House music, God’s glitterball, and Christmas – a BBC Pause for Thought

Here’s the text for the 13 December 2022 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Breakfast Show with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2. Listen here.

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In our first week of theology school, my friend Darcey invited some people to her flat for drinks. I say “some people” – she invited pretty much our entire first-year class. By 9:00pm a crowd of twenty-somethings had crammed inside. It was all wine and cheese and beer and crisps until someone put on Dancing Queen, followed by Notorious B.I.G., and the party turned into a mini-rave. Sofas pushed to the wall, a mass of young ministers vibing and voguing into the night.

I was always the wallflower, uncomfortable in my own skin, so this was definitely not my scene. But someone pulled me from my corner into the middle of the crowd, and 25 years later, I can still feel the unexpected joy of bumping and jumping to Abba with everybody else.

At theology school I explored God, I fell more in love with Jesus – but it’s also where I learned to love to dance!

What started in Darcey’s flat didn’t stop there. Going dancing with classmates became a ritual. At midnight on Fridays, we’d leave our desks and hit the clubs. We didn’t bring our textbooks along, but for me, the dancefloor was definitely a place of meeting God. I remember one night at Atlanta’s Backstreet club, sort of like Heaven nightclub in London. I was surrounded by hundreds of people, friends and strangers together, this glorious crowd of humanity. And the DJ spun a song by the House singer Kim English: Joy, unspeakable joy! ‘Cause they did not give it, they cannot take it away!

The beat and the lyrics hit me like Scripture. The glitterball above us seemed to catch fire. And a joy from somewhere else flowed through everybody, including me. I felt luminous and totally alive.

In the Christmas story in the Bible, there were shepherds – not on a dancefloor, but suddenly in the sky above their flocks and fields, they saw a supernova of sound and light, a glitterball of God’s presence. At first it scared them out of their skin, but when they realized the song they were hearing was about peace and goodness for all people, they hurried off to find the reason for the music. And I imagine them dancing all the way to Jesus’s crib.

2000 years before I discovered dancing, those shepherds, they got the party started. As a Christian, I believe wherever people are in the glorious crowd of humanity, whether we identify as spiritual or not, whether we’re shepherds or students or Strictly Come Dancing contestants, there is – for all people – an unspeakable joy, the gift of God, which can never be taken away.

There is room – a BBC Pause for Thought

Here’s the text for the 6 December 2022 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Breakfast Show with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2. Listen here.

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My first time on the Tube after moving to London, I asked the guy next to me about the book he was reading – and he looked at me like I intended to kill him. Very quickly I learned one of the rules of Southern English culture: by all means move right down along the carriage to make room for people, but please don’t talk to anybody while you do it!

However, I recently discovered an inclusive way to break this rule when I took our newly-adopted dog for a short trip on the Piccadilly line. Iris is a super-friendly, two-year-old black Labrador, and as soon as we sat down, our previously quiet carriage came to life.

A man reading his newspaper said: “Oh, isn’t she good!” Two women dressed up fabulously for a night out said: “She’s so cute! What’s her name?” A group of kids in their football kit asked if they could pet her.

Iris became the centre of attention ­– but I noticed how quickly we moved from talking about her to talking about our own lives. Over the course of just a few stops, that man with the newspaper confided how anxious he was about the economic crisis. The women going dancing told us why they were celebrating. And those kids shared the secret of what was on their lists for Father Christmas.

For me, the whole conversation felt like an early Christmas present. Through the ministry of Iris, we discovered there was room for more kindness and human connection than we might have expected from a bunch of strangers on the tube.

In the Christmas story in the Bible, one of the big plot conflicts is that there’s no room for a traveling family to give birth to their child – there’s no room for them in the inn. And so – spoiler alert – they have to make a bed outside, among the animals.

It’s an ancient story, and as Christian, I believe it’s still a story for today: how God wants there to be room for all people. How God breaks the rules of our cramped hearts and sometimes closed-in cultures – to get us to see each other, and listen and talk to each other. To put more chairs around our tables, more gates in our fences, to trust there’s more room and more to life than we thought.

And to help us, I believe God shows up in unexpected ways – as a baby, in a migrant family, maybe even through the ministry of an adorable Labrador.

The medicine of the horizon – a BBC Pause for Thought

Here’s the text for the 29 November 2022 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Breakfast Show with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2. Listen here.

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Earlier this month, my husband and I had a week on the Norfolk coast, in a cottage tucked into the dunes. Our front garden was miles of misty fields; our back garden was the sea.

I’m a city boy, but as I get older, my soul craves big skies and swirling clouds of birds and waves that wash away my self-centred-ness. I need the medicine of the horizon to remind me how small I am – and to give me hope that Something Else is on its way.

Basically, I fantasize about living my life in the peaceful parts of a David Attenborough nature series.

One morning in Norfolk I got up early to run along the dunes. My only torch was the pre-dawn sun. After the run, I decided to get into the ocean. I stripped off my shirt, waded into the surf, and swam out towards the skyline. For ten minutes, I let the cold do its spiritual work. My body numbed, my soul got still, and I watched the horizon – like prayer.

Just as I was gonna swim back to the beach, someone else surfaced in the water next to me, about three meters away. I saw his face out of the corner of my eye and turned to discover a huge grey seal. He yawned a whiskery yawn, blinked like he was still waking up, and looked right into my eyes.

We held each other’s gaze, and I felt like I was being seen by a monk, like he was asking me: “Who are you?” I asked him: “Who are you?”. No answer, except for a minute of silence between us – a moment of encounter. Then he dipped beneath the waves and was gone. I paddled to shore, surging with awe, a bit of panic, and a massive dose of holiness.

There’s a nature-loving monk from 700 years ago called Meister Eckhardt – sort of a 13th-century David Attenborough. He said: “Every single creature is full of God, is a book about God. If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature, even a caterpillar, I’d never have to write a sermon, so full of God is every creature”.

In this festive season, I think many people who believe in God and many people who don’t are searching the horizon for a star, a sign, a seal of some sort – some encounter full of hope. As a Christian, I believe that mysterious-something-else we long for is most certainly on its way – and will show up closer to us than we ever expected.

Dinosaurs, sobriety, and God’s grace – a BBC Pause for Thought

Here’s the text for the 22 September 2022 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Breakfast Show with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2. Listen here.

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When they were nine and five, our niece and nephew came to visit my husband and me. They were so excited to come – until they arrived, then it went downhill very quickly.

We took them ice-skating, they complained: the queue’s too long, I can’t spin like on the Olympics. We went to a café for gourmet hot chocolate. They whinged: it’s not sweet enough!

But we still had a trick-up-our-sleeves: dinosaurs.

Particularly a dinosaur named Sue – one of the largest-ever-discovered-Tyrannosaurus-Rexes-in-the-entire-world. Our nephew Drew loved dinosaurs, but he’d never seen an entire dinosaur skeleton, and Sue was in a museum close to our flat.

Drew was thrilled. On the way to the exhibit, he babbled with excitement, quizzed us on T-Rex trivia. I put him on my shoulders, we climbed the museum’s steps and entered the great hall. When we approached Sue, Drew went totally quiet, silent as a monk. I put him down, he just stood there, his eyes wide-open as we surveyed Sue’s majesty, as we beheld something awesome.

Drew looked up at me with his wide-open eyes, and he said: Is this it? I thought she’d be bigger.

He walked away, I said: wait! It’s one-of-the-largest-ever-discovered-in-the-entire-world-Tyrannosaurus-Rexes! But he was already gone.

And to be honest, I get it. I know what it’s like to want to experience something so staggering it shatters your expectations and totally transforms you.

I’m a recovering alcoholic, and I remember years ago now during my first month sober, a friend in recovery said: I just want God to show up and “go supernova” on me, sort me out all at once. I identified with that. But another friend said: I think God’s really slow and the best stuff comes in small steps.

Jesus says the good life is in the small things – a handful of seeds, a teaspoon of yeast. The promise of something magnificent is there, but it builds over time, it doesn’t happen all at once.

If that sounds less-than-thrilling, you’re not alone. Even Jesus’s disciples were skeptical. They said: Are you the one we’ve been waiting for, or should we look for someone else?

I believe God’s love has been universal from the very beginning. It’s once for all. But it’s not all at once. It’s experienced day by day, step by sober step, one fossil fragment at a time. As the late Queen said: it’s “doing small things with great love”. And very slowly, we discover we’re being seen and changed by something truly magnificent.

On the Death of Queen Elizabeth II – a BBC Pause for Thought

Here’s the text for the15 September 2022 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Breakfast Show with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2. Listen here.

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I commuted to London for the first year of my job and was looking for a place to sleep a few nights a week. A vicar friend generously offered me the second bedroom in his flat, in the church he serves as a priest, and that’s how I found myself living in Westminster Abbey. 

Being a guest in that heavenly place was a gift I’d done nothing to deserve. I pinched myself every night walking through the cloisters ­– or in the morning, sneaking through the garden after a run along the Thames.

What I remember most is all the gravestones you’re constantly walking over. From Geoffrey Chaucer to Elizabeth I to Stephen Hawking, 800 years of death and life, 3000 memorials to artists and kings, unknown soldiers and medieval monks, and my favourite? An ordinary 18th-century plumber called Philip who must’ve kept the abbey pipes working well.

Treading all those stones, all those ashes and bones, was a daily walk along the threshold between this world and the next.

This week of course I’ve been thinking of Queen Elizabeth II, whose body will soon be carried over those same stones. On a path all of us will take – someday, in some place – through the doorway between now and the mystery of what’s to come.

I’m an American who became a British dual-citizen only three months ago. The monarchy is a new experience for me – one that I respect but am still getting my head around. So mourning Her Late Majesty feels different for me than for many others who’ve known her as Queen their entire lives.

But I do know what it’s like to mourn a grandmother. In 2014, my family stood on the shore of the lake where my grandma, Carol, lived and died – a place she loved, where we grew up swimming, sharing meals, celebrating Christmas, being loved by her. At her funeral, we cast her ashes into the waves of that lake – less historic than Westminster Abbey but just as holy. And we entrusted her into the hope of that other shore.

As a Christian, I believe God doesn’t watch our grief from a distance but personally feels our pain – because God has gone through death, too. And because of that, God is able to hold the door open for all of us when our time comes. Whether we’re queens or grandmas, plumbers or ordinary punters like me, I believe we’re welcomed as guests into the heavenly home – not because we deserve it, not because of our merit or bloodline, but simply because we are God’s own beloved, forever.

20th-century Road to Jericho – a BBC Pause for Thought

Here’s the text for the 8 September 2022 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Breakfast Show with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2. Listen here.

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Everything I owned was packed into my Mazda hatchback – boxes, bags, even a bookcase, all arranged Tetris-like into every possible space.

It was January 1997, I was 21, and moving 500 miles north to Chicago. My life was in massive transition. I’d finished uni, come out of the closet, I’d decided to be a minister instead of a doctor. My car bumper sported a Jesus fish AND a celebrate-diversity-rainbow-flag sticker.

The drive was fine until just before dusk a snowstorm hit, and then I heard the dreadful thump-thump-thump punctured tyre sound you never wanna hear but especially not in a blizzard on the motorway in the middle of nowhere without a mobile (because it’s 1997).

I pulled over, unloaded everything I owned onto the snowy verge, only to discover I had a spare tyre in the boot but my sister hadn’t replaced the jack she‘d borrowed.

Snow coming down fast, I flapped my arms at the oncoming traffic, begging for help, performing this desperate SOS dance routine – but nobody stopped.

I was completely panicked. I searched the boot again and saw a flash of blue peeking from underneath the lining. Was it the jack after all?

But as I grasped it, I remembered exactly what it was. I pulled hard and released into the wind a 10-foot-long aquamarine feather boa – a leftover from a really tragic Halloween costume the year before. But in that moment, I waved it like a banner of salvation and hope.

And it worked! A vehicle pulled over! But then I realized it was a rusty pick-up-truck, gun rack in the window, dead deer in the back.

My feather-boa-waving stopped.

I became super-aware of my rainbow bumper-sticker.

Two gruff guys got out, dressed in camouflage.

I thought: This is not the diversity I want to celebrate.

They said: Looks like you got yourself a problem.

I thought: This is the beginning of a Shetland episode.

I said: Uh, I don’t have a jack.

No jack! They started laughing. Well, they said, that’s easy enough to fix.

They got a jack from under the deer, changed my tyre, even loaded all my stuff back into the car.

One of ‘em grabbed my shoulder: Welcome to Illinois, brother. It felt like a blessing.

Jesus says: Love your neighbour as yourself. I’d always thought of myself as the one doing the loving, but those guys turned me into the neighbour being loved.

They were my first teachers in ministry. They taught me a truth that I believe is stronger than any culture war: we are bound together by a divine love that doesn’t deny our differences but uses them for good.

Thank You Day & Queen’s Jubilee – a BBC Pause for Thought

I’m way late posting this here, but for online posterity, here’s the text for the 31 May 2022 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Owain Wyn Evans on BBC Radio 2. Listen here.

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Earlier this month, my neighbour and I knocked every door in our street to invite everybody to a Queen’s Jubilee party. Our neighbourhood is very diverse: Eastern European, African, Caribbean, South and East Asian, Greek and Turkish Cypriot, English, with at least one very yappy Yank. Some people were born here, some like me have immigrated here, some have relatives who arrived in previous generations. With so many cultures, it’ll be a fabulous party.

A few days after the door-knocking, the Home Office informed me that I’ve been approved for British citizenship. Now this has nothing to do with my Jubilee-party-planning or any work or merit on my part, except for living here seven years and being married to my lovely British husband, which only occasionally feels like work.

So next week, I’ll bear allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. As I’m remaining an American citizen, too, I’ll do that alongside my allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and “no foreign prince”, as the US citizenship oath requires. I’ll have dual-citizenship: somehow I’ll be British and American at the same time. No idea what that means, really, except that parts of my identity will align easily while others will contrast or even feel contradictory.

But I think that’s the case for every person: we can be many conflicting things at the same time ­– believer and sceptic, liberal and conservative, compassionate and cruel. Most countries have dual-histories, too: sometimes doing justice and sometimes causing great harm.

This Sunday, during Jubilee Weekend, many Christians will also celebrate the day of Pentecost, remembering a Bible story when God poured out into a multinational gathering. Apparently God loves a diverse party. The 1st century book of Acts describes the Holy Spirit radiating through people as different as Parthians, Medes, Elamites, folks from Mesopotamia, Pontus, Pamphylia, and loads of other countries no longer on our maps.

Over the 2000 years since that first Pentecost, our borders have changed. I imagine they’ll continue to, just as our self-understandings will. That doesn’t mean our national and personal identities are unimportant ­– just that they’re temporary, they’re always shifting. Our only permanent identity, I believe, is that we’re citizens of the kingdom of God, a realm of justice and joy that we’re included in not because of our bloodline or merit, but only because of the generosity of a God who sees us all as beautiful immigrants and absolutely loves to welcome everybody in.

History On My Doorstep – a BBC Pause for Thought

I’m way late posting this here, but for online posterity, here’s the text for the 24 May 2022 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2. Listen here.

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A couple weeks after we moved to the northern edge of London, I realised that the huge park, steps from our front door, is the remnant of a 12th-century royal hunting forest called Enfield Chase. 900 years later, the woodland paths where kings and queens rode their horses are the same ones I now tread in trainers on my daily runs.

Hidden in the forest off one trail is a quadrangle of water surrounding a small island. I never noticed it on my runs; I spotted it only later on my phone’s exercise-tracking app. On the map, the water looks like a blue capital letter C, too perfectly geometric to be a natural lake. Sure enough, through some internet sleuthing I discovered it’s called “Camlet Moat”.

No one is sure of its origins. Most likely it’s the site of a Norman manor house – archeologists once dug up a fragment of an ancient drawbridge there. But other theories abound: maybe it was a prison for people who broke the hunting laws, or a medieval drainage system. Or – most fanciful ­­– some believe it’s the former precincts of Camelot, the legendary castle of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Which may be the reason, when I run around the moat these days, I occasionally see burned-out votive candles and rocks arranged in patterns ­– the leftovers, perhaps, from some recent attempted ceremonial magic.

But whatever was there in centuries past, all that’s left now is the water. No foundation stones, only frogs. No holy grails, only herons. And the quiet, still water that remains.

The other day on a run I stopped at the moat and felt the reality that, like the hunters and runners and royals of the past, there’ll come a time when I too will no longer be here. All my stuff, the stories I tell, the material trappings I tread in, it’ll go the way of all history: into the ground.

But at the moat I also heard a voice within, a verse from the 23rd Psalm: “God leads me beside the still waters…and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

As a Christian, I believe those things are somehow true at the same time. Our mortality is real ­–we trend towards the grave –­ but it yields to something else, something everlasting. Dig deep enough and you’ll discover the divine water table, whom I call God, flowing through everything, changing us and all flesh into the only thing that lasts.

Radio 2 Goes Green – a BBC Pause for Thought

I’m way late posting this here, but for online posterity, here’s the text for the 17 May 2022 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2. Listen here.

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I was in Scarborough recently for work and went for an early morning run along the beach, where I noticed a group of women in bathing costumes. I stopped to chat and discovered they were going sea swimming.

How cold’s the water? I asked.

8 degrees, they said.

Wow, that is intense, I said. Why do you do it?

One woman said, well, it depends on the day: sometimes it’s just a bit of fun with friends, sometimes for my mental wellbeing, sometimes it’s totally spiritual. You should come with us!

Oh, I said, I gotta work

Tomorrow, then, they said. We’re here every morning.

The next day, I woke up, put on my trainers and thought, we’ll see what happens: maybe, maybe not.

As I ran up, the women called out:

Wahey! You’re going in with us?

I want to, I said, but I also don’t want to! I’m really scared about the freezing cold.

They said: The cold is real, but it gives way to something else, and it’s worth it.

I trusted them. We walked into the surf up to our waists, and then together we dipped down until the sea covered our shoulders.

It hurts, I said.

Yeah, they said. Breathe, and talk to us. I did, and – they were right ­– eventually the discomfort transformed into something totally different. Something serene, something euphoric. A quiet joy flowed into the centre of me and right through me.

The icy waves rose and fell softly, like the sea was breathing around us. And as we swam, we talked. One woman was marking the anniversary of her dad’s death. Another was mourning a nephew born still. Another nursing a hangover from a fabulous party the night before. It was one of those moments when I felt exactly in the right place: somehow at one with the elements, at one with those women, with myself, with God.

When we talk about going green, sometimes we imagine it as a sacrifice we have to make. And while I think that’s true in part, as a Christian, I think of going green mostly as a gift we receive. It’s something good for us; it’s a delight. The flourishing of the planet and the flourishing of all creatures, human and other-than-human – it’s all connected. The ocean’s joy and my joy are intertwined – all held together, I believe, by the God who breathes through everything.

My Favourite Eurovision Song – a BBC Pause for Thought

I’m way late posting this here, but for online posterity, here’s the text for the 10 May 2022 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2. Listen here.

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My Aunt Marsha, my mom’s sister, is a maverick in our family. She stood up to my domineering grandfather when everyone else chickened out, she moved cities on a whim, she brought the party wherever she went. At family Christmases, after dinner she’d turn up the music and pull my shy mother off the sofa to dance. They’d hold each other, cheek to cheek, like a couple – swirling, crooning, laughing. Eventually, we’d all join in.

Eurovision never crossed-over to the States, but Marsha would’ve loved it. She’d dance to everything – folksongs, hard-rock, even the schmaltzy pop anthems like my favourite Eurovision winner, Love Shine a Light by Katrina and the Waves. I can imagine Marsha swaying a lighter in the air, singing with the crowds – “And we’re all gonna shine a light together!” as the song goes. “In every corner of our heart … light up the magic in every little part.”

Sadly, in her sixties, Marsha was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. First, she forgot her words, then she forgot people, eventually she forgot how to move her body. As the disease progresses, Marsha is withdrawing into a mystery, and we can’t relate in the ways we used to.

This past Christmas, after two pandemic years of not seeing each other, my mom was determined to gather the whole family, including Marsha, who sat quietly on the sofa as we all caught up. When it was time to eat, my mom helped her to her feet, held her cheek to cheek, and they sort of slow-danced to the table. As they moved together, step by beautiful step, I felt such love between them – in the absence of words, there was a softer energy, a different kind of music.

There’s a Bible verse that starts: “Love is patient, love is kind.” You may have heard it at a Christian wedding, but I think it points to something much bigger. The verse goes on: “Your speaking will come to an end. Your imagination will dry up, your knowledge will die, but love never fails. It protects, it perseveres, it endures.”  Or, as Katrina and the Waves sing it: the love light carries.

When circumstances change and we can’t relate in the ways we used to, I believe love is the only thing that can carry us through. In life, in death, into the hidden mystery of what’s to come, love is the only thing that will light the way.