World Book Day: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 5 March 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2. You can listen in here on the BBC website, starting from 1hr13:20 or so.


I remember packing for a family holiday once, I was about seven, and I filled up my suitcase completely with books. It weighed more than me, but somehow I dragged it down the stairs, ready to go. My mom said: You might need some clothes and a toothbrush?! But honestly, the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. If I had enough books, I knew I’d be okay.

At that age, I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure series popular in the 1980s. In these books you the reader were also the main character. Every few pages you had a couple of choices, each of which would unfold a few pages later into more choices, and on and on until one of many possible endings. The bookcover said: “You’re the Star of the Story!” and I loved exploring all the different paths.

Exploring ourselves – knowing ourselves well – is so important in life, and books can help us figure ourselves out. I remember being 13, nervously pulling a book from the library shelf and reading for the first time about being gay. Or at 19, diving into the Bible and finding ancient descriptions of mind-blowing spiritual experiences like the one I was having 2000 years later. Or at 32, opening the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and feeling like someone had taken pages straight from my journal.

Knowing yourself is important, but let’s be honest: if you’re always the star of the story, it gets boring, narcissistic, even dangerous: if the only information we take in is from people just like us, with the same backgrounds, politics, and beliefs, we risk living in the echo chambers that are killing our society.

Good books help us know ourselves but they also help us know others. I recently read Bernardine Evaristo’s wonderful novel, Girl, Woman, Other, which won the Booker Prize in 2019. In its stories of 12 mostly Black, British women, I was struck again with the truth that we are not all the same, we’re different, and that’s actually a beautiful thing. The best stories always unfold into the stories of others. The best endings are the ones where our differences don’t isolate us but hold us together. Life is not just about me, it’s about us.

There’s a verse from the Bible, about the ways Jesus meets different people right where they are. The verse goes: If these stories were all written down, the whole world wouldn’t have room for the books that would be written (John 21.25).

That’s a lot of books, that’s a lot of life. Way too much for me to fit in my suitcase alone, and that’s a beautiful thing.

The Real Me: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 26 Feb 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Jane Middlemiss on BBC Radio 2. You can listen to the audio clip here on the BBC website.


The Real Me is sort of a weird person, and so I know this is a bit unusual: I see a spiritual director every month. She’s a mixture of therapist, mystic, personal trainer, and general straight-shooter.

For example, she tells me how much God loves me, but in the next breath, how full of rubbish I can be at the same time. The real me is apparently wonderful and also quite a mess.  

But welcome to being human! This is us – we’re a mix of things that don’t seem to go together but actually do. We’re courageous and yet we colossally screw up. We’re luminous but a mere pixel in the universe. Beautiful and broken ­­– not either/or but both/and. And life is about navigating these double-truths. 

I remember experiencing this in my mid-twenties on a gay cruise in the Caribbean. A cruise is not my general idea of a good time, but my then-boyfriend, a jazz singer, was playing a concert on board and I went along for free. Free is my idea of a good time.  

It was a week of sun, cocktail parties, and dancing until dawn on the Lido deck.

One afternoon at the pool, I got chatting to a woman who turned out to be the chaplain on board. When she discovered I was a minister, too, she asked me to help with the worship service that day, which was Ash Wednesday.  

Ash Wednesday’s the first day in the season of Lent, which began last week ­– a time when Christians remember what it means to be real.

And to get started, we mark our foreheads with dirt crosses and, though we’re still alive, we hear the words: remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. It’s one of those weird double-truths: You’re going to die, but you’ll be okay. 

Later that evening hundreds of folks gathered in the ship’s rooftop bar and we put ashes on each other’s faces. I remember old men in wheelchairs, two women partnered for 60 years, and loads of fresh-faced university students with their whole lives before them. All of us crowded in to mark the glorious weirdness of being human, the truth we’re all facing in these pandemic days: we’re going to die, and here’s to life. 

The worship service in the bar flowed onto the dance floor that night. Our bodies pulsing in the light of the moon, you could still see the ashes on people’s faces, shining in the dark. 

My Biggest Temptation: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 19 Feb 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Jane Middlemiss on BBC Radio 2. You can listen to the audio clip here on the BBC website.


The first time I went to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, I was doing research for a sermon on addiction. From my own experience of active alcoholics in my family, I expected to hear a load of whingeing and blaming other people for their problems. 

But this meeting felt different. Laughter filled the room. I was welcomed, given a coffee. Someone helped me find a seat.  

The meeting started with celebrating sober anniversaries. One guy said, it’s been hard but today it’s a year without a drink. And the crowd clapped and whistled.

Other folks said: it’s been 90 days, or it’s a decade, or today I’ve got a week sober.

I could feel a lump forming in my throat. 

Then people told deeper stories – of what had gone down in their lives, stuff they’d done, what they’d lost, the secrets that were killing them.

But also stories of how things had changed when they found the courage to be honest, when they shared the secrets, when they admitted they had a problem. 

Their stories were diverse, but there was a common theme: everyone who was getting better had realized they couldn’t get better by themselves. They couldn’t make it alone. Instead of blaming other people for their problems, they’d discovered that other people could actually help. Someone said: Welcome to being human. 

That lump in my throat had turned into tears.

A woman offered me a tissue. I said, thanks, I don’t know why I’m crying, I’m not an alcoholic, I’m just here for research purposes. She looked at me, she looked into me, really. She said, okay baby, okay. She knew. 

I knew, though It took me two more years to admit my drinking problem.

But the biggest obstacle to recovery for me was asking for help, learning that I need others.

My biggest temptation still is control freakery. I think I can sort it all out by myself. If I work hard enough, focus, organise, do enough yoga, I can fix anything. I’m a recovering alcoholic, but I’m also a recovering control freak.

But I’ve come to believe that everybody’s addicted to something. If we’re honest, we all struggle with some substance or behavior or attitude that’s just draining the life from us, and we cannot fix it on our own.

But that is actually good news: because it pushes us outside of ourselves. And help is only another human away.