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Saturday, 18 November 2017

Gone Down the Tube.

A number of years ago, I read a contribution in a Reader's Letters page in a daily national newspaper one morning before leaving my apartment to go to work. The writer was a middle-age housewife who was on her way home on foot from an errand. On her route she passed an otherwise deserted play park, as all the children were at school. Deserted, that is, except for a police officer who was on duty and in his full uniform. Looking around to make sure no one (so he thought) was watching, he climbed the steps to one of those newfangled stainless steel spiral slides which, back then, had just come into fashion among the swings, climbing frames and other more traditional playground apparatus - a smaller version of the fun fair helter-skelter. Then she watched as this officer of the law was having a whale of a time sliding down that thing while she carried on home giggling to herself.

Or on another occasion, also recorded in a newspaper, during one late evening a fully grown man was seen getting into a shopping trolley parked outside a supermarket located on the summit of a steep hill. He then rode down the hill at speed whilst sitting in the trolley. Or a case of an author when he was still a young boy. On Christmas Eve he sneaked into a cupboard to see a model aeroplane kit in its packing case. But astonishingly enough, he totally forgot about the plane on that Christmas morning, and it was many years later that he approached his mother to ask whatever happened to the model aeroplane.

She burst out laughing, then recalled how the boy's father had waited until late at night, after his children had gone to bed, that he sneaked into the cupboard to assemble the model. He took it outside towards the beach to fly it out. It had flown out alright, out to sea and lost it forever! Perhaps this is why there are many fathers who buy their sons an electric train set for Christmas. So they can play with it themselves, especially with the challenge of laying out the tracks and then watch the train whirl around the oval layout. Such an item is far, far more exciting than the two or three pairs of dull, mundane socks, or even the brand new neck-tie his wife bought as a present to add to his ever-growing collection of either items. I guess fathers who has sons, or even uncles of nephews, are the more fortunate ones during the Christmas season. I never had sons or nephews. So I recall the annual nightmare of attempting to buy presents for my nieces. None of these gifts went down that well with the recipients, and I recall at least a couple of Christmas days when I put on an expression of forced joy to cover my disappointment as I glance at the new but ill-fitting clothing given to me as presents.

Then supposing the actions of a man's shadow reveals exactly what is in his heart. Then imagine a middle-aged suited City gentleman sitting in the commuter train, deep into reading his Financial Times newspaper. On the outside, nobody would give him a second glance. But his shadow would reveal him creeping to the inside of the door, and scrawl his name in indelible ink to add to the graffiti already defacing the surface. If only the carriage was otherwise completely empty, with nobody looking. It would be interesting to know how far he would resist such a temptation before succumbing. And he would not be alone. Because I recall my college days around 1970 in Central London. Before boarding the train home, I managed to reach the exposed beach at the River Thames during low tide. On the bank-side wall I scrawled my name in huge letters in the algae which carpeted the wall. It could be seen clearly from across the river. But what I did was not technically illegal, neither did it attract anyone to take appropriate action.

It's the boy in every man. The want of something exciting to distract from the daily humdrum of life with its responsibilities. And so the day came when the Coral Reef Waterworld finally re-opens after nearly two years of closure for a complete refurbishment. Coral Reef Waterworld is a leisure pool, featuring a rather poor representation of Mt. Vesuvius and the ruins of Pompeii, a pirate ship, a lazy river and a couple of jacuzzis, along with an outdoor section for warm Summer days. But before the refurbishment, its main attraction were the three flumes, or waterslides of various speeds, from fast to gentle. Although the leisure pool itself is geared for families, the Sauna World has always been for adults only, at a suite occupying a building of it own but still attached to the main venue. I am fortunate enough to live very close to the attraction. It was where I always went to every Saturday morning for a sauna. The boy in the man. After a week of physical work cleaning windows, for me at least, nothing is more exhilarating than to relax in the steam room, followed by the sauna.   

Coral Reef Leisure Pool before refurbishment.

And so after twenty-two months of closure, once more I was able to return. But with the weekends and school holidays to be avoided as much as possible. For recent reviews tells of massive queues, with waiting up to two hours just to get in, along with further queuing to use the five brand new flumes which will guarantee a far more of a knuckle ride than the original three. Therefore as one retired from work and with plenty of time on my hands, what could be better than to wait until all the children are back at school, then go during off-peak times during the middle of the week? And so back into the refurbished steam room and sauna. And then, at tea time, I had to try out those five waterslides. 

I recall the time I was at Spring Harvest Bible festival at Minehead in Somerset. There was an indoor swimming pool with flumes there as well. And during a recreational period between seminars, whilst swimming, I overheard one lifeguard shout to another that no way would he use the waterslides, especially on his own, because it would make him feel a prat. He had a point. The flumes were meant for families. So a father and son or daughter was fine. Even two or three young men laughing and having a whale of a time seems okay. And it was fine for a child on his own too. But an adult on his own? Rather silly, isn't it?

Coral Reef flume exterior.

These were the thoughts I had to overcome this week when I allowed my curiosity over these new flumes overcome any feelings of self reserve. This little boy in the man had to come out, or else he would be rather miserable otherwise. So after I had finished with the sauna, I went down all five tubes. Three of them were truly knuckle rides, and I even let out a yell of surprise in two of them. I enjoyed them so much, I had a second go in all of them, making ten rides overall. And I could not have picked a better time than when I did. During weekday evenings families normally don't come here so soon after school. Instead they settle down for dinner, TV and homework. Therefore each ride followed another without any waiting in between. I went home thoroughly fulfilled. I guess the only difference between the police officer in the children's playground and myself was that I did not fear being spotted by my boss whilst on duty!

I believe that any psychologist would advice all men to let the boy within them out, whatever form that would take. Knuckle flume rides are great, but once the novelty has worn off, I'll be attending the sauna suite only, like I did before the refurbishment. But generally speaking, the boy in the man takes many forms, particular among "adult" activities, whether it's riding a Harley Davidson along a straight desert road (in the USA), revving up the car engine at red lights, or something more sedate such as out fishing or playing golf with the boys. As one housewife once said to her daughter-in-law after her husband arrives home with a brand new motorbike, and that was, The only difference between a man and a boy is that the man's toys are more expensive. Or in my case - travel - including hiking into the Grand Canyon, standing on the lip of an active volcanic crater or snorkelling among tropical coral reefs. Or doing a burn-up on a hired bicycle in California, or meditating at a children's playground in Australia whilst riding back and forth on a swing. All these were ways I let the little boy within me have his way.

I am very fortunate to have a very understanding wife. She too have seen videos of these flumes at Coral Reef Waterworld, and she expressed her longing to have a try at them herself, but unable to because of her disability. Not only is the tower have only stairs and no lift, but the rides themselves could easily do her back in, resulting in an ambulance trip to hospital. But when I told her that evening how much I enjoyed sliding down those tubes after the sauna, she was elated. Knowing what's best for me, she has always been aware that to let out the boy in me is one of the best therapeutics I can have, other than spiritual matters.

Off-duty Coral Reef lifeguards having fun

And that is coming from one who is a tomboy herself. When she was young she went camping with the church youth group. She loved it. But she has admitted that she would have preferred to be among the boys, sitting around the campfire whilst watching meat rotate slowly over the fire on a spit as it gradually roast to perfection. Because of her love for the Great Outdoors, I bought a used tent from one of my window cleaning customers, and with it, we went camping for quite a number of occasions. But camping has always been more for her. I've always preferred hosteling.

And this is where I believe that among married couples, it is essential for the wife to allow her husband to let his boyhood out. For her to stifle his boyhood desires and restricting his activities would put a strain on the marriage, leaving him in a state of frustration. There is nothing wrong with saunas, nothing wrong in having fun, there is nothing wrong with a married man going out for an evening with the boys. At least not according to my experience. Because, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
1 Corinthians 10:31.

Doing it all for the glory of God. I think this makes a world of a difference when it comes to recreation. The sauna is a good example of this attitude. I go to the sauna for a therapeutic cleansing of the skin and to improve muscle tone and blood circulation. These are beneficial to the body. It's okay, there is nothing bad about any of that. But to some, there may be a bad connotation with the idea of the sauna. For example, the LGBT community may perceive the sauna as a gay pick-up, a cruising site and same-sex exploitation. And such seedy sites do exist, especially in bigger cities. But not at Coral Reef Waterworld, which is geared to the family. Interestingly enough, the Apostles lived and carried their message across the Roman world. And throughout the empire public baths were very frequently found. For example, just before its destruction in AD 79, the city of Pompeii had up to three separate public baths, each one the equivalent of today's sauna suite. They normally consisted of the Calidarium, or hot steam room, the Laconicum, or dry heat as with the present sauna, and the Frigidarium, a cold pool or room. This together with changing rooms and other conveniences, were often located together with the Palaestra, or exercise yard, often complete with the Natatio, or swimming pool. Indeed, the ancient Roman leisure centre was hardly different from our own facilities, but not a word from the apostle forbidding believers to use them.

Instead the Apostles warns every believer to flee from immorality, which includes all kinds of sexual perversion. Also in Pompeii, there were bars selling alcohol with brothels on the upper floors. Maybe this was what the apostles discouraged. Along with drunkenness and prostitution, I can imagine all kinds of carousing and "fleshly desires" fulfilled. Instead, the baths were places where not only for cleansing, but also a venue for where various discussions took place, along with business contracts made, together with general socialisation. There is even a tradition which I once read. According to this legend, the Apostle John was bathing at one of these Roman bath suites when someone he knew walks in. This fellow has a reputation for blaspheming Jesus Christ and insisting that he was just an impostor. Immediately John dresses and walks out. As Paul had written, What fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness, or light with darkness, or Christ with Belial, or believers with unbelievers?
2 Corinthians 6:14-17.

In this case John walks out because this intruder was not an interested inquirer, nor a honest doubter whose faith could have been reversed by John's presentation of the Gospel. But instead, this fellow had heard the Gospel, and probably for a while even tasted the heavenly gift, even shared in the Holy Spirit and had tasted the good word of God, and of the things to come (Hebrews 6:4-6) but had never changed his mind to the Gospel and believed, and by the process of hardening of his heart, his original unbelief has metamorphosed into hatred of Christ, his Apostles, and the Gospel.

Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

And we must not let this piece of advice go down the tube of unbelief.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Aged Thirty Years in One Afternoon.

I always perceived the gym as that one place on Earth where an overweight, 65 year old chubby man enters, then to emerge a couple of hours later with a sleek, athletic physique resembling Olympic Gold Medallist Mo Farah. Indeed! Wishful thinking. It is unfortunate that such an imaginative realm remains confined to the Tom & Jerry cartoon fantasy. Because nearly two years ago I was recommended a regular schedule in the gym as the main essence of rehabilitation following a major Cardiac procedure in February 2015.

And I'll be the first to admit: Regular workouts in the gym has proven beneficial. As one who has retired from the daily routine of physical work, there hangs over me the threat of weight gain to the level of obesity. And this comes to mind after reading only this morning that according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the UK takes 6th place out of its list of 34 member nations, with 26.9% of the British population obese. The nation with the overall highest is the USA, with 38.2% overweight, followed by Mexico (33.3%), New Zealand (31.6%), Hungary (30%), and Australia (27.9%). At the other end, the much-maligned, pasta-loving Italians, with a reputation of shouting and gesticulating, enjoys being in the third place from bottom, or at 32nd position overall, with just 9.8% obese, followed by Korea (5.3%) and finally Japan, with just 3.7% of its population obese. The average throughout the whole of the OECD 34-nation membership is 19.4% obese.*

Which has made me ponder if I, a full-blood Italian, was born and grew up in Japan. Would I now be proud of my slim, sleek physique and athletic prowess? Or would I have to battle on a daily and weekly basis to keep my waistline within reason, often with the feeling that I'm not at the winning end of the battle? Would I still end up as one of the 3.7% minority who are unfortunate enough to be fat whilst otherwise living in a very healthy country?

Hence my weekly visit to the gym as advised by my GP. Mainly to keep my weight under control, using a course of exercises first prescribed to me by the National Health Service within ten weeks after the operation. This was at a venue in Windsor which had a contract made with the NHS, meaning that the programme was free to all cardiac patients. Back then each exercise was no more than two minutes long, each arranged as a "station" on a circuit course. And one of the circuit "stations" was the Concept 2 Rowing machine, a superb piece of equipment which exercises just about the whole body. After the three month course of twelve, one-hour sessions had ended, I took a break for the following several months whilst I was preparing to sell my business and settle down in early retirement.

Concept 2 Body-powered Rowing machine

And that was when I noted that I was gaining weight, and went to visit my GP, who immediately advised me to take regular exercises. It was the GP who had to sign the consent form before I was allowed into the local gym here at Bracknell, my home town. At first, I began with the original schedule set by the NHS, as the gym has all the necessary equipment to perform the original circuit. But as the weeks went by, something started to happen. All the exercises became both more intense and of longer duration. And that is especially with rowing. From the initial two minutes, this went up to seven minutes, which I stuck to for the next month or so, before going up to ten minutes. After this, I stabilised at fifteen minutes for a while before moving up to twenty minutes a go. This held for a few months until I felt fit enough to row for thirty minutes. Not long after that I settled for forty minutes, and it is that to this day. Of all the twelve "stations" on the circuit route (including the warm-up and cool-down on the treadmill as well as the lower body stretches), the Concept 2 Rower takes the greatest prominence in the entire session. Over forty minutes of non-stop rowing, I cover 8,000 metres and burn off 400 calories. Pretty good stuff perhaps, at least all four of our permanent instructors seemed to be very impressed, with one of them admitting to me direct that he wouldn't be able to match my performance on the rower. Yet I still admire his athletic build.

It is only within a last couple of weeks that contractors moved in to renovate the roof of the gym. That meant partial closure of the venue, including the upper floor where the rowers are located. With tape stretched across the foot of the stairs along with scaffolding and boardwalks bringing gloominess into the venue, I had to reschedule the programme. That means replacing the Rower with the Elliptical, a piece of equipment I was already familiar with before the operation. Again, as I put in a full forty-minute workout, I did my left leg muscle in. Most likely muscle strain, but enough to make normal walking all but impossible. Suddenly I seemed to have aged by thirty years, and I'm pacing slowly like a 95 year old.

It's ironic, so ironic. The actual name of the gym is Bodyworks Fitness Room. Fitness Room. So by theory I should emerge feeling fitter and with greater prowess than when I entered. Instead I go in as a 65-year-old and come out looking and walking like a 95-year-old. How contradictory to common sense life can be! A sharp pain above the heel impedes my normal walking pace. And so, starting with the closure of part of the gym due to the roof needing renovation, leading to inaccessibility to the rowers, the use of the elliptical instead, the spraining of a leg muscle, the sharp pain, the inability to walk, panic from my wife, who insists that I ought to visit my GP. My response to her suggestion is that I'm wasting the Doctor's time. A sprained muscle is a sprained muscle - a risk every devotee of the gym, athletic, or any other form of intense physical exertion faces all the time. Life in general can be likened to a whirlpool - the water spins around and is sucked down a vortex to the bottom, taking any floating debris down with it. Even anything alive cannot escape the whirlpool, no matter how strong a swimmer the creature may be, whether human or animal, the power of the downward motion is too strong, far too strong, to swim out, and down it goes.

Perhaps human nature is rather like the analogy of the gym. Someone starts with good intentions but not long afterwards something gives, resulting in a horrific painful and terrible tragedy. Or it can be likened to a whirlpool. Once caught in the vortex, there is no other direction but down. And so I felt my emotions sink as I read a report earlier in the week about a gay couple having adopted a young girl, only to be cruelly murdered by one of the men who was meant to care for her and bring her up.

I'm referring to Matthew Scully-Hicks, who killed little Elsie, only eighteen months old. According to the report, whilst his partner was at work, Scully-Hicks stayed at home to raise their adopted daughter. It didn't take long for him to lose patience with Elsie, and having crossed the point of no return where his emotions are concerned, he starts physically abusing her, including bashing her head against the wall, shaking her violently, and shouting at her. She dies after two weeks of the most cruellest form of abuse evil could ever concoct.

18 month old Elsie, Abused and killed.

The article was so distressful that I had difficulty in reading it through. There were some who were unable to read it altogether, other readers started crying. And I felt like crying myself. And I have good reason. Our own three daughters are adopted. They are out of our reach, beyond our seeing and hearing, and bearing a different surname to ours. The adoption was the idea of a rather nasty social worker who, according to her supervisor, already had a questionable record in dealing with families before meeting with us. Yet she was a persuasive talker who was successful in winning the Court to her side of the argument, and had allowed her to have our daughters taken. That was nearly twelve years ago, when neither she or we were aware that we were on the mild end of the Autism Spectrum. The social workers who dealt with Elsie were just the opposite. They either failed to see that she was in distress, or they believed the wicked lies and excuses told by Scully-Hicks. So they let him keep the child, despite her rather glaring distress.

A photo of Matthew Scully-Hicks was posted in the newspaper with the article. I felt my temper rise. How smartly dressed he was as he approached the Courthouse. The kind of figure of respectability which would have been sufficient enough for any passerby in the street to raise his hat to. The ideal individual any church leader would be happy to have as a guest speaker, or to promote to an elder or deacon. Or the right kind of person to see if in need of a solicitor, financial adviser or insurance agent. Maybe his style of dress whilst awaiting sentencing was to his favour after all. He was given a mere fifteen years behind bars, much to the disgust of nearly everyone who commented in the forum underneath. And that despite the fifteen years being the minimum sentence he must serve, which means it could be extended if necessary, but not shortened.

Matthew Scully-Hicks.

My emotion towards such an individual was indeed anger, and want for a more severe form of revenge. Just supposing it was one of our daughters he so cruelly abused and killed. After all, it could easily have been. I guess it was his formal dress which intensified my anger. But although I wished him an eternity in the hottest hell that could ever exist, coming to think of it, none of us, and certainly not myself, is any better when compared with God's holiness.

In a way, all this puts me in a dilemma. I want to see proper justice done for the poor child. I really wanted to see the book thrown at him for what he has done. Yet as I think of these things, I quickly forget the mercy Jesus Christ has shown me. For according to James 2:10, no matter how righteous I may kid myself in believing, no matter how white I may appear to others. If I, who had kept the whole Law, yet have stumbled on just one point, I have broken the Law and deserve judgement. In other words, I am no better in God's pure eyes than Matthew Scully-Hicks, for judgement awaits us both.

If I am truly saved, it is because of God's mercy. Sure, how I long to receive God's mercy. How I want to be assured of God's forgiveness. Yet am I any keen to witness the likes of Scully-Hicks drinking from God's cup of mercy? How would I feel about such a criminal experiencing a new birth and seeing his eternal home transform from hell to heaven? Especially if I might have friends and family members who still don't know the Lord. A criminal such as Scully-Hicks goes to heaven after his death, whilst a devoted Buddhist mother and her daughter both suffer an eternity in hell, because they were unlucky enough to have been born and lived in a non-Christian country, and has never heard the Gospel.

These are the times I tend to feel rotten, the gross injustice, the shocking unfairness about our faith. To be honest with myself, I do not want Scully-Hicks to be saved. Rather I want him to remain lost, and to go to where he belongs. That is where I find evangelism difficult. I much prefer to see my family members or a good friend come to Christ for salvation, but not Scully-Hicks. Not after spending his time abusing and tormenting a distressed child until she dies in her own cot.

God's mercy. Let's face it, we don't deserve it. But it's given by his grace. Grace is a gift received at Christ's expense. He died on the cross so we could receive eternal life and enjoy his love forever. It's wholly of God, and none of us. And whether I like it or not, Scully-Hicks is as much of a candidate for salvation as any devoted believer.

*The Daily Mail Newspaper, Saturday November 11, 2017.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Balfour and a Disunited Trinity...

Ascot Life Church, which now meets at a restaurant sited at the famous Ascot Racecourse, has been my home church since 1990. Ascot Race Course has always been the venue for Royal Ascot, where Her Majesty has been attending the major horse racing event annually since the beginning of her reign, if I understand correctly. And so it has felt among our Elders to be a special privilege to be fortunate enough to hire the restaurant for nearly every Sunday of the year.

The A.L.C. Racecourse Restaurant is on the right, upper floor.

Known as Ascot Baptist Church before its move to the racecourse in April 2013, I have been a happy member since 1990, after leaving its equivalent in Bracknell some six months earlier in 1989. This was due to what I believed to have been too much emphasis on the purchase of land, followed by the major building project. This came with the push for double tithing and gift days dominating each Sunday and midweek meetings, until I realised that emphasis on Jesus Christ - his Death, Burial, and Resurrection, along with the glorious doctrine of the Holy Trinity, together with the wonderful truth of Eternal Security of the Believer, were all somewhat lost in the muddle of highly pragmatical sermons. These sermons often touching on daily handling of money, with the end result of feeling spiritually hungry in a midst of a mechanically efficient feeding station specifically geared for the married professional on the higher income scale.

The general trend of Bracknell church life throughout the latter half of the 1980's was something like this: Here is this week's sermon delivered, now go and apply it. This is the mechanical method of ministry which left something wanting. A good mate of mine, with whom I played squash every Tuesday evening back in the early eighties, and still comes over to visit us to this day, once asked our then senior pastor why he never touched on theoretical issues. The answer thrown back at my friend was, I'll preach what I want to preach! Little wonder that my bachelor mate eventually ended up living alone as a hermit, with former occasional visits to a French-speaking church in London, but otherwise staying away from all other churches.

It wasn't always like this. I recall joining what was then Bracknell Baptist Church as far back as 1975, in the days when it was more traditional in structure and mode of service. How could I ever forget the hard-back green Baptist hymnbook, given to each one of us at the door as we walked in, and a large percentage of senior citizens and families all singing with our heads bowed as we each held the book open at stomach level. That was before the introduction of the overhead projector, which threw the lyrics onto a wide screen fixed near the ceiling, allowing us at last to praise God with our heads held up high, as the Biblical saints and early Christians most likely did. However, whether it was the introduction of the overhead projector or not, a gradual change was underway throughout the next fifteen years, with visions of a much bigger building to accommodate the large numbers of incoming graduates and their families, began to dominate our weekly curriculum. 

But the early seventies meant a lot of memories for me. The reading of the Bible, taking in unfamiliar knowledge like a dry sponge soaking in water has made me realise how Israel was so prominent, especially in the Old Testament and the Gospels, with Jerusalem held as if special honour, that I so much wanted to visit the Holy Land for myself, and to discover the environment which gave rise for the existence of Israel as a sovereign nation, the writing of the Bible, and the formation of the first church in Jerusalem. So just a year after joining Bracknell Baptist Church, by the Summer of 1976, I flew out to Israel as a naive backpacker for want for more experience of travel outside Europe.*

But throughout all my church life, from 1975 to the present, little - if hardly any - interest was shown for the Jews and their relatively recent return to their homeland, as part fulfilment of Bible prophecy. However, by 1989 I was so hungry for want of spiritual infilling rather than constant talk of finance management, that my interest in attending church waned, and I began to stay at home instead. It was up to six months or more when a friend suggested a new start at Ascot. Indeed, it did feel like a new beginning, especially with Jesus rather than money and buildings being it's central theme.

So this brings us to the present. As with my former church, interest in Israel and its place in Biblical prophecy remains at low priority, even among our four Elders. However, in the past there has been several couples from our church in Ascot who were very keen on the subject, and have advocated their interest. One such couple had flown to Israel for permanent residency around 1995 or 1996. More recently, another family had left our church for a Jewish-based church elsewhere. And there might have been other pro-Jew believers who are no longer with us, including my grandmother-in-law. But as far as I'm aware, and I could be wrong here, there are at present, three of us at Ascot who have an interest in Middle East affairs and are supportive of the Jews in present relation to the Bible. They are John, David, and myself. With John, I don't know whether he ever visited the Holy Land or not, but David, according to what he had told me, did visit Israel at least on one occasion, I think, on a "fly-drive" trip - independent - but still rather different from my style of travel. His knowledge of Middle-East political history I have found very impressive, therefore not too surprised to learn that this rather reserved graduate is also a budding author.

Here, one would think that there would be a stronger sense of fellowship under the unity of a shared Biblical interest. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Instead there is no love lost between John and myself, due to major differences in both Biblical and cultural convictions. And that is a great shame. Because with his delight in keeping Old Testament Hebrew customs, I'm keen to find out if he, along with his wife, had ever visited the Holy Land for themselves, and if so, how much were they influenced by the experience. As for David, who looks to be enjoying a deep friendship with John, he tends to be rather withdrawn unless I approach to open a conversation. Indeed, between the three of us with a common interest, we are a disunited trinity.

And so as I walk between two to three hundred metres in the morning rain from my home to Starbucks, I was pondering what on earth to write in this week's blog, for except for the ridiculous minor sex scandals rocking our political ministers from properly governing our country, there seems to be nothing worthwhile to write about. Until I opened the Daily Mail to read the Saturday Essay. This week, it was an article written by journalist Dominic Sandbrook on the one-hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a document signed by Balfour himself on 2nd November 1917 and submitted for approval to Lord Rothchild. In his essay, Sandbrook says quite a bit about Arthur Balfour, including his feminine side, along with how great a friendship with Britain does Israel enjoy as an ally. But much of the article is a criticism towards Balfour for opening the door for the influx of Jews entering Palestine, and forcing the original Arab inhabitants to move elsewhere. This, according to the journalist, has been the cause of many wars and unrest between the Jews and the Arabs, for the last hundred years, thanks to Balfour, now known as the Century of Blood.

Sandbrook sides with the Palestinians, whom he says were driven from their land and from their homes by the newly settled Jews who had just arrived to settle in Palestine, after centuries of peaceful Arab habitation. Yet by reading about the reporter's account of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, all bordering Israel and all wanting to push this postage stamp-sized nation into the sea, I can't help get the impression here that there is something missing from his essay. Because all four of these Arab neighbours suffered defeat from Israel, an extremely unlikely scenario to say the least! Divine intervention?

I have read the whole article whilst sitting at a table at Starbucks. Some omissions came to mind as I read. Firstly, the foundation for the Declaration was first conceived by Zionist Chaim Weizmann, a Jewish scientist with his development of acetone through bacterial fermentation, which helped bring the Great War to Britain's favour after a hard struggle. Dismissing personal reward, he instead appealed to Conservative politician and former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, to allow his fellow Jews to migrate into their former homeland, a request which inspired Balfour to draw up his Declaration in 1917. Oddly enough, this was omitted from Sandbrook's article.

Secondly, Sandbrook has not mentioned a single word about the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob receiving this area of land as a special gift of grace under a covenant God made to Abraham. Not a mention of these patriarchs appeared, neither was the Bible mentioned, which within a great deal was written about God's covenant with Israel and the land given specifically to them.

Thirdly, not a mention of the sentinel which stands at Hebron, which I had a wonderful privilege to visit and to step inside in 1976. This fortress, built and completed by Herod the Great around 10 BC, contains the cenotaphs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, along with their wives. To me, I am convinced that this structure stands as a witness to God's covenant with Israel's founding fathers, whose remains lie within the Cave of Machpelah, deep underneath the floor of the fortress. What intrigues me about this structure is the timing of its construction. It is as if God already knew that his Messiah, soon to be born, would be rejected by his own people, the Jews, and as a result, they would be scattered across the globe for the better part of two millennia. The fortress, stands alone, having survived the invasion of the Roman army under General Titus in AD 70, when Jerusalem and its Temple was razed to the ground. It remains standing to this day, testifying of God's gift of this land to the Hebrews, nothing of which was mentioned by the Daily Mail journalist Dominic Sandbrook.

Fortress over the Cave of Machpelah, Hebron.

Then I can go on about the four Arab enemies of Israel. All four of these nations makes up a vast population in comparison to Israel's size and population numbers. Yet they failed to annihilate this tiny Jewish State. The 1967 Six Day War against Egypt brought further victory for Israel, who for the first time since 586 BC, the Jews were able once more to claim sovereignty over the Old City of Jerusalem. Surely this must be divine intervention against all odds. But instead, our reporter claims a good amount of luck in human effort and endeavour.

God's love and his commitment to Israel as a nation has tremendous implications for own salvation and our daily walk with God. This is one of the basis for Eternal Security of the Believer. If after all this time God had not forsaken Israel after all what she had done across four millennia, but instead, his covenant with Abraham is still standing, and will continue to stand for all eternity, we too can be reassured of our salvation being eternal.


*A far more detailed experience of Israel 1976 can be read by clicking here.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

A Shocking Statistic.

It was during the week slotted in between Christmas Day and New Year's Day a few years ago when Alex and I decided to kill time with a day trip to London. This was in the middle of the Christmas season, with factories, businesses, and administration offices closed for up to twelve days altogether, especially if Christmas Day falls on a Thursday. This, together with New Year's Day also a statutory holiday, such a long break had always been criticised by Right-Wing-leaning newspapers "for being out of touch with the rest of Europe who are all hard at work soon after Christmas". And so, tired-looking tinsel, Christmas trees shedding its needles onto the floor around it, and coloured lights with a blinkering bulb or two, all up on both private and public display, reminding us all what time of the year it was.  

Therefore it was no surprise that our train was diverted onto another route as a result of holiday engineering works shutting down our line within the Greater London area. Our train came to an unexpected halt somewhere between Kingston-upon-Thames and Wimbledon stations. Yes Wimbledon, the world famous venue for the All-England Lawn Tennis Club with its annual international Summer tournament, but at this rather bleak Winter time, all courts shut down to a near off-season dereliction. We just sat in the train carriage, all of us, in typical British infinite patience. The minutes added up and still not a single stir from any of the passengers.

Then, probably after thirty minutes gazing at the grass bank outside the carriage window, the intercom crackled into life:
We apologise for the delay. This is due to a personal incident at Wimbledon.
I then muttered to my wife,
A personal incident? A man decides to top himself, causing inconvenience to everyone else.
Although such a statement made in an otherwise silent carriage may sound insensitive, it was due to the frustration caused by the resulting delay eclipsing any feelings of compassion I should have felt for this unknown fellow. Still the minutes ticked away until more than an hour at that same spot, at last the train started on its crawl towards London Waterloo.

This was by no means unique. Only a couple of months earlier, the whole of the Great Western express line from Reading to London Paddington was suspended due to a same kind of incident - "man hit by a train" - which meant that passengers for the Great Western instead boarded our much slower Southwest service to Waterloo, very much like sardines squeezed into a delayed subway train during the morning rush-hour. And I was on board that train to witness it all. With further news of rail-side suicides recurring throughout the ensuing weeks, I could not help asking what is the matter with modern life here in the UK during peace time. In 2015, for example, there were 6,122 recorded suicides in the UK alone, according to Internet data. That is nearly seventeen deaths per day.

But even if 6,122 self-inflicting deaths in a year looks high, it becomes minuscule when up to 300,000 people terminate their jobs in a year due to depression or mental illness. That is about 822 cases a day here in the UK. And that was after being bombarded with this fact among endless broadcasting about mental illness, and the inability of the National Health Service to deal with it.

Mental illness? To be honest, for one already in his seventh decade of life, the term is relatively new in my vocabulary. In my younger days I cannot recall hearing the expression, mental illness. Depression, yes. That word has been around for a long time, and was often referred to what we now call unsettled weather, an area of low pressure. But it also meant a state of low, negative feelings, persistent sadness, often lethargic at work and elsewhere, and a lack of self worth. A problem that has been with us since the dawn of history. But to hear of mental illness being behind up to 300,000 quitting their jobs in a single year in the UK alone, I find astonishing! And not to mention many more who are depressed yet do not quit their jobs.

As far as I'm aware, the workplace is where one earns his living by satisfying his employer. Or at least that was what I did between the years 1968-1980 before setting out on my own. And with the emphasis on education, education, education, a mantra recited by former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair throughout the turn of the Millennium, I have gotten round to believing that good old manual work, which sustained me adequately for nearly half a century, was looked upon as something dishonourable. I have to be honest here. For decades I had a wish to work in an office. To prance around in suit and tie, showing the world how successful I was, and of course - pleasing to my parents. It was never to be. But that did not make me throw in the towel and quit getting my hands dirty. And that goes back to the days soon after leaving school, and never allowed to forget that I was small fry, pushing a broom from eight in the morning, and subject to being teased and be the receiving end of a torrent of smut.

But I do find this huge number of quitters rather shocking. I get the impression that the majority of quitters were office staff. I could be wrong of course. Let's face it, I cannot see myself at a job working for an employer outdoors. Whether its on road works, railway engineering works, on a building site, or refuse collection, no - I must admit - I wouldn't be happy in such occupations, especially in the Winter, shivering under a biting wind or getting soaked in the rain, regardless of waterproofs. At least as one self employed, I was in full control of the situation, and successfully managed 35 years of window cleaning, including getting my hands blue in the freezing cold bucket of dirty water, and a biting northerly wind at a housing estate resembling more of a ghost town than a living community. Although on days like these I might have on occasions gone home early, yet I had never quit before the time.

And then as one using his hands to earn a living, there always has been "the grass is greener on the other side" ethic when it comes to imagining office work. Tales of bullying bosses, unseemly department managers and even traitorous colleagues constantly trickle through the Media, but that has never convinced me on what the office atmosphere is really like from the perspective of a manual labourer - until the recent news. The world of work does not look to be so rosy for the better educated than I have always perceived. 

Yes, I am amazed, really amazed. As I have always perceived, to throw in the towel was something the British would never do, being as stoic as their reputation demands. I was surprised indeed. Has society changed that much since the late sixties when I entered the world of work at the deep end? And all this talk about our "Millennial Generation" fresh out of university and reputed as spineless, as often reported, who cannot take a mild rebuke from the supervisor without running off like a spoilt child, and then demand "equal rights" on the same level as the more experienced seniors. Hmm. Try demanding that when I was a skinny teenage runt!

It was while these news bulletins of mental illness were filtering through the TV into our lounge when I came across a poster in Facebook with a growing thread of comments growing underneath it. The forum is set to public, so anyone on Facebook can see it. The opening poster asks a question whether love is conditional or unconditional, that is, between man and woman, or even on religious, gender, racial, or social norms. Typically, I emphasised the unconditional love of God, especially to the Christian believer, with the assurance of Eternal Security. It didn't take long for a friend of mine, an Arminian, to discuss his point of view for a forfeitable salvation based on the faithfulness of the believer rather than on the grace of God. It was an interesting discussion, without any falling out with each other (phew!) But if there is a pandemic of mental illness sweeping this country (or any country, worldwide) then there is this desperate need for the unconditional love of God to be realised.

The near-universal opinion of mankind is that if there is a God, whatever form he might take, then there will always be a degree of lifelong faithfulness needed to get into his good books. Or in other words, to earn, or at least play our side of the deal in order to achieve eternal life, whether its on earth, in heaven, paradise, or some form of eastern nirvana. The world's salvation demands some form of human co-operation. That is the general opinion of the vast majority of mankind, the atheist included. Then there is the free gift of eternal life given by God to the believer through grace alone, without any effort from the believer. And once gotten, it can never be forfeited or lost. Otherwise it would not be a free gift at all, but probational - or a "maybe salvation" - taken away or lost if the believer fails to live up to expectations. 

The general rejection of God by the masses may be rooted in this idea of a "maybe salvation". Such may inspire fear of eternal punishment, and even creating hostility towards God, but I tend to prefer that this "maybe salvation" leads to apathy - one couldn't care less, and stays away from what they believe is organised religion, with their thinking that this is the way to appease a fickle God - if such an entity exists - then it is all a waste of time. Why not engage in Science, and especially Darwinism, now held as absolute proof of the reality of Science against false myth of religion with its fickle God who is too demanding, along with a fairy tale book containing stories of a talking snake, a rebuking donkey, and records of turning sticks into snakes, a worldwide flood, and other silly stuff of religious mythology.

Which is all a smack in the face against the real reason why we are here. We are not the product of evolution together with a large dollop of good luck. Rather, we are here to partake in the glorious love already shared between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If instead we are suffering a pandemic of mental illness, then something must be seriously wrong. Just like hunger, I guess. If the lack of food and nutrition result in illness and death through starvation, then mental illness, rather than caused by being too stressful at work, may indicate that we are not all there - there is something missing - and that is complete union with our Creator and Redeemer given freely through grace alone.

God has created us to enjoy in our partaking of his love. We are designed to be one in Him, living eternally in his presence. Having rebelled in Adam, and therefore inheriting a sinful nature, there is absolutely nothing we can do in ourselves to get back to God. Adam and Eve tried by sewing fig leaves together to make aprons. Religion by self-effort. It turned out to be so useless that God totally ignored these garments without even an acknowledgement. Instead, the blood of an animal had to be shed in order to clothe them. It was the whole work of God, without any of their effort. This was the forerunner of the Atonement made by Jesus Christ.

We cannot earn our salvation. Therefore we cannot lose our salvation either. We cannot earn, we cannot lose. The receiving of salvation is through God's grace alone. It's a free gift entirely on Christ's expense, there is nothing we can add to it. But such wonderful truth is veiled from all unbelievers, therefore attributing their origins from evolution instead of a Creator. Then we are aghast when reports of a mental illness pandemic is reported. What we need is not a better work environment. What we desperately need is the reality of the unconditional love of God. 

Saturday, 21 October 2017

A VERY Big Hole-In-One!

Games was something dreaded rather than anticipated at school. Of course, when I first heard about Games as a first-year fresher approaching his twelfth birthday, I envisioned something akin to Snakes and Ladders, Ludo, Checkers, or Chess. Or heaven forbid, Monopoly, which exercises greed rather than mind or muscle. Or as school being an institution for learning - Trivia Pursuit (Genius, of course), or Scrabble. But no, the period bearing the title Games on the day's timetable had no bearing on the numerous board games I was becoming familiar with. Rather it was to do with football (Association) or rugby during the Autumn and Spring terms, and cricket or athletics during the Summer term.

"Monopoly, which exercises greed rather than mind or muscle." 

In typical sixties style, all this exposes our weaknesses in the boy's changing room. The school uniform consisting of black blazer and trousers, grey shirt and of course, a striped tie, nicely conceals a moment of forgetfulness when a boy fails to bring in his kit without a proper reason. So in full view of us all, he was forced to bend over to receive a designated number of whacks across his buttocks from the sole of a size twelve plimsoll. If he was a first year, then one single whack. Two for a second year pupil, three for a third year, and so on. I have watched quite a number of this kind of corporal punishment throughout my entire four-year stint at secondary education. Some boys took the punishment with such stoicism, that all they did was wince slightly as the plimsoll flew through the air with full might. Then after it was over, the boy returned to his bench without further ado. By contrast, I recall at least one boy who burst into tears and begged for a reprieve before the third stroke landed.

And to add to this sorrowful state of affairs, I recall witnessing a very unfortunate incident at the boy's changing room at the master's absence, when one rather chubby fellow burst into tears as a result of being a recipient of ferocious teasing by other pupils nearby. Ferocious teasing? It was more downright mental cruelty, capable of destroying any sense of self-worth, and, to my mind, opening the likelihood of suicide. Let's put it this way. As all across Italy, found in every home, the use of the bidet would have spared anyone from such dreadful embarrassment. The poor lad wept as his token of privacy was thrown across one end of the room to the other to the delirious laughter of his oppressors. All I could do was sit nearby and watch, refusing to be involved.

But I doubt if anyone had ever realised the humility I felt every time it was left for the two team captains to select their own players, whether in football or rugby. I was always left on the shelf, ready for the unfortunate captain whose lot fell to include me in his team. Let's face it, I was a letdown to the team and as a consequence, became a victim of verbal bullying, and close to being physical as well. As physical prowess was the yardstick for peer respect, the ideal, popular pupil always excelled in team sports. Even if he had never played that particular game before, just give him a ball and a set of rules, and he will always produce.

It is from these schooldays experience that I began to realise what it takes to be a good Englishman. If you are fortunate enough to be born with brains, then life can be a fruitcake, especially in long haul travel, property ownership, quality of lifestyle, smart dress at work, greater respect from society - and a better chance for church leadership. But fail at school? Then physical prowess, a good team player, even having a magnificent boxing skill, patriotic, military service and devotion to a life of manual or skilled labour may engender a degree of respect as a true English bulldog, but responsibilities such as church leadership of any level will always be far less likely. The issue was, I was neither. Certainly not physical prowess, hopeless in team sports, with only one or two I can refer as friends, and indeed, not much to show. Except for endurance. 

As such, I found long distance cycling a source of moral and physical strength. It was after I was freed from the wretched school tie and its culture, that I eventually began to bloom. But I believe that this was connected to something which was totally life-changing - to experience a rebirth through faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour less than five years after leaving school. Before this experience, I was not all there. Immediately after, however, I was all there, even if there will be some time before the fruits of such a transformation will become manifest.

But I did not have to wait long before such fruits began to show. Because reading and writing was something I did enjoy to a certain level, I found such wonderful benefit in reading the Bible. Over time, I discovered that reading the Bible has raised my level of intelligence which seems to uphold the view that the Bible was written under divine inspiration. And generated more faith. And also the enjoyment of physical endurance. Long distance cycling is one of them. Some trips were purely for tourism, which involved riding to faraway places and then finding a bed at a hotel or hostel. Others were fast burn-ups, usually done locally, covering up to thirty miles 48 km, starting and finishing at home, or even at church. Then to add a dip and a trot, I became involved in the Triathlon between the years of 1986-1992.

Although I was totally hopeless in team games at school, I was never averse to sport as a whole. It is so fortunate that it comes with such a wide spectrum, and there are beautiful colours within this spectrum which, although never advocated on the school curriculum, had highlighted what I was better at, the enjoyment gotten from these has given me such a morale boost, something so unfortunate in never having attained at school. But the fear in sporting failure having remained ever since. One good example of this was around 1980, give or take, when a group of us from my previous church went out for a picnic. A voluntary game of football was played among us menfolk. I joined in, and although I have made an effort to contribute, I was still fearful of any reprimand that would have come my way. But no reprimand was thrown at me, much to my surprise. Instead, I felt accepted, and even surprised one of the Elders for participating in the game, which he had already perceived as not being part of my natural character. It was this that got me wondering whether there is a big difference in culture between school and church.

Weeks turns into months and months into years. After job redundancy in 1979, I started up my own business. Even after then I have kept long-distance cycling active for a good number of years. I then travelled the world over the next few years, sleeping in backpacker's hostels far and wide. Eventually I married and became a father. More importantly, I settled at my present church fellowship in Ascot, my spiritual home, where an active men's social had taken off during the last couple of years. Such men's socials are an excellent idea, mainly to promote stronger fellowship between us who by nature are very self-reserved and often cliquey, within the church as well as outside the church. Starting some years earlier with men's breakfast on a Saturday morning every six weeks, the midweek evening Curry Club at a local Tandoori also started up, much to the annoyance of my dearly beloved. Because of this, I have nicknamed this The Smelly Breath Night!

With a new administrator, the men's social has expanded to include an evening's trip to a brewery, at another occasion a private barbecue and sauna. Being such a fan of the sauna, indeed I was the first to step inside. Then there was earlier this week, after responding to an invitation, for golf. I thought, golf? I tried playing golf with some friends a couple of decades earlier. I was so bad that even if I stood directly over the hole and dropped the ball, I would still miss. Really, the idea of golf between two teams of men did not exactly inspire anticipation, but nevertheless, I had accepted the email invitation as soon as it was posted. It was because I was all for promoting closer fellowship, edification, and godliness among ourselves, rather than any excitement over a golf course, that I made up my mind to participate.

The original booking was for twelve of us, with eleven of us showing up. I was very impressed with the venue when we arrived there. It wasn't long that I discovered that this amenity, known as the Surrey Top-Golf, had no resemblance to the traditional golf course. Instead, it was a large field which within were set several large circular shallow pits, some more than twenty metres across. The idea was to get as many "hole-in-one" strikes from a stationary position under a heated shelter. It was a facility built on the latest technology. Each player had a set of golf balls, each with a chip inside with the player's name programmed into it. When the ball fell into any one of these pits, a number of points was scored. The chip within each ball sent the message to the computer displaying our names and scorecard.

Top-Golf, Surrey

Despite such huge holes, I still managed to miss more than scored. And I was not the only one. Far from it! Because since it was already dark by the time we arrived, the floodlights illuminated thousands of golf balls glistening in the drizzle across the field, none having ended up where they should be. And throughout the evening I added more to the glistening white forest. But was I met with disapproval from any in the team? Far from it. Rather, when one of our members realised that I was holding the club the wrong way, he gently offered to show me how the stick should be held. After this, my scoring rate dramatically improved. But after two games which between them took longer than we anticipated, I still came bottom, on an equal level with another player. But no feeling of rejection, no rebuttal, no let down. Instead we all had great fun. 

And that is what I believe the Kingdom of God is about. Love, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Any competition taken with a sense of lightheartedness, and those who are weak, as I was, to be supported and if necessary, redirected. I could not think of anything more dynamically opposite from our school culture half a century earlier. That was why I detailed the embarrassing episode with the poor chubby pupil at the gym changing room. Such dreadful action by his contemporaries can only lead to sorrow and death. And the memory of such an episode could remain throughout life, with any thoughts on self-worth permanently damaged, unless helped along over the years by his naturally charismatic temperament. In addition, the constant threat of corporal punishment hanging over our heads has made weaker team players such as myself more prone to dislike team sports. This, along with bullying for letting the side down, really, without Christ in my life to strengthen me, I would have been left with two choices. One was to sink into despair to the point of developing agoraphobia, maybe even feeling suicidal. The other choice was the one I had taken, to try and make good of a bad situation.

One example was not long before leaving school in 1968. It was a games lesson out in the field and we were playing football. Hardly the one ever to kick the ball, on this occasion a stray kick from another player brought the ball to where I was standing. So what was the object of football? To score goals, wasn't it? So after a little hesitation, I gave the ball a hard kick towards the goal. It went in. For the first time ever I have scored for our team. I felt ten feet tall and very ecstatic for the rest of the day. Not long after, I made another effort to score at an indoor five-a-side game. Unfortunately, my shot was this time well caught by the goalkeeper. Such opportunities had never occurred again. But the report I took home to my parents read this, as I have never forgotten it:
Frank has made some great efforts this term: Standard below average.

And that was written by our plimsoll-wielding P.E. master, who seemed to be lately pleased with me. Perhaps he'll make an English bulldog out of me yet. Then maybe not. Standard below average. That is on physical education. It would take nothing short of a miracle to change that. And I believe that faith in Christ did just that. For I did have a potential ability which was not manifest at school - long distance and fast cycling which later evolved into Triathlon competition, with good results.

For the Kingdom of God is not about meat and drink (nor sporting excellence) but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Romans 14:17.

That was how our group at Top-Golf behaved last week. Peaceful, joyful, Life building, edifying, supporting. It was, in a sense, a good taste of Heaven. And furthermore, such would kill off any concept that church life is about living hermetically like monks, unrealistically cut off totally from the world. Church life is nothing like that. Neither should believers be perceived as "holier than thou" with a self-righteous, judgemental attitude towards those who disagree with them. Unfortunately, I know several of them who are just like that, even from another church. Neither should true Christians be so self-reserved and unemotional to the point of being cold of heart. This kind of attitude may be characteristically English, but it has no part in the Kingdom of God. It is also unfortunate that I know quite a number of men, especially of my age, who live out such attitude, not all in our church though.

"Perhaps he'll make an English bulldog out of me yet."

These are fellows I knew as far back as 1978. One or two were excellent football players, and actually played weekly in a team representing their church at a local league. I was involved with this club myself, but not as a football player.

These men, along with their wives and children are all well educated, professional men now reaching retirement age. But there will always be times when I wish they would dump both their religion and their patriotic pride and allow the love of Christ through the Holy Spirit shine out freely from their hearts, especially towards people who are different to them. Then they would score a real hole-in-one.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Should I Be Angry At This?

It was a typical working day probably around February or March of 2006. It wasn't the ideal day for cleaning windows, but such was still within the realm of possibility. So as I carried the ladders past a cordoned off trench in the middle of a sidewalk at a quiet, predominantly middle class housing estate, to knock on the door of one particular small two-bedroom house, which was occupied by an elderly gentleman, perhaps old enough to be my father, and recently widowed.

Whether he fought in the War or not, I had never asked. But had he not been old enough for combat, then it was certain that he had to engage in Conscription, to partake in National Service until it was gradually abolished by 1963 under Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's administration. 

So on that particular afternoon, as he unlocked the rear gate to allow me into his back garden, he then questioned whether it was worthy to have his windows cleaned on such "atrocious weather". This sort of talk always winds me up, thus expressing his reluctance to part with a few pounds sterling, a small payment compared with fees collected from larger properties, yet was still to play its role in keeping a roof over our heads, all utility bills paid, and keeping us fed and clothed. 

I held out my hands into the air directly in front of me, where there has been light drizzle, on and off, throughout this calm and mild Winter's day. I then responded:
Atrocious weather? This? Atrocious weather? When a storm was powerful enough to wipe a city off the map, then that is atrocious weather!

The elderly gentleman knew exactly what I was on about without the need to explain. I was referring to Hurricane Katrina, which did much damage to New Orleans just a few months earlier, towards the end of August of 2005. As news of such disaster was still fresh on our minds, the client relented without a word and I was left to clean his windows without further ado as he retreated into his house.

It was a month later, when I approached his house again. Although this time he left the subject of the weather well and truly alone, whilst he was with me in his back garden, he launched a tirade about the trench at the sidewalk nearby. It was still there, cordoned off and unattended, with rainwater accumulating until fairly flooded, and therefore giving an expression of a shoddy job left to neglect. When he asked for my opinion, I answered halfheartedly that this was the British for us. He did not say a word as he retreated into his house. Although often is truth hidden in jest, it became apparent that the answer I gave him had hit a nerve. Because at the following month, which by then the trench was refilled, he dismissed me as his window cleaner. And I'm convinced that by mocking the British culture may have played a major role in the termination.

I wonder how someone like him can be so thin-skinned and touchy. I would have thought that with such longevity, with military service thrown in, such a fellow would have been tough as old nails, with day-today living making his skin as thick as a rhino's, and as I expected, to laugh with me at the intended joke. Instead, he felt hurt. I had no other option than to see him as one of many Brits whose mode of transport would be paralysed by a half-inch (1 cm) layer of snow covering the road surface, and therefore gripped with nationwide panic. 

It was more recently that a report of a huge sinkhole at a main street of a Japanese city came to light. But what was so remarkable was that this huge sinkhole, which stretched right across the entire street, was completely repaired after just a week. The street was as if nothing had occurred at that spot, and traffic was flowing over it as easily as it always had. Perhaps the contrast in administration between this Japanese street and the trench at a nearby housing estate might have been the reason for the sense of inferior complex felt by the gentleman when it came to cultural comparison and patriotic matters.

Japanese sinkhole - repaired in a week.

A closer look at the street sinkhole.

He would have been the one desiring to see British efficiency, not only over the neglect and long delays in refilling a small trench, but in other matters such as repairing the many potholes peppering our roads and causing distress on car tyres and suspension systems alike, causing the owner to fork out expenses in nuisance but necessary repairs. And sticking with cars, it does look as though as a cyclist, I can be a threat to the egos of some car drivers. There are not a few times when a driver suddenly revs up his engine close by and roars off with his tyres screeching. If there is any truth in this, then how could the presence of a cyclist threaten the ego of a car owner to the extent of demonstrating his power? The only plausible theory I can think of is the rider's potential fitness, naturally gotten by regular riding, and without the need to pay road tax - despite the motorist being totally unaware that the Road Tax was abolished in 1937 and was replaced by Vehicle Excise Duty, which is a tax on motor vehicles which, like the Income Tax, goes into the General Treasury, and not just on the road. Could this also be the reason for the strong dislike for cyclists riding in skin-tight Lycra, and relying on muscle power to cover the distance instead of the self-propelling engine?

Then, staying on transport, there is a matter of the Eurotunnel, which passes under the English Channel (or La Manche if you are French). There has been calls by right-wing newspaper commentators to have the tunnels closed permanently, even to the extent of blasting them with dynamite. English commentators that is, since I have doubts whether the French would be that keen to have the tunnels shut down. With two return trips to Paris on the Eurostar train with my wife already completed, and a possibility of a third trip, this time to Marseilles, on the cards for next year, I have become an avid fan of Eurostar. As I see it, this magnificent service is the visible, tangible representation of the European Union. It also holds the solution to my partially disabled wife for international travel without the need to fly, which cabin air pressure and such, might pose a further threat to her health. That was after the return flight home from Malta in 2012, as well as on board a plane from Kos a year earlier, when on both occasions had suffered with backache.

A fan of the Eurostar, taken Oct 2016.

And it is the European Union which is the issue here, or rather a BBC Panorama programme broadcast earlier in the week. It was about English gang violence against immigrants, Poles in particular, which spiked soon after the 2016 Referendum. The sequence seems to be the same - five gang members against two Poles, or even a single victim. Very much like the right-wing, racist thugs who attacked and killed Stephen Lawrence in 1993. Back then there were also five of them. At first it was five against two, but one of the victims managed to run off to get help. So that leaves five against one. When they appeared in Court, all were dressed smartly in suit and tie. Yet this tells me a lot about them. Their suits might have accentuated their Englishness. But not their bravery or heroism. Instead, they were cowards. Just by looking at a snapshot of Stephen Lawrence tells me straightaway that he already had a high level of education. It showed in his facial expression. This was confirmed afterwards by reading an article saying that the victim's ambition was to be an architect. And his fate was to meet a premature death as a result of inferior complex shared between each gang member.

The Panorama programme showed groups of up to five strong chasing just two Poles and having caught up with them and then shouting at them,
Get the fuck out of our country! Go back to your own fucking country! You're not welcome here!
Then they proceeded to beat them up until hospitalisation was required for the victim.

But before I go any further, I need to ask: Were you shocked to see strong language here, O Christian reader? Were you tempted to click off this page after reading such unseemly words? If so, then I have hit the nail on the head. There lies the problem. For although had Jesus himself had been there, he would have mingled freely among them, even absorbing foul language thrown at him at least at first by them due to his Jewishness. Yet his love for them would have prevailed, with a result of changed hearts and spiritual rebirth. Then if a couple of middle-class Anglican churchgoers were to approach him with the question on what he was doing among scum, his reply would have been classic - I tell you the truth: those whom you call scum will enter the Kingdom of God before you! - Matthew 21:31-32.

But as my wife sat, smuggling up to me whilst watching the documentary, she began to become very concerned, and started to plead with me: Please, don't get worked up! Don't get angry! Remember your heart! That was when she felt my torso tremble with rage. Was it rage against those gangs who were giving the Poles a hard time, simply because they were immigrants, and not English? And was all this exacerbated by the Brexit win at the Referendum? Well, almost, but they weren't the bulls-eye of the intended target. For strangely enough, my anger was directed more towards middle-class churchgoers who voted Leave. Before writing this, I had to sit down and think things through. These gangs living in more deprived areas of any city had the same psychological problem as the thugs who killed Stephen Lawrence. And the same as the power-mad motorist over a Lycra-clad cyclist. And the elderly gent whose windows I had cleaned. They all suffered some form of inferior complex at one degree or another, or some threat to their own egos. Especially if the immigrants were far more successful in finding manual jobs and accepting low pay in such a graceful way no white, English working-class youth would tolerate. In addition, many of these immigrants were successful in setting up their own business, thus showing up the indigenous as incapable of entrepreneurial ability, with the possible exception of drug trafficking.  

As a result of such in-depth thinking, I could not be angry at those deprived city gangs. Rather, due to the reluctance of churches being where they are most needed - at those deprived districts where hatred breeds hatred. It is a well known fact that Anglican churches steer clear of such areas, in favour of wealthier districts with respectability, whilst carefully selecting their leaders from the gene pool at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

I don't believe that Jesus would have acted in the same way as the present churches. Instead, he would have mingled right in their midst, and tolerating the foul language, the swearing, the curses, and the obscenity which passed through the air on a daily basis. After all, are these present street gangs really worse than the fishermen who plied the Sea of Galilee each day to eke out a living? After all, had he not heard the invective and abusive language thrown by them at the tax collector, the latter seen as a traitor to the Romans. Yet Jesus called a tax collector along with fishermen to be his disciples. And all this is endorsed by Scripture itself, which records Peter cursing and swearing during his denial after the arrest of Jesus (Matthew 26:74) - which was a relapse into his natural self during unfavourable circumstances.

Then again, I believe that the reluctance of churches setting root at such deprived areas may be borne out of fear. Fear of verbal abuse. Fear of physical harm. If a Christian is fearful or wary, the gangster will see through this straightaway, and tend to be more threatening. Genuine love, borne out of faith in God is the only weapon against such hatred, including patriotic hatred. And not quoting a set of rules on morality, not even the Bible either, as this would probably rub salt into the wound and enhance hostility. Instead, the gangster must see genuine love, based on the believer's trust in God, the same way Jesus' faith in his Father allowed his love to flow unhindered to the very worst of sinners.

How I wish that the Holy Spirit would come upon us so powerfully that all fears, anxieties and wariness would be washed away, leaving nothing else but strong, agape love for these people. After all, God's love yearns for them, and I believe, his yearning for them is more important to him than our obsession with religion, patriotism, social class, higher education, and wealth.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

A Shocking Incident At St. Pancras...

The weather wasn't great as I pushed my partially disabled wife's wheelchair through the busy streets of London. After a refreshing cappuccino at an upstairs Winstone's Bookshop cafe overlooking Trafalgar Square, we carried on with the walk across London from Waterloo Station, south of the Thames, to our pre-booked room at Premiere Inn Kings Cross, close to the northern boundary of the City. Not that there was no public transport available. There is always public transport in Central London. As a matter of fact, it is possible to take a wheelchair onto the Underground at Waterloo to alight at Kings Cross St Pancras Station, after changing trains at Green Park Underground station. We had done this last year before boarding the Eurostar train to Paris which ran through the Eurotunnel. 

But this time I wasn't in the mood for long waits for the lift at all three Underground stations, nor was I prepared for long walks between platforms through a maze of lighted tunnels. Neither were we in a hurry. We were not due to board the Eurostar until just after eleven in the morning. So instead, by staying at a hotel room overnight has relieved us from the morning pressure of arriving at St. Pancras International station in a desperate hurry. And so, with plenty of time to spare, we delighted in the busy streets bustling with life and vitality. Too bad that when an item advertised as a raincoat was on display at a small, family-run shop in Dorset, it proved anything but a raincoat. For by the time we were walking northwards along Charing Cross Road, the heavens opened.

I quickly grabbed the raincoat out from my small rucksack and whipped it on. It didn't take long for the dampness to penetrate the "waterproof" fabric like water passing through a sieve, fully soaking the V-neck cotton tee-shirt underneath. Yet my spirits remained high, as my wife's spirit remained on the high as well. For the whole purpose of this trip was to fulfil my wife's dream of visiting the Palace of Versailles, which her Mum told her about within the past year, and therefore had excited her. 

We found the Premiere Inn Hotel without difficulty, as its entrance stood directly opposite the east side of Kings Cross Station, which itself stands literally next door to St. Pancras Station, therefore taking only five minutes to reach the international station from the hotel. With my soaking wet tee-shirt draped across a chair, Alex began to blow-dry using the hotel hair dryer. Such little actions goes a long way towards harmony, believe me, because that was the shirt I wanted to travel in on the next day. Later in the afternoon, while Alex was resting, I decided to saunter casually to the station. What I have found there was rather shocking.

There were massive crowds at the Eurostar terminal. Having already become fully familiar with the facility, straightaway I knew something was seriously wrong. This was confirmed by the apologetic announcement from the intercom, asking everyone present that there is a problem and to listen out for further announcements. I wondered around the large terminus. On one of the many illuminated signboards, the reason for the delay and buildup at the Eurostar departure terminus was displayed. Signal failure in the tunnel itself. My spirit fell, but with thankfulness that we were not meant to travel that evening, I resolved that this fault will be fixed within the next couple of hours. And so I returned to the hotel with a degree of hope.

Eurostar Terminal on a normal day.

About three to three and a half hours later, Alex asked if we can go out on an evening stroll. I thought that this was a good opportunity to see if any progress was made at the station. But as we approached from the street, I noticed that the main doors into the Eurostar terminal were closed - something rather unusual. We made our way to the main station entrance, and immediately saw the end of a long queue of people, complete with wheeled suitcases, snaking back and forth, switchback-style, in the foyer before disappearing round a corner. We followed the queue as it snaked towards the Eurostar terminal, where the queue widened out into a large crowd of frustrated passengers, totalling obscuring the rather flimsy barrier stretching the entire entrance, and patrolled by Police and station staff attempting to answer the barrage of questions thrown at them. Even I had quick access to one of the officers, and asked in typical British politeness whether this problem would affect next morning's departures. Her answer was that she didn't know herself, and nobody else knew either.

We lingered as I watched what could be hundreds, if not thousands, of frustrated passengers standing in apparent calmness. Yep, this is Britain, where a crisis such as this is met with astonishing calmness and reserve. I was thinking; had this been Italy for example, there would have been a massive riot, with shouting and arms gesticulating everywhere! Then came the announcement over the intercom:
Eurostar apologise that all trains are cancelled until further notice. Please go to the Eurostar website and claim your refunds.   

Immediately I saw one young man pull out his mobile phone as he began to walk away. More and more phones began to appear as the crowd slowly began to disperse. So concluded that Friday evening, the most peak time of the week for national and international travel. I myself felt crushed at the uncertainty of our own travels. Alex felt very perturbed too. As we exited the station for a stroll into central London, I was forcing myself to understand where God is in all this. Should we call this whole trip off and go home, just as most, if not all, of that crowd may be doing? Would our travel insurance policy reimburse us? After all, none of this was any of our fault. Should I even turn up unexpectedly at church on that Sunday morning to testify of our faith in God, even if I would be aware of one or two in the congregation who would grin from ear to ear with gloating and self-satisfaction?

Then my thoughts turned to the crowd as they all dispersed. I wonder how many were excited at their first try with Eurostar? The satisfying of curiosity on what would be like to enter a tunnel in England and to emerge out of it in France - exactly as I felt a year earlier at our initial trip. Then how many more were regular travellers and therefore perceived the crisis as a one-off nuisance, one of life's mere inconveniences? Whichever may be, a massive crowd of negative emotions, with hardly a positive feeling within the station premises. All caused by a signal failure. Which allowed me to perceive the value of life altogether. Let's face it, we are incredibly privileged to be able to travel overseas in the first place, whether it be by train, boat, or 'plane. And not travelling to war either, nor even for business, but to travel for pleasure. How many here in Britain are homeless and spend their nights in the street, in hostels, even in hotels, or forced to live in homes of their friends, or stuck in unemployment for a prolonged period of time? Or depending on State handouts with a very uncertain future, living off food banks? Such aren't ever likely to see the inside of a Eurostar train.

A Eurostar train at St Pancras International Station.

Then considering Third World countries where many eke out a living ploughing the field, sowing and reaping, often with the risk of drought or flooding. I reckon they have never heard of Eurostar, and as a result, are quite content with their lot. Or to look back at history, when many were born to be slaves, to live without any other choice but to constantly satisfy the will of their masters. If any of them breached his master's will, then its likely to be flogged. Or those born to die young in battle. Or of many more who died of illness or malnutrition. Yet they tended to see all these things as normality of life, and tried to make the best of it. We are indeed a privileged generation who can travel in comparative luxury and style - at a level unknown by previous generations.

And yet, if something like a signal failure had totally wrecked our holiday, I know for sure that both of us would have been very distressed, no matter how loud we might have proclaimed our faith in God. I would have asked, Why did God allow such an insignificant thing such as a signal failure to wreck everything in our lives? Of course, I would have recited Romans 8:28 - For we know that all things work for the good for those who loves God, and are called according to his purpose - but would my own heart really be settled by this form of assurance? I need to be true to myself. Then again, with multiple hundreds in that crowd waiting to board, how many were true Christian believers? There must have been some among the crowd. What was going through their minds? Did their faith in God give them strength of inward assurance which allowed them to give thanks in all circumstances? Or, on the other end of the scale, decided that all this religious stuff is nonsense and unable to withstand the realities of the real world, and then apostate?

It is one of these things I find difficult, if not impossible to answer. A slave manages to please his master, and he is content with his reward - something equivalent to a small piece of candy. He would never dream of anything more worthwhile. Or a reluctant soldier marching away from his sweetheart or his pregnant wife, knowing that he may never see her again, as he imagines standing in a snow-laden, wind-blown trench with enemy bullets flying close past until one passes through his heart. Or a impoverished farmer suffering crop failure yet again for another year. Or a single mother of two children on state handouts, failing one job interview after another. Or confined to a bed at a hospital terminal ward. Life can be cruel, so unfair, yet I am aware of the reality of distress felt had there been no trains departing on the following Saturday morning. The reality of it all. Indeed, the one of two in our church may feel justified in gloating over our misfortune. Our holiday could have been wrecked. There have always been, and will always be people worse off than us, whose chance of boarding a Eurostar train remains an impossible dream.

We were up fairly early the following morning. After breakfast at the hotel restaurant, we checked out and then I explained at Reception that because of the crisis at St Pancras, would there be a chance of a room for the following night? This was a question I put to them after an unsettled night. Seeing my wife in distress, she began to suffer symptoms which could have put her in an ambulance. Instead, I suggested taking an extra Diazepam medicine pill, and as such, managed to make a recovery. And as I lay on the bed and thought matters through, I spoke aloud, so my wife heard what I had to say. I said that because we have enough resources, we will go to Paris, whatever it takes, and I will fulfil her dream. Even if we had to re-book the train for both outward and return journeys and the hotel dates too. I was willing to pay the extra, if it meant Alex's happiness. I assured her that we will not be returning home until our trip is complete. Suddenly I felt strong. And reassuring. And from then on I slept soundly.

So with the promise of a room at the London hotel assured, we set off early to the Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras terminus. Everything looked normal, including the open entrance doors leading into the facility from the street. Once inside, there were very few people about. Noticing Alex's wheelchair, two of the Eurostar boarding team approached us and called us aside. We were then offered an upgraded place on the ten o'clock departure. After phone calls and verification, we were allowed to board the earlier train, which left right on time, ninety minutes earlier than we had originally scheduled. It was incredible! We literally walked into the station and (of course, after passing through security and passport control) we were settled in so quickly, as if a daily commuter after a day in the office.

Really it all goes to show: What had everything went so smoothly on the Friday evening, watching people board the Eurostar as normal as always - only to discover that the signal failure had occurred during breakfast time on our morning of travel? Yes, what then? I would have been crushed emotionally and gutted! This backed by a fierce envy of everyone who had the fortune to board normally, not only on the evening before, but at all other times. The trouble would have been this -  my thinking being in panic mode, I would have quickly collected my refund instead of sitting down, and with rational thinking, assure my distressed wife that we will be going to Paris, even if it means spending another night at the London hotel and rescheduling our return trip. Although why God allowed many to suffer distress on that Friday evening, that is a mystery I cannot answer, yet I do feel God to be on our side, and even allowed as a little bonus of an earlier departure.

Alex's dream was fulfilled. We had no trouble visiting the Palace of Versailles on the next day after arrival. As I watched my beloved break into tears of sheer joy at the beauty and magnificence of the Palace interior, I could not help realise that life is a precious gift from God. Yes, it does seem grossly unfair, why I was born into this privilege and freedom to travel, whilst just a generation back another was born to face warfare, and yet further back, those born into slavery. Why is it that some are born into a life of Royalty, while another is born to live in the ditch? One rather striking example of this gross unfairness was during negro slave days in the New World. Back then, two sons were born to one father. One was born to inherit the plantation, its wealth and all its slaves. Then his half-brother was born to be a slave. It all depends where the father and plantation owner had planted his seed, whether into his legal wife or into his coloured concubine.

Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, taken Oct. 2017.

Fountain at Palace Gardens, taken Oct. 2017.

But after all this, I have come to this conclusion: All life is a gift from God, and regardless of which course it takes, it is all by divine grace. Because, if our livelihoods depended on human merit, not a single human being would live! By nature, we are all deserving of death and eternal separation from God. The very breath we take, at each heartbeat, as our food is digested, our immune system, all these and more are constantly maintained by God, with Christ shining his light into everyone born into the world, according to John 1:9. Yes, life is incredibly unfair. There are more questions than answers. But I believe that everything in our lives is a gift of God by grace, including life itself. So I, for one, need to be thankful to God for each day he gives me.