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Saturday, 30 April 2016

Attraction or Repulsion?

One monthly gem I enjoy on a regular basis is home Bible study. Held at the home of a good friend I knew for around 35 years, it can be packed to the brim at times, as was the case of the last meeting just a couple of days ago. Remarkably enough, although the meeting is open to anyone who wish to partake, in most cases there have always been a high proportion of male attendees. Very unusual in a church environment, where it tend to be dominated by higher female numbers. Then again, the warmth of a private living room with plenty of varied refreshments on offer present a wide contrast from the stone-cold formality of a grey Gothic chapel, where the sound of voices reverberates within the solid walls of the interior.   

Each of these Bible studies normally centre on a Biblical character rather than doctrine or devotional. In the recent past we looked at Abraham and Isaac, along with Joseph (adopted father of Jesus) together with Jezebel and Deborah, two contrasting Old Testament women whose conduct and relationship with God couldn't be any more opposing. But this time round, from a suggestion offered by one of our regular members, we looked at the Prophet Hosea.

Hosea was the Old Testament seer who was ordered by God to marry an adulterous woman, and for a while remained faithful enough to him for her to bear three children. The first was a son who was given the name Jezreel, a location in Samaria where King Ahab reigned, and a principle spawning ground for ancient Baal worship. The second child was a girl, who was given the name Not Loved. The third, another boy, was given the name Not My People. Some time later, Hosea's wife strayed, and while far from home, she was put up for sale as a prostitute, but her husband arrived at the slave market and bought her, and took her back home. The underlying thread of the study was that God called the house of Israel to himself in order to enjoy a relationship. But instead, the Israelites kept on worshipping foreign idols - images made with hands - and this eventually drained the Almighty of his patience, and the result that the northern ten tribes of Israel - to which Hosea ministered - were led into exile by the Assyrians.

I could see such a parallel between the wife's unfaithfulness, her wandering away and eventual enslavement, and the prophet's redemptive purchase - with the sorrowful history of the house of Israel, her exile into the nations, and the purchase the Lord Jesus made on the cross. For there are prophecies in abundance throughout the Bible foretelling the restoration of the whole of Israel to her homeland, and enjoying a healthy relationship with her King who will one day reign over the nation from the throne of David sometime in the future, just as Hosea enjoyed a happier marriage with his wife after buying her back.

During the session, I came up with a reminder that we are no better than they were. I too can be equally hostile to God and want to run away. And I can point to a time and place where I felt exactly like that. It was the love of God gently and without any condemnation who called me, and sensing his love, I responded positively and my faith was restored, albeit slowly. Quite a similarity to the woman caught in adultery as recorded in John 8:1-11.

There are questions surrounding the story. Caught in adultery? It takes two to tango. Why wasn't he arrested with her? Why just her? Perhaps it was her husband who caught them together. Terrified, her lover legged it as fast as possible. And successfully got away as he constantly turned to look back, he kept on running still, into the sunset. A plausible story, especially if the enraged husband called to the Pharisees who were nearby. Under condemnation by all those around her, she presented a golden opportunity for them to test Jesus, who couldn't have been that far away. Instead he showed her love by forgiving her. And that made her want to follow him instead of returning to her judgemental husband, who was most likely filing for divorce, a legitimate action in Jewish custom for such a transgression.

Then how can we forget the story of the woman at the well in Samaria featured in John 4? All he did was ask for some water. The woman was shocked. She knew that she and her people were hated by the Jews and seen as transgressors of the Mosaic Law. Then the Lord began to offer her something positive, including his awareness of her failed relationships with five previous husbands, along with his awareness of her current house-mate. But there was not a hint of condemnation from Jesus, even if she might have been expecting it. Instead, he showered her with love, and she responded by leaving her jug with him to draw from the well if he needs to, and ran off excitedly to inform her countrymen that the Messiah is here. Another devoted follower, the fruit of Christ's love.

Personally, I can't blame the ancient Israelites for their apostasy and blatant idolatry, rather I can identify with them. Hosea and his marriage, her unfaithfulness, and her husband's purchase and restoration are all models of the entire history of the house of Israel and her relationship with God, her heavenly husband. I believe that after the prophet's wayward wife was brought back, their marriage became stable. Despite her sins, which were many, Hosea showed his love for her, proven by going after her while in a helpless and desperate state. Love wins again. 

God has chosen Jacob and his descendants by grace, an act of love. Israel did not deserve God's love, instead his choosing was an act of grace. But God had to show them that they were sinners, falling short of his mark. And the only way sin can be revealed was to give his Law, because through the Law is the knowledge of sin. The whole object of the Law was to bring the sinner to his knees and call for mercy, which was available through the sacrificial ritual God gave them. Looked on in the proper way, the sacrificial system was meant to engender love through recognition of God's mercy, along with an expectation of a more perfect and permanent solution, a once-and-for-all sacrifice. While the intention was to draw them to God, their knowledge of sin compelled them to flee from him in their attempt for an easier route to salvation.

If my own experience has any value, the knowledge of sin in the human heart, stirred by the Law, causes many not wanting to know this God. This sort of reasoning makes it easier for Darwinism to make a home in the human mind, along with, for example, the worship of a certain make of car, or a favourite football team, the adoration of a non-demanding Head of State as depicted in last week's blog, a favourite celebrity, emphasis on nationalism, or anything else which provide an escape from the knowledge of sin in contrast to a holy God. 

Hosea would never had won his wayward wife had he taken the same attitude as the Pharisees, or many in churches up to this day. Look at it this way. If a wife was married to one who was morally perfect, but constantly scrutinising and judging her behaviour, even down to her thoughts and motives, how long would the marriage last? Worse still, if she was unable to leave the house on her own, how much would she love him? History is full of women who had divorced their husbands, there are even cases of murder. The real problem the Samaritan woman at the well was not merely being a difficult person to get on with. Instead, all her husbands most likely kept her under scrutiny and criticised her when she did not measure up to their desires. What she wanted was love.  

The same could be said about the woman caught in adultery. Her husband (if he was there) along with all the religious crowd, wanted to stone her in fulfilment of the Law of Moses, therefore making them look morally pure and feeling righteous. They had no interest in the glory of God. Instead they wanted to prove themselves righteous. But why did the woman commit adultery in the first place? Was she that bad? I don't think so. Instead her husband failed to show her any love throughout her empty marriage. And for that matter, neither her lover really cared for her either. When caught in the act, he legged it instead of standing up to protect and defend her before her accusers. Poor woman! She too wanted the tender love of her husband. Instead her emptiness brought her into the arms of another who, for selfish reasons, temporally showed her some affection and made her feel important. And if it wasn't for Jesus intervening, she would have been stoned to death, her screams echoing across the valley as the fusillade flew towards her from all directions.

Statistics have shown that every week, hundreds of young people abandon the churches their parents attend. Christians come up with such self-righteous, sanctimonious explanations:- "Oh, that proves that they weren't really saved after all." Or, "They were saved once, but having abandoned their faith, they forfeited everything and are lost again!" Maybe a truer explanation is the lack of agape-love in the church itself, not to mention the lack of agape-love between father and mother, as well as towards the teenage son or daughter, no matter how pious they may be in church. In addition, the church or parents could be law-orientated - any love received is conditioned on performance. Therefore they perceive God himself to have a Pharisaic attitude, withholding his love and quick to punish if they don't perform to his standard. Going by my own experience, a religious person who looks to performance in others before bestowing any merit or credibility can be very obnoxious, especially to his victims. Usually he has a very low self-esteem, caused by his own inability to perform to standard, and therefore scrutinising anyone he thinks don't measure up in an effort to lift his own morale.

Then as I would expect, no church is perfect. If such a church exists, I'll be doing everyone there a favour by not turning up - I'll only ruin it! Rather I'm grateful to God that there is a fellowship I can identify with, one I can call my spiritual home. Generally I'm very much liked and respected. Furthermore, Ascot Life Church has provided a good place to talk when doubts and fears overshadow my soul. But as with all other churches, the need to remove religiosity and replace with agape love is essential for vibrant living - especially to teenagers and young people! It needs to be a place where men and women from all walks of life can come in and experience for themselves the truly alternate society where everyone worships from the heart, and not be the ones fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy, like those in the house of Israel - that they worshipped him with their lips, but their hearts were far from him.
Which incidentally, was another comment I made at the home Bible study.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

HM. Is There a Hidden Secret?

The last couple of days has been quite a time for celebration here in England. First the Queen's Ninetieth Birthday, and now St. George's Day. And oh yes, for those into English literature and the arts, today (that is April 23rd, 2016) also marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. But there was also a sad side to these past fifty or so hours. That is the sudden, premature death of singer and musician Prince at his home in Chanhassen, Minnesota - on the same day as the Queen's Birthday. Ironic too, that both have royal titles. Coincidence? Maybe so, but surely such a probability of the two, both with royal titles, yet totally unrelated and living thousands of miles apart, arriving at their milestones on the same day must be one chance in a billion.

I was no fan of Prince, although I never had any disrespect for him. I simply didn't listen to or buy his music. Unlike probably his former rival Michael Jackson, whose classic songs such as Got to Be There, Looking Through the Windows, I'll be There, Ben, Ain't No Sunshine, and many more which crooned the airwaves throughout the 1970's and became ingrained within my soul. 

Michael Jackson - great singer and musician

For readers who have been familiar with my blogs for quite a spell, I might have portrayed myself as a Republican. But in truth, unlike my late father who leaned in favour of a President as Head of State, I still believe that the Monarchical system has a stronger uniting power than a republic. But my father's argument was that a President has only the power set by the State's Constitution. If he performs badly, he can be kicked out. A monarch, no matter how cruel he may be, is entitled to the throne throughout his whole life, due to dynastic inheritance. Only a lynching can rid the country of him, as was the case with King Charles the First, in 1649 under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell and his troop of Roundheads.

But our Queen, unlike King Charles I, is - and always will be loved by the nation. Over sixty years of devoted duty, she has never wavered, but kept on with her service to the country. Her stoicism, a lack of public emotion, and her level of commitment as ambassador to the world has earned her respect. As with her Coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1953, it is said that even the toughest captains of industry trembled with emotion as the crown was placed on her head by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Since then whatever Her Majesty did, it was always surrounded with a huge show of pageantry. And it looks to me that no other ruler on Earth has a pageantry so grand as Queen Elizabeth II and her kinsmen. The national feeling, at least by a significant percentage of the population, is that the monarchical system could come to an end after her Majesty's death. By contrast, not only would King Charles reign would be comparatively short, but not so much of a national reverence is reserved for Prince William, second in line for the throne, due to his reputation of being work-shy and his enjoyment of royal privileges without engaging so much in the duties assigned for the role. 

So little wonder that when our Prime Minister David Cameron, while at Parliament, included the words: The Queen is our rock of strength, my head turned. No doubt that this was in reference to the political and national unity of our Constitution. By accompanying these words were: May she continue to reign (implying eternal rule) I couldn't help but believe that such wording belongs to God alone. 

But having said that, there is that possibility that our PM might have borrowed the words from the Old Testament book of Daniel, where the prophet is recorded in hailing King Darius: O King, live for ever! He then followed with: My God has sent his angels and shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. Nor have I done anything wrong before you, O king. (Daniel 6:21-22.) That, I believe is another way of saying: O king, you are forgiven! (for sentencing the prophet to death against his own will for apparently breaching a sham law.) Daniel did not refer to King Darius as the rock of strength, neither is such reference to another human being found anywhere in the Bible. God alone is the true Rock, Refuge, and a Strong Tower, and through him alone is the Universe, the Earth and all life within sustained.

But such references by a British politician is far from new or unique. For example, during the days of the Egyptian Pharaoh Cheops, a pyramid was built for his future entombment, as was with the case of former kings. Unlike that of previous theories from earlier archaeologists, it's now believed that the giant structure was not built with slave labour, but by paid workers who saw the king as no less than divine, that is, a god. By building the pyramid, salvation was not only secured for the king himself, but also for all the workers, possibly for the whole Egyptian nation. It was a classic example of salvation by works combined with mediator intercession, with the king himself serving as the bridge between the divine realm and the Egyptian people. With the king reigning for eternity, they too will have a chance to live forever.

The worldwide broadcasting of our nation's adoration of the Queen through pageantry couldn't have been more obvious than with the celebration of her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 to mark her 60th year on the throne. Not only did the people by the millions line the banks of the River Thames to watch the passing floating procession, but the event was televised all around the world. As far as I can remember, I don't recall any other country broadcasting an event that comes any close to this - except of that of the funeral of former U.S. President Kennedy, after his assassination at Dallas in November 1963, something I recall watching on monochrome TV as an eleven-year-old. As with the Diamond Jubilee, no worse day could have been picked to hold such a celebration. It poured with rain throughout nearly the entire parade, with singers drenched to the skin, shivering as they sang their songs with such unwavering stoicism. Even the Queen and the Duke both looked ill-at ease, refusing to sit at the seats specially built for them, and it is said that the Duke developed a bladder infection soon after the parade.

The inclement weather, rather than being a stroke of very bad luck, has made my ponder whether God was trying to tell the whole nation something, including the Royals themselves. And that is, he is the Rock of Strength to the nation, and not the Queen. But I suppose, like the Egyptians of old, it would be a lot easier to worship a monarch who set no demands on her people than to serve a deity who is constantly demanding holiness through obedience to laws impossible to keep, with the threat of Judgement after death.

In other words, the Queen is perceived, worshipped and adored as our national saviour and intercessor before God, just as King Cheops was before. But in this country such statements is never heard, never admitted. But for our chief politician to come out with such a statement in public must have been acknowledged by the nation, as I have not come across a single jot or tittle against it anywhere in the media, whether it's the Press or TV.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is looked upon as a national and personal saviour and intercessor, in a sense replacing Jesus Christ as Saviour and intercessor before God the Father. That is endorsed by her role of Head of the Church of England, a title stolen from the Pope of Rome by King Henry VIII in 1531 in order to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon. As with the Diamond Jubilee, the Queen's Ninetieth Birthday came with the pomp confined to Windsor, but the Press was all over her, not just for the day, but for at least two days afterwards. 

One TV programme, which helped inspire me to write this article, is the BBC The One Show presenter Matt Baker. This hour-long daily chat show following the evening News hour invites celebrities into the studio as guests of a chat show. Baker normally presents himself casually dressed in open-neck shirt, although he may appear wearing a tie maybe once to three times a month, maybe not for several weeks during the Summer months. But on the evening of the Queen's Birthday, Matt Baker appears all dressed up in evening suit, shirt and tie. For me that says something. The deep relationship between adoration of the Queen and social class. If there is a country so obsessed with class, its the one which worship the Royals as mediators between themselves and God. This includes the notion that the higher the person's education, closer to the Queen he is, and henceforth gains greater respect. Like in the case of William Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest writer in all English history. Yet he always had his critics, right up to the present, who deny the authenticity of Shakespeare's writings because he did not attend a university. Yet does any reader know who these critics were, and are? No, not me either.

So the majority of the British will adore and uphold the Queen as their mediator.The majority vies to be closer to her by following her example, especially in the area of education, the only acceptable way to climb the social ladder, other than birth privilege. But as they do, many will slide into a lost eternity.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

A Trail Incident of Perseverance.

After two weeks away it's good to be back on this website. No, we have not been strolling arm-in-arm along at a faraway tropical beach backed by palm trees, neither did we bronze our torsos under the hot equatorial sunshine, nor did we gently wade into the coral-rich turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean.

No, it was better than any of that.

Because the above description of long-haul travel belonged to a past epoch when I was single, living in my own bachelor pad with scarcely any responsibility other than to keep myself fed, clothed, and to keep a roof over my head. Such travel suited me perfectly back in those days, as I had no one else to love, cherish and care for. But now as a married man whose spouse is partly lame, I have found that the windswept, drizzly, leaden-grey skies over the Lake District National Park in Northern England to be just as equally enthralling, if not more so, than the Round-the-World backpacking trips which characterised the 1990's.

What has made such a trip enthralling? Watching my wife take in the Park's dramatic scenery with continual delight. Her delight in the lakes surrounded by mountains (known locally as fells) is what make the week long break equally fulfilling as any long-haul or Mediterranean trips. As well as being close to something that has always excited her, seeing for herself one of the many waterfalls which features abundantly across the park.

The Lake District National Park is the largest area under protection from development in England (second to the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland, the largest in the U.K.) It is roughly circular, more than thirty miles, 50 km across, with elongated lakes radiating out like spokes of a wheel, each of the lakes surrounded by mountains. England's highest mountain, Scafell Pike, is located here, rising to 3,029 feet, 978 metres. Maybe just a bump on the ground compared with other mountains around the world, but that did not hinder me from enjoying such spectacular views from its summit back in 1992, with Styhead Tarn not far below, along with a view of the Cumbrian coastline on the Irish Sea, and just after a short walk from the summit, a distant view of Lake Wastwater. Also on that same break, I recall standing on the summit of Helvellyn, the District's third highest mountain at 3,120 feet, 950 metres under leaden skies and a gale force wind nearly blowing me away. Just below, Red Tarn, the park's highest lake, was seen as a dark grey circular splotch on the landscape, the howling winds causing the tarn to quiver by the roughened water before the rain started to fall, obliterating any views the mountain would have otherwise offered.

Summit of Helvellyn, 1992.

I had another visit to the Lake District during the Summer of 1999, just a few weeks before marrying Alex. This was a fell-walking hike from Kendal, a town just outside the park boundary, to Keswick, on the northern region of the District, and the gateway to Lake Derwentwater, one of the loveliest lakes in the park. It took three to four days to complete the thirty-plus mile trek over the hills. During one of the days a near-total solar eclipse was on the cards. So I made sure that I was on the summit of one of the mountains which looked across Lake Buttermere. As the moon began to eclipse the sun, the whole mountainous area became gloomy and dark, which seemed to have startled the wildlife. Almost directly above a sliver of a solar crescent was the only source of the dim sunlight. 

Hosteling was the best way for me to spend the nights at the District, both in 1992 and in 1999. This included a night at Ambleside Y.H.A. hostel, the largest in the UK outside London. But it was Y.H.A. Keswick 1999 which really struck a cord throughout that trip. Nothing special about the hostel itself, except that it would be the very last hostel I would ever spend a night in a all-male dormitory. It ended fourteen years of hosteling experience, which I have not only enjoyed in the UK, but also experienced overseas, such as in France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Israel, United States, Singapore, and Australia. It was like having a mental video passing through my head. I recalled the best hostel I ever stayed in. It was five nights at San Diego, Southern California, in 1995, which back then shared the same building as the YMCA at Broadway, before moving out to occupy another property at Market Street, where I stayed in 1997. Sharing a room with just one other fellow, he was a builder from Australia, who was the inspiration behind my own journey Down Under two years later. Then not to forget the small New Swedish Hostel in the heart of the Old City Jerusalem, where in 1994 I lived there for a full month, after spending nearly two weeks at the same place in 1993. But as I lay on a typical bunk bed that night at Keswick, I knew that marrying Alex would change things forever. During our short courting days, she made it clear to me that she would never spend a night at a female-only dormitory. Same-sex dormitories are, and will be, forever past.

Lake Grasmere, taken April 2016 

And so brings us up to this month, where we spent a week at a wheelchair-friendly hotel at Windermere, just a short downhill walk to Bowness-on-Windermere. Alex is not totally wheelchair-bound. She is able to get out of the chair and walk independently for a few metres at a time. Not only does this make her day-to-day housework possible, but also proved to be a great advantage on one of the days of our trip. It was to a spot called Aira Force, a 65-foot high waterfall about half a mile 1 km from the bus stop where we alighted, which is by the shore of Lake Ullswater. At the adjoining car park, the warden warned us that the trail to the waterfall is not wheelchair-friendly at all, as there are steps and boulders to navigate. 

We were both determined to see the waterfall for ourselves, especially Alex, as she is particularly keen on waterfalls of all kinds. I did not want to be disappointed after a full hour's bus ride over Kirkstone Pass, neither did I want to let my wife down. So while she was in the wheelchair, I started pushing, as I always do, as we took to the footpath.

The trail was brutally tough for a wheelchair user. Not only were there steps and large boulders, but tree roots as well. If Alex had been totally wheelchair-bound, the warden at the car park would have been right all along. There is no way to navigate an occupied wheelchair along such a trail. But instead, each time we came to such an obstacle, Alex rose from her chair and walked, while I carried the vacant chair, until the path became relatively smooth again. Then she climbed back in. So the journey progressed. And we didn't go about unnoticed. Instead we had attracted the attention of quite a number of walkers, some even offering help. The warmth of such people up there in the North is quite a contrast to the South where we live. This, I believe, is that people in the Lake area don't have that "feeling rushed" mentality - the idea that much has to be accomplished in such a short space of time. The population up in the rural North, as I have noticed, are far more relaxed. A couple of middle-aged ladies actually remarked, after completing the trip,
You should make a film about this!

Aira Force Waterfall, taken April 2016

Such perseverance had its rewards. We were both awestruck at the sight of the thundering waterfall! And that was only after finding out about its existence by accident, while checking over a booklet of local bus timetables. But one point did bother me somewhat. That is the inability to wonder at such a marvel of nature due to nothing more than physical disability. But remarkably enough, wheelchairs in the Lake District are very far and few between, according to our observation.

Yet we won over the odds by perseverance. This is not to be big-headed, or anything like that. My original plan after visiting the waterfall, was to wheel my wife to the village of Glenridding, over a mile along the shores of Lake Ullswater, into which the Aira Beck, which features the waterfall, was making its way into. We couldn't do it, because the amount of time it took just to navigate the trail to the waterfall, as well as the amount of time we spent there.

But the exhilaration we both felt at the conclusion of the trip was at a level which not even any of my own long-haul trips were able to accomplish as much. Why was this? I think that on my own I had only myself to make happy. But in this case I was endeavouring to make somebody else happy. And once successful, I can't help conclude that this is the reason why we are here. To put the interests of someone else's welfare above our own. The walk to Aira Force Waterfalls is such a fine example. Supposing I was on my own and had just learnt of the waterfall's existence. Sure enough, I would have hiked the trail rapidly, to arrive with hardly any sweat in my brow, spend up to an hour taking zillions of photos, then head back to the bus stop. Great. It would have been quite easy for an able-bodied person as myself to make the trip. But to have a partially disabled spouse who you love dearly, and you know that she wants to see the falls too - well that puts everything in a totally different perspective. I have discovered that by making the effort to make her happy, the reward returns to me. It is far more fulfilling. 

Of all the mysteries of life, since Alex went down with the illness nearly three years ago, I have often wondered why we are in this state, why the doctors have no ability to bring a cure, why she has to be in a wheelchair. And why, if Jesus, after having healed so many himself, sent his disciples out to do the same, have we not benefited? But such experience has taught us both that for me to love my wife while in this state, to take care of her, and to fulfil her wishes, is a kind of honour. Yes, I do feel honoured in taking on the responsibility of marriage and all that's involved.

And I would never trade away my beloved wife for a lifetime of long-haul travel, even if given the choice. My love for her is far, far deeper. I know my need for her as much as she needs me. Rather like the love of Jesus Christ has for his bride, the Church, I believe.