Games was something dreaded rather than anticipated at school. Of course, when I first heard about Games as a first-year fresher approaching his twelfth birthday, I envisioned something akin to Snakes and Ladders, Ludo, Checkers, or Chess. Or heaven forbid, Monopoly, which exercises greed rather than mind or muscle. Or as school being an institution for learning - Trivia Pursuit (Genius, of course), or Scrabble. But no, the period bearing the title Games on the day's timetable had no bearing on the numerous board games I was becoming familiar with. Rather it was to do with football (Association) or rugby during the Autumn and Spring terms, and cricket or athletics during the Summer term.
|"Monopoly, which exercises greed rather than mind or muscle."|
In typical sixties style, all this exposes our weaknesses in the boy's changing room. The school uniform consisting of black blazer and trousers, grey shirt and of course, a striped tie, nicely conceals a moment of forgetfulness when a boy fails to bring in his kit without a proper reason. So in full view of us all, he was forced to bend over to receive a designated number of whacks across his buttocks from the sole of a size twelve plimsoll. If he was a first year, then one single whack. Two for a second year pupil, three for a third year, and so on. I have watched quite a number of this kind of corporal punishment throughout my entire four-year stint at secondary education. Some boys took the punishment with such stoicism, that all they did was wince slightly as the plimsoll flew through the air with full might. Then after it was over, the boy returned to his bench without further ado. By contrast, I recall at least one boy who burst into tears and begged for a reprieve before the third stroke landed.
And to add to this sorrowful state of affairs, I recall witnessing a very unfortunate incident at the boy's changing room at the master's absence, when one rather chubby fellow burst into tears as a result of being a recipient of ferocious teasing by other pupils nearby. Ferocious teasing? It was more downright mental cruelty, capable of destroying any sense of self-worth, and, to my mind, opening the likelihood of suicide. Let's put it this way. As all across Italy, found in every home, the use of the bidet would have spared anyone from such dreadful embarrassment. The poor lad wept as his token of privacy was thrown across one end of the room to the other to the delirious laughter of his oppressors. All I could do was sit nearby and watch, refusing to be involved.
But I doubt if anyone had ever realised the humility I felt every time it was left for the two team captains to select their own players, whether in football or rugby. I was always left on the shelf, ready for the unfortunate captain whose lot fell to include me in his team. Let's face it, I was a letdown to the team and as a consequence, became a victim of verbal bullying, and close to being physical as well. As physical prowess was the yardstick for peer respect, the ideal, popular pupil always excelled in team sports. Even if he had never played that particular game before, just give him a ball and a set of rules, and he will always produce.
It is from these schooldays experience that I began to realise what it takes to be a good Englishman. If you are fortunate enough to be born with brains, then life can be a fruitcake, especially in long haul travel, property ownership, quality of lifestyle, smart dress at work, greater respect from society - and a better chance for church leadership. But fail at school? Then physical prowess, a good team player, even having a magnificent boxing skill, patriotic, military service and devotion to a life of manual or skilled labour may engender a degree of respect as a true English bulldog, but responsibilities such as church leadership of any level will always be far less likely. The issue was, I was neither. Certainly not physical prowess, hopeless in team sports, with only one or two I can refer as friends, and indeed, not much to show. Except for endurance.
As such, I found long distance cycling a source of moral and physical strength. It was after I was freed from the wretched school tie and its culture, that I eventually began to bloom. But I believe that this was connected to something which was totally life-changing - to experience a rebirth through faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour less than five years after leaving school. Before this experience, I was not all there. Immediately after, however, I was all there, even if there will be some time before the fruits of such a transformation will become manifest.
But I did not have to wait long before such fruits began to show. Because reading and writing was something I did enjoy to a certain level, I found such wonderful benefit in reading the Bible. Over time, I discovered that reading the Bible has raised my level of intelligence which seems to uphold the view that the Bible was written under divine inspiration. And generated more faith. And also the enjoyment of physical endurance. Long distance cycling is one of them. Some trips were purely for tourism, which involved riding to faraway places and then finding a bed at a hotel or hostel. Others were fast burn-ups, usually done locally, covering up to thirty miles 48 km, starting and finishing at home, or even at church. Then to add a dip and a trot, I became involved in the Triathlon between the years of 1986-1992.
Although I was totally hopeless in team games at school, I was never averse to sport as a whole. It is so fortunate that it comes with such a wide spectrum, and there are beautiful colours within this spectrum which, although never advocated on the school curriculum, had highlighted what I was better at, the enjoyment gotten from these has given me such a morale boost, something so unfortunate in never having attained at school. But the fear in sporting failure having remained ever since. One good example of this was around 1980, give or take, when a group of us from my previous church went out for a picnic. A voluntary game of football was played among us menfolk. I joined in, and although I have made an effort to contribute, I was still fearful of any reprimand that would have come my way. But no reprimand was thrown at me, much to my surprise. Instead, I felt accepted, and even surprised one of the Elders for participating in the game, which he had already perceived as not being part of my natural character. It was this that got me wondering whether there is a big difference in culture between school and church.
Weeks turns into months and months into years. After job redundancy in 1979, I started up my own business. Even after then I have kept long-distance cycling active for a good number of years. I then travelled the world over the next few years, sleeping in backpacker's hostels far and wide. Eventually I married and became a father. More importantly, I settled at my present church fellowship in Ascot, my spiritual home, where an active men's social had taken off during the last couple of years. Such men's socials are an excellent idea, mainly to promote stronger fellowship between us who by nature are very self-reserved and often cliquey, within the church as well as outside the church. Starting some years earlier with men's breakfast on a Saturday morning every six weeks, the midweek evening Curry Club at a local Tandoori also started up, much to the annoyance of my dearly beloved. Because of this, I have nicknamed this The Smelly Breath Night!
With a new administrator, the men's social has expanded to include an evening's trip to a brewery, at another occasion a private barbecue and sauna. Being such a fan of the sauna, indeed I was the first to step inside. Then there was earlier this week, after responding to an invitation, for golf. I thought, golf? I tried playing golf with some friends a couple of decades earlier. I was so bad that even if I stood directly over the hole and dropped the ball, I would still miss. Really, the idea of golf between two teams of men did not exactly inspire anticipation, but nevertheless, I had accepted the email invitation as soon as it was posted. It was because I was all for promoting closer fellowship, edification, and godliness among ourselves, rather than any excitement over a golf course, that I made up my mind to participate.
The original booking was for twelve of us, with eleven of us showing up. I was very impressed with the venue when we arrived there. It wasn't long that I discovered that this amenity, known as the Surrey Top-Golf, had no resemblance to the traditional golf course. Instead, it was a large field which within were set several large circular shallow pits, some more than twenty metres across. The idea was to get as many "hole-in-one" strikes from a stationary position under a heated shelter. It was a facility built on the latest technology. Each player had a set of golf balls, each with a chip inside with the player's name programmed into it. When the ball fell into any one of these pits, a number of points was scored. The chip within each ball sent the message to the computer displaying our names and scorecard.
Despite such huge holes, I still managed to miss more than scored. And I was not the only one. Far from it! Because since it was already dark by the time we arrived, the floodlights illuminated thousands of golf balls glistening in the drizzle across the field, none having ended up where they should be. And throughout the evening I added more to the glistening white forest. But was I met with disapproval from any in the team? Far from it. Rather, when one of our members realised that I was holding the club the wrong way, he gently offered to show me how the stick should be held. After this, my scoring rate dramatically improved. But after two games which between them took longer than we anticipated, I still came bottom, on an equal level with another player. But no feeling of rejection, no rebuttal, no let down. Instead we all had great fun.
And that is what I believe the Kingdom of God is about. Love, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Any competition taken with a sense of lightheartedness, and those who are weak, as I was, to be supported and if necessary, redirected. I could not think of anything more dynamically opposite from our school culture half a century earlier. That was why I detailed the embarrassing episode with the poor chubby pupil at the gym changing room. Such dreadful action by his contemporaries can only lead to sorrow and death. And the memory of such an episode could remain throughout life, with any thoughts on self-worth permanently damaged, unless helped along over the years by his naturally charismatic temperament. In addition, the constant threat of corporal punishment hanging over our heads has made weaker team players such as myself more prone to dislike team sports. This, along with bullying for letting the side down, really, without Christ in my life to strengthen me, I would have been left with two choices. One was to sink into despair to the point of developing agoraphobia, maybe even feeling suicidal. The other choice was the one I had taken, to try and make good of a bad situation.
One example was not long before leaving school in 1968. It was a games lesson out in the field and we were playing football. Hardly the one ever to kick the ball, on this occasion a stray kick from another player brought the ball to where I was standing. So what was the object of football? To score goals, wasn't it? So after a little hesitation, I gave the ball a hard kick towards the goal. It went in. For the first time ever I have scored for our team. I felt ten feet tall and very ecstatic for the rest of the day. Not long after, I made another effort to score at an indoor five-a-side game. Unfortunately, my shot was this time well caught by the goalkeeper. Such opportunities had never occurred again. But the report I took home to my parents read this, as I have never forgotten it:
Frank has made some great efforts this term: Standard below average.
And that was written by our plimsoll-wielding P.E. master, who seemed to be lately pleased with me. Perhaps he'll make an English bulldog out of me yet. Then maybe not. Standard below average. That is on physical education. It would take nothing short of a miracle to change that. And I believe that faith in Christ did just that. For I did have a potential ability which was not manifest at school - long distance and fast cycling which later evolved into Triathlon competition, with good results.
For the Kingdom of God is not about meat and drink (nor sporting excellence) but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
That was how our group at Top-Golf behaved last week. Peaceful, joyful, Life building, edifying, supporting. It was, in a sense, a good taste of Heaven. And furthermore, such would kill off any concept that church life is about living hermetically like monks, unrealistically cut off totally from the world. Church life is nothing like that. Neither should believers be perceived as "holier than thou" with a self-righteous, judgemental attitude towards those who disagree with them. Unfortunately, I know several of them who are just like that, even from another church. Neither should true Christians be so self-reserved and unemotional to the point of being cold of heart. This kind of attitude may be characteristically English, but it has no part in the Kingdom of God. It is also unfortunate that I know quite a number of men, especially of my age, who live out such attitude, not all in our church though.
|"Perhaps he'll make an English bulldog out of me yet."|
These are fellows I knew as far back as 1978. One or two were excellent football players, and actually played weekly in a team representing their church at a local league. I was involved with this club myself, but not as a football player.
These men, along with their wives and children are all well educated, professional men now reaching retirement age. But there will always be times when I wish they would dump both their religion and their patriotic pride and allow the love of Christ through the Holy Spirit shine out freely from their hearts, especially towards people who are different to them. Then they would score a real hole-in-one.