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Saturday, 27 August 2016

Nostalgia and a Test of Patience

I recall one afternoon as a young boy living in the basement (former servant's quarters) of a typical Victorian town-house in the Pimlico district of Westminster. Next door to the bedroom (where we as a whole family slept together in the one room) was an adjoining bedroom which was long abandoned, with giant black cobwebs occupying the corners, near the ceiling and window frame in particular. The room was cluttered with bric-a-brac long disposed of by former tenants, with every item covered in dust, including the base for a Singer sewing machine still complete with a flywheel powered by a rocking foot pedal. How I would spend time alone in that room, totally obliterate of the spiders, sitting at that bench and attempting to see how fast I can get that flywheel spinning. 

It was then that I spotted something resembling a small black suitcase lying nearby, as with everything else in that room, long abandoned by its owner. When I lifted its lid, I was filled with a combination of joy mixed with curiosity at the sight of a record turntable powered by a crank, and what looks to be a fully-functional pick-up arm complete with needle. Next to the player was a pile of wax records, along with a vinyl single of Rock a Hula Baby by Elvis Presley. Not that any of the wax discs were albums, but singles which preceded the smaller vinyl version which afterwards dominated the market for decades. 

I carried the record player and its records to the living room, where it became my plaything, even despite my parent's warning that the original owner may want to reclaim it. But as long as it lasted, nobody had ever knocked on our door. 

A version almost identical to the one I found.

A close up of the pick-up mechanism

The music entertained not just myself but the rest of the family. But by being young and inexperienced, I tended to turn the crank more than needed, the continuous over-winding over the months eventually broke the spring, permanently losing its tension, therefore no longer able to keep the turntable rotating at a constant pace. It was a crying shame. With Dad fearing that the spring would somehow penetrate the strong casing to fly with velocity at my face, he disposed of the unit, never to be seen again. Yet despite it's constant use, there was never a complaint from any of the neighbours. The reason for this was straightforward. There was no tone adjuster on the unit and the rather tinny sound failed to penetrate the rather thick walls separating each tenancy. 

Technology beats on. For Mum's birthday in 1962, Dad bought her the latest in musical technology, an open-reel tape recorder - heavy, bulky - but what I considered as a youngster to be a technological miracle. The main difference between this new-style device and a record player was that now, supplied with its own microphone, we are able to record our choice of music, along with private conversation. A phenomenon which no doubt caused the hair of every entrepreneur working in the music industry to stand on end with prophetic apprehension! 

But although the unit gave us plenty of fun, together with a plethora of splicing joints dotted along the length of the tape itself, like with the record player, no disturbance was caused to our neighbours. Maybe that fact that these units can only deliver mono sounds, that is from a single speaker built into the unit itself. The sound issuing from the tape recorder, if I recall, tended to be crackly, with the beating of the drums barely discernible. But nobody complained.

This model of open-reel was the exact one we had.
The predominantly wood and metal cabinet might have been the reason why this device had stood the test of time. For more than half a century, it is still in my possession, although it was years since it was last used, still in good working order. It was rather unlike the next step up in music technology - the all-plastic Cassette Recorder - small, compact, and portable, but in comparison with the open-reel, it had a shorter life span. I have always found the cassette to be something of a bane to use. I have learnt by experience never to wind back the tape to re-play the song I have just heard. This shortens the life of the tape, causing the playback to sound trembling, the vocals delivered with a quivering tone, only for the tape eventually to be chewed up by the pinch-wheel, lengths of tape stuck in the mechanism, and its life at an end. Yet this device had kept me entertained throughout the early 1970's when I was in my late teens. Another advantage the open-reel had over the cassette was that if during use the tape snapped, as it often did with the open-reel, the two ends can be spliced together with a special tape which was easily available on the market back in those days - an apparent recognition that such was a universal problem.

But if the tape in the sealed cassette snapped - unless I was lucky enough to have both ends exposed to fix - that was it. The cassette ended in the bin.

The cassette recorder of the 1970's.

However, what a revolution in home entertainment brought in by the stereo! Which included me when I bought my first stereo unit which I installed in my bedroom, as in those days I still lived at home. And sure enough, whilst listening to stereophonic sounds, it wasn't long before the sound of banging came through the floor. Mum was complaining that the bass tone was too loud. The only solution was to adjust the bass until the sound was practically tinny. But at least there was peace.

The bass. The very thing that caused complaints from neighbours after flying the nest and settling into my own apartment in the mid 1970's. Strange in a way; whenever I played secular music, I did not have too much trouble. But put on Gospel music and soon enough there would be a knock on my door. People complained a lot more frequently when I was listening to Gospel music. Especially from the single occupant of the apartment directly below me. Whenever he called, he stood tall and looming in a leather jacket, his darkened countenance looking down onto mine. I quickly learnt that with a fellow that big, I didn't want to cross him. Then one evening I was playing squash with a friend down at the Leisure Centre. At that Centre the squash courts were constantly booked, and at the end of each thirty-minute time-slot the two players must leave the court, even mid-game, and allow the next pair of players to enter.  

And so the bell rang to signal the end of our slot. I approached the door and opened it to let ourselves out. Standing right there with his partner was the fellow from the apartment downstairs. I was as much shocked as he was. He was shorter than me in his natural height and his build wasn't that impressive. Shortly after that incident he moved out, and he wasn't seen again. One thing I could say of him - he knew how to keep his footwear concealed, even if his soles were as high as a station platform!

And all this brings me to ask: Why is our younger generation obsessed with stereos so huge and powerful that such would suit a public ballroom? This brought on the turning of the tables, with myself making the complaint. Such as an incident which occurred in the Autumn of 2004.

Well into the night I was kept awake by the constant thump, thump, thump coming through the ceiling from the apartment above ours. No discernible music, just this tuneless beating. I wasn't too worried for either my wife or myself, but I was more concerned for our newborn daughter in case she was disturbed by the noise. So I crept upstairs to ask that their hi-fi can be turned down for our daughter's sake. The one answering the door said something like Huh huh, but did nothing to lower the volume. And there lies my mistake. I should have checked on my daughter. Had I done, I would have seen that she was sleeping well, got some earplugs and returned to bed. But instead, I returned upstairs to complain further. The female who answered the door spoke in a very arrogant, couldn't-care-less manner, explaining that it was her 21st birthday. Her attitude arose my irk, and I gave her what I thought was a gentle tap on her shoulder. She went down as if I gave her a hard push. Instantly three half-drunken men rushed out, along with two or three females, to lay me out. But I managed to reach my front door unscathed. Outside, they were pushing to get into our apartment while we were inside, with myself pushing to close the door. Fortunately my strength prevailed and the door closed. Safe inside, while the crowd was banging and attempting to bring the door down, my wife called the Police. It was they, two officers in our apartment and the other two upstairs, that the entire situation was diffused, and the long-for silence prevailed throughout the entire building. And you know what? My daughter slept through the entire ordeal totally undisturbed.

It was not long after this that those upstairs were partying again. But this time a young mother from another apartment called up from the yard outside, complaining about how their noise was keeping her child awake. Their reply took the form of a string of unprintable expletives. I have learnt much from the experience. The party-loving occupants upstairs did not have a great year. After cheering England with so much passion during the 2004 European Cup football tournament, their team was knocked out of the Quarter-Finals by Portugal on a penalty shoot-out, after a 2-2 draw. No wonder our upstairs neighbours were devastated, and we became the sitting duck for them to vent their frustration. 

As I write this blog, a birthday party is taking place at the house next door to ours (which we moved into just a few months after that party incident). They too have a powerful music centre which, to me seems so inappropriate, other than to irritate their neighbours. Like in previous times, it's a constant Thump, thump, thump, without any tune we could recognise or associate with. But unlike those before, they usually turn their sound right down by eleven at night. But whenever such situations occur, we keep ourselves to ourselves, and learn to be patient. We have never complained since, and I have found that yes, there is a price to pay in putting up with the noise. But the price we would pay would be much greater had we knocked on their door. As it is we remain on good terms. There won't be any hostilities, as Jesus would himself had said:
If you are smitten on one cheek, turn the other also; if someone tells you to go one mile, offer to go two miles, and give to those who asks. 
Matthew 5:38-42.

Sound advice indeed, if heeded will save from much grief and sorrow. Pity I learnt the hard way.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

A Triune Spectacular.

For me, three is a very special number. It is special because the very essence of the Godhead is triune, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which we refer to as the Holy Trinity, even if the word Trinity does not appear within the entire Bible. Neither for that matter a title The Prodigal Son appears either, but this parable spoken by Jesus and recorded in the 15th chapter of Luke's Gospel, is familiar to many, whether the Bible is read widely or not. Yet, sure enough, in the story of the Prodigal Son, there are three main characters - the father, the elder son, and his younger sibling whose want for a more "swinging" life placed him as the principal character of the story. Also the phrase God the Son does not occur in the Bible either, but is a title easily understood by everyone who accept the Trinity as a fundamental Bible-based doctrine. Like the way he describes Himself as being Eternal. Three pairs of names are here used: The First and Last, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. Then not to mention the three characteristics of God: Omniscient, Omnipresent, and Omnipotent. He even has three names or titles: Yahweh, El Shaddai, and Elohim, the latter being plural in itself, although Adonai (meaning Lord) is sometimes used instead for Yahweh, out of respect by the Jews.

And the Trinity can be seen in Creation. The three inhabitants of all life is on Land, in the Sea, and in the Air, as material itself consist of Solid, Liquid and Gas, as with water - the sustainer of all life - when exposed to different temperatures. Even the water molecule, which is behind the sustenance of all life, consist of one Oxygen atom and two Hydrogen atoms. Time itself consist of the Past, the Present and the Future, as with space as well - Length, Width and Volume, well demonstrated as a length of string, a sheet of paper, and a brick. Or as with a cube or cuboid, you can only see up to three sides at any one time without the need to turn it around or to lift it up.

As for our planet itself consisting of three classes of rock, at least in the Crust, according to the geologist. They are Igneous, Sedimentary, and Metamorphic. The first has to do with volcanic action, and even this come in three types: Granite, Andesite, and Basalt. Sedimentary, layered rock deposited by water, is broadly classed as Limestone, Sandstone, and Chalk, with variations between each. Then the Metamorphic rocks, of which there are many types, are formed by Heat, Pressure, and Chemical Processes whilst deep within the Earth.

We as humans are made in the image of God and therefore the crown of all Creation. We are the only living species which consist of Spirit, Soul, and Body. Our way of existence consisting of Thought, Will, and Emotion. Unfortunately, we are sinners, with sin consisting of man's rejection of God's Holiness, man's rejection of God's Leadership, and man's rejection of God's Provisions.

And nothing more than the love of God towards mankind who remains helpless and lost in sin than to send his Son to be crucified, and therefore to face his Death, Burial, and then his Resurrection in order for God to willingly give his free gift of salvation to all believers. And this free gift of salvation is of itself threefold: Acquittal, Imputation, and Eternal Security. Acquittal is the removal of all sin from the believer - past, present and future. Imputation is to have the righteousness of Christ credited to the believer's account. That is, God the Father sees him as he saw his own Son throughout his ministry - totally sinless and fully beloved. Eternal Security arises from the simple fact that the believer is regenerated by imputation and is now an eternal member of God's family. Because of this, he could never ever be lost again.

The believer is saved for all eternity (in his spirit), is being saved (the process of sanctification), and he will be saved in the future (glorification of the body).

Parallel to all this is the sport of Triathlon. And how I was enthralled to watch the Olympic Men's Triathlon at Rio de Janeiro last week. It was won by a member of Team Britain, Yorkshireman Alistair Brownlee who took the gold, while his younger brother Jonathan took the silver. But these two also have a third brother Edward, who shunned the Triathlon as "being for softies" and took to Rugby - the "real he-man's game", instead. Some may gasp at Edward's verdict on such an endurance sport, but I think I know where he was coming from. When I started competing in Triathlons myself in 1986, I also became a subscriber of Triathlete, a monthly American magazine dedicated to the sport, back then with a few pages in the centre to British events and its competitors. The latest edition came through my door bearing a photo of a female cyclist on the front cover. A friend of mine, with no small wit, came to visit me and picked up the magazine.
Ah! The Triathlon is a woman's sport!

I couldn't help blushing slightly as he grinned from ear to ear in mirth, with myself admitting that yes, the sport is popular with females too. But I would have liked to have seen him compete against "the Big Four" Dave Scott, Scott Tinley, Mark Allen, and Scott Molina - all American champions of the day, with Dave Scott being overall winner of the Hawaii Ironman on several occasions of his career which spanned throughout the late eighties, into the nineties. There was even a brand of top-class racing bicycle named after him, with the advertising slogan: If you're not on one you'll be behind one. Indeed, a smart play on the psycho to get people to buy. Oh, by the way, the Ironman Triathlon, originated from Hawaii, but by 1990 such events were held around the world, consisted of 2.4 mile 3.86 km open water swim, 112 mile 180.25 km cycle, and a marathon run of 26.22 miles 42.20 km. The entire course, divided into three disciplines performed one straight after another non-stop totals 140.62 miles 227.8 km. I wish I had dared my friend to give the Ironman Triathlon a go! Soft sport indeed.

Farnham Triathlon (staggered start) 1987

I can't help comparing the Triathlon - consisting of one race of three stages: Swim, Cycle, and Run - yet timed from the start of the Swim to the end of the Run - to the Trinity, the Three-in-One Godhead. Other multi-discipline events has been around for a long time, such as the Heptathlon, a seven-discipline event made up of 100 Metre Hurdles, High Jump, Shot Put, 200 Metres, Long Jump, Javelin, and 800 Metres. Or the Decathlon, consisting of 100 Metre Sprint, Long Jump, Shot Put, High Jump, 400 Metres, 110 Metres Hurdles, Discus, Pole Vault, Javelin, and the 1,500 Metres. The Decathlon normally span two days. This make these events "virtually invisible" - that is, by watching someone throw a javelin, jump over a high rail, or run in a 100 metre sprint, the spectator would more likely be unaware that the competitor is in a multi-discipline event unless otherwise told.

Not so with the Triathlon! The Swim, Cycle, and Run makes up one race, with the two transitions adding further challenges to the competitor. In my day, the Triathlon was a new sport, the first event taking place in San Diego on September 25th, 1974, but did not find its way into the UK until the Summer of 1983, at Kirtons Farm near Reading, nine years after the inaugural San Diego event. However, it was a further seventeen years before its inclusion into the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. But even before then, by 1986 I was already competing across the country. I recall the nostalgia of using a second-hand commuting bicycle I bought for a cheap price before upgrading to a lighter-framed racing machine suitable for Triathlon events.

The spirit of camaraderie between participants was strong, as the emphasis was more about finishing rather than who would take home the winner's trophy. A Commemorative medal was awarded to every finisher, and I saw that as a personal achievement just to be in possession of such an item. The overall atmosphere at a typical event was pleasant, somewhere where even a family can turn up to picnic and not feel out of place. Being such a novelty sport, the triathlon attracted participants from all walks of life and a wide age-range. Although most events had a minimum age of eighteen years (if I recall), the average Triathlon, open to the public, also attracted senior citizens - including one elderly gentleman in his seventies, speeding away on a heavy roadster of a bicycle, complete with shopping basket attached to its handlebars! Although very unlikely that he had taken home a trophy, maybe not even a Senior Veteran's trophy, there is little doubt in my mind that he returned home feeling highly exhilarated, having conquered one of his toughest challenges of his life, maybe since the War.

Winchester Triathlon, 1987.

And so I watched both Olympic Triathlons at Rio last week, the men's event on Thursday, and the women's event on Saturday, each from start to past finish. Unlike all the other events, I find the Triathlon electrifying and rather emotional to watch. Could this be because it is the only sport which symbolise the Trinity? Or could I now be enjoying the sport on a vicarious way, having competed in over two dozen Triathlons during my peak of fitness? Or could it be that at school I was lousy at team ball games, and the Triathlon was the answer to my otherwise sporting disability? Maybe all three? Even if over the decades the Triathlon has evolved from a social-based, camaraderie-felt atmosphere of a personal challenge, to an elitist, extremely expensive sport reserved for professionals with a high income. After all, the bicycle used in Triathlons is no longer the second-hand mount purchased for £30-00 at a backstreet cycle shop, but a purpose-built machine worth thousands of pounds, which you would never see locked up at the street or shopping mall, but only at the Triathlon cycle racks.

Triathlon is a great, exciting sport, which I relate as the sporting symbol of the Trinity. This could also be due to the crowds which assembled along the course in Rio, when there were many empty seats at the Stadium and other sporting venues. Like me, they too love real excitement.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

And He Called Me "Brave"!

The month of August. During the 35 years as self-employed, I always referred this time of the year as the "Silly Season". When all schools and colleges are closed for the Summer break. And the month when a proportion of my clients vacate their homes for a couple of weeks and head for the airport, which leaves a resulting dent in my weekly income. It's quite a contrast to when I was a boy. Back then, August was the month I daily watched the other boys from neighbouring homes in our street play cricket, quite seriously too, on one of the lawns fronting a typical avenue terraced house. That was back in the mid-sixties, when the only one monochrome TV sat as if forgotten in the average living room, turned off of course, because otherwise it had nothing to show other than the Test Card backed by constant music-while-you-work sound output. These days, if not sliding down a flume at a Spanish water theme park or chatting to Mickey Mouse at Disney World in Florida, our present young people remain shut away from the outside world, transfixed to their play stations and other high-tech wizardry which leaves the outside lawn and local park strangely deserted, except for an occasional dog walker or a family out on a picnic.

This change of culture over the decades is no doubt due to parent's anxiety over their children's safety. I recall the times when I went out to a playground more than half a mile from home, or a stroll into the woods with some friends, or venturing out for some adventure, none of which raised an eyebrow among my parents, and unsupervised play was the norm. And so were the shopping errands Mum sent me out so to learn independence, long before seeing the inside of a secondary school classroom. Does the thought of a paedophile lurking at every corner, waiting for a lone child to pass by, bring such unsubstantiated anxiety to parents of the present day? Also back in my school days, being driven to the gates by car was not only unheard of, but no boy would ever dream of such an option! When I was old enough, I first had to walk alone to school while watching other boys cycle. After enough pestering for a bicycle of my own, Christmas 1966 saw the first mount I could call my own - a second-hand single speed "crate" - as the other boys called it - with a broken part but still deemed ridable.

Ah, children! When boys were really boys and girls were grateful. How did we ever manage without technology? Those were the days when a bat and ball were sufficient playthings. And there was the local open-air swimming pool fronted with a large area of lawn bringing in families and youths alike. Especially during the week when both my parents were at work and my younger brother was looked after by a kindly neighbour whose house was directly across the road. Off I would saunter to the pool to spend the whole day there. Given any warm weekend the pool would be busy, mainly with younger people while their parents would literally crowd the lawn with their picnic baskets whilst sunbathing. And sure enough, to get to the pool from home involved a two mile walk, on my own. I have to conclude that the world was a safer place during those days when the nation was more Christian-oriented then at present, allowing boys of my generation a greater sense of independence - which would have an enormous influence in the years to come.

And influence they had. I recall the days soon after returning from my second backpacking trip across the USA in 1978 (the first trip across the Atlantic was a year earlier in 1977.) I had returned to work at a State-owned engineering company, when a colleague approached me with an announcement that I was seen walking along one of the streets of New Orleans. After telling me that he flew to America with some friends and travelled together, he then asked me if I was alone. I answered that I was by myself, who held a Greyhound Bus Ameripass ticket, which gave me unlimited travel from New York to Los Angeles, to Florida with New Orleans being one of my stops, before arriving back to Manhattan to spend the last day on the roof of one of the World Trade Center towers before heading to the airport.

His response was, By heck, you are brave!
I was very surprised to hear such a compliment, and I felt rather chuffed. But the main reason of the 1978 trip was because there was one location I missed out on the first trip, due to a lack of long-haul travel experience, and that was the Grand Canyon. I recall the Greyhound bus I boarded at Albuquerque New Mexico, for an overnight ride to Flagstaff Arizona. Overnight? Not quite. The bus dropped me off at was I thought was five in the morning Mountain Time. I groaned when I discovered that I had just crossed into the Pacific Time Zone, which meant that I had a three-hour wait at the bus station instead of the expected two-hour wait. And rather to my surprise, there was no-one else around. It was when the departure time approached that a small crowd began to form.

In those days there was a Greyhound Bus link between Flagstaff and Grand Canyon Village. It was this I was waiting for. At the South Rim, I was taken back by the glorious sight of the Grand Canyon. My initial plan was to spend the day at the South Rim, then return to Flagstaff to board a bus for the onward leg of the journey to Los Angeles. But as I found myself standing close to Bright Angel Lodge, I noticed a trailhead not far off, with hikers entering and leaving. That's when I made an enquiry about the trail at Bright Angel Lodge. The assistant announced that there has been a cancellation, and asked if I would like to take a spare bed at Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I snapped up the offer and paid for the admission ticket. Suddenly, the plan for the day has dramatically changed. Such is the wonder of independent backpacking.

How could I ever forget that afternoon during August 1978? As I started the hike, the trail was crowded with casual walkers, some consisting of families with children. But as I progressed further down the crowd thinned down. By the time I reached the three-mile rest station, I was entirely alone, while thunder began to roll across the overcast skies above. I found the whole experience rather overwhelming, even coming across a sign warning of flash-flooding that follows heavy rain. I read the sign as I crossed Tonto Plateau, a flat ledge halfway down the Canyon, and separating the edge of the Inner Gorge from the cliff wall of the South Rim. After passing through the pleasant oasis of Indian Gardens, the trail took a dive into the Inner Gorge over a series of stiff switchbacks known as The Devil's Corkscrew. By this time the near straight outline of the North Rim seen from the vantage of the South Rim had greatly distorted, while isolated pinnacles or buttes dominated the North Rim vista, giving a view of a mountain range. These buttes have names: to the left Cheops Pyramid was prominent, with Isis Temple just behind it. Directly in front loomed Buddha's Temple, and still out of sight from this point, Brahma Temple butte and Zoroaster Temple pinnacle are prominent from the riverside. 

I have learnt later that the main reason why there are four "Bright Angels" is to counter the sites named after the Adversary. The "four Angels" are Bright Angel Lodge, ~Trail, ~Canyon, on the other side of the Colorado River, and ~Creek which flows through it to join the main River. The thunder continue to roll as the massive cliff walls of the Inner Gorge began to loom above me. Accompanying the thunder was the continuing, endless screech produced by the numberless crickets and other insects living in the bushes which lined the trail, but fortunately there was no rain to activate the flash floods that would have swept me to who knows where. Alone in such an environment I could not help feel a little frightened. But at the same time I was determined to proceed and finish the hike.

The high cliffs opened out to the River which runs through the Canyon. The sound of rushing waters was exhilarating, and the trail I was on became the River Trail. For the first time I saw the pinnacle of Zoroaster Temple dominating the river, rather like an eternal watchman guarding the flow of the waters.

Eventually I crossed the River on Silver Bridge, one of only two bridges which crosses the river at the bottom of the Canyon. A little further on, my hike ended at the Ranch, a series of huts, each containing several beds, each hut for separate genders, and nestling peacefully among a copse of Cottonwood trees. The gentle sound of waters of Bright Angel Creek can be heard nearby as it flowed to the main river, and a short walk took me to a little footbridge which spanned the stream. I claimed my bed along with a German hiker and two Americans. There were a couple of beds which remained unoccupied. The German hiker wasn't alone. His girlfriend was in the female hut nearby, as the two Americans also hiked as a pair.

The next morning, at four o'clock, the German woke me up, and after breakfast at a nearby restaurant, I began to make my way back up to the village, under clear skies and strengthening sunshine. It took me nine hours to climb back out, which I did successfully. This was twice as long than the four and a half hours it took me to descend the day before. But after arriving home, I discovered a major disappointment. The cheap camera I was using had failed at the bottom of the Canyon. This meant I was not able to string together the many photos I had attempted to take whilst hiking. This led me to strongly desire to hike the Grand Canyon again, using a far better camera. This wish wasn't fulfilled until seventeen years later when another attempt to create a full photo album in 1995 proved successful.

Here are some photos I took of the 1995 hike, completed on the same trail. They show the basic route from the rim to the Ranch:

Near the start of hike

Battleship Rock

Indian Gardens, with Cheops Pyramid on the left. 

Entering into the Devil's Corkscrew, Inner Gorge.

Near the bottom of Grand Canyon

Approaching Colorado River

Zoroaster Temple pinnacle dominates the River

Silver Bridge

Near Phantom Ranch
Phantom Ranch

Together with trips to Israel, and especially Jerusalem, the Grand Canyon is to me the greatest natural wonder I have ever come across, along with the Niagara Falls in 1977, together with the active crater of Mount Etna which I visited in 1982. Three natural wonders overseas visited in my lifetime, at least so far. But it is, and will always be, Jerusalem which will have a special place in my heart. For I thank the Lord for his dynamic Creation, the sheer beauty of his works (and the United Kingdom has its own natural beauty, including the Lake District National Park, the Jurassic Coast of Dorset and Devon, and the rugged sandstone cliffs and twin stacks of Duncansby Head, Northern Scotland, with both stacks having a remarkable resemblance to the sandstone buttes within the Grand Canyon).

But is is the city of Jerusalem where God himself has chosen to put his name there forever. What an act of grace that is. For God himself will dwell among men in sweet fellowship and strong love. And all that because God sent his Son to die on a cross to atone for all believers, was buried, and rose from the the tomb three days later.

The glorified Son, to which all Creation must bow.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Saturday Morning Lacking Sparkle

This weekend, like most weekends, I strolled, quite early, to the Starbucks Coffee Bar which is built into the local superstore just a couple hundred metres from my home. I always go there these days to read the daily paper over a Cappuccino Grande, a habit which began during convalescence from a cardiac procedure last year. I arrive early so to avoid the queues that tend to build up, especially at weekends. This time was no exception. Except that this morning there was a significant queue of people waiting at the counter. And looking to be extra staff members drafted in to cope with the unusually high demand. I was rather gob-smacked. Is everyone as  resilient as I was, getting up at seven in the morning after less than three hours sleep? As I remarked to an assistant serving me and who knew me reasonably well, I was expecting the entire population to be still in bed, sleeping off the small hours of the night.

Because I was one of the majority who spent the best part of the small hours staying fixed to the television to watch the 2016 Opening Ceremony of the Rio Olympics. Or was I one of a minority? Perhaps a small minority? For the entire four-hour duration. And then I crept upstairs feeling less than excited as Alex slept peacefully throughout the night. The entire World's Greatest Show lacked the sparkle which was generated four years previously at the opening of the 2012 London Olympics.

Was the contrast due to the greater distance from home and the time difference as a result? There is a possibility that this was a contributing factor, but to me that was unlikely. The theme for the opening of the Rio Olympics was about climate change and the need for conservation, together with a rather quick run through the history of the indigenous Brazilians living in the rainforest, the invasion of the Europeans, the onset of the slave trade and its liberation, then a greater portion of time given over to the development of modern cities with emphasis given over to sky-high residential and commercial blocks.

All this had reminded me of the Spring Harvest Christian festival I attended either in 1992 or 1993. The theme back then was about caring for the Earth's resources, including litter and waste disposal. I went home with a flavourless taste in my mouth. It was the lousiest festival I had ever attended, and I left the site no more edified than had I attended the most boring of businessman's conferences, where the main topic centred on how much can be saved, in pennies, if we cut back a little on this and a little on that. Ugh!

And that is how I perceived the night's opening of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Pasty. Rather like at such a businessman's conference. We were actually warned before the start of the ceremony being low key. Quite a contrast to the 2012 London Olympics which really made the opening ceremony the greatest show on Earth. The theme then was how the Green and Pleasant Land of William Blake's poem Jerusalem was spoiled by the invasion of those dark satanic mills. Where the "sky-high residential blocks" of the 2016 theme were just an optical illusion on the otherwise level ground, the "dark satanic mills" of the Industrial Revolution were actually tangible industrial chimneys rising from the ground. We were entertained by the exploitation of steel workers by wealthy capitalists dressed in Victorian suits, top hats, and ties. Then the rise of the National Health Service, which featured well in the ceremony, along with the Queen dropping into the stadium from directly above, and good old Rowan Atkinson as the bored Mr. Bean tapping away at that one key of his piano during the theme tune of the movie Chariots of Fire. Indeed, 2012 was the greatest show on Earth.

Dark Satanic Mills, London Olympic Opening Ceremony, 2012

We are told that the Rio ceremony was low key due to financial reasons. This may or may not be entirely true. I would have been far more convinced if the reason given was that the poorer residents of Rio de Janeiro were offended by the presence of "the rich man's show" right in the midst of slum and squalor. The Media carried a story of the procession of the torch being hampered by a group of protesters as it was approaching the stadium. Even the cauldron from which the Olympic flame is at present blazing - is rather small, which necessitated the use of sunbursts consisting of revolving discs surrounding the flame to bring out its emphasis. 

The contrast couldn't be more obvious. This Brazilian city has always been divided by the rich and the poor. While the Olympic Park was under construction, there were protests even leading to violence, and cries that taxpayer's funds should go to projects such as health and the environment, and not to something which is so temporal and transient.

They have a point. The 2004 Athens Olympics held a special status as the games returning home, that is from where the idea of such a Games originated. The opening and closing ceremonies were both superb. But are the Brazilians aware of the Greek Olympic venue ten years after closing? Quite likely. The site lies as an abandoned derelict, fenced off and an eyesore to anyone passing by. Even in our own Olympic Park in Stratford, there has been criticism on the lack of redevelopment and the resulting loss of revenue. But at least we have not let the site fall into dereliction as the Greeks did. The main athletic stadium has been converted into a football venue and has been hired out to a Premier League football club. The Aquatics Centre remains under-used, and the Orbit Tower spiral slide, built next to the stadium was meant to be a major public attraction. Instead it at drawn only a third of the estimated number of visitors, and since it is making such a loss of income, there are calls for its demolition.

Abandoned Aquatics Centre, Athens - outside and inside.

Orbit Tower, Stratford

Will the Rio venue end up like the derelict in Greece? Or more like ours in the East London area of Stratford?  Or will efforts be made for the encouragement of its use by the locals? I suppose all we can do is wait and see. After all, our London venue had a far greater optimistic post-Games view than it does at present.

But I wonder what God is saying about all this?

It can be seen as something ironical that the Olympic venue in Rio lies in full view of the statue of Christ the Redeemer, standing 98 feet, 30 metres, with arms open wide, spanning 92 feet, 28 metres, as he stands on the summit of Mount Corcovado, taking the whole city into his majestic embrace. From what he sees, the appearing of the Olympic Park populated by well trained athletes, many of them from an affluent background, causing resentment among the poorer locals residing in dirt and squalor. A division. Between rich and poor, cleanliness and dirt, luxury and deprivation. If the statue was the living Christ himself, I wonder what would he have thought of it all?

It is apparent that God does not think against the idea of the Games. Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, writes:

For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.
1 Timothy 4:8.

In encouraging the church in Corinth, Paul uses an illustration from the ancient Greek Olympics:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize. Run in such a way to get the prize.
1 Corinthians 9:24.

Then the writer of Hebrews has also added:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Hebrews 12:1.

So God is not against the Olympics, he is not against sport or physical exercise either. If he is, then I would be committing a serious sin every time I go to the gym. And I go three times a week. And to watch the Olympics would be a gross sin, let alone partaking in the tournament. And what about football, our national sport? I cannot visualise a father and son attending a match on a Saturday afternoon as sinful. Rather, such a trip out would far more likely strengthen family bonds. Furthermore, if I am allowed to boast a little (Paul did - 2 Corinthians 11:17-18) - I will boast of the triathlons I completed in the late 1980's, including open-water events, with both sea and lake swims. Not to mention early Sunday morning cycling burn-ups on open roads free of traffic. Ecstatic! If anything, these have brought me closer to God rather than build a barrier between us. Of the three - swimming, cycling and running: riding the bicycle was my greatest strength which provided the maximum sense of endurance within the sporting trinity. As Paul exhorts: Whatever you do, do for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

The statue of Jesus looks down at a divided city. If the statue could talk, he would exhort to compete for the glory of his name. But for all the poor in the city living in depravity and squalor, his arms are wide open to them as well. He will call out to them:

Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gently and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Matthew 11:28-29.

And all who are wise enough will run to him, and take shelter in the Strong Tower, the Rock of their salvation - which has greater value than many gold medals.