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Saturday, 28 April 2018

God's Grace - Common and Saving

I have never forgotten a question asked by the wife of one of my longstanding mates. The question was, Does God love Saddam Hussein? Because back then I found the question rather difficult to answer, I had no other resource but to quote John 3:16: For God so loved the world... An answer which I have found difficult to believe about the one-time infamous president of Iraq and a cruel dictator. Therefore it came as no surprise that this married Christian had qualms on how God sees him throughout his lifetime.

Saddam Hussein

Then other national leaders come to mind. Leaders such as Muammar Gaddafi, who was president of Libya for more than 42 years and the longest to hold power by a non-royal. There was also Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation or the PLO, Osama Bin Laden, who led the Al Qaeda, an extremist Islamic group responsible for the 9/11 attack of the Twin Towers in New York. Then there was Gamal Nasser, president of Egypt, and Ayatollah Khomeini, the religious and political leader of Iran. How could God love people such as any of them? After all, every one of these leaders, now all deceased, were hostile to the Jews, the nation of Israel and its Zionist philosophy and agenda. Which brings me to mind a verse found in Genesis 12:3, where God, in calling Abram, promised a blessing to those he blessed him and his descendants, and curses those who cursed the same. If these referred to are the offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then their descendants must be those referred, those known as the Jews to this day.

So the children of Israel were, and still are, an earthly nation chosen by God, and anyone who curses them will themselves be cursed by God, so the Bible says. Therefore did God love those enemies of Israel to the point of these leaders passionately wanting to "push them into the sea?" 

I guess I could go on. Did God really love Adolf Hitler, who had up to six million Jews needlessly annihilated, just because they did not share the "master race" genome, ethnicity and culture as he and his German people did? Difficult it may be to believe, indeed God did love Hitler, very much so. Not only did he sustain the dictator's breath of life and his involuntary heartbeat, but placed into the position of authority by God himself, according to Romans 13:1-7.

I could go on. For example, Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung, founding leader of the Chinese Communist Party, forced his political power "out of the barrel of a gun" as he himself boasted, and therefore had up to 45 million killed between the years 1958-1962 during Mao's Great Leap Forward. No authority except that which is instituted by God? Of course I can go on. The founding leaders of Soviet Communism had between 15-20 million killed. Yet, Joseph Stalin, one of the Soviet's most oppressive leaders, was put in position of power by God and therefore was also loved by him too. 

But I need to ask: Did God love them because of their deeds or because of their position of power? Or was God's love for them based entirely on the death of his Son, his burial and Resurrection? All these issues, I must admit, I find difficult to swallow. For God so loved the world? Perhaps it's only human to feel that one person can be less deserving of his love than another. Yet Paul the Apostle, who wrote to the church in Rome, was under the reign of Emperor Nero, who was the first to initiate Rome's persecution of Christians in AD 64 - as well as marrying two young adolescents for a life of pederasty, and allegedly murdered his own mother to rid himself of her dominance. Yet Paul was sure that Nero's authority was established by God to keep evil in check. Therefore it can be concluded that Nero's place in power was an act of God's common grace to keep all which is bad under restraint, to quell civil oppression, and to allow the Gospel to spread, even under persecution. Nevertheless, as a British Christian attending a very middle class church At Royal Ascot, I find it so difficult to realise that God loved Nero no less than he loves each of our church elders, and me too.

And here is the snag when it comes to growing up in the second half of the Twentieth Century, let alone becoming a Christian towards the end of 1972. I grew up spiritually to believe that Bible verses such as John 3:16 only applied to nice people of English middle class calibre. Of course God loves nice people. After all, they are the more deserving of such love, aren't they? Therefore I shouldn't be that surprised that the wife of one of my friends was also grappling with the possibility of God's love for Saddam Hussein, and my difficulty in explaining his universal love.

However, history - both ancient and recent - looks to have questioned the meaning of John 3:16 more so than our present day culture. For instance, on one occasion, it was God himself who instructed King Saul to slaughter all the Amalekites - men, women and children, including babies, and all their livestock - through the mouth of the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 15). And this because their ancestors managed to upset Moses during the time of the Exodus, several hundred years earlier, and God himself looking to be wanting revenge, even from a generation alive long after the death of Moses. Yet despite all this, did God love the Amalekites? He must have done. They continued to exist for hundreds of years since Moses' time, each one of them sustained by God as they breathed, their heartbeat continued, and their food eaten, digested and defecated - even if they kept the memory of Moses alive by means of annual celebrations and partying. And there is still a good chance that their descendants are with us to this day. 

And here is the irony. Leaders such as Hussein, Gaddafi, Arafat, Mao, and Stalin lived out their lives into old age or close to old age (although Hussein and Gaddafi were eventually executed), they were nevertheless sustained and loved by God. Yet any young child who were unfortunate enough to be born of Amalekite parents hardly saw the light of day, let alone order the slaughter of many! Perhaps this could be one of several reasons why the atheist finds the Bible so repugnant. The slaughter of innocent infants by direct orders of the Almighty himself, whilst such leaders were allowed to live out their full lifespans.

Yet the universal love of God is revealed through one of the sayings of Jesus Christ. On one occasion, he reminds his audience that his Father sends rain on the just and the unjust alike as well as having the sun shine on both the evil and the good (Matthew 5:45). Also a lesson can be learnt through parenting as well. Jesus asked that if you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who asks him? (Matthew 7:11). With God's generosity and universal love, he has no qualms in sending both sunshine and rain to the good and bad alike. And I'm pretty sure that all the aforementioned leaders, and the Amalekites as well, evil as they might all have been, still loved their own children enough to give them gifts without merit on their kid's part. 

Yet there is no authority existing which wasn't established by God. And so as Paul wrote to the Romans. Therefore this must not only include our Government under a benign Queen, but great institutions such as the National Health Service is also established by God, with every staff member, from the local GP, to hospital porters, administration, nurses, surgeons and consultants, as actual God's servants to minister healing to the sick and infirm. An idea thought up by Labour Prime Minister Clement Atlee, the concept of a public purse sustained by a deduction from every earning worker in the land so to make the service free on the point of use, all this has made the NHS the envy of the world. 

As the saying goes: There by the grace of God go I. This seems to be a universal or common grace of God which isn't the same as regenerative or saving grace, which is received by all believers of Christ's death, burial and Resurrection. It is common grace which sustains all of humanity, and all of life on this planet, whether fauna or flora, on land, in the sea, or in the air. It is universal grace that gives the human being his sleep at night, his work during the day, his roof for shelter, his food and clothing. And various pleasures for him to enjoy, whether it's on the football pitch or at the fairground, in the ballroom, at a bar, or a trip to the beach.

Or travel - one of my favourite topics of discussion. I realise that travel is from the common or universal grace of God. Anyone can go overseas, as both believer and unbeliever can buy an air ticket and depart. It was the common grace of God that allowed me to set foot abroad, always to find a room or bed at a hotel or hostel without having to spend a night in the street. But that could also apply to an unbeliever as well, who pushes the existence of God far from his mind. God will still ensure that a bed is provided for the night and have enough food to eat, and is able to stay warm and dry in adverse weather conditions.

It is the universal grace of God which allowed me to board a airline right on time for a flight to New York during a French Air Traffic Control strike in 1978. It is the grace of God to walk through the streets of New York, Los Angeles, Rome, Jerusalem, Singapore, or Sydney without any threat of harm by potential mugging, gang violence or street robbery. It is the grace of God to swim in the tropical ocean, leaving my shoulder bag with all my gear, including a large wad of Traveller's Cheques, unattended on the beach, and still see it there, untouched, when I eventually scramble back on the beach after a wonderful swim. It is the grace of God not to be bitten by a shark whilst bathing in the ocean, nor suffer attack by any other marine creature - the jellyfish in particular.

It is the common grace of God to stand in admiration of a row of Traveller's Palms forming a natural wall of overlapping leaves, to gaze at a fast flowing stream, to look up a mountain, or in my case, to look into the crater of a live volcano and still come away unharmed. It is the grace of God to enjoy panoramic views from a hill, to take in the wonders of the Grand Canyon, to have the stamina and ability to hike, to gaze at the display of stars in the clear night sky, to wonder at the Milky Way streaking across the Australian night sky. It is also the common grace of God to enjoy a cycling burn-up through deserted roads early on a Sunday morning during the height of Summer, or to ride a bicycle from one end of the country to the other without coming to any harm. 

Travellers Palms - like those I saw in Singapore, 1997.

The same applies to education and careers. Here too it's the common grace of God for someone who is an ardent atheist such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to write books debunking God's existence and achieving fame as their books sell well on the market. As with the student in medicine, computer engineering, or accountancy - whether Christian, religious or atheist, their success in graduation and their ability to settle down and progress in their chosen career is out of the common grace of God.

But what I believe is the greatest asset of the common grace of God is to have a marriage partner. To experience love and intimacy for the most important person in your life - this is experienced by both believers and unbelievers alike. Of course, among believing Christians, marriage should be far more enhancing. It is the common grace of God that I have Alex and Alex has me. We have become inseparable, the reality of Christ and his bride being the perfect illustration, for the groom gave his life for his bride. But because marriage is enjoyed by unbelievers as well, I have categorised this as from the common or universal grace of God rather than regenerative grace.

And that may be why we suffer in life - illnesses, poverty, warfare, evil dictators and oppressive governments, natural disasters, frustrations of various kinds, a job one hates, slavery, breakdown of car, public transport strikes, exam failures, and perhaps many more bad things - all these defining a fallen world, its initial beauty marred by sin and death. And let's face it, if God withdrew his common grace, we would all instantly die. Not a single human being can live for an instant without God's common grace.

Therefore I thank God for the other side of God grace which is for believers of Jesus Christ - his death, burial and Resurrection. This is regenerative grace, redemptive grace or saving grace. Whereas common or universal grace has only a temporary effect - for the entire present lifetime of the recipient - saving grace has eternal implications - it  first allows the believer to get to know God on a personal level before spending eternity with him after death, after which to enjoy his presence in a resurrected, glorified body. That is regenerative or saving grace. The good news is that this grace is universal in a sense that it is available to everyone who has faith in Jesus Christ and his redemptive powers.  

Saturday, 21 April 2018

A Life Changing Plastic Tube...

How my heart leapt with both surprise and joy as I sat by the window of the Boeing 747 as it cruised some 40,000 feet 12,200 metres above the west coast of the Australian Cape York Peninsula which just came into view from so far down below. It was early morning of late May 1997, not long after daybreak, nearing completion of an overnight flight from Singapore, when I was surprised by the sight of thick forest way down below, covering what I originally thought would be orange tinted desert landscape of this North Queensland peninsula.

After landing at Cairns Airport and passing through Passport control, the first task was to exchange a US dollar Travellers Cheque into Australian currency. With such a purpose-built kiosk near the exit, I was impressed with the pile of banknotes I had in my hand for the first time in my life. They were of thin plastic rather than paper, waterproof, and very much the same as our present UK fivers and tenners, both so recently introduced. It seemed a long time for the UK to learn a thing or two from Down Under, as their plastic currency was in full circulation more than twenty years earlier.

I was alone outside the airport under hot, dry sunshine when a taxi arrived, as it does automatically every twenty minutes, regardless whether there is anyone waiting. When the driver asked me where I wanted to go, I asked about an HI backpacker's hostel which I have read about before take off in London. Presently, the cab stopped and the driver pointed his finger about a hundred metres down the street.

"Do you see that building down there?" He asked in a typical Australian drawl.
"Yes," was my monosyllabic reply.
"That's the hostel."

As I sauntered along the tropical Pacific coastline, I thought about dear Mum, sounding rather exasperated at the time, asking me why I had to travel such great distances. Then a good friend at church, also with a level of concern, suggesting that I should stay with an Australian family he knew of. I assured them both that if I managed quite well in both Israel and North America, then why not in Australia too? To boot, it is one of the British Commonwealth nations with English as its primary language. I then arrived at the hostel, perhaps feeling uncertain about the outcome, as this was another example of my "off-the-street" hotel and hostel experience. I was happy to be told of a bed readily available in the men's dormitory, and I checked in.

There was only one sole occupant still asleep in the dormitory as I prepared the bed. It wan't until a member of staff spoke softly to him that I realised that here was a fellow backpacker struck down with a fever, forcing him to remain confined to his bed throughout the next two or three days, which was just a few feet away from where I would sleep.

I sauntered into the town of Cairns, and rested under a palm tree in a central public garden. If I recall, my eyes were swimming with mild dizziness as I checked out the town and approached the garden. In next to no time I was sleeping soundly, probably snoring too, according to what others said to me in the past, as I caught up with a sleepless night spent in a 'plane, flying 40,000 feet above Oceania after spending five days in Singapore.

It wasn't long before I became aware of the presence of the Great Barrier Reef just off the Queensland coast. After making an enquiry, the hostel receptionist offered to book me a place on one of several catamarans which leaves Cairns Harbour every morning for day trips to the Reef. I accepted her suggestion of Green Island, a coral cay surrounded by shallow waters which makes the location suitable for beginners, as I had never snorkelled before, and this was to be my first go at it.

On board, I hired a snorkelling gear and also bought a single-use cardboard camera sealed in waterproof plastic. It was whilst at Green Island that wearing a plastic breathing tube has converted me from an apathetic into a fanatic of coral and marine life. Indeed the sea was shallow, which was just right to gain confidence with a snorkel without coaching or instruction. Snorkelling turned out to one of these iffy businesses, when water can get into the tube or into the goggles, and trigger panic. And so was at one occasion at Green Island when I had to suddenly lift my head above water. Gradually I resumed, and to regain confidence.

Green Island Coral Cay, off Cairns.

But I returned to the hostel feeling happy, very happy indeed! I was keen for more. Therefore it was a few days later that I found myself boarding the first of the two catamarans at Cairns Harbour for Port Douglas Harbour, a resort further up the heavily forested Queensland coastline, where I was to change catamarans for Low Isles, another coral cay set in deeper water, therefore making the coral larger and richer. With confidence gained, I felt far more comfortable breathing through a plastic tube as I floated horizontally above the aquatic garden. Again as with Green Island, I purchased a single-use underwater camera also for 25 Australian dollars, and with it, took more pictures of these fascinating marine life. I thought of posting a few pics here. All were taken at Low Isles coral cay:

Low Isles, Great Barrier Reef, all taken June 1997.

The first two day trips were to coral cays: Green Island and Low Isles. The third day trip to the Reef was also on a catamaran from Airlie Beach to the Whitsunday Islands. Airlie Beach is another resort about 622 km, or 386 miles further down the coast from Cairns, hence the need to stay at a hostel at that location. The hostel itself was a unique experience, rather different from any other I ever stayed at. Unlike all other backpackers who were staying there, by paying a few dollars extra, I had the entire dormitory to myself, which was housed in a separate hut from the others. Oh the bliss!

At the first attempt to reach the Whitsunday Islands, the catamaran suffered engine failure whilst still at the harbour. So that trip had to be cancelled, and I was taken back to the hostel with a promise of a free pickup on the next day. That morning I was collected personally and driven to the harbour where the repaired vessel waited.

The trip involved two islands, Whitsunday itself, with its volcanic formation involving the creation of White Beach. As its name implies, the sand on that beach was not only nearly pure white but squeaks when walked upon. After a couple of hours, we were ferried to Heron Island, of continental formation rather than a coral cay, and the coral surrounding it was known as a fringe reef. Unfortunately there was no access to an underwater camera, which was something of a shame, because these corals were even more deeper than at Low Isles, with at least one species I instantly recognised as the Brain Coral.

These three catamaran trips to the Great Barrier Reef opened a wealth of knowledge on this tropical marine life. For instance, how could a colony of tiny polyps create exoskeletons of limestone to form a reef so fantastically huge that it could be seen from space? The reef is a phenomenon! Tiny polyps, related to the jellyfish, thrive on a wide continental shelf, a one-time strip of land now submerged under a sea which is naturally deprived of nutrition. Yet roughly at the middle of the barrier reef there is a break. The East Australian ocean current flows through this gap, and then throughout the whole length of the reef, bringing in plankton from the open ocean, on which the polyps feed. Furthermore, each polyp harbours many one-cell algae, known as Zooxanthellae, which photosynthesis providing each polyp with glucose, glycerol and amino acids with which the polyp benefits, in addition to the plankton. 

To add to all that, as the sea level rises, so does the reef. Various algae binds the dead exoskeletons to form a solid wall which is slowly but constantly rising as the living polyps thrive on the upper surface.

Then there are the annual storms which destroys parts of the Outer Reef. With such frequent destruction, I can wonder how on Earth the reef could sustain such a tremendous size over time. The storms literally break off coral limestone, and the fragments accumulate on the sea floor, forming a coral wasteland, indeed, a melancholic sight to behold. However, more than 80% of the coral in that area survive the storms to see another day, whilst at the same time the entire Inner Reef with its coral cays remain protected. But in time, when polyps spore, young larvae settle on these wastelands and life begins all over again.

Then not to mention the Parrot fish, which often arrives in large shoals. These creatures eat coral by the ton. As I wonder why such creatures exist, bringing such destruction to the reef. But there is a twist to the story. Coral swallowed by the fish is defecated as sand. Storms and ocean currents gathers this sand, along with broken exoskeletons and shells, into mounds which eventually breaks the surface of the ocean. Birds bring in the seeds of plants to these mounds and by taking root, binds the sand and calcium rubble together to form permanent islands, or coral cays.

The Parrot Fish plays a role in Coral Cay formation

Much of this I learnt from the experience itself, by reading books and by watching television documentaries and videos on the subject of corals. The Great Barrier Reef was not the only reef I visited. In the year 2000, in celebrating our first anniversary, Alex and I spent the day in Eilat, at the Red Sea, where I believe that the clearer turquoise waters brought out a greater beauty and fascination of the reef thriving within the fingertip of the Indian Ocean.

What can I say but to quote this Scripture:

How many are your works, O LORD!
In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number -
living things both large and small.
Psalm 104:24-25.

As I watched the programme earlier in the week, I could not help acknowledge God's handiwork as the presentation warmed the cockles of my heart in praise and thanksgiving to God, at least in my thoughts. It wasn't difficult to ignore the bits about evolution, as the meticulous structure of the Reef became obvious.

The result of Evolution? Let's go over just once again. 

1. A large underwater platform, or continental shelf, exists on which the reef flourishes.
2. Each polyp creates its own limestone exoskeleton, which over time accumulates into a reef of tremendous size. 
3. Also within each polyp, algae co-inhabits - enabling the polyp to feed on the nutrition the algae provides by means of photosynthesis. 
4. As means of good luck, there happens to be a well-placed break in the middle of the barrier wall, through which a strong ocean current brings in adequate supplies of plankton to feed the entire reef.
5. When storms destroy parts of the Outer Reef, less than 20% is actually lost. Not only does the affected parts of the reef replenishes itself, but the Inner Reef with all its cays are protected from the storms rolling in from the open ocean.
6. The Parrot Fish may look to be a scourge on the reef. But its role in creating sand allows cays to form.
7. A coral reef is one of the richest areas to sustain life, being home to a high percentage of all marine life.

The probability of all seven features evolving by pure chance and without divine intervention seems to be a mathematical impossibility. Instead, by acknowledging God as the Creator, I find all this so exhilarating to the spirit. 

Saturday, 14 April 2018

A Temptation Towards Atheism.

Since last week's blog post Enjoyment, Disaster, Reminiscences had attracted an unusually high number of hits within a single week, I thought of continuing on how travel experiences can have quite a profound effect on spiritual things. Like on Easter Monday two weeks ago, when my wife developed severe back pain while on a day trip to London with a close friend of mine, Andrew, and ending up with my wife and I spending an unscheduled night at a Travelodge hotel in the heart of Fulham, West London, after discharge from A&E at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital at 23:30 hours. That particular 24-hour time slot in my life had several lessons worth learning, including what I believe was God intervening at one of the most critical moments of the experience.

The hotel where we spent that night, Easter Monday 2018.

Which is distinct from God allowing various events to occur, such as phoning for an ambulance. This is something anyone can do, and has no bearing on the spiritual state of the caller. Such a call can be made by either a fully devoted "super-spiritual" Christian believer, a Muslim or Buddhist, or a determined atheist, and the ambulance will still arrive, in most cases, within ten to twenty minutes. But to step out onto a deserted city street in the dead of night and then having a sudden impulse to turn back into a hospital building to ask for help from an A&E receptionist - I believe that is God himself intervening. This was proved by the willing intervention of one staff member who wasn't even approached by us, and furthermore, was paid by the NHS to deal only with patient bookings into A&E, having successfully found a suitable nearby hotel on his mobile phone and with it, booked us in, along with the taxi lift to the hotel. Therefore it can be said that this young fellow with an Asian or Mediterranean background has saved us from spending the whole night wandering the streets of London in uncertain weather conditions and risking Alex's back pain flaring up again.

But of course, anyone with a sound mind would insist that the kindness offered by this hospital employee, like that of the earlier ambulance call, would have had no bearing on our spiritual condition. That is to say, he would have still stood up to intervene had I been a determined and committed atheist. And so true. And here's the irony: God's grace is not restricted to believers. As with God's universal love for all mankind, according to John 3:16, there is nothing standing in the way of him acting at the most crucial moment, even if the recipient had always harboured a deep hatred of God for most of his life.

However, there is something else rather unusual about that particular day trip. It was meant for Andrew to share the day with us. And here is the beauty about the whole experience: Andrew holds a PhD in Genetics, yet rather than dwell on his own academic status and looking down at us, instead he finds joy in accompanying us - a retired window cleaner and his wife - for a day trip. And this is not the first time either. Some eighteen months previously, Andrew accompanied us on a weekend away to a conference, also held in Central London, the subject of that conference centred on Divine Creation. This involved staying at the same hotel for the one night.

Little wonder that some three thousand years earlier, King David wrote Psalm 133 on how wonderful it is when brothers dwell together in unity. In his day he had a nationalistic bent - he was referring only to the people of Israel. Since then the Cross had removed this nationalistic in-group/out-group barrier, so well demonstrated by Paul's letter to a group of churches in what is now western Turkey (Galatians 3:28). The only condition for unity seems to be whether we are "in Christ". If so, then Andrew's presence is a good demonstration of the demolition of all academic, wealth and social class barriers and prejudice. Under the shadow of the Cross, a wonderful levelling occurs willingly before physical death is given the chance to accomplish this.

When it comes to travel, over and over again I have always emphasised my love for solo backpacking trips which includes bed-hunting at every chosen destination I arrive at. But this was not always the case. In the mid 1980's, it was Paul, Tim, Keith, Gareth and I who went on a cycling trip in Holland, Belgium and Germany, staying each night at different backpackers hostels. The main thing which bonded us together was our faith in Jesus Christ. That meant an architect, an accountant, a kitchen porter, a banker, and a window cleaner, all upheld support for each other as we pedalled away the miles, with the stronger cyclist ensuring that the weaker rider wasn't left trailing behind. This together with a safe level of teasing, joking around, enjoying a laugh as well as partaking in more serious conversation. It is this unity, first our common faith in Jesus Christ, and secondly our shared love of long distance cycling which allowed the spirit of fellowship to flourish, helping to eliminate any social class prejudice, academic preference or national superiority. In the case of the third, here we have a full-blooded Italian riding, eating and sleeping alongside two devoted Englishmen in this group of five, yet still felt equally accepted.

When it comes to hosteling rather than hotel room hire, as mentioned last week, most of these were visited on my own. However, it is usually at the member's kitchen where conversations starts and friendship develops. Such was the case when I stayed at this HI hostel located at the heart of San Diego in 1995 whilst backpacking from New York to San Francisco. It was at a single floor of a disused U.S. Army building which was shared with the YMCA. Each dormitory had just two beds, one above the other, and I shared the room with an Australian builder who had completed his volunteering contract before backpacking the rest of the USA prior to returning home. It was he who inspired me to visit Australia for myself, which I did in 1997.  One evening, whilst preparing a meal in the member's kitchen, two young men entered and then joined me whilst cooking their own food.

It didn't take me long to discover that they were actually brothers from Scotland, who had also befriended the Aussie. After dinner, the four of us played table football at the adjoining lounge. This allowed me to laugh at my own inability to flick the ball into the goal with split-second agility, therefore making the whole team of miniature plastic men look rather ridiculous! After this, the four of us went out together "to paint the town red" so to speak, laughing, joking and making raucous noise as we walked along the promenade, whilst the waves of the Pacific Ocean lapped gently on the harbour coastline. Despite of this, we still remained at the right side of the law.

This sort of social interaction and behaviour is indeed out of my character, who normally takes travel more seriously. But the experience was therapeutic. Therapy I was in bad need of. That was why I was travelling around America in the first place. To help heal some very bad emotional wounds. The issue is all about acceptance. To feel part of a group, to feel a sense of belonging. My fellow travellers in San Diego helped me to feel accepted. I know that one was in the building trade, most likely a bricklayer. But I cannot remember the vocation of the other two. Maybe because I didn't get around to asking. Or if I did ask, their answer failed to stick.

The local church should be the one place in the land where I should feel loved and accepted, regardless of background or status. At least I can say that in my home church in Ascot, I feel loved and accepted by the majority of regulars who attend. I'm quite popular with the students. A couple of them came up to me for pre-nuptial advice and guidance shortly before they married. I felt privileged. An evening at a pub with a brother or at Starbucks with one of the Elders is always a tonic. I recall an evening spent with one of the graduates, along with one or two others at different times and venues. These are times to give as well as to receive. According to experience, nothing can be more uplifting than to encourage someone and actually watch him feel uplifted, edified, encouraged, strengthened. In turn, probably the best tonic for feeling down is a good chat at a pub or coffee bar.  So in what way was the 1995 trip to the USA such a tonic and so therapeutic?

It was during my time in 1994, which was spent as a volunteer at Stella Carmel Christian Conference Centre at Isfiya, located at the northern region of Israel. This small village on the summit of Mt. Carmel offered spectacular views of the Valley of Jezreel, which lies at the southern flank of the Galilee area. Often in the evenings I have sauntered alone to the overlook, a clearing among the bushes and trees which covers the slope of the hill, to gaze at the stunning sight and meditate over the issues of the day. 

And the issues of the day was not the work. Generally, I enjoyed the work, whether domestic or maintenance, usually on alternate days. Rather it was the fellowship, or lack of it, between other Christian volunteers and myself. Thanks to one female volunteer, Jo by name, who was a fervent feminist and aspiring career woman, with natural leadership talents. At least all the other females follow her around, as she had the knack to influence them.

The work for the volunteer was both domestic, which involves changing bed linen, cleaning bathroom sinks and toilets, and so on; and maintenance - often involving shifting heavy rocks, garden work, painting and decorating, handling heavy equipment and such like. One morning, during one of our weekly meetings with management, I made a terrible, terrible mistake of suggesting that the heavier maintenance work should be for the men, us male volunteers, while the women may excel in domestic duties. It might have been because the Director saw my point and took it as valid, that I immediately became the pariah by Jo, who influenced all the other females, to become the most hated in the community. Not that I was that much liked before. By contrast, there among us was another male volunteer, Scott from Aberdeen; tall, slim, handsome, and a graduate. Although introverted, he was adored by all the women mainly because of his threefold attribute of graduation, good looks, and his introvertism. Having a lack of academic and professional status was to be my disadvantage. I became the target for aggressive female bullying, including being called a backward Neanderthal, along with all Italians, who, according to Jo, their anti-feminist stance making them a nation of backward Neanderthals. 

Eventually, after two months, the Director told me to leave. I was transported to Haifa Bus Station and left there to fend for myself. This is totally unlike that of an offender, who is driven straight to the airport for deportation. But there was one bright spot within the turmoil. That was of a young Arab neighbour, a nearby resident who drops in at Stella Carmel every evening after work had finished for the day. It was on this occasion when this Christian teenager sought me out from among all the volunteers and asked me to pray for him as he went through personal difficulties, and we both sat down to spend time praying together.

This meant a lot to me! He saw me as a fatherly figure or older brother, someone who can give him spiritual guidance. Strange as I see it, a nugget of gold in a sea of mud. He was a contrast, a wonderful contrast, to all the British volunteers making up the community I was part of. 

Such an experience is such a shame. Here is one group I thought was where the love of Christ would shine. A place of hope, a community where love would atone for many faults and cover a multitude of sins. A place I should have found spiritual encouragement, edification, courage and strength. Instead it was a disaster. A disaster because of nationalism, culture, the emphasis on education and personal status, and not on faith in Christ. From such an environment I could have slipped into atheism, but I didn't, because of the eternal power of God. If there was proof of the veracity of Eternal Security of the Believer, that was it. I had absolutely no reason to love the church, to identify myself with it. But I still love my brothers and sisters in Christ to this day, thanks to the righteousness of Christ imputed into me.

While this blog is written, on the BBC Radio 4 Archive, the full version of Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech, delivered in Birmingham, is being aired to mark its fiftieth anniversary. The speech was about the horrors of immigration, the arrival of many black Jamaicans, the "Windrush generation", named after the ship which transported the first of these immigrants across the Atlantic some twenty years before in the early 1950's, under the British Government's invitation. Powell's speech was highly rhetoric and racist, inspiring hate, especially among the white working class. Dockers in particular went on marches in support of this MP's speech, which insisted that all immigration must stop and all black immigrants to be paid to leave the UK to return to their home country. Up to 200,000* letters were sent to him afterwards, mainly in support of his speech. Hatred among the English towards blacks continued for decades to come, and I can long remember the activities of the National Front against everyone who was non-white.

Enoch Powell, 1960's Conservative MP.

What a vivid contrast all that is when compared with the wonderful help we received from the Asian receptionist when we found ourselves stranded in London during the middle of the night. This is something many Christians, who ought to know better, should learn.

* The quote of 200,000 mails received by Enoch Powell after his 1968 Rivers of Blood speech was taken from the Daily Mail National newspaper, Saturday April 14, 2018. However, this seems to be inconsistent with the figure given by Wikipedia, which is 120,000. It is therefore left to the reader to decide which figure is closer to the truth, and whether the Right-leaning Daily Mail has exaggerated the numbers to dramatise the story. 

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Enjoyment, Disaster, Reminiscences

I would consider myself fortunate to have been born in the early 1950's. Yes, rather fortunate indeed. One of the Baby Boomers, that generation who had to endure a childhood growing up in a culture where "you are seen but not heard", educated at a Secondary Modern school, sometimes referred to as the "Academic Trash Bin" by the more snobby Grammar school pupils and maybe their staff as well. And those were the days when many a male teacher and staff member had a cane in his desk drawer, ready to be whacked across the palm of anyone singled out for misbehaviour - an offence even small enough as talking whilst walking through the corridor to get to the classroom from morning assembly.

Having failed the eleven-plus, my destination to get my hands dirty in a vocational, non-academic factory job was already predetermined even before my first day at secondary school. And their predetermination came to fruition in 1968 when I joined a local all-male family-owned furniture-making factory, where my very first task was to sweep the workshop floor. But I ought to be thankful for one small matter. That is, unlike most other school-leavers with me, I did not have to make tea for the entire workforce. However, on just one morning during that five-year stint, I was told to make the teas. Innocently enough, I poured almost a third of an entire Brooke Bond packet of tea leaves into this very large industrial aluminium teapot, much to the shock of the governors, who always made the other boys use no more than half a teaspoon, which is even less than I use to make a single cup at home. It was no surprise that I was not allowed near the kettle again, although I can honestly plead, hand-on-heart, that there was no malicious intent. Thank goodness for the later invention of tea-bags!

As I see it, these initial five years of my working life as a dogsbody has never been considered harmful, bur rather beneficial in the process of adolescence, that stage in life slotted in between childhood kindergarten and an adult adapting to the brutality of the real world. And if a constant stream of swear-words and the most low-level smut contributed towards this way of growing up, so be it. At least I never had to be under this modern-day "helicopter parenting" when even unsupervised playground activities are now considered "risky". Like the case I read in today's newspaper, in which the staff at one school in Surrey have petitioned for a century-old Sweet Chestnut tree located in the schoolyard to be cut down because, "during Autumn the fallen leaves can be rather slippery". Oh dear! Elf 'n' Safety off its rocker again.

As a result of this start to life, more than once I was looked upon as "brave" - just because I had, and still have - an itch for lone independent travel, which is something I have always enjoyed immensely. A dream indeed fulfilled. Yet, how could I ever forget, for example, when preparing to hike the Grand Canyon in 1995, the "dire warnings" I received from my well-educated and well-meaning church friends, all still unmarried, about rattlesnakes, coyotes, and other forms of wildlife which can pose a threat to my well-being whilst in the desert. I replied that if I was to think this way, I might as well stay at home, even feeling too timid to step out of the front door. At least throughout my childhood living, when Mum sent me out on my own to buy one or two items of grocery, I had never developed agoraphobia.

And independent travel opened my eyes to the this big, beautiful world outside the coastline of the UK. And this is not about package hotels on the Spanish Costa, but the need to bed-hunt as I travelled from one destination to the next, particularly throughout the 1970's. Back then I wasn't aware of hostels until 1985 - traditional youth hostels that is, as backpacker's hostels were of a later development. Instead, when it came to looking for a hotel, mine was always the case of "off the street" instead of pre-booking. That is, to walk into a hotel, approach the reception desk and ask whether there is a room available. I started this towards the end of my teenage years here in the UK, but from 1973 onward, I had no trouble with overseas off-the-street bed-hunting whilst travelling through Italy, Israel, Canada and the USA. Especially across North America in 1977 and 1978 when the first thing I did after stepping off the Greyhound bus was to look for a nearby hotel, walk in and ask if there was a vacant room. And in every case I was offered a room with no qualms. 

Also to note that I stayed clear of luxury five-star establishments. Instead, with such a limited budget for every trip, I always went for one to two-star, which is a basic bedroom with shared bathroom facilities. Back in the seventies, some of these hotels, such as in Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Los Angeles, the hotel I chose to stay in was within view of the Greyhound Bus terminal, therefore making bed-hunting so straightforward. Like the morning in 1978 when I exited the bus terminal in downtown Los Angeles to see the imposing Hotel Cecil directly across the street. (However, if you consult Google Earth for verification, you will see big changes having taken place over the years. For example, although Hotel Cecil in downtown LA is still there, opposite where the bus station once stood, the site is now a car park, the bus station having moved to East 7th Street, I believe, to save on site rental.) 

By the nineties I have gotten fully used to hosteling. With former traditional HI youth hostels metamorphosing into backpackers accommodation in order to remain in business, I had no trouble with off-the-street bed-hunting whilst in Israel, the USA, Singapore and Australia. Oh yes, there was just one occasion after stepping off the train at Katoomba Station in New South Wales. The hostel of my choice had turned me away with an apology and an explanation that all the beds were taken by a group of students who had just arrived for field work at the nearby Blue Mountains National Park. So I had to walk around town to find an unaffiliated private hostel, and sure enough, when one appeared, I was offered a bed upon entry.
All this reminiscence on hotels and hostels and how easy it was to get a room for the night or for several nights. And so was I in for one heck of a rude shock on Easter Monday! This what happened. A good friend, Andrew by name, a doctor and geneticist to boot, accompanied us for a day trip to London to visit the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. The train journey was uneventful, not suffering any problems or delays, and we arrived at the museum in good time. We had a fantastic afternoon there. I allowed Andrew to wheelchair Alex slowly through the galleries while I sauntered behind to study the exhibits on display.   

Marine Gallery, Natural History Museum, taken April 2, 2018

It was when we were on our way to Earls Court Underground station that Alex began to suffer back pain of great intensity, leaving me in a panic and Andrew bewildered. Right opposite the station entrance, Alex slipped out of her wheelchair and squirmed on the sidewalk, attracting some spectators. It was then that no other option but to call for an emergency ambulance.

I must have had a bad phone signal. Because the Ambulance Controller kept asking me to spell the name of the station we were at:

"Earls Court Station. E-A-R-L-S  C-O-U-R-T," I said.
"Can you repeat that?"
"E-A-R-L-S  C-O-U-R-T," I shouted above the din of traffic.
"I didn't quite get it. Can you spell it out again?"
"E!---A!---R!---L!---S!    C!---O!---U!---R!---T!"
"There may be up to two hours before the ambulance arrives. I'm so so sorry, but we're very busy."
"I'm very sorry."

However, one of the bystanders also phoned the Ambulance Control Centre soon after getting through myself. About fifteen minutes later, whilst helplessly watching my wife squirm in agony, and could only give her some useless reassurance and comfort, the welcoming wail of the ambulance siren could be heard through the din of traffic down the busy street. When the vehicle momentary appeared then disappeared behind a bus, I went to the middle of the street to wave the driver's attention.

It took a while for the crew to settle Alex in. With an oxygen mask and a good dose of morphine, Alex began to settle as the ambulance made the short journey to Chelsea & Westminster Hospital. There she was detained for several hours on a course of morphine and Diazepam. At the start of this period of time I dismissed Andrew from the hospital A&E ward, allowing him to return home by himself.

By 23.30 hours Alex, who was feeling a lot better except from a mild ache, was ready for discharge. All I had in mind is to find a hotel for the rest of the night before boarding the train homeward the next day. Reminiscing on the past, I felt assured that, being the end of the holiday weekend, there should be plenty of empty rooms awaiting occupancy. As I wheeled my wife out of the hospital into the dark deserted street, I felt under compulsion to turn back into the A&E Reception. Two staff members were behind the screen, a middle-aged Englishman and beside him, a younger Mediterranean or Asian-looking fellow. As I spoke to the older gentleman about whether there are any hotels nearby, he just shook his head without saying anything. But the younger fellow immediately left his seat and approached us, asking whether we have booked a hotel via the Internet.

"No I didn't, because I have no present access to the Internet. Surely there must be plenty of unoccupied rooms." I reasoned.

Then the young fellow explained: Not a single hotel in London would accept us without an Internet booking. Do I have a mobile phone or tablet? When I explained that my mobile isn't connected, he then offered to book a hotel room for us, using his own mobile phone. Or else we are left to wander the streets of London all night. After a couple of moments searching, the young man suggested a Travelodge about seven minutes away by taxi. When I accepted his suggestion, he made the booking for us via his tablet and I had to pay there and then. Then we waited for the arrival of the taxi, which he also booked, which then took us to the hotel.

Alex at A&E, shortly before discharge.

All this goes to show how stuck in the past I have always been. Believing in the easy and casual life I have always known, how was it ever possible that heightened security has made living without technology virtually impossible? It is a very sad situation - the need for Internet booking before arriving at a hotel in the middle of the night. Oh, how I long for the good old days of the seventies!

And how is my perception of God throughout all this? It is very tempting to think God loves some people much more than others! For example, it looks to all the world that most Christians I know personally are in good health, middle class, financially secure, are in good jobs, able to raise ideal families, and can have anything they want. Basking in God's love. As for us, although we were looking forward for a Eurostar trip to Marseilles on the south coast of France later this year, I have decided that because we live on a constant knife-edge, it's now considered way too risky to make the trip. The chance of Alex going down in severe pain whilst overseas would be catastrophic, believe me!

Why does the Lord allow all these things to happen? And why us? Why was it Alex, my beloved wife, who was squirming on the sidewalk outside the station, among a high city population of reasonably healthy individuals? There are more questions than answers. But this I determine: My faith and loyalty to God will never fail. I will always trust him and his wisdom. I am thankful that if Alex is destined to have a "downer" as I call it, then I am thankful that it occurred on the street next to a known landmark rather than on board a train where the pull of the emergency cord would have disrupted the entire line from Waterloo to Reading.

Or what, for that matter, had she gone down with severe pain whilst on board the Eurostar halfway between London St Pancras and Marseilles St Charles? Yes, what then? Indeed, the situation would have been much worse. True enough, the London incident was bad enough, but who knows, it might have just saved us from impending catastrophe with a five-digit hospital bill to follow.