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Sunday, 27 January 2013

An Open Letter To All Church Of Christ Members.

Please note: for the protection of privacy, no personal names are mentioned in this blog.

Dear all Church of Christ (C.O.C.) members,

You may be asking: Why am I writing a letter to you?

Well, there is a blogger among you, a member of C.O.C. whose short, to-the-point blogs have scored around 32,000 hits since his latest page opened in April 2012. This is quite a comparison to my page which had taken almost exactly two years and over ninety blogs to reach a number of 12,600 hits. Don't get me wrong, I have no issues with this. After all, to get to his number, he had posted over 270 blogs during that time, which averages about one a day, which is quite different to my weekly posting. He also has 1,262 followers, compared with my fifty, including myself.

Therefore, with such a large number of posts, their readers and followers, I had considered answering for a while. The final prompt occurred just last week, when I concluded my blog, I Have Much To Thank God For  - with a verse from Paul's letter to the Romans:

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39.

The very next day after posting this, one of his blogs attacking the views of John Calvin appeared. Although I have absolutely no proof that this guy took his inspiration from any of my articles, nevertheless, the timing of all this had led me to speculate. As such, I ask for your patience in reading what I have to say - a response to the teachings and beliefs of the Church of Christ, which seemed to have made a massive hit here on this website.

But first I should state my faith, which is more than mere beliefs. I consider myself saved from the penalty of my sins, or better put, of my sinful nature. The price paid to Infinite Justice was by Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, atoning for all my sins - past, present and future - after allsince birth, all sins I have committed were future from the time of the crucifixion, therefore at the crucifixion, his death had to atone for all of them. Three days later, he rose physically from the dead, the only person ever in human history to accomplish this, proving two very important things: First, his Resurrection proves without a doubt that Jesus Christ is God and the Jewish Messiah. Secondly, his Resurrection guarantees our salvation. But I may add a third, namely that the Resurrection also proves that salvation is of no other source, only Jesus Christ Resurrected can give life as a free gift to all who would receive it.

Secondly, I too have been baptised in water, fully immersed, at a Baptist Church in Bracknell, my home town, in 1975. But I was already saved before then, back in 1973 when I first believed. And most important, is the consideration on why I was saved in the first place. To escape Hell? That is true, but it's only part of the picture, and a poor one at that. The main reason why I received eternal life was twofold - first, because God the Father chose me in his sovereignty as a reward for his Son for dying on the cross. And coupled with this, eternal life was given in order to enjoy everlasting fellowship with God and revel in his love - the same love eternally enjoyed between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In fact, this is why we are here, to know God our creator personally, and not as accidents in a long process of evolution, believed by the academics of the present. And for one, I believe in eternal security of the believer, simply because not to would be an insult to the very being of God himself, as I hope to show.

In just about all your blogs, you made a big issue on water baptism based on one verse in Acts - 2:38, where Peter replied that they should repent and be baptised for the remission of their sins, and be filled with the Holy Spirit. But you quote that verse without the context in which it was set. Peter was not talking to "wicked sinners" - such as thieves, murderers, whore mongers, drunkards and such like. Instead he was addressing a crowd of devoted Jews who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost - the waving of samples of the crop harvest in dedication to God. These Jews were already devoted to God. And they were aware that they gave consent for the crucifixion of Jesus. They were all aware of that. But they believed that the sentencing to death of this person was done in justice, based on their belief that Jesus was an impostor who blasphemed by referring himself as God. Peter's sermon at the Temple was centred on the Resurrection, proving that the raising of the Son from death fulfilled Scripture and presented proof that while alive he was not blaspheming. The Jews present had to repent.

In this case the word repent does not mean "to turn away from sin." It meant to change your mind. The changing of the mind involved from believing that Jesus was an impostor to that he had risen, proving that he is indeed their Messiah and the source of salvation. Baptism was an outward showing of this change of mind and heart.

The case of Cornelius is another case in point. We are introduced to him as being a righteous man whose generosity to others and a devotion to regular prayer did not pass unnoticed before God. But the fact that he needed to repent was borne out by the message an angel gave for Peter to be sent for. We read of the message Peter delivered to his listeners. What he said about Jesus was more of a reminder than an introductory message. Cornelius was already aware of Jesus crucified. But he had to be told that this Jesus had risen from the dead, proving that he is the Messiah and therefore the fountain of life. When all the listeners believed this, the Holy Spirit fell on them all. Cornelius was a righteous man. He didn't have any known sins to repent of. But he had to change his mind about the Christ risen. That is repentance.

Then, after the Holy Spirit fell on them all, they were baptised in water. I think there is a reason why Luke portrayed events as they occurred. To confirm the message Peter gave to the crowd of devoted Jews at Pentecost. Repent and be baptised for the remission of sins. I don't think Peter meant "Repent and be baptised in order to have your sins forgiven," but "because your sins will be forgiven the moment you believe." If it had happened this way to Cornelius, then God is character-bound to accept everyone else in exactly the same way.

Therefore we conclude that what Peter preached at Pentecost is like as if I was to say, "I'm paid for the work I have done" (Work done first, then the payment.) Or, "he was awarded the trophy for winning the race." Or even, "he was sent to prison for his crime .

And the same applies to all of us today. Peter writes in his letter that the Lord is long suffering and it is not the will of him that any should perish, but all should come to repentance. That is changing your mind and believing that this Jesus has risen physically, proving that he is the Christ. Then be baptised in water to show to other men that you have changed your mind about the resurrection of Christ.

But you have made baptism a ritual to be performed in order to get saved. In this, you have put yourselves on the same par as the Roman Catholic Church, along with Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and all other groups who believe that some ritual has to be performed in order to receive salvation. You speak severely against the Roman Catholic Church, for example. You accuse this group for relying on their man-made Catechisms instead of on the Bible. Catholics believe, like you do, that without baptism there is no salvation. To add to this, the Catholic Church has always been hostile to any form of believer's security. So have all other groups who don't believe in eternal security.

You accept the teachings of James Arminius, who disputed John Calvin's treatise of the Sovereignty of God, Divine Grace and the Perseverance of the Saints. But you are by means not alone. Many Protestant groups accept Arminius' views too, most probably not realising that this Dutch theologian was a tool used by the Vatican to challenge the doctrine of Grace which Calvin highlighted.

James Arminius
Arminius was a student who sat at the feet of a Spanish monk, Luis de Molina. Molina was a Jesuit, a member of the Roman Catholic society founded in the early 16th Century by Ignatius Loyola, a priest who received a vision of the Virgin Mary (not God) telling him to go into battle and eliminate the "Babylonian hordes" - a reference to the Protestant Reformation and its enthusiasm in Divine Grace.
Molina was a Jesuit founded by Loyola with the intention to eliminate the Reformation and protect and promote the Papacy. He was Arminius' tutor. In 1588 Arminius wrote his thesis: A Reconciliation of Free Choice with the Gift of Free Grace, Divine Foreknowledge, Providence and Reprobation. Later, the followers of Arminius succeeded in having their document, the Remonstrance, signed by the Government, allowing such teaching to be passed without State interference.

Alistair Campbell, who followed Arminius, was the founding member of the Church of Christ. So you, along with so many other groups, believe that baptism is a ritual that must be performed in order to receive Grace, then one must stay faithful to remain in this grace. You rebuke the Catholic Church for so much of man-made doctrines, yet your beliefs are basically parallel to that of the Vatican. You run down many other groups such as J.W.s and Mormons, but they believe exactly as you do, baptism for salvation and staying faithful to be saved. And even atheists too, rebuke any idea of Once Saved Always Saved. Yet, according to you, atheists are confined to the lowest Hell.

But believing in Eternal Security does not cause me to want to sin! Do you really believe that Eternal Security is a licence to sin? If you believe this, then I would strongly recommend you examine your spiritual condition carefully. But let's get the facts right. There are numerous verses in the New Testament exhorting believers to live worthy of their calling, otherwise they will fall from grace. But these have nothing to do with losing salvation. Nowhere in any of his letters does Paul say, "If you don't hold faithful, you will perish in Hell." Such words don't appear at all in Paul's letters. What he is saying is that if you fail, you stand the chance of losing credibility among men. Let's take an example of daily living. You live and preach as a good Christian, exalting God and attempting to win converts. Then one day you are giving a lift to someone in your car, and another driver cuts you up. Immediately you lose your temper and you utter foul expletives. According to your companion, you have lost credibility and fallen from grace. No matter how "holy" you may try to be afterwards, your reputation as a Christian will never be restored. Chances will remain high that your "faith" is nothing more to him than pretence and hypocrisy.

So "loss of salvation" is what you put into those verses which they weren't implying. The same goes to this "overcoming" business found in places like Revelation chapters two and three. You put in to these verses that unless a believer overcomes his own sinful nature, he will end up in Hell. There are a couple of problems here. One I consider very serious. It is Revelation 3:21 when Jesus himself declares that he has overcame. But overcome what? Certainly not his sinful nature, or else we would have to admit that Jesus Christ was a sinner!

Reading carefully his message to all seven churches, he seems to make a distinction between true believers and "hangers on" who may be in the church. To human eyes, these may be difficult to distinguish. But to overcome, I think, means to truly believe. To them, they will never be hurt by the lake of fire. Neither will they be removed from the lamp stand, which means the church on the whole, according to Revelation 1:20, not the single individual. When a "church" becomes filled with mostly unbelievers, then God is likely to remove it from his lamp stand.

But the true believer is more than conquerors, according to Romans 8:37. In other words, as believers we are already overcomers through faith in Jesus. And 1 John 5:4 says that he who is born of God overcomes the world, and what is it that overcomes the world but faith in Jesus. Jesus has overcome the world and he has given us the power to do the same. That is, it is God who works in us, and does the overcoming in our lives, because he is the author and finisher of our faith. (Hebrews 10:14, 12:2) Once saved always saved.

To believe that you can lose your salvation is an insult to God at least on three occasions:

1. It denies the Sovereignty of God. That is, Satan is able to steal a sheep from God's hand and the Lord does not have the authority to stop it from happening, even if a believer is a gift to the Son from the Father. It also means that the Holy Spirit, dwelling in the believer, is neither able or does not do a thing in keeping the believer safe.

2. It denies God's omniscience. That means that God does not know what is going to happen next. This boils down to God saving a person, not realising that this person will one day fall away and forever be lost.

3. It denies God's omnipotence. If both Jesus and Paul assures us that we would never leave the hand of God, then that also means that we are safe, even if Satan tries to draw us away. If we can just "walk away" from God's hand, that means we are going somewhere, and wherever that is, it was made attractive by the Devil. God has no power to keep us safe, or it is too weak. In short, Satan is stronger than God.

You are holding on to what really is a false gospel. It is another gospel, which isn't good news at all.
You are holding on to the tenets of Roman Catholicism, despite running it down and accusing it of being man's writings. You believe in baptism as a rite, so does Rome. You believe that salvation can be lost, so does Rome. You believe that overcoming is a human effort, so does Rome.

We simply believe that it is Jesus Christ who does both the saving and the keeping. He gets all the glory, and really, we have nothing to boast about. Without Christ, we are totally helpless, there is nothing we can do to save ourselves.

In Christ's name,

Saturday, 19 January 2013

I Have Much To Thank God For.

Both in the church I used to attend in Bracknell and in the present one I now attend in Ascot, I have made friends with, have spoken and associated with graduates of both genders who hold down professional careers. Although I would never ask what their income would be, as such a question would go against the culture and etiquette of our nation, there is really no need for me to ask anyway. It's obvious that their incomes are, and has always been, much higher than mine.

They also have a greater degree of security. With both a high standard of education and work experience to go with it, if the business they are working for goes under, chances are high that they can walk into another job and continue as if nothing has happened. Ditto if the company they work for is bought and taken over by another. Such an employee is likely to keep his post.

A university graduate has, or used to have, much of the world open to him after leaving college, or at least that's how it was in previous generations, including my own post-war baby boom generation. One can choose where to live and work. If a guy fresh out of college wishes to pursue further education or profession Down Under, for example, or even in the States, there would have been opportunities open to him. Then there is, in addition, the Gap Year, where students spend several months gaining experience in a far-away land, often in teaching or engaged in further studies.

By contrast, I'm a self-employed domestic window cleaner. Meaning that I specialise in private homes rather than on commercial premises. There is nothing wrong with such a line of work, as this involves running my own business and offering a service to my clients, which I have done for the last 32 years. But, and yes, unfortunately, there is a "but" - in such a class-conscious country, such an occupation is often looked down upon, giving me a rather low evaluation as a person.

And that hurts. And if I was invited to a party, chances are, and yes, it has happened - that I would feel reserved, hoping that no posh sounding guest ask what I do for a living. Especially when I was single and some young female was eyeing me up. To this day, I am often looked down with disdain, believe it or not, more likely by the daughters of clients who were out when I called. Why teenage girls tend to feel this way towards a window cleaner, I find rather baffling. Maybe I have that gullible "I'm easy to be taken advantage of" kind of expression, or my unusual "foreign" accent whenever I say something. However, I can see a strong connection between this and the catastrophic experience I had in Israel in 1994, described in my last blog, Travels: Rotten Luck? - where one female volunteer led others to turn against me for being "just" a manual worker, Italian, and with a misunderstanding that I was against equality for women (which wasn't true - I have always believed in equality.) In the latter case, I should add, the misunderstanding may have arisen from her belief, false or not, that in Italy the male still dominate.

But to run a domestic window cleaning business involves loyalty and commitment on my part, and trust and loyalty on the client's side. The day-to-day British weather plays an important role. If it's wet, whether I can work or not depends on how it rains. A gentle to moderate rainfall without any wind, I can work and get away with it. But even in such a situation, there are clients who would look out over my shoulder while I'm at the door and say something like, Not today, thankyou. It's not worth having my windows done. Come back next month. If up to three clients answer in such a manner, in a week there is a significant drop of income. And weekly and monthly living expenses remain unchanged. A stormy day with blustery weather (wind driven rain) would cause me to remain at home, as with a layer of snow and ice. Days lost equal loss of earnings. Then there is the housing market. A client sell up and moves away, and the new occupants are not interested in having their windows cleaned. Many younger residents see a window cleaner as some kind of adversity, thanks to the likes of the Media, such as a series of BBC programmes bearing the title Rogue Traders. Also ditto with the death of a client, and in my area there are quite a number of senior citizens, one couple in their nineties, another in their late eighties, while several are already widowed.

Indeed, such a business is like living on a knife edge, or precariously on a cliff edge. I could be jobless within weeks. And the word precarious would not be out of place with a number of homes with which the architect had a seeming grudge against tradesmen. Some of these windows I clean are difficult to reach, and it takes only the ladder to move slightly and I would fall. This has happened a few times, each incident resulting in hospital treatment. One accident occurred in 1997 which not only put me in hospital for five days but also resulted in remaining incapacitated for the next two months. I was very fortunate that I wasn't paralysed from the neck down. It could have easily happened.

But despite these risks and customer setbacks, I press on, fully trusting in the Lord to sustain me. In fact, whenever I arrive home from a full day's work, there is that feeling of bliss when I see my wife Alex walk in from the kitchen with a sumptious meal while I put away the day's earnings. I am grateful to God for enabling me to steward over such responsibility. Just as important, being self-employed has been, and still is, a builder of character. It has helped me to develop politeness and courtesy, qualities I had lacked in my younger days. Trust has developed among clients and I have even provided a shoulder to cry on, in one case literally, in others as a listening board for their sorrows, especially when a couple splits. It is a learning curve, which can be tough at times, to bring to the realisation to see others as better than myself.

Trusting in the Lord is immensely important in a job like this. This dependency covers for protection when at a precarious situation, for an adequate income to cover all regular expenses, for good customer relations and for keeping the clientele numbers up to an acceptable level. It also covers the "silly season" during the summer when many head for the airport. Really, often I have sat down and thought hard. Would I swap all this for working in an office?

During the early days of the business, I would have uttered a resounding "YES!" I would picture myself dressed in suit and tie while taking my place at the desk, especially if the weather outside is awful. To be looked upon and treated as equal by both work colleagues and church members, to be invited to countless house parties, maybe given assignments abroad, with flights and hotel accommodation paid for by the company, and to be looked upon with respect by both men and women. Gosh, how I wished I had done much better at school!

The grass always looks greener on the other side. Newspapers have reported about the sheer ennui experienced by many office staff who, while driving to work in the morning and getting caught in traffic, having a crushing desire to head for the airport and buying a ticket for the next 'plane out. I read about cranky bosses, malicious gossip among colleagues, office affairs and unfaithfulness to one's own spouse, long hours, tediousness - and I have wondered if it would have been worth it all, as I lay down the tools and pull out the lunch pack and sit and watch the rays of sunshine filter through the tree tops. I don't have a boss to tell me when it's time to start, when to eat, whether he lets me go to the loo, and when I can go home. Instead, if I want to call it a day at three in the afternoon, I just pack my stuff away and go home. More common during the bitter-cold winter days. The same with holidays. True, any time not working means the loss of income. But neither do I need to jostle for priority when to take time off. Therefore I have concluded that I would not swap my window cleaning business for a desk job, even if one was offered.

- Unless it involves travel. Travel. One of my passions. I have written enough blogs already on this topic, so there is not much more to say here. But even in this area of my life, God has blessed me richly, and I'll give him the glory. One of the abilities God has given me is the will to travel solo. One striking example of this was way back in 1976, when I flew out alone to backpack Israel. In those days I was an employee at a precision engineering factory shop floor, making ball-bearing races (the two rings which in between the ball bearings roll). When I returned three weeks later, I was an icon, not just by my shop-floor colleagues, but also among the office staff upstairs as well. In 1978 I was called "brave" after backpacking the USA alone, and again in 1995 by an air stewardess on a flight to New York. But these people did not account for the mistakes made as a fledgling backpacker in the early 1970s, described in one of my earlier blogs, Travels: Failed First Time? Try Again - published November 25th, 2012. As with window cleaning, travel was also a huge learning curve.

Looking back at all these things, I realise that God has blessed me richly. Not only with eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, but in "earthly" things as well. But it also looks to me that the true idea behind these blessings is to learn to depend on God, to trust him in his goodness, and to do good to one another, especially Christian believers. Romans chapter eight is probably one of my favourite passages in the Bible. Verse 28 reads:

And  we know that all things work together for those who love God, to them who are called according to his purpose...

And verses 38-39 concludes with:

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

Now that is something to ponder over when I'm up on the ladders while a chilly breeze blows.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Travels - Rotten Luck?

Lately I have been writing about my travel history, and over the past week, my last blog When things Go Wrong seems to have scored a sizable hit, making it into the top ten popular posts chart on the side of  the main article, in less than a week. The idea of sharing my personal experiences is to convey to the reader on how these mistakes can be avoided, if only a more proper research was carried out, or for one case, making sure that my money was safely packed away before boarding a packed train where there was standing room only - and not pushing the travel cheques carelessly into a pocket, making this a prime target for either a professional or opportunist thief.

Then one of the two other examples at to know when the Israeli New Year holiday, or Rosh HaShannah, was to fall, so I would have been far better prepared when the entire nation shut down - including every shop, every office, every facility and all public transport except for a few taxis plying the area. And a simple lesson in geography would have informed me that in 1985 there were two railway lines out of Dieppe, both for Paris, but only one passed through Rouen, in which all trains stop, being a principal station. Instead, my ignorance and presumption allowed me to board a train for the other line, hurtling towards Paris with practically no money and with no means to buy another ticket for the Paris-Rouen train after arriving at the French capital. How fortunate that there was a group of compassionate teenagers who literally saved my day by instructing me to alight at Serqueux and change trains there.

 Gare de Serqueux, where a change of trains saved the day

These three incidences were due to the falling short on my part, even if by 1985 I should have had enough travelling experience to have known better.  But there were times when something occurs in a situation which was totally out of my control - or was it? Could a word said out of place bring such catastrophe? Israel 1994 could be one such incident, which I am now happy to share.

But I need to go further back to one ordinary Monday morning in October 1992. The weather was pleasant as I prepared for the day's work. One householder, an unmarried Christian who I had known since 1981, got into quite a rowdy disagreement and he basically threw me out of the door. It was after I started work elsewhere that I realised how much I was in the wrong. I had no one but myself to blame for the ending of a fine friendship, and I felt defeated, hopeless. While I was on top of the ladder, cleaning a window, I had what seems to be a sudden revelation. The vision was for me to go to Jerusalem for a week the following year to pray over the city. As I pondered on the revelation, I prayed if I can have two weeks there instead. A peace flowed into my heart as if the answer was "Yes."

The idea that this was from God has borne out from that very day on, when my financial situation had changed dramatically. Before then, I barely made enough each week to get by. But from that day on into 1993, I was able to put money away, enough to ensure that the holiday to come was fully covered.

Yet I was amazed. I got into a tiff, the other person was right, I was in the wrong, yet it was me who God spoke to, perhaps contrary to the opinion of every church leader, elder or pastor in the country. Maybe the fact that I had been to the Middle East before, in 1976 and having a deep respect for the Jews and for the future of Jerusalem, might have been the basis on why God chose me above the other person. Then again, maybe it was just sheer grace alone.

 Above Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem 1993.

Other than a six-hour delay at London Gatwick Airport due to the need to replace a faulty part on the aeroplane, the rest of the journey to Israel was uneventful. Having booked a bed at Lod Airport for one night at a hostel in Tel Aviv, the next day I made my way to Jerusalem Old City, and found a small hostel occupying a medieval building well within the city walls. It became home for the next two weeks.

I stood on top of the Mount of Olives and prayed over the city, from which I had a great panorama. I also attended Christ Church at Jaffa Gate, the only Church of England in the whole of Israel. While I was there, after the end of the evening service, I found myself talking to a volunteer of I.T.A.C. - the Israel Trust of Anglican Churches. Over here in the UK it was known as the Church's Ministry to the Jews, or C.M.J. It was a Church of England organisation which owned several properties in Israel, one being Stella Carmel Christian Conference Centre in Isfyia, near Haifa. After a long, persuasive talk with the volunteer, I decided to give it a try myself, if I can, the following year in 1994.

Cutting a long story short, I arrived at Stella Carmel in June of that year. If I recall over eighteen years, there was the director and his wife, three permanent staff (making five in all) and twelve volunteers (known as vollies) - seven females and five males. Before jetting off to Israel, I attended a one-day course at a C.M.J. centre in North London. At that centre I learnt that there were strict separation between the genders, the males specialised in general maintenance while the females dealt with the housework, the remaking of beds in each room (the centre was a former hotel) and other domestic duties.

Yet how unlucky was I? The female volunteers had a self-made leader from New Zealand, who I will refer as just J. She was one of the undergrads who went for these gap-year schemes, an extrovert who was respected even by the permanent staff. At Stella Carmel, the duties were not so segregated as was told in London. Alternate days for maintenance and domestics were carried out by each gender.

And that's was when I put my foot in it. During one of our weekly meetings, I made a suggestion that the domestic and maintenance duties should be assigned more to female and male volunteers respectively, after observing that we men weren't quite as good at domestics, or at least I wasn't, neither did the women looked comfortable shifting heavy rocks or involved in "masculine" tasks.

My wife Alex at Stella Carmel, 2000 - taken six years after being a "vollie" in 1994. 

I became a pariah from that moment on. I think during normal times, my statement would have been laughed off and forgotten, but instead, J. stirred up hatred among the female vollies, even if the men agreed with me, none had it in them to defend my case. When new females arrived at a later date, J. made sure that they knew I was the centre pariah. Yet the director must have agreed with me, along with the organisation's upper management, because since that day, we were assigned mostly maintenance tasks while the females remained in domestics, with only occasional swaps.

Which angered J. even further. She kept saying that I should learn to be the New Man, the feminising of the male to adapt to domestics while they (the females) go for further education to pursue a professional career and become the main breadwinner. The rest of the females who sided with her also took a stance against me and insisted, more or less, that a social revolution need to take place, with professional women running the country while the men stayed at home.

Exaggerating? No, not at all. Not long after all this, they begged the director to dismiss me as a volunteer, and to keep the peace, the director agreed. I had to go the very next day. I was dropped off at Haifa Bus Terminal and left there alone. I took the Egged bus to Jerusalem, where I booked a bed at the same hostel I stayed the previous year. Even at the Anglican Church, I was looked upon from the corner of their eyes.

During the days that followed, I often lay on the bed while the other backpackers were out and about. If it wasn't for J, I would still be a volunteer, most likely much happier, engaging in both domestics and maintenance and fulfilling what I believed what God called me for. Unlucky, what rotten luck!

This was the time I turned away from the faith. I was sick of the pretence and hypocrisy. All those at the conference centre were Christians. Among the mass of teachings against eternal security, I too accepted that I fell out of God's favour and was heading for Hell. Yet, as I paced aimlessly through the streets of Jerusalem, I remembered God's promise to Israel and to Jerusalem in particular. Gently, I felt the Lord calling me, very, very gently. I responded, and found myself praying. Although I was still to feel devastated for months to come, I was aware of God's presence.

I spent a month in Jerusalem, living at the hostel, and seeing that the "unbelieving" backpackers were far more amenable and humane than those "Christians" at Stella Carmel. Two days before flying home, I stood once more on the summit of the Mount of Olives, looking down at the splendid panorama of the city. It was while I was gazing at the view, when once again I had a revelation, very much like the one I received in 1992. The next year I was to fly to New York. Sure enough, in 1995, exactly one year to the very day after disembarking from the airline at Gatwick airport, I boarded another airline bound for New York from London Heathrow. Thus began my time of travel, covering the whole of the United States, Singapore and Australia.

 San Diego, California 1995- one of several places which for me was so spiritually therapeutic.

I returned to Stella Carmel during the Autumn of the year 2000, after being stranded on the summit of Mt. Carmel during Rosh HaShannah and was given a lift by a taxi driver who was also a pastor of a Christian church in Haifa. With me was Alex, my wife who I have, in the last thirteen years of marriage, to be the perfect partner, companion and comforter. Unlike J, she fully respects my views, which, when properly understood, does not mean that women are inferior to men, as J. tried to get me to say. Rather, I was simply implying that men and women have different roles, both equally important.

Alex my wife prefers not to go to work, instead spending time keeping house, visiting and helping my elderly parents, showing hospitality to visiting church members and taking care of the finances. In turn, my duty is to make sure the money comes into the house in the first place. As a result, I'm happy to say that our marriage is robust.

Paul wrote,

And we know that in all things God works for the good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

And that was what it was all about. God working in me for the good. All things, not just the good or pleasant. And the rest of the chapter that follows makes tremendous reading. If only the whole of the centre had concentrated on this chapter instead of debating whether we are eternally saved or not, who knows, things might have turned out much better.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Travels - When Things Go Wrong...

On my last post, Travels - Looking Back, someone posted a comment saying that there are many who travel long distance, but know little of their own local environment. Reading this comment has given me an idea for this blog, as my memory is full of travel experiences. However, some of the most cherished were those which did not require the boarding of an airline. This was because I was fortunate enough to find time indeed for more localised areas, places of interest closer to home. But where is the connection between local travel and things going wrong? Let's see as we go along.

My home town is Bracknell, some thirty miles (48km) west of London. It was one of several built under the New Town scheme of the early 1960s with the purpose of drawing the population out of London to settle into a fully functional community, which has all the facilities required for a decent standard of living, including a sport and leisure complex, parks and open spaces, as well as a modern industrial estate. But the downside to this is that Bracknell is, and has always been, as touristy as a metal scrapyard. As one friend of mine used to answer when I asked,

Is there anything of interest in Bracknell?

Yes, the road out!

But where we live, Ascot is nearby, the next town rather, itself of no tourist interest, unless one is into horse racing. The modern grandstand is the home of Royal Ascot, called that because it's the venue where our Queen attends annually in June. About eight miles (13km) from Bracknell is Windsor, the nearest Royal and historic town, built on the River Thames, which can be truly classed as touristy. It is dominated by the world's largest fully functional castle, which building began by William the Conqueror in the 1070s with construction continuing into the centuries following.

Windsor Castle

Before the fire which destroyed a section of the castle in November 1992, there were many occasions when I cycled up to Windsor castle and went in, free, to gaze across the panorama, taking in the sports fields of nearby Eton from the castle parapet. Here I would meditate, away from the busy world while also taking in the nearby River Thames. But since the restoration was completed in 1997, having to now pay as well as the need to pass through tighter security to get to the same spot is a deterrent.

The UK is an elongated island north of the European mainland, separated by the English Channel, a finger of the Atlantic ocean making one of the busiest seas for shipping. So what is determined as "local"? The holiday resort of Blackpool, on the Irish Sea, is about the same distance from home as Paris. If I were to travel as far north as John O'Groats, on the Northern tip of  mainland Scotland (which I did in 1990) - this would still be classed as a British holiday, home holiday or "staycation" - but geographically, I would be further away from home than much of France, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark, and the whole of Ireland, Holland and Belgium.

So I recall in 1985, the year I decided more of a "local" destination, Rouen. This French city, made famous by the execution of nineteen year old Jeanne d'Arc in May 1431, is about two thirds of the way north between Paris and the coastal port of Dieppe, one of several which receive passengers from ferries plying across the Channel. (For comparison, Rouen is about the same distance from Bracknell as Manchester.) Once having found a room at a small hotel close to the station, I was able to take a train into Paris Gare St. Lazare several times during my stay at Rouen.

But on one of those days, I decided to visit Dieppe on a more leisurely pace than that of catching a ferry back to the UK. Foolishly, I decided to keep my banking cards safe in the hotel room, optimistic that such a short train ride to Dieppe would be uneventful. As the train was about to pull into the terminus, it passed under a long tunnel, something which stuck in my mind. Towards the end of the day, I made my way into Gare Dieppe for the return train to Rouen. Seeing one destined for Paris, as I supposed, all trains from Dieppe to Paris must stop at Rouen, I did not give it any more thought.

That is until the express train gathered speed and shot through a number of village stations. Then I realised that the train did not pass through the long tunnel just outside of town. I broke into a sweat. Were there more than one line linking Dieppe to Paris? Did I board the wrong train? And was I hurtling towards Paris with absolutely nothing to fall back on? My banking cards were at the hotel. I had just a few coins in my pocket. Not enough to pay for a ticket from Paris to Rouen. I dreaded the thought of being marooned in Paris, with no money and nowhere to stay! I started to panic as the train flew through another station without any hint of slowing down.

Then the conductor arrived to inspect the tickets. I showed him mine and stammered, "Rouen?"
The guard looked puzzled, shook his head and walked off, as if I asked for Timbuktu. He hadn't a clue what I ought to do, so surprising to me of one who ought to have known something of the network in his area.

But I was not alone in the carriage. Opposite my seat sat three or four teenagers. The one who sat the nearest to me asked in French if there was a problem. I simply answered, "Rouen?" - "Treno, Rouen?
The lad, realising that I could not speak French, carefully pronounced, "Serqueux." He then recited,  gesticulating like he would to a child, taking in the whole train we were on, "Dieppe, Serqueux, Paris." Then pointing to me, recited, "Serqueux." - "Amiens, Serqueux, Rouen."

He then offered me a peppermint as I began to feel a rush of relief. Change at Serqueux for Rouen. When at last I felt the brakes applied in preparation to stop at Serqueux, I could not thank the lads well enough. The ninety-minute wait all alone in the well-decorated waiting room was something I would never had swapped for being helplessly marooned in Paris.

Beautiful at it is, Paris is no place to be marooned with no money!

For me, train travel is just as exhilarating as flying. Holidays taken to the Continent (i.e. mainland Europe) were mostly done by boat-train, as I preferred to fly over longer distances. But train travel did have its drawbacks. Like in 1981 when I was backpacking northern Italy. One Friday evening I was standing in a crowded train from Pisa to Firenze when a professional pickpocket successfully emptied my pocket of my wad of Traveller's Cheques. So successful was his endeavour that I knew nothing of it until after reserving a bed at a city pensione (a hotel where several guests share a room, dormitory style. It is close to being a hostel, but without the self catering facilities.) It was while I was checking everything that I discovered that the chequebook was missing. With absolutely no money at all, first I had to spend a couple of hours waiting at the city police station for an interview, instead of spending time exploring the city. Then I had to depend on the generosity of the proprietor, who fed me each morning with a little piece of bread and some coffee until the banks re-opened on the Monday. Believe me. Being stuck in a foreign city without any money, not even to buy a snack, was certainly no fun!

I had no money here in Florence, but at least I had a place to stay.

Then the third occasion, years later in 2000. On this occasion Alex and I were celebrating our first anniversary with a holiday in Israel. But what I was not aware of, was that their New Year celebrations, or Rosh HaShannah, was at the start of October that year instead of the normal September. As usual, due to an overlook on my part, I did not cash enough traveller's cheques when I had the chance earlier on in Tiberias. We alighted the Egged Bus at Haifa, which by then had totally shut down ready for the Jewish national holiday. By then we have had a room booked at a Christian Conference Centre in a village of Isfyia, on the summit of Mt. Carmel, a good several miles away from where we were. I reasoned that such a distance can be covered by foot, so Alex and I, laden with heavy rucksacks, made our way from the bus station, through the city, and then we started on a stepped path up the hillside. We could not help but admire the stunning views of the city and the sweeping Bay of Akko.

On the summit of Carmel, we walked a little further until the Haifa University tower block came into view - a good few miles away. The village of Isfyia was an equal distance further away, making it practically impossible to venture any further. We found a roadside bench, and we sat down and stayed put, with my face buried in the palms of my hands in hopelessness. With me, I was used to sleeping under the stars. I did this a number of times when away from home in my bachelor days. But I would not let my wife sleep outside. I was worried, very concerned.

The tower block of Haifa University can be seen for miles.

Presently an empty taxi heading for Haifa stopped, and the driver poked his head out of the window and called out, asking if there was a problem. I called back saying that we need to get to Stella Carmel in Isfyia, but we had no money. He then told us to wait there, and drove on, only to re-appear on our side, and beckoned us in, while loading our rucksacks into the trunk. When we repeated that we had no money, he gave us ten shekels with the explanation that he was a pastor of a Christian church in Haifa, and he would not allow himself to drive past us if he suspected that we had a problem.

These experiences testify such foolish or ignorant decisions made as a backpacker, much due to lack of proper research, or as in the case of the Italian train journey, lack of proper looking after of my belongings, especially money. It goes to show, no matter how experienced or enthusiastic over something I love doing, mistakes can so easily happen.

But how reassuring it is to know that God is watching over us as believers. Due to some young people, the taxi driver and the hotel proprietor all being at the right place at the right time, God can demonstrate his promise:

Casting all your cares upon him, for he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)
Then you shall walk in thy way safely, and thy foot shall not stumble. (Proverbs 3:23)

Certainly, God keeps his word.