Total Pageviews

Sunday, 28 September 2014

God's Compassion for Women

Mrs Bumble the matron was one remarkable woman. Somewhat on the corpulent side to say the least, she found herself married to a bloke who was once the parish beadle of a workhouse, in grim 19th Century Victorian England. She had found herself married to whom was now the master of the workhouse, himself a domineering, choleric, self confident and a very pompous character who, a few months earlier, got himself acquainted with a Mrs Corney, whose former husband, a member of the governing committee to which the beadle was subjective, was unfortunate to buy the field so prematurely, leaving behind this widowed matron who caught the beadle's attention.

A lovely courtship began to grow between the two, whose generous waistline between the pair of them were a vivid contrast to the half-starved, emaciated paupers who resided in the establishment. As the paupers were fed on a small helping of gruel each day, this couple visually testified that the food resource in the workhouse was far from evenly or fairly distributed. But the beadle's motive for courting the widow was not from a developing sense of love spurred by physical attraction. Rather, he had nosed around her room at her absence, and on opening a drawer of her bedside cabinet, discovered a mystery wooden box with some items inside, which upon shaking, seemed to him as a hint to untold riches. So with this in mind, he married her, and the wife of the late Mr Corney became the present Mrs Bumble, a titled name he always used when both referring to her and calling her over. As far as I'm aware, her forename had never been revealed, neither in that case, her husband's.

So with such formal references to each other, little wonder that there was too little ground for marital love to take root and flourish. Rather, his curiosity over the contents of the wooden box in her bedside cupboard had got the better of him, and not long after their wedding, he pried open the lid to take a peek inside. He was devastated with disappointment. All in the box were twenty pounds, and some cheap trinkets. As all hopes of riches evaporated, his respect for his wife also faded, in response their marriage turned quickly sour when she found out his true motive for their nuptials. The atmosphere could not have been more icy. In those days when marriage vows were taken so seriously with no divorce options taken into consideration, only death of one of the partners could bring some hope to the living spouse. But with both being well fed and remarkably healthy in such a grim environment, they both knew they would be stuck with each other for a long time to come.

So one afternoon, he spent his time slumped in his armchair feeling very sorry for himself, when his wife walks into the cosy, well furnished room from the rest of the workhouse outside. With a piercing screech which would shatter a wine glass, she asks him whether he is going to spend the whole day lounging in the armchair doing nothing other than feel sorry for himself. His thunderous reply was that he could take any mood he wants, as being the master of the workhouse, this was his prerogative.

He felt victorious in himself as his wife first tried the tears. As she wept, his sense of triumph rose as he tells her to weep harder, as this washes out her lungs, relieve frustration, and brings benefits to her health. He then rises from the armchair, dons his hat and makes for the door as he leaves to go out, his heart totally waterproof from her emotions. But as he nears the door, he is stunned by the sudden knocking off of his hat as it flies across the room. She then performs a variety of blows and scratches across his face, then finally lands a blow which sends him sprawling over another chair which seemed to have been placed at that spot for the purpose. She then orders him to get up and get out before she does much worse damage to him, which she promises if he dared talked about his prerogative again. Terrified, he stumbles into the workhouse in total defeat, only to be humiliated by her again in the washing room, right in front of a group of female paupers, who in turn all laughed in delight as they were indeed entertained by the fall of this great man's pride and dominance.*

The author, before relating this story, reminds the reader that this sort of thing is quite common in many marriages of his day, in opposition to the more common malaise of wife beating. But the tragedy is that here in the UK, according to media reports, each week a couple of fatalities occur as a result of domestic violence. In most cases, it is the man beating his wife or partner, but like the case with the Bumbles, men can be beaten by their spouses as well, although this is in the minority. It seems to me that why domestic violence occur is that one always tries to have dominion over the other. And this is certainly not new. Instead, it goes right back in history to the case of Adam and Eve, after the Fall, when God had increased Eve's pain in childbearing, yet she shall desire her husband while he has rule over her.

But I have also learnt in recent years that this "desire" Eve had for her husband can also be a desire to dominate. Whether the author or speaker is right on this account, I cannot be definite, but the case of the Bumbles certainly makes that clear. But in many cases, and particularly within Islam, men had always dominated over women. Even in the Christian church, leadership has always been male, and although the Anglican Church has allowed women into the priesthood, and now proposals have been made for female bishops; in the Roman Catholic Church, female leadership is a definite no-no. This may have been taken from 1 Timothy 2:11-14:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was created first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman, and became a sinner.

Paul the apostle says the same to the church in Corinth:

As in all the congregation of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

According to my reference Bible, the "Law" refers back to Genesis 3:16, where God instructed Eve to be in submission to her husband. And as I see it, a law was established in the dawn of history, and since it was to the head of the entire human race, it looks to be universal rather than confined to the Jews. The Bible itself was written entirely by men. In the Old Testament, just about every leader was male, with the possible exception of Deborah, who told the Israeli army commander Barak to defeat the Canaanite armies, whose forces was led by Sisera. When Sisera's forces were defeated by Israel, he fled to a tent owned by a Kenite woman Jael. It was she who killed Sisera while he was asleep with exhaustion (Judges 4.)

Then there was the case of Rahab the pagan prostitute. After hiding a couple of Joshua's men from the threat of the Canaanite residents of Jericho, she was instructed that she must keep her entire household at home at the time of the invasion by Israel. For this to have happened, all the male members of her household, her father, her brothers, possibly her uncles or her cousins, had to submit to her leadership in order to be spared from destruction which came upon the entire city.

Other than these two examples, the Bible looks to be entirely male, including every author. All the Prophets were male, as were all the kings of Judah. Jesus was a male Jew, all twelve of his apostles were men. Paul was a bloke, a Pharisee and a son of a Pharisee. The Jewish Sanhedrin were all men. And according to his two letters to Timothy, Paul wanted all church leaders to be men, each of them having control over his own household. So, did Paul instruct the leaders of the church to be all men according to the culture of the day? Or to pacify the Jews, so they could not point a finger of blame at the church? Or his Paul's edict universal for all time, including the present?

I believe that the third option is the correct one, as the Bible is the eternal Word of God. Rather than to be confined to the culture of the day, it transcends all time, nations, and cultures. Yet on the other hand, I can't see anything wrong with a women's group within a church fellowship being led by a female. I do believe that with a female leading such a group, issues can be discussed more openly, without any degree of reservation had a male been in their presence.

But having said all that, there is good evidence that the Bible has much compassion for the fairer gender. One good example was Hagar, a maidservant to Abraham's wife Sarah, and mother to her master's firstborn Ishmael. Sarah herself was very much like Mrs Bumble - dominant and a bully towards Hagar - to the point when she ran away from her tent and found herself marooned out in the desert. An angel of God told her to return and submit to her mistress. She did, and probably avoided any punishment meted out to a runaway slave. But soon after Sarah's son Isaac was born, Ishmael, realising that he was no longer the top dog and heir to his father's estate, teased the child. Sarah then ordered her husband to get rid of Hagar and her son, as they were not to share the estate with her son Isaac. Echoes of Mrs Bumble. Not long after, Hagar, having hidden her adolescent son in the bushes, went a short distance and wept aloud, without reserve, for the life of her son. It was then that the tender, compassionate hand of God touched her, and opened her eyes to see a well of water nearby. As a result of that moment of compassion, Ishmael married an Egyptian woman to be the founding parents of the Ishmaelite nation.

Leah was another worthy of mention. She was the elder daughter of Laban, the brother of Jacob's mother Rebekah. We are told that she had weak eyes, and therefore ignored by the one she loved, her own cousin and husband Jacob. Instead Jacob loved her younger sister Rachel, who was startlingly beautiful. Throughout her married life, Leah felt rejected as her husband poured all his affection on Rachel. But God's compassion showed when she bore six sons, half of the entire nation of Israel, including Judah, her fourth son, who carried the Messianic Line and was the ancestor of King David. But that was not all. Jacob was renamed Israel by God himself, a name which was an acronym of initials including Isaac, Sarah, Rebekah, Abraham, Elohim and Leah. Elohim being the name of God himself, symbolising his presence in the midst of his people, incorporated Leah's initial within his own Name, thus demonstrating such compassion. But not to be too unfair on Rachel, she later became the mother of Joseph, who ended up Prime Minister of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself, and to whom all of his eleven brothers bowed the knee.

There are several more acts of compassion in the Old Testament, including that shown to Ruth, and to her mother-in-law Naomi. Then there was the widow whose dead son was raised to life by Elijah. In the New Testament, we read about Jesus walking all the way up to Tyre in Sidon to heal the daughter of one Canaanite woman. And other acts of compassion shown to various females throughout his ministry. Such as to the woman who touched the border of the Lord's cloak, and was healed of an issue lasting for twelve years. Or the raising of the widow's son, a repeat of Elijah's miracle. Then his relationship with Martha and Mary, the two sisters of Lazarus, who rose from the tomb under the command of Jesus. Interestingly enough, Martha was similar to Mrs Bumble, who complained that her sister was not sharing with the housework. Yet the Lord still loved her as much as her sister. Then who can forget his discourse with the un-named woman at the well, who was offered living water rather than faced condemnation for five failed marriages. And how he rescued an adulteress caught in the act from being stoned alive. Last but not least, while hanging on the cross, he commissioned his mother to be taken care of in John's house.

Paul the apostle did not recommend women to be leaders of the church, but he did insist that all husbands should love their wives, as Christ loves the church. The resurrected Lord sees his Church as a bride, full of glory and splendour. So, no doubt, God would want us as husbands to see our wives in the same way, for that's how God loves them.

Poor Mrs Bumble! If only her husband really loved her for who she was instead of deceiving her and throwing his prerogative around. Both might have enjoyed a far happier marriage, especially if she knew of God's love in her life.
*From Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist, of which the above was my own analysis of the author's far more classical narration.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

United Kingdom on a Bike.

As I sat at the steering wheel of a car back in 1973, the elderly looking driving instructor asked me to pause for a moment outside a house just off the main road, as on this warm weekday afternoon there was little traffic. He then proudly declared,
I was instructing this lady to drive when she invited me home, just there, and then she seduced me!
I then allowed him to finish the driving lesson, then afterwards decided not to have such a person sit next to me again, as I watched his vehicle, decorated with a prominent red "L" at each end, drive off. Thereafter I never sat at the wheel of a car again, as the other reason was that I had never gained enough confidence within myself to drive, let alone put up with a cocky driving instructor not long after our year-long relationship with my girlfriend dissolved.
So I took to the bicycle, which brought memories of my daily ride to and from school. Even on wet mornings, when Mum would have preferred me to use the school bus, I still found it exhilarating to feel the sense of independence riding on two wheels - and that despite of the lion's share of punctures which spoilt the ride, yet also the ability to learn how to repair and maintain the mechanical steed without taking it to the shop for repairs. After leaving school in 1968, I upgraded my mode of transport to a 70cc motorcycle, and on it passed the driving test which gave me access to a full motorcycle licence. But a few years later, while riding on the same main road where the house stood, a car in front suddenly stopped for no apparent reason, and to avoid a collision into the rear of the vehicle, I quickly spun the handlebars to the left, causing me to fly off the machine, leaving both of us lying on the road until another car arrived, and called the ambulance. For the next five days I was pampered and cared for in hospital.
I decided that I had enough of the road contest against other vehicles on the motorcycle, and returned to the bicycle. I recall the first cycle ride up a hill, and how puffed out I felt before I even reached the summit. No doubt about it, where fitness is concerned, the human body is like a bucket with a small hole at the bottom. If not constantly refilled, the pail would end up empty of water. Likewise, a sedentary lifestyle with a lack of strenuous exercise leaves the body devoid of stamina and general fitness.

But with cycling I have found it the most fulfilling mode of transport short of an aeroplane. To me it beats the motorcycle hands down. Riding a bicycle not only save expenses on fuel, maintenance, the tax disc and compulsory insurance, but bestows fitness. And so it happened over the following years when I upgraded to a faster racing bike, rather than just commute as I did at first, I began to take long distance and road time trials more seriously. There is something fulfilling about a Summer Sunday morning, getting up at six to mount a bike, and on clear, traffic-free roads, crack off 20-30 miles before breakfast, or on a couple of occasions, end the ride at the church, and in the premises, wash, change clothing and prepare breakfast - with full permission from the elders - and eat before the start of the service. These Sunday morning burn ups were training runs for the Big One - the End to End cycle ride along the whole length of Great Britain, a distance which is officially 874 miles 1,416 km but to various diversions and detours, more likely 900 miles or more.

I write this soon after the referendum for Scottish independence. The voting took place just two days before this blog was written. Our Prime Minister was in tension throughout that day. If the vote went in favour of independence, then there was this high chance that he would have had to resign from his Premiership. But much to his relief, the vote favoured remaining in the Union, which had been in existence for more than 300 years. This means that these three nations which makes up Great Britain -  Scotland, Wales and England -  remain under one flag (the Union Jack) one Monarch, one currency, one Government in Westminster, although the Scots now have its own Parliament in Holyrood. That means that no passports or customs are needed for border crossings, and now it looks certain to continue this way for a long time to come.

And so going back to 1990, when my buddy Gareth and I cycled the 874 miles southbound from John O'Groats on the northern tip of mainland Scotland, to Lands End on the western tip of Cornwall, with the distant view of the Scilly Isles barely visible thirty miles away on the horizon. And our ride could have been longer if a land bridge had connected mainland Scotland with the Orkneys, and furthermore, to the Shetlands, islands north of Scotland which aren't that far from the Artic Circle. A land bridge would have made the thousand-plus mile End-to End ride even more interesting. It would have started at the bleak treeless moors inhabited by flocks of screaming seagulls, puffins, and gannets - to the subtropical land of Lyonesse with its palm trees and bananas, together with vegetation and shrubbery unable to thrive across the rest of Britain, yet thanks to the exposure of the warm Gulf Stream, that part of the world would have been quite distinct from the rest of the UK.

We completed the cycle ride in just under two weeks, with a "day off" in the middle of the holiday to enjoy the sights of the Lake District National Park in Cumbria. But what we might have considered to be a focal point of he whole ride was the crossing of the border from Scotland into England. Where the huge blue sign towering above our heads reading, Welcome to Scotland was on one side of the road, on the other side, a much smaller white sign, up to chest level, simply read England - without the welcoming bit. Rather like the Start/Finish line painted across the driveway at the John O'Groats Hotel; the driveway is actually the terminus of the A9 which is the main through road south to Stirling, from there the road becomes a motorway into Edinbourgh. In turn there was no Start/Finish line painted across the narrow lane which marks the terminus of the A30 at Lands End. A sad fact considering that the A30 is one of the main artery roads into the West Country from a point within Greater London. Giving the impression of these two sets of contrasting examples, it looks to me that the Scots have more enthusiasm for the traveller than the English, particularly with the End-to-End cyclist and even for a rare hiker.

The traditional 874 mile End-toEnd route. However we rode from Inverness to Carlisle via Edinburgh, the hillier terrain made the ride more challenging.

The ride was easy at times, more difficult during other times, particularly with the hills and a headwind. It wasn't too bad in Scotland, where on the A9 north of Inverness, the main carriageway was so quiet, even during the so-called  morning rush hour, a single passing vehicle was something which happened at every few minutes, or even longer. On the other hand, the busy A38 out of Bristol towards Exeter not only had big hills, but also a strong south-westerly headwind which made the eighty-mile leg of the route a very gruelling ride, and to be honest, we were on the verge of throwing in the towel. Fortunately we stopped at a roadside restaurant, and the food revitalised our spirits as well as satisfied our hunger pangs. One of the topics discussed during the ride, and particularly from Bristol to Exeter, was how some of our educated, middle class pals in the church kept reminding us that because we were heading in a southerly direction, it was downhill all the way! Of course, when I first heard this, I thought such a statement was just a teasing joke. But seeing the seriousness of their attitude, I was beginning to wonder, with much surprise on my part, whether they were really into believing this. Even Gareth, at a coffee shop in Exeter City Centre, had began to wonder, and I made an effort to explain that the centre of gravity was at the core of the Earth, and not at the Equator, or the South Pole. This might have been the reason why pedalling was always a lot harder whenever the road headed skywards!

We popped a bottle of Champagne at Lands End, with the drink soaking me rather than drank. Although we would have liked to have crossed the Start/Finish line painted across the road, its absence did not spoil our jubilation. This shows the joy of pedal power in contrast to any motorised vehicle, whether motorbike or car.

Fast cycling was also the activity of the day when on a Bank Holiday, I would rise early, have breakfast, then ride fast to the coast, up to sixty miles away. Then spend the night at one of several coastal backpackers hostels before returning home. This, along with a number of triathlon events I took part in, between 1986 to 1991, five years of peak fitness. The combined swim, cycle, and run was still very new in the mid-eighties, and people like myself took part for the novelty of the sport. I even saw one elderly gentleman pedal furiously at one event, on a heavy roadster complete with a grocery basket under the handlebars. But as the sport evolved, super-fit men and women began to take their place at the front of the field, riding on fast, sleek bicycles worth thousands of pounds sterling. That was when participation in the triathlon began to lose its appeal by the mid nineties. What was at first a contest of physical endurance and camaraderie between participants, had metamorphosed into a speed race, where wetsuits replaced swimming trunks in the water, and the touring bike was replaced by sleek, lightweight, highly expensive machines. Yet during the 2012 London Olympics, I took time off work to watch both men and women's triathlon championships, as I previously watched other triathlon championship events with nostalgia and excitement.

Farnbourough Triathlon 1987.

Riding a bicycle (along with swimming and running) is a good illustration of the Christian life as a believer. As riding without a motor demands endurance, and speed if competing with others, so Paul the apostle exhorts us to run the race, keeping in sight of the Heavenly prize at the finish.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown which will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever. Therefore I do not run like a man who runs aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27.

Paul compares the Christian life to that of a foot race, with just the winner getting the prize, a wreath of leaves which will deteriorate over time. In those days those finishing second and third received nothing, just as the competitor finishing in fourth place in today's sporting events just misses out on the medals (and to my opinion, the most frustrating position to finish.) But we are promised a crown which will last for ever. However, the prize mentioned in this context is not eternal life itself, but a crown won by walking in the power of the Holy Spirit. Disqualification has nothing to do with losing salvation and ending up in Hell, as some insist, but the loss of the heavenly crown, a prize - for that was what Paul was on about.

Our 1990 End-to-End cycle ride was very challenging. There were downhill parts where we just pedalled hard for a moment and then allowed gravity to send us flying down the hill at speed, especially aided by a tailwind. But there were other stretches of the route where we struggled uphill against a strong headwind. We rode in sunshine and in rain. Near Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands, my mate suffered the only tyre puncture of the whole journey. How fortunate, that I had the foresight to carry some tools and a repair outfit! Getting to Perth, our next stop, would have entailed a very long walk indeed. Then at Wigan, my chain decided to give up the ghost, but we managed to ride past a cycle shop, and I bought a new chain. Again, with foresight, I've included a chain-breaker in the tool bag, therefore it was not a problem replacing the old with the new in the city centre. There also was a section where we cycled round in circles looking for the overnight hostel before being directed to it. The scenery was as varied as it got, from beautiful views of mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes, to Medieval bridges we crossed, alongside castles from the same period. Then there were the boring stretches where the road was banked on both sides as it cut through a hill or area of high ground, or just passed through uninteresting fields.

That is a good illustration of the Christian life - good, joyous parts, dull uninteresting times of our lives, and times of sorrow and pain. But just as two wheels constantly rolled underneath us, so the Holy Spirit will see us through to the end.

And something far more worthy than Champagne awaits us at the finishing line.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Reality Strikes!

One of the  elements after becoming a Christian believer is that you quickly learn the fundamentals - you know what I mean - the Holy Trinity, the Bible being the inspired Word of God, the Creation and Fall of mankind, man's inherited sinful nature, the incarnation of the Son of God, his death on the cross to atone for man's sins, his Resurrection on the third day, his Ascension, the need to repent and believe the Gospel, Salvation, Heaven and Hell.
And so I move on in the faith - praying, reading the Bible, regular church attendance, morning quiet times and spending each day of my life attempting to please God in thankfulness for the salvation he has provided. I assure myself that it is purely by God's grace that I am saved, works alone unable to bring me even a millimetre closer to God. But I also have relatives and loved ones who, by the way it looks, continue to remain unbelievers, and so I feel concern for their eternal being. I recall one Sunday when both my wife and I had a roast at my elderly parent's house, and on that day I crept upstairs into their master bedroom, almost in tears, and pleaded to God for their salvation. That was several years ago. Now, as I write this, my father having passed away just over a week earlier.
Both my parents were Roman Catholics, but not ardent, church-going Catholics, but more nominal. However, during my teens when I passed through a period of atheism before conversion in 1972, Dad had always maintained that there is a God, and he exists. I suppose he classed himself as an agnostic. I think he always had a gripe against the Church. When he was a boy, he spent the war years living in a convent, with nuns supervising him on a day-to-day basis. Then one Sunday, he took Holy Communion without first confessing his sins to a priest. This was by no means malicious, but a sincere wanting to take part in the Sacrifice of Christ. He either forgot to make his confession beforehand, or he felt that it was not a necessity. When one of the nuns found out about this, her hand crashed with full force across his face. I think this has given him a chip on his shoulder for the rest of his life.

Yet despite all this, he always stood in defence for the Catholic Church. Although he might have accepted the Reformation under Martin Luther and other Reformists as history, to him, the modern Protestant denominations have their roots in America, and he saw them as little more than money-making businesses with a religious front. For example, he would lump both the Baptist Union headquarters with the Watchtower Society as based in America, along with the Mormons (a true fact, as I have stood outside the splendid Mormon Temple at Salt Lake City, along with exploring the Visitors Center. In turn, I gazed at the more plain-looking office blocks of the Watchtower Society from the middle of Brooklyn Bridge at New York City.) Dad, being a socialist, linked capitalism with greed, which unfortunately with the bonus-hungry attitude of the City Bankers bringing in the last Recession, such an opinion had been proven justified. In short, my late father linked Christianity with money and greed.
But from Sunday to Sunday the Bible is preached in pulpits all over the western world, the threat of Hell for unbelievers and the promise of Heaven for the saved. There are teachings from those who believe in eternal security of the believer, and those who insist that one must stay faithful to be saved (that is to say: Probational Salvation.) The Catholic church, in turn, must keep on offering bloodless sacrifices (a large wafer disc known as a Sacred Host) on altars in churches all over the world, repeating over and over again the one sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, or no one would be saved. Confessions must be made at least once a year, Penance must be carried out, along with the Act of Contrition. Really, there is no assurance of all sins forgiven at the moment of death. So I go through life wondering just where is this love God is supposed to have for us.
Christians have said that if you want to find the love of God, then look nowhere else but the Cross of Christ. So that is true, at least intellectually. But when someone you love dies, and afterwards feel no assurance, to tell the truth, I wonder just how effective the crucifixion of Christ really was. Did you know that, for a start, the Roman Catholic Church denies the full efficiency of the atonement made by Jesus Christ on the cross? That is why the Church believes in Purgatory, a temporary Hell where every believer must go to have his venial sins purged out before entering Heaven. In the past, Indulgences were sold by the Church, which once bought, brought relief of a shorter time spent in Purgatory. That is to say that the rich can buy themselves out of Hell while the poor had to bear the full brunt of their punishment. It was this idea which fired up good old Martin Luther and his discovery that salvation was by faith alone. It might also be a reason why my father had a chip on his shoulder over the Church and was deluded with capitalism. 

Then not long after this, the continual debate whether one is eternally saved or conditionally saved rages on over the centuries. At times I can get fed up with it all. Rather than read bits of Scripture to prove one argument or to disprove another, at the moment I'm asking myself: Is there an afterlife? If so, then where is Dad right now? The very thought of a lost eternity had made my heart very grievous, in fact it was aching all week. I had imaginings of raging fire, or persistently bullied by demons, or floating in despair in thick darkness, haunted by memories of all the good things he had enjoyed in life. And so you can find terrifying videos of Hell on You-Tube, or log into one of many websites on Google, none of them edifying in any way but has the power to strike terror into the soul and deeply question God's character. And so I imagine such a loved one in such a dreadful environment and the screw is turned further. Then there are preachers like John McArthur and Paul Washer, both Lordship Salvationists, and both American. It was of interest that I have listened to one of Washer's sermons, delivered at a Californian Youth Conference and recorded in full on video. It had a warning preceding the talk that there were bits that were very unpleasant. I wasn't surprised. He began his talk with the announcement that the vast majority of the young people listening in the auditorium will be in Hell within sixty to seventy years from the year of the conference. And that was for not taking the Lordship of Christ serious enough to make a full unconditional surrender to the will of God, ensuring that one does not sin along the way.

I think that was a shocking thing to say to a congregation of young people who, having arrived at puberty, most likely were struggling between their faith, church and their strong sexual desires. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating porn, fornication, "free love" or masturbation - but by going by my own experience, being a young believer (or in my case, an unmarried adult) with a strong sexual drive often result in difficult struggles with the Christian faith. It does make me wonder why these preachers don't just simply say that believing in Jesus Christ as the risen Messiah, and as such, Almighty God himself, is enough for salvation. Instead, these preachers impose what is actually an impossible burden to bear. A burden which insists that a sin can either cause a believer to lose his salvation, or a proof that he was never saved in the first place, which could mean that the thirty or forty years of service was proved a waste of a life before the sin or falling away took place.

Probably this was why some Old Testament saints got married early in life; such as Abraham, Isaac and David. I can't say for sure at this time how old Abraham or Isaac were when they married Sarah and Rebecah respectively, but I can be more sure that young David was still in his teens when he married one of King Saul's daughters, as a reward for slaying Goliath. But even then, David found it difficult to keep his flies buttoned up other than for his wife, and ended up with a harem of ten concubines, on top of another man's wife Bathsheba. Not to mention Abraham sleeping with Hagar, Sarah's servant, to satisfy his wife's desire for a son, and then bedding with other women after the death of his wife. Yet it is agreed among all believers that all three - Abraham, Isaac, and King David were saved and went to Paradise after death. On the other hand, my father has been faithful to his wife - dear Mum - all through his married life, and furthermore, has no known record of any sleeping around before meeting his future wife. And yet, is he lost? Sometimes I can't help thinking that this whole Biblical shenanigan is grossly unfair. Yet preachers like McArthur and Washer, along with many others, makes a big issue on sex, marriage and the single person.

My dad believed that Jesus Christ existed, but rather than dying on the cross to atone for our sins, he believed that Jesus was a teacher who reformed the world, and was crucified by cruel men. Many Christians would say that this was not enough to save him. But what did he really believe on that day when he took Communion "illegally" as a boy? Yes, Jesus did say on one occasion that unless you believe that I am (he) you will perish (John 8:24.) But the same writer also wrote that anyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God (1 John 5:1) - a promise backed by Peter's testimony to the Jews in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost recorded in the second chapter in the book of Acts. Sometimes I tend to believe that far more people will go to Heaven after death than what we think. I, for one, have been taught that only "born again Christians" are saved. So it is true. But what does the Bible defines a "born again" believer? The one who believes that Jesus is the risen Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. Did my father believe in his heart that Jesus is the Son of God? I am not in a position to say either yes or no. What went on in his heart, especially when he was young, only God knows. Perhaps a bit like Ananias and Sapphira in the 5th chapter of Acts. We are told that they have conspired to lie to the Holy Spirit about the money they have donated. They both died on the spot. But Luke, who narrated the incident, does not tell us of their eternal state. Like with me, it was not up to him to decide.

So the world turns. We evaluate a believer's faith by the way he performs. Did the driver of the car you are in swear and cursed the idiot of the vehicle in front for nearly causing a collision? Then tut-tut, he cannot be a true believer, even if he holds in his heart that Jesus is the Christ. And what I have seen throughout life, the steering wheel of a car is the one hot seat for swearing and cursing. For one who has real faith, I guess such a hard swerve taken to avoid a crash would result in a calm emotional reaction. Road rage is certainly not Christ-like, and therefore the one with such high emotions can't be a true believer! So we are conditioned to think and believe what a true Christian should be like. Unfortunately for my late Dad, who was very fond of being in control of a vehicle, venomous expletives were not uncommon, particularly to an elderly female Sunday driver at the front of a slow-moving queue of vehicles creeping along a constantly hilly and bending road.

I sit and mull over my thoughts and emotions. For a guy like myself who has some interest and knowledge of world geography, I ponder over countries like the Middle East, India and the Far East, where Islam, Hindu and Buddhism reign. I think of countless families who have never heard of Jesus Christ, and as I imagine tiny babies being born all the time, and toddlers slowly being fed by patient mothers, only to grow up without ever knowing about Jesus Christ, let alone having a relationship with him, and to die and pass on into a lost eternity - I wonder how God could have demonstrated his love? Can I really say that the Englishman, with is stoic self-reserve, his stiff upper lip, and his home as his castle, as being closer to God than a family in India who is much more open and hospitable to strangers - simply because he was lucky enough to be born and raised in a "Christian country"? If that had always been the case, then I wonder why, during the early 17th Century when the English took over the governing of India, the indigenous remained stubbornly Hindu?

As one 1970s pop song goes: There are more questions than answers - with every answer raising a dozen more questions, so is the mystery of the afterlife. I cannot say where the spirit of my late father is - whether in Heaven or in Hell - or even whether he is conscious at all. But one thing I do know, and that is God, who made the Universe and this planet, and breathed into every creature the breath of life, holds everything in his hand and nothing can occur outside his realm.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

What an Insult!

Browsing the Daily Mail online is something I find so relaxing after a day's work window cleaning. So it was the case when I looked through the Travel section that one article caught my attention. Under the heading: Stress and cheap travel deals are main reasons why Brits are going on more holidays...the article went on to announce that 40% of British people fly out every six months. Whew! Sometimes it's great when you work for a generous company allowing you so much paid holiday time in the year, as well as earning an income which meets those needs, on top of all the mundane day-to-day living expenses, such as groceries, fuel bills, mortgage or rental, and household utilities, not to mention both local and national income taxes. Yet these lucky 40% are a world away from one of the poverty heap who has to make a somewhat embarrassing visit to a Food Bank just to sustain himself and his family.

With the class divide so firmly entrenched in Britain, I was taken back by this comment written by a female living in Leamington Spa, which read, word for word:
I'm not a snob, but I wish the working class would holiday in Blackpool or Littlehampton where they belong and let us middle class enjoy our holidays without having to see, hear and smell the working class.

At first I thought such a comment would arouse fury, but instead I just marvelled, perhaps even feeling somewhat amused. As it stands at the moment of this typing, this comment had received 29 red arrows of disapproval, and 16 green arrows of agreement. This woman knew nothing of the meaning of Travel. But just to remind those not living in the UK, and as such, may not be so familiar with British geography, Blackpool is a brash seaside resort on the Lancastrian coast of the Irish Sea, made famous for its Autumn illuminations, while Littlehampton, far from being brash, is a quiet and sedate resort on the Sussex coast which has a very middle class feel to the town. By using these two contrasting resorts as a haunt for the crowds of loud mouthing, smelly yobs parading drunk along the promenade betrays her ignorance, not only of Travel in itself, but also of English geography.

It was obvious to her that foreign travel should be reserved for the better off, you know the sort - the man wearing a suit and tie in the office, along with the equally educated female graduate, not at all unlike those who compete in Alan Sugar's or Donald Trump's The Apprentice. Fiercely ambitious, yet remaining stoic, with an iron-like stiff upper lip, and a vast education to match, these men and women with their British Bulldog reserve are a world away from the crowd of British students in Thailand, on a gap-year, getting utterly sloshed on cheap booze and drugs while frolicking on the beach, with sex thrown in. Somehow I find it difficult to believe that the fun-addicted student staying at a backpacker's hostel in the far East, stoned out of his wits on alcohol and cocaine as he attempts to seduce a young woman - will be the same serious businessman walking along Waterloo Bridge spanning across the River Thames in London, while dressed immaculately in a suit, kept dry from the drizzle by the umbrella held aloft. As he enters through the doors of the shimmering glass office block, it will never enter his mind that the very office building he is so proud to earn his keep was constructed by the "smelly working class."

The Gherkin is one of many office buildings in London.

Yes, the same "smelly working classes" not only built the shimmering office block, but had also constructed the roads and walkways leading up to it, along with the rail tracks on which his train ran, maintained and kept in order by these same "base" men. If at home, the water mains happen to burst in the freezing Winter, he is not going to call a fellow office colleague, but a plumber dressed in a greasy boiler suit. As he looks around, everything he sees, which has made his day to day living so much more convenient, were built or laid down by the "smelly working classes" who would not want to be seen sunbathing next to him under the warm sun at a beach on the Greek island of Rhodes or Crete, or for that matter, at the Indian Ocean islands of the Seychelles.

I, for one, am not ashamed to call myself a window cleaner, and as working class as I can get. When I first began cleaning windows in 1980, I asked my father whether I was a businessman, as back then,  as now, have always been self employed. His reply, quite correctly, was that I could not be classed as a businessman, as such a profession fulfilled a very different role to what I was doing. In other words, I was not in the same category as a bloke in a suit sitting at a desk. However, there was nothing in my line of work to be ashamed about. Rather, into the 1990s, I began to work extra harder, saved up harder, and started long-haul travel for myself, beginning with Israel in 1993.

Far from drunken frolicking on the beach, rather I was soaking in the ancient history and modern Jerusalem alike, checking out all the archaeology, as well as admiring the Medieval architecture of churches, and walking through the narrow, roofed souq with the pungent fragrances of spices and mint. Even the tiny backpacker's hostel I stayed in had a Medieval domed ceiling, and it was located at the heart of the Old City. To the east, the Mount of Olives overlooks the whole urban area, and I felt such a privilege to witness the very site where  the resurrected Jesus was lifted to Heaven and, sometime in the future, will return to that very spot, rather dramatically, as his arrival will cause the mount to split into two, according to Zechariah 14:3-5.

Hosteling can be a fantastic experience without the need of hedonism or excess alcohol. While staying at the hostel in Jerusalem, another backpacker from South Africa and I started talking, and eventually asked me why I was in Israel. I explained to him how close to Jesus I felt as I walked the same streets he walked, see the same sites as narrated in the Bible, and to pray over the city from the Mount of Olives. I then explained the Gospel to him, and he asked me questions. Although this grew into a discussion meant to be between my new friend and myself, when I looked up, there were three or four other faces looking straight at me and apparently listened into our conversation. Then at another time, still at the same venue, there was this Irish builder who had just completed a year's contract in Israel, and was spending a few days bumming around before flying back home. The friendly banter over breakfast between myself and the builder must have lasted a better part of an hour, but there again, I was in no hurry to leave, neither was he.

Then not to mention other places visited, such as Singapore, and particularly Sentosa Island, with its superb sandy beach, lined with palm trees which marked the edge of beautiful tropical gardens. These in themselves were a joy to wander through, without losing sight of the giant Merlion which dominated the whole island. Sentosa Island also boasted a superb outdoor water theme park with slides and other fun features, such as the Lazy River, where the provision of an inflated ring for reclining makes superb scenic relaxation as it drifted slowly, winding through lush tropical vegetation flourishing on both sides of the river. Who says we as believers in Christ cannot have some fun?

Then Australia, with the Great Barrier Reef! Did I spend my time there getting sloshed with alcohol? Rather, exploring the Great Barrier Reef using snorkel gear was an eye-opener. Imagine my fascination and joy as I stood on a small beach of coarse sand and broken seashells which surrounded Green Island coral cay, and then the even lusher Low Island coral cay with its rich reef surrounding the tiny speck of land in the ocean, with beautifully coloured Surgeon Fish and the striped Zebra Fish swimming peacefully near us, totally unperturbed by our presence. Then the Sydney Opera House, in which I bought a ticket to watch and listen to a classical piece - the skill needed for composition of the music earned a standing ovation even from myself, a smelly working class window cleaner, seen inside an opera house rather than at a nightclub or bar slowly becoming fizzled with alcohol.

Then I must mention the United States. Backpacking there was also great, if the humdrum of modern city after modern city can be absorbed without the tediousness of it all. Downtown New York City provided free education at a museum close to the New York Stock Exchange. In here I learnt of how New York was the original capital city of the USA before being transferred to Philadelphia, then to Washington D.C. as it stands today. Then not to mention the 630 foot high steel arch which dominates St. Louis in Missouri. This monument marks the Gateway to the West, commemorating the western expansion of the United States from the Mississippi River, which in a geographical sense, splits the whole nation into two distinct halves. Then how can I not travel across America without visiting - and hiking - the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River? This two-day trek along the Bright Angel Trail allowed me to take a closer look at the different coloured layers of sedimentary rock which erosion over time formed the pinnacles of Buddha, Zoroaster and Isis Buttes, along with Pharaoh's Pyramid, and the spectacular view of Battleship Rock set almost right above the trail. I then spent the night at a spot close to where the Bright Angel Creek joins the main Colorado River, under a dome of brilliant stars filling the sky to a level I have never observed over the UK.

The Gateway Arch, St.Luis, Missouri

Such was the experience of an unmarried working class window cleaner out on a long-haul backpacking trip. If I had an odour, then nobody told me about it, to make me aware of the smell, particularly on any of the overnight rides on the Greyhound Bus, where the passenger sitting right next to me would have suffered most. After marriage, I took my wife to Kos, Rhodes, Israel, Sicily, Malta and Lanzarote. Not so much as independent backpacking as package holidays designed for families, but as a couple we did backpack Israel in the year 2000.

So what does all this mean? The comment written by this female was published on the Internet worldwide which gives a bad impression of the working class as only flying to the sunshine abroad for a grand booze up. Okay, much of that is true. Ibiza in the Mediterranean is a hotspot for both working and middle class revellers, their social distinctions becoming blurred with the alcohol. But let us not generalise all working class holidaymakers as boozers and beach revellers while the middle class are all on educational tours. All that is pure tosh! If anything, the drunken revellers and beach frolickers on the shores of Thailand are more than likely to be university students out on a gap year, a bit of relief after remaining closeted in educational institutes for much of their lives. But to believe that foreign travel should be reserves for the middle classes only, would put the culture of Britain back by at least fifty years.