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Saturday, 11 May 2019

A Trip to the British Museum...

One unique feature about a Bank Holiday Monday is that it's usually very different from a normal Monday. As one good friend of mine said to me after a church service had finished, it's a refreshing diversity from those familiar feelings of "Monday Morning Blues" - when it seems easier for a log to lift itself off from the ground unaided than for a human to get up out of bed to that intrusive ringing of the alarm clock shattering a romantic dream or visions of a faraway paradisal location.

Indeed, I was not at all surprised when my young friend and Christian brother, Dr Andrew Milnthorpe, messaged me on Facebook a few days earlier whether we were free for this particular holiday Monday, a non-religious-based May Day, which always follows the first Sunday after the start of that particular Spring month. Indeed we were free that day, meaning we had no particular plans. Therefore I submitted a proposal for a visit to the British Museum, set in the Bloomsbury district of Central London. Surprisingly, this post-graduate seem to lack enthusiasm but agreed to accompany us anyway. Such a trip out seemed far better than being stuck alone indoors.

As train-travel goes, there was a closure on our line into London Waterloo station, a typical statutory holiday phenomenon, which meant changing platforms at Clapham Junction, itself featured in the Guinness Book of Records as being the UK's busiest station. The sheer impracticality of such a manoeuvre involving a wheelchair was a bit too much. Therefore we chose the fast Reading-Paddington Great Western mainline route followed by a single ride on the Underground. 

I love being on a fast train. According to my experience, the Eurostar London-Paris route remains unbeatable. But equally enjoyable is the 18-minute non-stop on one of Britain's principal routes. And Providence was on my side - just. Because on the opposite platform at Reading, another train was already standing, a stopping service to London. Had it been a five-coach train featuring first class, Andrew would have insisted on boarding it. But instead, it was a three-coach train without first class accommodation. Therefore we waited a little longer for the long-haul nine-coach train which was non-stop. This meant a difference in journey time between eighteen minutes and one of around 33 minutes - the 15-minute margin having the potential of playing havoc to Alex's back and her general comfort.

We eventually arrived at the museum. Although this was Alex's first visit, whether my friend has been before, I didn't get around to asking. But I have been before and I knew what I really wanted to see.

After Andrew had treated us to a sumptuous meal at a rather posh third-floor restaurant where waiters were dressed in a white shirt and a black bow-tie, we remained on the third floor to enter the Egyptian Afterlife gallery - mummies and their highly decorated coffins, all confined in glass cabinets. And because Andrew loves pushing Alex's wheelchair, the two stayed together, giving me a level of relief from having to constantly push. And suddenly I found myself alone in the crowd.

Indeed, it was the most crowded gallery in the whole museum. Whether the public has a fascination with morbidity or otherwise, I cannot be too sure. But Alex and Andrew couldn't be seen throughout the gallery. Also, I was a tad disappointed. I recall my last visit to this particular gallery, more than thirty-five years previously. Back then, I was sure that there were far more mummies on display, all confined in one room. This time there seem to be far fewer mummies and a heck of a lot more empty coffins, all standing upright like soldiers on parade.

Mummies at the British Museum - taken May 2019.

That visit so long ago coincided with one of my backpacking trips to Italy, this one completed in the Autumn of 1982. By holding a 21-day Italian Rail Pass, I was able to travel around the whole length of the country from Milano, where I had the pass validated, to as far south as Sicily. Maybe I did - and still have - a fascination with morbidity. I managed to include a visit to the Catacombs of St John, a network of tunnels deep underneath the city of Siracusa, which once housed hundreds of the dead buried in niches which were all carved into the tunnel walls. Back in 1982, I was able to stroll along at my own pace, alone, taking as much time as I need. At present, visiting is confined by escorted group tours which are carried out rather hurriedly, and therefore not given enough time to absorb the experience.

Another attraction is located underneath a church in the Sicilian capital city of Palermo. It is known as il Catacombe dei Cappuccini. On the same 1982 trip, I was entirely alone in this underground crypt one morning. I stood as the well-preserved mummies seem to take on a life on their own as many of the skulls stared down at me. There is a legend that one of the mummies fell out of its place and landed on one of the passing tourists as if to say Get out! The only sense of eeriness was from a loose flap swinging back and forth at the air vent. The constant Bap! Bap! Bap! of the hinged metal panel did alleviate what would have been an even eerier, death-like silence.

And while I'm at it, I might as well mention the Catacombs of Paris. Situated at the end of a very long underground tunnel, again I was alone as I visited off-season in 1985. Those were the glory-days when anyone can walk directly to the base of the Eifel Tower from the street or from the Jardin without the need to pass through security barriers and undergoing bag checks and airport-style security gates. Meanwhile, I've found that the catacombs of Paris were very much unlike that of Palermo. Rather, deep underneath the streets of Paris, there were just piles and piles of femurs interspersed with skulls. 

Do I have a sense of morbid fascination? Maybe so, but I think that this is borne out from decades of disillusionment with class-obsessed and celebrity-worshipping Englishness with much of this reflected in our churches, according to more than 45 years experience as a Christian believer. For example, the ongoing obsession with the disappearance of a doctor's daughter Madeleine McCann more than a decade ago, and still in the news to this day as police continue to search for her, boosted by extra public funding. Or the Leave-supporting graduate in our church who denies the historicity of Genesis yet held in reverential respect by the Elders and the congregation alike. And now also being surrounded by other Brexit-voting churchgoers who seem to be obsessed with optimistic views on Britain outside the EU and a longing for national sovereignty and yes, glory.

We seem to have forgotten that the same fate awaits every one of us. Its cruelty is reflected in the fact of being no respecter of persons or lowly animals alike - let alone social status, education, fame, or wealth. As with a poster submitted to Andrew's Facebook timeline showing the smug expression of Nigel Farage and his new Brexit Party, partly funded by a wealthy businessman and all, I felt my heart fell. Please give it a rest! But the worst scenario found in the Bible is to be called a fool by God himself.

It is found in Luke 12:13-21. It was taught by Jesus in a country within which, wealth was a sign of righteousness before God, based on Deuteronomy 28:1-14 and similar Scriptures. Here was a businessman and a successful one at that. If the text in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 had provided a yardstick for society to evaluate a man's righteousness by his wealth, then what Jesus here says must have been a shock to his audience! One truth stands out like a sore thumb. That is, he was concerned about his own future prosperity and he had no thought about others less well off, or those who were poor and hungry. He never realised that a far better way of living was within his powers by giving freely to the poor and needy. Instead, it was to eat, drink, and be merry, or as some modern translations put it - wine, women and song for you.

Thou fool! Tonight your soul shall be required of you. Supposing this guy had instead said to himself:

My fields have produced abundantly in the last few years and I have plenty to spare. This is what I ought to do: I will go out and use my abundance to feed the poor and help the needy. I will visit the home of the widow and ensure her welfare is okay. Furthermore, I shall bring gifts to children, especially those who are fatherless. So please, God, help me fulfil my destiny.

With such intentions, would God had called him a fool? I doubt it! Rather God would have blessed him with thirty, maybe forty more years of life, perhaps with fame and popularity as a bonus.

That is really living. The thing is, here in England, it can be difficult to actually live a life like that. Especially in churches where most are well educated and hold good jobs. Okay, there are the homeless. Walk through the streets of any town or city and sooner or later there is someone who has made his home on the sidewalk. I must confess, I tend to walk straight past. Maybe it's because in the past I had some bad experiences with them, such as being duped by putting on an act. My wife and I nearly fell for such a scam whilst staying in Chester. Or to donate a respectable sum of money, only to discover that his bandaged injury was a fake. Or to read that many of these beggars are actually quite well off and are not homeless. But try as I might, I cannot justify my own weakness, hence the need for a Saviour.

Whatever may be, those mummies and remains of dead people in the British Museum, under the streets of Paris, and in a Sicilian church crypt, all tell a powerful message. One day we all be as they are. With utterly no respect for our social standing, education, wealth, or whether we were popular or famous in society or not. 

Catacombe dei Cappuccini, Palermo. Visited 1982. 

Earlier I said that my mate Andrew Milnthorpe looked as he lacked enthusiasm in visiting the British Museum. It's very likely that he has been before or knows someone who has. While I was in the Egyptian Afterlife gallery, I could not see him nor my wife anywhere in the vicinity, which leads to the likelihood that he felt very uncomfortable looking at mummies or their coffins. And so these two were most likely in an adjoining gallery while I was examining the corpses. Rather they are all a reminder that whether he voted for Brexit and I voted to remain in the EU, neither counts for anything from the moment we step off this planet. Only our response to God's call will determine our eternal destiny.


  1. Dear Frank,
    As they say, death is the great leveler. We brought nothing into this life, and we will bring nothing out. The only thing that matters is our eternal destiny, based on whether or not we trusted Christ as our Savior. If we did, then we will also be rewarded for good deeds done with the right motive, which is the icing on the cake.
    Thanks as always for the excellent post. May God bless you and Alex.

  2. Amen, Frank.

    So many of us spend all our time struggling over things that are at best only temporary distraction and have no meaningful value.