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Saturday, 25 November 2017

A Job with Glamour...?

Alan was one person I always admired. Although I have changed his name to protect his identity, his real name had made it into our local newspaper. And not for any negative reasons, but for good reasons. For Alan was one of the lifeguards at Coral Reef Waterworld. Yes, the same venue which was the main subject of my last blog, Down the Tube. But Alan's time at Coral Reef, long before the renovation, was probably around the years 2007-2010 or thereabouts, according to memory. It does not really matter precisely what years Alan worked as a poolside lifeguard. What matters to me more was his achievements.

Coral Reef Leisure Pool

Alan was exceptionally good-looking with a slim but superb physique, to which I was called to attention by Alan himself as he was taking a shower following further training and prior to going on duty. I said to him that I looked just like that during bygone days, as I made my way to Sauna World, housed in a building of its own reserved for the over-18's, but still fully attached and accessible to and from the main pool. But despite our huge age difference, I could not help myself going weak at the knees in reverence. As I had always perceived, there is an element of glamour in being a lifeguard.

Alan was friends with a colleague named Scott, a fellow lifeguard whose employment at Coral Reef Waterworld began some time after Alan's, but by overlapping, enabled him to be on duty at the same time as Alan, at least for a short while. It was after the end of another Saturday sauna session during one mid-afternoon that I had the opportunity to talk to this person whilst he was sitting on a lookout tower overlooking the pool. The height and location of the tower was right next to the upstairs restaurant balcony, thus making conversation not only possible but without any difficulty. After sharing with Scott of my own experience as a poolside lifeguard in 1973, he explained that lifesaving techniques has evolved since then, to the point of being near to the level of a paramedic, and therefore leaving my former life-saving techniques obsolete. In fact, according to his testimony, if a vehicle accident occurred on the main road just outside, the lifeguards were duty-bound to attend to the victim's injuries until the paramedics arrived. They were that qualified.

With such updated information, it was no surprise that Alan's personal achievement caused me to look to him with a degree of reverence - something I cannot bring myself to do to an employee dressed in a suit and tie and sitting at an office desk. Because Alan became Lifeguard of the Year, the highest award and the top rung of the ladder attained by vigorous training and testing, both in and out of the water. And the announcement of this was published in our local newspaper, The Bracknell News, complete with pictures.

However, although Alan does have a Facebook profile, he had never allowed me to be "friends", or to have our profiles linked, which reason might have something to do with our age difference. But he has made enough of his posts set to Public, for me to build a picture - sketchy as it might be - even if he had not posted publicly for the past twelve months. He left Coral Reef Waterworld a few months after gaining his award to take a sabbatical, before beginning to drive a van for a living. Not long after this, he took on a post at Waitrose, a superstore favouring towards the upper-middle class side of the market. Since I cannot imagine such a well-trained lifeguard swapping his profession for a job in shelf-stacking, nor for that matter, for sitting at the checkouts, I can only imagine his role in management or departmental supervision.

It was this sabbatical he took which, I will admit, turned my admiration into envy. Because on that cold Monday morning in January 2010, while I had to take a break from window cleaning in the blowing cold wind, Alan with his mate, also a lifeguard at Coral Reef, along with their girlfriends, were heading to Heathrow Airport to board a flight to Singapore. From Singapore, they would proceed to Australia, then to New Zealand, and then to California, to cover a duration of between five to six months. Damn it! I felt the cold wind eat into me as I sat on a low wall, my ladder lying on the sidewalk waiting to be used. And I envisioned the joy and excitement those four must have felt as they took their seats in the Boeing 747, still parked at the loading bay. But at least I was able to comfort myself with memories of my own Round-the-World backpacking trip in 1997, covering Singapore, Australia, and California. Yet Alan has still beaten me by including New Zealand into his itinerary, as well as a longer duration out of the UK.

Never mind that news came in that whilst Alan was speeding in his hired camper van, he was stopped by the Police Down Under for speeding, and he was obliged to pay his penalty. Never mind that their visit to the Great Barrier Reef did not seem to hold a candle to my own visit some thirty months earlier. Never mind that their photos sent to Facebook were predominately about dancing and skylarking about on the Pacific beach, rather than the more "serious" sightseeing of the corals and tropical marine life, the beauty of nature, the mangrove trees and other exotic vegetation, and of human history. Their Round-the-World sabbatical was still an envy for someone stuck in a mundane outdoor job on a cold January Monday morning.

Then as I thought of my long-lost friend, I began to look through his profile timeline. And as I did so, I begun to feel my emotions sink. I began to feel very sad for him - and that despite his apparent present success in raising a family of his own and looking to be doing well for himself. Because of the casual use of foul language in his posts depicting the vanity of life without a real purpose for living. That alone tells me a lot. A lot more about himself than he could possibly imagine. Because, as one author wrote many years ago:

I told her to get lost. She replied, "You're the one who is lost." She was right, I was lost. The word screamed in my head. LOST! LOST! LOST!*

And that is exactly I can perceive this magnificently-trained lifeguard. Lost. His Facebook posts can be so revealing. Little wonder I felt sad. Very sad for him. And it was a similar set of circumstances which caused me to cry out one night, Lord God, why, oh why did you create us?

It is the sort of question I do ask: How can someone like Alan, who has been trained up to save other people's lives, be in the same fold as Adolf Hitler, who is guilty of the murder of six million Jews? And again, where is the reality of God reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ without counting their trespasses against them, according to 2 Corinthians 5:19 - if all I can see around me is a lost world unable to find itself?

At least I can say that there is no record of Alan ever disliking me. I do recall him having a level of respect for me as a customer at Coral Reef Waterworld, and maybe even as a kind of father-figure, but definitely no dislike. But as I read down his timeline column on his profile page, and see how he sees his own life as so futile, I can't help feeling that my heart goes out to him. I would very much like to see his life perfectly fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and for him to know that he has eternal life.

This is distressing. Because it all boils down to this: We as true believers in Jesus Christ, are the living letters from God to the rest of the world, along with the beauty of Creation, and of the Bible itself. I suppose there are three witnesses - the Church/Israel, Nature, and the Word. How the incorrigible human heart rejects Creation for Evolution, turn the Bible into a myth, insist that Israel shouldn't have a place in the Arab land of Palestine, sees the Church as something of a standing joke, and perceives salvation, if it exists, as something to be worked for and earned. As for the churches, what went wrong?
So horribly,

Could it be l lack of love for each other? Already I have said, not everyone in my church loves me as a person and a brother in Christ. This grieves me, it grieves me badly. I'm disliked - not because I deny Christ. I don't deny Christ. That is something I will never do. I doubt whether this is something I'm able to do. Neither am I an imp of Satan, although I'm seen as wicked. Instead, I'm disliked because I don't present myself as an ideal Englishman - well educated, stoic, self-reserved, refusing to hug, holding a profession, a Conservative voter and a Royalist, a lover of the Queen and her family members. Oh yes, I can add: Good at team sports and ready to go to war for his country. As a result, I tend to be shut out from social circles. Like the time in 1978, when I asked a group of my own age if I could join them on a week-long boating trip. I was told flatly, No. Or the occasions I was told with quite an angry tone, Someone is sitting here! - which might not have been necessarily true. Or the viscous snide, You're not sitting at this table! Or more recently, at the start of the church Men's Curry Club one evening a couple of years ago when I was told to move in a threatening manner. And this comes from an Arminian who insists that a believer, after Christ has cleansed him from all his past sins, can only hold on his salvation by hard work and keeping of all the Commandments.

Just a minute! As I'm reading through the book of Acts of the Apostles, and I can hear the leaves of the trees rustling. After Paul the Apostle returns to Jerusalem, he is fervently persecuted by his own fellow Jews. His own brothers, all sons of the same Abraham, are baying for his blood. And the reason is simple. It's not that complicated. Paul believed in salvation through faith in the risen Christ alone. The Jews believed that salvation can only come through obedience to the Law of Moses, including the need for circumcision. I can see a parallel, a chilling parallel in the unholy attitude among the Jews towards Paul and among those who has taken a dislike to me. In the case of the latter, it is my failure to think, feel, say, and act like a proper Englishman. Or at least that's how it looks. Instead, I hold diverse opinions, rebellious opinions, and I guess I get a thrill in lowering my head and pushing hard whilst kicking against the goads of national and cultural hypocrisy. 

What does Alan sees in the church? After all, he was brought up in a country which Constitution was borne out of the Christian faith. So he is most likely Church of England, or possibly a Roman Catholic. But without the revelation that God loves him unconditionally, he will forever have that veil across his eyes. The deceptive veil of a truculent God who always quick to judge everything he does, right down to his innermost thoughts. A divine being who is never satisfied, but insists on works, impossible works, in a failed attempt to bribe for his love, whatever love that is supposed to be. The very same problem I still suffer myself to this day, due to Roman Catholic upbringing. The difficulty in accepting God for whom he really is. A God of Love, who loves us unconditionally. The love God had for Barabbas to the extent that he allowed his own Son to take his place in Pilate's execution. At Pilate's Court of Justice, God loved Barabbas. He loved him so much that he was set free instead of executed. No, it wasn't the baying for his life by the crowds below which had released him. Rather it was God's LOVE which released him!

God is love. It was his love which satisfied his justice which demanded an accounting of every sin committed. Jesus Christ, nailed to a cross, has fulfilled that justice. In his love, God wants to give us eternal life. Eternal life through his Son. To believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead. That is all. It's about time every church drops it's national heritage and advocate God's love a lot more. Preach it, act upon it, live it! There is absolutely nothing wrong in a man giving a tight, prolong hug to another man! It will make him feel loved, accepted, one in the family. It lifts the spirits, it also enhances health. And furthermore, there is no work required to earn it. It cannot be earned. God's love is higher than the highest mountain, deeper than the deepest ocean, wider than East is from West. And it's free, unconditional, and has no national or cultural limitations.

Oh, how I wish I took advantage of the opportunity I had during Alan's employment at Coral Reef. My failed attempt to be pleasing to all men, an ethic which can only lead to death. My heart goes out to him. My greatest hope is that someone else will open his eyes to what tremendous love God has for him.

*Doreen Irvine, From Witchcraft to Christ, 1973. 

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Gone Down the Tube.

A number of years ago, I read a contribution in a Reader's Letters page in a daily national newspaper one morning before leaving my apartment to go to work. The writer was a middle-age housewife who was on her way home on foot from an errand. On her route she passed an otherwise deserted play park, as all the children were at school. Deserted, that is, except for a police officer who was on duty and in his full uniform. Looking around to make sure no one (so he thought) was watching, he climbed the steps to one of those newfangled stainless steel spiral slides which, back then, had just come into fashion among the swings, climbing frames and other more traditional playground apparatus - a smaller version of the fun fair helter-skelter. Then she watched as this officer of the law was having a whale of a time sliding down that thing while she carried on home giggling to herself.

Or on another occasion, also recorded in a newspaper, during one late evening a fully grown man was seen getting into a shopping trolley parked outside a supermarket located on the summit of a steep hill. He then rode down the hill at speed whilst sitting in the trolley. Or a case of an author when he was still a young boy. On Christmas Eve he sneaked into a cupboard to see a model aeroplane kit in its packing case. But astonishingly enough, he totally forgot about the plane on that Christmas morning, and it was many years later that he approached his mother to ask whatever happened to the model aeroplane.

She burst out laughing, then recalled how the boy's father had waited until late at night, after his children had gone to bed, that he sneaked into the cupboard to assemble the model. He took it outside towards the beach to fly it out. It had flown out alright, out to sea and lost it forever! Perhaps this is why there are many fathers who buy their sons an electric train set for Christmas. So they can play with it themselves, especially with the challenge of laying out the tracks and then watch the train whirl around the oval layout. Such an item is far, far more exciting than the two or three pairs of dull, mundane socks, or even the brand new neck-tie his wife bought as a present to add to his ever-growing collection of either items. I guess fathers who has sons, or even uncles of nephews, are the more fortunate ones during the Christmas season. I never had sons or nephews. So I recall the annual nightmare of attempting to buy presents for my nieces. None of these gifts went down that well with the recipients, and I recall at least a couple of Christmas days when I put on an expression of forced joy to cover my disappointment as I glance at the new but ill-fitting clothing given to me as presents.

Then supposing the actions of a man's shadow reveals exactly what is in his heart. Then imagine a middle-aged suited City gentleman sitting in the commuter train, deep into reading his Financial Times newspaper. On the outside, nobody would give him a second glance. But his shadow would reveal him creeping to the inside of the door, and scrawl his name in indelible ink to add to the graffiti already defacing the surface. If only the carriage was otherwise completely empty, with nobody looking. It would be interesting to know how far he would resist such a temptation before succumbing. And he would not be alone. Because I recall my college days around 1970 in Central London. Before boarding the train home, I managed to reach the exposed beach at the River Thames during low tide. On the bank-side wall I scrawled my name in huge letters in the algae which carpeted the wall. It could be seen clearly from across the river. But what I did was not technically illegal, neither did it attract anyone to take appropriate action.

It's the boy in every man. The want of something exciting to distract from the daily humdrum of life with its responsibilities. And so the day came when the Coral Reef Waterworld finally re-opens after nearly two years of closure for a complete refurbishment. Coral Reef Waterworld is a leisure pool, featuring a rather poor representation of Mt. Vesuvius and the ruins of Pompeii, a pirate ship, a lazy river and a couple of jacuzzis, along with an outdoor section for warm Summer days. But before the refurbishment, its main attraction were the three flumes, or waterslides of various speeds, from fast to gentle. Although the leisure pool itself is geared for families, the Sauna World has always been for adults only, at a suite occupying a building of it own but still attached to the main venue. I am fortunate enough to live very close to the attraction. It was where I always went to every Saturday morning for a sauna. The boy in the man. After a week of physical work cleaning windows, for me at least, nothing is more exhilarating than to relax in the steam room, followed by the sauna.   

Coral Reef Leisure Pool before refurbishment.

And so after twenty-two months of closure, once more I was able to return. But with the weekends and school holidays to be avoided as much as possible. For recent reviews tells of massive queues, with waiting up to two hours just to get in, along with further queuing to use the five brand new flumes which will guarantee a far more of a knuckle ride than the original three. Therefore as one retired from work and with plenty of time on my hands, what could be better than to wait until all the children are back at school, then go during off-peak times during the middle of the week? And so back into the refurbished steam room and sauna. And then, at tea time, I had to try out those five waterslides. 

I recall the time I was at Spring Harvest Bible festival at Minehead in Somerset. There was an indoor swimming pool with flumes there as well. And during a recreational period between seminars, whilst swimming, I overheard one lifeguard shout to another that no way would he use the waterslides, especially on his own, because it would make him feel a prat. He had a point. The flumes were meant for families. So a father and son or daughter was fine. Even two or three young men laughing and having a whale of a time seems okay. And it was fine for a child on his own too. But an adult on his own? Rather silly, isn't it?

Coral Reef flume exterior.

These were the thoughts I had to overcome this week when I allowed my curiosity over these new flumes overcome any feelings of self reserve. This little boy in the man had to come out, or else he would be rather miserable otherwise. So after I had finished with the sauna, I went down all five tubes. Three of them were truly knuckle rides, and I even let out a yell of surprise in two of them. I enjoyed them so much, I had a second go in all of them, making ten rides overall. And I could not have picked a better time than when I did. During weekday evenings families normally don't come here so soon after school. Instead they settle down for dinner, TV and homework. Therefore each ride followed another without any waiting in between. I went home thoroughly fulfilled. I guess the only difference between the police officer in the children's playground and myself was that I did not fear being spotted by my boss whilst on duty!

I believe that any psychologist would advice all men to let the boy within them out, whatever form that would take. Knuckle flume rides are great, but once the novelty has worn off, I'll be attending the sauna suite only, like I did before the refurbishment. But generally speaking, the boy in the man takes many forms, particular among "adult" activities, whether it's riding a Harley Davidson along a straight desert road (in the USA), revving up the car engine at red lights, or something more sedate such as out fishing or playing golf with the boys. As one housewife once said to her daughter-in-law after her husband arrives home with a brand new motorbike, and that was, The only difference between a man and a boy is that the man's toys are more expensive. Or in my case - travel - including hiking into the Grand Canyon, standing on the lip of an active volcanic crater or snorkelling among tropical coral reefs. Or doing a burn-up on a hired bicycle in California, or meditating at a children's playground in Australia whilst riding back and forth on a swing. All these were ways I let the little boy within me have his way.

I am very fortunate to have a very understanding wife. She too have seen videos of these flumes at Coral Reef Waterworld, and she expressed her longing to have a try at them herself, but unable to because of her disability. Not only is the tower have only stairs and no lift, but the rides themselves could easily do her back in, resulting in an ambulance trip to hospital. But when I told her that evening how much I enjoyed sliding down those tubes after the sauna, she was elated. Knowing what's best for me, she has always been aware that to let out the boy in me is one of the best therapeutics I can have, other than spiritual matters.

Off-duty Coral Reef lifeguards having fun

And that is coming from one who is a tomboy herself. When she was young she went camping with the church youth group. She loved it. But she has admitted that she would have preferred to be among the boys, sitting around the campfire whilst watching meat rotate slowly over the fire on a spit as it gradually roast to perfection. Because of her love for the Great Outdoors, I bought a used tent from one of my window cleaning customers, and with it, we went camping for quite a number of occasions. But camping has always been more for her. I've always preferred hosteling.

And this is where I believe that among married couples, it is essential for the wife to allow her husband to let his boyhood out. For her to stifle his boyhood desires and restricting his activities would put a strain on the marriage, leaving him in a state of frustration. There is nothing wrong with saunas, nothing wrong in having fun, there is nothing wrong with a married man going out for an evening with the boys. At least not according to my experience. Because, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
1 Corinthians 10:31.

Doing it all for the glory of God. I think this makes a world of a difference when it comes to recreation. The sauna is a good example of this attitude. I go to the sauna for a therapeutic cleansing of the skin and to improve muscle tone and blood circulation. These are beneficial to the body. It's okay, there is nothing bad about any of that. But to some, there may be a bad connotation with the idea of the sauna. For example, the LGBT community may perceive the sauna as a gay pick-up, a cruising site and same-sex exploitation. And such seedy sites do exist, especially in bigger cities. But not at Coral Reef Waterworld, which is geared to the family. Interestingly enough, the Apostles lived and carried their message across the Roman world. And throughout the empire public baths were very frequently found. For example, just before its destruction in AD 79, the city of Pompeii had up to three separate public baths, each one the equivalent of today's sauna suite. They normally consisted of the Calidarium, or hot steam room, the Laconicum, or dry heat as with the present sauna, and the Frigidarium, a cold pool or room. This together with changing rooms and other conveniences, were often located together with the Palaestra, or exercise yard, often complete with the Natatio, or swimming pool. Indeed, the ancient Roman leisure centre was hardly different from our own facilities, but not a word from the apostle forbidding believers to use them.

Instead the Apostles warns every believer to flee from immorality, which includes all kinds of sexual perversion. Also in Pompeii, there were bars selling alcohol with brothels on the upper floors. Maybe this was what the apostles discouraged. Along with drunkenness and prostitution, I can imagine all kinds of carousing and "fleshly desires" fulfilled. Instead, the baths were places where not only for cleansing, but also a venue for where various discussions took place, along with business contracts made, together with general socialisation. There is even a tradition which I once read. According to this legend, the Apostle John was bathing at one of these Roman bath suites when someone he knew walks in. This fellow has a reputation for blaspheming Jesus Christ and insisting that he was just an impostor. Immediately John dresses and walks out. As Paul had written, What fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness, or light with darkness, or Christ with Belial, or believers with unbelievers?
2 Corinthians 6:14-17.

In this case John walks out because this intruder was not an interested inquirer, nor a honest doubter whose faith could have been reversed by John's presentation of the Gospel. But instead, this fellow had heard the Gospel, and probably for a while even tasted the heavenly gift, even shared in the Holy Spirit and had tasted the good word of God, and of the things to come (Hebrews 6:4-6) but had never changed his mind to the Gospel and believed, and by the process of hardening of his heart, his original unbelief has metamorphosed into hatred of Christ, his Apostles, and the Gospel.

Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

And we must not let this piece of advice go down the tube of unbelief.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Aged Thirty Years in One Afternoon.

I always perceived the gym as that one place on Earth where an overweight, 65 year old chubby man enters, then to emerge a couple of hours later with a sleek, athletic physique resembling Olympic Gold Medallist Mo Farah. Indeed! Wishful thinking. It is unfortunate that such an imaginative realm remains confined to the Tom & Jerry cartoon fantasy. Because nearly two years ago I was recommended a regular schedule in the gym as the main essence of rehabilitation following a major Cardiac procedure in February 2015.

And I'll be the first to admit: Regular workouts in the gym has proven beneficial. As one who has retired from the daily routine of physical work, there hangs over me the threat of weight gain to the level of obesity. And this comes to mind after reading only this morning that according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the UK takes 6th place out of its list of 34 member nations, with 26.9% of the British population obese. The nation with the overall highest is the USA, with 38.2% overweight, followed by Mexico (33.3%), New Zealand (31.6%), Hungary (30%), and Australia (27.9%). At the other end, the much-maligned, pasta-loving Italians, with a reputation of shouting and gesticulating, enjoys being in the third place from bottom, or at 32nd position overall, with just 9.8% obese, followed by Korea (5.3%) and finally Japan, with just 3.7% of its population obese. The average throughout the whole of the OECD 34-nation membership is 19.4% obese.*

Which has made me ponder if I, a full-blood Italian, was born and grew up in Japan. Would I now be proud of my slim, sleek physique and athletic prowess? Or would I have to battle on a daily and weekly basis to keep my waistline within reason, often with the feeling that I'm not at the winning end of the battle? Would I still end up as one of the 3.7% minority who are unfortunate enough to be fat whilst otherwise living in a very healthy country?

Hence my weekly visit to the gym as advised by my GP. Mainly to keep my weight under control, using a course of exercises first prescribed to me by the National Health Service within ten weeks after the operation. This was at a venue in Windsor which had a contract made with the NHS, meaning that the programme was free to all cardiac patients. Back then each exercise was no more than two minutes long, each arranged as a "station" on a circuit course. And one of the circuit "stations" was the Concept 2 Rowing machine, a superb piece of equipment which exercises just about the whole body. After the three month course of twelve, one-hour sessions had ended, I took a break for the following several months whilst I was preparing to sell my business and settle down in early retirement.

Concept 2 Body-powered Rowing machine

And that was when I noted that I was gaining weight, and went to visit my GP, who immediately advised me to take regular exercises. It was the GP who had to sign the consent form before I was allowed into the local gym here at Bracknell, my home town. At first, I began with the original schedule set by the NHS, as the gym has all the necessary equipment to perform the original circuit. But as the weeks went by, something started to happen. All the exercises became both more intense and of longer duration. And that is especially with rowing. From the initial two minutes, this went up to seven minutes, which I stuck to for the next month or so, before going up to ten minutes. After this, I stabilised at fifteen minutes for a while before moving up to twenty minutes a go. This held for a few months until I felt fit enough to row for thirty minutes. Not long after that I settled for forty minutes, and it is that to this day. Of all the twelve "stations" on the circuit route (including the warm-up and cool-down on the treadmill as well as the lower body stretches), the Concept 2 Rower takes the greatest prominence in the entire session. Over forty minutes of non-stop rowing, I cover 8,000 metres and burn off 400 calories. Pretty good stuff perhaps, at least all four of our permanent instructors seemed to be very impressed, with one of them admitting to me direct that he wouldn't be able to match my performance on the rower. Yet I still admire his athletic build.

It is only within a last couple of weeks that contractors moved in to renovate the roof of the gym. That meant partial closure of the venue, including the upper floor where the rowers are located. With tape stretched across the foot of the stairs along with scaffolding and boardwalks bringing gloominess into the venue, I had to reschedule the programme. That means replacing the Rower with the Elliptical, a piece of equipment I was already familiar with before the operation. Again, as I put in a full forty-minute workout, I did my left leg muscle in. Most likely muscle strain, but enough to make normal walking all but impossible. Suddenly I seemed to have aged by thirty years, and I'm pacing slowly like a 95 year old.

It's ironic, so ironic. The actual name of the gym is Bodyworks Fitness Room. Fitness Room. So by theory I should emerge feeling fitter and with greater prowess than when I entered. Instead I go in as a 65-year-old and come out looking and walking like a 95-year-old. How contradictory to common sense life can be! A sharp pain above the heel impedes my normal walking pace. And so, starting with the closure of part of the gym due to the roof needing renovation, leading to inaccessibility to the rowers, the use of the elliptical instead, the spraining of a leg muscle, the sharp pain, the inability to walk, panic from my wife, who insists that I ought to visit my GP. My response to her suggestion is that I'm wasting the Doctor's time. A sprained muscle is a sprained muscle - a risk every devotee of the gym, athletic, or any other form of intense physical exertion faces all the time. Life in general can be likened to a whirlpool - the water spins around and is sucked down a vortex to the bottom, taking any floating debris down with it. Even anything alive cannot escape the whirlpool, no matter how strong a swimmer the creature may be, whether human or animal, the power of the downward motion is too strong, far too strong, to swim out, and down it goes.

Perhaps human nature is rather like the analogy of the gym. Someone starts with good intentions but not long afterwards something gives, resulting in a horrific painful and terrible tragedy. Or it can be likened to a whirlpool. Once caught in the vortex, there is no other direction but down. And so I felt my emotions sink as I read a report earlier in the week about a gay couple having adopted a young girl, only to be cruelly murdered by one of the men who was meant to care for her and bring her up.

I'm referring to Matthew Scully-Hicks, who killed little Elsie, only eighteen months old. According to the report, whilst his partner was at work, Scully-Hicks stayed at home to raise their adopted daughter. It didn't take long for him to lose patience with Elsie, and having crossed the point of no return where his emotions are concerned, he starts physically abusing her, including bashing her head against the wall, shaking her violently, and shouting at her. She dies after two weeks of the most cruellest form of abuse evil could ever concoct.

18 month old Elsie, Abused and killed.

The article was so distressful that I had difficulty in reading it through. There were some who were unable to read it altogether, other readers started crying. And I felt like crying myself. And I have good reason. Our own three daughters are adopted. They are out of our reach, beyond our seeing and hearing, and bearing a different surname to ours. The adoption was the idea of a rather nasty social worker who, according to her supervisor, already had a questionable record in dealing with families before meeting with us. Yet she was a persuasive talker who was successful in winning the Court to her side of the argument, and had allowed her to have our daughters taken. That was nearly twelve years ago, when neither she or we were aware that we were on the mild end of the Autism Spectrum. The social workers who dealt with Elsie were just the opposite. They either failed to see that she was in distress, or they believed the wicked lies and excuses told by Scully-Hicks. So they let him keep the child, despite her rather glaring distress.

A photo of Matthew Scully-Hicks was posted in the newspaper with the article. I felt my temper rise. How smartly dressed he was as he approached the Courthouse. The kind of figure of respectability which would have been sufficient enough for any passerby in the street to raise his hat to. The ideal individual any church leader would be happy to have as a guest speaker, or to promote to an elder or deacon. Or the right kind of person to see if in need of a solicitor, financial adviser or insurance agent. Maybe his style of dress whilst awaiting sentencing was to his favour after all. He was given a mere fifteen years behind bars, much to the disgust of nearly everyone who commented in the forum underneath. And that despite the fifteen years being the minimum sentence he must serve, which means it could be extended if necessary, but not shortened.

Matthew Scully-Hicks.

My emotion towards such an individual was indeed anger, and want for a more severe form of revenge. Just supposing it was one of our daughters he so cruelly abused and killed. After all, it could easily have been. I guess it was his formal dress which intensified my anger. But although I wished him an eternity in the hottest hell that could ever exist, coming to think of it, none of us, and certainly not myself, is any better when compared with God's holiness.

In a way, all this puts me in a dilemma. I want to see proper justice done for the poor child. I really wanted to see the book thrown at him for what he has done. Yet as I think of these things, I quickly forget the mercy Jesus Christ has shown me. For according to James 2:10, no matter how righteous I may kid myself in believing, no matter how white I may appear to others. If I, who had kept the whole Law, yet have stumbled on just one point, I have broken the Law and deserve judgement. In other words, I am no better in God's pure eyes than Matthew Scully-Hicks, for judgement awaits us both.

If I am truly saved, it is because of God's mercy. Sure, how I long to receive God's mercy. How I want to be assured of God's forgiveness. Yet am I any keen to witness the likes of Scully-Hicks drinking from God's cup of mercy? How would I feel about such a criminal experiencing a new birth and seeing his eternal home transform from hell to heaven? Especially if I might have friends and family members who still don't know the Lord. A criminal such as Scully-Hicks goes to heaven after his death, whilst a devoted Buddhist mother and her daughter both suffer an eternity in hell, because they were unlucky enough to have been born and lived in a non-Christian country, and has never heard the Gospel.

These are the times I tend to feel rotten, the gross injustice, the shocking unfairness about our faith. To be honest with myself, I do not want Scully-Hicks to be saved. Rather I want him to remain lost, and to go to where he belongs. That is where I find evangelism difficult. I much prefer to see my family members or a good friend come to Christ for salvation, but not Scully-Hicks. Not after spending his time abusing and tormenting a distressed child until she dies in her own cot.

God's mercy. Let's face it, we don't deserve it. But it's given by his grace. Grace is a gift received at Christ's expense. He died on the cross so we could receive eternal life and enjoy his love forever. It's wholly of God, and none of us. And whether I like it or not, Scully-Hicks is as much of a candidate for salvation as any devoted believer.

*The Daily Mail Newspaper, Saturday November 11, 2017.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Balfour and a Disunited Trinity...

Ascot Life Church, which now meets at a restaurant sited at the famous Ascot Racecourse, has been my home church since 1990. Ascot Race Course has always been the venue for Royal Ascot, where Her Majesty has been attending the major horse racing event annually since the beginning of her reign, if I understand correctly. And so it has felt among our Elders to be a special privilege to be fortunate enough to hire the restaurant for nearly every Sunday of the year.

The A.L.C. Racecourse Restaurant is on the right, upper floor.

Known as Ascot Baptist Church before its move to the racecourse in April 2013, I have been a happy member since 1990, after leaving its equivalent in Bracknell some six months earlier in 1989. This was due to what I believed to have been too much emphasis on the purchase of land, followed by the major building project. This came with the push for double tithing and gift days dominating each Sunday and midweek meetings, until I realised that emphasis on Jesus Christ - his Death, Burial, and Resurrection, along with the glorious doctrine of the Holy Trinity, together with the wonderful truth of Eternal Security of the Believer, were all somewhat lost in the muddle of highly pragmatical sermons. These sermons often touching on daily handling of money, with the end result of feeling spiritually hungry in a midst of a mechanically efficient feeding station specifically geared for the married professional on the higher income scale.

The general trend of Bracknell church life throughout the latter half of the 1980's was something like this: Here is this week's sermon delivered, now go and apply it. This is the mechanical method of ministry which left something wanting. A good mate of mine, with whom I played squash every Tuesday evening back in the early eighties, and still comes over to visit us to this day, once asked our then senior pastor why he never touched on theoretical issues. The answer thrown back at my friend was, I'll preach what I want to preach! Little wonder that my bachelor mate eventually ended up living alone as a hermit, with former occasional visits to a French-speaking church in London, but otherwise staying away from all other churches.

It wasn't always like this. I recall joining what was then Bracknell Baptist Church as far back as 1975, in the days when it was more traditional in structure and mode of service. How could I ever forget the hard-back green Baptist hymnbook, given to each one of us at the door as we walked in, and a large percentage of senior citizens and families all singing with our heads bowed as we each held the book open at stomach level. That was before the introduction of the overhead projector, which threw the lyrics onto a wide screen fixed near the ceiling, allowing us at last to praise God with our heads held up high, as the Biblical saints and early Christians most likely did. However, whether it was the introduction of the overhead projector or not, a gradual change was underway throughout the next fifteen years, with visions of a much bigger building to accommodate the large numbers of incoming graduates and their families, began to dominate our weekly curriculum. 

But the early seventies meant a lot of memories for me. The reading of the Bible, taking in unfamiliar knowledge like a dry sponge soaking in water has made me realise how Israel was so prominent, especially in the Old Testament and the Gospels, with Jerusalem held as if special honour, that I so much wanted to visit the Holy Land for myself, and to discover the environment which gave rise for the existence of Israel as a sovereign nation, the writing of the Bible, and the formation of the first church in Jerusalem. So just a year after joining Bracknell Baptist Church, by the Summer of 1976, I flew out to Israel as a naive backpacker for want for more experience of travel outside Europe.*

But throughout all my church life, from 1975 to the present, little - if hardly any - interest was shown for the Jews and their relatively recent return to their homeland, as part fulfilment of Bible prophecy. However, by 1989 I was so hungry for want of spiritual infilling rather than constant talk of finance management, that my interest in attending church waned, and I began to stay at home instead. It was up to six months or more when a friend suggested a new start at Ascot. Indeed, it did feel like a new beginning, especially with Jesus rather than money and buildings being it's central theme.

So this brings us to the present. As with my former church, interest in Israel and its place in Biblical prophecy remains at low priority, even among our four Elders. However, in the past there has been several couples from our church in Ascot who were very keen on the subject, and have advocated their interest. One such couple had flown to Israel for permanent residency around 1995 or 1996. More recently, another family had left our church for a Jewish-based church elsewhere. And there might have been other pro-Jew believers who are no longer with us, including my grandmother-in-law. But as far as I'm aware, and I could be wrong here, there are at present, three of us at Ascot who have an interest in Middle East affairs and are supportive of the Jews in present relation to the Bible. They are John, David, and myself. With John, I don't know whether he ever visited the Holy Land or not, but David, according to what he had told me, did visit Israel at least on one occasion, I think, on a "fly-drive" trip - independent - but still rather different from my style of travel. His knowledge of Middle-East political history I have found very impressive, therefore not too surprised to learn that this rather reserved graduate is also a budding author.

Here, one would think that there would be a stronger sense of fellowship under the unity of a shared Biblical interest. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Instead there is no love lost between John and myself, due to major differences in both Biblical and cultural convictions. And that is a great shame. Because with his delight in keeping Old Testament Hebrew customs, I'm keen to find out if he, along with his wife, had ever visited the Holy Land for themselves, and if so, how much were they influenced by the experience. As for David, who looks to be enjoying a deep friendship with John, he tends to be rather withdrawn unless I approach to open a conversation. Indeed, between the three of us with a common interest, we are a disunited trinity.

And so as I walk between two to three hundred metres in the morning rain from my home to Starbucks, I was pondering what on earth to write in this week's blog, for except for the ridiculous minor sex scandals rocking our political ministers from properly governing our country, there seems to be nothing worthwhile to write about. Until I opened the Daily Mail to read the Saturday Essay. This week, it was an article written by journalist Dominic Sandbrook on the one-hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a document signed by Balfour himself on 2nd November 1917 and submitted for approval to Lord Rothchild. In his essay, Sandbrook says quite a bit about Arthur Balfour, including his feminine side, along with how great a friendship with Britain does Israel enjoy as an ally. But much of the article is a criticism towards Balfour for opening the door for the influx of Jews entering Palestine, and forcing the original Arab inhabitants to move elsewhere. This, according to the journalist, has been the cause of many wars and unrest between the Jews and the Arabs, for the last hundred years, thanks to Balfour, now known as the Century of Blood.

Sandbrook sides with the Palestinians, whom he says were driven from their land and from their homes by the newly settled Jews who had just arrived to settle in Palestine, after centuries of peaceful Arab habitation. Yet by reading about the reporter's account of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, all bordering Israel and all wanting to push this postage stamp-sized nation into the sea, I can't help get the impression here that there is something missing from his essay. Because all four of these Arab neighbours suffered defeat from Israel, an extremely unlikely scenario to say the least! Divine intervention?

I have read the whole article whilst sitting at a table at Starbucks. Some omissions came to mind as I read. Firstly, the foundation for the Declaration was first conceived by Zionist Chaim Weizmann, a Jewish scientist with his development of acetone through bacterial fermentation, which helped bring the Great War to Britain's favour after a hard struggle. Dismissing personal reward, he instead appealed to Conservative politician and former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, to allow his fellow Jews to migrate into their former homeland, a request which inspired Balfour to draw up his Declaration in 1917. Oddly enough, this was omitted from Sandbrook's article.

Secondly, Sandbrook has not mentioned a single word about the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob receiving this area of land as a special gift of grace under a covenant God made to Abraham. Not a mention of these patriarchs appeared, neither was the Bible mentioned, which within a great deal was written about God's covenant with Israel and the land given specifically to them.

Thirdly, not a mention of the sentinel which stands at Hebron, which I had a wonderful privilege to visit and to step inside in 1976. This fortress, built and completed by Herod the Great around 10 BC, contains the cenotaphs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, along with their wives. To me, I am convinced that this structure stands as a witness to God's covenant with Israel's founding fathers, whose remains lie within the Cave of Machpelah, deep underneath the floor of the fortress. What intrigues me about this structure is the timing of its construction. It is as if God already knew that his Messiah, soon to be born, would be rejected by his own people, the Jews, and as a result, they would be scattered across the globe for the better part of two millennia. The fortress, stands alone, having survived the invasion of the Roman army under General Titus in AD 70, when Jerusalem and its Temple was razed to the ground. It remains standing to this day, testifying of God's gift of this land to the Hebrews, nothing of which was mentioned by the Daily Mail journalist Dominic Sandbrook.

Fortress over the Cave of Machpelah, Hebron.

Then I can go on about the four Arab enemies of Israel. All four of these nations makes up a vast population in comparison to Israel's size and population numbers. Yet they failed to annihilate this tiny Jewish State. The 1967 Six Day War against Egypt brought further victory for Israel, who for the first time since 586 BC, the Jews were able once more to claim sovereignty over the Old City of Jerusalem. Surely this must be divine intervention against all odds. But instead, our reporter claims a good amount of luck in human effort and endeavour.

God's love and his commitment to Israel as a nation has tremendous implications for own salvation and our daily walk with God. This is one of the basis for Eternal Security of the Believer. If after all this time God had not forsaken Israel after all what she had done across four millennia, but instead, his covenant with Abraham is still standing, and will continue to stand for all eternity, we too can be reassured of our salvation being eternal.


*A far more detailed experience of Israel 1976 can be read by clicking here.