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Saturday, 15 June 2019

Give and Take - Is Life Unfair?

Sometime back in the 1970's I stood alongside a blond young man at what was then Bracknell Baptist Church. We were looking at what was the Birth Roll, a framed sheet detailing the names of babies born to parents attending this church for the last ten years, maybe twenty or more years, whatever. We got into a conversation which somehow led up to what he said I perceived was an astonishing statement:
God is unfair!

Naively, I gasped as if in horror with what I had just heard. However, as the rest of my life's experiences had taught me, he was proved to be right.

Bracknell Baptist - attended 1975-1989. Now the Kerith.

Often I have wondered whether regular church attendance or becoming an official member was actually psychologically detrimental. This was a train of thinking which had never ceased running but chugs on and on, over the forty-plus years I have been attending church. However, my ongoing attendance to this day remains from my conviction that the "church" is not the odd-looking building which boasted a steeple (Bracknell Baptist never had a steeple, let alone boasting a bell!) Neither a weird and rather unrealistic place where Tory members are on their knees, praying and singing to some invisible "big man" up there in the sky. 

During the years between 1975, when I first joined, and 1989 when I finally left, we had a very pragmatic and rather authoritarian Welsh pastor with a team of deacons under him. Maybe this was a phenomenon I understood. He was rather short in stature which was substituted by a super-extrovert temperament which was the backing to ensure that his strong sermons were listened to, then applied from Monday morning onwards by everyone who was in the auditorium - sometimes known as "mechanical application" of the sermon into the lifestyle of the hearer. I recall during one particular Sunday preach when two youngsters, either late teenage or in their early twenties, sharing a joke or discussing something between themselves. The pastor pointed his finger at them and ordered the pair to listen to what God is saying. Memories of the school classroom.

No one would dare question his mode of preaching. Well, one close friend of mine tried, when he suggested that he should be more theoretical in his sermon content. His blunt response was that he preaches what he wants to preach. In other words, like it or lump it. Not surprising that he left before I did, along with quite a number who also walked out permanently.

However, all the deacons, who eventually metamorphosed into elders, and then into department heads over the last half-century, were convinced that this former pastor, who has since retired and moved away, was a man of God, almost to the point of infallibility. In the early 1980's he broke his church from the Baptist Union of Great Britain to affiliate itself with Coastlands, the forerunner of New Frontiers International, headquartered in Brighton. He also associated himself and his church to Bill Hybels, founder and senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, to where our leader flew to several times. With a staunch capitalist and a believer in Eternal Security for a pastor, my former church began to grow in numbers, and with the influx of many graduates moving into town, the congregation doubled in size, if not trebled.

But throughout those fifteen years, I began to feel uncomfortable. And that despite being in agreement with most of his beliefs and teaching. Looking back, I know that his preaching style began to be centred on buying land to build a new church, a much bigger one to accommodate a thousand people, perhaps still short of the 7,095-seat capacity of Willow Creek Worship Center, but still in the right direction. Therefore it came as no real surprise that just about every other sermon was about tithing and even double-tithing, the former which I did for a while before feeling drained spiritually, emotionally and financially.

Although a great many churches preach tithing, whether affiliated or independent, and I practised it myself for a considerable time, I always felt ill-at-ease. And that despite one piece of Scripture was always quoted to justify the practice. It's Malachi 3:6-12 where the nation of Israel was accused of robbing God. Depriving the Temple and its staff of resources vital for sacrifices and temporal atonement for sins committed on both individual and national scale is one thing. To give money so that the pastor can fly to and from Chicago and also to fulfil a building project dream is quite another.

Tithing was never made compulsory at Bracknell but it was strongly encouraged by the pastor, yet done in a way in believing that if I don't tithe, then I'll be "robbing God." It was a psycho con-trick, to feel guilty of not fulfilling a duty with a mistaken belief that I was a thief and the worst kind at that! By practising it, I felt that I was no longer living under grace but felt bound up by the Law. Somehow, I felt things just weren't right and therefore I left the church in 1989, to join Ascot Baptist in 1990 after a few months without church altogether.

The real beauty of the church is that it's the Body and Bride of Christ. I suppose that's why I'm always drawn to it. I would say that it's my second home or my spiritual home. And within that context, God loves a cheerful giver. And being a cheerful giver isn't about tithing because I have to, or because the pastor says I should. Rather, to give cheerfully is to give what's in my heart. Here, under grace, I believe that there aren't any "You must..." or "You must not..." If a person wishes to give to the church and he is happy about that, then that is good. Likewise, if another person gives for the purpose of the pastor going away for a holiday abroad, then that too is good. There is nothing wrong with that idea. If there is yet another who wishes to give away all his income to the church or to charity or to both, then that is also good. But he should not have a judgement towards anyone who gives very little or nothing at all, for that form of intimacy is between the person involved and God himself.

It's all about grace, which here in the UK the word itself has become an acronym for Gift Received At Christ's Expense. Indeed, if God was fair, then nobody would go to Heaven! God is holy and we are not. Therefore, in his justice, everyone ever born is destined for Hell, no matter how that person lived in life. Even a good person. That's absolutely fair, isn't it? After all, all one has to do is stumble at just one minor point and he is destined for eternal death, having broken the Law. God cannot stand sin, no matter how little.

Absolutely fair? Really?

Perhaps not. Therefore, in his love, he set out to redeem us. And by sending his beloved Son to die on a Cross to atone for all our sins, the righteousness of the risen Christ is imputed into every believer. God sees every true Christian believer as equally righteous as Jesus Christ himself! This is a free gift, given to everyone who believes. It cannot be earned, nor can it be sustained by the believer himself. Rather, it's God who both saves the sinner and then keeps him, sustaining his faith as a regenerated Christian saint, a son of God, a new creation.

Therefore, if I don't tithe, then I'm not a thief, neither am I robbing God! How can I rob God if He himself has paid the full price for my shortcomings? How can I be called a thief if God has already declared me righteous in Christ? Therefore, if I want to give, that is a privilege God himself will take delight in because it's from my heart and not under compulsion.

And here comes something of a contradiction. Jesus promises joy to all believers, according to John 15:11. But I wish this promise is more realistic in life! I can't say it is, though. Let's see:

After five years of a happy marriage, we lose our daughters to adoption in February 2005, due to both of us having Aspergers.

We suffer years of a terrible loss. Then suddenly, in June 2013 my beloved loses her full mobility and, after staying in a hospital as an inpatient for four months, she can only go outdoors in a wheelchair.

She suffers bouts of the extreme back, leg, stomach or head pain which before necessitated the need to call an ambulance, all this caused by a neurotic disorder. Nowadays her pains are controlled more at home by means of doses of Co-Codamol, Oramorph and other painkillers. She also suffers from other symptoms, including a fit, which needs CPR to revive her.

We have recently discovered that she has breast cancer and a need for treatment with a mastectomy. This has caused her to shed tears in front of me and wondering why God is sending one trial after another in such an endlessly long procession.

It is easy for me to get angry at God! Especially when I mix with young, healthy couples and successful students in our church - happy, contented with their lot, successful at school and heading for university, others having graduated, parents beaming with pride at their offspring's success. Students taking gap-years and enjoying a working holiday halfway around the world. Older couples revelling in their success in holding down executive jobs, having paid off their mortgage, becoming grandparents.

I cry out - Why? Why? Why? Why are others in the same church are so happy and doing so well while we are living in daily suffering? Is there a criterion they have met and we have failed to meet? If so, what is this criterion? Tithing? Well, I tried that and I experienced bondage rather than freedom. Born middle-class? Quite a point, that! But I prefer to rule that one out. But the reality is: Life is grossly unfair.

Unfair this may be, however, our very breath through our nostrils is sustained by God, just as our heartbeat. God can withdraw my life just like that, in an instant. Indeed, I have learned that every single day is a gift from God. Therefore, instead of raging at God for my lot, unfair as it may seem, I bow the knee and thank him for our daily lives and sustenance. As I watch my beloved burst into tears, usually spontaneously. I feel like crying too. All I can do is put my arms around her, draw her close and comfort her. It works. A loving hug can perform miracles!

Hugging - stock photo.

Hugging. Indeed, I was condemned to hell for hugging other people in church! I am branded as wicked and unrepentant, for not conforming to the English model of "manhood." Even one of our Elders stands in supporting this Pharisaic hypocrite, taking his side. This as put an unnecessary extra layer of a burden I don't really need, especially in the struggle to look after and care for my beloved wife.

But despite all that, all I can do is ask the Lord for grace and the ability to strengthen Alex's spirit whenever I need to. I need his grace every day. To strengthen her, to encourage her, to love her so dearly, and to prevent her from thinking that after her mastectomy she will look freakish. I ask God for the ability always to be there for her to support her, and to make and keep a firm promise never to cease loving her, but to stay as one with her as long as God gives me breath.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

From Which We Keep Silent...

Whilst sitting at Starbucks this morning with the Daily Mail national newspaper spread across the circular table in front of me, I became aware of the odour which began to fill the spacious coffee bar. The familiar smell of garlic bread. Some may consider the pong to be aromatic, however, this may not be agreed upon by anyone who gets caught in a conversation with the eater. Chances are that the latter's bad breath will bring on to the listener a fit of raucous coughing or a desire to regurgitate. Instead, the listener will just stand there, his stiff upper lip like a rod of iron, engaging in the talk without the slightest wince betrayed.   

Garlic Bread 

Perhaps this is why I never touch garlic. I can't stand the stuff! And that despite that this member of the Allium genus, which also includes onions, shallots, leeks, and chives, all have high nutritional benefits. In the Old Testament of the Bible, we can read about how the children of Israel, not long after their deliverance from Egypt under Moses' administration, were all crying out for the food they had back in Egypt, which included garlic (Numbers 11:5). 

If I were to be transported back in time to Egypt during the time of their enslavement of the Hebrews, I believe it would take quite a while for me to get accustomed to their smelly breath. And that applies whether I speak ancient Egyptian or Hebrew. I could be talking to a startlingly handsome Egyptian scholar or even a muscular warrior, or I could help lift a beautiful young maiden out of her morning bath in the Nile, but all would be startled at my wincing whenever I draw too close to them. To them, bad breath has become immune, they can't smell each other's rancidity, or if they can, then it's the accepted matter of life which has long lost any of its negative response.

Perhaps it's like entering a room for the first time which odour fills the air. It does not have to be a bad smell. Rather, it could be equally aromatic, the pungency of fresh flowers, perfume or even of spice, like the spicy aroma which was a delight within the narrow, traffic-free streets of Jerusalem Old City. Whenever I smell spice, my subconscious reaction is a memory of Jerusalem. All the time.

As I write this, the story of Joseph, the older of the two sons of Jacob and Rachel (the younger being Benjamin), comes to mind. This young Hebrew was hated by all ten of his older half-brothers because he was the father's favourite son. To show this, Jacob gave Joseph a multi-coloured garment as a symbol of his Dad's favour. As a result, the other brothers, in their jealous rage, eventually sold him as a slave to a passing camel train of Ishmaelites in the desert, who were heading for Egypt. After arrival in Egypt, Joseph was sold as a slave to Potiphar, a governor of Pharaoh's guards.

Even the narrator agrees that Joseph was a remarkably handsome man, a slave fit to be a prince. So much so that Potiphar's wife took a fancy to him and unsuccessfully tried to seduce him to sleep with her while her husband was away on duty. I can imagine the two being so close face-to-face. If garlic was a staple vegetable in Egypt, then the breath of both of them must have been foul, at least smelly to my standing. But this sort of natural shortcoming does not seem to come up in Scripture. It seems that what I perceive as foul breath, must have been so universal during Biblical times that no-one gave it a thought when writing Scripture.

With a possible exception of Job. In Job 19:17, this very ill Middle East nomad complained that his breath was so foul that even his wife felt repulsed and his servants kept their distance. Indeed, the stench filled the whole of his tent and anyone walking through its door would be instantly hit by the odour. At least I can be sure that the stench is not of garlic, but from an internal disease. The smell would have been different, although by eating garlic might have intensified the offending odour.

Going by my own experience in life, having foul breath is perceived as an abnormality here in modern Britain. Being aware of this is the reason I have a bottle of antiseptic mouthwash kept in our bathroom, which I use immediately after brushing my teeth. Foul breath often arises from bacteria thriving on the back of the tongue, therefore swilling the antiseptic inside the mouth over the back of the tongue without swallowing must be very helpful in preventing halitosis.

An incident took place during Spring Harvest in 1994. On stage at the theatre, Clive and Ruth Calver were delivering their scheduled seminary which touched on the frailty of the human body in our relationship with God. Within the talk, it was Ruth who said,
Even the Queen f...needs to go to the toilet.

Ruth bit her tongue in the nick of time, but we laughed, as already knowing what she really wanted to say. This was tied in the life of Jesus Christ and his apostles during his three years of ministry before the Cross, his need for the toilet which was specifically featured in the Spring Harvest Seminary guidebook. Did his breath ever smell? And his daily need to urinate and defecate, how did he go about all this? At least Moses gave instructions for everyone needing to poo to go outside the camp with a spade, dig a hole, have an easement, then turn and refill the hole. Modern science has proved the efficiency of such a primitive form of sanitation (Deuteronomy 23:12-14).

Most likely that was what Jesus and his group did, in fulfilment of the Law. Or maybe head for the nearest public convenience, if any existed in Israel during his time. But how did the patriarchs go about it? That is, those who lived before the Law was given? Going back to Joseph, Jacob's son: I can read of him as a remarkably handsome Prime Minister of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself, and with divine wisdom saved the houses of both the Egyptians and the Hebrews from the effects of a seven-year-long famine. We read of him throwing a banquet for all of his brothers, and particularly for his younger brother Benjamin, the only other son of his deceased mother.

And the British stiff upper lip Joseph certainly lacked! For we read of him weeping copiously in the arms of Benjamin, then again so loudly that it was heard by fellow Egyptian servants working nearby (Genesis 45:1-2). Yet we read nothing about whether his breath was rancid (with garlic as part of a staple Egyptian diet, this was quite likely) or nothing about where to urinate and defecate. It was as if the narrator was himself not interested and he wrote with full knowledge that none of his readers wished to know.  

I guess it has always been that way. We admire those who rose from rags to riches, our knees bend at the sight of a celebrity, whether a famous actor, a singer or band member or a prominent sportsman. Or marvel at a TV presenter or journalist, such as my own admiration of Brian Cox and Simon Reeve. And I guess there are many others who have reverential respect for those dressed in a suit and tie as they watch those well-educated commuters to the office. Then not to mention friends and family members, those closest and dearest to us. But I certainly don't think about their bathroom privacy. It is as if that side to their lives simply don't exist, or not wanting to exist, although I know full well otherwise in the back of my mind.

It's as if there is an element of shame about our bodies, that which can only be done in privacy. Then it must be because my body is sinful. That's why, as a believer, my soul and spirit will go to be with the Lord after death, but my body will go to the grave. I guess this same sense of shame, this embarrassment was what caused Adam and Eve to make aprons of fig leaves immediately after they realised what they had done, and just as I would not like anyone to walk into the bathroom while I'm in the act of defecation, so likewise, Adam and Eve dived behind a bush when they heard God walking through the garden towards them.

Therefore when Jesus died on the Cross to atone for my sins, his salvation comes in three stages: in the past from the moment of believing, Spirit - I am already saved; at present, the Soul, I am being saved, also known as sanctification, and in the future - the Body, I will be saved in the coming Resurrection. And so as such, Paul wrote to the church in Corinth after some doubts about the future Resurrection was going around that particular church. In reply, the apostle wrote about the present state of my body, and liken it to a seed awaiting sowing. Then from this seed, a glorious new body will "germinate" which will be eternal, perfect and fit for Heaven (1 Corinthians 15). We all shall be like the risen, glorified Jesus! Bad odours and bodily waste production will be no more forever!

In the meantime, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the body of every believer in Jesus Christ has made my mortal, shameful body into a temple of the living God, who first created it. Furthermore, Jesus promised that not only the body becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit, but both the Father and the Son will also find his home there (John 14:23). His condition of "loving me and obeying my teachings" is fulfilled the moment the sinner first believes, for from that moment he receives the imputed righteousness of Christ. That is, God the Father sees in exactly the way he sees his Son - in sinless perfection.

Therefore, according to God, he is not ashamed to call us his own! His love for us has overcome every source of shame or embarrassment and declared us as adopted members of his family, and we are already seated with him in the heavenly places. The time will come when all these unseemly things will pass away and we will shine like stars in the heavenly places, dwelling in mansions God has already prepared for our future occupancy (John 14:1-4, KJV). Heavenly mansions such may be, however, there will be rooms conspicuously missing: The bedroom - there will be no more need for bedtime sleep, the kitchen - although there will be food to eat, any form of cooking will no longer be necessary and there will be no need for the kitchen sink. And finally, the bathroom. That will no longer be necessary either, nor for the need for a shower unit or latrine, nor any plumbing for the sewer. All these things will be gone.

Meanwhile, my breath may or may not be rancid, I still require privacy for part of the day, even from my wife, and the need to bathe remains, but despite such imperfections, my body remains the temple of the Holy Spirit. For life.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

An Empty House is Never Burgled.

The old saying, absence makes the heart grow fonder, seems to be more realistic than I have always thought. So as I felt as I lay on a bed inside a hospital ward just two nights before this blog is written. But how did I end up there in the first place?

It is all to do with my aortic valve replacement operation just over four years previously, as a treatment for a regurgitating aortic valve I had, so I was told, since I was young, perhaps even from birth. Although the procedure was a complete success in itself, life-long repercussions remain. This includes taking anticoagulants, in my case Warfarin, for life, along with beta-blockers and diuretics. However, it was a decision taken by one Cardiologist at Heatherwood Hospital in Ascot, that I can come off the diuretics. I thought a first that was wonderful. Then the problems began. I began to get short of breath every time I exerted myself from a state of rest to exercise. And that could be as simple as climbing a flight of steps.

It was when I came to the stage of even finding walking difficult without gasping for breath when Alex my wife begged me to see a GP. Yes, begged. The same as five years previously when I kept on waking up in the small hours of the morning wheezing and having a sensation of drowning, as liquid rattled in my chest at every breath taken. Back then, as this time around, I paid a visit to my GP after much persuasion - er - nagging - by my wife. Yes, I am aware. We as men have a sense of embarrassment about seeing the Doctor. Being male myself, I tend to believe in this universal sense of awkwardness, which I think arises from the belief that our symptoms are not serious enough to waste the Doctor's time and be fobbed off -  "On yer bike, pal".

But an out-of-hours Doctor I did see, and this female, who looks to be fresh out of college, saw straightaway, that I was panting and looking unwell. And that was just after walking a few metres after sitting for half-an-hour at the waiting room. After a talk which consisted mainly of answering a pile of questions, she made a successful diagnosis of my condition and was able to see that I was suffering from water retention, which was responsible for the shortness of breath. At that, she decided for me to visit Royal Berks A&E in Reading, and to arrange for an ambulance to take me straight there. I protested, asking her to put me back on diuretics and continue as before. Instead, she insisted on a visit to a Consultant as a more appropriate need. 

I phoned my wife, who immediately summoned a taxi. She waiting for my arrival at A&E for quite a while before I finally arrived. She was my comfort while reclining on the gurney, watching nurses and doctors walk past in both directions, along with patients being wheeled away by a porter, the never-ending hustle-and-bustle of a typical A&E department. It was several hours later when one of the doctors entered my cubicle to announce that I will be kept in overnight. My wife panicked. 

This is because whenever she feels distressed or experience a rise of negative emotion, various things happen. One is a severe backache caused by the tightening of her muscles, immobilising her. Normally, I can quickly get her out of her condition, having learnt from experience, along with an administration of a strong painkiller such as Co-Codamol or Oramorph. Another state her emotions can lead her to is a seizure, remaining conscious but a tightening of her throat or neck muscles threatening asphyxiation. I have learned to get her out of that condition too, by applying CPR which I had previously learned as a poolside lifeguard back in 1972/3. On another occasion, she can get into a kind of body lock, when although still remaining conscious, she goes into a deep unwakeable sleep-like state which takes a while for her to recover. Such is her threefold neurotic disorder arisen from a series of long-past psychosomatic circumstances.

In a state of sudden panic, she tried to phone through to a couple who have been friends for a long time, and who also took her in while I was recovering from my heart op at Harefield Hospital in Uxbridge. But the ringing went unanswered. Then realising that this was a week when schools were shut for half-term and many were away on holiday, we knew then we were on our own. 

And so she booked a taxi for home while I was wheeled to one of the wards. It was a while later when I knew that by then she should have settled in, was when a nurse lent me a hospital mobile phone and tried to contact her several times and the phone remained unanswered, that a deep feeling of helplessness and hopelessness filled my soul. All night through.

Being in a hospital ward, there were constant interruptions as nurses walk in to take blood pressure measurements, including from me. The welcoming darkness dispelled every time a patient turn on his bedside light or the much-needed silence disturbed by conversation, whether between patients or to staff, the situation was never ideal for a good night's sleep.

And visions from an overactive imagination.

My imagination was indeed running wild. I kept seeing visions of my beloved lying on the floor, paralysed. Unable to move, her throat muscles tightening as if strangled by an unseen force. With nobody to help her, she finally gives up the ghost by asphyxiation. Or lying on the floor with her back muscles curved in tightness while suffering from extreme pain. And with both front and back doors locked, no one can enter the house to assist her. Furthermore, she has my house keys. That means even if I were to leave the hospital ward to get home quickly, she could be lying unconscious and there is nothing I can do short of a literal break in.

Main Entrance Royal Berks Hospital, Reading.

It was as if I was teased, a target for fun-poking, ridicule. I tried to imagine what would a life of widowhood be like. Worldwide travel again? A return to being single? None of these brought any comfort, but rather a source of torment. I could circumnavigate the globe many times over. But none of that would make up for the love and affection we have always exchanged. The only person in the world who sincerely thinks I'm good-looking, gorgeous, a rock of security, someone who she adores, a representation of Jesus Christ. If she goes, then the empty void left behind will be impossible to fill -  the wretched feeling of loneliness would be too much to bear - unless I experience a miracle.

Perhaps we are both in need of one. If only Jesus Christ materialise in front of us and promises he would grant three of anything we ask for. Immediately, without hesitation, we would ask for a restoration of health, assurance of salvation for us and our three daughters and perhaps financial security as a top up, but not on the expense of trusting in him for our daily needs.

Around breakfast time, I again tried to contact my wife over the phone. And yet again no answer. I kept trying, but this carried on as if stubbornly refusing to acknowledge my call. Eventually, in sheer desperation, I cried to God to bring her back to the hospital ward. I kept on repeating my prayers, regardless of whether they were heard by others in the ward or not. My heart was pleading, pleading...

As we parted during the previous evening, she promised that she would be by my side before nine in the morning. But it was already 10.30 and I was still alone. I tried to shut out any thoughts that she could be unconscious, or even dead, back at home and carried on pleading with the Lord to bring her over safely.

At 10.45 my wife suddenly appeared as she was wheeled in by a porter. The sudden sense of relief as we hugged was almost unimaginable. It was then when I piled thanks upon thanks to God for his goodness. About an hour later the Consultant came in to visit to put me on a permanent prescription of Bumetanide, a diuretic medicine I was taking before it was discontinued. He then said that we were free to go home after the medicine arrives from the hospital pharmacist. Indeed, I was thinking, if that young GP was on the same track of thought as I was on the previous day, we would have been spared of all this, as well as the cost to the NHS. I can only assume that as an apparent junior, she did not carry the authority to put the diuretic back on prescription without a more senior consultation.

It seems that as a married couple, we have a lion's share of tribulation, and that aimed specifically at our health. My wife's neurotic disorder brings just as much anxiety to me as well as my heart condition brings to her. We both worry for each other constantly, life on a knife-edge, a constant emotional turmoil. The most frequent-asked question is, Are you okay? I could ask that several times within a couple of hours.

It wasn't long since I came across a poster on Facebook. It read An Empty House is Never Burgled. This reminds me of a thief, a robber or burglar. Who are thieves and robbers? Apparently, it's the Adversary, according to Jesus' own words recorded in John 10:10. A thief only steals if the intended victim has something worthy to be taken. An empty, unoccupied house is of no interest to the burglar! Apparently, Satan must be constantly hungry, for he seems to go after the fruit, that is, the fruit of the Holy Spirit. As the apostle writes in 2 Timothy 3:12, anyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, or simply will have trouble.  

We tend to think that persecution only means being hated by unbelievers - to be chased, thrown into prison, forced to deny the faith, tortured, killed. Hmm! I cannot see any of that aimed at any of our churches here! Maybe Paul the Apostle had got it wrong, or times have changed since his day. Or maybe the word applies to a far more universal term of suffering - to have trouble, to suffer some kind of tribulation.

This makes far more sense. By means of the Holy Spirit living within us, we produce good fruit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Indeed, Satan is constantly hungry and he will steal. Especially the fruits of love, joy and peace, but he'll go after others, particularly patience when driving in traffic or stuck in a superstore checkout queue. Often God does not stop the spiritual crime, although he allows it to go only so far.

Our love will be forever...

I look at our own marriage relationship. I'm happy to say that it 's strong, stable, robust. And believe it or not, I think that the tribulations aimed at our health and wellbeing have played a role. And I think absence makes the heart grow fonder. During that night at the hospital ward, all I was concerned was that she was okay on her own at home. Not that I never go out on my own, of course, I do, just about every day I'm out on my own, whether it'll be for a few minutes or for several hours, or even for much of the day. But there is a world of a difference, for example, between a gym and sauna session and being confined at a hospital ward bed.

The Adversary may attempt to steal as much as he can from us, even our lives, but our love for each other will remain forever.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Agape Love at the Sauna.

A typical Friday afternoon. Off to the gym, I went, as I normally do as one retired from full-time work. After a 65-minute aerobic workout on one of the four TechnoGym rowing machines, burning off 300 kcals, followed by 16 minutes on the treadmill with a further 60 kcal burned off, I made my way to the spa suite, where I am to relax in the bubble-bath, steam room and sauna. Indeed, very much like my Roman ancestors across two millennia of history. The only difference is that both sanitation levels and advanced technology have come a long way from the ancient public baths, perhaps to the cost of aesthetics, in which the Romans were renowned. 

Nothing new about any of this. The novelty wore off decades ago when I started attending sauna in 1976, as a slim 23-year-old. Although the original suite featured the frigidarium - a cold plunge pool, which, during the major refurbishment in the nineties, has been replaced by a so-called ice cold shower which has been known to be far from icy during the Summer!

A typical sauna cabin.

But despite my years at the facility - and others overseas such as in Haifa, San Diego, and Sydney - something that I consider new is has been occurring lately. And that is the presence of a female patient with a mental age of that of a baby, along with her supervisor or carer.

Indeed, I have already touched on this subject recently.* Then I wrote about my experience with a group of mentally-disabled patients and their carers at the same Leisure Centre after a swimming workout. I then made a comparison between the lifestyle of one of the patients with that of a wedding of a TV celebrity whose parents I know personally at our church.

This female patient at the sauna looked to be about twenty years of age, give or take, and she was quite pretty, with long flowing hair. She and her carer spend most of their time in the bubble bath, but I have seen them venture into the saunarium, which is cooler than the sauna but with a higher level of humidity. Towards the end of my time at the spa facility, she and her carer were taking a finishing shower. Afterwards, she sat in a chair, facing directly towards me, and apparently staring straight at me.

I turned and smiled at her. There was no other response but to stare steadily at me. Then I waved at her during the brief moment her carer had her back turned. Still no response. Not to worry, as I returned to my inclining position on one of the heat beds. As I lay there, I had a longing to approach her and give her a hug and speak gently to her. The desire to give her a hug was offset by anticipation that she would take it the wrong way, and scream with fright or protestation. As such, I felt the wiser to remain where I was.

But I still felt love for that patient, the love Christ has for us. While we were totally helpless, Christ died for us, thus demonstrating the love of God in the most sacrificial method. Therefore it was significant and still fresh on my mind that their visit to the spa took place only the day after watching a BBC Panorama programme about the abominable cruelty shown to very similar patients at Whorlton Hall private hospital in County Durham.

This was eight years after Panorama had also investigated Winterbourne View independent hospital in Gloucestershire after a whistleblower reported the levels of cruelty which had taken place within. As a result of the Winterbourne View investigation, the care home was closed down. At present, Whorlton Hall has also shut down. Both investigations were carried out by undercover reporters working as carers.

I have found the Whorlton Hall abuse very distressing. One of the patients, a mentally-disabled female who is also autistic, has a deep fear of men, and she only felt comfortable among female carers. Instead of respecting her wish, several male staff members deliberately taunted her while she was trapped in her room. Laughing and guffawing, her screams of terror was entertaining to them. These guys were quite big, strong and imposing, white, English chavs, whose mere presence bringing out the patient's screams of terror feeding their animalistic instincts, taking pleasure of her distress and suffering.

My heart went out to that patient. I wanted to cry, to cry at my frustration of sheer helplessness to do anything. Perhaps I wanted to see a miracle, for me to be there, to see her face transform from terror to joy. How I long to see her safe in the arms of Jesus, as he gives her an everlasting hug.

Undercover filming of abuse at Whorlton Hall. BBC TV.

Yet how frustrating it can be to my faith when considering that churches have a very dim history when it comes to caring. My own father, when he was an adolescent, had to stay at a nunnery during the Second World War. He tells of the level of cruelty which had taken place whilst staying there, especially when receiving a hard smack across his face for taking Communion without first going to Confession.

I can verify my father's testimony. I have a book, Stiff Upper Lip by ex-boarder Alex Renton. In it, he tells of an anonymous English interviewee who suffered hell at a prep school run by the Jesuits during the War. He began to feel rebellious, lending his support for the Germans and for the Communists, after hearing sermons delivered by "cane-happy priests" and being forced to pray, which he didn't but instead hummed a secular tune whilst in a praying position in order to stay out of trouble.

This also reminds me of a well-known novel by Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, from which movies, musicals and theatre performances are made to this day. It tells of the grim workhouse environment run by a board of "Christian administrators" - well fed and often pompous - who believed that cruelty is the right way to keep their junior inhabitants in line. This included keeping them to a state of near starvation as well as freely wielding the cane at the slightest misdemeanour.

Therefore it doesn't come as too much of a surprise when I was stuck for a proper solution to the problem. I have thought about every carer in such homes being committed Christians. Then I remembered history. No, that didn't work very well, did it? Little wonder when Charles Darwin wrote his book, On the Origins of Species, which had the power to displace the Christian faith from all logic, history, and from the general worldview, his works were warmly welcomed and became to be seen as universal scientific fact to this day.

It seemed that God wanted to show me something after watching such a distressing programme. On the very next day as well. That was when I watched this mentally disabled female enjoying the spa facilities with her carer. And all I felt was love for her, a wish to see her happy and eternally saved by Jesus Christ. That when the idea came up: If care homes or hospitals of this kind must exist, why not enforce a constitution that these establishments can only be run by true Christian believers who must first pass a stringent test?

However, I also realise that there is a massive difference between offering her a smile as a passing stranger, and ongoing day-to-day care.

Caring daily for one who is autistic and who has a mental disability can be mentally, emotionally and even physically challenging. And I must be honest with myself, I know for sure I can't hack it. And I believe in Jesus as my Saviour. In fact, coping with my own wife's illness is a massive challenge in itself. And her illness is purely physical, even with a sound mind, she's still in need to be in a wheelchair whenever out of doors. I find it agonising when I have to watch her writhe in pain, and I have no other option than to call an ambulance. Fortunately, the introduction of powerful medicines on her prescription such as Co-Codamol and Oramorph has enabled home treatment in lieu of calling for an ambulance, but these experiences can still be scary enough and demand a deep faith in God on a day-to-day basis.

"Please sir, I want some more" Movie version of Oliver Twist.

By contrast, I know a widowed female pensioner who has just reached ninety years of age, yet her dementia sends her into verbal violence which is intense enough to send anyone present from the room she's in, or even from the house itself. I know full well that I could never be able to care for such a person, but I do know that her own granddaughter is her live-in carer. Fortunately for both of them, her two sons along with the Council pay for daycare at a nearby home for the working week, relieving the carer from hours of stress. In turn, the widow enjoys the company of others at the care home, where she is allowed to carry out housekeeping tasks which prove to be very therapeutic.

That's why I do believe that for such people, the family is still the best environment for them to live. An environment where love can be felt and experienced. However, the best kind of love which can be offered to such disabled people is agape love. It's the same sacrificial love God has for us. Therefore, for a carer, especially in a care home or hospital, to possess such love, he or she must know Jesus Christ to be her Saviour, read and thoroughly absorb the Bible on a daily basis and experience the daily filling of the Holy Spirit.

Only then will the cruelty found in private hospitals becomes the thing of the past.
*To read the account at the Leisure Centre cafe, click here.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Woken by a Bathroom Incident

It was a typical night around May/June 1997. Lying in bed but unable to sleep. What was that racket going on in the bathroom?

Really, I had been feeling elated. Therefore I should be sleeping like a log. Instead, I was kept awake with a sense of frustration at three in the morning by the two whispering voices, one male, the other female, emanating from the closed bathroom door, just a few feet away from my bed. Of course, I could hear what they were up to. Eventually, after everything had calmed down, I eventually dropped off.

After daybreak, I got out of bed to enter the bathroom. Instead, in the bathroom itself, I startled the young couple while they were in each other's arms, and I gasped, "Oh!"

The man looked very displeased as I walked through the door, while she looked alarmed.

Your snoring has kept us awake in the early hours of the morning! He declared with a firm and a rather angry tone of voice.

And your shagging in the bathroom has kept me awake at three this morning! If you want to shag, there is the beach just across the road! I then saw his soul as I spat out my reply with equal intensity, pointing my finger towards the direction of the street outside.

Not that the beach would have been ideal for outdoor copulation, as this particular stretch of coastline on the Australian State of Queensland was a mudflat, exposed by the low tide of the Indo-Pacific Ocean. However, she was horrified at my awareness of their activity and she quickly said that she had to go. And she stormed out of the bathroom alone, leaving him too embarrassed to say anything else, and slinked out of the washroom with his tail between his legs.

HI Hostel Dormitory, Cairns, Australia. Stayed 1997.

All this had taken place at a male dormitory of a backpacker's hostel, one of several hostels at the time, in Cairns, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. And indeed, after having showered, shaved and dressed, I felt my elation return as I prepared breakfast in the member's kitchen, as I was planning to board a catamaran to nearby Port Douglas for an exchange of sailing to Low Isles, one of many coral cays dotting the Coral Sea, which hugs the north-eastern coastline of Australia. There I am to snorkel over the magnificent underwater gardens of the Reef.

But going back to the previous night, this was unlike any other hostelling experience I have ever had. Obviously, there is a rich variety of nightlife in Cairns, which late-closing nightclubs and bars themselves encourage one-night stands among backpackers, I never thought such behaviour would hit the hosteling community, especially one affiliated with Hosteling International, an organisation which had received moral support from the churches, particularly here in England.

Even at the New Swedish Hostel, an unaffiliated privately-owned Medieval upper floor of dormitories set in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem - had better morals. Here, in the early nineties, I slept in the same room with several young couples, huddling together on makeshift beds laid out by the proprietor, rather than for him to face the alternative of turning away potential paying customers. But as far as I was always aware, there has never been any "hanky-panky" among them.

But the traditional YHA-affiliated Youth Hostel has come a long way since my membership began in 1985. It was still in those days when the establishment was what it said on the tin, a place for inexpensive accommodation for school-age city youngsters to experience the benefits of the countryside. What a benefit it is when youth hostels became cheap backpackers accommodation! Gone is the traditional morning duty, when each member had to either sweep the dormitory floor, mop the bathroom or kitchen, hoover the lounge, wipe the windowsills, clean the showers, etc, all to keep costs down. With greater mobility and more money in the customer's pocket, its market was under threat unless the morning duty was dispensed with and to make these hostels more adult-compatible

Leaving Cairns for the Great Barrier Reef, 1997.

Whenever I was in the UK, Israel, Singapore, the USA, or Australia, I found that as an unmarried traveller, those hostels were excellent venues to form new friendships with other backpackers. Sometimes I received advice or a recommendation to visit a particular venue. San Diego in 1995 was a good example, where recently-made friends hinted on the Mission Beach, Sea World, and the Old Town with its Old West streets, exhibits, a bazaar and its atmosphere, all of them a fair bus ride away - and Little Italy, a self-contained Italian community in the midst of the city. Through the advice of another friend, I managed to travel south on the trolley-tram to San Ysidro to cross the border into Mexico to visit the city of Tijuana. 

I have found that the member's kitchen is the best place to start a conversation. In a hostel such as HI-San Diego, which in 1995 was sharing the same building with the YMCA, there were several cookers enclosing a space separated from the dining area. The resulting jostling with other backpackers, each of us cooking our own meals at the same time, started conversations which could lead to more serious discussions, eventually forming friendships.

Also, new friendships were made at a HI-Phoenix, a private home which the owner had converted into a hostel and had it affiliated to attract more customers. On this occasion, I made friends with a couple of young Jewish men, and in the lounge, a conversation arose on the subject of religion, which gave me the opportunity to testify about Jesus Christ. Also, New Swedish Hostel on Souk David, within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, was another brilliant example where the combined kitchen/dining room/lounge was contained in just one small upstairs room. Therefore, when one traveller from South Africa had asked me what I was doing in Israel, this was a golden opportunity to testify. I was overheard by other backpackers who paused from what they were doing to listen to what I had to say.

And whilst staying at a HI hostel in Boston, Massachusetts, I got into a good talk with a group of teenagers who were also staying the night. Even here in the UK, whilst cycling to Minehead in Somerset from Bracknell, while stopping over for the night at HI-Bath Spa, I found myself in conversation with some others about faith in Christ.

And this brings me to the issue here. Does it look as if I was, or am one of a very few Christian believers who dare venture out on his own? Compared to the testimonies from other church-going friends from over the years, that is quite a point!

One good friend of mine, who for his own safety I won't mention his name here, is due to fly out to Malta in due course. I thought this is great. Only a few years ago I took my wife Alex to Malta as independent travellers for a week to celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary. I remember the hotel we chose to stay in, "Which looks like a prison from the outside!" I joked to Alex, during the airport-to-hotel pre-booked transfer.

"Quiet!" My wife responded. "The taxi driver can hear you."

My friend and brother-in-Christ will be flying out to Malta with Oak Hall, a Christian organisation dealing specifically with holidays. Over the years, I have encountered one Christian graduate after another who has travelled overseas with Oak Hall, almost entirely without exception! Anything wrong with that? No, nothing wrong in itself. Except that it does give the impression of cliquishness - the classic image of Christians packing themselves together as if to guard against predators.

About to snorkel, Low Isles Cay. Dressed against sunburn. 

Perhaps the opening story of this blog could be a classic example of this kind of predatory threat. I have wondered how a typical Christian graduate would react to this couple on a one-nighter banging away in the bathroom? Or the idea of sharing a crowded dormitory with several unmarried couples sleeping together?

These same Christians who travel clique-like overseas would be the first to get on their high horses and preach against such behaviour or lifestyle. But by reading the Gospels, I don't see Jesus getting on his high horse, except to rebuke the Pharisees - highly religious people who think they are righteous before God and would judge and condemn anyone who copulates outside of marriage (among other sins.) It's those super-religious who Jesus rebukes.

Maybe I was wrong to verbally hit back at that couple in the bathroom so far away. It might have revealed my immaturity. Could I have acted this way out of envy at his ability to pick up a female and entice her into bed on their first date - a scenario which many a teenager's excitement would be aroused? Not for me, in all honesty, I was just not interested in such things. I was out there to travel. To see the world, a wonderful, undeserved gift God has given me to enjoy. Sex has no part in the equation. 

He threw a wobbly at me, I threw one back at him. That was all. Maybe I should have apologised for my snoring (even if it wasn't my fault) and sought peace. But back then I didn't think of that. I was still spiritually immature. 

Saturday, 11 May 2019

A Trip to the British Museum...

One unique feature about a Bank Holiday Monday is that it's usually very different from a normal Monday. As one good friend of mine said to me after a church service had finished, it's a refreshing diversity from those familiar feelings of "Monday Morning Blues" - when it seems easier for a log to lift itself off from the ground unaided than for a human to get up out of bed to that intrusive ringing of the alarm clock shattering a romantic dream or visions of a faraway paradisal location.

Indeed, I was not at all surprised when my young friend and Christian brother, Dr Andrew Milnthorpe, messaged me on Facebook a few days earlier whether we were free for this particular holiday Monday, a non-religious-based May Day, which always follows the first Sunday after the start of that particular Spring month. Indeed we were free that day, meaning we had no particular plans. Therefore I submitted a proposal for a visit to the British Museum, set in the Bloomsbury district of Central London. Surprisingly, this post-graduate seem to lack enthusiasm but agreed to accompany us anyway. Such a trip out seemed far better than being stuck alone indoors.

As train-travel goes, there was a closure on our line into London Waterloo station, a typical statutory holiday phenomenon, which meant changing platforms at Clapham Junction, itself featured in the Guinness Book of Records as being the UK's busiest station. The sheer impracticality of such a manoeuvre involving a wheelchair was a bit too much. Therefore we chose the fast Reading-Paddington Great Western mainline route followed by a single ride on the Underground. 

I love being on a fast train. According to my experience, the Eurostar London-Paris route remains unbeatable. But equally enjoyable is the 18-minute non-stop on one of Britain's principal routes. And Providence was on my side - just. Because on the opposite platform at Reading, another train was already standing, a stopping service to London. Had it been a five-coach train featuring first class, Andrew would have insisted on boarding it. But instead, it was a three-coach train without first class accommodation. Therefore we waited a little longer for the long-haul nine-coach train which was non-stop. This meant a difference in journey time between eighteen minutes and one of around 33 minutes - the 15-minute margin having the potential of playing havoc to Alex's back and her general comfort.

We eventually arrived at the museum. Although this was Alex's first visit, whether my friend has been before, I didn't get around to asking. But I have been before and I knew what I really wanted to see.

After Andrew had treated us to a sumptuous meal at a rather posh third-floor restaurant where waiters were dressed in a white shirt and a black bow-tie, we remained on the third floor to enter the Egyptian Afterlife gallery - mummies and their highly decorated coffins, all confined in glass cabinets. And because Andrew loves pushing Alex's wheelchair, the two stayed together, giving me a level of relief from having to constantly push. And suddenly I found myself alone in the crowd.

Indeed, it was the most crowded gallery in the whole museum. Whether the public has a fascination with morbidity or otherwise, I cannot be too sure. But Alex and Andrew couldn't be seen throughout the gallery. Also, I was a tad disappointed. I recall my last visit to this particular gallery, more than thirty-five years previously. Back then, I was sure that there were far more mummies on display, all confined in one room. This time there seem to be far fewer mummies and a heck of a lot more empty coffins, all standing upright like soldiers on parade.

Mummies at the British Museum - taken May 2019.

That visit so long ago coincided with one of my backpacking trips to Italy, this one completed in the Autumn of 1982. By holding a 21-day Italian Rail Pass, I was able to travel around the whole length of the country from Milano, where I had the pass validated, to as far south as Sicily. Maybe I did - and still have - a fascination with morbidity. I managed to include a visit to the Catacombs of St John, a network of tunnels deep underneath the city of Siracusa, which once housed hundreds of the dead buried in niches which were all carved into the tunnel walls. Back in 1982, I was able to stroll along at my own pace, alone, taking as much time as I need. At present, visiting is confined by escorted group tours which are carried out rather hurriedly, and therefore not given enough time to absorb the experience.

Another attraction is located underneath a church in the Sicilian capital city of Palermo. It is known as il Catacombe dei Cappuccini. On the same 1982 trip, I was entirely alone in this underground crypt one morning. I stood as the well-preserved mummies seem to take on a life on their own as many of the skulls stared down at me. There is a legend that one of the mummies fell out of its place and landed on one of the passing tourists as if to say Get out! The only sense of eeriness was from a loose flap swinging back and forth at the air vent. The constant Bap! Bap! Bap! of the hinged metal panel did alleviate what would have been an even eerier, death-like silence.

And while I'm at it, I might as well mention the Catacombs of Paris. Situated at the end of a very long underground tunnel, again I was alone as I visited off-season in 1985. Those were the glory-days when anyone can walk directly to the base of the Eifel Tower from the street or from the Jardin without the need to pass through security barriers and undergoing bag checks and airport-style security gates. Meanwhile, I've found that the catacombs of Paris were very much unlike that of Palermo. Rather, deep underneath the streets of Paris, there were just piles and piles of femurs interspersed with skulls. 

Do I have a sense of morbid fascination? Maybe so, but I think that this is borne out from decades of disillusionment with class-obsessed and celebrity-worshipping Englishness with much of this reflected in our churches, according to more than 45 years experience as a Christian believer. For example, the ongoing obsession with the disappearance of a doctor's daughter Madeleine McCann more than a decade ago, and still in the news to this day as police continue to search for her, boosted by extra public funding. Or the Leave-supporting graduate in our church who denies the historicity of Genesis yet held in reverential respect by the Elders and the congregation alike. And now also being surrounded by other Brexit-voting churchgoers who seem to be obsessed with optimistic views on Britain outside the EU and a longing for national sovereignty and yes, glory.

We seem to have forgotten that the same fate awaits every one of us. Its cruelty is reflected in the fact of being no respecter of persons or lowly animals alike - let alone social status, education, fame, or wealth. As with a poster submitted to Andrew's Facebook timeline showing the smug expression of Nigel Farage and his new Brexit Party, partly funded by a wealthy businessman and all, I felt my heart fell. Please give it a rest! But the worst scenario found in the Bible is to be called a fool by God himself.

It is found in Luke 12:13-21. It was taught by Jesus in a country within which, wealth was a sign of righteousness before God, based on Deuteronomy 28:1-14 and similar Scriptures. Here was a businessman and a successful one at that. If the text in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 had provided a yardstick for society to evaluate a man's righteousness by his wealth, then what Jesus here says must have been a shock to his audience! One truth stands out like a sore thumb. That is, he was concerned about his own future prosperity and he had no thought about others less well off, or those who were poor and hungry. He never realised that a far better way of living was within his powers by giving freely to the poor and needy. Instead, it was to eat, drink, and be merry, or as some modern translations put it - wine, women and song for you.

Thou fool! Tonight your soul shall be required of you. Supposing this guy had instead said to himself:

My fields have produced abundantly in the last few years and I have plenty to spare. This is what I ought to do: I will go out and use my abundance to feed the poor and help the needy. I will visit the home of the widow and ensure her welfare is okay. Furthermore, I shall bring gifts to children, especially those who are fatherless. So please, God, help me fulfil my destiny.

With such intentions, would God had called him a fool? I doubt it! Rather God would have blessed him with thirty, maybe forty more years of life, perhaps with fame and popularity as a bonus.

That is really living. The thing is, here in England, it can be difficult to actually live a life like that. Especially in churches where most are well educated and hold good jobs. Okay, there are the homeless. Walk through the streets of any town or city and sooner or later there is someone who has made his home on the sidewalk. I must confess, I tend to walk straight past. Maybe it's because in the past I had some bad experiences with them, such as being duped by putting on an act. My wife and I nearly fell for such a scam whilst staying in Chester. Or to donate a respectable sum of money, only to discover that his bandaged injury was a fake. Or to read that many of these beggars are actually quite well off and are not homeless. But try as I might, I cannot justify my own weakness, hence the need for a Saviour.

Whatever may be, those mummies and remains of dead people in the British Museum, under the streets of Paris, and in a Sicilian church crypt, all tell a powerful message. One day we all be as they are. With utterly no respect for our social standing, education, wealth, or whether we were popular or famous in society or not. 

Catacombe dei Cappuccini, Palermo. Visited 1982. 

Earlier I said that my mate Andrew Milnthorpe looked as he lacked enthusiasm in visiting the British Museum. It's very likely that he has been before or knows someone who has. While I was in the Egyptian Afterlife gallery, I could not see him nor my wife anywhere in the vicinity, which leads to the likelihood that he felt very uncomfortable looking at mummies or their coffins. And so these two were most likely in an adjoining gallery while I was examining the corpses. Rather they are all a reminder that whether he voted for Brexit and I voted to remain in the EU, neither counts for anything from the moment we step off this planet. Only our response to God's call will determine our eternal destiny.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

The Eye In Your Lounge.

This week a political earthquake shook Parliament. No, I'm not talking about the humiliation of both the Tory and Labour parties in Thursday's local Council elections, when both parties had lost a considerable amount of seats: The Conservatives around 1,300 lost seats and Labour 82. That means had this been a General Election, the result would have been a hung Parliament with a tie, with 28% of the national vote for each of them. The remaining 44% of the national vote would have gone to other parties, such as the Liberal Democrats (19%) and minors such as the Green Party.*

No, I'm not writing about any of that.

Rather, it's about that other political earthquake, the one which has 200 Tory ministers jumping up and down with rage. It was the sacking of Defense Minister Gavin Williamson from the Cabinet by our current Prime Minister Theresa May. He was accused of leaking some Governmental secrets to the Daily Telegraph about the G5 intelligence concerning national security, with the possible permission for the Chinese electronics firm Huawei making inroads into the UK, against the advice of the USA and, I believe, also against the advice of the EU.

I can understand why our allies across the Pond can get so strung up about such a company sticking its oar in. What I have heard, it seems to fulfil, or at least partly fulfil, the dire prophecy of George Orwell's novel 1984, which was made into the most melancholic, and if it wasn't confined to the world of fiction, a potentially frightening movie to be shown on the big screen.

A group of us went to see the film at a local cinema. At the time the film was released in October 1984, we were all young unmarried Christian men who regularly attended churches of our choice. Here we were, watching the film, which was an adaption of Orwell's novel, which was published 35 years earlier in June 1949, as the manner of technology and forties-style commodities attest with that time of history, including those monochrome TV sets, each of them displaying a hexagonal screen.

A scene from the movie 1984, of George Orwell's novel.

Except that those TV sets were fixed onto the wall in every room of a typical London residential home, along with installations in every office, factory, hospitals, and the interior of every known building regardless of its purpose. But in the home was the most unsettling. Those TV sets cannot be switched off. Instead, they keep on broadcasting ongoing news bulletins. It was impossible to get away from. An endless stream of information kept on pouring into each room of the house.

Although not featured in the film but nevertheless implied, the need to defecate must have been so embarrassing when in desperate need for privacy, for there on the wall in front, another TV screen is fixed, spilling out one news item after another.

What makes this system so terrifying is that a camera is fixed to every TV set. Therefore every move you make, everything you say and do is transmitted through this camera to Central Intelligence.

This was aptly demonstrated when the star agent had his back to the screen while sifting through some files. Immediately the screen behind him flickered to show someone asking him directly what he was doing with his back turned. The agent then turned and held the empty file wallet to the camera. And all that took place in his own home.

So ominous was the movie that one of our members rose from his seat and walked out of the auditorium, only to sit and wait in the foyer outside for the rest of us to leave after the end of the film. Perhaps I shouldn't have been too surprised at his move. We know that the whole movie was set in London, as from time to time, a view of the derelict Battersea Power Station, a well-known landmark, kept on appearing on the screen between each scene. For him, it was too close to home.

Perhaps George Orwell was more accurate in his predictions than he himself could have imagined. Some years ago I was planning a train trip for the next day, and as I looked for relevant information, all of a sudden this young female in uniform approached me from apparent nowhere to ask what I was doing. There was a queue for the cashier, and either the guy behind the ticket counter, while serving those waiting in the queue, made contact with this staff member, or more likely, I was watched through one of those surveillance cameras. Indeed, I was accused of loitering, an apparent offence I wasn't aware of.

And talking about train travel, one rather iconic feature found attached to the inside of the roof of each modern coach is that characteristic inverted blue dome. Its dominance indicating that "beware, we are watching you" would have made our parents and grandparents feel uncomfortable or unsettled. But at least I'm used to it, for my own safety. I recall those 1960's compartmentalised carriages where I could have been trapped with a questionable or suspicious character who could have taken advantage of me, a vulnerable young teenager, knowing full well that the guard, unable to reach us while the train is moving, would never have known anything of it.

In the film 1984, Battersea Power Station sits derelict.

Or that time I was travelling home to Bracknell from London one late evening in the seventies. All was well until some youths boarded the train at Ascot and took seats on the other side of the same coach. That last part of the journey was tainted by sniggering and mocking as their eyes were fixed on me, a lonely long-haired young man, by a group of white youths with crew-cuts or shaven heads, and posing a level of threat. They remained on board as I alighted, with some relief, at my stop. I'm sure that the presence of the inverted blue dome of glass would have deterred them. But they weren't around during the seventies.

However, as trains go, with each carriage fitted with these surveillance cameras, I do wonder how the guard, or the conductor, cope with the multi-image on his monitor screen. These days the trains on our particular line are ten coaches long, and to watch all ten pictures on a screen, well, I think that would be rather overwhelming. A group of shaven youths harassing an innocent passenger could be easily missed. Then again, maybe not. In all honesty, I have not seen an actual guard's van on our modern trains. Instead, I have often seen him stand at the doors of any carriage, and when the train stops, he activates a mechanism which allows alighting passengers to open the sliding doors by push-button. But a TV or monitor, so far I have not seen one, and I travel by train quite frequently.

Maybe I am stuck in the past when the guard's van was normally seen on all trains. After all, it's what I've always expected to see. A thought has crossed my mind while writing this blog. Could it be that those surveillance cameras are fake? A psychological con trick to deter any potential mischief while on board? It's nothing new. For years, fake cameras have been erected along highways to deter speeding vehicle drivers. Many are still there to this day along with the functional ones. It's impossible for the passing driver to tell the fake from the functional. Could our trains have adopted the same principle?

The case with Gavin Williamson is something altogether different. I take it that he is against the idea of the Chinese company Huawei taking hold on British surveillance or security. I have heard rumours. Rumours of a brave new world akin to George Orwell's novel. However strenuously he denies any involvement of the leak, I am on his side, as with many Tory MPs. 

I once wrote to a friend on Facebook that after Brexit, Britain could be a sitting duck for a vassal state to the Chinese. A threat of this was already underway a couple of years ago in 2016 when a project for a nuclear power station sponsored by the Chinese Government was suddenly halted by our Government just as our Prime Minister Theresa May was about to sign the agreement. It is said that the electronics firm Huawei is a private company. This at first, I found hard to swallow considering that China is a Communist country, after its founder, Chairman Mao Zedong's reign during the latter half of the Twentieth Century, who had millions of his own people slaughtered in order to abolish all private enterprise under his administration. Apparently, things have changed since the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, allowing some private enterprise, but remaining closely under Government scrutiny.

Maybe, like the case with the guard's van, I'm behind the times. I'm aware of Soviet Communism giving up the ghost after the Glasnost and Perestroika movements occurring around 1990, and it does look as though China has taken the same route, allowing a limited form of capitalism to thrive. Hence the existence of such a private firm Huawei, which I believe may turn our Sovereign, post-Brexit nation into a vassal state for China, an opinion which I believe is shared with Gavin Williamson and others.   

The thought of a camera linking our lounge to a central Government intelligence via a TV set looks to me to be very ominous! But that what our links to China via Huawei could bring about. It is a blood-curdling thought.

Gavin Williamson - Do we share the same anxieties?

And yet I, as a Christian believer, am under surveillance all the time. But not just with what I say and do. But also with my thoughts, motives and emotions too. Absolutely nothing is kept private or secret from this Central Intelligence, which is a heavenly one. This is because God knows everything about me. And rather than posing a threat, this is a very good thing - to be under God's constant surveillance. And it's not because he wants to see how I will behave or to see whether I would stay faithful or walk away and fall into apostasy. Rather, it's to love me, to care for me, to bless me, and also to discipline me when necessary, not for him to seek revenge or seek retribution - Jesus Christ took all that upon himself on the Cross - but for me to partake in his holiness and to enjoy the richest of unity with him as the Holy Spirit dwells within.

Psalm 139 is all about this heavenly surveillance. It is a Psalm really worth reading through. To summerise:
He knows when I rise and when I go to bed.
He is able to discern all my thoughts.
He knows what I'm going to say before even saying it.
He hems me in in a way it's impossible to escape - no matter how far from home I travel.
I cannot be hidden from Him, no matter how thick the darkness.
I was intricately made by Him even while still in the womb.
He knows my frame thoroughly.
Every day of my life was ordained by Him before I was even born.
Knowing all these things brings comfort, joy and reassurance, not fear, embarrassment or guilt.

Indeed, human surveillance is a slight to my privacy, but God's loving surveillance is a wonder to all believers.

*Daily Mail, Saturday, May 4, 2019.