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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. 


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