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‘Sign of Respect’

Good morning. From pop stars to presidents, everyone has been paying their respects to Aretha Franklin, who died this week.

That word ‘RESPECT’ is emblematic of her life, all the way from her roots – singing gospel music in the Detroit church of her minister father – to becoming the Queen of Soul, one of the most famous recording artists of all time.

But one song stands out from them all.

‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T         Find out what it means to me…’

That 1967 track broke out of pop culture and became both an anthem for women demanding equality – and a battle cry for African-Americans in the civil rights movement.

‘We could feel our history in Aretha Franklin’s voice,’ said former President Obama this week, ‘… our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect.’

She said herself that Respect was the one song she’d want to be remembered for.

‘It’s not just about me or the civil rights movement or women,’ she explained. ‘People want respect… as people we deserve respect from one another.’

When you’ve grown up – as she did – where the majority white culture sees you as second class, respect is tied up with your dignity and rights.

None of us want to be dissed – disrespected – all of us want our equality and dignity recognised.

And even the simplest, most unlikely sign of respect, can be revolutionary.

An ordinary moment signalling that every human soul deserves reverence.

When the Anglican priest Trevor Huddleston was teaching in Sophiatown – in 1940’s racist South Africa – his path crossed with a nine year old boy, standing in the street with his mother.

She was a cook and cleaner at a school for the blind and – according to the structural racism of the day – he should have ignored her.  Instead the tall, English vicar took off his hat to greet the boy’s mother.

‘I couldn’t believe my eyes,’ recalled the boy. ‘A white man who greeted a black working class woman!’

The boy was Desmond Tutu and he called this experience ‘the defining moment in my life’.

It was to have a deep effect on his spirituality and – as he grew up to become a leader in the fight against apartheid – this moment, on an obscure street corner, would quietly shape the future of his country.

Hats are rarely doffed these days but still we can witness a myriad ways in which people signal respect for stranger & friend.

It may be less about giving up our seat and more about giving up our power.

Or paying attention while another talks.

Or patiently noticing the dignity in someone with a profound learning disability.

Or collaborating for change with those whose rights are not recognised.
Showing respect may not always deliver respect from others… but in giving others respect we respect ourselves.

Pursue righteousness and mercy … reads the good book…  and find R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

(BBC R4 Thought For The Day, Saturday August 18, 2018)

Slow Dawning Epiphanies

Good Morning. On Thursday llhan Omar was sworn in as a member of the US House of Representatives.

She is one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, the first to wear a hijab and the first Somali American. She captured her remarkable story in a social media post the night before.

‘23 years ago, from a refugee camp in Kenya,’ she wrote, ‘My father and I arrived at an airport in Washington DC. Today we returned to that same airport on the eve of my swearing in as the first Somali American in Congress.’

What a journey.

Born in Mogadishu, losing her mother at 2, fleeing civil war at ten, a refugee in Kenya until resettled to the US – and, at 17, a US citizen.

Now, twenty years on, she is elected to the government of the most powerful country in the world.

That evening I was sharing a meal at the home of – let’s call them Hassan and Maria – who, four years ago, made their own journey from war. Their route from Aleppo in Syria to London went via a long period in refugee camps in Turkey.

As we ate they talked about the Syrian restaurant they dream of opening while their three kids bounced around their tiny flat – flitting – fluently –  between English and Arabic.

Last year I started attending Friday Prayers at the Mosque with Hassan-  he, coaching me in the cultural and religious nuances of Islam that I, – as a Christian, schooled in church – had no idea of.

I often don’t get the sermons – so that’s quite similar to church – but I’ve come to love the idea of taking your shoes off to enter a holy space.

And of kneeling to kiss the ground to say your prayers – and hearing all these other whispered longings from hundreds of people all around.

Everyone looking for a sign, some kind of divine hunch or holy sat nav to set them on the right path.

This weekend the western Christian calendar marks Epiphany, when we recall those exotic travellers – Magi – from the east, ‘through field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.’

Carrying their legendary gifts – gold, frankincense and myrhh – they must have been disappointed to end their long road trip in a little backwoods town called Bethlehem.

No red carpet or special treatment to greet their diplomatic mission. Just an ordinary family, still trying to work out what their life was becoming.

Epiphany means ‘appearance’ and the epiphany of these Magi was not the one they had anticipated.

But most of our epiphanies are a slow dawning – rarely the lightbulb moment.

The truth arriving quietly in the life of unexpected people from unlikely places.

Who could have predicted the journey from Somalia to the US Congress of Ilhan Omar ?

As I looked at Hassan and Maria’s three children, I wondered which one of them might become our Prime Minister … when I… am a much older man.

((BBC R4 Thought For The Day Jan 5 2019)

‘Ritual Is Poetry In Action’

Good morning.   So far so good.
Twelve days in and alcohol has still not passed my lips. My January remains dry.
I had a slight scare with a bottle of non-alcoholic beer which was not as pure as advertised… but luckily I noticed before partaking. My virtue remains unsullied.
Perhaps you’ve embarked on veeg-anuary – going vegan for the month.

Or you’ve friends on a fitness drive, trundling their frames around the neighbourhood.

Giving up plastic, giving up social media, giving up – again – the cigarettes.
A new year, a new me… this time we’re going to become the people we feel, inside, that we really are.
Three quarters of us won’t make it to the end of the year with our resolve intact. And research from two years ago reported that a quarter of us will find our resolve dissolved… within the month.

Perhaps it’s no great surprise. Our minds are like memory foam, they settle around the shape of our habits and make life very comfortable.
But if our habits give form to our lives then good habits can quietly and subtly reshape us. Draw us in a new direction.
Religions can be useful when it comes to changing direction.

For a start it’s often easier to make a change within community -a boost to know that we’re not alone in struggling to subvert some dependence or adopt a new pattern.
They also offer special seasons for trying to become a different person. Christianity has Lent, an intensive six week short course in what used to be called penitence – but might also be called re-orientation.
One Lent our household went meat-free… on weekdays.

Cautiously, slowly, trying to change our habits through trial and error. We were practising being vegetarian.
It used to be common to hear someone described as a ‘practising Christian’ – as if there was an exam coming up that you might pass or fail.
But the phrase is a good one because it’s about intent, about the direction of travel you want for your life… about how you are practising to become the person you want to be.

A healthy life grows from good habits and in religion there’s a version called ritual – from the word rite – about performance and practice, about a certain way of behaving.
Although ritual can be deadly dull, when it’s alive its repetition and rhythm is a music which can retune our habits, helping us become the people we’d like to be.

Good people…or,  at least, a little better.
Good ritual like good habit is a performance that speaks for itself. Rabbi Chaim Sterm, put it like this: ‘Ritual is poetry in action.’
Slowly and surely, over a new month, or a new year, practising good rituals and good habits becomes the practice… of a good life.

((BBC R4 Thought For The Day January 12 2019)

An ‘Existential Singularity’

Good Morning. Today 40,000 people are making final  preparations for the London Marathon.

Some of them can barely believe they’re actually going to do this tomorrow – running 26 miles for fun is not who they thought they were.

And in an hour or so, across Britain, another 170,000 people embark on their own weekly run – puffing and panting over five kilometres in a Park Run.

Running is not as intimidating as it once was.

If we can run in company – where no-one judges us for our ability or speed or weight or looks – and if we can do it regularly, we not only become healthier… we feel better about ourselves.

I’m as surprised as anyone to discover I was harbouring an elite athlete inside – well, maybe not elite – but as I finish my regular neighbourhood jog, exhausted and exhilarated, I feel quietly proud… and slightly bewildered.  ‘How did this happen?’

‘Sport’ is the shortened form of the word disport – it’s about diversion, being ‘carried away ’ –  and sport of all kinds, still carries us away… from the disappointments of the everyday, from dashed hopes or bad luck.

And sport can bring us joy.

A new film, The Ponds, about people who swim, year-round, on London’s Hampstead Heath, explores the therapeutic properties of wild-water swimming.

One man, who was hit by a bus and recovered from two weeks in a coma, describes his regular, all-weather swims, as an ‘existential singularity’.

What a strange phrase – but also striking.

In the exertion of sport, just for a moment, you become more than yourself – get out of your self and away from your self.

You get lost… the way you do in great music or literature.

Maybe this is why sport has been called a ‘faith without explanation.’ It takes us beyond what we know of ourselves.

If you have faith, of course, you might reach for an explanation.

Like the Olympic sprinter Eric Liddell, in the 1980’s film Chariots of Fire, who said ‘When I run I feel God’s power in me.’

Whatever name we give that power, when we test ourselves in sport we make discoveries about ourselves.

For some, running is about solitude, a thinking time, a meditation… something close to prayer.

For others it’s about commitment and perseverance – early Christian teachers like Paul, saw the life of faith itself as a marathon. ‘Let us run with endurance the race set before us.’

But sport is also liberation, a release from the constraints of the everyday. A search for freedom, is how Catholic philosopher Michael Novak put it… and that rings true with the favourite, in tomorrows race.

Kenyan, Eliud Kipchoge, is almost mystical about the liberation of the long distance runner. ‘There is freedom in running,’ he says. ‘Go and run… and your mind will be free.’

I will seek that freedom on my 5k jog today…  and wish the same to everyone running this weekend.

((BBC R4 Thought For The Day April 27 2019)

Morning!

Good morning. Did you notice that? Good Morning.

It’s such a common greeting that we often fail to notice we’re making it.   Or receiving it.

A mark of ordinary civility which we can miss while we’re not paying attention. But in an era where public discourse is coarsened – not least on social media – simple civility could do with making a comeback.

This week Conservative leadership candidates have backed what they call a ‘Clean Campaign Pledge’ – promising not to ‘speak ill’ of each other and not to ‘engage in personality attacks’.

Civility begins in simply noticing each other, paying each other respectful attention as we make our ways.  For example in the act of saying good morning – even to a stranger.

In the past year I’ve been conducting an ad-hoc anecdotal experiment, intentionally saying good morning to strangers as I walk to the bus or get the milk

Looking people in the eye, singing my two syllable greeting as I pass.

Morning.’     A man looks up at me this first time, a little, incredulous.

Morning.’  This next person is surprised, maybe baffled.

The expression on another face is making a calculation: ‘Is this man getting the help he needs?’

I persevere and am rewarded with a smile, a nod of the head, a small courtesy.

Sometimes people seem to jump physically from the world inside their phone.

One word, plus eye contact, a small act of resistance against the anonymity of our urban village.

Perhaps dog walkers have an advantage – their pets, in general, being less reserved, more social, persuading their adult companions into reluctant communication.

It’s often said that in mega cities like London, people are less likely to greet each other than elsewhere in the country – more likely to shun eye-contact,    to look down,    to walk on.

But why shouldn’t we greet each other just because we don’t know each other? Some miniature insurrection, in favour of connection.

Social connection is vital for our wellbeing, to feel we are noticed and included. A study by the Association for Psychological Science a few years back found that even simple eye contact is enough to convey inclusion…  while withholding it implies exclusion.

The people we pass all day long, on pavements and paths, are engaged in all kinds of invisible narratives, hidden dramas of joy and sadness. Just like our own.

A simple greeting may alter the trajectory of their day – a signal that strangers are only friends… who we have yet to meet.

This is the day, says the ancient psalmist, rejoice and be glad in it.

She understood that with a smile and a word, we recognize our own good fortune in waking to another day.

Morning!

((BBC R4 Thought For The Day June 1 2019)

Lifelines

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‘Some days arrive with questions so vast we feel like strangers on earth.  Other times our joy makes us feel entirely at home in ourselves…’

Lifelines is the title of a book I’ve written with my friend Malcolm, a small attempt to translate religion into contemporary English.

Published by Unbound, it’s subtitled ‘Notes on Life & Love, Faith & Doubt’,  and it’s an experiment in drawing on the genius of poets, songwriters and novelists, inside and outside of the stories of faith, to come up with some practical tools for living a good life.

It wonders up to big subjects like forgiveness and kindness, grief and justice, asking where can we find inspiration for living a rewarding life.

The poet Vanessa Kisuule finds it ‘generous, profound and challenging’.  Which is kind of what we were hoping for. Bag a copy here.

 

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WD40 that oils the creaking hinges of our friendships

The F word. It’s one of the most provocative in the English language. We use it sparingly. It takes us by surprise, going against our natural instincts. The F Word is forgiveness.

Some people can practice it. Jill Saward, who has died this week, was among them. She became a household name after being attacked and raped at the Ealing vicarage where her father was the local priest.

From somewhere deep inside Jill found the resources to make light from darkness. Over time she became a champion for the rights of those who’ve faced sexual violence. She made a distinction between the act of aggression and her aggressors.

‘Forgiveness gives you freedom,’ she said. ‘Freedom to move on without being held back by the past.’

In that familiar prayer, Christians say ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’

Jill Saward found her faith called her to forgiveness… but not everyone shares that faith.

And not everyone who shares it, can make such a clear-cut decision to forgive.

It’s easy to sentimentalise forgiveness… until we ourselves are the victim of some abusive partner, some violent stranger, some political tyrant. Some conniving colleague or friend who breaks trust.

When the journalist Marina Cantacuzino was collecting stories for an exhibition called The F Word, she observed that some people see forgiveness as a noble response to atrocity… and others see it as a ridiculous response.

Taking part in restorative justice courses inside prisons, I’ve often seen prisoners reflect movingly on the impact of their crimes – sometimes, when meeting victims.

Janine – not her real name – stabbed another girl in a drunken argument. I watched her nervously rise to her feet, in a circle of twenty of her fellow inmates, and read a poem she’d written addressed to her victim, explaining her sorrow and regret.

Some people crave forgiveness for what they’ve done, but others don’t. Some victims decide to forgive quickly – others can never do it.

Forgiveness is as mysterious as love or compassion, it won’t be forced and isn’t compulsory.

Even for those who choose forgiveness, it’s not a momentary decision but a resolution to weave this new thread into the ragged fabric of our everyday relationships.  Less of an act and more of an attitude.

Forgiveness can be the WD40 that oils the creaking hinges of our friendships and, sometimes, keeps the doors from falling off altogether.

‘All friendships of any length,’ says the poet David Whyte, ‘Are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness.’

But it’s not easy, it’s not about forgetting and it doesn’t always lead to reconciliation – except, perhaps, with ourselves.

For the practicing Christian or practicing Moslem, for the practicing agnostic or practicing atheist, the practice of forgiveness is one way to break free of a past which wants to trap us.

‘Forgiveness,’ as Jill Saward said, ‘can bring freedom.’

(BBC R4 Thought For The Day Jan 7th 2017)

Overlooked

Good Morning. A new section in The New York Times features the novelist Charlotte Bronte, the poet Sylvia Plath, the transgender activist Marsha P Johnson and Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer.

The section is called Overlooked and most of its subjects are women or people of colour because – as the paper says – it overlooked them when they died.  Now it is correcting the record.

To mark the fiftieth anniversary next week of the murder of Martin Luther King, another famous title, National Geographic, has gone through its archives and confessed that for decades its coverage was racist.

‘To rise above our past we must acknowledge it,’ writes the editor, who notes that she is the first woman and first Jewish person to edit the magazine since it was founded in 1888.

The phrase ‘rewriting history’ is often used in a pejorative sense but sometimes history was written down wrong in the first place… by the victors as the saying goes.

In our own everyday histories, most of us are guilty of overlooking people who are not like us.

Some people are over heard – literally, we hear too much from them – at the expense of others we can’t hear. Or choose not to hear. We are the poorer for not knowing their stories.

When I worked on newspapers, journalists sometimes disappeared for weeks at a time – only to suddenly reappear with the front page scoop.  They had left the big city, or left the UK, in order to listen to communities whose stories could not be heard from behind a desk.

With the rise and rise of social media and its clanging echo chambers, it’s harder to witness the lives of the overlooked, more difficult to tune in to the under-heard.

But social change often arrives unbidden from the edges and the margins, while all the focus is on the centres of power and influence.

Today is a liminal day for Christians – an in-between day sometimes called Empty Saturday.

It’s the day when the first followers of Jesus of Nazareth were registering the shock of his death. The end of everything they had hoped in.

It looked like the still small voice of history had been shouted down once again.

But at sunrise on the Sunday, it was a group of three unsung women, overlooked people, who visited the tomb where the body of Jesus had been placed.

Salome, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, found the stone at the tomb’s entrance rolled away. Over time – decades, then centuries – their story came to rewrite history.

News travels slowly from the edges to the centre.  Sometimes resurrection is a slow dawning. But we may need to still ourselves in order to hear it.

‘Another world is not only possible,’ writes the novelist Arundhati Roy. ‘She is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.’

(BBC R4 Thought For The Day, Saturday March 31, 2018)

 

How the practice of faith is good for the soul…

Most weeks I play football with a bunch of other middle-aged men defying time’s wear & tear… along with some much younger and faster players.

With no referee and in the heat of the moment, we sometimes get decisions wrong. Was that a foul? A penalty? The action replay comes afterwards, via selective memory, over a pint in the pub. That’s the moment when we’ve calmed down and can get over ourselves.

Now and again tempers flare. When mine does I’m reminded of the smouldering volcano inside, that we all try to keep a lid on.

Anger – at colleagues, friends, loved ones – can erupt within even the most peacable of us. And if some things are worth sleeping on, anger is rarely one.

According to a study published in the journal Nature Communications, during sleep the brain reorganises the way that memories are stored.  Negative memories, it suggests, become harder to reverse.

In other words, go to sleep feeling angry with someone and it will be far harder to resolve that anger. Far more chance the rage becomes resentment, the bad-feeling bitterness.

But didn’t we already know this? After all, the most common advice to couples at weddings is ‘Don’t go to bed on a row.’

It goes back further, to the Apostle Paul, telling the early Christians to ‘not let the sun go down upon your wrath.’ Don’t let your rage get the better of you.

The narratives of our faith traditions often remember practical wisdom that is elsewhere easily forgotten.

There’s a common assumption that the more science reveals about how we’re made and how we tick, the more we’ll realise we don’t need faith. It will be marginalized, deemed irrelevant and finally disappear.

And it’s true that when religion is used to harbour homophobia, misogyny or racism, it looks all too much like a world we’d hoped to say goodbye to.

But another truth also emerges, that the practice of faith is often good for the soul.

Slightly sheepishly, a friend told me the other day that while he doesn’t think of himself as that religious he goes to church regularly. Surprised, I asked him why. ‘I need time to be on my own,’ he said.

While practicing religion brings him the gift of solitude, conversely, for people with too much solitude, it brings the gift of community. When I ask Ivy, 95, why she goes to church, the answer doesn’t focus on her beliefs but on her friends. Sunday morning may be the only time in the week she leaves her flat.

Many of the volunteers at the local church nightshelter would never turn up for a service. But the church is where they go to practice what they believe in… and what they believe in is supporting people down on their luck.

Just as science may reveal evidence to support the wholesome effects of some long-forgotten medical practice or dietary regime, for me the good habits of faith, often overlooked, can be equally beneficial.

Like taking a Sabbath, remembering to be grateful, welcoming the stranger.   Or not letting the sun go down on our anger.

(Thought For The Day, BBC Radio 4, Saturday December 3rd, 2016)

Giving Flowers To Strangers

I had never heard of Jack Webber until a funeral notice in the Daily Telegraph last week which described him as a ‘charmer, clock-collector, wit and Royal Navy Commander’. He had died at 101 but what struck me, was the simple request in the final line of the notice.

It said, ‘To commemorate Jack, please give a bunch of flowers to a complete stranger and tell them they’re absolutely marvellous.’

Maybe it’s because we’re entering the season of goodwill, but I thought I’d give it a try and this week I did. It’s easier said than done.

Armed with a bunch of carnations, walking home from an early meeting on Tuesday, I hesitated before half a dozen complete strangers… then chickened out altogether. It was too weird. What would they take me for?

Eventually I stopped by an elderly man in motorized chair, smoking a roll up. ‘I’ve a gift for you,’ I said, brandishing my bouquet.

‘You don’t know me, mate’ he said. Reasonably enough.

I know, I said but I’ve decided to tell people they’re marvellous and give them some flowers – it’s a long story. He looked at me curiously. I understood.

‘Can I give them to my young lady?’ he asked. I agreed. ‘Well, Merry Christmas to you mate,’ he said.

This was more challenging than I’d imagined but not wanting to give up I decided to go for people who were not complete strangers – like the local Lollipop Lady offering safe passage to children through morning traffic for longer than I can remember.

Her face lit up as I gave her a bunch of roses. She grabbed me in a hug and gave me a kiss. ‘Oh, bless you,’ she said. ‘I only threw mine out yesterday.’

In a café, queuing for a coffee, an elderly woman was clearly at her wits end with another woman nearby, in a wheelchair. I threw her a look of understanding.

‘That’s my mum,’ she told me. ’She’s 98 and I’m her carer. I love her but she can drive me nuts.’

Later I went back with a bunch of chrysanthemums and said I wanted to thank her for looking after her mum.

There’s a Quaker saying that ‘An enemy is a friend whose story we have not heard.’ The same could be true of any stranger.

My friend Pip, who’s spent his life working with people that others write off as lost causes, says everyone is a BHP – a beautiful human person.

For all our faults and failings, he sees the image of the divine in every face.

Or as the ancient Psalmist puts it, ‘We are fearfully and wonderfully made.’

The approaching season of goodwill could just as easily be called the season of marvellous.

A time to stop, notice and cherish each other. Strangers and friends.

I wouldn’t recommend approaching total strangers with a bunch of flowers but maybe Christmas is just the moment for some unexpected act of generosity – that makes someone else feel special.

That could be marvellous.

(Thought For The Day, BBC Radio 4, Saturday December 10th, 2016)