I always recall when I was one of five young men having fun while on a cycling tour, having disembarked from a ferry at Rotterdam, then cycled through Holland, then into Germany, where we arrived at the city of Cologne. We spent a couple of days there before taking a different route homeward, riding through Belgium, to board the ferry back to England from the port of Ostend. For one who has always travelled alone, to be one of a group of five free-spirited, unmarried men was a learning curve, as we were all Christian believers from four different churches, yet we remained united as one. It was June 1987, in the midst of building up my window cleaning business, and therefore unable to afford longhaul backpacking throughout the period between 1978 and 1993.
But it was not all peaches and cream. While staying at a backpacker's hostel in Cologne, I had all my cash stolen while having breakfast downstairs, as a result of being foolish enough to leave my wallet among all my other stuff in the dormitory. Penniless, I had to depend on the generosity of the other four men for the rest of the ride until I set afoot on English soil. But nevertheless, we made the most of our adventure, and I did not let the theft of my cash ruin the holiday. Instead if there were opportunities to laugh and joke around, at least this helped to take some of the grind from constant pedaling.
During one of the city stops, one of my friends and myself needed to visit the gents (rest room, comfort station). It was in the days that the male urinal was just one unit which lined one of the interior walls, before the modern introduction of single individual units, and in this particular case the room being underground. When the two of us arrived at the urinal to answer the call of nature, I made a passing comment in a calm tone without the intent of being humourous:-
This is where they all hang out!
Suddenly, and much to my surprise, my friend burst into hysterical laughter. This was meant to be a statement of fact rather than a joke. I was taken in by his laughter, and we both ended up almost rolling on the floor with intense mirth. But this seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. In all my days of church life, I can remember very little of mirth and laughter among Christian men. So here I would like to ask: how would you have re-acted had it been you who had been with me instead of one of my friends in the group? Would you have laughed? Or gave me a stern look? Or even attempt to figure out the ambiguity of the comment? Do you see mirth and laughter as sinful? And in turn, do you believe that constant sorrow and mourning over your shortcomings is the sign of true godliness?
For this reason I would never tell a saucy joke in a church gathering. I suspect that rather than laughter, the response I would get is a cold, flint-hard look of disapproval. Saucy? This sounds to me like the fluid poured over a meal to enhance both the taste and flavour. I have to be honest with myself, but the majority of jokes which sends me laughing loudest have a dash of sauciness to them. The truth is, I do enjoy a laugh and a joke without incurring guilt. But over the years I have learnt not to tell downright rude jokes. Not only would it offend the Christian hearer, but by my own experience, I demean myself, even if I tell it to an unbeliever. But on the other hand, the above statement spoken in the toilets was neither rude, nor vulgar, not did it contain any swear words, nor was it sexually explicit. Yet the element of sauciness had sent my mate into fits of laughter.
Looking back on all this, I recall a gulf as wide as the Grand Canyon between a crude-minded working class yet experienced wood finisher, and a well educated professional holding down a desk job. And I learnt first hand by experience. Fresh from leaving school in 1968, at age just fifteen years, I joined a furniture-making factory as a trainee wood finisher. It was here, in an all-male environment, that I quickly became familiar of the most vulgar smut that could enter the ears of an innocent youth. Yes, some of it was funny, but on the whole, not only was it degrading to women, but also to our own gender as well. The volume of swear words uttered in between fifteen to thirty minutes of conversation became countless. But this was something I had to get used to, and became part of daily living without any more effect on my conscience.
And what makes this whole saga of special note is when I became a believer towards the end of 1972. Not long after I declared unashamedly my belief in Jesus Christ, there was a documentary shown on TV about a three thousand year old ancient mummy, found preserved at a frozen environment. During a discussion about the documentary the next day, our friend came out with this statement, as far as I remember, word for word:-
The presence of that mummy proves that this guy existed and was once alive. As for this Jesus, they never found even one of his balls!
If you find that statement so offensive, then please bear in mind what I had to go through as a young, inexperienced believer. So immature, I never thought about declaring the answer that would have instantly killed his blasphemous statement. I now wished that I had said,
Of course no one would find ANY part of the Lord's anatomy. He is risen from the dead and is now seated in Heaven. All of him, scrotum included!
By not coming out with such an answer is something I deeply regret, and sometimes I feel unable to forgive myself for allowing that statement to go unchallenged. But what did make an impact in the shop floor was the presence of a small New Testament which was given to all of us at school by the Gideons. I watched our foreman blush as if in fear at the sight of the book, while I found it nourishing to my soul during the breaks. Shortly after all this, I left the factory during Spring of 1973 to take on the Summer job as a qualified poolside lifeguard.
But I believe that the five year experience on that shop floor had changed me from a boy into a man. The daily torrent of smut had hardened my skin in a way to enable me to take on challenges which might not have happened otherwise. For example, more than once I was referred to as brave for backpacking both the Middle East and North America on my own, even though I had never associated travel with bravery. Rather, travel was always something I enjoy doing. But much more recently, in the days following my heart operation, I was commended for not moaning and wallowing in the luxury of pain. But that was because I had the welfare of my wife in the upper echelons of my mind. I had to think of that first, which necessitated my determination to recover quickly to resume my care for her.
Some time later from Autumn of 1973 onward, I found myself working at a precision engineering factory, an environment of both gender, and therefore vastly different to the furniture factory of my former days. This company also gave me access to the adjoining offices upstairs, where I made friends with a couple of employees there. Although two of them were friendly towards the Christian faith without being committed, a third was an atheist, but without any of the slur which characterised the behaviour of the wood finisher. And that had gotten me to think about church, even to this day.
In a way I find it sad to see our churches, including the one I regularly attend, filled mostly with middle class men and women, college students, as well as a high percentage of senior citizens, but remaining absent of down to earth working class war veterans like our smutty friend. I have thought about the wood finisher (who by now has long died) and wondered whether it was the ravishes of war which made him the way he was. As a boy, did he attend Sunday School? That was something I had never asked. If he did become familiar with church life, then went to war for God, King and Country, only to witness the appalling suffering and death of his mates and colleagues, all in the name of God? Could this had an impact on his heart until worked up to a hostile frenzy? Somehow, I find it much easier to dislike a church going hypocrite than to dislike someone like that worker and war veteran. Yet it becomes too easy, in my mind, to pass judgement and write the person off as being without hope without first knowing the facts of his background beforehand.
That to be gives the impression that our churches are too much out of balance, favouring the middle classes, the well to do, the polite and well educated, and the professional. Many years ago I heard a pastor of a church I used to attend state plainly that he wishes that more of the wealthy, Corporation directors, the bankers, those from the yuppie culture, and so on would fill the pews - so giving towards a new building project can be quick and more effective. There are times that I can't help thinking: That somehow the ninth Beatitude in the Sermon of the Mount has been erased from the original manuscript by an early church father, for saying, Blessed are the wealthy and the well educated, for God has a preference for them. If you think that this is a dangerous tinkering of the Word of God, then it is only gotten from what I have seen in church life over the years.
There is only one answer that would help the churches make more of an impact on the unbelieving world, that is to walk in the Holy Spirit/to walk in love. So intertwined are the two suggestions, that only a forward slash is needed to define the two. Walking in the Holy Spirit is walking in love, I believe. But far more fortunate for the present rising generation is that the generation which consisted of world war veterans I had to face as an adolescent, is passing away at present, and none from that era will now be found at the workplace. By comparison with the 1960's, the present day student and apprentice had never had it so good. Gone too, I believe, are the dogsbody tasks every school leaver had to endure in the presence of their seniors, such as sweeping the factory floor, making the tea for all, and so on. But sometimes I can't help thinking, that in a modern industrial world relatively free of such humble tasks and dreadful smut, our present generation will be somewhat softer and less resistant to the challenges of life. I have seen this already, even in my own generation, there are men whose gentler, middle class and far higher educated upbringing has made them averse to any uncomfortable situation, such as carrying out a task in the rain, for example, something which I take in my stride, or visiting the Holy land as part of an escorted tour group, rather than as a free-going backpacker, and letting the land gradually talk back to him through day to day personal interaction.
But in all, thank goodness that perhaps we can have a good laugh, perhaps even border into sauciness, without the need to go into degrading and harmful smut. Really, we don't need this in life, and it doesn't edify anyone. I can certainly do without any smut, instead by giving thanks to God for his goodness and expressing joy for his salvation can lift the spirit in a way no amount of smutty language can achieve.
And that includes public toilet smut.