This is the script fo this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show in the company of Mo Farah, Tamsin Greig, Robert Winston and Jamie Lawson:

I have a theory about children's books. It's not original: children's books are mainly read by adults. By adults, for adults. Remember when Harry Potter was just starting out on literary life and the publisher had to use two covers: one for kids and a different one for grown-ups … just so the latter wouldn't get embarrassed on a train?

I think part of the reason for this might be that loads of adults are learning that imagination is not just for the little ones, and words open up new worlds of wonder.

I remember being accused of using simple language in one of my books. Accused, I think, because the reviewer thought I should posh up a bit and be more academic. But, the genius of good communication is to make the complex simple, not the simple complex.

I am no stranger to this. Every time I open the gospels I am confronted by stories and images. This stuff isn't meant to hit you with some solid truth, but to get your imagination working – sneaking round the back of your mind when you're not expecting it, and scratching away at your memory. “Where God is,” says Jesus, “is like a mustard seed.”

What?! What's that supposed to mean? Use your imagination! Something tiny grows in unlikely places into a whacking big tree in whose branches the birds make their nests – and the tree doesn't get to choose which birds. Get it? God is to be found where there is hiddenness, outrageous growth, unlikely generosity, hospitality. You get the idea?

A couple of days ago I was in a primary school at Low Moor in Bradford. I was giving certificates to young leaders who, together, had made a difference to their local community in a variety of ways. They had learned to look for what others didn't see – like litter and the absence of birds – and did a rubbish collection and built bird boxes. They learned to be surprised by the difference they could make. Leading meant taking responsibility instead of waiting for others to do it for them. Brilliant.

And they were full of imagination at a world they are still discovering.

So, keep the books coming. Keep the stories rolling. Keep the imagination fired up – and try growing up into a child.

 

Yesterday evening (26 April 2016) the House of Lords considered amendments made in the House of Commons to the Government’s Immigration Bill. Labour Peer Lord Dubs proposed an amendment (as an alternative to his previous one, rejected by MPs), that would require the Government to “make arrangements to relocate to the United Kingdom and support a specified number of unaccompanied refugee children from other countries in Europe”. I spoke in support of the amendment:

My Lords, I was recently in northern Iraq, visiting internally displaced people and Syrian refugees. In a meeting with the United Nations office for the co-ordination of humanitarian aid, we were told that despite the generosity promised by many international donors, only 9% of the money had actually got through. That was not specifically applied to the UK. I do not know how much of the UK’s promised aid has gone but it was 9% overall. So when we hear about the amount of money that has been promised, it does not tell us how much has been delivered.

The second background point I would make is that in meeting refugees and internally displaced people, it became clear that there is a divide by generation. The older people still dream of going back home; the younger people and their children do not believe that they have a home to go back to. In the areas where ISIS has been, in many cases it has simply destroyed everything. There is no infrastructure. There are no homes or schools. What has been left has often been booby-trapped. So what does it mean to say that we want to help all these people go home, when home may no longer exist? The communities where for generations they lived together have now been destroyed because of the violence and what has gone on.

My fear in this is that we are going to have tens of thousands of children whose experience of not being welcomed when they are genuine refugees, who have shown extraordinary resilience to leave and get to where they have, will not forget how they were treated. If we want to see resentment or violence among the next two generations in that part of the world, the seeds are being sown now. I feel that the humanitarian demand outweighs some of the more technical stuff that we have heard. I applaud the Government for what they are doing, particularly in relation to the camps out in the Middle East, but they are not addressing the question on our doorstep. I support the amendment.

The amendment was passed by 279 to 172 votes and returned to the House of Commons for further consideration. I voted for the amendment. We will see if the Commons sends it back again.

I remember being in Indonesia in 1999 and failing to comprehend the rules of the road. The traffic looked chaotic. It was impossible to work out who had the right of way in which circumstances and where. But, the experience set me up well for being driven from south to north Sri Lanka, back again, then across into the mountainous country where I am writing this (at over 2,000 metres, the first place to have a heater in the room rather than air conditioning… and it is hammering down with warm rain).

Broadly speaking, today's western mind needs to know the rules, if only to know when they are being broken. Traffic feeding onto a roundabout from the right has right of way, and traffic waiting to drive onto the roundabout has to wait its turn.

Yet, here, as in Indonesia (and two memorable drives through Athens in the rush hour in a friend's car – which taught me how to pray better), the 'rules' are different. Yes, there are white lines, yellow lines, traffic lights and kerbs. But, there is little waiting, little respect for ideas such as those that dictate that “cars joining a major road from a side road should wait until they can safely do so without interfering with the traffic flow”. They just go. And, somehow, it seems to work. Nobody gets cross and we have seen only two minor accidents. The only rule seems to be: everyone on the road has as much right as I do to go where they want and when they want and how they want.

I guess this means that even the driving is based on relationship and not rule. You watch, you flash your lights, you beep your horn, and you go … and you somehow end up in the flow. Don't ask me about overtaking.

Talking here with the Bishop of Colombo about the Anglican Communion, it leaves me wondering if we have (at least) two conflicting assumptions about the 'rules' by which such a communion should be shaped. There are those who insist on the letter of every law being applied, and there are those who just, somehow, want to make it work – messy as it looks and is – and are less worried about the rules and more about the mutuality of the relationships.

Yes, I know this is neither deep nor original; but, it is what is wheeling its way around my mind while thinking and conversing about a range of matters to do with God, the Gospel, the Church and Christian mission in the world's we inhabit.

This afternoon we visited an old colonial church. The plaques on the walls reveal just how many people here died in their 20s and 30s. We then went on to visit a home for destitute children – up to 40 boys and girls from toddlers to almost 20. What struck us was the dedication of people who decide to do one thing with their life – giving it for the sake of such children. No concern for promotion or variation, no manoeuvring for the next job. Single-minded commitment to one thing and for life.

This isn't to be romanticised. Yet, here are children who would otherwise have no home and no experience of genuine and long-term love. The motivation seems to be simple: God, in Jesus Christ, invites us to share in his ministry of generous love, open service, unsentimental commitment and costly reconciliation. We can respond with realism and joy; or we can walk away.

It is a brilliant trip so far, and one that is giving to me far more than I can give in return. (Apart from the Delhi belly…)

 

This is the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 with Brian Cox, John Lloyd, Rebecca Front and Nerina Pallot in the studio.

We have lots of foreign visitors to stay with us. Last night we had some friends from Switzerland and it was great to see them. Last week we had a family from the United States and I took them to Liverpool for a day so they could get some culture. It was funny to see them standing outside the barber shop at Penny Lane and know the soundtrack that was running through their heads. (I used to get my hair cut in that shop when I was a kid.)

What was great was that their curiosity grew as we saw the sights of my home city and wandered round the museum of curios peculiar to Liverpool. When you are actually there, questions arise that weren't anticipated from seventy miles away. It's as if you have to get on the move for curiosity to get awoken and imagination to be teased.

I think this is how children live and learn: constant undisciplined questioning and unbridled wondering about the world and taste and smell and touch and sight and sounds. They don't need telling that the world is full not only of sound and fury, but also of still small voices that penetrate the noise and tickle the soul. Sometimes, when you are in the thick of it, the fires of imagination burn only dimly; but they can't be extinguished.

This might sound odd, but I think curiosity is the key to enjoying and understanding the world. When Jesus told his bemused mates that they'd have to become like children if they were to live in his world, I think this is what he was on about. Children never stop asking questions, pointing out embarrassing truths, wanting to know “why” all the time. It does your head in, but it is in enjoying the wondering that curiosity wakes up and we go on a journey of imagination. In fact, this is what drives science.

Well, knowing me and possibly knowing you, I guess this might just ring a bell. If, as Christians believe, we are made in the image of a curious and questioning God, then we'd better make the most of it. I'd rather be a curious questioner than a frustrated superstar who thinks he's got it all nailed.

 

 

Why do I keep banging on about poverty? Good question – and one I have been asked several times recently in relation to this blog and other writings.

One answer goes back to that haunting verse in Proverbs (31:8) that formed the title of a book many years ago about the failure of the German church in the 1930s: “Open your mouth for the dumb.” In other words, give a voice to those who have no voice, or whose voice is silenced for some reason or other. To not give such a voice is not to be neutral – it is to silence a voice that needs to be heard.

Hence the banging on about welfare cuts and their effects on the lives of individuals, families and communities.

So, last week, as part of a deanery visit, I met the director of a Children's Centre. The biggest concern: increasing numbers of families going hungry and needing help from diminishing food banks.

This is civilised Britain in the twenty first century. Increasing numbers of people – families – needing help with basics such as simple food. The demands are becoming greater than the supply. We used to associate organisations like Save the Children with Africa; now they are being associated with here.

During our conversation last week I heard about the impact of deprivation and the welfare cuts on:

  • Food banks
  • Families who are being caught in the 'bedroom tax' trap
  • Families who live in 'deprivation postcodes' in otherwise prosperous areas
  • Families which, now that the last laundrette has closed and washing machines don't count any longer for emergency provision, work out how to keep themselves and their children clothed, clean and dignified.

I also heard how those who tried to live on £1 per day during Lent (with Christian Aid) found it increasingly hard to eat anything good. Cheap biscuits fill the stomach when an apple cannot be afforded.

This is the real human cost of austerity. Churches and other organisations are resourcing individuals, families and communities with food and other material aid: the question is why this should be necessary in an affluent and civilised country.

 

I think that when Jesus used the phrase he probably meant something different.

The British Parliament is currently debating what is sexily known as the Benefit Uprating Bill. Basically, this puts into law what the Chancellor announced in the 2012 Autumn Statement: to limit the rate at which most key benefits and tax credits are increased by just 1% for the next three years. This happens to be well below the expected rate of inflation.

Put to one side for a moment the conundrum that never gets addressed, viz why the rich need to be incentivised by keeping more wealth whilst the poor need to be incentivised by being made poorer. (This simply means that society pays for the consequences in other ways.) What this 'benefit uprating' means is:

  • costs of living are expected to rise faster than support increases to cover these additional costs;
  • based on average earnings for their profession, a single-parent primary school teacher, with two children stands to lose £424 a year by 2015. A nurse with two children could lose £424, and an army second lieutenant with three children could lose £552 a year. (Parents affected include an estimated 300,000 nurses and midwives, 150,000 primary school teachers and 40,000 armed forces personnel.)
  • coming on top of a number of other wide-ranging cuts to benefits and tax credits for children and families, (for example, with the 1% cap coming on top of previously announced freezes) by 2015-16 Child Benefit will have increased by just 2% in the course of half a decade.

It is the impact on children that should cause us most concern as this is disproportionate. The Government’s own impact assessment suggests that around 30% of all households will be affected, but 87% of families with children will be affected, including 95% of single parent families. The Children's Society estimates that 11.5 million children are in families affected and notes that whilst the Bill will affect children and families from all walks of life, children in the poorest families will be affected the most. The government’s impact assessment shows that about 60% of the savings from the uprating cap will come from the poorest third of households. Only 3% will come from the wealthiest third.

No surprise, then, that the Children's Society and other concerned parties are urging a re-think – that benefits and tax credits paid on behalf of children should be removed from the scope of the Benefit Uprating Bill. This would mean removing benefits including Child Benefit, Child Tax Credit, and child additions within Universal Credit.

The demand from food banks is increasing alarmingly. Schools are increasingly reporting children beginning the day without having had anything to eat. As I said in response to a request from my local Bradford newspaper:

Child poverty does not just make life a little bit miserable for a child now; it affects the whole of their life, their physical growth, their education, aspiration and life opportunities. This is bad for children, families, schools and society. And it is a scandal in a so-called civilised society. We must ask serious questions about our priorities and government ministers must be made aware of the human consequences of policies made behind desks.

The figures for Bradford can be seen here. What statistics don't show is the complex of ways in which childhood poverty is destructive of so much and of so many. This isn't just about welfare or 'scroungers' – it impacts on all of us and needs some serious attention. Mahatma Gandhi was once asked on his arrival at Heathrow Airport what he thought of western civilisation; he responded: “I think it would be a very good idea.” If our civilisation is measured by our treatment of the most vulnerable in our society, then we have questions to ask about our priorities.

And, while this reality bites, the government is also thinking of changing the way child poverty is calculated. You can read the Church of England's response here, summarised in this statement by the Bishop of Leicester:

The real issue is committing to, and resourcing, an effective long-term strategy to tackle child poverty, rather than finding alternative ways of measuring it.

 

Greece boils, the euro trembles, the world waits (most of us helplessly) to see what will emerge in the next few days. Our futures, our pensions, our securities depend on the decisions of the very people who led (or allowed to be led) the world into the economic mess it currently experiences. Protests aside, somehow life just carries on.

It still seems odd to me that the present government wants to measure the well-being of the people of Britain without reference to religious or other motivation for living or choosing. I wonder if such inconvenient ‘truths’ as the recent Barnardo’s findings will be taken into consideration in such research. When Jesus said that to enter the kingdom of God you have to become like a little child he might have been stating a fundamental truth about human society and not just making a Christian attitudinal observation: that the well-being of our children is an indicator of the health of our society or culture.

Back in 2000 Rowan Williams (then Archbishop of Wales) identified the commodification and sexualisation of children – with adults competing childishly with children instead of behaving like adults – in his book Lost Icons. He raised questions that went to the heart of our society’s obsessions, seeing behind the confident exterior some of the ugliness that was festering unhindered behind the curtains. He was largely ignored – not for the last time.

Back in 2009 The Children’s Society published the report of the Good Childhood Inquiry. Being the largest evidence-based research ever conducted into the experience of and consequences of childhood, it provoked some interesting and (often) self-justifying responses – particularly from observers who couldn’t question the evidence, but found the conclusions inconvenient or unconducive to personal lifestyle preferences. There were those who quickly tried to forget it.

Following publication of Barnardo’s latest poll results this week, the airwaves have been full of debate about why British children are the unhappiest in Europe. But this again is inconvenient because it questions our values, priorities and lifestyle preferences.

This comes close to home for me not because of the events going on in London and other major cities around the world, but because I have just spent the day in Bradford at a Clergy Study Day where serious collective attention was being paid to issues of power, poverty and provision in relation to the so-called ‘Big Society’. (This day was planned a year ago, well before I even knew I was coming here, and the theme was clearly on the church’s radar well before the Occupy movement was even conceived.) Clergy deal every day with these issues on the ground.

Politicians and bankers might well have serious charges to answer, but that doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook. Why do we persist in ignoring inconvenient voices? Why do we ignore the evidence and continue to allow – or even foster – a culture that makes our children so miserable? Or do we just have to conclude that, actually, our children have just got it wrong?

We need to dig deeper and more honestly if we are to understand our cultural malaise. But, understanding won’t necessarily translate into action unless we genuinely have the will to change.

Empires come and go. That’s what history teaches us. It also teaches us that those empires that focus on their longevity as their primary goal eventually implode. This is why the repeated and resounding message of the Old Testament is that the people who call themselves ‘God’s people’ must focus on justice, mercy and faithfulness – longevity might or might not be the result, but that is not important.

Empires that make their own security their primary goal will usually compromise justice, mercy and faithfulness and the empire will find its days numbered – however strong and powerful it looks to be at the moment. Hubris carries within its womb the seed of its own destruction.

This is one of the conversations running today as our group of visitors to Israel-Palestine continues to explore the land of Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Amos and Jesus. But there are also encouragements to be found in sometimes surprising places and for sometimes surprising reasons.

The Princess Basma Hospital sits on top of the Mount of Olives in territory that is indisputably Palestinian. The hospital (which also comprises a school) does brilliant work with disabled children and their families. Children are admitted with their mother for anything between two weeks to two months. The mothers are taught to reject the shame of bearing a ‘not-perfect’ child, while also being given programmes and routines for the caring and nurturing of their child once back at home. They do particularly good work with hearing-impaired children, but they also have a workshop for making artificial limbs.

The hospital is now suffering from diminished interest from Christians and the restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and the difficulty of movement. It costs $120 per day per child, but only some of the money comes from the Palestinian Authority and insurance.

The encouragement comes from the fact that the Israelis and the Palestinians have to cooperate to some extent for the sake of these children. The children can’t be schooled in Israeli schools (where Hebrew is the main language), so the Israelis assist with medical procedures and enable the Palestinians to provide the schooling.

Another case of the children (the most vulnerable) forcing the adults to work together?

Today was a day of contrasts. The relative peace of Gethsemane – and the place where Jesus looked over to Jerusalem and wept at its blindness to its vocation and its fate – to the messy disordered order of the Church of the Resurrection (known in the Western churches as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – do a theological deconstruction of that and the implications of the choice of emphasis…).

Yet, everywhere you go the paths are worn and the steps polished by the feet of people trying to connect somehow with the God who in Jesus entered the mess of it all, walking and weeping in these places. As long as this earth continues, people will still come here, treading the dust, feeling rocks and living with the mystery of the Incarnation in a place of occupation and ambiguous justice.

Our conversations are, however, haunted by the injustice of Israeli ‘creep’ in land that they know is not theirs. The Jewish graves are taking land up the side of the Mount of Olives – land that will not readily be ceded in any future ‘peace’ process: you don’t surrender the places where your dead are buried (unless, like the Palestinians, you have no choice). Secondly, Israeli settlements are being established in places that are clearly not Israeli – a claim to place that will be hard to dislodge, whatever is agreed on high.

The settlement below is just a bit further down the road from Princess Basma Hospital – firmly in Palestinian territory. Its flag can be seen from everywhere in Jerusalem.

The weeping over Jerusalem is set to continue where justice and mercy and faithfulness are made subservient to the craving for longevity.

This morning the BBC took a late decision to drop the heavily-trailed interview between John Humphrys and legendary DJ Andy Kershaw. Kershaw’s private life has been pretty disastrous in the last couple of years and he was now ready to speak openly about his troubles and his recovery. The programme he was to do this on was Radio 4’s On the Ropes, in which people talk about how they got through some difficult personal times of life.

kershaw1I was looking forward to hearing Kershaw in the repeat this evening, but it is not to be. Apparently, the decision to pull the programme was taken because it might compromise the legal arrangements between Kershaw and his ex-girlfriend who now has sole custody of their children. He has no access to them. His behaviour has been pretty bad and he has displayed the desperation any of us would feel if we had led ourselves down such a dark alley. It would have been good to hear his story from his own lips and give an opportunity to the public to encourage him in his recovery.

Andy Kershaw has proved to be a fantastic broadcaster, introducing millions of people to world music and stamping everything he did with his distinctive northern voice. His personal fall from grace deprived us all of some great insights into music and culture. No doubt there are those who will now scream at me, ‘Consider his estranged ex-girlfriend and kids who have had to be protected from him!’ Fair enough; I am not excusing his behaviour. But I sometimes wonder if (like with the case of Erwin James/James Monahan) the same people would feel better if these guys fell back into their problematic behaviour and lifestyle and continued to waste their lives. I prefer to celebrate the small steps such damaged people make into becoming positive members of society again. Why do we find people’s struggle for recovery or even ‘redemption’ so deserving of our sneering contempt?

This is pertinent today for a second reason. Yesterday the press were given access for the first time into the Family Courts in England. Hitherto they have been banned on the grounds that children needed to be protected from exposure to and by the media. In other words, the vulnerable had to be protected by law from being further abused by some of our less reputable journalists. Those journalists who went to the courts yesterday reported their disappointment that little had changed, that although they were granted access, they were not allowed to report what they saw and heard – even anonymously.

The response has been interesting – and, I think, worrying. Apparently, freedom to report proceedings in these courts would help expose injustices and make everything transparent – which is taken for granted to be a ‘good thing’. Why? And ‘good’ for whom?

Why do we allow the media to assume that they have the right to see and hear everything in our society? Why should there not be areas of life from which the media are prevented from going? Where did this ‘right’ to access come from? And why does the ‘right to access’ – based on an assumption that transparency is always in and of itself good – trump the right of a child to be protected from exposure by the press?

The Family Courts deal with some of the hardest and most complicated human judgements we can imagine. I have met judges whose commitment to this work is exceptional and admirable – who do not make judgements in a cavalier way and who try in the most difficult emotional circumstances to do what is right. They admit to the probability that they will sometimes get things wrong and recognise that the cost of doing so will be high for those who suffer as a consequence. Can someone tell me how allowing reporting of these proceedings and putting the process and people under media scrutiny will enhance the prospects of vulnerable children having a happier life.

I might be wrong in this and be missing some obviously crucial factor. But when I look at the tabloid newspapers in particular, with their lust for sensation and brutality whatever the cost to the ‘victims’, I feel no shred of confidence that allowing them access to sensitive court proceedings will do anything other than add to the scale of human misery that these ‘organs’ specialise in.

One of the most striking of the findings in the Children’s Society’s Good Childhood report is the following:

Some 70% of children agree that ‘parents getting on well is one of the most important factors in raising happy children’. By contrast only 30% of parents agree with this statement.

Now, different conclusions can be drawn and differing implications derived from this. But the discrepancy is telling. I wonder if anyone intends to explore the implications further?