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

Just about a year ago I skirted the Isis stronghold of Mosul in Iraq. I was out there with colleagues visiting refugees, internally displaced people, church leaders and politicians in Kurdistan – particularly in and around Erbil and Dohuk. We spent time with Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, hearing harrowing stories of loss and fear and hope.

Yet, Mosul, so solid a base for Isis only a year or so ago, is now seeing the possibility of release and relief. How the mighty fall.
This shouldn’t come as any surprise. After all, this is the part of the world where civilisation as we know it actually began. When you read the narratives of three thousand years ago which we call the Old Testament, the events recorded took place here – between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Here we find the ruins of the most ancient societies – where human beings brought order out of chaos and the first empires were built.

And this is what the story of Iraq teaches us. Now is not the end. There was a time when mention of the words Babylon, Assyria, Egypt or Rome struck fear into the hearts of ordinary people – not least those conquered by the apparently invincible powers. Living in what is often called ‘the ultimate Now’, it is hard to see beyond the suffering or success of the present day – to hang on to the possibility of freedom or the defeat of the empire which controls life and death now.

So, when we read texts like those of the Old Testament – their poetry, their protest and passion – the point is clear: empires come and go; the powerful will be brought down and the meek raised up; tomorrow will not always look like today.

But, such a perspective demands a rare discipline. We have to be able to see the present as transient – not the defining reality. Put differently, we have to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear. Our central core as individuals and as a society has to be rooted in a clear understanding of what makes a human being and what makes a humane society. Christians would say that whatever the state of the world now, wherever power is seated, it is the God of resurrection who draws us into a future that is not held captive to the past. It is a vision drawn from a reading of history and scriptures that keeps power and suffering in perspective – that death, violence and destruction do not actually have the final word.

Now, not everyone will be fired by the same conviction. But, the warning to Babylon, to Isis, to global military, economic and political powers, has not changed since human society emerged in what is now Iraq: you won’t be here for ever and you might be called to account.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in which dementia was one of the themes chosen by guest editor Carey Mulligan:

When I was a Vicar in Leicestershire I was constantly surprised by visits to elderly people who suffered from some form of dementia. Now usually silent, play a harvest hymn or sing a Christmas carol and they would join in. I well remember the agony of a wife no longer recognised by her husband, and her bemusement when he broke his silence and started singing.

With dementia it seems as if the person we love has entered a different world, and it is those who remember all too well who feel the deep sense of loss and bereavement.

Some things go very deep. And when all else has become submerged into a different sort of consciousness, a vestige of deeper identity sometimes survives. Is it just the poetry? Or the tune? Or what?
These are not insignificant questions for anyone coping consciously with the onset of their own dementia or the almost-disappearance of someone they have loved for decades. When our memory has gone, who are we? And, I might add, why do we still matter?

Memory is so important to our sense of who we are that the loss of it is always going to be grievous. So, there are two responses that I as a Christian would venture in the face of this experience.
First, the creation narratives in Genesis (which address ‘why’ questions and not ‘how’ questions) state simply that human beings are made in the image of God. All Christian ethics emerge from this. That is why every human being is ultimately valuable, worth loving and capable of redemption. So, losing my own sense of identity does not reduce my intrinsic worth. If I forget God, God does not forget me. Or, as the prophet Isaiah put it to a people who feared for their future, “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”

Secondly, the liturgical shaping of the year by festivals like Christmas is designed to instil deep within us – from cradle to grave – a sense of individual and communal identity. The people of Israel entering the land of promise were required to tell stories that would be handed down the generations, accompanied by simple rituals involving stuff and action – no disembodied spirituality here. This ensured that the memory was formed and recalled. It was also so that people inhabited the memory of who they were and where they had come from; it wasn’t just that life rolled on in some formless way without the waymarkers of identity.

Dementia raises big questions. But, maybe the carols get sung by the silent because they grew up hearing, telling and living the narrative of God who never forgets his people. In an age when so many rituals and the repetition of stories are losing their grip, this faces us with the question of what will form our generation’s children and root their sense of meaning and value.

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

Chatting recently to an academic who leads a leadership consultancy, I was a little surprised when he said: “The two things that the high-powered business people who come here can't talk about are failure and death.” I replied: “Oh. That's where we start.”

Christian faith begins not with a running away from failure and death, but rather with a totally realistic appraisal – based, of course, on experience – of human failure, and the facing of mortality. Come to terms with these two beasts and the rest begins to fall into place. To paraphrase Martin Luther King: what we might be wanting to live for will be determined by what we are prepared to die for.

I have been thinking about this while wondering what is going on during the last week or so in the mind of the failed US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. She has spoken about wanting to curl up with a good book and not go out of the house. To have been so close for so long to the seat of power and then to lose it in a flash cannot be anything but hard to handle. Anyone with a shred of empathy – whatever their politics – must surely be able to comprehend this.

Is it not true that the measure of the man or woman is not how they handle victory, but how they handle defeat? Living with failure can be a gift in that it dismantles pretensions, dismisses illusions and disables hubris? Think of St Peter – protesting that he would stand by Jesus of Nazareth whatever happened … before running away when identified as one of his friends from Up North. Peter's self-image bled into the soil beneath the cross where Jesus died … but, he found a renewed future in a conversation with the risen Christ back on the beach where he worked as a fisherman.

This is not romantic nonsense – a sweetening of the bitter pill of defeat. Rather, it is realism born of the experience of people throughout the generations. Defeat can be humiliating, embarrassing and painful – especially in the light of the great claims to power made during an election campaign. Yet, it can bring freedom, release and the possibility of a new start in a new world in which we are no longer measured by our trophies, but by our humanity. Confronted afresh by our mortality, defeat can give us the opportunity to strip away the illusions and face the truth.

One word for this is 'repentance' – in the Greek this means literally 'to change your mind'. It means daring to look differently at the world and ourselves in order to see differently in order to think differently in order to live differently. Or, to put it differently, to snatch hope from the jaws of defeat.

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

I went into a bookshop last week to get a book I'd seen reviewed and, on a first look around the ground floor, couldn't find it. So, I went to the assistant and asked if they had the new biography of Martin Luther by Oxford academic Lyndal Roper. The conversation went something like this:

“You mean Martin Luther King?”

“No, I mean Martin Luther.”

“I've never heard of him. Who is he?”

“He was a German monk who set off the Reformation in Europe.”

“A German monk? He's probably in 'Religion'.

Eventually I went upstairs anyway and found it myself under 'German History'.

Well, I was a little alarmed about this. Not so much because of the religious illiteracy it demonstrated, but the historical ignorance. When I tweeted this exchange, a friend reminded me of the occasion when someone went into a bookshop and asked where he could find Oscar Wilde. The answer? “He's not in today.” Other funny comments followed.

Call me old-fashioned, but it is impossible to have any understanding of the modern world – especially modern Europe – without some reference to the German monk. And for me this is personal: I will be speaking in Luther's Erfurt at the end of October this year to kick off the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Europe.

The challenge this presents is this: which histories need to be known if we are to know who we are and what got us to where we are? I lived and worked in the Cold War, so inhabited a divided Europe: my kids did not, and for them the Soviet Union is as remote as the Boer War. Yet, some histories shouldn't be ignored.

Luther was a complicated man: intense, argumentative and bad-tempered. He said some terrible things about Jews (which in turn had terrible consequences even four centuries later) and wasn't exactly a proto-feminist. He challenged one political power only to find himself colluding with others. He was brave, disciplined and sharp as a knife. He changed the German language for ever, and shaped what became the modern world by following up on an idea: that God loves us anyway.

In other words, Luther was a complex human being – just like the rest of us. We don't have to ignore his faults or take him out of his times in order to make him palatable to twenty-first century sensibilities. Praise him or damn him, we still have to take seriously what he did at the time he did it.

Essentially Luther was empowered by one simple discovery: we can never be perfect, but we can be liberated by knowing we are freely loved by God. 'Grace' it was called. It changed him, and he changed the world.

We see around us plenty of anger, strife and disputation. Surely it wouldn't be a bad thing to re-discover grace. And also to re-discover history.

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, following the terrorist attack on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul and in the light of increasing numbers of post-Brexit racist attacks in the UK:

“How long, O Lord, how long?” is the three thousand year old cry of a Hebrew poet – not an expression of misery from England football fans. It is a cry that burns in the heart and sometimes escapes the lips of those who look at the world and weep at yet another tragedy, another offence. The horror of Istanbul is just the latest in a litany of horrors. On the eve of the centenary of the slaughter at the Somme, we encounter again the sort of savagery that strips away the veneers of civilisation that we long for.

Airports are terrible targets. These are places where different worlds intersect – where diverse humanity glances off each other in transit as we circle our tiny planet. They should be places of encounter, of surprise and reconciliation – departures crisscrossing arrivals. They are places where the world connects and we are exposed to the richness of humanity and culture.

So, it is not only tragic when people-haters attack innocent travellers in the name of their violent ideologies, but it strips us of our longing for peace. “How long, O Lord, how long?” (Perhaps a question the Lord ought to be asking us.)

But, talking of stripping away the veneers of normality or civilisation, we are compelled to ask where the violence of hatred begins. The last week has seen a marked increase in racist incidents in our own country, with people being shockingly abused in public and cards being sent to Polish children telling them to get out. Maybe we are good at keeping such sentiments under the surface until they are given sanction by the erosion of the social inhibitors that normally keep them in check.

But, just as racism begins not as a screaming campaign of violence, but as a seed that gets watered by silence and by rumour, so does its antidote.

One of the stories Jesus told is pertinent here. The place where God is to be found is like a mustard seed – tiny, easy to tread on. Yet, where it takes root – hidden from sight – it has the potential to grow into a tree whose branches offer a place of refuge and habitation for the birds of the air. Of course, what is interesting about this image is that the branches don't get to be selective about which birds make their nests among them.

This is a picture not just of hospitality, but of nurture. If racism and violence grow from small seeds that are allowed to take root in the minds and hearts of our children, then it is equally true that these will be challenged not by wishful silence, but by the planting, watering and nurturing of seeds that grow hope, commitment and love.

It is not enough to dig up the bad seed; a good one has to be planted in its place.

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

Today is not just Election Day – in the Christian calendar it is also Ascension Day. This is the day when, according to the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, the risen Jesus ended forty days with his friends by being taken from their sight on a mountain top.

Whereas most people have some idea about what Christmas and Easter are – perhaps even Pentecost – Ascension Day tends to get overlooked… even by many Christians. I guess this might be because this isn't the easiest event to explain – packed with theology rather than aerodynamics.

Seen from the perspective of his followers, it was yet another twist in the tale. They had spent a couple of years with Jesus of Nazareth, daring to believe the world could be different and that he would be the one to lead them to freedom from Roman military occupation. They had pinned on him their hopes for a brighter future, free from oppression and humiliation.

Well, it didn't quite work out that way. Instead, they saw this man from the hill country up north dying on a Roman gallows: victim rather than victor. Several days later his friends, whose hopes and longings lay bleeding in the dirt of Calvary, found he was with them again – the same but different. They kept having strange encounters with him, questioning what this was all about.

But, with the Ascension they lost him again. And it was now up to them to work out what this all meant for them and their community for the future. Clearly, he trusted them to get on with the job for him. And the church that grew from here was a movement shaped by people who knew that the world was now a different place.

No lovely 'happily ever after' end to a sanitised story, but a harsh dose of realism for people who now faced the same challenges of living truthfully in a world of death and threat and suffering.

So, today's not a day for working out the mechanics of the Ascension, but for wrestling with its meaning. A day for letting go of the simple faith – for growing up and taking responsibility for where we go from here. No fantasy here, no romanticism, no pretending that things are better (or worse) than they are, no false hopes, no illusions, no empty promises about a glorious future or how long that future might last for them.

And that's Ascension Day. And it might just shine a light on some of the issues of the day – even suddenly deciding to support Leicester City (despite Richard III being a York City fan – obviously). It's about not being a victim of other people's decisions, but, grasping your own future with both hands, taking responsibility. Or, as Jesus didn't quite put it: “onward and upward!”

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

When I got back from the Easter celebrations in Wakefield Cathedral yesterday I had no idea what was about to happen in Lahore with the deliberate targeting of Christians in a Taliban suicide bombing. The contrast between the celebrations here and the cost for those in Pakistan could not be stronger: death and resurrection are not just theological notions, but lived realities. However, what had been on my mind up to then was Karl Marx. He talked about the cost of turning people into commodities, making people and ideas into things.

What triggered this line of musing was the report that Easter is becoming the new Christmas. Apparently, increasing numbers of people are now sending Easter cards, buying and exchanging Easter gifts, and, while seeming to reject notions of resurrection or God, seem happy to deify a bunny rabbit with eggs in a basket. As they say, it's a funny old world.

What struck me about this was summed up in a media report I read following the Archbishop of Canterbury's statements about fixing the date of Easter itself. The responses seem to refer only to the impact that this might have on shopping and the sales of stuff. Everything has a price and everything ultimately gets reduced to its economic value or usefulness as a cog in the economic machine. I guess this is the final outworking of a language that replaces the social market with a market economy.

But, I am not sure this is ultimately helpful to us as individuals or as a society. People must surely be worth more than the mere economic value they represent either as producers or consumers, even if a couple of extra days holiday – perhaps even shopping – are welcome. Christians celebrate Easter as the day the promise of Christmas became surprisingly real: that the light that has come into the world cannot be extinguished even by death or violence or destruction. Yet, as I have walked with Jesus and his friends through Holy Week to death and resurrection, the light has looked pretty dim in a world in which the power brokers flex their military and economic muscles to keep the small people in check.

Easter is an invitation to face the darkness, to stare into the empty tomb to where death is supposed to be an end, and is the opposite of escapism or fantasy. Resurrection does not deny the power of destruction or evil; rather, it looks it in the eye and goes beyond it to new life. If Christmas represents – as one songwriter put it – “earth surprised by heaven”, then Easter surprises us with the whispered hint that there is more to life than death, and more to death than destruction.

Jesus objected to people being used as mere cogs in anyone's machine – even for their own theological purposes – and, so, met his bewildered friends in their abject darkness, met them where they were. They were surprised to find that their future was open, that they could be free even when oppressed. And that is what Christians call hope.