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

I’m not sure if a confession this early in the morning is wise, but I have never watched Game of Thrones. I have no idea what the story is, who the characters are, or what the plot line is. So, I can’t comment on any aspect of it … except the response to its ending.

Social media seem to be full of people who are angry that they didn’t get the ending they wanted or hoped for. I have even seen passionate pleas with the producers to fire the screenwriters, pull the last series and re-write (and re-film) the thing so it ends properly. What on earth is this about?

I guess in a world of custom-made this and custom-oriented that, we too easily believe that everything revolves around me and my satisfaction – that somehow I should have a life of individual personal fulfilment that makes everything nice. And, of course, it’s obvious from experience that this is nonsense.

It’s not only nonsense, but I think it’s boring nonsense. I recently read a lot of books while on study leave and a couple of the novels I read left me hanging, wishing for a different denouement. But, the joy of story is the element of surprise – shock, even.

For a Christian like me, this shouldn’t be a novel idea – especially in the current Easter season. Follow the gospels through and we see a story developing that keeps twisting and surprising. Get to the end – Jesus dead and buried – and there’s no airbrushing the powerful human brutality of it all. It’s not exactly escapism, is it? But, while the bereft friends of Jesus are trying to make sense of what shouldn’t have happened, they are further surprised by their women coming home and saying that the dead man seems not to be finished after all.

But, this is no ‘happy-ever-after’ deus-ex-machina make-us-all-happy resolution. In fact, it causes more problems. These people have to keep wrestling with reality, experience and their whole understanding about God and the world, and try to make sense of it all. This isn’t the script they were following, but it is forcing them to choose between their expectations and their experienced reality.

That’s how endings work. Surprise, challenge, discomfort. And it’s the ending that makes you go back to the beginning and re-read the whole narrative in the light of the twist.

We can no more control the endings of our own stories than we can compel writers to change their books. We are supposed to be challenged, arrested, surprised and intrigued. That’s the point. The story goes on in our imagination. And if we simply say: “Oh, there you go then,” then the story hasn’t worked. As true for resurrection as it is for Game of Thrones. Whatever that is.

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

I was checking my diary for this week when the news came in of the death of Doris Day. Whether it’s significant or not that this happened in Eurovision week, I have no idea. But, as we Brits will be exercising our foreign language skills again – nul points – in preparation for the big night, we might recall that it was Doris who introduced many of us to Spanish.

My late dad was a fan when we were kids and one of the first vinyl records he bought was one of her’s. And that’s where I heard Que sera sera – pronounced like a true Brit ever since. Que sera sera – what will be will be.

As a child I thought this was deep philosophy. You can’t change the future; what will be will be. Resign yourself to whatever comes. We call it fatalism.

Well, I liked the tune and I liked her voice. But, as I grew up I began to realise the idea was wrong. It’s a human responsibility to shape the future and not simply be a victim of other people’s decisions and choices. In Christian terms – which I was also exploring decades ago – the kingdom of God is not about some airy-fairy spirituality for when you die; rather, it’s about transforming the world here and now … thus creating a future that is more just and peaceful and fruitful for our children and grandchildren. After all, Jesus is all about God opting into the real world of matter and politics and muck and bullets and not exempting himself from it. Try sticking that into a Christmas carol.

Of course, this involves real commitment to the stuff of life and society. Fatalism is a denial of responsibility. Commitment to playing my part in building what has been termed ‘the common good’ becomes an obligation that goes beyond simply claiming my rights. Belief, in Hebrew terms, means committing oneself – body, mind and spirit – to the vision of the world that I believe to be true.

I think this is why politics gets fierce. After a couple of generations of little mainstream political choice we now find ourselves full of noise and fury about things that matter. If the choices currently facing Europe weren’t serious, we wouldn’t be getting up in arms about them, would we? It’s because the choices matter, the consequences matter, how we enact our collective priorities and decisions matters. In one sense, it’s heartening.

So, Doris Day nearly made her century. She lived through a century of wars and much more besides, and was part of the generation that exploded with optimism about a glorious and peaceful future. But, apathy and complacency have proved to be the enemy of peace-building. Que sera sera is a great song, but a disastrous way to think about living together.

Ths is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme – delivered five minutes after the announcement that Tory MPs have triggered a vote of no confidence in Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party.

Today Russians are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their post-Soviet constitution. Russians tell a powerful and emotional story of their past – of their identity, the “soul of Russia” – a story that gives meaning and direction to who they are in the world today. For them, the idea of the Motherland is everything.

But, Russians aren’t unique. Every country, every community lives within a narrative – a story that shapes their unconscious worldview and directs their affections … for good or ill.

Christians inhabit a narrative that emerges from particular stories in their scriptures. The liberation theologians who sided with the poor in South and Central America in the 1970s onwards were fired by the story of Israel – held captive in Egypt for four hundred years before being liberated to freedom in a new land.

As these people prepared to start a new life there, they developed narratives and rituals to remind them of their fundamental story and identity. For example, they would always bring the first 10% of their future crop harvests to the priests and recite a creed that began with a founding statement: “My ancestors were homeless nomads.” So, inhabiting this story today, backed by ritual, should suggest how poor homeless people should be seen in the society being shaped.

Later, in the New Testament account, when Jesus invited his friends to share bread and wine in memory of himself – what we call Communion or the Eucharist – he did so knowing that they would filter this through the story of the exodus.

So, Motherland, Exodus, Communion: our guiding narratives grow out of what’s gone before and now shape our behaviour and values. But, what happens when stories collide or pass each other by? For example, the current mismatch between understandings in the UK and Europe of their shared history of the last century – particularly over the purpose and value of shared EU institutions. In a UK that itself comprises a number of national identities, we must ask if it is possible now to create a shared story that can challenge the clashing assumptions feeding our current confusions.

The thing about the Christian narratives I mentioned earlier is that they are spacious. That is, they demand human agency and commitment, and they do not remove moral accountability from those who claim or inhabit their narrative.

So, can the British agree on a story that will guide us in the future, reminding us where we have come from, who we are and who we want to be? Faced with a crisis that demands an immediate fix, it is probably this deeper story that will fire our affections and drive our allegiances.

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

Some years ago a Church of England report confidently asserted that people increasingly live in networks rather than localities. According to this thinking, people relate to people with similar interests and commitments rather than being constrained by geography. The growing power of the internet and the massive explosion of social media communication enabled us to transcend mere physicality and the limits of place.

Of course, this is questionable. Although we can now communicate across the globe instantly and with people we have never met, human beings still have bodies and – as Neddy Seagoon* once put it – “everybody gotta be somewhere”. In other words, place still matters.

This notion lies at the heart of a recent report from the think tank Theos. It is called People, Place and Purpose – three words that encapsulate what it means to live well as individuals in community. The report is based on research done in the North East of England, but the title offers a lens through which to look at any community – recognising that even those who prioritise social networks still live in a physical place.

You have to be pretty well off to ignore your immediate environment. One of the lessons to be learned from the whole Brexit experience is that communities who feel ignored, left behind or deliberately disadvantaged will eventually remind the complacent secure that place matters to those who are privileged or condemned to live in it.

This is hardly new. Way back in the Hebrew Scriptures a simple ethical dynamic lay at the heart of social order and religious ritual, and we might describe it like this: human beings live in particular communities that find their common life shaped by the physical environment and the people who inhabit it; their common purpose is aimed at mutual thriving with the freedoms and responsibilities that make it work. Being realistic about human nature, these scriptures don’t hide from the need for restriction or sanction if all in a community are to flourish. And this is why the Ten Commandments still make moral sense – they take people seriously and recognise reality with all its fragilities and failures. It’s why many of the seemingly obscure rituals of this community make sense when you start to think about how we might create a society that works for everyone.

What I learn from this is that if people, place and purpose are reduced to slogans or political categories, then we begin to lose the plot. If political purpose reduces people to mere economic consumers, human identity is diminished.

Amid the loud voices claiming attention in the week ahead, we could do worse than to defy any kind of reductionism and insist on the priority of real people in real places seeking real purpose for our common life.

*It wasn’t (as many pointed out) – it was Eccles.

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

Of the thousands of photos in my phone one I return to time and time again is of a single rose planted alone in dry soil on a parched farm in Zimbabwe. I was walking with a group from farm to farm back in 2007 – somewhere near Gweru in the Midlands Province – and listening to stories of political oppression, fear, suspicion and hope. There was no water in town (the pumps had all broken), you couldn’t get fuel, and inflation was then at only 10,000%.

Later in that trip I found myself misrepresented all over Zimbabwean media, we had problems with the secret police, and we strengthened our ties to the Church under pressure there.

That rose, watered regularly, surrounded by aridity and barrenness, spoke of defiance, of hope, of a future.

Zimbabwe was always a very beautiful land. Under Robert Mugabe it had been transformed from the breadbasket of Africa into what some have described as a basket case. Yet, no one seemed to know what to do about it. People repeatedly expressed ‘hope’ that something would change; but, few seemed ready to be the agents of change. It was all too paralysing, too threatening.

It seems a long time ago. Mugabe has retired, so to speak. Emmerson Mnangagwa has led the country into elections that appear to have been free and fair, but has been challenged by opposition parties. It looks like Mnangagwa has won a majority of seats in Parliament, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that he will continue as president. The question my Zimbabwean friends will be asking, of course, is whether the future will be bright … or a further disappointment.

And this is where hope comes in. Hope is not the same as wishful thinking. Hope for many Zimbabweans was what kept them believing that freedom would one day come. For others, it was what motivated them to put their lives on the line in order to make change happen. For neither was it entirely cost-free.

Standing by the rose near Gweru I remember hearing the words of Isaiah 40 from the Hebrew Scriptures: “Comfort, O comfort my people,… she has served her term, her penalty is paid.” It is always hard for people to hear words of comfort when the evidence of the reality around them is so bleak. But, biblical hope was never fantasy. Rather, it was always about defying ‘reality’ and being drawn by a vision of how the world might be – even when the so-called realists around you just keep saying, “the world isn’t like that”. And it has always meant getting stuck in to the world as it is.

That single rose is an emblem – an investment in the future. We will have to wait and see if Zimbabwe’s rose will continue to bloom in the new world.

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

As we approach the 70th anniversary of the founding of the National Health Service, millions of words are being written and spoken as its merits are being either celebrated or debated. But, I was struck by something said by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. I quote: “of all the words used by Bevan to describe the benefits of the NHS, the one he returned to most was a word we rarely use today – serenity.” He goes on to say: “After years in which great-grandparents, grandparents and parents had no peace of mind when their loved ones were sick, because they simply could not afford the treatment, serenity was what the NHS provided. It still does.”

What an odd word to use about a massive national enterprise that swallows enormous quantities of money, employs thousands of people and provides the source of endless stories of human living and dying in every community. Serenity. Yet, isn’t that the word that sums up the aspiration as well as the oft-criticised reality of the NHS – a peace of mind that is easily taken for granted by people who have not experienced any other system of national health care? Or the constant fear that illness or debility will necessarily provoke massive anxiety about affordability on top of that of mortality?

I think this is where health professionals and priests have something in common: neither can avoid those deep questions about the meaning of living and dying or of life and death. Meeting people at their greatest points of need and vulnerability, questions of suffering and pain cease to be merely academic and become people with faces, families and stories. Not just a lump of inconvenient chemicals stuck on a stretcher, but a human being whose ultimate value cannot be counted merely in economic numbers.

I think this is important. Debates about the health service often revolve around the experience or demands of those in receipt of care; yet, those offering care through the NHS (in its local manifestations) are themselves intimately caught up in confronting their own humanity, their own mortality. Adam Kay, in his funny and sobering book ‘This is Going to Hurt’ remarks at one point: “Remember [health professionals] do an absolutely impossible job, to the very best of their abilities. Your time in hospital may well hurt them a lot more than it hurt you.”

It will come as no surprise that a Christian approach to health and illness begins with an acceptance of mortality, but sees people as a body/mind/spirit unity. Hurt one part and the rest is hurt. So, serenity is as important for the doctor and nurse and hospital porter as it is for the patient in their care. It is a rare word that needs to be revived.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (broadcast from Berlin and focusing on the impact on Germany of Brexit):

I was in Vienna recently and saw something that sums up the challenge of Germany in the last century. At one end of the Judenplatz is the haunting Holocaust Memorial by Rachel Whiteread; facing it, twenty metres away, is a statue of the philosopher, poet and Enlightenment hero Johann Gottfried Herder who re-shaped German education and culture. The question that cries out is this: how did Germany go from Herder to Hitler in a mere century?

This is the question that Germany has been unable to escape in the last seventy years or so. Walk around any German city and you will find yourself stepping on small brass plaques in the pavement bearing the name and dates of Jews deported to their deaths from the houses before which you now stand. They are everywhere – and they are called Stolpersteine: stumbling blocks that get in your way and compel you to face responsibility for what happened to your neighbours only a generation or two ago.

Because of its history Germany has had no option but to confront its past and choose its future. Yet, as time moves on and memory becomes history, revisionism becomes easier for some people. Recent changes in the political landscape come on the back of concerns about immigration in general and Islam in particular. Yet this phenomenon was almost inconceivable only a decade ago.

What it demonstrates is that human beings all too easily re-shape their worldview according to the world they now live in. We can accommodate all sorts of challenges to our ethics … until we find their foundation has been undercut and we have given away too much. Perhaps history teaches us that it is not a big step from ‘every human being matters’ to ‘some matter more than others’ to ‘these are not really people of value’.

If you go into Berlin Cathedral and look up at the dome, you will see in gold lettering words from the Lord’s Prayer: “Dein ist das Reich” – “Thine is the Kingdom”. I have sat there and thought of the generations of people – from the Second Reich through Weimar and the Nazis, through the GDR and the now-reunited Germany – and wondered what Christian worshippers thought that meant. And how could they so easily confuse the Kingdom of Caesar with the Kingdom of the Jesus we read about in the gospels? Whose Reich/Kingdom do we really serve?

The question goes to the heart of how human beings make sense of themselves and the world – and whether, when the heat is on, the foundation of our ethical frameworks is as sound as we like to think it is. Humility, generosity, loving your neighbour, protecting the weak – or self-preservation at all costs?

Every generation faces the same question. So does every nation.

 

* I originally wrote two scripts for this. The first I set in Weimar where you can stand by the statue of Herder and look to the hills beyond … and Buchenwald concentration camp. I decided this was not the right introduction, so went to Vienna instead. However, I didn’t change the statue from Herder to Lessing. Only one person pointed this out. It doesn’t change the point, but the error should be noted.