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Saturday, 16 November 2019

Do You Want a Pic or the Real Thing?

From time to time our church in Ascot has a post-service lunch specifically to celebrate Holy Communion, or Eucharist, in an environment closely resembling the actual breaking of bread and drinking of the wine which Jesus celebrated with his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. Often referred to as the Last Supper, back then that's exactly what it was - a meal, where everyone at present reclined, Roman-style, around a table, enjoying a feast. However, it was not an occasion of festive joy but more of sorrow, as all knew that their Lord is about to leave them. It was John who had his head resting on the Lord's chest in sorrow.

Maybe it's this universal sorrow was where the Roman Catholic Church had gotten their idea when the Eucharist should always be observed with silent solemnity. Each Catholic participant receives the Host, a small, coin-sized disc while kneeling in a line in front of the Altar, and whilst fasting. Such was a striking difference from the original supper Jesus had initiated.

Therefore, to make our memorial more of a joyful occasion, we had tables set up within the main sanctuary. The table I sat at was directly opposite an elderly couple, whose wife regularly attends, but her husband, once a member of the music group, had long left the church over a dispute. To protect his identity, I'll call him Jack.

During the meal, Jack and I became locked in a rather serious conversation. He explained to me why he left the church and departed from the faith. On this occasion, I could have gone into a long-winded and fruitless discussion on whether he lost his salvation or whether he was ever saved in the first place. But instead, I had acted as a listening board to hear his side of the story, without trying to forcefully convince him back into the faith.

A keen member of the band, or the music group, Jack gradually became disillusioned with what appeared to be a lack of supernatural occasions, despite hours devoted to prayer. 
Throughout my time here, I have not seen a single case of proper supernatural healing, he protested. I have never seen a miracle performed, not a single occasion where I can say with conviction that this is a work of God.

I began to feel a degree of sorrow for him. I recall some years ago. Jack was in the same team as Mark, who was suffering from leukaemia. As we all watched his health gradually decline, two or three of our Elders actually travelled halfway around the world to the famed Prayer Mountain just outside the South Korean capital of Seoul. After their return, there was no sign of any recovery, and he died sometime later. But even then, a visiting pastor from another church arrived to pray for him to be raised to life again, very much like Lazarus being raised from the dead. But to no avail. According to his testimony, it looks as if Jack had seen it all. 

I felt that I was drawn to the conviction that Jack had a point which tempted me to question the faith I was so devoted to. Furthermore, Jack revealed his belief in Evolution, and therefore, if a belief in God is all hocus-pocus, then it comes as no surprise that he would be very sceptical about divine creation. I suppose such a conversation in a church environment can indeed rock the boat to the point of capsizing. After all, my own wife has been prayed over for years over her debilitating backache which has confined her to a wheelchair. But instead of witnessing a miraculous recovery, earlier this year, the shocking news was delivered that she also has breast cancer.

When I see sense through his testimony combined with my own concerning my beloved, I did feel a temptation to question my faith. And it wouldn't be the first time either. Back in 1994, whilst lying on my bed at a backpacker's hostel in the heart of Jerusalem, I was ready to renounce my Christian faith after going through some very bad church experiences. But unlike with Jack, I felt called back to my faith right there and then whilst still on that bed, a call which I gradually responded positively.

Yet I can imagine Jack likened to a hungry man. He needs food to sustain himself. So someone comes up and gives him something while asking the hungry man whether this would be helpful. What he receives is a page torn from a magazine with a picture of a roast chicken looking so succulent, sharing a large dish with well-cooked Brussel sprouts and roast potatoes, all ready to be served.

I doubt that such a piece of paper would add anything to his nutritional needs! Rather, his appetite, along with his frustration, will both intensify. I tend to think that our present church life is a bit like that snapshot, including Bible reading and knowledge. Very appealing to the eye but of no stomach-satisfying or nutritional value. And it was precisely this which Jack was talking about.

When real food is served, it's a blessing, satisfying both body and soul alike. Like one "picture" of a miracle, I will share here. It's found in Acts 3:1-10. Here we read about Peter and John making their way to the Temple to pray when they spot a paralytic beggar reclining in the vicinity, and the paralytic then calls out to them, asking for some money. The two apostles pause to tell the beggar to look straight up at them. Expecting to be given something, the beggar looks directly up at them. But Peter says, Silver or gold I have none, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk!

Peter then reaches down to take his hand and lifts him up. And as he rose, his legs become strong and his healing so complete that he was able to dance and leap about, shouting thanks to God. The miracle was so astounding in the sight of every onlooker that many believed and received salvation, while there was controversy stirring among the Pharisees.

But now I will transfer the incident from ancient Jerusalem to a modern English church situation, expressed here in dialogue form:

Peter and John were on their way to a prayer meeting when they spot a paralytic beggar reclining on the wall.

Peter: Such scum cluttering the environment. Aren't there any hostels for them to sleep in?
John: Don't be so hard on him, Peter. Jesus did instruct us to heal the sick and bless the poor.
Peter: Yea, you're right, John. 
Beggar: Sirs, do you have any small change?
Peter: Look straight up at us. Silver or gold I have none, but what I do have I give you. Here is an extract from the Gospel of Matthew! Good luck and God bless you.
John (to Peter): Don't you think we should pray for him?
Peter: Oh, okay. Nothing to lose. 
(Peter then prays, first in English, then in tongues.)
Peter: How do you feel now? Any better?
Beggar: No.
Peter reaches to the beggar's hand and attempts to lift him up. He then falls back to the ground, hurting his buttocks.
Beggar: Clear off the pair of you! You were of no help. Get out! Get out!

I have heard some say that the reason we do not see miracles performed anymore is that the New Testament is complete and such must pass away. They take this theory from one of Paul's letters to the church in Corinth where he writes that prophesies, tongues, and knowledge, all these will pass away when the perfect comes (1 Corinthians 13:8). These Christians believe that "the perfect" is the completion of the New Testament. However, I once read of a true account of a Dutch evangelist Corrie Ten Boom, who was teaching a group of youngsters near a river. The subject was about a miracle which took place after the Resurrection of Christ. After spending the whole night attempting to fish at the Sea of Galilee and caught nothing, Jesus then appeared and instructed his disciples to throw the net to the other side of their boat. Immediately the net pulled tight as it filled with fish in an instant (John 21:1-6).

One of the boys in Ten Boom's class began sneering, ridiculing the historicity of the miracle. Fortunately, there happens to be an empty bucket standing nearby. Ten Boom told the boy to watch carefully as she picked up the empty pail and carried it to the river. In one swoop she dipped the utensil underwater and immediately raised it back up. She then tipped the whole bucketful of fish right in front of him! Years later, the young man became a well-known preacher and church leader.

However, the New Testament was completed long before that miracle took place. Therefore, "the perfect" could not be the completion of the New Testament. Instead, I take it to mean the Second Coming of Christ.

The motive behind Corrie Ten Boom's miracle proves the point. According to all of Jesus' miracles, the motive behind these works was always to bring his audience to change their minds about him and believe. We call that repentance, from the Greek word metaneo, a change of mind. The Lord himself had made that specifically clear just before raising Lazarus from the dead. Before performing the miracle, he cried out to his Father for everyone who sees the miracle to believe that he is the Son of God and was sent by the Father (John 11:42-43). 

The miracle has achieved its purpose. Soon afterwards, at his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, crowds were cheering him, crying out Hosanna! A few weeks later, up to three thousand were converted by Peter's first sermon. News of Lazarus coming back to life looks as though it carried far and wide. For those who heard about it, it was quite possible to connect the Resurrection of Christ with that of Lazarus - and believe.

How long to see our church in Ascot perform miracles! Along with all other churches. How I long to see my beloved wife restored to full health, like the slim athlete I met and married. But God is not likely to answer such prayers unless it's to bring the crowds into believing that this Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the risen Son of God. According to the Bible, miracles are only performed as a witness to God's existence and for the veracity of his revelation.

Most likely it was this which Jack has never brought himself to realise. Instead, all he saw was unanswered prayer after another, a kind of a failed Heavenly Health Service - except that the Divine Physician was never at his desk to receive the plethora of requests passed up to him. Little wonder that over a time his faith had floundered.

The only way I have found to keep my own faith intact is to know the Bible well and know it thoroughly, and to have a Bible-teaching church to call my spiritual home. Fortunately, Ascot Life Church is my spiritual home and I thank God for it. I hope to see it grow in both in maturity and in numbers.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

A Controversial Prayer...

A Typical Saturday morning, sitting alone at a Starbucks Coffee table with a newspaper spread out in front, concentrating on an article, when I heard a hello from almost directly above. Looking up, I recognised one of my newly-made friends as he took a seat on the opposite side of the next table but still facing me.

The actual Starbucks where I frequent.

He was one of a group of athletes who calls at the same coffee bar after their morning park run. I have known this chap for several months, as he often makes the call here with his mates after his exercise. Presently his mate joined and being just the two of them this week (it's often as many as four) the three of us started talking. After various topics, including political issues, it was the second guy sitting directly opposite me who turned to spiritual things, stating his belief in reincarnation after death, and his Buddhist belief that many reincarnations have to occur before he can be free to enter Nirvana, their version of Heaven - even though he didn't admit to being a Buddhist himself.

To this, I made my faith in Jesus Christ known, although I'm sure that I might have said something about this some time ago. After saying the obvious, which was that there isn't a human in all the Earth who had managed to free himself after repeated incarnations. I then emphasised that this Jesus Christ is the only man ever to rise physically from the dead, there has never been anyone else to make such an achievement, and certainly by no other religious leader or founder.

I then quoted Scripture, John 14:6, and actually said,

"It was Jesus Christ who once said, I am the way, the truth and the life. No man can come to the Father except through me. Jesus himself said that, not me. Jesus emphasised that the only way to God is through faith in Jesus."

I then continued:

"Jesus himself had said that he is the only way to God. Either he is telling the truth or he was lying. Believe me, if Jesus had lied, then how can I trust him?"

I was taken back by his response. Why - I never saw it this way before.

Did I plant a seed into his heart that morning? If I did, then I long for someone to come along and water it, because only God could cause the seed to actually germinate and grow.

It looks to me that this is the crux of the matter, a heart belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ which leads to salvation, together with an oral confession that if he rose physically from the dead - and the only man in all of history to do so - then he must be Lord, and Lord in a sense that he is God and the Anointed One rather than mere employer, so Paul writes in Romans 10:9-10. John backs this up by writing that everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God...(1 John 5:1).

I find John's statement at the beginning of his fifth chapter intriguing. Linking this to Paul's statement in his letter to the Romans, it looks to all the world that his physical Resurrection took place because he is the Christ, the Anointed One, his rising from the dead being proof of the reality. What I have also found intriguing was that when Paul wrote those two verses to the church in Rome, the apostle didn't mention anything about the Atonement for sin having been made by dying on the cross, nor his burial either, but all emphasis on his Resurrection. By believing in the heart the truth of his rising from the dead and orally acknowledging this fact is enough for salvation. 

This is what repentance is all about. Paul tells us that God wants all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). Peter backs him up when he also writes that God is very patient, not wanting anyone to perish but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). The New Testament Greek for Repent is Metaneo, a change of mind. A change of mind from thinking that this Jesus of Nazareth is some imposter or merely a Jewish teacher, to believe that he is the Christ, the Messiah by rising physically from the grave. It's so straightforward and simple. Such simplicity is the grace of God needed by every person who is otherwise completely helpless in any attempt in reconciling himself to God, his own works being ineffective. 

As such, the evening before the morning meet at Starbucks, a Christian bulletin had dropped through our front door. Titled, Good News, and looking to be a free paper which dropped through all the homes in our estate. Inside was a testimony of one ex-paratrooper who cried out, Please God, No! as his parachute failed to open during one training session. Fortunately, his stand-by 'chute opened in time to give him a landing soft enough to not only save his life but also escape from serious injury. Afterwards, he believed and asked Christ to come into his heart and life. Now he is a church leader, when before he was an agnostic, if not an atheist, believing that all churches were weird.

Parachute fails. The participant was saved by the second 'chute.

Reading this has taken me back to that pub just off the Strand in London, on one wet December Saturday in 1972. After buying a couple of young guys a drink each, I was shown a Bible. Afterwards, I was exhorted to "invite Jesus into my heart" - sometimes known as "the sinner's prayer". It was taken from Revelation 3:20 which reads,

Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come into him and sup with him, and he with me.

For many years afterwards, I have used this verse to back the idea of asking Jesus into the heart as the de-facto, one-fits-all requirement for one to be saved, even believing that one cannot be saved without first saying this prayer. However, it does have a beautiful illustration. Even back at that pub, when I first read this verse, I was able to picture Jesus sitting on one side of the table, and myself on the other, very much like that fellow and myself at Starbucks.

It was thanking God for my good friend Dr Andrew Milnthorpe, who invited me to Encounter, the midweek lunchtime meeting at the Kerith Centre when a preach about sitting at a table with the Lord was emphasised. It was actually a video recording of an American preacher who even had a table laid among his audience as a visual demonstration. The sermon was based on Psalm 23:5, where David was promised to eat at a table with God himself even amid his enemies.

The parallel between Psalm 23:5 and Revelation 3:20, I find remarkable. Maybe that may be why, since way back in 1975, I was told that Revelation 3:20 applied only to believers and not to unbelievers. Even to this day, more than forty years later, this application of the verse for unbelievers to repent is denied by our Elders. They all may have a point. But I prefer to leave the option open as an invitation for unbelievers to repent. After all, if Jesus is a friend of sinners, then how much more would he be willing to dine with anyone willing to invite him in? Therefore, although the prayer to "ask Jesus into the heart" is so controversial, really it shouldn't be. Instead, such a prayer should be a demonstration of the faith of a new believer, which God seems to readily accept, according to the testimony of the paratrooper among many others over the years, myself included.

As for the video at the Encounter meeting, indeed it was about dining at a table set up by the Lord himself amid his enemies. Being from an American preacher, while I was watching, I tended to wonder whether he would close his sermon with an appeal for funds to pay for the hire of the auditorium or to promote some other sales tat, I would never know for sure. He might have done, which, in this case, was carefully edited out, or maybe not at all, which would have come as something of a surprise by us Brits, who tend to visualise American "televangelists" as natural-born salesmen.

But I was taken in by what he preached. The Lord sets up a table to dine among enemies. And as expected, the chief of all enemies takes his place at the table, sitting between the Lord and the believer. One of the enemy's tactics to the believer is that love and hospitality has a tag to it. And that tag is somehow is that works have got to be performed to keep this love secure, hence even subconsciously, doubting the Lord's sincerity. Or it could be something else, such as the illness or even the death of a loved one. Even the word cancer was mentioned in his preach. This hits home. My wife is going through treatment for cancer, and to see her in such a condition can be very upsetting. Indeed, I have had Christians asking how I cope in such situations.

The sermon provided the answer which was a confirmation of what I believed for a long time, to give thanks to God in all situations. Note that I didn't say for all situations. There is a big difference. To give thanks to God in a present situation is to acknowledge the greatness and the goodness of God, who is willing to dine with an undeserving sinner. Being human, there are plenty of times when I just don't want to praise God, especially if my wife is languishing in a hospital. But I also realise that by giving thanks to God in all things does open the door to praise.

The same applies to not knowing what to pray for, or as in my case, to doubt the reality of answered prayer. The sort of prayer asking for my wife to be restored to perfect health as a slim athlete I once married. But I have come to realise that such a desire remains unfulfilled, and not only that, witness the development of cancer, together with more hospital appointments. It can be a cause for discouragement, to give up on prayer altogether.

But instead, I give thanks to God for all the good things we have. First and foremost, we have each other. I always thank God for that. Then everything else follows - financial security, a roof to keep the rain out, adequate clothing and no lack of food. And even for the niceties surrounding us, items which are not life-essential but enhances our way of life. And most important of all, easy access to a Bible and our salvation. These are all to be thankful for.

It's perfectly true that when John wrote those first three chapters of Revelation, he was addressing seven churches, most likely he knew all of them. They were all believers, even though five of the seven churches had to be rebuked by the risen Christ. Then he ends by saying whoever overcomes shall not see death but will sit with him in Heaven, although each church gets a slightly different version, one appropriate for each church. Who is it who overcomes? According to Romans 8:37, which says that every believer is more than a conquerer which in itself is higher than a mere overcomer, therefore an overcomer is one who has invited Christ in to dine with him. In other words, the true believer is already an overcomer, because it's not the believer who overcomes but Christ himself who already overcame, as he finally admits in Revelation 3:21. 

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Optimism - Wise or Unwise?

Since I watched England win both the Rugby World Cup Quarter- and Semi-finals, I began to feel confident that England would defeat South Africa in today's Cup Final. But unlike with the previous two matches, Ascot Life Church didn't open its doors for the final to be watched. This was because of the sanctuary, for want of a more appropriate word, was already booked for its regular monthly meet for our children, which meets between 10.00 and 12 noon.

Ascot Life Centre - Watched rugby here.

I believe this was the right decision made by our Elders. Who, for a moment, would ever think that the England rugby team would make it to the final? Yet we all knew that for a whole week England will be facing South Africa at rugby's most important international contest, yet just by shifting the kid's meeting later by a couple of hours would have created enough of a time slot for us to watch the game together as a Christian community. After all, where we meet each Sunday in a restaurant at the racecourse, nearly every week the chairs are re-arranged and the music equipment is set up, including the two large screens, by a team of dedicated and committed members. Surely, rearranging the sanctuary after the game has ended would have been minor by comparison.

Then there is the other side of the story. The weather this morning was appalling. This meant that after a four-mile cycle ride to the church, I would have been drenched. Even with a proper raincoat, my thighs would have had to endure the discomfort of wet tracksuit leggings. Then to add to this, watching the opposing team's score starting to climb ahead of our team's score would have meant a heavy atmosphere in the room, broken only when England scored a penalty. At least the game ended with England having 12 points, which is a damn sight better than nil! Quite a contrast with South Africa's 32 points, which put an end of any optimistic hopes for our side's victory.

As already mentioned in my last blogs, watching sport is a distraction from the daily mundane. During the 2012 London Olympics, I purposely took time off work to watch the men's Triathlon. It was so thrilling to watch, especially when the event was won by a Brit, who took gold, and his brother taking bronze, with a Spaniard taking silver in second place between the two brothers.

Reminiscences from the days when I competed in Triathlons myself between the years 1985-1992. Nowadays I can only enjoy the sport vicariously. But such reflected my sense of cautious optimism that I would complete the assigned course - especially during the cycling leg of the race where a flat is an ultimate nightmare for any rising or serious competitor, after glancing at a fellow participant suffering a blowout halfway through the course, and with another rider at another event, her chain becoming entangled among the rear cogs during a gear shift. To assist her while in distress would have resulted in her immediate disqualification. Such were the rules governing Triathlon events.

Cautious optimism. If I had been totally pessimistic, my fear of punctures would have kept me from competing altogether, let alone going for long-distance burn-ups, or for cycling holidays. But in life, I had come to learn that there is a difference between cautious optimism, and one which leads to arrogance, that cocksure attitude that nothing can ever go wrong. And if it did, I would be really screwed.

Therefore, I always kept my bicycle in good condition, renewing the tyres and inner tube at the first sign of wear, ditto with the chain and gear cassette. And before each event, ensuring that both tyres were inflated to full pressure, and a repair outfit, pump, and appropriate tools were fastened on the bike throughout the race. Such precautions have given me enough optimism to compete, yet remaining realistic that all could come to nothing. All it takes is a tiny shard of glass lying invisibly on the road.

It doesn't seem to be the same optimism which was shown by many England fans who booked a last-minute flight to Tokyo from London. After beating New Zealand on the previous week, fans who had grave doubts about whether England would ever reach the finals were splashing hundreds, maybe thousands of pounds for flights, accommodation and most important of all, entry tickets into the stadium. Therefore I can imagine such optimism beginning to crush while watching the opposing team gaining points and lifting the much-prized trophy, while so I read, the England team actually refusing to wear their silver medals. Runners up, after their fans spending so much money, with no hope of refunds.

But it's my opinion that by reaching the final, England did remarkably well. And that, after beating the All Blacks, perhaps one of the world's best rugby side, into third-place play against Wales. Therefore, there is much to be praised. As such, for the eager fan who was cautiously optimistic that England could well beat South Africa, he saw it as a gamble, and a gamble indeed, to spend thousands for a last-minute trip around the globe with only a 50% chance of returning home a winner. I believe that such an individual, had his team lost, would return home disappointed but not crushed or screwed up, feeling out of pocket but not entirely broken.

Swim, Cycle, Run - the classic Triathlon.

However, there is one area I can be truly optimistic, and that's in the veracity of the Bible.

And I write this among a growing sense of pessimism over the future of our planet. Ever since BBC presenter David Attenborough had presented his Blue Planet II back in 2017, there has been this fanatical awareness of plastic waste, especially of discarded carrier bags finding their way into the oceans. Added to this is the rate in which the polar ice is melting with the threat of the sea level rising, leading to one of the main topics for discussion, climate change affecting our weather patterns. Not to mention the desecration of the rainforest, especially in the Amazon area of South America, due to those greedy capitalists whose sole interest is to make a profit from turning rainforest into temporary farmlands which would eventually transform such a beautiful environment into a wasteland. And not to mention the treat of extinction of many species who have made the rainforest their home.

And when it comes to current affairs, the fearmongers constantly ranting on how Brexit will desecrate both the superstore and the pharmacist alike. With both of us dependent on medicine, this does not bode well for optimism. Likewise, there is a fear that the NHS will be sold off to some private American investor, or simply watch as this great institution goes to pieces as foreign doctors, nurses and other staff return to their home countries while patient demand exceeds supply.

Pessimists paint a gloomy picture of our planet's future. And by rights, I'm not much of an optimist myself when it comes to current affairs affecting the British political worldview.

But as already mentioned, the Bible does lend a hand in feeling a degree of optimism. And here I'm not just referring to personal salvation. Rather, it's the covenant God made with Abraham and the people of Israel.

Jeremiah, also known as "the weeping prophet" - deeply upset in watching his beloved city of Jerusalem being desecrated by the Babylonian forces led by King Nebuchadnezzar, here he was given one of the greatest assurances by God himself. This assurance applies not only to Israel but to all of us.

God promises the prophet that if he, that is Jeremiah himself as a mere man, he can break the covenant God has made with the Earth, so day no longer follows night, and that night no longer follows day at its appointed time, only then will God will cast Israel away forever, and King David will not have an heir to sit upon his throne. He then repeats his promise:

This is what the Lord says,
If I haven't established my covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them.
Jeremiah 33:25-26.

Just a little earlier, God made this assurance to the distressed prophet:

This is what the Lord says:
He who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night,
who stirs up the sea so that he waves roar -
the Lord Almighty is his name:
Only if these decrees vanish from my sight, declares the Lord,
will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.
This is what the Lord says:
Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundation of the earth can be searched out,
will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of what they have done,
declares the Lord.
Jeremiah 32:35-37.

Here I can be optimistic! Not on whether England would win the rugby or any other World Cup tournament, and certainly not over Brexit! Instead, we read about Jeremiah weeping as he sees his beloved city razed to the ground by a mighty foreign army. He weeps as he watches the destruction of the Temple, the one place in all the earth where a man can make an atonement with his God by animal sacrifice, temporary as this atonement may be, it's still a wonderful display of God's mercy. Now the Temple is no more. There is nowhere else to make atonement. No wonder the prophet wrote a book entirely on his lamentations. Yet even within his mourning, he recites,

Because of the Lord's great love, we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself,
The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait on him.
Lamentations 3:22-24.

As I go about my business, such as sitting at a Starbucks or Costa coffee bar and watch families sitting at a table, I see children in all their abundance. It is a temptation to ponder on how will these children grow up happily in a post-Brexit Britain. Yet our own Prime Minister is very optimistic for our future, as with all Tory-supporting journalists. Daily Mail reporters, as with those from the Daily Express and The Sun newspapers, among others, all support Brexit and all giving a rosy future for Britain. They are the ones who are criticising the BBC for it's more cautious standing on Brexit and being accused as an organisation consisting mostly of Remainers.

But Jeremiah would have had none of it, and neither should I.

The prophet says that God himself is his portion. That is what I want to believe, to trust in him. Indeed, there are some Christians who are wholly committed to leaving the European Union. There is one or two holding this political view who tend to look on me with a level of contempt, despite how friendly they may appear when I greet them. Then again, my good friend Dr Andrew Milnthorpe who also voted to leave the EU - remains very close to me. 

But if Jeremiah may have felt lonely, and I'm sure there were times when he felt very lonely, yet his faith in God remained steadfast. Even to the point of thanking God in all things, one being his mercy renewed every morning. Like with Job, Jeremiah too is a good yardstick I can set as a target to aim for through faith in Jesus Christ and being indwelt by the Holy Spirit. 

Likewise, I would encourage every believer not to look to Brexit or a World cup victory for England, but to God, whose mercies are new every morning. 

Saturday, 26 October 2019

A Rabbit from the Hat...

If you enjoy writing, or in my case, addicted to it, do you ever suffer from writer's block? That is if I understand the term correctly, wanting to go ahead but have absolutely no idea what to write about? Fortunately, with me, that's not often the case, but I feel it this week. I seem to have run out of new ideas. Therefore, with God's help, I will challenge myself to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

Perhaps this may be out of an uneventful week. Saving, of course, the ongoing unrest over Brexit at Westminster, and oh yes, the rather astonishing victory for England over a very famous New Zealand All Blacks this morning as our team scored 19 points to their 7. And that despite the game featuring two no-tries by the England team. Had these scores been valid, England could have won with a total of 33 points, including conversions and penalties. At least for England fans, this must have been a wonderful dose of elixir amid the ongoing and never-ending disputes in Parliament, such political issues quite likely making this country a laughing stock internationally.

Perhaps we needn't worry. France is getting fed up with us. At a meeting at Brussels with reps from all 27 nations making up the EU, only French President Emmanuel Macron stood up against a three-month extension, whilst the other 26 seemed to be okay with the extended delay. As a result, if a no-deal Brexit takes place at the end of this month, then it will be more of France kicking us out of the EU rather than us merely walking away. How appropriate too, if this whole shenanigan happens to take place at Halloween, while the first name of the French president means God with us. Is there something in all this, perhaps a joke somewhere?

And like the previous week, there I sat among fans at Ascot life Church, watching the game from the same screen where the words of Christian songs are normally displayed. Too bad, as luck would have it, by oversleeping, I got up late, and despite cycling fast over the four-mile journey, I missed the first seven minutes of the first half - within such a short space of time, England had already scored their first try and conversion, making their score already seven points up upon their opponents as I walked into the building, damp with sweat. By missing the opening score has put a damper on the whole day, and I can only imagine the wild, excited cheers among the audience. Too bad those wooden rotating rattles don't exist any more, they were banned in 1970. Or else there would have been one big party at Ascot Life Church.

The cheers from the predominantly-male audience rose every time the ball fell into the hands of an England player, let alone scoring a try or even a drop-goal. Everyone that is except me, who merely clapped like a toff at the Oval or at Wimbledon. Indeed, cheering at a game has never been my forte, especially after missing the first vital seven minutes. Rather, I was far more content in pitting my wits and physical prowess against competing cyclists at a triathlon event during my heyday of the 1980s. And where two wheels are concerned, I did pretty well.

Rugby is a game I prefer watching than Association Football (or Soccer.) Too often, football ends in a draw, often a goalless draw, which means another thirty minutes of play, and if still no result, then a penalty shootout if not a replay at a later date. As I see it, a penalty shootout is just a hollow victory for the winning team. As such, I tend to find watching football very frustrating indeed. At least with rugby, a deciding score is guaranteed, or at least, over the years I'd watched rugby, I have never seen a game end in a draw. But if England was to win this year's World Cup Rugby, celebrations for such an achievement would never hold a candle to the glory of the World Cup Football tournament. A simple proof of this is to observe any housing estate. Not one English flag is displayed for this rugby tournament as they would have been in football.

When England won the 2003 Rugby World Cup against Australia in their home country, there was very little razzmatazz, and the victory could have gone virtually unnoticed. Very unlike the 1966 Football World Cup victory against Germany at Wembley. The fanfare which followed, including the bus ride through the streets of London escorted by thousands of cheering fans, is remembered to this day. Perhaps it's that sense of national greatness, this imperialistic and a sense of superiority over all foreigners which might have been the underlying cause on why England had never won the World Cup tournament since.

It's this repeat of this sense of national cockiness and pride arising from both the victory in the Rugby World Cup and Brexit which restricted my own cheering to mere clapping - and that done lamely as well, without the verbal cheering which was characteristic of everyone else in that room. Maybe I am a wet blanket, a damp squib, a spoilsport, yet nevertheless, when the All Blacks did score a try and conversion within the second half, I was tempted to yell YESS! - but held my tongue in keeping with the otherwise melancholic silence which hung in the air.

I think supporting a team is great. I wish I could give such heart-driven support myself. I also wish that I had the full freedom to cheer New Zealand's try without the accompanying feeling of being the odd one in the audience. I know, it's in a church and we are all Christians. All of us should know better than to frown at the individual cheering the opposite side. There is something good, something which is sportsmanlike about cheering the opposing side when they score, especially after a tremendous amount of effort put in at overcoming our side's defence.

Recognising that we are not the products of molecule-to-man evolution, but instead, we were created in God's own image, I think, will greatly endear better respect for the opposing team. That would, for example, mean a clapping of hands when the All Blacks did score and further clapping at the successful conversion. I think this would have made the whole experience even better, a greater feel for Christian unity.

If Divine Creation was a universal reality accepted by everyone - accepted as equally factual as fitting a huge, heavy metal tube with wings and it will actually defy gravity and fly - I'm sure that watching international sport as a group would be a far more enjoyable occasion. I go by experience. For many years, whenever England plays Italy at a major football international, I was always fearful that Italy would lose. I was concerned because if England wins, I would receive that condescending look, that sneer, that showing of proof that England is the best. And if a condescending look could launch a thousand ships, then the need to say anything becomes pointless. Back in the eighties, into the nineties, that was the stressful atmosphere created, in all places, within a church environment.

Yet in all paradoxes, one person specifically referred to was actually a Creationist. So he believed in his head without that vital 18-inch connection to his heart which would have quite likely transformed him. Indeed, I have overheard him say to another friend that if he had his way, he would steamroller over the opposing team, especially one from abroad. Furthermore, this was also an indication for his desire to see English troops reclaim the Empire, especially with himself involved. What I have also found remarkable was that he had a distinct dislike for the Scotsman and only a grudging respect for the Welsh. Not exactly matching the ethic that we are all created in God's own image. Or is it?

By checking what's written in Paul's letters, I come across these verses:

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Jesus, then you are Abraham's seed and heirs according to the promise.
Galatians 3:26-29.

Oh, if only this Scripture was set in the depths of my friend's heart! Just think for a moment. We are clothed in Jesus Christ. Therefore God sees us in exactly the same way he sees his only begotten Son. So powerful is this reality that God no longer sees us as Jew or non-Jew (nor English either) nor does he see us as even male or female, slave or free (neither working or middle class as well) but as Abraham's singular seed, therefore, must be referring to Jesus Christ. And if we're Abraham's seed, then we must be heirs to the promise. It's an amazing thought a wonderful reality. Furthermore, let me quote here in full:

What, then, can we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.
Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died - more than that, who was raised to life - is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
As it is written:
For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
For I'm convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, nor the present nor the future, nor the powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  
Romans 8:31-39.

Such word kills every form of favouritism, it kills any sense of patriotism, to favour our own country above another, especially in sport and culture. Here must be a greater meaning of being born again than we can readily grasp. Being a new creation, to be born of Abraham's seed.

I find it interesting that the devout Englishman who would have looked down on me if his beloved national football team had beaten Italy - does not believe in Once Saved Always Saved, as the above verses strongly indicate. And he was, and is, not alone, quite a few of his friends, and mine too, hold to the idea that salvation can be lost if the believer fails to stay in line.

Pardon me, and I might be wrong here, but over the years I have gotten the impression that those who don't believe in Eternal Security are some of the unhappiest people I have ever met. I once heard that more than 80% of all Christians who end up in an institution believe that salvation can be lost. I have also found, over years of experience, that these people are the most difficult to get on with, as I have found them prone to be more judgemental.

Oh, how I long for the above-quoted verses to embed themselves into the heart of every Christian! And maybe during such international games, a greater level of respect can be offered to any foreign team playing against England.

And furthermore, I managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Not by magic, nor by intelligence, but by the power of God. 

Saturday, 19 October 2019

When the Lads Get Together

A month previously I wrote about the boy in every man, that relief from daily responsibilities to allow that secret desire to be fulfilled, especially if there's nobody around to see you. Thus, for example, in a line of police constables standing military-style to attention, their serious and straight faces perfectly hiding those childhood cravings - such as that longing to try out that newly-installed helter-skelter slide at the nearby children's playground. Or to ride a shopping trolley down the steep hill late at night, or best of all, during an executive's meeting, to leave a whoopie cushion on the chairman's seat.

Or a female reporter in a bit of a downcast mood alighting from the train at London Euston Station at about the same time as another train also pulling into the terminus. That other train was painted red and windowless throughout, and on its carriage were the words in giant lettering: Her Majesty's Royal Mail. It was then when one of a couple of male fellow passengers who sat close by at her train, then exclaimed in a typical American accent, and in all seriousness, Wow! I never knew the Queen gets so many letters! Without a doubt, the reporter made her way to the office in a brighter, merrier mood.

This masculine trait. What makes us men so different from women? When I consider some of the greatest comedians in my time, all men, such as Tommy Cooper, Benny Hill, Dave Allen, duo Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, Harry Worth, Steptoe & Son actors Wilfred Brambell and Harry Corbett, along with the star of Till Death Us Do Part, Alf Garnet, played by Warren Mitchell, among others, all of them long dead but memories of their performances endure. Cooper's failure as a stand-up magician is typical. On one occasion he asked a volunteer in the audience to lend his wristwatch, with a promise that by his magic he would receive it back intact. So he placed the wristwatch under a handkerchief and then beat it with a hammer over and over again. Then he began to wave his hand over it, making some chant, until with final abracadabra! he lifted the handkerchief - only for the broken bits to scatter across the table. 

Of course, anyone in his right mind would have recoiled at the sight of somebody's precious property smashed to pieces in such a casual manner. But instead, the sketch was meant to make us all laugh, and we did laugh, the whole nation watching the stint on television - laughing at an act which at all other times would have merited wrath from the owner of the broken item. As such, I tend to believe that the wristwatch was a mocked-up fake specifically made for that part of his performance.

Therefore I do wonder whether humour is a predominantly masculine characteristic, although as I write this, two female-based comedies immediately come to mind. One is The Vicar of Dibley, played by Dawn French as Rev Geraldine Granger, and Keeping Up Appearances, with Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) played by Patricia Routledge. But in the first comedy, there are five men in the cast, while Hyacinth's beleaguered husband Richard shares her stage. It's such programmes which seem to endorse my opinion that an all-female comedy cast remains non-existent.

In the world of sport, this masculine culture, at least in my younger days, couldn't be made more manifest than in boxing, wrestling, football (soccer) and rugby football, and even cricket, perhaps regarded as the gentleman's game. Rugby, also once known as rugger, was and still is, a very masculine-based sport. Even in comics, where cartoons of rugby players were portrayed as muscular hunks locked in a scrum, were known to say to a passing child who was amused at the oval ball, that this is rugby, a real he-man's game. And so at school, during the Winter months, we as boys played football and rugby while the girls concentrated on hockey and netball. At school, not a single pupil or teacher ever thought it plausible for girls to partake in male-based sports.

Therefore, when someone in our church at Ascot had sent an email to all members inviting us all to watch England versus Australia World Cup Rugby quarter-finals this morning, I was keen to delay my Saturday morning coffee at Starbucks to join the predominantly male group who had also come to watch. Cheers roared whenever England scored a try, followed by the conversion, while the one try scored by the Australian team was greeted with silence. The final result was England: 40 points, Australia: 16.

The game we watched: England v. Australia, 2019.

This was not the first time either. Earlier this year, my good friend Dr Andrew Milnthorpe invited me to watch football with him among a small group at the Kerith Centre, Bracknell's church. Although, like with rugby, I enjoyed watching the match, on both these occasions it was the fellowship with other believers which made the difference. As such, I strongly believe that men in every church should socialise together as men.

In the past, Ascot Life Church did have a men's social group. Here, a group of us, numbering up to thirty people, meeting at an Indian restaurant roughly every six weeks. Most of us were married men which, by getting together, can discuss topics related to men, which included big changes in our Sunday service venue. It was at this restaurant where I heard for the first time a proposal to move our morning service from our own venue to the Paddocks Restaurant at the racecourse, a room with twice the capacity to accommodate our church which is growing in numbers. It was also during this move when Ascot Baptist Church became Ascot Life Church.

Other activities included meeting in a pub. Yes, I know, how "worldly" can we get? There are Christians who frown at the idea of visiting a pub and consuming alcohol. But having a discussion, even on serious issues, over a glass of ale is very different from binge-drinking when the consumer staggers out of the pub, stoned out to his wit's end.

Then it's the walk in the park. Virginia Water, with its large lake, is a popular venue for Summer walks. Back in the Spring, a few of us had a long walk through this area. This opened up the opportunity to touch on various issues. Also enjoying a privately-owned sauna with two or three other men at the host's home, along with a fry-up, while at another venue, having a swim in a garden pool, all to encourage interaction, where fellow believers can open up their trust to help solve personal problems or share with each other life's difficulties and the best way to handle them.

But it's the men's breakfast which I always attended. There were two of them. The rather well-attended one at Christ Church, Virginia Water, was regularly visited by my father-in-law, who always invited me whenever he attended. The other was our own men's breakfast held at Ascot. It was sad that dwindling support eventually caused this Saturday event to cease, as was the case with Virginia Water.

I believe that these Christian men's social get-togethers do have a part in spiritual development. According to my own experience, to go out with a group of lads actually enhances a marriage. Experience indicates that the wife who allows her husband to go out with the boys is generally happier than the wife who restrains or even henpecks him. Paul the apostle favours the wife who is happy to let her husband socialise with his Christian brothers when he writes:

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Ephesians 5:22-24.

It's during these social meets, spiritual advice can be passed. But whatever cases which arise, and there are a great many, the bottom line of them all, Paul continues:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loves the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 
Ephesians 5:25-28.

By reading this portion of Paul's letter, which I have quoted only in part, there is far more emphasis on the husband loving his wife than the wife loving her husband. In fact, the apostle does not even instruct the wife to love her husband, but only to submit to him. He didn't need to. Women have a far greater natural tendency to love than men. Most likely due to her maternal instincts in giving birth and rearing her child, while the husband's principal role is in his productivity, to provide for his household.

Therefore I, like all other men, must work and make a conscious effort to love my wife. And the kind of love for her which is also honourable to God is enriched by the Holy Spirit who dwells in both of us. With my beloved suffering a physical disability - she can only go outdoors in a wheelchair - plus her recent cancer and the chemotherapy which caused her to lose her hair, my love for her and my devotion to her remains as strong as ever. And the source of such love comes from the Holy Spirit.

Jesus himself had said that when two or three of us are gathered in his name, there he is in the midst of us (Matthew 18:20). Therefore we can assume that he is here with us - although there are plenty of times when it doesn't seem that way, nevertheless, it doesn't change the facts.

A group of Christian men socialising together. And among them, Christ dwells through the Holy Spirit who dwells in each one of them. And to be together to watch a rugby player tackle his opponent to the ground in a major championship game - yes, we can handle that.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Yes, I DO Pray For Our Nation...

Have you ever felt that your world is about to end and therefore you want to do something which will forever be cherished in your memory before the lights finally go out? Perhaps in the last few weeks, it was how I felt, and therefore we made a rash decision for a day-trip to Brussels - while it was still relatively easy to pass through security and the two passport control kiosks at London St Pancras International before boarding the train.

But it was not to be. Instead, as already mentioned in my last blog, the Consultant at our regularly-attended hospital had already arranged for my beloved to receive her chemo intravenously on that same day. Therefore I had two valid return Eurostar tickets which were non-refundable. I would have been far happier to have given those tickets away to any interested couple if it wasn't for the rather small hindrance of having our names printed on them. After all, to make someone, or better still, two people, very grateful and happy would have helped atone for the loss, and therefore considered a privilege.

On the early hours of Wednesday morning, I laid on the bed next to my sleeping wife, in torment and unable to sleep. Where we should have been in bed at the Premier Inn St Pancras, instead, we were at home. I felt troubled by my own stupidity, my impulsiveness, going back to when my wife and I were sitting at St James Park fronting Buckingham Palace. It was here where the idea of a final trip abroad before the UK leaves the EU entered our minds. Alex was equally enthusiastic.

There was some justification for this decision. I was curious about what could happen at St Pancras International if we were to leave the European Union without a deal. On the worst possible scenario, the passport checks would be so much slower and more complicated than at present. After a no-deal Brexit, according to a couple of independent sources, very long queues could form, even snaking back to Warren Street Station! Of course, fully realising that if such would happen, Eurostar would quickly go out of business, and the threat of the French SNCF withdrawing permission for our trains to use their lines also stands as a very real possibility.

This and all other thoughts raced through my head as I lay there. Indeed, Project Fear would love to exaggerate any potential future disaster to unrealistic proportions in their attempts to thwart Brexit. But with us both heavily relying on medicine, the thought of its cross-Channel shipping suffering bureaucratic hindrance from mainland Europe does pose a very serious threat. Then not to mention empty superstore shelves due to panic-buying. Unfortunately, the optimistic view from the Daily Mail journalists, assuring us that all will be well after a no-deal Brexit, does not offer me a crumb of comfort. Instead, I feel the torment biting.

What is happening to our country? Could it be likened to a river approaching a deep waterfall? That is to say, is Brexit more of a judgement from God rather than a blessing, as the optimists believe?

This is one of many thoughts passing through my head as I lay there. Indeed, the Bible does predict that in the latter days, men "will run to and fro" and knowledge shall increase (Daniel 12:4). If I have gotten this interpretation right, then the whole world, and not just England, can be likened to a much wider river on its approach to a massive waterfall - the waterfall of universal tribulation. All life in the river doing its own thing, totally unaware of the catastrophe ahead. And so we drift with the current as we all make our own plans for an imagined golden future of national independence and sovereignty of patriotic fervour and optimism.

And as the waterfall gets nearer and nearer, the level of wickedness increases. But that not just the increase of bad deeds, even though the rise of the knife and gun crimes are making headlines every day. Rather, Britain is the birthplace of the greatest brain robbery ever to arise. This terrible deception had its origins here, in Britain, of perhaps I could refer to as the diabolical trinity of Uniformitarian Geology of Scotsman Charles Lyell, Organic Evolution of Lyell's English follower Charles Darwin, and Social Evolution and Eugenics of Darwin's English cousin Francis Galton. Such philosophies had not only brought about the Holocaust of Nazi Germany's national supremacy but remain active to this day in both in the medical world and in the subconscious of many an average Briton.

And as by these academic ethics continue to push away the truth of the Gospel until the very existence of God is ridiculed as ludicrous and a laughable joke by a very high percentage of the English population, any optimism attached to Brexit is eroded away to the point of believing it's a judgement of God for the nation's rejection of him rather than a deliverance from the chains of the EU.

And so I lay on the bed racked with despair. Grieving over the loss of our trip combined with our fate - a destiny which I have voted against.

And it was then I began to pray in an audible voice, even if it risked waking up my wife and keeping her awake. Indeed, the wonderful therapeutic benefit gotten through prayer cannot be exaggerated. Prayer has that power to free the soul.

As usual, I tend to open prayer with thanksgiving. This is when I count my blessings. This includes the breath of life passing through my nostrils, the ability to think, feel, understand, my health, the ability to love and everything of life. I thank God for my beloved and by God's grace, the ability to love and care for her during the darkest moments of our marriage where her health is concerned.

It was then when I remembered Abraham's plea for Sodom as recorded in Genesis 18:16-33. I really thank the Lord for having such a conversation recorded in Scripture. In it, there's so much to learn. And this includes the humility before God's holiness shown by the patriarch when he sees himself as dust and ashes. But through this Scripture comes my conviction that we as a nation exist with a reasonably healthy economy and a respectable level of prosperity because there are plenty of righteous people living in the land.

And so I cried out,
Lord, what about the righteous living with us? Will you pass judgement on the righteous as well as on the wicked? Will you pass judgement on us too, who are righteous before you?

Among other things, including our marriage relationship, I brought the same request over and over again. Then I pleaded with God that the hold of Evolution in our land will be loosened and souls saved. I even pleaded that we remain in the European Union, for we would be far better off remaining as a member than to leave. Then I conditioned the request with the words:
However, not my will, but your will, be done.
Thus, I left the decision to leave or remain in the EU entirely in God's hands.

In the end, I have prayed for a considerably long time, perhaps for a better part of an hour. Then when she realised that I have gone quiet, she turned and whispered that that was the best prayer she had ever heard. Encouraged, I dropped off to sleep, at last, around 4.30 am.

Although I felt much better when my friend Dave took us both to Frimley Park Hospital, where she had her chemo treatment, it still took a while before I was totally free of the torment. However, it's good to know that such prayer was able to move mountains.

Abraham's intercessory plea for Sodom is an eye-opener for why we as a nation keep on doing reasonably well despite its rejection of God's existence, its denial of Divine Creation and the reality of Noah's Flood. Simply this: Righteous people are living in the land. And if as little as ten righteous people living in Sodom was enough for the whole city to be spared for their sakes, how much more will the presence of churches will spare England also?

At this point, it's wise to ask: Who is a righteous person? Am I being presumptuous by calling myself righteous? Simply this: He is the man whom God imputes the righteousness of Jesus Christ into the sinner's account. Therefore, all his sins, past, present and future, are wiped out, and God sees this person in the same way he sees his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. As Paul the apostle wrote:
However, to the one who does not work but trust God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness. Romans 4:5.

Paul then goes on to write about Abraham and how he was credited with God's righteousness when he believed that children will come from his loins, including his seed, that is, Jesus Christ:
Abraham believed the Lord, and he credited to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:6.

Therefore, I'm absolutely convinced that there has never existed a person who was made righteous by his own deeds. Every single person who will enter heaven, from Adam, right through to the end of history, will be there because God has imputed his own righteousness into that man's account. There is no exception. As the Scripture says that no one is righteous, no one seeks after God, then imputed righteousness from God to the undeserving sinner has no other option.

This is dramatically demonstrated in Scripture when John the apostle sees a remarkable vision of a sealed scroll, and a challenge was thrown out to the entire heavenly population on who is worthy to undo the seals of the scroll. And it was found that not a single person throughout all of history was worthy to open the scroll! And at the vision, John burst into tears. That is until someone worthy to open the scroll was revealed to him, who is none less than God the Son, the crucified, buried and risen Jesus Christ (Revelation 5:1-5.)

That is an astonishing vision John had which endorses the eternal security of the believer. The true saint will once be saved always remain saved. And furthermore, any political opinion has no credit whatsoever. If the righteousness imputed into him is God's own righteousness, then this righteousness cannot be broken by political views, as God's own righteousness is eternal.

As such, I think about my good friends, including Dr Andrew Milnthorpe, who has voted to leave the EU. But I also have good friends who had voted to remain. Really, it doesn't matter. Righteousness comes through faith in Jesus and not by political opinion.

Therefore, it was perfectly right to intercede that night. But this wasn't the first time. I have prayed for our nation several times, maybe many times over the years. But if I did, then I can be thoroughly sure that it had to do with its sin of unbelief and its need for salvation, and not for any political direction.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Bored at Bournemouth?

There is always a risk when it comes to planning holidays, and especially when the oncology consultant comes to us with his answer to my question: Is it okay to take a break overseas?

Then comes his answer: No, we don't recommend any overseas travel at this stage.

Then the blood test result comes in. Bad news. Her white blood cell count is below the lower limit for chemotherapy. Therefore we must postpone the treatment until the following week. That is, she'll be here on the ninth of October instead of on the second. This will allow an extra week for the cell-count to reach an acceptable level in the meantime. 

Damn it! That means, instead of a trip to Brussels on the Eurostar on the 9th as originally planned, on that day it will be a much shorter and far less exciting trip to Frimley Park Hospital. Both my wife and I were downhearted but nevertheless, we both realise the wisdom of his advice. Furthermore, the fare we had already paid when booking the Eurostar will be lost, for the tickets are non-refundable. Also, according to the small print in the insurance policy, this too will invalidate any claim, simply because my beloved has been on chemo already before the booking was made.

As we both felt crushed and disappointed, my father-in-law drove us back home. Having arrived home, rather than sit around and mope, I decided to go swimming at our local leisure centre. Alex was at least pleased about this, as she knows that any physical exertion will do me much good, especially when feeling down.

It did. Whilst swimming in a designated lane, I toyed with the realisation that the second day of October will now be free. And it was less than 48 hours away. My hopes were lifted at the idea of a four-day break in Bournemouth which would include October 2nd - our 20th wedding anniversary. All I need to do was to book a room at an accessible hotel for that period and leave the very next day.

View from our hotel room balcony.

The booking at the town centre Premier Inn on the internet was successful, and with breakfast included, I didn't consider this as too expensive. Suddenly things have changed - for the better. Although I grieve over the loss of the Eurostar fare, this was offset by the fact that our actual wedding anniversary will be spent on the beach rather than in a hospital.

This is a good time to explain my love for this part of the world. I got to know this Dorset holiday resort as a teenager. I could add that I "discovered" Bournemouth on my own rather than taken there by my parents, who always took us boys - that is, my brother and me - to Brighton nearly every Summer Sunday, and later to Portsmouth. By contrast, Bournemouth is close to Swanage, itself at the start of the 96-mile 154 km Jurassic Coast, a world heritage site. It was Swanage where I was taken to by my primary school around 1960, and from childhood, I was always fascinated with the geological features surrounding this coastal town. On the north side, the chalk hill of Ballard Down slopes towards the coast to end as spectacular chalk cliffs, tapering at the Foreland alongside different chalk stacks, including the Old Harry Rocks, which can be seen from Bournemouth seafront. The continuous squawking of seagulls echoing around the stacks creates an atmosphere unique to the area. 

Since Bournemouth Station is the nearest coastal stop to Swanage, onward from my late teen years, I alighted at Bournemouth and looked around for a suitable hotel. Then I walked along the beach until I reached Sandbanks, a rich man's estate built literally on a naturally-formed sand spit. Then the chain ferry across the mouth of Poole harbour, to Studland Bay, then on foot into Swanage after crossing the spine of Ballard Down which, on a clear day, offers magnificent views of Poole Harbour, the second largest natural inlet after Sydney, along with Bournemouth and its apparently thin coastline. And I then just turned to face the opposite way towards a panoramic view of Swanage, with Peveril Point and Durlston Head forming the backdrop for the eastern coastline of Purbeck.

It was such walks I did during my late teenage years and early twenties which set the precedent for world travel and backpacking. Although I have in the past received criticism by other Christians for being a loner, I have never regarded myself as unsociable, it was after I became a Christian, when I began to enjoy solitude to a greater extent as I began to link such astonishing phenomena with God's creative handiwork.

Alex and I arrived at Bournemouth on the eve of our anniversary. Being off-season, it was quite different from when we were there in July 2014 - in the thick of Summer, with the sun beating down. Back then, the tourist crowds and foreign students kept the tills constantly ringing. Food stalls such as ice-cream parlours, hot-dog stands, pasty bakeries, soft drink kiosks, all drawing in the crowds. Music drifted from the bandstand overlooking the central gardens, which itself was bustling with the crowds - cramming the wide footways, dotting the lawns with picnic sheets, the beach was packed with little space in between, a large crowd swam out into the gently lapping waves, the pier was alive with jostling crowds despite the entrance toll. Indeed, the whole town was thriving in a cheerful holiday mood, with every retail merchant glowing with joy as he checks his swelling bank account. And in the evenings, the bustling noise of nightlife was thriving, with crowds lasting into midnight, and on the sandy beach, foreign students cooked over lit bonfires.

Chalk cliffs and stacks of Ballard Down, Swanage.

What a contrast we felt this time, off-season. The sky was overcast, the winds blew. As we stood on the pier (free entry during the evenings) - I watched a club-group of surfers ride the waves. We were rather hungry, but not an open stall to be seen. Just as the beach was deserted, save for the surfers, so the promenade and all the stalls were closed, all of them boarded up. The Square, which before in 2014, was packed out, including a queue for the spinner, now lies deserted, with just a small group of youngsters sitting on one of the benches, chattering. Indeed, the whole town looked a dismal sight, yet the waves of the sea kept rolling in, the sight of Ballard Down in the distance remains unmoved, the seagulls continue to squawk, and so the world turns, as the warmth of Summer gradually drops away during this Autumnal intermediatory period before Jack Frost arrives to carpet the streets, the rooftops and the beach above the splash zone with Winter snow.

Alex and I enjoy just being together, even if the resort looks bleak and lifeless. That is the most important thing - the two of us together and furthermore, not confined to a hospital building. Fortunately, a Tesco Express store was open for trading with the locals, and we bought some snacks to take back to our hotel.

I stood at our room balcony, looking out across the night, with countless light bulbs illuminating the resort with a vast array of spotlights, yet all coming to an abrupt end at the beach, which beyond, the darkness hanging over the sea also enveloping the faraway Ballard Down with invisibility, save for an array of far-distant streetlights of neighbouring Swanage.

It was then I had to face reality. This was still England. It was still very different from where we went to for our honeymoon and for our tenth anniversary. Those dates were at the Greek island of Rhodes. As I said to my beloved exactly ten years earlier, whenever our anniversary hits a zero, we would return to Rhodes. But ten years ago we were both reasonably healthy. Little did we know, as God certainly knew, that Alex would be confined to a wheelchair, and furthermore, we'll be celebrating our 20th halfway through chemotherapy treatment.

I recall how on both occasions we strolled along the Greek beach, especially after nightfall, and listening as the Mediterranean waves lapped gently upon the stone beach. A shooting star streaked across the sky as we stood in each other's arms. In addition to this, there was this unique herbal aroma in the warm, still air. And the sky remained cloudless during each day, every night the stars shone brightly. It almost felt that the Garden of Eden was already restored. And I expressed my desire to return to Rhodes every ten years.

These thoughts went through my mind as I stood on the balcony. No matter how much I may love the Dorset coast, it's not the Mediterranean with its own atmosphere. But throughout the last twenty years, our marriage, no doubt like any other, has had its ups and downs. The ups including watching her give birth, and to hold our newborn daughter in my arms as her tiny figure slept soundly. Yet I have wept aloud during a church service here at Ascot, of shattered dreams and of blasted hope. I have watched my beloved's health deteriorate, I have watched as she was near to paralysis. For four whole months, she was an inpatient with a neurotic disorder with which the medical team wasn't able to treat save a lifelong prescription. Each day I did not fail to board a train to spend a couple of hours together.

Then the news of her cancer and the appropriate treatment which followed, which at present, includes chemotherapy. Yet it's my constant prayer that God will always give me the power and strength to love her to the full, unconditionally.

And so as I stood on the balcony, I overcome such thoughts by thanking God for this holiday in Bournemouth. Thanking God that here we are, in a hotel and not in a hospital, despite that there is an NHS hospital nearby in case of an emergency. In fact, directly below where I was standing, an ambulance was parked. I thanked God that it wasn't for either of us.

The goodness of God was demonstrated by waking up on our anniversary to a clear sky and the sun shining. After breakfast, I strolled, pushing my wife's wheelchair, along the level esplanade towards the neighbouring resort of Boscombe, a pleasant 35-40-minute walk of 1.5 miles. Amazingly, it was warm enough for a good swim in the sea. At first, I was totally alone in the water, but apparently, I must have set an example for a few other men to follow. I must have bathed for a better part of an hour, but it was enough to reminiscence on Rhodes. Boscombe was almost as good, it is a much smaller and more sedate resort than Bournemouth, therefore I had a preference for this spot. 

The next day brought overcast skies, wind and a driving drizzle. But still, no time for boredom, as we visited the Oceanarium, located on the esplanade just west of the pier. True enough, it doesn't hold a candle to Sea World of 1995 San Diego splendour, but it was good enough to stay out of the weather. And at least we both stayed dry. Back in 1995, I got thoroughly soaked through and through as I sat in the audience, watching an orca perform. But it wasn't the soaking which bothered me. It was the thought of a killer whale held in captivity, along with the seals and the dolphins. They shouldn't be there. They should be out in the open ocean, enjoying the boundless freedom for which God had created them. The thorough soaking, whilst fully clothed, might have been the message the orca was trying to tell us all! I have to admit, that evening I left Sea World with mixed feelings.

Over here, all aquatic life seems to be happy in their confined environment. Perhaps born in captivity or brought in while very young (the black-tip sharks were rather small) at least they are used to being where they are.

 Bournemouth Oceanarium, taken October 2019

Outside the waves were high on the sandy beach, creating a continuous, non-stop roar. But there is one other spot I would have liked to have been at that moment. That is at Anvil Point right next to Tilly Whim Caves, on the other side of Swanage. These caves are not natural, but they are what's left of a long-disused quarry for Purbeck Stone, a very hard and resistant rock, very different to the soft clay and sandstone rocks which makes up the cliffs of Bournemouth.

When the wind is blowing and the tide is in, massive waves from the open Channel crashes hard against a natural ledge which juts out from the cliff face. The tremendous power and force as the rock remain uneroded, sending the swell sky-high with a thunderous noise. I have stood there in the past and watched with excitement at the demonstration of God's power over the seas, which is a fulfilment of what the Scripture says:

Or who shut up the seas with doors, when it brake forth as if it had issued out of the womb?
When I made the cloud its garment thereof, and thick darkness a swaddling-band for it,
And brake up for it my decreed place, and set bars and doors,
And said, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed?
Job 38:8-11 AV.

It's so true! Powerful waves crash against the rocks, and I might even get splashed, yet the sea cannot reach out its arms to drag me into it and drown. Why? Because I'm just out of its reach. I'm was standing just on the safe side of the "bars and doors" God had already decreed. Instead, this spot is one of many places where I can worship the Creator with reverence and fear at his workmanship.