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.