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Sunday, 28 April 2013

England Goodbye...

This blog I decided to write after numerous patriotic symbols of England were posted on Facebook, on the run-up to St Georges Day.
Of my travel experiences, most but not all, were done solo, as that was the way I would have preferred to travel, as testified in previous blogs. But it can be exhilarating to share the experience with one other person. And really, this is as far as I would go - since we have committed ourselves to each other, while three or more would have been a crowd. Such was the time Gary (name changed) and I successfully completed the End-to-End cycling tour southbound from one end of mainland Great Britain to the other in 1990.

The traditional route would have been 874 miles long, but since we did not stick to the official route, but detoured at various places, especially looking for our hostels to spend each night, I would have not been too surprised if we covered closer to a thousand miles in less than two weeks. Each daily leg of the journey was different, and each unique in distance, terrain and weather conditions. In all, if we were to average out even just nine hundred miles over twelve days, this would have brought about 75 miles of cycling a day.

This did not come overnight. In preparation for that holiday, I completed a number of cycling "burn-ups" - fast rides done mostly early Sunday mornings averaging between 25 and thirty miles, along with cycling trips to the coast (up to sixty miles) and Triathlons (Swim, Cycle and Run within one race).

Farnham Triathlon, 1987
Many in my church were impressed with our coming endeavour (Gary attended another church elsewhere.) But teasing came in the form of "Downhill all the way" as we were about to cycle from John O'Groats on the northern tip of Scotland, to Lands End, on the western tip of Cornwall - in other words, the whole journey in the southerly direction. One guy, a devout Englishman who loved his suit and tie, got rather serious with this "Downhill all the way" that I got rather tired of hearing it. Even Gary was confused at one point and I recall, during a coffee stop at a cafe, explaining that the centre of gravity was at the Earth's core, not at the Equator or the South Pole - something I had already known from childhood. I guessed that the "Downhill all the way" idea was gotten after watching water being poured over a sphere, and running down the surface to the underside of the sphere and dripping off the South Pole area. With our planet "hanging upon nothing" in space, and its gravity at its core, little surprise that whenever the road headed skyward, we always found the pedalling a lot more difficult!

After spending the first few days cycling through Scotland, we arrived at the border with England. The A7 main road passed two signboards - one was the massive "Welcome to Scotland" sign, which towered well above our heads. The other, almost directly across the road, was a much smaller sign which simply read, "England" which was low enough to be at chest level.

The contrast between the two signs seemed to have reflected the level of pride between the two nations. Whenever Scotland celebrates its annual St Andrews Day, there is that festive buzz in the air, so I read. Last week we had our St Georges Day on April 23rd. Not only was it a working day, but was just as any other working day of the year. Not a bunting could be seen anywhere, people drove to their offices with glum faces as they always do. Traffic congestion build up then dissipates as more arrive at their destinations. Trains full of silent commuters, not a word spoken, far less a greeting. At the office, computer keyboards are at constant use, phones ring and trading gets underway. Just another day. But at least the city of Nottingham managed to put on a street show with plenty of flags and bunting. But then again, Nottingham is somewhere up north, where according to my experience, people up there talk to each other. Here in the South of England there is as much charisma as in a wet blanket.

Newspaper journalists love to boast of our stoicism, the stiff upper lip, our self control over our emotions which are all hallmarks of being English. According to them, to show emotion, or having a trembling lower lip, is a sign of weakness. One Daily Mail reporter even insist that true masculinity had dissipated since the death of Princess Diana in August 1997. We have, according to them, became a sentimental, mawkish, weepy society, especially when TV presenters or interviewees shed a tear on camera over a crisis or tragedy. I often wonder why the English have such an obsession with stoicism, but I came to the belief that it has all to do with our cool temperate climate.
A good example was last week. Much of the week was bathed in warm, pleasant sunshine with temperatures soaring to twenty degrees Celsius. Supermarkets reported a brisk trade in barbecue items in preparation for the weekend. Come Friday and a cold front from the north moved south towards the Continent. Behind it, we shivered under a cold blast from the Artic and yesterday I was caught out in a heavy hail shower. In such unpredictable weather and scuppered plans, I think stoicism is necessary for keeping sane. Indeed, there will always be an England, even with such rubbish climate!

England, O England! A country which places so much emphasis on social class, higher education, the professionals and the adoration of celebrities. It looks to me that having a university degree is the be all or end all, a must in achieving, or our lives are not worth living. If ever there was a country where personal worth is evaluated by occupation, level of education, wealth, property and mode of transport, then the English seem to have a distinct knack of assigning a slot in the social ladder. For example, as a cyclist (I don't own or drive a car) I need to be weary of the "career girl" the free-spirited professional high-flier driving a two-seater sports car, paying little regard to such a vulnerable cyclist whose presence had forced her to slow down and raise her ire. I don't want to sound sexist here, but I have often found career women in their late twenties and thirties to be more aggressive behind the wheel - maybe having less patience when a cyclist, who shouldn't be there, makes an appearance. Don't get me wrong, a lot of male drivers require a lot to be desired as well when it comes to highway manners. Maybe that is why these days I ride slower, on the excellent cycle path system we have in our area, but even with this, England does not hold a candle to Holland, which to my opinion, have the best cycleway system in the world.

When someone like me has travelled the world, particularly around the Mediterranean, I have found that it becomes easier to compare Englishness to cultures of other countries. For example, in Sicily I have found residents sitting outside their open front doors chatting away with their neighbours. Walk along a typical residential street and I would walk past lines of happy, chattering people and children playing.  Here in England, in the South (i.e. in the Home Counties bordering around London) there are quiet, almost deserted streets under this constant air of melancholy, which is tied in with the well-familiar saying, "Mustn't grumble" as if there was much to grumble about. Our lousy, unpredictable weather certainly doesn't help, making outdoor life a rare thing to be seen. While I was backpacking in Australia, it was not unusual to see public, coin-operated barbecue stoves permanently set up in city parks. Try finding these here. Such an outdoorsy sort of lifestyle would not be suitable in our climate and matching culture.

Yet England does have beautiful natural places which I'm sure, would, delight the eye of the beholder. One of my favourite areas is the Jurassic Coast Path, particularly from Swanage to Weymouth in Dorset. Here dynamic cliffs provide spectacular views of the coast including the famous Durdle Door rock formation.

Other beautiful places visited also included the Lake District National Park, in the northern county of Cumbria. Notoriously wet, taking in such scenery can be quite difficult, even in the Summer. But on one occasion in 1992, Gary and I were climbing Scaffel Pike, England's highest mountain which was shrouded in thick fog. As we carefully hiked the well-marked trail, we were nearing the summit when this fellow was moaning as he was coming back down.

"Several times I have climbed to the top and it was always shrouded in fog!" he declared as we passed him.

We pressed on until we arrived at the summit. Suddenly the fog began to lift, and as it did so, the whole of the panorama began to come into view. With steam rising in cloud columns, at first it looked a bit like a scene from Dante's inferno. Then the sun broke through to give us a magnificent view of the mountainous park, with Sty Head Tarn a couple of miles away as the crow flies.

No doubt, away from the sprawling suburbs, England does have its beauty, and as a believer in Jesus Christ, I have no problem in giving such credit to God's power in his handiwork. Yet also as a believer, our true home is in Heaven where there is not only a mansion being prepared for every believer, but even while we live here, we are already seated in Heaven, and Paul reminds us to set our minds on things above, where Christ is seated, rather than on things of the earth. Celebrating St Georges day is okay, but how much more are we to celebrate our redemption into God's Kingdom.

In Hebrews 11, there is a list of the Old Testament men of faith who has made it into this hall of fame. Within this list, the writer adds that if they wanted to, these guys could have returned to their homeland. Abraham was one good example. He was called out of Ur, in the region of Babylon, to live as a nomad in the desert land of the Canaanites, a people totally foreign to him. Some time ago, I read that in the ancient Babylonian culture, education was high on the list. Astrology along with mathematics were two of the most important subjects. Back there, children was taught the approximation of Pi, the square root, possibly the cubic root and all branches of geometry.

Shades of England.

But instead, Abraham and his fellowmen of faith looked forward to a city whose founder and builder is God himself. His longing for the promise was enough for him to leave behind his homeland and culture, and not knowing where he was going, allowed himself and his family to a nomadic lifestyle while remaining focused on God's promises.

Moses was another great example. With him, the writer of Hebrews emphasised that Moses preferred to suffer disgrace along with the people of God, that is, his fellow Hebrews, than to wallow in the Egyptian culture of the day. He too, was focused on the heavenly city God had promised, and he was willing to give up everything to be part of it. And it is interesting that ancient Egypt deified their monarch in much the same way as the English deify the Queen today. But as Moses and Abraham looked to better things God had promised, shouldn't we too?

Sunday, 21 April 2013

New Church Venue!

This morning we saw a significant change in the life of our church. Mainly two innovations: First we moved our Sunday morning services from our original building tucked away at a housing estate, to the world famous Ascot Racecourse and secondly, with the move, we changed our name from Ascot Baptist church to Ascot Life Church, a name based on John 10:10:

The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they have it more abundantly.

The move was the final outcome from a question put to one of our Elders some time ago by a visiting preacher: "Have you considered becoming involved with the Ascot Racecourse?"

Ascot Racecourse- We don't take up the whole Grandstand - yet!
The move to the Paddock Restaurant was the result of our church growing in numbers until the Sunday morning congregation became too large for our original building. This is the grace of God working in our area, bringing new people in - not only from our local area but also from nearby Holloway College, of the University of London. Furthermore, we attract people from abroad, and for some reason, South Africa seems to be a reliable source for the Ascot congregation. And oh yes, I must add this: Unlike at major horse racing tournaments such as Ascot Week where suit and tie is compulsory for all male visitors and punters, casual dress is still permitted for us at our new venue. Phew!

Our move to the Racecourse is certainly good news for church life. Here in the UK where atheism is taking hold, together with a decline of national morality which was once founded on Judeo/Christian heritage, it is simply great to see people turning to Jesus Christ for salvation, the forgiveness of sins and a relationship with God which is a lot better than merely practising religion. In my heart I wish to see many, many more people turning to Jesus Christ by faith. This, and this alone, can change both society and the Economy in a way that no Government can achieve.

But on the national scale I wonder if we are winning the battle. We see and hear about dwindling congregations within the Church of England while its elders bicker over homosexual leaders and of the ordination of women bishops. At present, the C.of E. is campaigning against massive bonuses awarded to senior executives and bankers, protesting over such greed by quoting parts of Scripture, where Jesus said that one cannot serve both God and mammon, which we interpret as money today. This along with Paul's famous quote, that the love of money is the root of all evil. These are good maxims, but alone they fail to regenerate the heart, rather such maxims used in such context are liable to raise hostility against our present Tory Party in Government, thought by many as "the Party for the rich."

It is also worth noting that our change of venue is just under a week after the double bombing close to the finish line of the Boston Marathon, in the American state of Massachusetts. Such an occasion brought up in my mind the issue of suffering. Sad to say, my own brother remains an atheist by this fact alone. His analysis on the existence of God reflects an experience I had way back in 1978.

I was sitting alone in a works canteen at what was then British Aerospace Precision Engineering at Weybridge, Surrey. There was a time when this fully staffed restaurant serving hot, cooked dinners was reserved only for office staff, or if you like, men in suits. The manual workers, regardless of their skills, were confined to the adjoining canteen with only vending machines serving drinks and snacks, and one was encouraged to bring their own packed lunch. Then the Union debated with senior management over the rights of use of the restaurant for manual workers, and the Union won the debate, allowing blue-collar workers to share the restaurant with the white-collar staff.

However, it was natural for white-collar to sit with white-collar and blue-collar with blue-collar at separate tables, but on this occasion I sat alone at this particular table. A short while afterwards a group of office workers found where I was sitting, and took their remaining places. This goes to show that popularity could override class prejudice, especially where faith in Christ had something to do with it.

During dinner, one of them sitting with me then asked:

If God really exists, then why does he allow such suffering in the world?

To which I replied by asking him a question:

Do you believe that God himself had ever suffered?

The guy in the suit was stunned. The reason he was not able to answer was that he knew that I was referring to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the cross. He visualised those nails piercing through his hands and his feet as he remained fastened to two beams of wood. He hung there to atone for our sins. Now as believers we are reconciled to the Father and we can even call him Abba, Father - which in today's terms means "Daddy!" Because of the atonement made on the cross, forgiveness of sin is available to all who believe, and judicial acquittal, a verdict of "not guilty" is declared by God the Judge to all who has faith. This is tremendous news and such news is the power that lies at the base of why we moved to a larger venue - to accommodate more people who have also found Christ through faith and share our worship experience together.

But we also need to face reality. At this very moment I'm typing this blog, the BBC had just announced the start of a documentary about Evolution on the next channel. Indeed, while the news of us moving to larger accommodation is good tidings, the vast majority of our nation sit back to absorb that which is the most subtle, therefore the most dangerous enemy of the Gospel. The snag with Evolution is that it is accepted by many Christians - believers who attend church at a regular basis, mostly graduates, who are often selected for leadership for various church departments, particularly among children of adult members.

The Gospel encourages the love of Jesus Christ for everyone across the board - nationality, race and social class. I think Evolution result in the opposite. National, race and class superiority brings hatred and division. I was able to see that in Weybridge back in the 1970s. I personally believe that the Christian defence against evil is greatly weakened by Darwinism, and as a Creationist myself, I tend to feel embarrassed if I testify to an unbeliever of a young Earth which was Divinely Created. The reason for this embarrassment is that Divine Creationism is looked upon as silly and addle-minded by the academic and the better educated. Yet I feel that if Divine Creation, the Fall of Man and the Noachian Deluge were all fairy tales and untrue to fact, then the crucifixion, death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ must also be untrue, and the Atonement non-effective, as all of these are inextricably linked.

With the walls of Christian apologetics crumbling, atheists gloat over religion as a whole as Muslim terrorists disrupts the Boston Marathon. But even this is minute compared to the 9/11 atrocity at New York and Washington DC alike, taking the lives of thousands.

So as it looks to me, with no real belief in the Bible, we have no defence against the rage of the Muslims, while professors such as Richard Dawkins wins the respect of the nation, as with anyone who has a higher level of education are looked up upon with a greater respect than those who don't have a higher education. I for one, believe in Divine Creation, a young Earth, the Fall of man, the Flood, Israel, the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ, his death, resurrection and ascension into Heaven, and judicial acquittal for all who believe and trusts in him.

I believe that our move as a congregation to larger accommodation is a testimony of the power of God in us as a church. I would like to see it grow, not just in numbers but also in spiritual maturity in each believer. Although I have joked above about taking over the whole of the Ascot Racecourse grandstand, who knows, some years away we may need to move into one of the larger rooms within the grandstand itself. After all, nothing is impossible with God. But we take one step at a time. Now we meet at the Paddock Restaurant, separate from the grandstand. I am hoping that we will be meeting there for a good few years to come.

But outside, people die without knowing God all the time, thanks largely to Darwinism shaping our society. It is tragic! Maybe we all need to cry out to God to pour out his mercy around our location, to our nation, and to the world.

God bless.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Daddy! Daddy! I Want...Give Me...

On July 3rd, 1997 I boarded a Boeing 747 at Sydney Airport, Australia, which took off around five-thirty in the evening, bound for Los Angeles, California.  After flying across the vast Pacific Ocean, featuring a splendid view of Hawaii basking in the morning sunshine, the 'plane landed safely at around one o'clock in the afternoon on the 3rd of July.

Yes, I can say that I have literally went back in time, landing in Los Angeles before I took off from Sydney, despite being suspended more than thirty thousand feet up in the air for the better part of thirteen and a half hours. But that is one of the strange anomalies of long-haul travel, as the airline was literally travelling faster than the rotation of the Earth on its axis, the crossing of the International Date Line meant I had to re-live the whole of the 3rd of July instead of landing at Los Angeles on the 4th as a result of flying through the night. This make travel so exciting! This, along with looking up at the Australian starry night and seeing the Southern Cross Constellation right above my head, or the brilliant display of stars seen from the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. Not to mention the abundance of tropical vegetation - Mangrove trees in particular, growing out of the sea at high tide, a phenomenon totally unknown around the UK, Europe or the Mediterranean.

A Mangrove tree at Arlie Beach, Queensland, 1997.

Travel became something of an obsession, I think, since I first believed in Jesus Christ as Saviour. It was due to the fact that I started reading the Bible, and the Old Testament in particular said a great deal about the nation of Israel with its capital city, Jerusalem. So in 1976, after touring Italy for the last three years as a solo backpacker, I flew out to Israel to see the city the Bible had spoken so much about, together with a stay in Tiberias, on the lake of Galilee, that part of the world so familiar with Jesus Christ and his disciples. Gosh, how I wanted to see Jesus at the time, while walking on territory he once walked on. As a twenty-three year old, I was quite naive and not realised that not only was he already with me, but also lived in me, and in a sense, was guiding me along where he had been before his crucifixion. After visiting Israel in 1976, my desire to see the rest of the world, particularly California, began to increase, a lot of this to do with big screen and television movies.

God allowed me to fulfil my travel dreams, simply because he is my Father, as Jesus taught us to regard him. As my knowledge of the Bible began to accumulate, my curiosity over the city of Jerusalem began to grow, and I wanted so much to be there to see for myself. I can't remember if I specifically asked whether I can go, but even as such an immature Christian back then, God knew my heart and he had opened the door. Apparently, for one to backpack the Middle East was so unusual back in the mid-seventies, that after I returned, it became quite a sensation at my place of work, a precision engineering factory which employed around two hundred people, both in the offices and shop-floor.

One of the Scriptures I have become familiar with is found in Matthew 7:7-11, where Jesus instructs his followers that God is willing to give good things to those that ask him. Good things? In my younger days, to me good things meant travel, and loads of money to do this. As a single person, good things also meant meeting a girl of my dreams, marry and raise a family. However, a fast car was not on the agenda, as I have proved myself not to have taken to the steering wheel. But reading what Jesus was comparing here, he was saying that although our hearts are evil, as fathers we are keen to give good gifts to our children when they ask for them.

Perhaps life was very different during Jesus' day. Did children really ask their dads for bread, fish or an egg? According to Jesus and his followers, these seemed to have been the normal things to ask for, as these were the only goods that existed in a primitive agricultural world. Yet in our modern day, I don't ever record asking my parents for food such as meat and vegetables. Neither have I ever seen or heard about any children ask for bread or a fish. Sweets (candy) - yes, and often given as a reward for being good or obedient. As for toys, I have seen more than one child scream as he or she was pulled away by Mum from a toy shop at the shopping mall, but I have yet to see a child scream if he or she is pulled away from a grocery store. Also it can be hard work trying to persuade children to eat their Brussels sprouts, or greens in general. Rather than ask for these items, they are often the last  taken from the plate, if they leave the plate at all. And that despite that vegetables have a lot of nutritional goodness in them.

And that's the point. When I was young, if someone had placed a portion of boiled cabbage and a bar of chocolate in front of me, then told to choose which to eat, I would have chosen the chocolate, even if there was much more protein in the cabbage. Would I have chosen the chocolate because I was rebellious? Not at all. I would have chosen it simply because I was a child, and the taste of chocolate is far more enjoyable than the taste of the vegetable. Because of this, I would have regarded the chocolate as an undeserved treat, while eating the cabbage was more of an act of duty. A lesson may be learned here with a plate of biscuits (cookies). When my Mum had a packet of chocolate biscuits and some plain wheat ones too, what she did was to wrap the plain ones in silver foil, and present them in the same dish as the chocolate ones. The ruse always worked. The ones in the foil stood out as special, and taking one of those represented a special treat, and I felt the need to eat it despite the anticlimax.

And as a young Christian, even as an adult, I regarded the goodness of God in a very similar way. How come? Because in Matthew's version, Jesus says that the Father will give good things to those who asks him, while in Luke's version (11:9-13) he says that the father gives the Holy Spirit to those who asks him! Therefore as a young Christian, I found Matthew's version a whole lot more appealing. With it, I did ask the Father if I could travel around the world. I did ask the Father if I would ever cross the International Date Line sometime in my life. I did ask the Father if I would be married one day. I also asked the Father if I could qualify for a desk job in an office - not because this was always my aspiration, but because I would be better loved, respected and accepted by other people, particularly in my church. But asking for the Holy Spirit? Not quite so appealing, despite that he was the best I could have asked for.

According to my experience, there seems to be a parallel between growing up physically and growing up spiritually. In I Corinthians 3, Hebrews 5:13 and 1 Peter 2:2, the apostles wrote about babes in Christ, who were engaging in quarrelling and envying instead of bathing in the grace of God. And these Christians were adults, yet they were spiritual children. It seems to me that it's natural for the new believer to pass through a stage of spiritual childhood, and yet we have a Heavenly Father who understands this. There is absolutely nothing wrong in desiring things we see around us or what other people have gotten or have achieved. Travel was, and still is, my passion and God has granted me the ability to have travelled the world, and enough money to finance it. God has also granted that I would have a wife, a partner for life. But he did not grant me to have a cosy desk job at an office, neither did he allow me to fulfil my childhood ambition to become a medical doctor or journalist. Back in 1980, when I was out of a job, I wanted so much to climb out of my working class status and become middle class. If only I could land an office job, I would have bridged the divide.

At my old church, the person's worth was evaluated by level of education and professional occupation. And one who came out of university was held in higher regard and greater respect than the one who didn't. The graduate found it easier to make friends, was wooed by the girls and even the Elders gave the graduate greater responsibilities as house group leaders and teachers of Junior Church, and so on. As a result of all this, there were times that my personal relationship with God was under some strain, and even thought, erroneously, that God loved some people more than others and I was near the bottom of the pile. World travel became the antidote against this line of thinking.

It is as I grew older both physically and spiritually that I began to realise that Luke's version of what Jesus taught was far superior. Whether these two sayings were slightly different variations of the same speech delivered or whether he spoke on the same theme at different times and places, really that does not matter. For Jesus to say that the Holy Spirit is available just by the asking is the greatest demonstration of grace God can bestow upon a person. Furthermore, it is an unqualified statement, it does not respect the recipient's level of education or social status. As with travel, this always ends with a bout of "post holiday blues" - a deep feeling of melancholy as I walked into an empty, silent but oh-so-familiar apartment after so many nights spent at a lively, bustling hostel socialising and making friends in the far corner of the globe, with the distance from work and daily responsibilities to match. But asking for the Holy Spirit to flood my soul with himself is actually a lot more fulfilling, not only because the gift is eternal, but particularly when I go through a difficult patch wondering how long my window cleaning business will last, the growing threat of rivalry due to superior sales patter, better equipment which demands hundreds, if not thousands of pounds investment, and an estate of ageing clientele leaving me very unsure about the future.

I have found that trusting in God and asking for the Holy Spirit to fill me on a daily basis has not only helped along in facing an uncertain future, but on the positive scale, has given me patience in dealing with difficult clients, to be gentle and accommodating when others poses levels of difficulty. And I give credit to the power of God in my life, a Saviour who is fully capable in renewing a sinner's heart. A long backpacking holiday, or even a sabbatical, may be an exciting idea but also a return ticket is included in the package. Not so with the seal and guarantee of eternal life. No return ticket there! Realising that asking the Father for the Holy Spirit is equivalent to a child choosing the cabbage instead of the chocolate, to walk into a clothes shop on a cold day instead of the toy shop, or for that matter, if a choice between a pretty picture postcard or a £20 note was presented, the child choosing the money above the postcard, despite that the card is far more prettier.

I believe that God's wish is to bless us. I don't believe that God is reluctant to bestow material blessings, which includes the opportunity to travel. After all, wasn't Abraham rich? And so was Job? And one of the richest men who had ever lived was King Solomon. Never mind that he erred in later life. Solomon was bestowed with a supernatural wisdom which could have only come from the Spirit of God, and was particularly loved by God at his birth.

King Solomon's splendour. 

God has blessed me richly with a wife and a nice home, two computers, a photo library of travel experiences, and niceties which enhances the pleasantness of being at home. But the best gift God has given me is salvation and having not just having the Holy Spirit dwell in me, but all of the Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit taking delight in making me their home.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

If Only...

After snorkeling in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, exploring the rich coral reef turning the sea bed into a beautiful marine garden bustling with life, I eventually make my way to the wooden steps to the boardwalk set just above the calm surface of the turquoise water. Alex my wife runs along the platform, arms wide open in greeting me as if I had just returned from a far-away mission.

Together we saunter back to the thatched wooden hut which was our beach-side hotel accommodation on one of the islands of the Maldives. I felt peckish, but as Alex suggested a gentle stroll along the golden sand beach, I was willing to forgo any food for now and spend some time together. Especially when the sun was beating down from overhead at a cloudless sky.

As we sauntered along the beach, with the sea gently lapping, and backed by a forest of palm trees and other tropical bushes, we came to a group of young people, three couples to be precise. The three men looked fit, their bronze topless torsos reflecting the sunlight from their glossy skins. In turn, the women were equally bronzed by the sun, even in their bikini swimsuits. In the midst of them was a barbecue stove emitting an appetite-stirring aroma of sausages and beefburgers. As we were about to pass them by, one of them stopped us in our tracks by asking why not join them in the feast. He also assured us that there was plenty to go around, therefore there was no need to economise.

Alex and I looked at each other and both of us agreed to the fellow's invitation. We took our places among them and sat down in their midst.

I perceived that they were not from the UK, or at least not from the London area or the Home Counties. This I surmised from the accent the young man spoke with, even if his English was good. Where they were from was not of my concern, so I let it pass by.

"It's so nice of you to invite us." I said, to open a conversation.
"Of course," the one sitting next to me responded. "We are family."
"Family?" I was curious.
"Yes, family. All of us here love the Lord Jesus, and I know for sure that had he been here in person, he would have invited all of us."
"So you're Christian? I too..."
"We already know, all of us. It stood out from both of you when you were strolling towards us."
The speaker then put his arm around me and gave me a hug. I hugged him too and said that it was really nice to meet him and his friends.

Then enough curiosity got the better of me to make me ask, "What do you all do?"
"We are university graduates. Mike over there wants to achieve a doctorate and become a medical doctor, Dave wants to become a barrister and I wish to pursue journalism. Our girlfriends have similar ambitions."

I felt my face redden, and it was not from the sun.

"I'm just a window cleaner, Alex here keeps the home. In the past this was known as 'housewife.'" I muttered with a degree of embarrassment. "We are absolutely fortunate that we are here, in this beautiful paradise of an island."

Mike looked at me what seems to be with a degree of envy. I found this a little disturbing. Then the student confirmed how he felt.

I envy you, both of you." he declared.
"Whatever for?" I gasped in surprise. "Gosh, if I was given a chance to become a doctor, I would be fulfilling my childhood dreams!"

"It's not that." Mike replied. "It's what Jesus and Paul said and wrote."
"Er, what?" I asked.
"Jesus said on one occasion that he who is least among us would become the greatest in the Kingdom of God, and on another occasion he said that the last shall be first and the first, last."
"Yes, I read those sayings." I replied.
"Then Paul also wrote that the foolish things in the world will confound the wise." Mike finished.
"So what are you saying?
"We are saying that you should not be ashamed of your occupation, for if you please God, he will reward you richly."

I was rather aghast! In all the years of being in the faith, I have not heard that before.
"But surely, God will reward you as well. He is not into favouritism." I answered.
"No, he is not into favouritism." Steve confirmed. "But because he has given us greater responsibilities, so his judgement on how we had stewarded his goods will be far more severe."
"So you're not into social class then? Many back at home seem to be obsessed by it."
"No, definitely not." Steve answered. "To all of us, serving God is our greatest priority. Remember, his love for us when we were helpless was so great, that he sent his Son to suffer and die for us, so we could be redeemed. Social class does not come into the equation."
"Gosh!" I exclaimed as I turned to my wife Alex. "These guys have some wisdom."

Then again curious, I asked, "You say you are all boyfriends and girlfriends? Does this create a problem with hotel accommodation?"
"Our hotel is just behind those trees." Steve answered, as he pointed to the opposite direction from where our thatched hut was. "But booking was not a problem. We have two huts, one for us and the other for our girlfriends. In this we keep ourselves disciplined, and we found the holiday to be richly enjoyable. There has not been a single disagreement between us."

Then David, who had so far been quiet since we were invited, stood up and tended the barbecue stove. Then he announced that the food was ready, and he began to insert the sausages and beefburgers into cut rolls of bread. As we were the guests, we were served first, and as I reached out to take the roll, I suddenly found myself in bed in our semi-dark bedroom.

Yea, it was all just a dream...

Alex was still asleep beside me as my heart fell at the sight of my own bedroom here at home in the UK. At daybreak I had to attend an assessment at a London hospital, so I declared it a day off from work, which, I have to admit, made me feel better after having such a wonderful dream with such a rotten anticlimax! After all, a day off to break the monotony of daily window cleaning in the thick of winter was most welcoming.

The chilly wind blew through the station, its design and construction making the station itself a wind tunnel, as one side had a wall topped by trees and the other, a high office block which sits over the station entrance. With the cold easterly wind, occasional snow flurries blowing in the air, the current weather making us all concerned whether the whole nation would grind to a halt yet again due to an inch of snow on the ground.

Bracknell Railway Station

The platform I was standing had a large number of men in suits waiting for the delayed train to arrive. While the wait was seemingly long, the voice of the station manager crackled through the speakers:
"The o-seven eighteen to London Waterloo will be twenty minutes late. We apologise for the delay. This is due to staffing problems."

Staffing problems. In other words, the driver scheduled to bring this train here was still in bed! So they had to call another driver who was originally meant to take the next train out. I surveyed the platform. The guys in their suits were either stone deaf or because of such British stoicism, no one stirred or said a word. There were no protest or any grumbling heard. It seemed to me that delayed trains were a normal way of life for them.

As not being a regular commuter, I muttered something about being stuck here in the cold and the threat of being late for my appointment. One of the well dressed men gave me that unpleasant look from the corner of his eye, and walked off to the far end of the platform. So much for encouragement.

On board the late train, I managed to find an empty seat. Just as well, as further down the line, later boarding commuters had to stand in the central aisle. It was almost eerie. Not a single vocal conversation could be heard, not a greeting, a good morning or asking how you are today. Above the mechanical sound of solid steel wheels rolling on solid steel rails, the only sounds heard were the rattling of the newspaper as one turned the page, along with the shuffling of well shod feet and thick sleeved arms, an occasional harrumph of a cough, the unwrapping of a sweet wrapper and perhaps, once the train had halted at a red signal, a distant dssst-dssst of a personal earphone player.

I allowed my head roll from side to side as I closed my eyes and looked back at another train journey I completed way back in 1974. Only this was in Italy, on a route from Foggia to Napoli (Naples) during one of my early backpacking days. The carriage at the time was the old compartmental type with a side corridor. I boarded at Foggia and walked through the corridor looking for a vacant seat. Within each compartment people was happily talking to each other, a torrent of almost incomprehensible Italian constantly filling the air. I found one empty seat by the window in one compartment already occupied a three Catholic nuns on one side and two young guys on the other, where I was about to sit.

I recall a conversation developing between myself and the nun opposite me. I told her in broken Italian that I was from England and I was touring the country. She was very impressed and she even offered me a sweet (candy). Also impressed was the young guy sitting next to me, who took over the conversation with me from the nun and plied me with questions, particularly where I'll be staying in Napoli and whether he can come round to see me again. After arriving at the city terminus, the young man, whose name was Claudio, and I made our way to the hotel where I stayed the previous year. He made sure that I was fully booked in before leaving. Two days later he, with another fellow and two young women made a group of five and spent the day together, including a cable-car ride up the slopes of Mt. Faito, paid on my behalf by my new friend. It was a beginning of a good friendship. Not much different from the dream of the Maldives.

I relate these two train journeys as both are true stories. However, the generosity shown by the people in the Maldives dream was based on a near identical true-life experience I had when staying at a hostel in Australia, back in 1997. At the hostel there were two Italian brothers who invited me to share in the dinner they have cooked and provided. This together with the southern Italian train journey, seem to show a contrast between British culture and those of other countries, particularly those at or close to the Mediterranean.

We in England pride ourselves as being a Christian country. The Church of England has its headquarters at the imposing Canterbury Cathedral, with the Archbishop being second only to the Queen herself, who holds the title of Defender of the Faith, dating back to the days of King Henry VIII. The English Tourist Board relies on the abundance of cathedrals and old churches scattered throughout the land, the more famous being St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, both in London, the city where these stoic but unfriendly commuters heading each working day morning.

Then the obsession with social class. In the Bible we read about Jesus endorsing the truth that the least among us will be great in his Kingdom, and the first will be last, and the last, first - and so on. But our culture, based on Christian morals, has reversed the order, with the great being first and the least being last. I have also seen, over the years, the general rejection brought on by some because I don't quite fit in. Many times I receive that hostile look, often from the working classes, their avoidance of my presence, whispering and gossip behind my back, their general dislike, yet no one has ever come over to me with the problem, perhaps fearing that the truth about me might rumble them.

The English pre-occupation with social class was brought home to me by the BBC, which gave a report that the traditional three tier system has now developed into a seven tier system, based on one's education level, type of occupation, salary and property ownership. At the top end we now have the Elite, with their private education, very high salary and homeowner. At the bottom there is the Precariat, to which I belong, after taking the BBC online test. These are the ones who didn't do well at school, either labour or rely on State benefit for an income, and who is a Council tenant (Public housing.)

 John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett symbolising the English class system of the 1960s.

It looks to me that the well structured social class system here in the UK is at odds with the Bible, yet this country claims to follow Christian principles. So what would the best course of action I should take in this country's contradicting culture?

The one and only answer for a believer such as myself is to be constantly filled with the Holy Spirit, and through knowledge of the Bible, allowing Him to guide me, even if this involves swimming against our cultural current. This involves being friendly and ready to be open and hospitable even in such an environment as a morning commuter train. It means having an open door and not feel redundant to give to those genuinely in need. But most of all, to be able to love those who are otherwise impossible to love. And that is a divine miracle, wherever I'm at a golden, sun-kissed beach in the Maldives, or under an overcast sky in the streets of London.
And I can only achieve this through the power of the Holy Spirit. After all, why should only the Italians get the credit in applying Bible principles?