a shell or bullet penetrating a very large wall. The warning to the defeated Tamils was clear: we won, you lost – and you are vulnerable. As a gesture of future reconciliation it wasn’t helpful; indeed, it is solely and intentionally a reminder of past grievance and humiliation.

However, for me, the third symbol – that of a flower – hangs over this. The Bishop of Colombo gave me a pectoral cross – which reflects Christ’s suffering at Calvary. But, rather than standing alone, this cross is set into a lotus flower. And, for our link church in Sri Lanka, the lotus is a powerful symbol of the reality of violence, but rooted in the promise of resurrection – that out of suffering can come new life. In other words, death, violence and destruction do not have the final word. There is always more to be said. Resurrection isn’t just a fantasy – wishful thinking or vague hope – but new life that demands response, commitment and sacrifice if beauty and flourishing are to have half a chance.

It would be too easy artificially to resolve the tensions inherent in these three symbols: the teardrop exploding again today in frustration with corruption and the abuse of power; the penetrated wall; and the cross set in a lotus flower. But, all three speak of realism in the face of despair. A realism that takes hope seriously and commits itself to making it real. A reminder not just of historic pain, but a call to future life.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the morning after the Boris Johnson signalled his intention to resign as leader of the Conservative Party (following the unprecedented resignation of 59 government ministers).

The current convulsions in Westminster offer, if nothing else, a compelling drama. I guess politics are, by definition, always dramatic. After all, they involve people, the ordering of society, uncontrollable events, convictions, emotions and other contingencies.

But, dramas involve characters, contexts, narratives, and so on. And a clear question that needs to be asked when the dramas are playing out around us is, simply: what is driving the characters? The audience needs to be able to understand what is going on not only on the stage, as it were, but also in the minds of the players.

To illustrate this we could look to Shakespeare – after all, a new Shakespeare theatre opens next week in Prescot, Liverpool, and there are few dramatists who explore the complexities of human character as well as the Bard of Stratford.

Shakespeare’s imagination was fuelled by a close relationship with the Bible. And he recognised that the Bible is not a handbook of doctrines, but records the narrative of a people wrestling with human nature and how to order a just and merciful society. This narrative is brutally frank about reality and how real people behave, what drives them, which values are to be seen as virtues.

And this is where the current political dramas come in. Character and virtue are both essential to leadership and the common life of a society. So are the vision and values that drive the ordering of our society. But, it is not just the actors on stage who shape the story, so does the audience by its engagement.

The episode that shapes my own mind on this comes from the Old Testament. Before the liberated people of Israel could enter a Land of Promise – after unlearning ‘Egypt’ in a desert for forty years – they had to work out what the new world might look like once they settled. Rituals were established in order that they should never forget that once they had been slaves, refugees, homeless and rootless. They were to enshrine justice and mercy in the laws and institutions of their community for the future. Compassion for the powerless was integral. And all this was to help them shape a just and virtuous society. It didn’t fully succeed.

But, when things go awry or a society faces some re-shaping, it is vital that these fundamental questions are addressed: which values will drive us? Who and what are we for? Does virtue matter in public and institutional life?

But, in these dramas no one is a mere spectator. All are responsible actors, accountable for playing their part.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

I remember hearing the late great Leonard Cohen explain how he delved into drugs and religion to alleviate his distress; but, he said, “joy kept breaking through.” I remembered this while watching a couple of videos from Ukraine this week.

One was a young woman in her coat and backpack, outside the railway station in Kyiv, playing the piano while the air raid sirens howl across the fearful city. The calm beauty of music defying the threat and the violence – music that, if silenced here by bombs, will be played somewhere else by someone else. The fragile but persistent beauty of music challenged the fear and threat in the air.

The second showed a group of soldiers playing instruments and dancing during a break from the grimness. The small crowd loved it – an interval of joy.

But, you might ask what’s the point? Is it defiance? Or sheer bloody mindedness? A gesture of order against a landscape of chaos?

Well, I’m not sure it really matters. What they do in these simple acts is point us through or beyond the immediate to a barely imaginable future. They light a fire that cannot be extinguished. They are gestures of hope. When things are closing in, they open us up – like a flower opening to the light of the sun which keeps burning anyway.

And there is a long tradition behind them. Three thousand years ago a prophet called Jeremiah was about to be sent off into exile with his people. Military defeat had led to loss and humiliation for a people who thought God had been on their side and couldn’t now understand the abandonment they felt. And, as loss dominated everything – as life seemed to be ending – Jeremiah bought a field. Pointless – the exile in Babylon might last for decades or, even, centuries? Stupid? Misguided by fantasy? Or brutally realistic and hopeful?

Jeremiah had no illusions about suffering, but he was also able to imagine a different future. I guess many of his friends – if he had any by then – thought he was deluded or making a pointless gesture. But, he was drawn by a vision of God and life that saw beyond the immediate, convinced that endings never end – that out of the trauma and out of the destruction new life will come. So, he buys a field that someone else might one day cultivate to feed a community or start an economy.

Jeremiah refused to let violence have the last word. So do the Ukrainian soldiers and the young pianist. In this sense, hope has a melody and life has a rhythm that makes us dance.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, following publication of Sue Gray’s update on her investigation into alleged gatherings on Government premises during covid restrictions.

Publication of Sue Gray’s report yesterday poses questions for all of us. Put bluntly, what sort of society do we want to be? And what role should leadership play in shaping such a society?

These are tough questions that can’t just be addressed in the abstract. However, any answers must be built around a moral framework that delimits what is acceptable and what is not. Any living community in which competing values and convictions play for priority will have to agree on some moral parameters – what the late Jonathan Sacks used to refer to as “the moral limits of power”.

Around 3,000 years ago the Hebrew Proverbs asserted that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” – not the fear of terror, but what we might term ‘awe’ and ‘ultimate respect’. Such fear assumes a reference point beyond me and my interests; it takes responsibility for the consequences of decisions made and priorities set. And I think this applies not only to individuals like me, but also to whole societies which must choose whom they worship – that is, to whom or what they give ultimate value. Pragmatic reflex is not enough.

And there’s the rub. Character is shaped by the habits of a lifetime and must always be held against some commonly-owned measure of what society claims to believe about truth, love and justice … if you like, what we wish to teach our children about how to live well.

I was thinking about this on Sunday when celebrating Candlemas in two parishes in Yorkshire. Candlemas marks the transition from Christmas and Epiphany towards Lent and Easter. Christmas offers us the mystery of God coming among us in the vulnerability of a baby; but, we move on in the story to the child who grows up, makes choices, and ends up on the gallows.

The remarkable thing is that this child, Jesus, never wavered, even when the cost of leading others towards a radical change of life led, in the end, to his own death. Choices, consequences, costs. The victory of power is a sham.

The Christian story speaks of forgiveness for failure; but, it also speaks of repentance and change. Not for reasons of pragmatic convenience, but because ethics matter for both individuals and society together.

We live in challenging times on many fronts. The question to be faced is: what sort of a society do we wish to be?

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, guest-edited by footballer Raheem Sterling on themes of education and social mobility.

The American poet Robert Frost wrote: “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” I know what he means. I remember turning 40 and realising that my life was probably half way through; today my elder son is 40 and I look back with amazement at what has happened, what choices we all made, what experiences we shared, what relationships we forged.

Frankly, I think we did a good job: despite being born in Cheltenham and living around the country, he has always been a passionate Liverpool fan. What more could I want?

Well, quite a lot actually. To go back to Robert Frost, I remember looking at a baby and realising the responsibility asleep in my arms. And the uncertainty about what might lie ahead of him – not just in the choices we and he would make as he grew up, but also what might happen in the world that couldn’t be controlled but would shape or constrain those choices.

While celebrating Christmas over the last few days I was conscious of the fact that the baby of Bethlehem grew up into an argumentative boy who clearly learned by debating and questioning. The boy grew into the man who learned his trade before hitting the political arena and eventually getting nailed to a cross.

Growing up – and letting our own children grow up – is a nerve wracking business. We can’t control what will happen to the children we love. We do our best … and face our failures … recognising that this is a pattern they might also one day repeat. But, if uncertainty is the name of the game, then society has to give all children the best start, the best example, the best opportunity.

Which means what? Especially as no child can grow in isolation from other children, whatever their background.

Well, along with guest editor Raheem Sterling this morning, we might start with education and opportunity. The Germans have two words for it: ‘Erziehung’ has to do with nurture and learning, ‘Ausbildung’ is all about training for a skill. And both are valuable. Of course, at the heart of both lies a person – the roots of whom need to be watered by more than mere information or ‘knowledge’ – if they are to develop wisdom and character.

And this means enabling young minds to roam widely, dig deeply, face unwelcome challenges and hard questions. As Aristotle noted: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Or, as the Book of Proverbs puts it: “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding.” (3:13)

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. I had already written a different script that became inappropriate as the day’s news developed. I got back from London late, wrote a new one and got it out by 1am. This is what can happen with Thought for the Day. I’ll post the original one shortly, so that this change will make sense.

I was on a train back from London to Leeds last night when I caught up with the news that some people had drowned in the Channel while trying to reach England from France. By the time I got home the number had risen to over twenty and a song of lament was going around inside my head.

Some years ago the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn was in Afghanistan.  He happened to be at Kandahar Airport as the coffins of fallen soldiers were taken on board an airplane for repatriation – that is, the return of the bodies to those who loved them back home. He wrote: “Each one lost is everyone’s loss, you see; each one lost is a vital part of you and me.” It is a hauntingly simple and beautiful elegy in the face of human mortality. It’s full of empathy for those whose world would now have changed for ever and whose grief would be unbearable.

But, the point he makes is that if we don’t have our basic humanity in common, what is then left? This reflects the famous John Donne assertion that “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…”

It seems that both Cockburn and Donne were able to penetrate through the dominant politics and positioning of their day and find the truth at the heart of it all – that whenever people die, a hole is left into which pour the tears of the bereaved. The difference between the fallen westerners in Afghanistan and the drowned easterners at Calais is that we label the latter, question their choices, and forget their identity.

The French President, Emmanuel Macron, put it well when, recognising human solidarity, he offered first his sympathy to the families of those who drowned. This isn’t just a time for politics; rather, it is a time for digging deeper emotionally and being touched by tragedy. I don’t know the names or circumstances of those who have died, but their death changes the world.

This goes to the heart of Christian faith when faced with tragedy and loss. The Judeo-Christian tradition begins with people being “made in the image of God” and, therefore, being of infinite value – a value that goes beyond their economic or utilitarian function. Every person matters absolutely – not just those we deem acceptable.

Naive sentiment? Maybe. But, it also happens to go to the heart of what Christian faith refuses to negotiate.

Each one lost in the Channel had a name, a history and people who loved them. God knows their name even if I don’t.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Last Sunday evening we held a celebration in Bradford Cathedral. Christians, Muslims and Jews and many others came together – not an unusual phenomenon – to remember Dr Rudi Leavor who died recently in his 90s. Rudi was loved by people across our communities and he is greatly missed.

Rudi was a refugee to this country from Germany. He and his parents escaped what became the Holocaust. He grew up, set up a dentistry business, chaired the Bradford Synagogue for over twenty five years, and was a crucial holder of the memory in West Yorkshire, insisting that we recognise the fragility of our democracy and civility. He was loved by all who knew him.

Did he “game the system”? I ask the question because the phrase is being used frequently at the moment. Not only is it applied to politicians and PPE contracts, but also to the Iraqi asylum seeker who tried to attack a hospital in Liverpool a couple of days ago. Systems, it seems, are there to be gamed.

In the case of Emad al Swealmeen, the allegation is that he converted to Christianity in order to ‘play’ his asylum application. Inevitably, this has raised questions about the motives of all asylum seekers. Yet, the Refugee Council has also published research this week that indicates that 70% of those landing on our shores are demonstrably fleeing persecution. Which then raises the question as to why it is easier to extrapolate from one example – Emad al Swealmeen – rather than another – Dr Rudi Leavor? Or the huge majority of those who do not go rogue, but become good citizens who make our country stronger?

Gaming the system is an easy conclusion for me to draw, but only if I lack empathy or imagination. Living on this island seems to make it hard for many to look through the eyes of those whose experience drives them to extreme decisions – like leaving home and crossing the globe in order to survive, let alone thrive.

The three Abrahamic traditions that gathered in Bradford Cathedral last Sunday have much in common. One is the mandate in our scriptures to pay attention to people who are poor and marginalised. In the Hebrew Scriptures a people approaching settling in a new land are commanded to make provision for those who are hungry, homeless or – for whatever reason – in need. A tenth of the harvest is to be left in the ground so that there is always something for the dispossessed to eat.

In other words: yes, mistakes will be made; systems will be gamed; good will will be mocked. But, that doesn’t remove the moral obligation to love our neighbour.