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Saturday, 29 June 2019

How Can I Be So Sure?

This week, after a short train journey, I alight at Reading, into the warm sunshine. Then I stroll casually into the town centre shopping precinct. Among the crowds was a group of smartly-dressed men, shirt-and-tie and all that, their dress code making them stand out from the rest of us, that is, except for the passing school kids in their uniform.

Thinking they were salesmen, I did my best to avoid them. The one who approached me spoke in a dialect which made his introducing of himself difficult to understand. Like as if he's an annoying mosquito buzzing around in its hope for some blood, I waved him off and continued to where I was going.

Among the crowds was a group of smartly-dressed men...

Later, on my way back to the station, I passed them again. A different person was eyeing me up but this time, driven by curiosity, my attention was turned to the tiny lapel pinned to his shirt. On it was the wearer's name. Underneath, in almost microscopic lettering, were the words:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

To the uninitiated, such a title or church name looks impressive. After all, as a believer in Jesus as my Saviour and a member of Ascot Life Church, a revamped Baptist Church in East Berkshire, am I not a latter-day saint myself? 

I immediately spoke before he could get a word in, my actual speech here in italics.

Oh, you're Mormons! I have visited your headquarters over at Utah.
(That is, in Salt Lake City.)

I then went on:
I'm already familiar with Joseph Smith and his finding of the golden tablets buried in New York State. (Actually, I should have said "golden plates").

Tell me, what has happened to those tablets? Why aren't they in a museum where they can be checked (for their authenticity) as well as to be seen by the public?

The Mormon looked as if a little too embarrassed to answer. He already knows that the reason why those plates would never be found at any museum, nor stored away at some secret vault, is because they were taken up to Heaven by an angel soon after Joseph Smith had finished with them. 

I only read the Bible, I said, and I don't read any back-up books (referring to the Book of Mormon, said to be written by Joseph Smith as a direct English translation of the golden plates, originally written in "Reformed Egyptian" - a language unknown to secular linguists, with him using a huge pair of oversized spectacles, known as Urim and Thummim, which was also taken up to Heaven!)

Carefully avoiding the words, I believe, which would have weakened my testimony, I then finished the conversation:

I know Jesus Christ as my Saviour. He died on the Cross so that he gives eternal life to anyone who believes. Sorry, I have to go. I have a train to catch.

I immediately began to regret cutting the talk short so quickly. I wished that I have emphasised his physical Resurrection from the dead, despite not fully knowing what the Mormon's view is of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Although I perhaps should have known. After all, I did visit their Headquarters in Salt Lake City. The site boasted the Temple, not open to the public, a choir auditorium which is open to visitors, and the Visitor's Center, which is a museum of the history and belief on the Mormon faith. Here and there were quotes from the Bible, but none on display from the Book of Mormon, which is held on equal terms by them as being the inspired Word of God, alongside the Bible itself. 

For the uninitiated, the history on which their whole faith rests can be taxing to the sane mind. The story goes that after trying out different Protestant churches across New York State and finding them all bickering against each other, Joseph Smith prayed to attend the right church. The answer he received back was quite extraordinary. He saw visions of disembodied spirits of two or three of the original apostles, along with an angel, who instructed him not to attend any of those churches, but instead to go to a certain site in the countryside with a spade and to dig up some golden plates and a huge pair of glasses, and to write in English what is written on the plates. The spectacles themselves will translate the text from "Reformed Egyptian" into English.

The story goes that during the Jewish exile from Babylon, around 600 BC, a group of them, known as Nephites, got into large boats and sailed the length of the Mediterranean and out into the Atlantic Ocean until they reached the continent of North America, and then built and settled into townships at was is now New York State. The leader of that community, Lehi, wrote on golden plates and had them buried for future posterity.

It 's a fascinating story. And despite that there is no archaeological evidence of any settlement dating back to that time in America, neither has any kind of "Reformed Egyptian" as a written language has ever been found on either the Old World or the New World alike. Furthermore, the ancient Jews had no history of being seafarers, and their language would have been Hebrew, possibly Aramaic as well, but certainly not Egyptian, reformed or whatever.

Joseph Smith has a Vision...

Yet these people I met in Reading, in Utah, as well as in my own apartment, all fully believed in these things and rested their eternities on such faith. To them, salvation is achieved through a combination of both faith and works: Faith in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ plus works in entering a covenant of baptism, constant repentance from sins, the partaking of the sacraments, and eternal marriage, the latter doesn't hold much hope for singles. All to earn and secure their own eternities.

Reading about the early Mormon settlers as they face persecution and then left to wander like nomads across the continent until finally settling in the State of Utah, they suffered for their faith. Even Joseph Smith, the founder of the movement, was martyred, calling curses on his persecutors rather than forgiveness, as both Jesus and Stephen did (Luke 23:34, Acts 7:60).

How such a story, lacking in any historical credibility, could convert someone to the point that he would suffer martyrdom, beats me. Yet they are convinced they are on the right path to reconciliation with God and surety of future sonship with him. This also reminds me of the stories told about Jehovah's Witnesses, another cult which has its origins in New York, putting themselves at risk of death in a hospital rather than accept a blood transfusion.

Massive family arguments had occurred in hospitals over this issue. There have been cases when the patient himself, often a child or an adolescent, would have consented to a transfusion. The doctors would have happily gone along with the youngster's consent, had it not been for the fierce opposition from his faithful parents or relatives. Conversely, there were many J.W. patients who have resisted a transfusion to the bitter end, despite pleading from both non-believing relatives and doctors alike. They are all convinced that whether breaking a Mormon covenant or disobeying the dictates of the Watchtower Society, any hope of salvation is lost.

But more than this, each of these followers is convinced that he is right and all others are wrong. It's not just a matter of holding on to the right doctrine, but also a heartfelt conviction. And I could say this about all religions. Whether Mormon, Jehovah's Witness, Roman Catholic, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu - all have a heart conviction from one degree to another that they are on the right path to God.

Therefore, it leaves me to ask: Where do I stand? Even in my own church at Ascot, I was told specifically by just one person that when I stand before the Throne of Judgement, I will cry out:
Lord, Lord, have I not prophesied in your name, and in your name cast out demons, and in your name done many wonderful works?

To which the Lord's reply:

I never knew you, depart from me all ye who work iniquity.
Matthew 7:21-23.

Not that I actually prophesied in public in his name, nor have I driven out any demons, at least as far as I know. And many wonderful works - what "wonderful works"? Nevertheless, I was branded as wicked by this same person. And remarkably enough, it was not because I denied the Lord, whether publicly or secretly. Rather it was because I don't act like a "proper British person" whatever that suppose to mean - oh yes, I hug other people in public, I also lack self reserve, I have a trembling lower lip instead of a stiff upper one, and, according to this guy, I'm not that well educated. In reality, he is not the only one. There are several other Christian men who know me well, from other churches, who also exclude me, for example, from such Facebook profile sharing, for precisely the same reasons. Therefore, there are times I tend to feel that I'm standing all alone.

But I'm not all alone! Far from it. How can I be assured that I'm in the "right religion"? How can I be assured that my relationship with God is healthy?

Daily reading of the Bible and getting to know the Bible thoroughly. Knowing that from the moment I believe, God the Judge imputes his righteousness, that is, the very righteousness of Jesus Christ, into my soul, quickening my spirit, regenerating me, making me a son of God. And once that stage is accomplished, it can never be reversed. It's God who does the saving and its God who does the keeping afterwards. No other religion teaches this! It's not taught in the Mormon faith, neither among Jehovah's Witnesses nor even in the Catholic faith. My trust is in God alone, but furthermore, at my church at Ascot, there are many who accepts me as a brother and a friend, share Facebook profiles, and asks me to pray with them. When it comes to men's fellowship dinners and socials, I'm normally invited. And in all, my hugs go down well with them.

Faith in Christ is the only way to God the Father. He himself said so. For example, John 14:6 says:
I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

But there is much, much more than just this. Jesus is the only one who fulfils Old Testament prophecy. For example, he is foretold in Genesis 3:15, when, at the very dawn of history, a prophecy about the seed of the woman bruising the head of the serpent, is made, ushering the Promise, which remains unhindered right up to the Crucifixion. Other astonishing prophecies such as Psalm 22, where King David foretells about the agony of Christ on the Cross, being mocked by the crowd surrounding him, and the throwing of dice over his clothing.

And read Isaiah 52:13-15 and the whole of Isaiah 53, a prophecy about the servanthood and suffering of Jesus on the Cross. And Zechariah 9:9, where a prophecy of the Lord's triumphant entry is foretold, along with Zechariah 11:12-13, which is a foretelling of the thirty pieces of silver God is priced at. Other prophecies such as Job 19:25-27 Job cries out that he will see his Redeemer after his skin has decayed, long after his own death, yet in his flesh, he will see God, because he already knows that his Redeemer lives (that is, Resurrected from the dead). Indeed, Eternal Security of the Believer is not confined only to the New Testament! Rather, it's intricately linked with the resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth from the dead.

These are great truths, wonderful truths, fascinating truths! Jesus himself had said:
I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No man comes to the Father except through me.

Jesus Christ of Nazareth is actually the Truth himself, not merely the source of truth or the right doctrine. This I know, that trusting in Jesus Christ to save me is the only way to the Father. And with this comes forgiveness of all sins - past, present and future, imputed righteousness, and adoption into God's family, which includes fellowship with other Christian believers.

Abraham once said, I'm but dust and ashes. Genesis 18:27.
King David, in addressing Saul, admitted I am but a dead dog, a flea. 1 Samuel 24:14.
Isaiah cries out: Woe is me, I am undone. For I am a man of unclean lips... Isaiah 6:5.
Paul the Apostle writes: In me dwells no good thing, that is, in my flesh... Romans 7:18.

With such statements, coupled with my own life's experiences, I know full well that I'm no better than those quoted four. Yet these four men were some of the greatest men of God in human history. All had faith in God, and not in themselves.

That is why no Mormon can help me, nor any Jehovah's witness, nor any religion or faith that adds works of any kind to faith. Nor any faith, come to that, which insist that I must stay faithful in order to remain saved.

In me dwells no good thing, that is, in my flesh... It's impossible to add an iota of human effort to be saved or even to remain saved. It's all about God, his faithfulness, and his promise to keep everyone who believes.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

A Church Having Fun?

I grew up in the Catholic faith in Pimlico, where as a boy I was already acquainted with the vast cavern of nearby Westminster Cathedral, home of the Cardinal of London, second only to the Pope himself and therefore head of all Catholics living in the UK. I could say that he is equal to the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England and second to the Monarch herself.

I was always taken back by the Cathedral, where Mum taught me from a very young age always to talk in whispers, so not to "decimate" the holiness of the sanctuary. The only thing I enjoyed doing was to light a votive candle and then place it at its proper place among the rows on the stand. Such a custom over countless generations could be the cause of the blackening of the high ceiling with what appears to be soot. Above the Altar, an enormous crucifix hangs from the ceiling, with a larger than life image of Jesus Christ painted on it, his head dropped over his chest in death.

The whole atmosphere conveys solemnity. Anything considered pleasurable is either frowned upon or considered sinful. Indeed, an abbey populated with chanting monks is seen as far more closely allied to the Christian faith than for instance, the thrilling joviality of a fun-fair spinner or roller-coaster. To miss Mass for a day trip to the seaside was, back in the fifties and sixties, considered a mortal sin and in danger of Hell. Therefore it was of no surprise that my late father ended up as an agnostic, a nominal Catholic who believed in the existence of God but had no time for organised religion. Especially from his schooldays, when at a convent school in Italy, he received a smack across his face by one of the nuns for taking Communion without first going to Confession.

When I first had faith in God on that rainy December Saturday evening in 1972, I couldn't help feel somewhat flabbergasted at a sight of a Bible within a pub! Yet even to my own surprise, I felt no guilt or embarrassment as I read aloud the verses shown to me. Yet throughout the seventies, I read of Christian evangelists and itinerant preachers making a stand against going to the cinema, attending a ballroom or entertaining a party spirit. I even found out that watching sport on a Sunday was frowned upon and television was held in low esteem. I recall one Pentecostal pastor forbidding TVs in the homes of his followers. He often made random calls to their homes to ensure that his edict was followed and upheld. Little surprise that men of my age cracked jokes behind his back about "Quick! Hide the TV!" as the set was shunted into a cupboard as the pastor walks in. As for me, I was ready for a showdown if he ever walked into my apartment. My TV stays put! Little wonder that I left his small church after only a couple of weeks.

Indeed, I might have walked out of Westminster Cathedral but Westminster Cathedral hadn't entirely left me. However, I came across one book back in the early seventies, The Liberation of Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsey (who also wrote the better-known book Late Great Planet Earth). In his first chapter, A Candidate for a Miracle, he tells of his search for God as a youngster, only to end up disillusioned with church altogether, making him an atheist. He was out with his mates one evening, in Houston, I believe, when they came across a coffee bar with a sign above which read, FREE FOOD. Underneath, in smaller lettering read, Jesus Saves.

"Come, let these Holy Joes feed us!" he called out as he entered the cafe. "It's the least they can do!"
By then, his anger with organised religion had reached his peak, a phenomenon I can easily relate to. After all, it was not Westminster Cathedral which brought me to Christ. Rather, it stood in the way and the churches which Lindsey attended looks to have done the same thing. All this was before his dramatic conversion to Jesus Christ as Saviour whilst on duty as a ferry master in New Orleans, followed by a call to attend Dallas Theological Seminary, one of the toughest colleges to accept new candidates as students. Yet he was accepted as a completely changed person.

But it was the idea of "religious people" running a coffee bar which intrigued me. As I have always understood, the church was more of a monastic environment, secluded from any "worldly" fad such as a coffee bar. It was both after getting acquainted with the Bible and attending Bracknell Baptist church from 1975 onwards when Westminster Cathedral slowly began to lose its grip.

On paper, the idea of a not-for-profit coffee bar which is free at the point of use seems a terrific one! The snag, I'm sure, lies in the funding. Sure enough, with charity status, maybe an outlet can be hired rent-free, and all the staff being unpaid volunteers, yet how such a shop could still function beats me. Perhaps all that was quite common back in the forties and early fifties when Hal Lindsey was in his prime. The one who always recited, Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse, took these Holy Joes for granted as if they featured in the streets of every city, and like today's Starbucks or Costa Coffee, they were a common sight.

Therefore for the first time, I must have set foot in America during the post-free-coffee-bar era, in 1977. Because even then, I did not see a single "Free Food, Jesus Saves" coffee bar at all, no matter which city I visited. Perhaps the closest to a display of the Lord's name I came across was on the roof of what was otherwise an insignificant building overlooking a square in the city of Portland, Oregon.

I took this in Portland, Oregon, in 1977.

Yet nevertheless, when I consider the likes of preachers such as John MacArthur and Paul Washer, well-known American evangelists, both advocating Lordship Salvation, or the late, hate-filled Fred Phelps, former pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, whose campaign was to warn homosexuals about their certain lost destiny, I do find it difficult to reconcile this style of preaching with having fun. I guess I must have grown up with a "repent or perish" resplendent of John Wesley, George Whitfield, or Charles Spurgeon.

But I do believe that God is God, the Almighty, and he can sow the seed of the Gospel in any way he prefers, or how he sees fit. And so, every year we at Ascot Life Church host the Fun Day at a school field nearby from the Life Centre building, the home of the church. It's basically a fete, but one with a difference. That is, all food and drink stalls are free, along with bouncy castles, bouncy-slides, targets, skittles, etc, all free, including the main feature, barbecued pork roasting on a spit. I have attended all of these Fun Days since they were first inaugurated a few years ago. At first, football and cricket were organised, with myself taking part in the cricket (but not the football). Then lately the attention began to be more focused in the fete itself with all its attractions.

I guess this is a reminiscence of the "Free Food" coffee bars of 1940's America. When he visited, Lindsey was not actually converted in any of these bars. Instead, he felt contempt towards the volunteers as he and his mates took advantage of their generosity. But I'm convinced that a seed was sown into his heart while he was there, even if his attitude remained unchanged after he had left the bar. Because it was sometime later, during the night, when he was master of a New Orleans ferry plying the River Mississippi when he felt a compulsion to suddenly steer the boat a sharp turn. It was after realising that he had just missed a potentially fatal collision with another vessel when he knew that his sudden manoeuvre was by divine intervention. It was this which finally converted him.

I guess it's easy for the likes of the past great revivalists to look down from heaven with contempt at our Fun Days. And perhaps by other churchgoers who still traditionally keep religion and pleasure as mutually exclusive. Maybe they would love to approach us and with an element of a sneer, ask,
"Well, how many souls were saved today?"

I love to say, well actually, quite a number were saved today.

If only. But I reckon only God know why that doesn't happen. It's about sowing the seed of the Gospel. Indeed, there is the possibility of one turning to Christ right there on the spot. That would be most likely caused by a seed sown earlier at another occasion. Paul the apostle already had the seed of Christ sown in his heart before his conversion at the Damascus Road. It was that seed already in his heart which he fought against, causing him to "Kick against the goads" (Acts 26:14). Before he was converted, this Pharisee already had an idea who this Jesus of Nazareth was.

Our Fun Days is about sowing the seed of the Gospel of Christ to all who turn up. And this involves prayer. Prayer for the seed to be sown to anyone who would receive it. But, and maybe, unfortunately, prayer for good weather as well. Here in the UK, we have a cool temperate climate. That means it rains in June, while dry sunshine dominates Mediterranean lands. Britons are reputed to "tough it out" in wet or lousy weather. Indeed, even with a threat of rain, people may still turn up in droves. But we are not too keen on getting wet and chilly ourselves! Hence prayer is essential.

Fun Day, taken 2017, which appeared in church literature.

Free food is the focal point with the fete. This is tied in with the free gift of the grace of God. It was Jesus who offered free living water to the woman of Samaria (John 4). One example of believers gathering together for a meal is found in Acts 2:46-47. Then God himself invites all to come, eat and drink freely, without money and without price (Revelation 22:17). It does look as though the seed sown into the heart is by way of the stomach.

The organisation is done voluntarily by regular churchgoers at Ascot Life Church. There are teams to set up, to run each stall, to supervise and monitor each of the attractions, to mind the car park, to be part of the welcoming team, and most importantly, to keep the prayer tent ongoing. There are those responsible to take everything down again after the fete is over. But whatever responsibility each member has, each one of us cherishes the hope that one day the seed of the Gospel planted in someone's heart will germinate into a rebirth of the spirit and enjoy eternity in God's presence.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Give and Take - Is Life Unfair?

Sometime back in the 1970's I stood alongside a blond young man at what was then Bracknell Baptist Church. We were looking at what was the Birth Roll, a framed sheet detailing the names of babies born to parents attending this church for the last ten years, maybe twenty or more years, whatever. We got into a conversation which somehow led up to what he said I perceived was an astonishing statement:
God is unfair!

Naively, I gasped as if in horror with what I had just heard. However, as the rest of my life's experiences had taught me, he was proved to be right.

Bracknell Baptist - attended 1975-1989. Now the Kerith.

Often I have wondered whether regular church attendance or becoming an official member was actually psychologically detrimental. This was a train of thinking which had never ceased running but chugs on and on, over the forty-plus years I have been attending church. However, my ongoing attendance to this day remains from my conviction that the "church" is not the odd-looking building which boasted a steeple (Bracknell Baptist never had a steeple, let alone boasting a bell!) Neither a weird and rather unrealistic place where Tory members are on their knees, praying and singing to some invisible "big man" up there in the sky. 

During the years between 1975, when I first joined, and 1989 when I finally left, we had a very pragmatic and rather authoritarian Welsh pastor with a team of deacons under him. Maybe this was a phenomenon I understood. He was rather short in stature which was substituted by a super-extrovert temperament which was the backing to ensure that his strong sermons were listened to, then applied from Monday morning onwards by everyone who was in the auditorium - sometimes known as "mechanical application" of the sermon into the lifestyle of the hearer. I recall during one particular Sunday preach when two youngsters, either late teenage or in their early twenties, sharing a joke or discussing something between themselves. The pastor pointed his finger at them and ordered the pair to listen to what God is saying. Memories of the school classroom.

No one would dare question his mode of preaching. Well, one close friend of mine tried, when he suggested that he should be more theoretical in his sermon content. His blunt response was that he preaches what he wants to preach. In other words, like it or lump it. Not surprising that he left before I did, along with quite a number who also walked out permanently.

However, all the deacons, who eventually metamorphosed into elders, and then into department heads over the last half-century, were convinced that this former pastor, who has since retired and moved away, was a man of God, almost to the point of infallibility. In the early 1980's he broke his church from the Baptist Union of Great Britain to affiliate itself with Coastlands, the forerunner of New Frontiers International, headquartered in Brighton. He also associated himself and his church to Bill Hybels, founder and senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, to where our leader flew to several times. With a staunch capitalist and a believer in Eternal Security for a pastor, my former church began to grow in numbers, and with the influx of many graduates moving into town, the congregation doubled in size, if not trebled.

But throughout those fifteen years, I began to feel uncomfortable. And that despite being in agreement with most of his beliefs and teaching. Looking back, I know that his preaching style began to be centred on buying land to build a new church, a much bigger one to accommodate a thousand people, perhaps still short of the 7,095-seat capacity of Willow Creek Worship Center, but still in the right direction. Therefore it came as no real surprise that just about every other sermon was about tithing and even double-tithing, the former which I did for a while before feeling drained spiritually, emotionally and financially.

Although a great many churches preach tithing, whether affiliated or independent, and I practised it myself for a considerable time, I always felt ill-at-ease. And that despite one piece of Scripture was always quoted to justify the practice. It's Malachi 3:6-12 where the nation of Israel was accused of robbing God. Depriving the Temple and its staff of resources vital for sacrifices and temporal atonement for sins committed on both individual and national scale is one thing. To give money so that the pastor can fly to and from Chicago and also to fulfil a building project dream is quite another.

Tithing was never made compulsory at Bracknell but it was strongly encouraged by the pastor, yet done in a way in believing that if I don't tithe, then I'll be "robbing God." It was a psycho con-trick, to feel guilty of not fulfilling a duty with a mistaken belief that I was a thief and the worst kind at that! By practising it, I felt that I was no longer living under grace but felt bound up by the Law. Somehow, I felt things just weren't right and therefore I left the church in 1989, to join Ascot Baptist in 1990 after a few months without church altogether.

The real beauty of the church is that it's the Body and Bride of Christ. I suppose that's why I'm always drawn to it. I would say that it's my second home or my spiritual home. And within that context, God loves a cheerful giver. And being a cheerful giver isn't about tithing because I have to, or because the pastor says I should. Rather, to give cheerfully is to give what's in my heart. Here, under grace, I believe that there aren't any "You must..." or "You must not..." If a person wishes to give to the church and he is happy about that, then that is good. Likewise, if another person gives for the purpose of the pastor going away for a holiday abroad, then that too is good. There is nothing wrong with that idea. If there is yet another who wishes to give away all his income to the church or to charity or to both, then that is also good. But he should not have a judgement towards anyone who gives very little or nothing at all, for that form of intimacy is between the person involved and God himself.

It's all about grace, which here in the UK the word itself has become an acronym for Gift Received At Christ's Expense. Indeed, if God was fair, then nobody would go to Heaven! God is holy and we are not. Therefore, in his justice, everyone ever born is destined for Hell, no matter how that person lived in life. Even a good person. That's absolutely fair, isn't it? After all, all one has to do is stumble at just one minor point and he is destined for eternal death, having broken the Law. God cannot stand sin, no matter how little.

Absolutely fair? Really?

Perhaps not. Therefore, in his love, he set out to redeem us. And by sending his beloved Son to die on a Cross to atone for all our sins, the righteousness of the risen Christ is imputed into every believer. God sees every true Christian believer as equally righteous as Jesus Christ himself! This is a free gift, given to everyone who believes. It cannot be earned, nor can it be sustained by the believer himself. Rather, it's God who both saves the sinner and then keeps him, sustaining his faith as a regenerated Christian saint, a son of God, a new creation.

Therefore, if I don't tithe, then I'm not a thief, neither am I robbing God! How can I rob God if He himself has paid the full price for my shortcomings? How can I be called a thief if God has already declared me righteous in Christ? Therefore, if I want to give, that is a privilege God himself will take delight in because it's from my heart and not under compulsion.

And here comes something of a contradiction. Jesus promises joy to all believers, according to John 15:11. But I wish this promise is more realistic in life! I can't say it is, though. Let's see:

After five years of a happy marriage, we lose our daughters to adoption in February 2005, due to both of us having Aspergers.

We suffer years of a terrible loss. Then suddenly, in June 2013 my beloved loses her full mobility and, after staying in a hospital as an inpatient for four months, she can only go outdoors in a wheelchair.

She suffers bouts of the extreme back, leg, stomach or head pain which before necessitated the need to call an ambulance, all this caused by a neurotic disorder. Nowadays her pains are controlled more at home by means of doses of Co-Codamol, Oramorph and other painkillers. She also suffers from other symptoms, including a fit, which needs CPR to revive her.

We have recently discovered that she has breast cancer and a need for treatment with a mastectomy. This has caused her to shed tears in front of me and wondering why God is sending one trial after another in such an endlessly long procession.

It is easy for me to get angry at God! Especially when I mix with young, healthy couples and successful students in our church - happy, contented with their lot, successful at school and heading for university, others having graduated, parents beaming with pride at their offspring's success. Students taking gap-years and enjoying a working holiday halfway around the world. Older couples revelling in their success in holding down executive jobs, having paid off their mortgage, becoming grandparents.

I cry out - Why? Why? Why? Why are others in the same church are so happy and doing so well while we are living in daily suffering? Is there a criterion they have met and we have failed to meet? If so, what is this criterion? Tithing? Well, I tried that and I experienced bondage rather than freedom. Born middle-class? Quite a point, that! But I prefer to rule that one out. But the reality is: Life is grossly unfair.

Unfair this may be, however, our very breath through our nostrils is sustained by God, just as our heartbeat. God can withdraw my life just like that, in an instant. Indeed, I have learned that every single day is a gift from God. Therefore, instead of raging at God for my lot, unfair as it may seem, I bow the knee and thank him for our daily lives and sustenance. As I watch my beloved burst into tears, usually spontaneously. I feel like crying too. All I can do is put my arms around her, draw her close and comfort her. It works. A loving hug can perform miracles!

Hugging - stock photo.

Hugging. Indeed, I was condemned to hell for hugging other people in church! I am branded as wicked and unrepentant, for not conforming to the English model of "manhood." Even one of our Elders stands in supporting this Pharisaic hypocrite, taking his side. This as put an unnecessary extra layer of a burden I don't really need, especially in the struggle to look after and care for my beloved wife.

But despite all that, all I can do is ask the Lord for grace and the ability to strengthen Alex's spirit whenever I need to. I need his grace every day. To strengthen her, to encourage her, to love her so dearly, and to prevent her from thinking that after her mastectomy she will look freakish. I ask God for the ability always to be there for her to support her, and to make and keep a firm promise never to cease loving her, but to stay as one with her as long as God gives me breath.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

From Which We Keep Silent...

Whilst sitting at Starbucks this morning with the Daily Mail national newspaper spread across the circular table in front of me, I became aware of the odour which began to fill the spacious coffee bar. The familiar smell of garlic bread. Some may consider the pong to be aromatic, however, this may not be agreed upon by anyone who gets caught in a conversation with the eater. Chances are that the latter's bad breath will bring on to the listener a fit of raucous coughing or a desire to regurgitate. Instead, the listener will just stand there, his stiff upper lip like a rod of iron, engaging in the talk without the slightest wince betrayed.   

Garlic Bread 

Perhaps this is why I never touch garlic. I can't stand the stuff! And that despite that this member of the Allium genus, which also includes onions, shallots, leeks, and chives, all have high nutritional benefits. In the Old Testament of the Bible, we can read about how the children of Israel, not long after their deliverance from Egypt under Moses' administration, were all crying out for the food they had back in Egypt, which included garlic (Numbers 11:5). 

If I were to be transported back in time to Egypt during the time of their enslavement of the Hebrews, I believe it would take quite a while for me to get accustomed to their smelly breath. And that applies whether I speak ancient Egyptian or Hebrew. I could be talking to a startlingly handsome Egyptian scholar or even a muscular warrior, or I could help lift a beautiful young maiden out of her morning bath in the Nile, but all would be startled at my wincing whenever I draw too close to them. To them, bad breath has become immune, they can't smell each other's rancidity, or if they can, then it's the accepted matter of life which has long lost any of its negative response.

Perhaps it's like entering a room for the first time which odour fills the air. It does not have to be a bad smell. Rather, it could be equally aromatic, the pungency of fresh flowers, perfume or even of spice, like the spicy aroma which was a delight within the narrow, traffic-free streets of Jerusalem Old City. Whenever I smell spice, my subconscious reaction is a memory of Jerusalem. All the time.

As I write this, the story of Joseph, the older of the two sons of Jacob and Rachel (the younger being Benjamin), comes to mind. This young Hebrew was hated by all ten of his older half-brothers because he was the father's favourite son. To show this, Jacob gave Joseph a multi-coloured garment as a symbol of his Dad's favour. As a result, the other brothers, in their jealous rage, eventually sold him as a slave to a passing camel train of Ishmaelites in the desert, who were heading for Egypt. After arrival in Egypt, Joseph was sold as a slave to Potiphar, a governor of Pharaoh's guards.

Even the narrator agrees that Joseph was a remarkably handsome man, a slave fit to be a prince. So much so that Potiphar's wife took a fancy to him and unsuccessfully tried to seduce him to sleep with her while her husband was away on duty. I can imagine the two being so close face-to-face. If garlic was a staple vegetable in Egypt, then the breath of both of them must have been foul, at least smelly to my standing. But this sort of natural shortcoming does not seem to come up in Scripture. It seems that what I perceive as foul breath, must have been so universal during Biblical times that no-one gave it a thought when writing Scripture.

With a possible exception of Job. In Job 19:17, this very ill Middle East nomad complained that his breath was so foul that even his wife felt repulsed and his servants kept their distance. Indeed, the stench filled the whole of his tent and anyone walking through its door would be instantly hit by the odour. At least I can be sure that the stench is not of garlic, but from an internal disease. The smell would have been different, although by eating garlic might have intensified the offending odour.

Going by my own experience in life, having foul breath is perceived as an abnormality here in modern Britain. Being aware of this is the reason I have a bottle of antiseptic mouthwash kept in our bathroom, which I use immediately after brushing my teeth. Foul breath often arises from bacteria thriving on the back of the tongue, therefore swilling the antiseptic inside the mouth over the back of the tongue without swallowing must be very helpful in preventing halitosis.

An incident took place during Spring Harvest in 1994. On stage at the theatre, Clive and Ruth Calver were delivering their scheduled seminary which touched on the frailty of the human body in our relationship with God. Within the talk, it was Ruth who said,
Even the Queen f...needs to go to the toilet.

Ruth bit her tongue in the nick of time, but we laughed, as already knowing what she really wanted to say. This was tied in the life of Jesus Christ and his apostles during his three years of ministry before the Cross, his need for the toilet which was specifically featured in the Spring Harvest Seminary guidebook. Did his breath ever smell? And his daily need to urinate and defecate, how did he go about all this? At least Moses gave instructions for everyone needing to poo to go outside the camp with a spade, dig a hole, have an easement, then turn and refill the hole. Modern science has proved the efficiency of such a primitive form of sanitation (Deuteronomy 23:12-14).

Most likely that was what Jesus and his group did, in fulfilment of the Law. Or maybe head for the nearest public convenience, if any existed in Israel during his time. But how did the patriarchs go about it? That is, those who lived before the Law was given? Going back to Joseph, Jacob's son: I can read of him as a remarkably handsome Prime Minister of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself, and with divine wisdom saved the houses of both the Egyptians and the Hebrews from the effects of a seven-year-long famine. We read of him throwing a banquet for all of his brothers, and particularly for his younger brother Benjamin, the only other son of his deceased mother.

And the British stiff upper lip Joseph certainly lacked! For we read of him weeping copiously in the arms of Benjamin, then again so loudly that it was heard by fellow Egyptian servants working nearby (Genesis 45:1-2). Yet we read nothing about whether his breath was rancid (with garlic as part of a staple Egyptian diet, this was quite likely) or nothing about where to urinate and defecate. It was as if the narrator was himself not interested and he wrote with full knowledge that none of his readers wished to know.  

I guess it has always been that way. We admire those who rose from rags to riches, our knees bend at the sight of a celebrity, whether a famous actor, a singer or band member or a prominent sportsman. Or marvel at a TV presenter or journalist, such as my own admiration of Brian Cox and Simon Reeve. And I guess there are many others who have reverential respect for those dressed in a suit and tie as they watch those well-educated commuters to the office. Then not to mention friends and family members, those closest and dearest to us. But I certainly don't think about their bathroom privacy. It is as if that side to their lives simply don't exist, or not wanting to exist, although I know full well otherwise in the back of my mind.

It's as if there is an element of shame about our bodies, that which can only be done in privacy. Then it must be because my body is sinful. That's why, as a believer, my soul and spirit will go to be with the Lord after death, but my body will go to the grave. I guess this same sense of shame, this embarrassment was what caused Adam and Eve to make aprons of fig leaves immediately after they realised what they had done, and just as I would not like anyone to walk into the bathroom while I'm in the act of defecation, so likewise, Adam and Eve dived behind a bush when they heard God walking through the garden towards them.

Therefore when Jesus died on the Cross to atone for my sins, his salvation comes in three stages: in the past from the moment of believing, Spirit - I am already saved; at present, the Soul, I am being saved, also known as sanctification, and in the future - the Body, I will be saved in the coming Resurrection. And so as such, Paul wrote to the church in Corinth after some doubts about the future Resurrection was going around that particular church. In reply, the apostle wrote about the present state of my body, and liken it to a seed awaiting sowing. Then from this seed, a glorious new body will "germinate" which will be eternal, perfect and fit for Heaven (1 Corinthians 15). We all shall be like the risen, glorified Jesus! Bad odours and bodily waste production will be no more forever!

In the meantime, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the body of every believer in Jesus Christ has made my mortal, shameful body into a temple of the living God, who first created it. Furthermore, Jesus promised that not only the body becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit, but both the Father and the Son will also find his home there (John 14:23). His condition of "loving me and obeying my teachings" is fulfilled the moment the sinner first believes, for from that moment he receives the imputed righteousness of Christ. That is, God the Father sees in exactly the way he sees his Son - in sinless perfection.

Therefore, according to God, he is not ashamed to call us his own! His love for us has overcome every source of shame or embarrassment and declared us as adopted members of his family, and we are already seated with him in the heavenly places. The time will come when all these unseemly things will pass away and we will shine like stars in the heavenly places, dwelling in mansions God has already prepared for our future occupancy (John 14:1-4, KJV). Heavenly mansions such may be, however, there will be rooms conspicuously missing: The bedroom - there will be no more need for bedtime sleep, the kitchen - although there will be food to eat, any form of cooking will no longer be necessary and there will be no need for the kitchen sink. And finally, the bathroom. That will no longer be necessary either, nor for the need for a shower unit or latrine, nor any plumbing for the sewer. All these things will be gone.

Meanwhile, my breath may or may not be rancid, I still require privacy for part of the day, even from my wife, and the need to bathe remains, but despite such imperfections, my body remains the temple of the Holy Spirit. For life.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

An Empty House is Never Burgled.

The old saying, absence makes the heart grow fonder, seems to be more realistic than I have always thought. So as I felt as I lay on a bed inside a hospital ward just two nights before this blog is written. But how did I end up there in the first place?

It is all to do with my aortic valve replacement operation just over four years previously, as a treatment for a regurgitating aortic valve I had, so I was told, since I was young, perhaps even from birth. Although the procedure was a complete success in itself, life-long repercussions remain. This includes taking anticoagulants, in my case Warfarin, for life, along with beta-blockers and diuretics. However, it was a decision taken by one Cardiologist at Heatherwood Hospital in Ascot, that I can come off the diuretics. I thought a first that was wonderful. Then the problems began. I began to get short of breath every time I exerted myself from a state of rest to exercise. And that could be as simple as climbing a flight of steps.

It was when I came to the stage of even finding walking difficult without gasping for breath when Alex my wife begged me to see a GP. Yes, begged. The same as five years previously when I kept on waking up in the small hours of the morning wheezing and having a sensation of drowning, as liquid rattled in my chest at every breath taken. Back then, as this time around, I paid a visit to my GP after much persuasion - er - nagging - by my wife. Yes, I am aware. We as men have a sense of embarrassment about seeing the Doctor. Being male myself, I tend to believe in this universal sense of awkwardness, which I think arises from the belief that our symptoms are not serious enough to waste the Doctor's time and be fobbed off -  "On yer bike, pal".

But an out-of-hours Doctor I did see, and this female, who looks to be fresh out of college, saw straightaway, that I was panting and looking unwell. And that was just after walking a few metres after sitting for half-an-hour at the waiting room. After a talk which consisted mainly of answering a pile of questions, she made a successful diagnosis of my condition and was able to see that I was suffering from water retention, which was responsible for the shortness of breath. At that, she decided for me to visit Royal Berks A&E in Reading, and to arrange for an ambulance to take me straight there. I protested, asking her to put me back on diuretics and continue as before. Instead, she insisted on a visit to a Consultant as a more appropriate need. 

I phoned my wife, who immediately summoned a taxi. She waiting for my arrival at A&E for quite a while before I finally arrived. She was my comfort while reclining on the gurney, watching nurses and doctors walk past in both directions, along with patients being wheeled away by a porter, the never-ending hustle-and-bustle of a typical A&E department. It was several hours later when one of the doctors entered my cubicle to announce that I will be kept in overnight. My wife panicked. 

This is because whenever she feels distressed or experience a rise of negative emotion, various things happen. One is a severe backache caused by the tightening of her muscles, immobilising her. Normally, I can quickly get her out of her condition, having learnt from experience, along with an administration of a strong painkiller such as Co-Codamol or Oramorph. Another state her emotions can lead her to is a seizure, remaining conscious but a tightening of her throat or neck muscles threatening asphyxiation. I have learned to get her out of that condition too, by applying CPR which I had previously learned as a poolside lifeguard back in 1972/3. On another occasion, she can get into a kind of body lock, when although still remaining conscious, she goes into a deep unwakeable sleep-like state which takes a while for her to recover. Such is her threefold neurotic disorder arisen from a series of long-past psychosomatic circumstances.

In a state of sudden panic, she tried to phone through to a couple who have been friends for a long time, and who also took her in while I was recovering from my heart op at Harefield Hospital in Uxbridge. But the ringing went unanswered. Then realising that this was a week when schools were shut for half-term and many were away on holiday, we knew then we were on our own. 

And so she booked a taxi for home while I was wheeled to one of the wards. It was a while later when I knew that by then she should have settled in, was when a nurse lent me a hospital mobile phone and tried to contact her several times and the phone remained unanswered, that a deep feeling of helplessness and hopelessness filled my soul. All night through.

Being in a hospital ward, there were constant interruptions as nurses walk in to take blood pressure measurements, including from me. The welcoming darkness dispelled every time a patient turn on his bedside light or the much-needed silence disturbed by conversation, whether between patients or to staff, the situation was never ideal for a good night's sleep.

And visions from an overactive imagination.

My imagination was indeed running wild. I kept seeing visions of my beloved lying on the floor, paralysed. Unable to move, her throat muscles tightening as if strangled by an unseen force. With nobody to help her, she finally gives up the ghost by asphyxiation. Or lying on the floor with her back muscles curved in tightness while suffering from extreme pain. And with both front and back doors locked, no one can enter the house to assist her. Furthermore, she has my house keys. That means even if I were to leave the hospital ward to get home quickly, she could be lying unconscious and there is nothing I can do short of a literal break in.

Main Entrance Royal Berks Hospital, Reading.

It was as if I was teased, a target for fun-poking, ridicule. I tried to imagine what would a life of widowhood be like. Worldwide travel again? A return to being single? None of these brought any comfort, but rather a source of torment. I could circumnavigate the globe many times over. But none of that would make up for the love and affection we have always exchanged. The only person in the world who sincerely thinks I'm good-looking, gorgeous, a rock of security, someone who she adores, a representation of Jesus Christ. If she goes, then the empty void left behind will be impossible to fill -  the wretched feeling of loneliness would be too much to bear - unless I experience a miracle.

Perhaps we are both in need of one. If only Jesus Christ materialise in front of us and promises he would grant three of anything we ask for. Immediately, without hesitation, we would ask for a restoration of health, assurance of salvation for us and our three daughters and perhaps financial security as a top up, but not on the expense of trusting in him for our daily needs.

Around breakfast time, I again tried to contact my wife over the phone. And yet again no answer. I kept trying, but this carried on as if stubbornly refusing to acknowledge my call. Eventually, in sheer desperation, I cried to God to bring her back to the hospital ward. I kept on repeating my prayers, regardless of whether they were heard by others in the ward or not. My heart was pleading, pleading...

As we parted during the previous evening, she promised that she would be by my side before nine in the morning. But it was already 10.30 and I was still alone. I tried to shut out any thoughts that she could be unconscious, or even dead, back at home and carried on pleading with the Lord to bring her over safely.

At 10.45 my wife suddenly appeared as she was wheeled in by a porter. The sudden sense of relief as we hugged was almost unimaginable. It was then when I piled thanks upon thanks to God for his goodness. About an hour later the Consultant came in to visit to put me on a permanent prescription of Bumetanide, a diuretic medicine I was taking before it was discontinued. He then said that we were free to go home after the medicine arrives from the hospital pharmacist. Indeed, I was thinking, if that young GP was on the same track of thought as I was on the previous day, we would have been spared of all this, as well as the cost to the NHS. I can only assume that as an apparent junior, she did not carry the authority to put the diuretic back on prescription without a more senior consultation.

It seems that as a married couple, we have a lion's share of tribulation, and that aimed specifically at our health. My wife's neurotic disorder brings just as much anxiety to me as well as my heart condition brings to her. We both worry for each other constantly, life on a knife-edge, a constant emotional turmoil. The most frequent-asked question is, Are you okay? I could ask that several times within a couple of hours.

It wasn't long since I came across a poster on Facebook. It read An Empty House is Never Burgled. This reminds me of a thief, a robber or burglar. Who are thieves and robbers? Apparently, it's the Adversary, according to Jesus' own words recorded in John 10:10. A thief only steals if the intended victim has something worthy to be taken. An empty, unoccupied house is of no interest to the burglar! Apparently, Satan must be constantly hungry, for he seems to go after the fruit, that is, the fruit of the Holy Spirit. As the apostle writes in 2 Timothy 3:12, anyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, or simply will have trouble.  

We tend to think that persecution only means being hated by unbelievers - to be chased, thrown into prison, forced to deny the faith, tortured, killed. Hmm! I cannot see any of that aimed at any of our churches here! Maybe Paul the Apostle had got it wrong, or times have changed since his day. Or maybe the word applies to a far more universal term of suffering - to have trouble, to suffer some kind of tribulation.

This makes far more sense. By means of the Holy Spirit living within us, we produce good fruit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Indeed, Satan is constantly hungry and he will steal. Especially the fruits of love, joy and peace, but he'll go after others, particularly patience when driving in traffic or stuck in a superstore checkout queue. Often God does not stop the spiritual crime, although he allows it to go only so far.

Our love will be forever...

I look at our own marriage relationship. I'm happy to say that it 's strong, stable, robust. And believe it or not, I think that the tribulations aimed at our health and wellbeing have played a role. And I think absence makes the heart grow fonder. During that night at the hospital ward, all I was concerned was that she was okay on her own at home. Not that I never go out on my own, of course, I do, just about every day I'm out on my own, whether it'll be for a few minutes or for several hours, or even for much of the day. But there is a world of a difference, for example, between a gym and sauna session and being confined at a hospital ward bed.

The Adversary may attempt to steal as much as he can from us, even our lives, but our love for each other will remain forever.