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Saturday, 27 April 2019

If I Was An Atheist...

As I stepped outside this morning, it was no longer in just tee-shirt and shorts as was during the previous weekend. Instead, I was dressed in normal long trousers and wearing a woollen zip-up jacket over the tee-shirt. Indeed, the arrival of Storm Hannah from the Atlantic Ocean has cooled the weather significantly over the last few days, drawing in a strong North-Westerly breeze which has an impact in the fall of air temperature. But here in the South of England, we just had the cool breeze with cloudy skies. According to the Met Office, from the Midlands north, there was continuous heavy rain which, so far, we managed to escape save for a few isolated showers.

Last weekend was, of course, the most important weekend on the calendar. It was to remember the Crucifixion, the Burial and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the Son of God. The weather back then was glorious - warm sunshine which heightened the mood of the whole country - thanks to a large area of high pressure which sat over the UK. At last, we were able to leave our overcoats, scarves and woollies at home and venture out in Summer attire. And spend considerable time, both on Easter Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday, with my academic Christian friend, Dr Andrew Milnthorpe.

On Easter Sunday, my wife Alex and I joined Andrew and his parents David and Sandra, both whom I knew well, even before Andrew was born, to be treated for Easter lunch at a popular self-serve restaurant. As former window cleaning customers for many years, I believe in the possibility of their gratefulness for the few occasions when we took their son under our wing, especially during the two Creation Conference weekends as well as other trips to London, and to Oxford, too.

Here in the UK, Bank Holiday Mondays are statutory whenever a Christian festival falls on a Sunday, whether Christmas Day, Easter Sunday or Whitsun. Therefore on this Easter Monday, Andrew, together with Alex and I took a fast Great Western train from Reading to London Paddington for a visit to the Science Museum in South Kensington. For me, such an exhibition of the advance in science by the invention of clever commodities to make our day-to-day living more comfortable is certainly impressive. But we had to cut short our visit after arriving at the basement where the Children's Gallery, housing fully hands-on exhibits, have made my beloved wife very upset.

This was because she remembers it from some sixteen years earlier when Alex and I took our young daughter Rosina to this particular gallery so she can play at "The Garden" which includes a water exhibit. Here she was allowed to get her hands wet by opening and closing valves, rather like the gates at a canal lock, and therefore regulating the flow, and at the same time learning basic physics.

Such memories haunted my wife, and she began to experience another of her episodes. My quick action averted her comatose-like condition, followed by a quick exit from the museum altogether.

We began to make our way to Kensington Gardens, then into Hyde Park itself, where at the Serpentine were many pedaloes and rowing boats plying aimlessly across the artificial lake. Ah, rowing boats. An activity inherited from my father, this reminded me of my happy days as a fit young man in my twenties and thirties, when I came here on Saturday afternoons specifically to hire a rowing boat on the Serpentine. Too bad that a chain barrier has always been up to stop us from taking the boat under the West Carriage Drive bridge into the Long Water, thus rowing the full length of the lake. At the sight of the pedaloes, Andrew got rather keen, but with my wife's state of health, I wasn't too sure about hiring one for ourselves.

However, with the design of the boat to allow Alex to recline comfortably on the front seat, along with my academic friend offering to pay for all three of us, I relented, and a short while later we spent an hour pedalling away from one end of the Serpentine to the other. All three of us had thoroughly enjoyed the experience despite the constant tiring out of my leg muscles necessitating the need for frequent breaks.

The whole weekend was under the remembrance of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection. I think the warm sunshine was an ideal symbol of this. His death on the cross brought atonement, and his resurrection defeated death, and eternal life, lost in Adam, is now given as a free gift to all believers. It is a time of joy, a time for friendship, a time of rest, just as all Christian saints enter God's rest from the moment of first believing, according to Hebrews 4: 1-11. Such was the Easter weekend.

Other Pedaloes on the Serpentine, taken by Alex.

However, less than two days after arriving home from such a wonderful day trip to London, all came crashing back down to earth! Just as the weather itself began to cool with intermittent showers.

On the morning of Wednesday 24th April, while I was checking for updates and personal messages, there was no more remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead, this video poster came up on the laptop screen as I scrolled through Facebook. The video was of a short clip about Brexit-supporting factory owner Lance Forman giving an interview on why he is withdrawing his support for the Conservative Party to join Nigel Farage's newly-formed Brexit Party. He was dressed in suit-and-tie, the ideal attire for an English businessman and mandarin, and in all appearances, a true Englishman through and through. The video was posted by none other than my good friend Dr Andrew Milnthorpe.

Not only was I feeling disappointed but also irritated by such an anticlimax to a superb weekend. My mood was the exact reflection of the weather - getting cooler, breezier with storm clouds gathering. It was later that evening when Andrew phoned me with an invitation to attend a prayer meeting at the Kerith Centre. I declined - a very unusual action to take - but I was hit with a sudden shock that this prayer meeting may involve Brexit.

I had to examine my heart. To decline an invitation of this kind was not only unusual, but it was also sudden, impulsive. Why did I refuse? I tried to think of various other reasons, including the notion that although I was honouring God with my lips, my heart would still be far from him (Isaiah 29:13, Matthew 15:8) - especially on the issue of Brexit. Yet, as I began to feel an element of regret for not turning up, I began to pray at home, asking God what exactly had made me behave the way I did. Finally, I concluded that this Brexit video was the main contributing factor. I also prayed for God to capture my heart and draw it closer to his, an act of grace, for it's impossible for a natural heart to draw close to him, in fact, without the Holy Spirit's help, it's unable to do so.

I did a little bit of research on Lance Forman. He is a fourth generation Jewish descendant of Russian immigrant Harry Aaron Forman, who emigrated to London at the start of the twentieth century to set up a salmon smoking business in East London. The firm's present heir and owner only took over relatively recently, within the last 25 years. Perhaps being involved in the fishing industry, I'm not at all surprised that he is keen on Brexit, with the reclaiming of territorial waters around the British Isles from surrounding European nations will help secure the future of his business.

Also, the fact that I called a Jewish businessman an idiot on Facebook was also unsettling, according to Genesis 12:3, where it says that God will bless everyone who blesses Abraham and curse those who curse him. After all, Haman cursed the Jews and he was hanged for it (Esther 7). But Haman knew what he was doing, in turn, I wasn't aware of Forman's ethnic origins. I hope God will forgive me.

It was an article by Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn who only yesterday has brought up a question now frequently asked on the first date between potential sweethearts:
Have you voted Leave or Remain?

Littlejohn goes on to say that to answer this particular question would either make or break a fledgeling relationship. I guess he must be right. If there was ever a topic of discussion that has a potential for family breakups, turning friendship into enmity, splitting the Government into polarising positions and dividing the whole nation into two halves, it has to be Brexit. This is why despite that Andrew and I have opposing views, I find it amazing that we are close friends and continue to be close friends, even regarding ourselves as brothers. It is the grace of God. The Holy Spirit can accomplish what the natural heart wouldn't have been able to do. Unite us even under diverse opinions.

Easter is a time to reflect on the cruel death of Jesus of Nazareth on a wooden cross, his burial in a sealed rock tomb, and his Resurrection from that tomb. It crosses the mind of everyone. But to some, it's nothing more than religious hocus-pocus while their children are fixed on chocolate. To others, it's time for hats off to Jesus, but that's it for another year, maybe again at Christmas. But to others still, Easter is a revelation of the power of God to all who believe.

I spent my teenage years as a so-called atheist. I use the term "so-called" because I don't believe that real atheism exists, no matter what the non-believer himself thinks. I have been there. It wasn't a conviction that God doesn't or never existed. Rather it was a harbouring of hatred towards God stemming from the false idea that Heaven can only be achieved by self-effort, and for me to be "good enough" and to keep myself spotless and free from sin - an impossible feat! The notion that God is forever dissatisfied with me and even questions my motives if I was to call on him, this leads to hating God, not deny his existence, even if I loudly do so.

Supposing I was never converted to Jesus Christ in December 1972 or ever. Chances that I would never have known Andrew. This is because I met and got to know his parents in a Baptist church, the one place I would have stayed firmly away. But among all church-going Brexiteers, if ever I got acquainted with any of them, I would have slated all of them off as insincere hypocrites - claiming to know God whilst seeking their own national independence and glory. As I see it, the two just don't sit together - unless being a Christian and a nationalist is meant to be one and the same faith. If so, I doubt very much if such a religion would ever convert me to Christ.

Alex took this one of us - Easter Monday 2019.

The chances of forming friendships with Brexit-voting churchgoers would have been very slim, if not impossible. That is due to the fact that I voted to remain in the EU, although I still wouldn't have received any verbal hostility, but rather, I would be sidelined or even ignored and maybe even thought of as weak, spineless, a traitor or disloyal, with nobody actually saying any of that to me vocally, but I would have felt it in the air - and that is exactly what has happened among other Brexit-voting Christians whom I know well. Any chance of conversion from atheism to sainthood would have been razor thin if it ever happened at all. 

But I'm not an atheist now. Instead, I am a believer in Jesus Christ Crucified and his burial and Resurrection, therefore home to the Holy Spirit within. That is why I can form great friendships with the likes of Andrew, whom I treasure with great value. And in addition, my desire is to love all, especially those in the household of faith. 

My longing is to have a heart which is in union with God's heart, to love others unconditionally, as God does. And that includes nurturing the love I have for Andrew. But as long as I dwell in sinful flesh, my love will never be perfect until the day I enter Glory. After then, Brexit would be of no significance.

But right now, Andrew's friendship is everything to me.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Easter - A Miracle in Paris?

My wife Alex has always longed to have a printer to complement her home computer. And yes, we have two terminals here at home, a laptop which I use and a desktop which she uses. But we never say, "My computer" or "Your computer". Neither do we say in the third person "His..." or "Her computer." Instead, we tend to use them interchangeably whenever there's a need to do so. But for a long time, I have always resisted having a printer at home - those fickle, highly temperamental pieces of technology which has a raving appetite for our bank account! Purchasing and replacing those ink cartridges is so ferociously expensive. That could be the reason why the machine itself is relatively cheap to buy in the first place. The maker's prime source of profit comes from ink cartridge replacements.

However, just to imagine her joy in acquiring a printer - which may benefit her health as well as a boost towards her happiness - has eventually led to a change of mind. Or simply giving in, in much the same way Samson caved into Delilah's persistent demand to know the secret of his supernatural strength.

And so off I went, alone, into town to return with this large but not-too-heavy package in my arms. Rather excitingly I set it up. By following picture instructions, I made sure everything was in place before I turned it on, along with the desktop computer. Next, I had to download a website to install the appropriate software to make both units compactable. And that's was when I hit a brick wall - well, not literally, but equally hurtful.

We bought a printer identical to this.

I recall not that long ago when buying computer peripherals. Such additional hardware came with a CD to install compatibility software into the laptop. But now they have come up with this brilliant idea of the maker's website which demands a password before installation can proceed. The snag is, I don't have the correct password, despite that the software "read" the hidden and an apparently unknown or forgotten code buried somewhere in the hard-drive memory.

As a result, the printer cannot be used. And that despite the cost of not only the unit but for the cost of the spare double ink cartridge as well, (black ink and coloured ink) which cost me nearly as much as the machine itself.

Little wonder that I sank into a deep depression. I reclined on the sofa, my face buried in the fabric seat, feeling very sorry for myself and hard done by. If ever there was a time I hated modern technology, I think that was it. A password - a stupid password - was demanded, probably so the makers can track me down for future marketing purposes. This particular piece of software does not ask the question, Forgot password? At least when clicked, this opens the opportunity to create a new password, as Google, Yahoo, or most other sites do. When I had forgotten, or never knew, what this particular password is - then I'm well and truly stuck!

If only I had followed my initial instincts! Never have a printer in the house. I knew that I would shed more tears than any amount of ink from the cartridge. However, my wife tried to encourage me. 

"Why not take the matter to the Lord in prayer?" She suggested.

I thought for a moment before answering:

"I cannot pray. Considering that there are millions far worse off than we are - poverty, starvation, disease, homelessness, suffering in war-torn zones. Praying for God's guidance for a printer does not sit well."

She had to agree.

However, in the small hours of the following morning, I lay awake as my wife slept. Tormented in spirit, I managed to utter a quiet prayer, confessing my shame in praying for a rich man's toy while overseas - and here in the UK too - many languish in their suffering. Yet I prayed for God's guidance on this matter. Shortly after, I fell asleep.

I woke up after daybreak with an idea. A very good church friend, Guy by name, whom I knew personally for quite a number of years, is a computer engineer whose expertise has been beneficial to us several times in the past. Unable to reach him by 'phone on the previous evening (and thus heightening my despair), I thought about emailing him. He returned the email with an indication that this codebreaking is not too much of a problem, and agreed to come over to see for himself after the Easter break.

Which leads me to this weekend I write this blog. With the gorgeous Spring sunshine warming the air and beautifying the environment, this holiday is all about Jesus and him crucified. And about the near-destruction of Notre Dame.

This beautiful and historic Parisian cathedral I first visited back in 1985 whilst staying at a privately owned hotel in Rouen, a city where Jeanne d'Arc was burnt at the stake, a city roughly a third of the way to Paris from the two coastal ports of Dieppe and Le Havre, and both linked by an excellent S.N.C.F. express train service to the capital. A train journey from Rouen to Paris Gare de Lazare, followed by a ride on the Metro and I arrive at the Notre Dame, which was such an imposing attraction, as well as ascending to one of the twin iconic bell towers which featured a lookout platform.

This, together with standing, one evening, on the upper floor of the Eifel Tower, downstream from the Cathedral on the River Seine, and looking almost directly into the city football stadium way below, itself lit by floodlights as a team of players was training, and also with the magnificent view of the Trocadero, its fountains bathed in evening illuminations, across the River below.

After 1985, I did not visit Paris any more until 2016, well after the Eurostar was in full service and my wife was already in a wheelchair. After arriving on the international train service, we checked in a wheelchair-accessible Hotel Pullman in the Montparnasse district, south of the city. The walk we did the next day after arrival took in the Eifel Tower, on which we ascended to the first-floor viewing balcony which is suitable for wheelchairs. This was followed by a riverside walk to the Notre Dame before strolling back to our hotel at nightfall.

But it was at the following year, in 2017, on our second Eurostar trip to Paris, when we spent far more time at the Notre Dame Cathedral. This included entering its interior, only to see the commencement of evening Mass, as it turned out that it was a Sunday when we visited. We spent considerable time inside the building, both of us fully admiring the beautiful stained glass rose windows, a nostalgic reminder of 1985, but this time without the ascent to the belfry viewing platform, due to Alex's wheelchair. How could we possibly believe that less than two years after that visit, Notre Dame would hit the headlines?

Notre Dame, Paris - taken October 2017.

Pictures of the burnt-down church - in all the newspapers, on television and on the internet - struck as indeed remarkable. For among the ashes of the roof sprawled across the floor, the golden crucifix on the altar shone as it, perhaps for the very first time ever, reflected the sunlight streaming through a burnt-out hole where the roof used to be. I have found this to be a fascinated sight. This tells me a lot.

It tells me about how everything in Creation is temporary. Like as Jesus himself said on one occasion that heaven and earth shall pass away but his words will never pass away (Matthew 24:35). Neither will the Cross. The burnt out cathedral says it all. The structure is around 850 years old. If compared to a day as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day in the Lord's perception of time (2 Peter 3:8), the church has only been there for a few hours. But now it stands virtually destroyed, yet the Cross stands at its place as if defiant, untouchable. And so it does, as no flames of false doctrine or heresy can undo its power, nor burn or annihilate it.

As we celebrate Easter, it is a reminder that the power of the Cross is eternal. Not only can it acquit and regenerate a spiritually dead sinner and turn him into a son of the living God, but it can also transform society. The 120 in the room sat under the shadow of the Cross (Acts 1:15-17). Among them, rich and poor sat together. So did men and women together, a concept totally foreign among religious Jews. Also the religious and irreligious, and all social classes. Such barriers have all melted away, uniting the crowd as one under the shadow of the Cross. Like the ashes surrounding the altar at Notre Dame, the shadow of the Cross reveals us all, throughout space and time, to be mere dust and ashes ourselves, and in full need of God's love, grace and mercy.

I'm convinced that this was a powerful message God is trying to convey to the watching world. The Cross of Christ. That was why, I believe, he allowed the church building to burn down. To attract attention to the Cross just as Easter is approaching. The destruction of the church is a massive loss to all of us and particularly to all Parisians. But I don't think it's a loss to God. He allowed it to burn down, and that despite any conspiracy theories already in the media that the fire was started by Muslims.

Fortunately, only the roof came down with minimum damage to the stonework. I believe this is relevant too. With the stonework remaining intact, this will emphasise the light reflecting from the Cross, giving it greater emphasis as sunlight from the roof cavity shines on it.

The reader may well ask: Where is a connection between my experience with the printer and the burning down of Notre Dame Cathedral? That is quite easy to work out, by the looks of things. The Cathedral itself is temporary in the light of eternity. And also the printer is certainly temporary. I'll be lucky if I could get a few years out of it (if we can solve the password problem!) Yet my heart is fixed on this utility and the Parisian's heart is centred on the burnt church. Both are temporal. Neither can save. Neither can they do anything to the Old Man (that is, the natural man before conversion). Rather, I believe God wants our hearts to be fixed onto the Cross of Christ. The Cross of Christ is eternal. It gives eternal life to all believers, it slays the old man, and gives birth to the New Man, who is a son of God. Furthermore, I believe the Cross will feature in the New Jerusalem, the Eternal City, to remind everyone there that it was the Cross of Christ which redeemed them.

God wants everyone to look at the Cross with faith. Thousands of years ago, after the children of Israel had just left Egypt and were camping in the desert, the Law was given under Moses' administration. But they were disobedient and rebellious, therefore God eventually sent snakes to bring death to everyone who was bitten. At their cry, Moses begged God to stay the plague. The Lord instructed him to make a snake out of bronze and hang it on a cross-like stake. Everyone who was bitten and looked at the snake with a believing heart remained alive and did not die (Numbers 21:4-9).

The same during the first Passover. On that day the Israelites were told to kill a lamb and splash its blood on the doorposts and to roast and eat the rest of the meat. Wherever the Angel of Death, sent by God to kill the firstborn of all Egypt, saw the blood on the lintels, he passed over the house and every firstborn within did not die but was spared instead (Exodus 12).

Of course, the cross inside the Notre Dame does not have saving power in itself, just as the blood on the lintels or the bronze snake had no power in themselves. They are inanimate objects, just as the real Cross of Christ at Calvary was just two logs of wood fastened together, and it was no different to the other two crosses the thieves were hanging upon. In all three instances, the saving power lies with the faith of the believer in the atoning power of God himself.

Ashes surround the Cross of Christ.

There is only one other proof that this Jesus crucified was the Christ, the Son of God. And that was his Resurrection, his rising from the dead, an event that had never occurred in all history before then, and had never occurred since. That is a resurrection from the dead into eternal life in an immortal body. So far, only Jesus had such an experience. But a day will come when every believer throughout all history will be resurrected (and any living at the time raptured, or translated into Heaven).

That is what Easter is all about. Compared to such a glorious promise, every temporary object becomes meaningless - just like our computers, the printer, and Notre Dame Cathedral - will become obsolete.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

A Shock at a Leisure Centre Cafe.

Last Sunday I was rather shocked as I walked into our Ascot Life Church service, which had just begun. For there was a massive hole of empty seats at the main centre row. As I took my place near the front, as I usually do, any worship meant to be offered to God was obscured by thoughts, troubling thoughts. And as such, I'll add some details about our church as a build-up to what had occurred on the very next day.

I realised that schools up and down the country had just broken up for the Easter break. Therefore colleges have broken up as well. Which means that many of the students from Royal Holloway, at the nearby town of Egham, who attend our services during term time would have gone home. This meant that during these college breaks, about three or four rows of empty seats, usually at the central section, are considered normal. But not last Sunday.

For greater clarification, I'll give a brief description of the seating arrangement at Ascot Life Church and how so many absent that particular Sunday has made quite an impact. The building where we meet is actually a restaurant located in the paddock buildings at the famous Royal Racecourse, where its interior has been cleared of all tables to make room for the seating. Since the length of the building is roughly aligned to the North-to-South points of the compass, the congregation faces south while the preacher and the music band members face north. Therefore, using theatre terminology, to anyone standing at the front will see three stalls of seating rows: The wide centre stalls and two narrower side stalls, the West stalls and the East stalls, both of these half the width of the centre arrangement and each separated by an aisle. 

How the Racecourse restaurant looks during the week!

The huge hole of empty seats was among the middle rows, with most who did arrive taking occupancy among the East and West stalls. That meant that the few sitting at the back had a full view of me as I sat at the second row from the front, a view which is normally obscured by people in between. I would not be exaggerating if I was to say that somewhere between thirty-three to fifty per cent of all regular attendees were absent that particular morning.

After the service, over some coffee and doughnuts, I asked someone standing nearby why such a high level of absentees. His explanation was that many were at "the wedding of the year" which took place the day before, near the Sussex resort of Brighton, and many had chosen to stay for the night. When I asked further who could have participated in such high ranking nuptials, the answer came back: Martha Collison.

Martha is one of two daughters, the other being Hannah, of Chris Collison and his wife Louise. Chris is one of our four Elders of Ascot Life Church. This makes our style of church leadership rather unusual. We don't have a senior pastor, a reverend, priest or even a bishop. Instead, we have four Elders, each of equal standing and therefore a likelihood of equally accountable to the Baptist Union. Chris Collison is a successful businessman who joined our church relatively recently when compared to when I joined, along with those who were already present before my arrival in 1990.

When it became clear that more were attending each Sunday morning than our original church building could cope with, Chris negotiated with the management of Ascot Racecourse during the latter half of 2012, into 2013. An agreement with the officials for a reduced annual fee allowed the hire of an upstairs site restaurant which capacity could hold double to what our original building could accommodate. Eventually, an experimental contract was set up by the Racecourse officials with Chris Collison, and on Sunday 13th April 2013, which is exactly six years to the day this blog was written, we had our first ever service at the new venue. On the same day, Ascot Baptist Church became Ascot Life Church, a new name taken from John 10:10, with its iconic symbol of a bird's eye view of the racecourse itself next to the logo.

It looks to all us members that the reward for a successful contract with the Racecourse officials was a promotion into Eldership. However, it was a known fact that the other three Elders had asked Chris to join the leadership team sometime before any negotiations with the Racecourse officials had ever got underway, which seems to be a good indication of Collison's business prowess rather than a spiritual one. However, that's not for me to say.

On Saturday, April 6th 2019, his daughter Martha married a fellow graduate, Michael Haywood. Maybe you have heard of the name Martha Collison sometime in the past. Indeed, she was a contestant of the 2014 BBC's Great British Bake-off. At seventeen years at the time, she was the youngest ever to take part in a contest which was broadcast across the nation, and being so young, won the heart of the nation. She managed to reach the quarter-final, and it was then when she was eliminated. However, one of the finalists, London builder Richard Burr, coined up the nuptials as "the wedding of the year," after turning up as an honoured guest, among other former Bake-off contestants, to the wedding venue. Martha's status as a celebrity remains endorsed by her published articles in various magazines as well as writing a couple of books on her expertise in baking, which were successfully published.

Cakes donated to Martha's Wedding Reception.

But the road to fame was not always plain sailing. It was during the fifth episode, aired on Wednesday 3rd September 2014, when she hit a blunder while making an apricot flan. Unfortunately, the juice from the fruit had percolated into the sponge base whilst in the oven, making the sponge soggy, when it should have been firm. This earned a critical assessment from the judges, along with that of lacking flavour. Poor Martha! She was visibly close to tears when she was interviewed afterwards, protesting on how could the judges be so severe after two hours of grafting over the worktop.

However, step in Amanda Platell of The Daily Mail. A childless divorcee from Australia, this ardent Brexiteer had a sharp word to say to Martha in a filler which appeared in the newspaper on Saturday 6th September 2014. She laid it on thickly when she lambasted the teenage student for shedding tears after a mere correction from the judges. "If people like her cannot take a bit of criticism without shedding tears, heaven helps us for the future of Britain," she wrote.

It's the same columnist who also wrote, The working classes of the past, no matter how poor, had enormous self-respect. Men wore suits and ties. Women scrubbed the doorsteps.

This echoed her predecessor, self-confessed atheist and former Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer, who also wrote in a filler that no man can be referred to as a gentleman unless he wears a tie at all times whilst out, even on a Saturday afternoon. Indeed, both must have been cast from the same mould, despite that unlike Heffer, Platell is a regular church-goer. 

It was the next day, Monday, April 8th 2019, when an ordinary day's schedule as a retiree calling for my weekly swim at the revamped Leisure Centre, about ten minutes from home on the bicycle. It was lane swimming at the Competition Pool, a weekly therapeutic session lasting between 75-80 minutes as part of the post-op cardiac rehabilitation program recommended by the GP. It was after the swim, when I was dressed and calling at the cafe outlet which displayed delicious calorie-inducing cakes and tempting Kit-Kat bars which takes a good dollop of will power for a hungry stomach to resist, where I ordered my usual cappuccino while complaining that these tempting food items will undo all my efforts in calorie burn. Her reply was that these items are purposely displayed in order to motivate me to return to the gym!

As I sat alone in a newly refurbished cafe, with nothing more than a paper cup of frothy coffee in front of me, my attention was caught by a group of individuals sitting around a nearby table. It was a small group of mentally handicapped adults along with their supervisors. One of them, a young and rather good-looking patient arose and sat at a nearby table by himself. He looked toward me. I cracked a smile. He got rather excited and grinned from ear to ear, holding up his thumb. As I could see, he was happy. 

Then I heard a slight wail uttered by another patient, a female with curly salt-and-pepper hair, giving me an impression that she was in her forties, possibly even in her fifties, but has a mental age of a two-year-old. Her head was stooped over a plate of salad she was slowly eating. Connecting her lips to the food were several strings of saliva.

I had to turn away with a feeling of revulsion, obliterating my appetite and shutting out any desire for the coffee, still mainly unconsumed. All the others who sat with her were immune from such feelings of revulsion, both supervisors and patients alike, but I was aware that at any restaurant I would have been put off my meal, let alone sharing the table. Yet I could not help turn and fix my eyes on her, the sense of disgust having an overwhelming power over me. She became a magnet for my attention.

Then I began to think of her eternal state. Where would she go after her death? To believe that healthy, well-to-do people such as Chris Collison and his daughter are heirs of Heaven while this poor, unfortunate soul would perish forever is anathema, a wickedly cruel theory! Then I remembered what Jesus once said concerning little children: 
Forbid them not for such is the Kingdom of Heaven - (Matthew 19:14).

This woman, adult as she may be, has a mental age of a two-year-old, probably even less. Therefore in God's eyes, hers is the Kingdom of Heaven. It makes sense. It makes perfect sense. There she is. Never having worn a wedding ring. Never knowing what it's like receiving a husband's intimacy. Having a womb which never, and will never, carry a developing fetus and giving birth. Having breasts which never and will never give suck. Never, and will never experience the joys and hardships of motherhood.

Yet she is happy. Happy in her own little world. Never having to worry where the next meal will come from. Never ever to worry about fuel bills, the taxman, nor a mortgage or rent arrears. As for travel, she most likely had never left the UK - and she couldn't care less! And she will never miss the experience of independent travel and backpacking, nor be aware of its existence. Nor even boarding a train, let alone sail on a ferry or board a flight. Yet she is happy, contented with her lot. Because in her little world, and among many other trials, she would never have to worry about nursing a physically disabled beloved or maintaining medical care in a way I need to. Yet I couldn't but help feel something of a love for her.

Bracknell Competition Pool - weekly therapeutic.

And a feeling of shame of myself. Ashamed of my feeling of repulsiveness, and of disgust at the sight of her drooling saliva. And yet I realise that sin is just as repulsive in God's eyes as the dear woman was to me. Yet God loves her, just as much as he loves Chris Collison, his daughter and her new husband, and all family members. The fact that she's middle class and a celebrity makes no difference. We are all sinners and in need of God's love and forgiveness. All of us. Status is absolutely irrelevant. God's grace fulfils the need for each and every one of us.

That was why I had a longing for her to rise up and make a dash for me, to receive a tight embrace. Even with her saliva dampening my shirt, I would have held her tight, and look joyfully into her eyes, smiling at her warmly. The same kind of love Christ has for us.

The kind of Christlike love such stoical, stiff-upper-lip, church-going Amanda Platell needs to show to Martha Collison, is a far better form of encouragement to get her flan right, instead of publicly criticising her and putting her down for the sake of being British.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

A Cretin Halts Eurostar!

I grew up in a family where my late father seemed to have had an averse against public transport. Therefore I became used to being transported in his family car, the Ford Popular, a particular make and model, as the name implied, popular around the late fifties and into the sixties. However, despite how he might have felt towards using public transport, I do remember very clearly his use of the London Underground with just me to accompany him, before passing his driving test and acquiring his first ever car. As a small child, it was quite daunting to sit inside this apparently huge, man-made subterranean cavern and the sight of the train emerging from the tunnel at one end of the cavern. Because of the enclosed space, the noise of rolling wheels on the tracks was amplified as it echoed around the confines of the station space.

The Ford Popular, Dad's first ever car.

However, those were the glory days of my youth, when we lived in Pimlico, a Westminster residential district with the River Thames itself forming the southern border, with the east by Vauxhall Bridge Road, the west by the Grosvenor Canal, and the north with Belgravia by Victoria Station. During my childhood days, the Victoria Line with Pimlico Tube Station, now very close to where we used to live, did not exist, since the Victoria Line opened in sections between 1968 and 1972, with Pimlico Station itself being the last to open, which by then we were long settled in Bracknell. Therefore I have always tried to figure out which of the Tube lines Dad took me in when he had to travel across London to do business.

And so indeed, when Dad used the tube, I often accompanied him. But not so with Mum, because she never used the Underground, always preferring those red double-decker buses which plied the streets of the city. Although she had never said so, I suspect it could have been a feeling of claustrophobia, especially when the train stops in between stations and we are stuck in a tight tunnel beneath the surface and out of reach from sunlight. I guess those were the glory days of Empire, or at least, the end-days of Empire, while across the Channel, a six-nation European Economic Community was in its fledgeling stage with the rising of General De Gaulle of France making sure that Britain will have no part of EEC membership.

Therefore what a privilege it was to be old and eligible enough to vote for the UK to join the EEC, or the European Common Market, in 1973, when I was a mere twenty-year-old. It was as if I was sticking my two fingers at the former French president. But more important, to be in the Community drew closer ties with Italy, my ancestral home country where the rest of our relatives still live. And I rejoiced when the result came out the next day. We were in.

Although my father continued to drive his own car until old age coupled with cancer finally overtook him, just like Mum never taking to the Underground, I never took to the steering wheel, although in 1978, on one occasion, I did drive a three-wheel Reliant right into London on the M4 motorway, nevertheless, on a daily basis, the nearest in guiding a motor vehicle along Britain's roads was on a motorcycle. It was only a small bike in the motorcycling world, not more than 90cc, but it gave me independence and pleasure until one afternoon, a car in front decided to brake suddenly, and to avoid a rear collision, I swerved sharply, throwing me off the two-wheeler and left lying on the road next to the bike. Eventually, someone called the ambulance and was taken to the nearest hospital, where I spent the next few days bedded down in one of the wards.

As a child, I was overawed by the cavernous tube station. 

Having heard so many stories of permanent disabilities and fatalities caused by motorbike accidents, it was after leaving the hospital when I decided to leave the motorcycle locked permanently away at the garage and buy a pushbike. I believe it was a wise move. This was because not only riding a bicycle was much cheaper than any motor vehicle, but pedalling offered fitness as well, to the extent that triathlon training and competition began to dominate the 1980s, into the nineties.

Therefore the train became the main form of long-distance transportation. Although the much-maligned British Rail was plagued with strikes, go-slows and other forms of industrial unrest, nevertheless whenever normal service resumed, I always found our trains to be fast, efficient and punctual. For example, the Bracknell-London Waterloo service took just forty minutes to complete during the early 1970s, stopping only at Staines. Now, after privatisation during the nineties, our Southwest Trains stops at eight additional stations before arriving at Waterloo, and another stop is due to be added due to a housing development. Indeed, our present services are a lot slower than they used to be, at least on our line.

But I think the development of HS1, or the Eurostar, was the great leap in Anglo/French rail development, with the construction of the Channel Tunnel, a tube 31.35-mile, 50.45 km in length passing through a chalk bed under the English Channel. It's actually longer than the 30-mile route from our home town into London but it takes just twenty minutes for the Eurostar train to pass under the sea from Folkstone to Calais.

Therefore it came of no surprise over our excited anticipation in 2016 as Alex was able to climb out of her wheelchair, fold and to push it under the luggage rack as we boarded at London St Pancras for Paris. As the train accelerated through East London and Kent before entering the tunnel, I thought of the vast improvement in travel since the 1960s when Dad drove his car from our home to Paris. That is, without any direct motorways back then, this involved up to two days driving, including a late-evening ferry from Dover to Calais (with a long wait before embarkation), an overnight sleep in the car just outside Calais, then a day's driving into Paris. That was in 1966, after stripping off my school uniform for the Summer and when our family's tight budget caused us to eschew a hotel for the night.

By comparison, the Eurostar train took just 136 minutes to pull into Paris Gare de Nord from London St Pancras. We repeated the journey exactly a year later as part of our wedding anniversary celebration, and then again only a couple of weeks ago, when we boarded the international train for the third journey, this time for the 120-minute dash to Brussels. All three outbound journeys were fast, non-stop. For the return journeys, the 2016 return trip from Paris was also non-stop, the 2017 return stopped additionally at Ebbsfleet International, while the return from Brussels stopped at Lille. 

Yes, it can be argued that some magic has gone from international travel. At least with the good old boat-train which dominated my travels during the early seventies. From London Victoria, there was this hassle of alighting at Folkstone, passing through Passport Control to board the ferry to Boulogne, then board their train for Rome. With further onboard Passport checks at Modane, the whole journey took more than 24 hours to get to Rome from London overall, but I found it to be very thrilling. Especially on board the ferry which rolled over a rough sea, causing a rush of sea-spray to give us all on deck an unexpected soaking! (For the record, many of us stood on the outdoor decking to avoid the stench of vomit flooding the floor of the bar and restaurant). No wonder that after the crossing, I felt that I was really in a foreign country. 

Those were the days, my friend - the good old 1970s. Who thought they would ever end?

Therefore it came as a shock to the system to read about this deranged individual who successfully halted all Eurostar departures out of St Pancras and also delayed the arrivals from Paris and Brussels, and wrecking the plans of thousands of passengers. He was protesting about the delay of Brexit from the original March 29th exit until the 12th April, with a strong possibility of further delays in leaving the EU until a deal can be passed through Parliament. 

What he did was to spend the whole of the early hours of Saturday morning on the roof of the tunnel at Barnsbury, which takes the Eurostar track underground beneath the Overground railway tracks, therefore bypassing all the stations on that line. This action endangered his life, therefore the need to shut down all overhead power lines.

This guy, who is in his forties, does tarnish the reputation of Brexiteers. I can even go as far as to say that not all Brexiteers are lunatics of course, but every lunatic had voted Leave. I can bet every single penny that he is one of many who would love to see the Eurotunnel dynamited and sealed forever, so never again would a train pass from England to France and back under the ocean. His protest was a cry for British sovereignty - or secretly, something else.

Like as I mentioned two weeks earlier, chances are that he had never travelled on Eurostar, neither has he any intention to do so. If I was able to pierce through his tough-minded Euroscepticism, I would most likely find fear lurking in the inner depths of his heart. Not the fear of losing the chance of Britain being free from the shackles of Brussels, but fear of being in the tunnel itself. As aforementioned, he could imagine being stuck below the sea due to a signal failure, a fire, a mechanical or electrical breakdown, or seawater rushing into the tunnel, drowning everyone. Alternatively, he could have feelings of deep envy of these middle-class scum who can afford to pay for the journey and enjoy the experience, himself having to scrimp and scrape from his low-paid job, or even from benefits.

Many Brexiteers would love to see this permanently closed.

These are the thoughts and feelings most likely lurking under his stiff upper lip and patriotic love for his country. He gets a level of comfort by believing that we who voted to remain in the EU are spineless wimps who promote Project Fear, and are too pessimistic to consider England's bright and glorious future as an independent sovereign nation without the need for God, yet advancing in evolution. As former Daily Mail journalist and ardent Brexiteer, Katie Hopkins, who once publicly announced that all Remainers and foreign immigrants are but monkeys, hinting backwardness on Darwin's evolutionary scale - the exact thoughts of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi henchmen who favoured eugenics and ushered in the Holocaust in their attempt to obey Francis Galton's recommendation to spur natural selection on the eradication of the unfit in their survival for life.

Was that protester acting in a godly manner by halting all Eurostar departures? I think not. But I do know quite a number of Christians who hold the same opinions and share the same desires as this lone protester. The only difference is that they attend church instead of protesting on the roof of a railway tunnel. Other than that, they are arm-in-arm in support for the divorce.