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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.


  1. Dear Frank,
    Great perspective on James! Very true --- in the eyes of the unsaved onlooker, a hypocritical or dead faith is more damning than no faith at all. May His light shine through us as our joy in the Lord motivates us to good works, helping and illuminating others.
    May you and Alex have all blessings in the New Year!

  2. Hi Frank,
    two thoughts came to mind as I read your post. They were 'Don't blame the boss for His workers' and 'Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and everything else will be added.' If a person is turned away from seeking God by what they see in a 'Christian' then they were not looking for God in the first place, because to stop seeking because of human imperfections is an easy excuse to opt out and shows we were looking in the wrong direction. May God bless you and Alex with His promises contained in Jesus.

  3. The unsaved person is looking for something but seldom knows where to look. The person who blames God for his problems implies he would be better off looking elsewhere, The person who prides himself on keeping a stiff upper lip and showing no concerns implies there is no where to look. the person who rejoices implies it would be worth looking closer at what they have.

  4. I think we can make mistakes, sin, and be fact we do every day...thankfully it is what Jesus has done, and does, in the lives of His chosen, that counts and not what we think we can accomplish with our efforts. Jesus said "who among you can add an inch to your stature just by your efforts?" We cannot. However remembering what Jesus did for us, and having repentant hearts before Him knowing that we never measure up, means we know the true answer to what is plaguing us.

    I enjoy your blog Frank. I've read a few posts here, love the pictures and the reminiscences... I hope others will find you and see why I enjoy visiting therefore I am giving you the Liebster Award. To accept this award please visit my blog and answer my 11 questions, come up with 11 questions of your own, and then nominate 3-11 other blogs that have less than 200 "followers" and which you would like others to find out about. It's something fun to do, and hopefully will help others learn a little more about you and perhaps reach more readers.

    If you don't wish to participate just let me know. :)