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Friday, 28 December 2012

Travels - Looking Back...

Feeling a little down with post-Christmas blues? I guess you know what I'm talking about: weeks in preparation - buying of presents, Christmas tree, baubles and other decorations and coloured lights, both inside and outside the home. The time and effort spent putting all these up, along with writing and dispatching of cards, and with always the case with cards, you receive one from the only person you totally forgot to include on your list. And it's already Christmas Eve.

Then whoosh! It's all over. The tree, decorations, cards and lights are still all up but all looking somewhat tired. The bins outside are crammed with torn Christmas wrapping paper, together with the ribs of the turkey, along with a few boiled sprouts the children didn't eat. While the kids happily play with their presents before boredom with them begins to set in, you ponder whether the present given to your loved one was really appreciated, or you received as a gift a piece of clothing which was either a horrible colour, does not fit properly, or just plain ghastly - or all of these.

Buying presents for my nieces when they were children was a nightmare, believe me. How does a grown up, unmarried male know what's in the mind of a female child? And not having much cash to boot either? These days I resort to gift vouchers, a tremendous idea thought up by the popular superstore chains, for those of the likes of myself who haven't a single clue what to buy for my grown up female relatives. With vouchers, even though they lack the Christmas glitter, they will always guarantee genuine appreciation!

Christmas comes round every year, and its very much the same, year in, year out. Although I love my nieces to bits, if my brother had a son as well, I would have thought Christmas would have been more to my appeal. Think of the electric train sets I would have bought, and on the day help my nephew lay the tracks, erect the station, position the tiny people on the platform, and making sure there is more than one hand control, and more than one engine, both of us would have raced our trains round and round the circuit. And each year the addition of tracks bought would have slowly turned the simple circuit into a complex layout which would have suited a hobbyist's dream. Lets face it, the only difference between a boy and a man is that a man's toys are more expensive.

Indeed, playing with your nephew's (or your son's) electric train set while Grandfather sitting next to the blazing coal fire smoking a Havana cigar would have made such a dream Christmas so memorable. These would have been special days in the year which would have stood out from the humdrum of a daily routine of working to keep the weekly or monthly budget afloat.

While Christmas can be either a dream fulfilled, or a horrible nightmare with unwanted presents and flaming rows in the household or among visiting relatives, the special day comes round annually at a regular pace. At the time of writing, (on December 28th) I can say,
Oh well, just three hundred an sixty-two days to go, and it will be Christmas once again, yippee!
 - there are days in my life which stand glorious among the humdrum of day-to-day living. The main difference to these days and Christmas day is that these special days can occur only once in a lifetime, and if they indeed fulfilled a dream, those days will hold memories to the extent that no Christmas day can match. I'm talking about my travels, particularly when I was single.

Some of my readers had shown interest in my travel experience, along with my niece. So I thought, while relaxing during the Christmas break, not going anywhere today as the weather outside looks particularly gloomy, I thought a take the opportunity to share one or two experiences here. And this may also be a good time to write, as this is the time of the year when post-Christmas holiday booking frenzy meets its peak. The British public have now turned to the coming summer break, a panacea for the depth of the gloom of post-Christmas blues.

Perhaps unlike Christmas, no two travel experiences are the same, even if the same location is visited more than once. One striking example of this is the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. My first visit to this incredible location was in 1978. To get there, I alighted the Greyhound Bus terminal at Flagstaff, as I recall, the only one to do so too, at what I thought was five in the morning. When I checked the time, it was actually four o'clock, as I had already entered into Pacific Time zone, from Mountain Time. I groaned within at the three hour wait at the terminal before a connecting Greyhound bus whisked me to the South Rim, after leaving much of my belongings at a left-luggage locker at the bus terminal.

By contrast, when I visited the Grand Canyon again in 1995, again I arrived at the terminal at four in the morning. But this time the connecting Greyhound bus was replaced by a private taxi service which left at seven o'clock. When the driver finally arrived, I paid him his fee, which by then a group of backpackers, like myself, had assembled in the departure lounge. When the driver made his count, he approached me and asked,

Do you mind if you wait here, and I take the rest to the Canyon, then I return to collect you?

Yes I DO mind! I answered firmly without being rude. I have paid you my fee, you are obliged to take me with the others.

But you will have to sit on the floor, the driver objected.

Okay, I'll sit on the floor. But you are taking me. Now.

Evening view of the Canyon from South Rim, 1995

As in 1978, I arrived at the South Rim in good time to start the hike. But in 1978 I come to learn an important lesson. That is, to never go on a trip of this extent with a cheap camera, or lacking photographic experience. Many of the Canyon photos from that year failed, when I had the film processed after returning home. I was bitterly disappointed.

In 1978 I did not expect to hike the trail down to the bottom of the Canyon, but an opportunity arose when I asked at Bright Angel Lodge about accommodation. Due to a cancellation, a bed became available at Phantom Ranch, right at the bottom, not far from the Colorado River. Without hesitation I bought the ticket. But my mistake back then was that I lingered for too long at the rim, and I did not begin the hike on Bright Angel Trail until late afternoon.

But once started, as the switchbacks making up Jacob's Ladder took me deep below the rim, the clouds gathered above and a thunder growled. August was the most likely time of the year for summer storms across Arizona. It rained a little, but not enough for a drenching. At Indian Gardens, I passed a sign warning of storm floods. Just the sort of encouragement I needed.

Indian Gardens, halfway down into the Canyon, 1995.

After crossing Tonto Plateau, where Indian Gardens are located, the trail descended into the aptly-named Devil's Corkscrew. Here, the trail plunged along switchbacks into the ravine, resulting in gigantic cliffs towering over me, as I head towards the river. As the thunder rolled, this gave me an eerie experience, totally alone in this vast Inner Gorge of the Canyon, but I kept on, as it was also getting dark. As I approached the river, in the midst of the constant buzz of millions of insects, I saw a fellow human enter a hut, and by then feeling ever so lonely, I called out to him.

He invited me into a hut, where a couple more were having a bite to eat. After accepting his offer of a snack, they virtually begged me to spend the night with them in the shed. But I insisted in finishing the hike and I left them with a friendly farewell before setting off, as the river came to view for the first time.

The river came to view for the first time, 1995.

I walked for a while along the river until I came to Silver bridge, one of only two bridges over the river in the entire Canyon. After arriving at Phantom Ranch, which was by then totally dark, I used the ticket to claim a bed for the night. I woke up at around four that morning to begin the return hike soon afterwards, as I was advised at the Bright Angel Lodge the day before.

In the 1995 hike, exactly the same route was taken, and I also had a better camera and greater experience. Also this time I had to carry my full rucksack on my shoulders, as the left-luggage lockers at the Flagstaff Greyhound bus station were all removed by then, most likely for security purposes. I also made double sure that my camera was fully up and running. In fact, that was why I hiked again in 1995. To take pictures of scenery where the first camera failed in 1978. Not was only the photography on the second hike more successful, but I stayed in the vicinity of the river for much later in the morning, giving me views of the scenery I missed out on the first hike in 1978. But added to this, where in 1978 I headed direct from the Ranch to the trail head back on South rim, in 1995, on my way back, I took a detour at Indian Gardens to Plateau Point, which gives fantastic views of the Colorado River, adding three more miles to the whole hike, making it about 23 miles long in total.

View of the Colorado River from Plateau Point, 1995.

I share on how two hiking experiences at the same location and on the same route can also be so different from each other, somewhat unlike Christmas, which each year we expect the same. But travel, especially as a lone backpacker, brings many diverse experiences, each different from each other, yet none are ever forgotten. One reader has already suggested writing a book on my travels, something I would undertake if only a fixed agreement with a publisher can be set up. But unfortunately, this is easier said than done.

These days, as one of a married couple, travel is far more restricted to the Mediterranean, but as a package tourist rather than a backpacker, I still get a thrill of the beautiful places visited, whether natural or historic. Fine architecture can inspire me just as much as a mountain stream, the crashing of the ocean waves on to the rocks or a delicate flower blossoming.

As Psalm 104:24 reads:
O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.

Travel has enriched me spiritually. Yet the above testimony is only a fraction of my experiences overseas. I would advice anyone to travel, especially a Christian. No doubt, you will never regret it.

Especially if you bought your loved one an unwanted Christmas present.

Happy new year to you all.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Christmas Is About Easter

Yes, it's that time of the year again. The appearance of fir trees, baubles, coloured lights displayed both inside and outside homes, offices, shops and hanging across the main street and shopping malls. Immortal St. Nicholas wakes up and stretches his arms as he rises once again after eleven months of sleep. As he gazes into the mirror, he sees that despite nearly a year of fasting, he had not lost a single pound in weight. Satisfied, he reaches to his wardrobe and dons his familiar red coat. As he feeds his reindeer, once again he could not be bothered to shave. And as the big day draws near, children everywhere feel their excitement build up in anticipation of what they will find as presents once the colourful wrapping is torn to shreds.

Ah, Christmas! A time to down work tools, put up my feet with a glass of sherry and relax as the snowflakes fall gently outside. Other men would also anticipate a box of cigars. Ah, the aroma of cigar filling the air. It certainly brings in the right kind of atmosphere into the home, while the mantle of snow builds outside, the younger children engaged in their new toys, the teenager engrossed in his new Ipad, while no one is at least bothered to check what sort of rubbish programmes and constant repeats the TV will churn out again, year after year. And Mum, constantly busy in the kitchen while the turkey and potatoes bake slowly to the perfect roast. She also checks the medical box to ensure she had not forgotten to buy the Alka Salza, in anticipation of a stomach in pain with indigestion. Remembering this was essential, for not a single shop will be trading at all up and down the land. A vast contrast to Saturday, just three days earlier, when the street was packed with shoppers, each one jostling to ensure that St. Nicholas had his work cut out.

Seriously, I love Christmas. Generally, I see the holidays as a respite from the daily routine of work in the midst of a cold, often wet season. Together with this, enjoying the company of family members, something which does not occur on a daily basis. But for me personally, there is more, a lot more. We are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ the Saviour. Then again, after hearing about the birth of Jesus, one dear female exclaimed,
Oh please, don't start bringing religion into the festivities!

In a way, she was right. Nothing can be so morose as religious people going about their ways, looking serious, sad even, while giving us that soul-searching look. Last week one of our Elders was sharing with us about one Christmas day while he was an undergraduate student. He decided to spend the day in his room, praying and fasting, with the hope that this will bring him closer to God. The exact reverse resulted, with him being as far from God than he ever felt before, along with the rest of his family displeased and irked with his "spirituality" spoiling their festive day. Yet to many among the religious, he would have been regarded as a pillar of the faith. No wonder the Lord Jesus had something to say to the Pharisees, who had a very similar religious viewpoint.

Bethlehem, I think, is a very familiar location to the Christianised Western population. But I often wonder what is the percentage of the population who had actually visited Bethlehem.  I recall quite clearly sitting on the floor with all the other pupils during school morning assembly in the 1960s, when our strict, cane-wielding Deputy Head telling us about the site of the Nativity being represented by a star in Bethlehem. I often wondered whether he had seen the star himself, or did another tell him of it? I will never know, since he had long passed away, but in thinking about it, his age corresponded to the time when the British Mandate held power over the Middle East. As a serving soldier, he could well have visited Bethlehem. Yet this information stuck, even when I was an atheist during my late teens.

It was in 1976 that I flew to Israel for the first time in my life to try some backpacking, which included a visit to Bethlehem. From Jerusalem, where I was staying, I took an Arab bus to spend the day in Bethlehem. Once inside the Church of the Nativity, I descended some stairs to the crypt, built over a cave which contained an altar over a fourteen-pronged star, with the site of the manger nearby. I then returned to Bethlehem in 1993 to spend even longer inside the church of the Nativity, contemplating as I kneeled over the same star, kept thoroughly clean and well maintained as thousands of pilgrims and visitors pray and gaze over it each year.

The Star at Bethlehem, the site of the Nativity.

Kneeling over the star has given me a new meaning of Christmas. I felt the presence of God there. Whether this was the actual site of the birth, of course, is debatable. The Bible does not mention anything about a cave. Only in Matthew 2:11 we are told that Joseph and Mary were living in a house in Bethlehem at the time of the arrival of the Magi, which could be several months after the birth. With no room at the inn at the time of the birth, indeed the manger may have been housed in a cave. But they did not remain there after the census was completed. By the time of the eighth day after birth, when the baby was presented at the Temple, the family by then might well have been properly housed.

At church we sing carols like Silent Night and Away in a manger, both depicting Jesus as sleeping quietly and then waking up without uttering a single cry. To me that's nonsense. First, during the birth itself, the baby had to cry. This was a necessity in order for his lungs to inflate with air as he left the womb. Then afterwards, to cry for milk was not sinful, but a life-saving message to attract his mother's attention that he needed to be fed. Then not to mention the need for bathing and sanitation (diaper change, whatever was used back then.) Then on the eighth day, the infant was to experience pain for the first time. This was the rite of circumcision, the shriek uttered from the sharp pain resulted of the covenant he himself had imposed on Abraham and his descendants. By the eighth day, baby Jesus was already familiar with pain.

We are then told by Luke that Jesus made annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem as he was growing up, who by then already had younger siblings, each of them crying, making a fuss and I'm sure, testing their parent's patience. Young Jesus most likely had to watch his siblings receive corporal punishment, even though he himself was sinless, this did not apply to his brothers, who were tainted with sin. But on top of all this, I would have been very surprised if Joseph had not taken young Jesus to Hebron, to pay homage to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob buried at the Cave of Machpelah.

The fortress over the Cave of Machpelah, Hebron.

The fortress was built over the Cave of Machpelah by Herod the Great before the birth of Jesus Christ. Therefore the very same masonry we see today must have been familiar with Joseph, Jesus and his brothers. In 1976, I had the privilege to not only stand by the fortress, but to actually enter and stand inside, thanks to the help of an Arab local I happen to befriend. Inside I was able to look at the cenotaphs of Abraham and those of his family. I also re-visited Hebron once more in 1994, but this time I was unable to enter, as the fortress was closed to the public during that year. Nevertheless, to look and touch the very same wall that Jesus was familiar with was indeed edifying!

During his adolescence, Jesus most likely worked with his father in the carpentry trade. As he handled the wood, he became familiar with the pungent as well as the texture. Yet, at the back of his mind, he knew that one day he will be nailed to a cross made of the same material. Personally, I believe that much of his life was spent with his father in Nazareth before entering into his ministry. Although men such as William Blake promoted the idea that Jesus as a boy had set foot in England, and many Englishmen believed this, the truth is far more likely that he hardly left Nazareth except on his annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

At the accumulation of his three year ministry, Jesus was taken by his Jewish accusers to be tried by the Roman governor Pilate, who sentenced him to be crucified. When he was led out of Jerusalem, carrying his cross, how possible it would have been for the sweet smell and texture of the wood having revived memories of happier days when he worked under his father's protection? When the Roman soldiers hammered the nails into his flesh, did he have memory flashes of doing the very same thing himself, not in crucifying anyone but in the making of furniture?

On the cross of wood he was so familiar with, he died, atoning for the sins of the world. He was buried, and three days later, was physically resurrected. This was the final proof that this Jesus, born as a helpless baby and placed in a feeding trough, was Almighty God after all, who fully accomplished what he set out to do. Indeed, Christmas is about Easter.

And that is something we can celebrate - even inviting St. Nicholas to the party.


I wish all my readers and followers a very merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous year to come.
May God bless you richly.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Oh, The Things We Don't See...

Earlier in the week, my wife Alex and I watched Simon Reeve's report about Cuba on the BBC. As with all documentaries about far away lands, we as viewers get the impression that the presenter is all alone, by himself. Bravely trekking through often dangerous territory unknown to tourists, or through a politically explosive environment, the presenter reels off a huge amount of local knowledge, vast enough for the likes of me to ponder how on earth could he have possibly stored it all in his head, and breeze it all out without making any error on the facts. Of course, when he talks, he always looks straight at us from the television screen. Then again don't we all look at the person listening when we are talking to him?

I have watched several travel programmes made by Reeve, including a series about circumventing the whole of the Indian Ocean from South Africa to Perth in Australia. During  this particular journey, he visited countries of political and environmental extremes such as from the war-torn Somalia Republic on the eastern horn of Africa, to the paradise islands of the Maldives. He also made three Round-the-World documentaries as he travelled along the Tropic of Capricorn, the Equator and the Tropic of Cancer. Yet despite his enviable travel adventures and the national fame which came with them, he is a character I grew to admire and respect. One of his attributes I like so much is the way he dresses during presentation: not in a suit and tie but in casual clothes with some face stubble, without the need to deliberately look scruffy, and with a personality to match.

BBC Presenter Simon Reeve

Curious, I decided to check out this globe-trotting presenter on his own website. When I clicked, About Simon, which is to do with his biography, these are the words I read:

Simon attended a local comprehensive in West London and was described as an unspectacular student. After a series of terrible jobs, including working in a supermarket, a jewellery shop and a charity shop, Simon finally found gainful employment as a post boy at a national newspaper.

What? Terrible jobs? Terrible jobs? Wow! So working in Retail is classed as a terrible job? I must admit, I felt somewhat aghast in reading that statement, although I'm not sure if Reeve himself was the author or was this the opinion of the biographer - as the whole page was written referring to him in the third person. True, I guess that a routine in the supermarket can be stressful, with a huge influx of customers, many of them becoming impatient as they wait unnecessarily long at the checkout line. Then again, the job title Shelf Stacker does not convey the idea of the employee having graduated from Oxford. But surely, working at a jewellers must be a totally different environment altogether. Not even during the Christmas rush do people make a beeline to the jewellers. Maybe that was it, the job became crushingly boring, even if the assistant was bestowed with a very high level of trust by the shop owner or manager. However, such attitude reflect our class-warped British culture. It is also true that many of these Retail posts are taken by immigrants, mostly from Eastern Europe but also from Asia. The common thought is that many Britons see Retail as something beneath them, as the above statement so ardently reflects. I would hate how this biographer would have thought about domestic window cleaning, particularly in Winter.

The fact that Simon was "an unspectacular student" was just a posh way of saying that he was either dim in his youth, or he just wasn't interested in the curriculum. He attended a comprehensive, the equivalent of the secondary modern which I attended. In other words, Simon Reeve failed his primary eleven-plus exam and was not selected for grammar school, nor did he wear the famous School Tie of Eton, Harrow, Rugby or Winchester. Yet during his employment as a newspaper post boy, he found time to study foreign current affairs, from which he submitted papers from which publication lead to his big break with the BBC. In other words, he graduated to degree status at home.

Therefore at present, we see him as if he travels the world all alone, well not quite. He always had a local guide with him, and whenever he knocks on the door to where he is to spend the night, the door always opens and is warmly welcomed. I can compare this with my own travels. For example, when I arrived at New York from London in 1995, I entered one backpacker's hostel after another without being offered a bed, due to a surge in students spending the last week or so on the town before returning to their colleges. This was after making one or two calls from my apartment before take-off. Eventually I found a squalid, cockroach-infested room at a seedy hotel on 8th Avenue. And I had no guide, nor was I was in company at the host's table, as Reeve always seem to be.

And oh yes, talking at the TV screen, often walking while doing so. If I was to talk alone into the air, anyone watching would think that I was a nut who had escaped from a loony asylum. With Reeve, we all watch, glued to the screen. There is the difference. Neither Reeve or any other presenter travel alone. Instead, they always have a team with them, including camera crew and a director, plus various other crew members as needed. Having a team also protects him from danger if broadcasting from a political dangerous territory, as he has the whole corporation behind him, who was involved in arranging the local guide as well as hotels, guesthouses and private homes, along with all travel payments and facilities, and what to present along with how to go about it.

That is what is hidden in a typical TV documentary, especially involving travel, the things we don't see. The TV crew who accompanies the presenter, and makes sure everything goes hunky-dory. What I'm really saying is, if given the chance and allowed the right preparations, even over months, I have actually pondered whether presenting such a documentary would have been within my abilities! With such back-up, any potential error in facts would be edited out, and with a speech impediment, a more than average number of outtakes may be required. The only setback to this idea is that our culture requires that a university degree is demanded for this occupation. Simon Reeve has disproved this. Only having done a mere average at school, I believe that a period of his life working at a "terrible job" had benefited him well, refining his character and developed a pleasing personality.

As for myself making a presentation, let's take the Grand Canyon, a location which has always dazzled me since I saw it first time in 1978. We know that it is approximately two hundred miles long and about 1,600 metres deep. It is a huge gorge cut through the Colorado Plateau by the constant flow of the Colorado River. Between 1880 and 1881, Clarence Dutton, a British geologist who also had an interest in eastern religions, gave names to many of the more spectacular features within the Canyon. Buttes such as Buddha Temple, Zoroaster Temple, Cheops Pyramid, Isis Temple, Wotan's Throne, Deva Temple, Brahma Temple, Hopi Point, O'Neal's Butte, Plateau Point, Tonto Plateau and other features were all unknown to me when I completed the two hikes to the River, first in 1978 then again in 1995. But with thorough research, using both maps and photography, all of these became familiar. How possible would it have been to research before the hike, and then give a running commentary on the trail, together with an expert guide who would have corrected any error, itself edited out before broadcast.

Brahman Temple (left) and Zoroaster Temple buttes overlook the Colorado River, Grand Canyon, 1995.

This is one of the things people don't see in me and other like individuals. The potential to shine. Instead, the powers that be looks for a piece of paper with a degree printed on it, along with the sparkling personality which would have enhanced the delivery of the message.

Something like this has occurred already. Back in 1990, I offered to write an article for my former church elder. When the elder received it, he read it and looking surprised, asked,

Frank, did you really write this?

Yes, yes, I wrote it. You thought I was illiterate, didn't you?

(Implied) Illiterate? No, not necessarily. But window cleaners are supposed never to have shone at school, else you would have had a far more respectable career.

A few years later, I offered to write an article about church members helping the unemployed find work. After interviewing the person involved, to collect enough material for composition, I arrived home and started writing. The person I submitted the article to was somewhat flabbergasted! Window cleaners are not supposed to have produced such written work. According to our British culture, such labourers are supposed to be dim. A week later, I believe, the article appeared in a local newspaper, one of quite a number of articles I have written and were published.

I am amazed at the attitude of Paul the apostle. Had he been around in my lifetime, he would have taken me by the scruff of the neck, rebuked my pessimism (inherited from my Dad) and would have told me that God has given everything I needed, so get writing! Because in his first letter to the church in Corinth, he wrote:

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate. Isaiah 29:14, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.

I thank and praise my Saviour that he has given me enough enlightenment to glorify him. And that is what I wish to do, glorify God. Paul has also written in his same letter that we as believers are all members of the body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 12). Within this chapter, he emphasises that the parts which are weaker in the body are treated with greater modesty and respect, a direct rebuke to the British obsession with social class.

Am I ashamed of my job as a window cleaner? Do I view my work as "a terrible job?" No not at all.

At the time of this writing, I have been earning a living cleaning windows for the last 32 years. As one who is self employed, cleaning windows comes with responsibility, including that of ensuring that all expenses are met, we are able to eat and stay clothed, keep a roof over our heads, as well as being accountable to the taxman. And if God permits, enjoy some travel too. Sure, my line of work has collected some teasing, like "an up-and-down job" (in referring to the ladders used) and even ridiculous titles, like "Vision Technician" - thought up by the middle classes as a vain attempt to grant us greater respect.

Paul wrote that whatever we do, do for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31.)

Now that is something for Simon Reeve to ponder on.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Is God Unfair?

Let's take the year 1970. Somewhere in the UK, Paul was taking a summer break from his University studies and was spending a month in Africa. Not only did such an experience had enriched his life as an undergraduate, but also enjoyed social life on campus. In his boyhood, Paul was selected to attend a grammar school as a result of passing his eleven-plus primary school exam. Furthermore, Paul grew up in a Christian home, and as a student, he was already a believer.

Paul is a couple of years older than me, but in 1970 I never knew this fellow. Instead, in that same year I was already at work in a cabinet-making factory where I had to spend every morning pushing a broom, got myself covered in muck as I had to take on the lowest of dogsbody tasks given to me, while enduring teasing, bullying and endless smut at an all-male environment, and I was generally unhappy. This was the end result of miserably failing my eleven-plus, attended a Secondary Modern school for less than four years, and left without any qualifications in 1968. Spiritually, I was on the road to atheism, which peaked between the ages of 18-20 years old.

So if both Paul and I had died for some reason, either illness or from an accident, Paul - after a cosy life in further education and far-away travel, would have gone to his beautiful mansion prepared for him in Heaven. By contrast, I would have tumbled headlong to Hell.

It was more than twenty years later, sometime in the early 1990s, that Paul brought his family south from the Midlands area to Ascot due to his work commitments, and joined Ascot Baptist Church where he and I met for the first time, after which we became firm friends. At present, he is back in Africa for the third time this year, having his airline ticket paid for by his employer to complete a project, while I struggle to keep our home afloat by working outdoors in cold wintry weather cleaning windows. Furthermore, my work as a domestic window cleaner often involve putting my neck on the line. At such precarious moments, one false move and I would be lying on the ground shocked and in pain, with a couple of fractured bones, something which occurred in 1997, putting me in hospital for five days and off work for a further two months. Maybe next time I come such a cropper, I could end up with paralysis. Life does not seem fair, does it? It is when I get out of bed on a weekday morning to find it's raining, cold, blowing a gale, dreading an awkward customer, or simply wanting to get back between the sheets that I wish I had done much better at school.

Then there are the television reporters. Oh yes, TV reporters! Some are famous, like David Attenborough, who has travelled the world many times over to pursue his passion, his love for animals. And other journalists who have reported on exotic locations, such as the Victoria Falls, The Amazon, the Pyramids of Egypt or the Australian outback, for a living - much more exciting than cleaning windows or even a daily routine in the office! And later this week I will be tuned in to Simon Reeve's report on his trip to Cuba, a week after watching Dallas Campbell fly around the world to report on civil engineering achievements. With all airline tickets and hotel accommodation paid by us, the TV Licence payer. Then there are those who are skillful in diving and have delivered stunning images of coral reefs and other marine life. These are all occupations which demand a University degree. For me, to have such an occupation would be living out my dreams!

Often I find myself sighing: Why, why, was I such a failure at school? Life is so unfair!

Journalists are paid to report on far-away locations such as the Victoria Falls, Zambia.

When feeling this way, it is so easy to forget the blessings I have enjoyed. My own travels for example, detailed in my last two blogs. Yet, no matter how much I try to console myself, I still have this nagging feeling - Is God fair? My friend Paul is typical of many a British Christian - middle class, well educated and holding a respectable profession with a good income, as well as opportunities for paid travel. While our church buildings are filled each Sunday with such people, our contrasting prison population, for example, is made up of inmates mainly without academic qualifications, or those who had dropped out of school, those who grew up in sink estates with little or no opportunities for proper schooling, those who couldn't find a decent job, therefore all resorting one way or another to crime. And I could bet to my last penny that every one of them would be antagonistic against the church or Christianity. One or two may "spirit out" - in occult or even New Age, but they would leave out anything to do with church. My late Uncle once explained to me that their problem was a lack of education. I think that he was right. It does look to me that education and church make good bedfellows.

Then there are even greater contrasts. Earlier this week, we receive the news that Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, is pregnant. The nation rejoices over the promise of an heir, third in line to the Throne. She pukes up with morning sickness, typical of pregnancy and a sign of a healthy foetus. She spends several days at Edward VII Hospital in London to ensure that she will be okay. On the other hand, there are thousands of ill children and families suffering malnutrition in the Third World, particularly in parts of Africa, and they are left to die, because of insufficient food supplies, lack of hospital facilities, or no medical aid at hand.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation posted a photo on facebook highlighting what we believe are God's priorities in the Christian.

We as Christians indeed may thank Jesus for helping us to find our car keys, or to score a goal, and yet forget the starving child! Apparently the first two with such trifling matters for prayer are saved and attract God's attention while the starving child is lost and ignored. God seems so unfair.

These sort of things have caused me to ask: Why?

Why are our churches in the UK filled with mainly well educated, middle class professionals, while most of the not-so-learned are lost?

Why does God listen to the prayer over lost car keys, while thousands of miles away, a mother is crying rivers of tears as she holds her dead infant offspring in her arms?

Indeed, why was one unlucky enough to have been born around 1894 only to be shot dead aged 22 in the Great War? Or to be born in 1920 again to be killed in the Second World War in the prime of his life, while from 1950 onward the "Baby Boomers" never had it so good?

Casualties of war.

And why does God say in the Bible, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and compassion on whom I will have compassion? (Exodus 33:19, Romans 9:15).
And also, Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated? (Malachi 1:2-3, Romans 9:13.)

Or this, All that the Father gives me will come to me...No one can come to me unless the Father draws him and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:37,44.)

Or this: ...but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice and follow me...(John 10:26-27.)

With these and other similar scriptures, it is supposed that God chooses those to be saved, leaving others to perish without any chance to repent. We can conclude then, that here in England at least, God has a preference for the better educated middle classes. Furthermore, he seems to favour the Brits far more than the bulk of Asia, where Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other non-Christian religions dominate. It seems to me that at the end of the day, God's love is restricted to the English-speaking folk with brains and some cash in their pockets!

And I guess this would have been the conclusion made by someone from the planet Krypton, after paying us a visit to undertake a thorough research on global spirituality.

Is God unfair? Yes -  to me, it does look as if God is unfair. Especially about him loving Jacob and hating Esau. Poor Esau! That is really a problem. If God chooses who to love, who else does he love? The guy dressed in suit and tie, sitting in church? And who else does he hate? The drugged up inmate in his prison cell? Or the Jew killed in the Holocaust? Or those killed in the trenches? Or the drunken Friday night city reveller ending up in a cell overnight?

The truth is, this is a fallen world, and literally everybody who has ever been born is tainted with sin and therefore deserving of judgement. Therefore we can conclude that: If God was fair, every single person in the whole of history would end up in Hell, and Heaven would remain empty of all mankind.

That is the fairness of God, as it would be impossible for any form of sin, no matter how small, to be in his presence. Therefore, in his fairness, no man can enjoy fellowship in Heaven with such a holy God.

But God so loved the world. The whole world, not just a few individuals or group of nations. He said in Peter's letter that it was not the will of him that any should perish, but all men should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9) and also commanded that all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). For God in Christ has reconciled the world to himself, not counting their sins against them (2 Corinthians 5:19). And in Romans 10:9-10, all we need to do is to believe in our hearts that Christ has risen from the dead and to confess this, to be saved. Furthermore, all it takes is a believing heart to call upon the name of the Lord to receive salvation. (Romans 10:13). So going by this Scripture, calling on the name of the Lord and confessing him as Lord is one and the same thing, based on faith in the Resurrection. God commands all to repent. But what is repentance?

It is to change of mind from thinking that Jesus Christ never existed, or just a great teacher, to believing that God resurrected him from the dead, after atoning for our sins by dying on a cross. The raising of Jesus from the dead is the very crux of the matter. It proves that Jesus Christ is Lord, and himself God. Therefore, he can be called upon.

In the eternal sphere, it looks like God has been fair all the time. In his fairness he had to shut out every person tainted with sin from his presence. But as he was being fair to justice, it was unfair for his love. In order to be fair to his love as well, there was only one way. To take on the form of a man and atone for our sins. Now God commands everyone to repent and receive reconciliation.

And I think that's fair.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Travels: Failed First Time? Try Again!

In my younger days, I have found that there were parallels between travel experience and living a Christian life. And in this article I would like to share two different occasions where the first attempt ended in failure but when I decided not to give up but have another try, wow! I did it.

Travel is something I always loved doing. In one of my recent blogs, World Travel - How I Loved It! posted on November 4th, I wrote about the car trips to Italy taken as a family when I was young. There were just two places in Italy I got acquainted with; Torino, where we stayed with Nonni, and Rome, where Dad drove to see his older sister. With Rome, at least I had the chance to see the Colosseum as well as communicate with my Aunt, who spoke English. In Torino, our maternal Grandparents and I could not speak each other's language, hence boredom quickly set in.

However, this may seem odd at first glance, the rest of Italy was practically unknown to the whole family, as they were not inclined to explore their own country. But I think I have an idea where that might have come from - after all, I have been as far away as Los Angeles and San Diego in California, and Brisbane and Sydney in Australia - but so far I have not visited the UK cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Warwick or Glasgow, nor for that matter, Belfast in Northern Ireland.

Yet there are many interesting places in Italy one could visit. And when I was old enough to travel independently, I was able to take full advantage by means of backpacking. Or at least that is what I called it, as I define the term as traveling from one destination to another, usually spending at least a night or day at each venue. Back in the early days I carried a suitcase rather than a rucksack, and I stayed in small hotels or pensioni, not hostels. I didn't start hosteling until 1985, when I was introduced to it here in the UK by a friend who virtually grew up hosteling and camping, such as being a member of the Boy Scouts in his younger days.

So one Italian city I visited for the first time ever was Napoli, way back in 1973, when I was a twenty-year-old fledgling backpacker. As I left the Central terminus station, it did not take me long to find a hotel right in the city itself and asked if there was a room available. I was assigned a room straight away, where I was to spend the next few days. During my stay in Napoli, I spent a whole day at i scavi of Pompeii. But also what I wanted to do was to climb to the crater of nearby Mt. Vesuvio. After visiting Pompeii, and learning of its destruction in AD 79, along with its sister town of Ercolano, I was curious to see for myself the instrument of God's judgement on those cities when the volcano blew its top in August of that year, after remaining dormant for centuries. You see, by the summer of 1973, I had been a believer for just a few months. The result was I was newly acquainted with the Bible and God's ways at that time and I was eager to learn more.

Mt. Vesuvio from the air.

On my first attempt to reach the crater, which was (and still is) 1,281 metres high from sea level, I alighted from the Circovesuvio train at Ercolano station and started to walk along the road signposted for Vesuvio. But by the time I was a considerable way up, in fact not far from the crater rim, the weather closed in. Not only did the cloud totally obscure the summit, but it also started to rain. Not the light moderate rain that occurs in the UK, but a torrential downpour with each raindrop the size of small beach pebbles. I was drenched within seconds!

A ran to a natural alcove in the red lava cliff along the road to take shelter. It must have been just a couple of minutes before a car drove downhill to the level of the alcove and a blast of horn alerted my attention. Two cheerful young men inside beckoned me over.

Dove voi? asked the driver.
Il cratere, I replied.
Oggi non posso, he stated, and invited me in for a lift back to the city, which by then I was more than willing. So my first attempt to see the crater was a failure.

The next day was bright sunshine and the whole mountain could be seen from the city. Again I boarded the train for the short run to Ercolano, and began my walk. It took a while, but it was so rewarding. Over Napoli, a heat haze sat over the city, making the otherwise clear sky a milky blue. But as I approached the crater, I suddenly came out of the haze, the sky was rich blue and the sunlight stronger. As I recall, there was little or no wind. The road ended at a coach and car park, and a footpath, about 150 metres long, took me to the rim of the crater.

Inside the crater of Vesuvio.

Back in 1973, access to the crater rim was free. At present, by checking Google, I found out that there is now a fee of 6.50 euros to get to the rim. As in all things, times have changed. As I stood back then at the chasm, I watched a tour group leader cooking some eggs over the hot rocks. Afterwards I was able to warm my hands at the heat rising from the volcanic strata. Below, the throat of the vent was blocked by a plug of gravel and sandy material which, should another eruption was to occur, would be blown with great violence miles high into the sky. As I stood on the rim, looking down, I thought, "Not today, please!" As it was, the whole crater was in deep silence, as if in respect for all the human lives it has already taken.

The following nine years saw me visiting Israel, particularly Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee, and two trips across North America, which could not be more different from life in the Middle East. By the late summer of 1982 I was back in Italy again as referred to in my last blog, Class and Racialism - Crushed! posted 18th November. Here I set sights on Mt. Etna, an active shield volcano which was then 3,308 metres high, (but since then had risen to 3,329 m.) - The highest European mountain south of the Alps and more than twice the height as Mt. Vesuvio. As a shield volcano, similar to Hawaii, the sheer broadness of the base lessens the effect of its height. In 1982, a plume of steam rose from what was then Cratere Centrale.

Distant View of Mt. Etna.

I stayed at a small, family-owned hotel in Siracusa, just outside the station. Therefore this made it an excellent location for local travel, which was accomplished using the national Ferrovia de Italia pass ticket, allowing me to board trains without further payment. Catania, some way north of Siracusa, was the second largest city in Sicily after Palermo and the starting point for the ascent to the mountain's summit. By this experience, I soon realised the incompatibility in attempting to reach the summit on foot from Catania with reaching the summit of Vesuvio from Ercolano. Instead, two regular buses a day left Catania for Refuge Sapienza, at the village of Nicoloso, well up on the mountain slope.

On this particular day the bus I was on pulled into the coach and car park at the refuge, near a building where one need to hire thick, protective mountain clothing before boarding the jeep to where I thought would be the summit. The whole experience was pricey (in those days the Italian currency was the Lira, not the Euro). There was payment for clothes hire and payment to board the jeep. At last we reached our destination - a windswept wall of black basalt on the slope of the mountain with absolutely no views - none of the crater, and none of the Sicilian panorama. Instead, thick cloud enveloped the site and I could barely see my own hand, let along beyond. Two or three jeeps full of people arrived, forming quite a crowd. But as I perceived the experience, it was a total waste of time and money.

I arrived back at the hotel feeling disappointed. Yet I was determined to get back up there. I was  wondering whether this whole tourist industry was something of a rip-off: money, money, money without getting what you pay for. Refund for a wasteful time? Their explanation would be that the fog was an act of God and therefore making them free of any responsibility.

Whether it was the very next day or two days later, I can't fully recall, but on this beautiful crisp morning I once again found myself on the bus heading towards Nicoloso. At one point of the journey, a single young man, very tall and lanky, boarded the bus, and took a seat just behind mine. Out of sight, I gave him no more thought.

As with the previous visit, I once again hired a mountain suit and boarded one of the jeeps. I was unfortunate to arrive at Etna in 1982, because the funiculare to the summit was destroyed during the 1970 eruption, along with the observatory. As I looked out of the jeep, I saw bits of metal struts lying on the black ash, the remains of the cable car. The jeep was the only way up.

We reached our destination, the same wall of clinker I had been to already. I discovered that it was way below the summit, but at least there were fabulous views of the Sicilian coastline, itself very breathtaking.

We arrived at the wall of basalt, way down from the summit.

While I was admiring the views, the young man on the bus approached me, and began to beg me to accompany him to the summit proper. He certainly wanted value for money, and he made sure he was going to get it. Judging him to be somewhere between 18 to 20 years old, I thought, why not? After all this was my wish, too.

We saw a footpath leading away toward the summit and the two of us began what is to be a dayhike. With myself leading, we passed a large sign which read, MOLTO PERICOLOSO and we continued on, despite the warning of danger. We were also expecting a shouting call back to the group we had left behind, but all was silent as we trekked along the path.

How far we trekked I cannot be sure, but the hike looked to be a couple of miles. Presently we came to a crater with smoke issuing out. That itself was quite a sight, but it was just a curtain raiser for what we would come to next.

We reached the summit, dominated by Central Crater. Immediately the ground we stood on took on a different texture to the rest of the mountain, and gas explosions within the crater were responsible for the huge plume of steam rising out and blown away from us by a southerly or southwesterly wind. The ground was actually shaking like an earthquake and the air reeked with the heavy smell of sulphur, threatening to choke us.

At Central Crater, Etna.

The young man, after carefully tying a scarf over his nose and mouth, then stood behind me and taking out another scarf, proceeded to tie over my face, pulling at the ends and securing it in place. As I submitted to his care, for a moment I was a child again and enjoyed being mothered. An almighty crash of thunder inside the crater caused us to momentarily flee, but we made our way back to the edge and we stood there, a little too much to take in. To our right was an incline, and the young man beckoned me to see what was above it. But this time I said no, something which I began to regret afterwards once we were back down.

What made me refuse his latest invitation? The thought that a sudden wind change would cause the steam plume to change direction, literally blocking our exit and leaving us marooned on the summit. With the sulphur so thick, if we tried to navigate through the steam plume, we might have passed out with asphyxiation. Not very clever for those who would have had to rescue us, not forgetting the huge fee for the rescue to be paid afterwards. Yet I still regret the decision. The climb over the incline might have given us views of the Cratere Nord-Est, and possibly Bocca Nuova, neighbouring live vents which would have resulted in more exciting photography.

As the two of us were on our way back down, I was literally trembling from head to toe. The young man was happy and satisfied. I thought, Heck! What have I just done?  At the basalt wall we joined unnoticed at another group who were about to board the jeep, and made our way back to Refuge Sapienza without a single look from any in that group.

This is a true story I am willing to share, because our walk with God can be like that. There are times when the Lord would beckon us to venture out into unknown territory, and often we can botch on our first attempt. But instead of God rebuking us or giving up on us, he'll say, "Okay, let's try again." And if we persevere, we would be richly fulfilled and satisfied. But if we turn back or hesitate at the last hurdle, our joy can be mingled with a feeling of regret afterwards. But in such cases, we will not be condemned. Feeling having missed out on something, perhaps. But never condemnation.
There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:1. With a promise like this, it is encouraging to keep going.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

1980s Travel - Class and Racism Crushed!

Warning: Macabre photos.

Last week I was having my weekly read of the Daily Mail newspaper, when I came across these words found in the two-page Saturday Essay:

London in June 1857 - (John) Robarts was among 62 men presented with a medal by Queen Victoria, in a ceremony attended by hundreds of thousands who stood for hours in blazing sunshine at a time when they wore jackets and ties for such occasions, not T-shirts and shorts.
(Guy Walters, Daily Mail, November 10th, 2012. Emphasis mine.)

When I came across this insertion in an article about neglected gravestones of war heroes, I thought: PLEASE, GIVE IT A REST! Guy Walters wrote this article to be published on the eve of Armistice Sunday, therefore making the main theme of the article appropriate. But Walters, who was educated at Eton before attending University of London, is one of a number of middle class, well educated journalists who believe that the English had, over the years, lost their stoicism, the stiff upper lip, their national pride and imperialism, their belief that they were God's chosen people and the notion that they are of the master race.

He joins other journalists such as Amanda Platell, Simon Heffer and Melanie Phillips, who had all languished over the loss of the great British past. Both Platell and Phillips believe that we now live in a emotional, sentimental, mawkish, touchy-feely society, particularly since the death of Princess Diana in August, 1997. Heffer, a self confessed atheist and a devoted follower of the late Enoch Powell, once wrote a filler criticising British men for abandoning the wearing of the neck-tie, even on a warm Saturday afternoon while out shopping. To him, only those who wear a tie during all waking hours are considered to be gentlemen.

The Daily Mail newspaper itself picked up on the issue a few years ago. It launched an appeal to all its readers to send a tie to its office in London, from where they shall be distributed to the journalists and reporters of the BBC News bulletins. Many of the younger reporters spoke on camera with open-neck shirts with the intention of impressing their wives and girlfriends, so the newspaper believed. Rather, I tend to feel that their casual dress was an attempt to shed their "stuck up" image in exchange for a greater public appeal.

Enoch Powell was the M.P. for Wolverhampton, who gave the Rivers of Blood speech in Birmingham on the 20th April, 1968, protesting against the immigration of black people from countries that were colonised by the British. So as I can see, it was okay for the British to have invaded a foreign country and colonise it, with the belief that the indigenous were inferior to them, particularly the tribesmen who wore feathers around their waists in contrast the the smart uniforms worn by the colonisers. But for them to come over here...this was so deeply resented. Notices ordering them to go back home to their own country began to appear in city streets, landlords refused them accommodation, employers turned them away and any work found were the most menial jobs no white person wanted. Indeed, the British certainly saw themselves as the master race, God's chosen and even evolutionary advanced.

The murder of 19 year old Steven Lawrence in London took place on the 22nd April 1993 - just two days after the 25th anniversary of Powell's River of Blood speech. The gang of white youths who committed the crime escaped justice for some eighteen years due to the reluctance of the Metropolitan Police to press charges due to their bias against the black teenager. The BBC investigative programme Panorama exposed the guilty officers who were promptly sacked.

So, after all this I sit down and think back - were there some things I saw and experienced in life which is a direct rebuke to the English culture of national superiority, imperialism, racism, dress code, social class, stoicism and pride?

One of my loves in life is Travel, particularly as a solo backpacker. I have written blogs on this site already on this topic, the last was Travel - How I Loved It, published on the 4th November. In this area I have been very fortunate.  During my time outside the UK, I watched the Jews ushering their weekly Sabbath at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. I also found myself in the midst of an Israeli protest demonstration among TV cameras, against the plans of the Palestinians. I attended an Arab wedding reception where a sheep was skinned alive in front of us all.  I waded chest deep in water, through this 2,700 year old tunnel dug by King Hezekiah's men deep under the original city of Jerusalem. By contrast, I stood in awe across the majestic Grand Canyon, and at the bottom, watched Bright Angel Creek flow into the Colorado River. I felt the ground shake at the Niagara resort as the mighty waters of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls crash below. I was able to compare the bustling metropolis of downtown Manhatten with the semi-tropical Californian city of San Diego, both under the same flag and using the same currency. I strolled through the tropical gardens at Singapore, dominated by the changing night illuminations of the Merlion. I snorkeled over the Corals at the Red Sea and at the Great Barrier Reef. I also hiked the rainforest and eucalyptus trees of Blue Mountains National Park. On the cultural side, I sat and watched a concert at the Sydney Opera House.

But the Italian island of Sicily really hit me in a way no other location had. It was here that I found myself standing on the rim of the active Central Crater on the summit of Mt. Etna, with just one other person. There is a story behind this, which I will share on another blog. Suffice to say, the ground I stood on was literally shaking as the gas explosions from within the crater created a continuous series of crashing thunders, and the huge plume of steam, mixed with a heavy smell of sulphur, rising and fortunately, turning away from us as it was blown north by a southerly wind.

And there were the catacombs. Oh yes, the catacombs.

I stood at the rim of the summit crater of Mt Etna, 1982.

My first visit to Sicily took place in 1982. It was part of backpacking the whole of Italy using the Ferrovia de Italia pass ticket. Like the Greyhound Bus Ameripass, this document allowed me unlimited train travel over a course of three weeks. That year, I entered Italy through Milano instead of Torino, as a church friend Derek, who had a contract with an Italian company based in Milano, as well as a spare bed in his apartment where I stayed for a couple of nights before heading for Napoli.

By boarding and alighting trains at different stations, I covered both coastlines of this European peninsula. After spending a day at the excavations of Pompeii, I took a night train to Brindisi, which was the terminus of the Roman Appian Way, an ancient road leading to Rome, a route not unfamiliar with the apostle Paul. It was in this handsome harbour town where I spent the day before re-boarding the overnight train south to Sicily.

One of the most spectacular experiences in train travel was the ferry crossing over the Messina Strait. At the port of Reggio di Calabria on the Italian mainland, the train was split up, with the first set of coaches left on the ship while the second set was shunted back onto land, to be pushed onto the next siding beside the first set, and the third set likewise, until the whole train was on board. On the other side, all the coaches of the train was re-joined to make its way either towards Siracusa or Palermo, the island's capital city.

After spending a considerable time in Siracusa which included the visit to the summit of Mt. Etna, I took a remarkably slow train to Palermo via the inland route from Catania (as opposed to the coastal route from Messina) which stopped at a town bang in the middle of the island - Caltanissetta. By evening. I arrived at the capital and found a convenient hotel nearby.

While staying at a small hotel in Siracusa, one of the attractions I visited were the nearby Catacombs of St John, a series of tunnels running deep underground which once contained thousands of Christian burials. Stone nitches were hewn out of the rock to accommodate the corpses. So many were hewn that the entire system resembled a giant filing cabinet. Back in 1982 anyone can walk unaccompanied into the tunnels as I did, alone and free to explore the labyrinth at my own leisure. Now access is by means of an escorted group tour, which in my opinion, too rushed to absorb the atmosphere of the site.

Catacombs of St John, Siracusa

But it was in Palermo where the Cappuccin Catacombs really hit me hard, and changed, or rather confirmed, my perception of our class-ridden culture, especially in the UK. These catacombs, owned by the Cappuchin monks (who invented the coffee drink which bears the name) is situated in a crypt of a church just outside the main city centre. Unlike the Catacombs of St John in Syracuse, this is an underground cellar filled with many corpses displayed in full view of the public.

Detail of the Cappuchin Catacombs, Palermo

I entered the Catacombs on a weekday, off season. Therefore I was alone in this huge cellar under the church, as back in 1982 the site was not regarded as a hotspot for tourists.  As I stood in wonder at the corpses, the silence of the crypt was disturbed by a loose shutter which was swinging on its hinges as a result of an airflow. "Blap, squeak, squeak, blap, squeak, blap, squeak, blap, squeak," went the shutter, the endless sound creating the perfect environment for shooting a horror movie.

The dead of all ages and class were there, from newborns to the very old, from the worker to the aristocrat (whose cellar was for to begin with). There was a section for academics, another for the clergy, another for women, another for children and so on. The sight of these bodies brought to mind the culture back in England. More class conscious back then than now, I had that urging wish: Oh for a law that every company executive, aristocrat, banker, and office staff must have a photo of the catacombs hung above their desks with the words printed underneath:

This is how I will look one day.
Therefore there is no point in acting snobbish!

Three of the pics I took of the catacombs in 1982, hence the fading of the colour. I had taken to the guy in the middle photo.

Stories abound with these bodies. One was that a fire was started mysteriously, destroying many of the corpses. Another was one standing upright on the upper shelf coming loose and falling in front of an onlooker. Weird. The only notice on display was one that read Vietato Fumare. Fortunately, I had never found cigarettes a problem.

Ever since that day there was one more catacomb I visited, and that was under the streets of Paris in 1985. Here was quite a different environment to the two in Sicily. From street level, I found myself descending deep underground in a spiral staircase before I came to the entrance of a long tunnel. As I kept walking, I was astonished on the length of the windowless corridor. It was 1.5 kilometres, or just under a mile. The corridor ended at a gate, with a sign above it which read in French, You are about to enter the City of the Dead.

The walls of the chamber were lined with thousands upon thousands of femurs, with skulls embedded here and there, many of these skulls forming patterns of crucifixes and even one of a heart. Other corridors led off from this chamber, but fortunately the gates at the entrances to these corridors were locked. This system is actually a tiny section of a vast, complicated labyrinth which has a history of taking the lives of those who got lost within the complex of tunnels.

Bones by the thousands line the Catacombs of Paris.

When I climbed the stairs to the exit, I found myself at another part of the city.

These experiences were part and parcel of backpacking and lone, independent travel. There are more tales I can tell, the one about Etna 1982 is for another blog.  But what drew me to these catacombs? Personally, my delusion with the British class system, the sheer reverence for the Monarchy by the average English (although I'm not into Republicanism), the greater respect gotten in wearing a tie, inequality in education and academic achievements, stoicism with the belief that showing emotion is not masculine (quoted by Daily Mail Melanie Phillips) and the respect and worth of a person based on his occupation and dress code rather than character.

King Solomon knew the vanity of life. He knew that really, there is no difference between a king and a worm, for the same fate await them both. He then advises us that the best course to take is to honour God with the lives we have, short and temporary as they are. And the only way to honour God is to believe in the One he had sent, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus too died, on a cross to atone for our sins. But he also rose again from the dead, proving that he is truly God and Messiah, and that his payment for sin was successful and accomplished. Nobody else in human history has ever risen from the dead. Jesus Christ was the only person who had done so, and to believe this brings eternal life.

Eternal life! Therefore I can search every catacomb in the world, and I would never come across the body of Jesus Christ. HE HAS RISEN!

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Where Do We Go From Here?

So Democrat Barak Obama won a second term of office as President of the USA. According to statistics, 59% of white Americans voted for his opponent, Republican Mitt Romney. So I suppose that Obama won by the remaining 41% of white Americans who voted, which in no doubt included the LGTB population, together with the Afro-Caribbeans and Hispanics, many of those arriving into the States from neighbouring Mexico.

President Barak Obama

According to one You-Tube video posted, one female Republican lashed out at those who voted for Obama, blaming them for the slow economic and moral destruction of what was once a great country. The 24-minute speech was so filled with the f-word and cursing, it was difficult to see the forest for the trees, if you see what I mean. Really!

Then not to be left out, our Conservative supporting journalists of the Daily Mail newspaper kept up the tirade, but without the swearing, no doubt keeping their invectives under their breaths for the sake of public decency. But the message from the whinging crowd is basically the same, whether in America or the UK - that is, if you are white, well educated, have a professional career and work hard to save and invest, you'll consider yourself a pillar of the nation and you will have no regard for those who are ignorant, a school or college drop-out, unemployed and scrounging on benefits. No wonder the Republicans are angry. Their opponents expect to be fed spoon and mouth by the State rather than find a job to support themselves and their families, which to them, would have brought national health to the economy. Sounds so sensible, doesn't it?

Then there are the Christians of all denominations who would have sided with the Republican party. It did not matter if Romney was a Mormon, a member of a sect regarded as heresy according to mainstream evangelicals. As long as he kept his religion within closed doors, he was free to deal with the political issues of the nation, had he won the Presidency. Much of this, I believe has to do with the LGTB population, who played a significant role in voting Obama back in. It would have been natural for them to want a Government to have a sympathetic ear towards their cause, rather than the  judgemental attitude of say, Fred Phelps, leader of Westboro Baptist Church in the Kansas city of Topeka, who violently protests against Gays with the God Hates Fags placards which, according to the LGTB, a good personification of the Republican Party, and if any homosexual voting for them would be considered a traitor.

And a child shall lead them...the distressing image of American "Christianity"

Members of Wesboro Baptist Church also consider Obama to be the Antichrist, which seems a good indication that only if the likes of Romney had been voted in, then there was that slim chance that God just might have turned his wrath away from America as a nation, especially if  the Gay community was finally brought to justice.

Readers of this blog would probably think that if I was an American, then I would be for the Democratic Party. In fact, my emotions would not be at all explosive whichever party won the election. This is because of my firm belief that God is sovereign, which means by the end of the day, it was God himself who had opened the door for Obama to serve a second term. If only those who protested realised this, it would have saved a lot of spilled emotions!

And we need to consider Romans 13, in the Bible which Phelps and his ilk would consider the only source of God's word written under divine inspiration:

Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. (verses 1, 2)

God is Sovereign. Nothing more bring peace of mind than to be sure that God is in control. But although knowing that God is in charge brings peace of mind, he also created us with an inquisitive mentality. For example, both the UK and America, along with Holland and Germany, have the Protestant Faith as the bedrock for their constitution (although I believe many Americans may disagree with me on this.) This means that the Gospel of Jesus Christ and salvation through faith in him is easily heard or is available on the Media, particular the Internet. But the country where I originated from, which is Italy, Roman Catholicism holds the Constitution. Catholicism insists that faith in Jesus Christ alone is not enough for salvation, human effort needs to play a role. Then there are the Asian countries, including the Middle East, where Islam holds power, along with Buddhism, Hindu and others which are none-Christian. Paul the apostle, in his letter to the Romans, felt a deep sadness over his own brethren the Jews, establishing their own righteousness under the Law of Moses (chaps 9-11).

I imagine an infant just born into a Muslim or non-Christian country, and I imagine the wail for its mother's milk, my heart drops at the thought of growing up not ever knowing Christ. It does look to me that salvation in Jesus Christ is in a form of lottery - depending where you was born heightens or lower the chances of entering Heaven after death.

Is the location of birth a lottery concerning salvation?

For one who has a heart for children, this can be a crushing burden. And as this article was written on Armistice Day, we stood in silence for two minutes at 11.00 am to remember the lives taken for the liberation of our country. But this does not stop the irritating thought that many who died in battle, despite their bravery and courage, were unbelievers, who as newborns also nourished on their mothers milk. Indeed, I might find peace of mind to know that God is Sovereign, but I remember one night, just after Christmas last year. While I was in bed at about three or four in the morning, I asked the Lord quite frankly, Lord, why did you create us? Why did you bring us to existence if all there is after death is a lost eternity? Job in the Old Testament had a very similar thought. He lamented over the fact that he survived gestation and birth, and wished that he never saw the sun, and had he died at birth, he would rest peacefully in his grave, never having experienced all the troubles on earth, let alone a lost eternity.

Our church at Ascot is keen on evangelism. We as a corporate body have a desire for the lost around us to come to Christ and be saved, yet I feel an enormous sense of powerlessness to do anything. Whether is fear of rejection or fear of dishonouring God for our profession in Him not matched by my attitude, it seemed the Enemy has scored a hit here. I don't like the idea of saying that Jesus is my Lord and Saviour and that I find joy in Him - only to be bogged down by midweek morning blues, irritation, impatience, frustration, or any other stumbling block which would call my testimony to question.

Obama has won the election, emotion from both sides rise and spill, yet the world turns, we are born, we shall one day die, people are born into different religions, many are in poverty, a few are rich, some are well educated while others are unemployed and are on state benefits, some are even homeless. I have enjoyed world travel, I write blogs, I discuss bits of Scripture with other bloggers, while some are illiterate and some cannot cross the road from their house without careful supervision. I watch those who are mentally disabled laugh and cheer in their own world while in the office nearby an executive pour over the tax forms with deep furrows across his forehead and wishing he could walk out the door and head for the airport.

Where do we go from here?

God is sovereign. He has the whole world in his hands. Every single day of our lives were pre-determined by God before we were ever born. He even had the set number of days we would ever live. And he foreknew if we would trust in his Son or not. God is Sovereign. Here I rest my case.


My page had just scored 10,000 hits. True, a few were my own, before I activated the Don't track my own pageviews on the Stats section early in the history of this page.

So may I take this opportunity to say A BIG THANK YOU TO ALL MY READERS whether they be committed followers or just someone dropping by. My hope is that you enjoy reading my blogs and that you find them edifying. I also thank you for all your comments. I find it a sheer joy to read and publish them. Yes, I have the comment monitoring system set in place. It is only there to weed out unscrupulous advertisers who is only interested in pushing their own products. Otherwise I openly welcome any discussions, and I will answer any comment which merits a reply.
Once again I say THANK YOU and encourage you to keeeeeeeeeeeeeeep reeeeeeeeaaading!!!!


Sunday, 4 November 2012

World Travel - How I Loved It!

Last week, after completing and publishing my last blog, Science Plus Faith - A Potential Mix, my wife and I went to my elderly parent's home to spend the rest of the day. With us was my brother and his two daughters, my nieces. I was talking to the younger one, and asked her if she still reads my blogs. Her reply was that the constant theme on religion bores her, and then suggested a blog about my travels.

The idea of having two separate pages on this site, the other dedicated to secular issues such as Travel had crossed my mind before now. But having last travelled (in the proper sense of the word) in 1998, which was to New York and Boston Massachusetts, I don't believe I can supply sufficient material to feed such a page, therefore I'll include the subject of Travel within this page. Not that this is the first time either. On the 29th April 2011, I wrote Vagabond, where I described some ins and outs about solo backpacking. Also in 2011, I wrote three other blogs - Hiking - Stress-Free Travel (23rd Jan), A Stone Bible (1st Feb) and Jerusalem - Peace To You (13th Feb). All of these blogs touched on my experience as a backpacker. However, I feel it's okay to write about one of my favourite activities here, because I have never separated travelling from faith in God, as the two are intrinsically linked.

So where do I begin? Perhaps from my schooldays in the mid to late 1960s when Dad used to drive our car to Torino in northern Italy from our home near London to spend three weeks with our maternal grandparents, or Nonni. As the crow flies, the distance covered was in the region of 600 miles, 970 km. but the car journey must have been closer to 1,000 miles 1620 km. which was completed in three days. I thoroughly enjoyed the journey itself. It was after arriving at the home of Nonni that boredom began to set in. The main reason for this onset of boredom was the language barrier - neither gran were able to speak English and I couldn't speak or understand Italian, together with the fact that Torino is an inland city with a large industrial complex, the car makers Fiat Mirafiori, where Nonno used to work during his younger days. However, on one of these holidays, just Dad and I set off to Rome to stay with my Aunt, Dad's older sister who spoke some English. Thanks to the superb motorway (or Freeway) system, the Autostrada del Solo connecting Milan to Rome made the 300 mile 486 km. journey complete in a day.

It was in 1972 that I enjoyed our first package holiday in Spain without my parents. Instead I shared the experience with my college mate Andrew, giving us both a taste of foreign independence. As a nineteen year old, this was also my first time ever inside an aeroplane, of the now non-existent airline Dan Air. From London Gatwick Airport the two hour flight to Girona, close to the Costa Brava, made such an exhilarating experience. This was because Dad felt averse to flying and loved his steering wheel, putting him in full control of the vehicle. I believe this had set the pace to my own travels as I grew older - backpacking, together with the sights of Rome, including the Colosseum and the Circa Maxima had also put into my being the desire to travel.

Colosseum of Roma

That what I call backpacking, which is simply travelling from one destination to another as opposed to the package holiday (or vacation) like the one in Spain, where we spent the entire break at a single hotel. For me, backpacking involved hosteling, staying at a hostel where I slept in a shared dormitory and buying and cooking my own meals, in itself a threefold blessing - enhancing independence, making friends and doing wonders to the budget. My experience at a hostel range from just one night to that of 27 nights, as was the case with the New Swedish Hostel, Jerusalem, in 1994. In between, I have spent many "single nighters" including those in the UK when I, along with my mate Gareth, cycled from one end of the entire UK to the other in 1990.

As a single person (I didn't marry until 1999) there was ample time to travel. This was one of the great advantage of being self-employed. It meant that during the 1990s, I worked hard, saved hard and travelled extensively, closing the business and taking "sabbaticals" - long holidays - covering four principal destinations outside the Mediterranean: North America, Middle East, Singapore and Australia.

My first of five transatlantic flights to North America was in 1977, which included the Greyhound Bus journey across Canada, taking in the whole of the Trans-Canadian Highway from Vancouver to Toronto, spending a few days at Calgary and Winnipeg, as well as standing by the magnificent Niagara Falls. The other four transatlantic trips were in 1978, 1995, 1997 and 1998. During both the 1978 and 1995 trips, I found myself hiking the Bright Angel Trail of the Grand Canyon. Spending the night at the bottom of the Canyon, next to where the Bright Angel Creek flows to join the Colorado River and gazing at the countless stars in the night sky was so exhilarating - and so surprising too, as the night sky had never appeared like this over the UK. And how I loved San Diego with its Zoo, Sea World, Balboa Park with all the museums, the Old Town with its Old West feel, and Mission Beach. Little further north is the resort of La Jolla, with its caves and to the south, the city of Tijuana over the Mexican border. Thus, San Diego to me was one of America's most intriguing stops.

At the Grand Canyon in 1995.

Travelling across the North American continent, I used the Greyhound Bus Ameripass ticket, sold only to foreign visitors. The one I carried was valid for a month, and with it I had unlimited access to every corner of the United States. As for hostels, as described in my blog, Vagabond, there were good hostels as well as not so good. But in every one, I always bought and cooked my own meals, socialised and slept in a dormitory, normally single-sex. In the States, the average stay was about three days before boarding the bus for the next leg of the journey. However in San Diego I stayed for five days in 1995, ten days in 1997. During my first of the two visits, the hostel was at a building shared with the YMCA, and its kitchen was accessible 24 hours a day, making this the very best hostel I ever stayed at. By the time I called back two years later, it had moved to a new building at Market Street, and had introduced a kitchen night curfew, normal in most other hostels.

Australia was very similar to the USA where travel was concerned. Here too I had a Greyhound Bus pass ticket, also valid for a month but restricted to the Pacific Highway, from Cairns in North Queensland to Sydney. The hostels I stayed at in Australia were very much the same as in the USA, with Sydney City Hostel, across the road from the terminal station, having two large kitchens and a grand dining room, and also a rooftop sauna suite. On the places to see, two main highlights in Australia I had found exhilarating: The Great Barrier Reef and Blue Mountains National Park. It was at Green Island, just off Cairns, where I learned to snorkel for the first time in my life. The sea surrounding Low Isles, off Port Douglas, was deeper, making the coral there more richer and greater in size and depth. Likewise at Heron Island, one of the Whitsundays, I was able to identify the famous Brain Coral while I was snorkeling there. At the Blue Mountains NP, the dense forest of eucalyptus trees emit a blue haze which hovers over the valley, hence the name. Various waterfalls cascading down the deep, cliffed valley brought out the sheer delight.

Sydney Harbour in 1997

Blue Mountains N.P. 1997.

Where around the world it was both nature as well as good planning which lifted my spirits in admiration, in Israel it was history, particularly connected with the life of Jesus Christ. But even here, at Eilat, coral grows at the Red Sea, a finger of the Indian Ocean protruding well into the Middle East region. This was the one holiday where Alex and I did some backpacking in the year 2000 as a couple. Jerusalem had always been extra special to me. This was the city God had chosen to put his name there, all the ancient kings from David onwards reigned from this city, and it was where Jesus was crucified, died, buried and Resurrected. As such, Jerusalem for me is the most important destination of all the places visited worldwide.

Jerusalem 1994.

What I have found in being a lone backpacker was that on two separate occasions I was referred to as brave. The first was back in 1978 when I was still an employee at British Aerospace, when a fellow employee called me that, after spotting me in New Orleans while he was also travelling, but with a companion. The second occasion was on a flight from London to New York in 1995, by an air hostess, while I was explaining to her about the freedom of U.S. travel using the Greyhound Ameripass. I had never considered myself brave, this was reserved for soldiers out fighting, firemen rescuing victims from a blazing building, or any dangerous task undergone to save a life or change circumstances. But to tell the truth, while sitting in the 'plane for Toronto in 1977 and to New York a year later, to calm my apprehensions, I spent time in prayer, asking God to protect me from all evil whilst abroad. On both occasions, in privacy during the in-flight meal, I took bread, broke it and declared it the Body of Christ. Then I took the glass of wine I had, and declared that as the Blood of Christ and drank that. It was literally a self-made Holy Communion. The Catholic Church might have condemned me to Hell for taking the Holy Sacrament without authority, but all I felt was the peace, protection and pleasure of God in my life.

Travel has been a demonstration of God's love and grace in my life. Sure enough, there are times, especially in the winter, when I feel that I'm at the low end of the scale - poorly educated at school, condemned to a life of manual labour, working in the cold and damp, watching university grads fulfill much richer and meaningful lives, and of one case in my church, having someone with a university education practically boasting of his third trip to Uganda this year alone. But I have come to learn that God loves everyone, especially believers, whose eternal inheritance will outshine even the very best of travel experience.

"Whoever comes to me," Jesus once cried out, "out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water."
Travel is just another option with a return ticket. By contrast, salvation will never end.