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Saturday, 25 January 2014

In Him We Have Our Being.

Another working week done. The apocalyptic weather the Met Office had forecasted for Friday did not arrive until twelve hours later than predicted, allowing me to complete the week's scheduled round of work and finish for the weekend. Then earlier today (Saturday) I was off for my weekly dose of the sauna, a wonderful antithesis to the stresses of the week.

Such as when my General Practitioner (medical doctor) decided to reduce my wife's prescription. Whether this is normal procedure in the treatment of patients or, as the Media has been suggesting, a money-saving scheme as a result of National Health Service reform imposed by our present Government, I cannot say. However, an appointment with the doctor for next week should, I hope, clear things up. A normal procedure to wean the patient off drugs should, of course, be the norm for any doctor to carry out. However, with a reduced intake of prescribed medicine, my dear beloved has suffered relapses in her illness which I have found particularly distressing - and wondering whether she will end up being taken by ambulance back to Accident & Emergency at Reading Royal Berks Hospital once again.
No doubt, the NHS was, and is, a brilliant idea. For the benefit of readers outside the UK, it was started by the Labour Government in 1948, it is funded by National Insurance, a tax paid by every income earner to form a national public purse to enable those who cannot pay for private hospitals to receive treatment. Over the years, both my wife and I have much to thank them for. Yet, with her present prescription reduced, together with her relapse, I have been wondering if they were putting money above her welfare as a patient. This, after reading the papers as well as watching news bulletins that certain types of drugs are withheld or have limited use to save money. And what I find so annoying is that a rich person can make just one call to a private hospital and he will be instantly admitted and given hotel-rate accommodation, not to mention all the constant attention from the medics. Likewise with any celebrity, whether sportsman, actor, singer, writer, performer, or a member of the Royals, they will always be given preferential treatment.
It is with these things that I can feel discouraged and down-hearted. This, I think, is why I let out a blast at the English class system so often in these blogs. Preference. The bestowing of greater importance on one person over another. In our language we even have the initials VIP - very important person, and I couldn't help feeling bemused a few years ago when I walked past the entrance of London Zoo at Regents Park, and I saw the VIP entrance separated from the main entrance used by everyone else, and I have wondered whether if any of the animals in captivity would be any more impressed if, for example, the Mayor of London was gawking at them as he sauntered by! 

Although I have wished I have done a lot better at school, and found myself working as a microbiologist in a research laboratory instead of as a self-employed window cleaner - I am thankful to God that he has given as all magnificent brains with not only to make decisions and solve problems mathematically - various things no other species of animal has the capacity of doing - but with the ability to store up information long after we had left school and passed our final exams. I have to admit my gratefulness to such academics for making the results of their research and discoveries public. One of the branches of science I find so intriguing is the study of the cell, particularly its nucleus and the genome.
We have discovered that the nucleus of every cell in the human body (except the red blood cells) has a nucleus containing 46 chromosomes, 23 from each parent, each one containing deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, which resembles a long winding ladder with each rung, or nucleotide, consisting of pairs of nucleobase - guanine, adenine, thymine, and cytosine - with adenine pairing up with thymine, and guanine with cytosine. In a human cell, Chromosome 1, the longest being over 80mm in length, has nearly 247,200,000 nucleotides, that is the "rungs" of the "ladder." Each nucleotide must be arranged in a certain order in very much the same way as a binary code runs a computer program. If one of the nucleotides is malfunctioning, or at a wrong place, the cell will die.
This is a very simplified version of what is otherwise a lengthy study. But the reality of DNA which contains the genetic code inherited from our parents is absolutely staggering! It is a vastly complex structure, each nuclotide being in its correct order and sequence that is needed for the cell to live and function. I, for one, can't help but give glory to God our Creator. Surely, evolution by chance coming up with such a vast complexity as this would be a stretch of the imagination, not to mention that the age of the entire Universe cannot wait for such a structure to develop without divine intervention. This, I think, why God has given us the capacity to learn about ourselves -to recognise that we have a Heavenly Creator whose will is for us humans to partake in and enjoy the love existing between Father Son and Holy Spirit.

It looks to me that our very cellular makeup with its highly complex genome system testifies of God's love for us as individuals, and as we are all equal in his sight, yet everyone of us is born with a sinful nature which deserves judgement, yet he commands everyone of us to repent, that is to say, to change our minds about Jesus Christ, and believing him to be our risen Saviour and Lord. The Gospel is here at one with science. Just as the complex genome system found in all human cells have no respect for social class or status, so likewise the Gospel is the same for all classes - to believe in Jesus Christ as Saviour and be saved from the penalty of our sins.
Although the English in particular generally adore their Majesty the Queen, and no doubt, if anything happens to her health, the doctors will rush at her aid without delay - yet it may be surprising to some that God allows the monarch to exist because of our sinful natures, as well as establishing authorities as a means to keep evil in check. The truth is, after existing for several hundred years as a Theocracy - that means under God's direct rule - the whole nation of Israel approached the seer Samuel to ask for a king to lead them and fight their battles (1 Samuel 8.) God was actually displeased with Israel's request, but after bidding the prophet to warn the nation of the consequences in having a king, at the end God complied, and Israel became a kingdom for the first time in its history, with the annointing of its first king, Saul. 
In later years, Israel's kings were particularly hard on their subjects. King Solomon, the son of David was very demanding, according to 1Kings 12:12-16, when King Rehoboam, Solomon's son and heir to the throne, announced to his subjects that he will be much harsher than his father was. Israel's period as a kingdom was a trying time, which pushed further home their distrust in God as their King, and towards their eventual ruin by exile into Babylon under their new pagan ruler Nebuchadnezzar.
Our Queen, of course, is nothing like Solomon, Rehoboam or Nebuchadnezzar. Instead, for the last sixty years since her enthronement, she has served her country well, earning the respect the nation owed her. But although she had served the country well, as a nation, the attitude of her subjects shows the same lack of trust in God as ancient Israel demonstrated. For centuries, the British had always looked to their monarch as not only the nation's leader, but also as an intercessory between the nation and God, very much as the Pope is the in-between before God for the Catholic Church. I believe that it is having the Queen as Head of State, and the pageantry that follows every time she steps onto the street, or is seen in public sitting in her coach, that acts as a base rock for the social class system with its pecking order of preferences.
But our intricate body structure, with our magnificent cell and genome system, our health and wellbeing testifies of the universal creation and love of God, who has no favouritism, no pecking order, no national or cultural class stratum. This is endorsed in Scripture which says that whoever despises a poor man despises the God who made him. Jesus himself had always respected the poor and needy and had no hesitation to minister to them and to meet their needs - as well as proclaiming to them the Kingdom of God, and their willingness to enter.
And also knowing how much God loves the church as a corporate body, each congregation making up the body and bride of Christ. Therefore isn't it most important that every individual believer within the Body of Christ should treat each other as equals, without any pecking order of any kind. In the church there should be no snobbery, no academic preferences, no social class, no nationalism, no preferences for any political party, no greater respect for those in the professions. We as a body of believers are as equal to each other as each cell is equal to each other in our bodies, regardless to what part of the body the cell is serving.
And maybe it's time for the NHS to learn the same thing about discrimination between patients. After all, their doctors and staff know about the workings of the genome than most of the rest of us.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Oh You English...

So far this has been quite a testing start of the New Year. Torrential rain falling as periodic showers just about every day as I go about my business constantly wearing a heavy, waterproof raincoat - so much so that now I dare not step outside without it - even if the sky is clear and the sun is out.

Then my heart drops as I watch my beloved wife, the one so nearest and dearest to me, stumble around the house in her bid to complete the chores, which she willingly chooses to carry out as her showing of respect for me for being the sole breadwinner. Being under heavy medication is no encouragement as her back pain flares up from time to time, and her medication is for a set period of several weeks or months - making me wonder what exactly does the future hold for us. With last year's holiday to Crete cancelled, the paltry insurance claim successful, even though the payment was considerably less than what I had hoped for, and this year my passport expires. With Alex remaining housebound, at this moment in time it looks like that all holidays - in the UK as well as abroad, has become a thing of the past - as I would never consider travel of any kind without my beloved alongside.
Ah! How marriage had changed my life. No amount of travel could ever replace the comfort and joy of being close to someone I love and adore deeply, knowing how much she loves me to the same level. So surely, it breaks my heart to see so much medication lying around, knowing that it is a momentary fix to keep her pain at bay - at least she is alive and fully aware of her circumstances, and her memory remaining intact. I dread the day either one of us has a stroke or develop Alzheimer's, and not remembering either one of us - a beloved, longstanding marriage partner seen as a total stranger at home.
But alive and conscious we are, and we are thankful for this. Every morning, at breakfast, on my way to work, or at work, I always thank the Lord for keeping us alive to see this particular day in human history, that is, when I remember, or when I'm wallowing in deep morning blues, a mental and emotional malady which I'm very prone to suffer. I find that thanking the Lord for the day, especially a day beset with uncertainty due to the weather or temperamental clientele, or a combination of both, makes the day a lot more bearable, even enjoyable to a certain extent, and by the blessed evening I reflect on the day and realise that the weathermen were unduly pessimistic and my clientele keen to have their windows done after all.

Yet there are times I feel that I'm on my own, struggling against the odds to keep both of us above water. Church is not meant to be the place to feel lonely, but sometimes I do feel lonely. Not that it is the fault of the Elders, the structure, the mode of worship, the style of preaching, or the majority in the congregation. Thank God for Ascot Life Church! It is my spiritual home, something I can't do without. Yet there is at least one member, whom I still love dearly, not only refusing to talk to me, but acting as if I was invisible or absent. He blocked his Facebook account from us so that neither my wife or I can log onto it. And his younger son, a very keen and talented sketch artist, has also done the same thing.
The church is one place to come for spiritual refuelling, a place for comfort, company, love, fellowship, a place where after a week of stressful events, a place I can get close to the Lord, or talk to someone. Perhaps it's a bit like riding a bicycle (my main mode of transport) from A to B. If all the parts are in order, the ride will be smooth and pleasant. But the most common fault that does occur whilst riding is a flat. All it takes is a tiny pinhole in one of the tyres and the whole machine grinds to a halt, literally. Nothing is more irritating than that trrr-trrr-trrr vibration generated at the rear wheel and passing into the body through the saddle, with the noise to go with it. It is the sensation most feared and dreaded by any triathlete or road racing cyclist out contesting for the gold medal or winner's trophy.
The puncture is a good illustration here. The pinhole can be so small, that the affected inner tube has to be inflated with a pump and then inserted in a bucket of water to locate the tiny stream of bubbles before repair can take place. Yet it is enough to bring havoc to riding, the cause of being stranded in the middle of nowhere, miles from home or destination, and dashes hopes for victory at a championship contest. As a one-time long-distance cyclist and triathlete myself, common sense has dictated the wisdom of carrying a spare inner tube and repair outfit which, although might have lost the chance on a triathlon victory, at least would have enabled me to cross the finish line, or avoid being stranded out in the remote countryside.

Having a Christian brother disliking me brings grit into the fellowship very much as a flat to a bicycle. And like the pinhole, the feeling of animosity can be invisible to other church members to the extent that they are not aware of it. I guess we both have stiff upper lips, and decide to keep the issue bottled up rather than show the slightest emotion and cause a scene. But what was the cause of the animosity?
It was the case of social class and status. He has a grandson through his elder son, and I joked on Facebook that he should take on window cleaning when he has grown up. This upset our brother very dearly and as a result, weekly church attendance is marred by the atmosphere only us two can feel, more likely only I can feel. So I see church attendance a bit like the dreaded vibration of a flat while trying to reach my destination.
Social class! The very centre of Englishness for which, multiple thousands have sacrificed their lives during the Great War, according to Jeremy Paxman's book, The English - A Portrait of a People. According to this author, it was for traditional Englishness with its rigid class system which those thousands of British troops had fought in the trenches in the dead of winter and had given their lives, unlike in the Second World War, when the British fought more to defend their families than its culture. And this subject is talked about right up to the present day. It seems that the English are still obsessed with class. And this is no longer the big three - Working-Middle-Upper Classes - which dominated the centuries. In the last few decades the three became five, as middle class presented problems such as whether an office junior can be graded equal to a doctor or lawyer. Middle class represented higher education, a good income and a desk job. So an office junior considers himself middle class simply because he sits at a desk, unlike the working classes beneath him who earns a living by getting their hands dirty - whether in manufacturing, construction, plumbing or other skills which require wearing overalls or a boiler suit.
And here is the snag. A surgeon would not be considered working class because his education is too high. Yet at his job he too wears an overall, even a mask as paint sprayers do, and get his gloved hands dirty. But no one would consider him working class. Hence, middle class was sub-divided into three levels: Lower Middle, Middle, and Upper Middle, making five altogether when Working is added along with Upper.

But lately, with the decline of the manufacturing industry, the five have become seven with different titles. Starting at the top we now have: The Elite, Established Middle Class, Technical Middle Class, New Affluent Workers, Traditional Working Class, Emergent Service Workers, and Precariat at the bottom. A couple of years ago, I took an online test to find out which of the seven I was in. After being thoroughly honest with the input, the result was Precariat, on the bottom of the pile. Earlier last week I re-took the test, most likely with different questions, including whether I visit museums. I generally like museums, although I have not visited one for several years, I still included this detail. The result was the same - Precariat, and I shared this on Facebook.
One comment appeared underneath, which read:
I've been approved in Jesus Christ so what else do I need to base my self esteem on?
This guy, one of our church members, was absolutely right. The English in general seem to have a deep problem with self esteem. One newspaper even said that the English had lost its identity since the collapse of its Empire, and now are finding ways to re-establish its identity. The result is a pile of useless stratum which I think the public in general will not recognise, let alone use. To the public, there will always be three universally understood, all others remaining as computer jargon favoured by sociologists. For example, I would call myself working class, which is understood by all, while "Precariat" would cause the majority, I believe, to scratch their heads.
In a country that has lost its identity and trying to establish a sense of self esteem by means of a complicated and confusing structure, as the fellow above commented on Facebook, true identity in found only in Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus explodes the class system to smithereens. Furthermore, Jesus himself said that the first shall be last, and the last first. He also said that if anyone wants to be great in the Kingdom of God, let him serve others. Then there was the case when the mother of James and John appealed to the Lord to have her sons sit on either side of him on the throne. This angered the rest of the disciples to the point when the Lord had to call them to his attention. Then during the Last Supper, while the thought of the cross was heavy on the Lord's shoulders, again a discussion arose among his disciples on who would be the greatest. A surprising situation considering that Jesus had settled this matter several times throughout his ministry (Matthew 20:20, Mark 10:35-45, Luke 9:46, 22:24.)
Just think of it: A lawyer hugging a window cleaner, the dustman shaking hands with a doctor, the magistrate dining in the home of a plumber, the factory floor cleaner sitting at the barrister's table, all their children playing together, everybody having fun.
That is not impossible if every believer took their faith in Christ more seriously, and not bicker over an offspring's future career prospects, and the realisation that everybody desires love and acceptance, regardless of his social standing.

That is what church is all about.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Train Travel - So Changeable...

The idea behind this blog originated from posting on another website about experiences in train travel. Offer any child, a boy in particular, a choice of transport between the car, the train or the bus, to cross the country to visit the coast, or even to see Auntie or Granny, and I would not have to tell you which of the three the boy would choose.
As a child, I found train travel very exhilarating. This could be because my father was fanatical in owning and driving a car, as in those days - late 1950s into the sixties - owning a driving a car such as the Ford Popular was something emphasising a degree of success in life. I suppose the equivalent at present is owning and driving a Lamborghini, the top-of-the-range car no owner with a couple of brain cells would leave parked out on the street.

Ford Popular of the 1950s.

I recall my own pride for Dad to have such a car parked outside our front door, when there were plenty of other front doors looking out across a vacant space on the street. But after a while, the childhood novelty began to wear off, and as we made our way to the seaside during a typical Summer Sunday, constantly overtaken by other vehicles, we passed under and over railway lines, and occasionally see a train passing by. I suppose like other boys, there was something distinctly appealing about sitting in the train. Could this appeal be enhanced by the rhythmic clickety-click of the wheels rolling over the track joints? Who knows. I could I ever forget the two week primary school trip from London Paddington to the Welsh town of Llangollen by train, around 1962? The wooden interior panelling with a side corridor in every coach, made this journey such a memorable experience - particularly before the welding of the tracks coming into being in the 1970s, making the regular, non stop of the clickety-click such a rhythmic, music-like enhancement.

Although by mid-teens, even before leaving school, I began to make weekend leisure trips to Reading and to London on my own by train. Soon I found myself travelling to destinations further away, particularly to the coast, which was, I could say, the forerunner to backpacking. It was in 1973, while a lifeguard at the baths in Reading, that I began to take train journeys more seriously, which merged with international backpacking.

It is worth bringing back reminiscences here, as I am referring to a time when the Channel Tunnel did not exist, (it was opened by the Queen and French President Mitterrand in 1994, some twenty years later) - let alone the fast Eurostar trains passing under the sea, a journey my elder niece had taken several times already. But then, born in the early 1980s, she is one of a generation which, to my mind, missed out on the complicated awkwardness of international train travel which brings such dreamy memories! Instead, my niece's generation takes travel as a commodity - a weekend flight to Florence, Rome, or Venice does not hold a candle to the two-day train journey into Italy from London Victoria Station.

I recall the years 1973-1975, the peak time of my life for international train travel. I boarded the British Rail train at the International Departure platform, which was segregated from the rest of the terminus station by special barriers and hoarding. The train then rattled non-stop to Folkstone Harbour in Kent, a smaller port than its neighbouring harbour of Dover, as the former dealt with train passengers, while the latter specialised in car and heavy goods vehicle ferries. At Folkstone, it was a matter of crossing the platform onto the quay where a ferry awaited us to board for the two-hour crossing to Bolongue, another secondary French port to neighbouring Calais, which received and dispatched ferries to and from Dover.

On the ferry, I really felt that we were leaving the British shoreline. The boat was a proper steam ship as opposed to today's catamarans, with all the facilities for a proper cruise. I revelled as I stood near the stern as the ship set sail, and watched the English coastline slowly recede towards the horizon before turning in to one of the on-board restaurants for a cappuccino and a snack. There was something very nostalgic about the gentle swaying of the whole vessel as it glided over the waves, and leaving a trail of white foam at its wake. On one occasion, several seagulls would hover just behind the ship, but keeping up with it throughout the whole crossing, their cries adding to the atmosphere of being at sea and uplifting further the sense of adventure - an experience no airline flight or Eurostar train can match.

At Bolongue, the dark grey Ferrovia di Italia train was already waiting for the arriving ferry to empty its passengers on to it. Although as far from the Italian border as it could get, short of rolling on British soil, much of this train was bound for Rome, with a couple of coaches ending its journey at Paris du Nord terminus. Unlike the rattling British Rail train left behind at Folkstone, the ride on this one was a lot smoother, all the coaches had a side corridor, and the clickety-click had a different rhythm, giving a very foreign feel. It was pulled by a diesel locomotive until it arrived at Amiens, which was the northern terminus of the overhead cables, and there the train remained stationery for up to twenty minutes as they swapped locomotives. From Amiens, trackside gantries supplied power to the locomotive all the way to Rome.

With electrification, the train travelled faster as it made its way into Paris Gare du Nord terminus, where we waited for a considerable period of time while the train was fitted with a shuttle engine at the other end, and at last, our train crept slowly along what looked like a disused line, passing through ghost stations skirting the French capital, as well as enjoying splendid views across the city, dominated by the brilliant white stonework of the Basilica di Sacre Coeur, until we finally arrived at Paris Gare de Lyon terminus, where the train stood motionless for a better part of an hour.

The frustrating wait was made more bearable by easy conversation between us as passengers, a vivid contrast to the emotionless, tight-lipped silence which always characterised English trains. When a group of Italians boarded and filled our compartment, the ongoing chatter turned our coach into something resembling a party, and that was late into the night as well. It was this kind of experience which made this sort of travel so memorial, the long waiting compensated by a sense that I was really in a foreign country, something totally absent when flying some 35,000 feet above ground.

The long wait at Gare de Lyon was rewarded by the fastest leg of the entire journey - the Paris-Dijon route, the stretch of line which became the setting for the first ever TGV service some eight years later; the world's fastest train before the Japanese caught up with their Bullet trains. It was past nightfall by the time our train pulled out of Gare de Lyon, and the fast speed in the dark was so exhilerating. But it was later in the night, after we pulled out of Chambery Station that the winding line through the Alps slowed the train down considerably, as we all tried unsuccessfully to get some sleep.

We arrived at Modane just before daybreak, and this station served a town at the mouth of the Mont Cenis tunnel, a border pass under the Alps several miles long. At Modane the train remained motionless for again, a better part of an hour, as passport and ticket checks were carried out on board. When the train at last started to move, it shunted into this long tunnel under thousands of tons of solid rock to emerge at the other end in Italy at dawn, and the train pulled in at Bardonecchia station, the first in Italy and with a characteristic so different to the French stations we stopped at.

It is this style of station which reminded me at the time of international travel - the Mont Cenis Pass providing access to two different nations, each with its own Sovereignty, its own Government, its own flag, its own language and its own currency. Before the introduction of the Euro, the French currency was the Franc, the Italian, the Lira, a monetary unit so small, that all prices were in thousands of lire. It was hard to believe that the Lira was divided into a hundred cents, which by 1973 became non-existent.

Eventually the train pulled into Torino Porta Nuova (New Gate) terminus, but unlike with the two in Paris, the call was very short, and in comparatively next to no time the train pulled out in the opposite direction. As before I was facing backwards, now I was facing forwards, and after a long stop at Geneva, the line hugged the Ligurian coast all the way to Rome. One of the most beautiful stops was Rapallo, a resort where the mountains plunged into the sea, and I saw beach lifeguards patrolling the stretch of beach so far below the tracks. Then between the port of La Spezia and the beach resort of Viareggio, there was the magnificent coastline of the Cinque Terre, five small villages straddling precariously on the mountainous cliffs, with only one of these villages, Monterosso, boasting a station where our train shot through at speed before plunging into a tunnel.

The train pulled into Roma Termini, a station of magnificent design with polished granite flooring, by late afternoon, completing a journey of more than 24 hours from London Victoria. When I consider the distance travelled in that time, about a thousand miles (1,620 km.) which is roughly the same as from New York City to St. Louis in Missouri - then compare this with the long haul flight taken in 1997 from London Heathrow to Singapore which was done in half the time, despite the distance being six times longer - I have wondered whether a lot of magic had gone out of modern travel. These days, the aeroplane is unavoidable, any international train travel now involves the Eurostar passing non-stop under the sea and one can arrive in Paris within a couple of hours from London St. Pancras, and the cross-Channel ferry, which had put the nostalgia into travel, is omitted altogether.

As our way of travel had changed dramatically over the decades, I can be sure that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. He will never change. Living in him will be as always, challenging in this life as it has always been, yet his love endures forever. His love is eternal, it will never change.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Joy, Stoicism, and James

What a Christmas break this has been! Two weeks of emotional roller-coaster I would challenge any theme park to match. Times of joy, times of fear and anxiety, times of sadness, times of happiness - but so far, I can honestly say - no times of anger. This is one of the blessing on a respite from work; seldom is there anything to get angry with, or at least with me anyway.
Now it's the final weekend before I return to work on Monday - that is, if I'm able to return to work on schedule. Nothing to do with illness of any kind, but rather, the ferocious weather we've been having. High winds and torrential rain sweeping the country nearly every day for the past two weeks. And just in time for Christmas, a storm moved across the South of England on Christmas Eve, of all days, paralysing transport routes, closing down Gatwick Airport - London's second busiest airport after Heathrow, delaying trains, causing traffic accidents and snarl-ups, shut down of power supplies in many homes, and other family residences destroyed by flooding, mainly from rivers bursting their banks. Then the rather spectacular photos of sea waves crashing with full force along our coastline. Then there was that great British Bulldog spirit: you know the sort - wading in the stormy seas, going out for an early morning swim - and yes, two or three had lost their lives as the rough sea swept them away; Bulldog spirit indeed. What a terrible distress brought upon their families and loved ones.

Going back to the power cuts affecting many homes - around hundreds of thousands - different sources being inconsistent with the numbers - whether it was 150,000 or double that number, I cannot be that sure. But I can imagine the same number of Christmas turkeys ruined as every refrigerator involved had failed to keep the poultry fit for consumption. Then the floods, and with them, stories of Christmas trees and unopened presents bobbing in the living room floodwater before floating out over the submerged street.

A crushing anticlimax after weeks of spending hard earned income and making preparations, the arrival of long distant family members (if the journey taken wasn't too troublesome) and meticulous planning. Long anticipated holidays, after spending days or even weeks glimpsing at the office clock or checking the calender on the wall, the build-up of excitement to catch some Winter sun or to slide down a snowy slope on two pieces of wood (or whatever modern material they are made of now) - on the day, so eagerly anticipated, crowds remain stranded at the North terminal while fuming under the twisted cord of thoughts touching on the diminished bank account, the frustration of being marooned in a large, cold, unfriendly check-in hall and departure lounge, along with thoughts of those at the South Terminal, just next door, actually boarding their flights. All this thanks to a power failure at the terminal building caused by the storms outside and the timing in which they occurred. And Christmas day itself - ruined - whether in a flooded house, a home without electricity, Gatwick Airport, or being where one was not suppose to be due to cancelled trains or other carrier failure. So concludes the year 2013, a year considered unlucky by the likes of me.

Yes, unlucky. 2013 was the only year in my entire life when I had to cancel a holiday for two to Crete. I had never cancelled a foreign holiday before. Even in 1978, when the French Air Traffic Control were out on strike, disrupting all European flights, I took off for New York bang on time. And from Gatwick as well. Instead, last year was the year of hospitals: first my father was admitted several times after a series of strokes, and I went back and forth to and from Reading - although not every day - to visit him, along with Mum and my brother, at his bedside. Then when Dad was barely discharged, Alex my wife went down, and spent nearly four months in the same hospital. Every day without fail I went to sit at her bedside. Southwest Trains must have made a small fortune from me on ticket fares.

So with a cancelled foreign holiday (and the insurance so far still haven't honoured my claim) and a remarkably large chunk of the year sitting at a hospital bedside, must I be really blamed for admitting that I had little or no sympathy for those stuck at the airport, or even for those who suffered a power cut over the festive season? The vast majority of homes and holidaymakers were predominantly middle class, with the commuter belt across Surrey, Hampshire and Kent mostly affected by the storms. Then who but the middle classes would buy an air ticket to cover the Christmas holidays?

Bad attitude, I know. Especially when, with a vivid imagination, I could picture a young couple in an exhilarating mood, having boarded the flight to Crete on a last-minute extra cheap deal due to a cancellation. Then given the keys to a self-catering apartment over the hotel swimming pool, with a splendid view of the Mediterranean in the background, the well educated professional pen-pushers look into each other's eyes over a scented candle under the moonlight while I bury my face  in distress at my wife's hospital mattress more than a thousand miles away.

Ah! then again, this is Britain. You know, the land where one mustn't grumble. Imagine if all this took place at an Italian airport. What a hullabaloo the furore would cause! I should know. I recall as a fledgling backpacker in Rome, 1973. I was in the city's only metro (subway or underground railway) and the train was delayed and the platform crowded. When the train finally emerged from the tunnel into the station, there was a loud cheer, and I felt pushed into the train from behind as if there was no tomorrow. You will never get this sort of thing at Bank Station in the City of London. Here, a train could be two hours late and not a murmur heard at the crowded platform. In very much the same way, we Brits have the knack in keeping emotions under control as we watch presents still in their Christmas wrap float across the flooded front garden, or the binning of a complete turkey, the candlelit lounge where the lack of heating amounts to extra clothing, the serving of cold spam meat, cheese, bread and biscuits keeping hunger at bay, and only human voices, and perhaps an occasional dog bark making enough sound to inform the neighbours that there is life next door, as opposed to the still silence issuing from the lifeless television, hi-fi, or radio units.

How we can pat ourselves on the back knowing how well we can face catastrophe without a flinch. We as a nation always had that hunch when keeping a stiff upper lip at a time of crisis as a sign of Christian virtue. Yet no amount of stoicism can bring honour to God, as this is a human, cultural characteristic found in atheists and gnostics as well as among Christians. Well, at least, not compared to a true story I read some years ago. There was also a storm over part of the USA - a very severe storm. Strong enough to completely demolish homes, literally. A church pastor went to visit a couple in his flock who had lost their entire house with all their possessions. Expecting to find distress, he was surprised when he arrived to see the couple thanking and praising God for their lives remaining intact. To sing praises to the Lord with such a sincere heart in the midst of such a catastrophe added credit to their testimony.

And this is what I believe the apostle James was teaching here in his single letter. Faith without works may be indeed dead, but such works like thanking and praising God during a crisis of this scale must make their faith alive with vibrancy. It is the opposite of what I discussed in my last blog. If an unbeliever watched me pilfering money from a gift box, no amount of preaching would draw him nearer to the faith, as a thief my faith is dead. The onlooker will never come to Christ, no matter how many Bible verses I quote. My faith, being alone, is dead and therefore cannot impart life to another.

But on the other hand, suppose the same unbeliever landed a contract in the States, and found accommodation right next door to this couple, who happens to attend church on a regular basis. He gets an invitation, but remembering the falsehood and insincerity of my "faith" he politely declines their invitation (politely of course, he is British!) Then, some weeks later, the storm develops and literally destroys the couple's house. How would the unbeliever feel when he sees this couple praising and thanking God for his love, his goodness, and for sparing the lives of them, and maybe their children too, if they have any. He also could see that this is no act, no pretence. This praise is seen coming from the heart.

Would the unbeliever accept an invitation this time? Would he even ask for an invitation? Would he ask the couple themselves how he could get to know Jesus in the same way as they do? How high is the chance that at the end of his contract, he'll be flying back to the UK a totally changed person?

"If faith without works is dead, can such faith save him?" James asks. The vast majority of Christians believe that the "him" referred to here was the one who had the dead faith. But the context of the letter seem to indicate that the "him" was the onlooker. James was rebuking snobbery. Then he was talking about saying, "God speed" to someone who was hungry and inadequately clothed. Would this poor man be impressed at the other's faith? Most likely not, less likely come to conversion.

If the "him" in referring to his own dead faith was true, then I must admit that the Roman Catholic Church was right all along. Salvation is by works, and not by faith in Christ alone. But if the context of the entire letter says that true faith will lead to works accompanying such faith, only then will the onlooker himself will come to Jesus and receive life. The whole letter to James is about how we act before unbelievers, and not trying to work for or even endorse our own salvation.

A dead faith, like the Christmas storms, brings darkness to those already in darkness. But a living faith springing into good works is like a candlelight, illuminating the whole room.