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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.