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Saturday, 21 April 2018

A Life Changing Plastic Tube...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Island Coral Cay, off Cairns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Parrot Fish plays a role in Coral Cay formation

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

What can I say but to quote this Scripture:

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 14 April 2018

A Temptation Towards Atheism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enoch Powell, 1960's Conservative MP.

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

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

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Enjoyment, Disaster, Reminiscences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex at A&E, shortly before discharge.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Somewhere Up There...

Although outside time, in eternity past, upon the heavenly Throne sat Father, Son and Holy Spirit. How those three in one Godhead love each other! Absolutely flawless, and prior to the Crucifixion, it was and always have been utterly impossible for any brief interruption to mar this ongoing love relationship. How joyful each of these "persons" were, each putting the welfare of the other two above his own. Therefore it can be said that because of the eternal love relationship existing between the three, God is love, not just merely the source of love. 

The reality of this eternal Trinity is so massively different from Allah of the Islamic faith, or even the Jehovah of the Watchtower Society of Witnesses, both sources depicting their God as once existing alone in the Universe before any form of creation having taken place, and incapable of love until such objects of his love came into being. Perhaps this Unitarian form of God must have felt cold and lonely from time to time in universal space and in need of a companion. At last, Jehovah of the Watchtower creates a companion for company, the archangel Michael, who would one day incarnate to become the Witnesses version of Jesus Christ. Between these two - a big God and a little god - the rest of creation got underway, spanning thousands if not millions of years. This began with the creation of all the other angelic hosts before the physical creation of all heavenly bodies including the Earth. Finally the six "days" of creation, each of a thousand years apiece, began as described in the first chapter of Genesis.

Having associated with Jehovah's Witnesses during my earliest years as a Christian believer (and nearly becoming one of them), I was able to see the commitment they had for their faith. This includes going out in all weather conditions to knock on doors in their attempt to convert, despite their full expectations of a hostile reception and having the front door slammed shut at their faces. Books, only published by the Watchtower Society, were read and studied in a group discussion, normally at a home of a Witness. And their topic was always the same - a Unitarian God, his created son Christ Jesus who was inferior to his Father, his impalement on a wooden stake (therefore not crucified), their denial of a physical resurrection, and a very dubious probational salvation offered for those who endure to the end. All this with their insistence that all churches, along with all human governments with their federal and civic institutions, are of the Devil and will all be destroyed in the coming global Battle of Armageddon. Dare to leave the organisation and eternal death by annihilation is guaranteed. With such theology, this "Maybe Salvation" was the final straw needed to repudiate the Watchtower Society entirely.

Oh, what a difference this Unitarian God is to the truth and reality of the Trinity! From eternity past, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all equal in the divine Godhead, enjoyed a love lavished between each other. It is a truth well beyond human understanding. Because of his omniscience, "before the foundation of the world" or from eternity past, he already has the Lamb's Book of Life, with all the names of everyone who will be saved written within. Yet he also knew that there will be many, many more who will be born, live and die without ever knowing their Creator. The same with his angelic hosts. God was about to create them with the full knowledge that one of them will be filled with pride and rebel, with up to a third of the entire host rebelling with him. Because from eternity past he knew all along, for me it is all a mystery. A mystery I will never get round to solve, due to my own finitude.

But with awareness of this divine foreknowledge, I have a desire to think of the likelihood that a conversation like this had taken place within the Trinity before anything was made:

Father: You both know that soon after we had created the angelic host, one will lead a rebellion.

Holy Spirit: Yes we do know. But not until after our creation of mankind's first parents.

Father: By not having physical bodies, the fallen angels will be entirely outside of redemption, neither would they want to be redeemed anyway. But after mankind has fallen through the sin of just one man, due to their genome inherited from father and mother alike, the whole of humanity will still be within redemption.

Holy Spirit: This will mean that one of us must become one of them, to be born as one of them, to have the same human genome, to live and identify as one of them, to minister to them and finally to allow them to kill as a human sacrifice to atone for their sin. And then to rise again, physically.

Father: All of this is perfectly true. Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?

Son: Here am I. Send me.

Father: Yes my beloved! Indeed, you may go. And a great joy will be set before you when you see multitudes without number redeemed, and you will be exalted above all things! Okay, let's begin with Creation, our host of angels first! And all three in the Godhead rejoiced exceedingly.

And yes, I can find a portion of Scripture which seems to back such a conversation, and I love the Authorised Version of Zechariah 2:6-11 because this is the only version that I know of which has God laughing: 

Ho, ho, come forth, and flee from the land of the north, saith the LORD: for I have spread you abroad as the four wings of the heaven, saith the LORD.
Deliver thyself, O Zion, that dwellest with the daughter of Babylon.
For thus saith the LORD of hosts; After the glory hath he sent me unto the nations which spoiled you: for he that toucheth you toucheth the apple of his eye.
For, behold, I will shake my hand upon them, and they will be a spoil to their servants: and ye shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me.
Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion: for, lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the LORD.
And many nations shall be joined to the LORD on that day, and shall be my people: and I will dwell in the midst of thee, and thou shalt know that the LORD has sent me unto thee.
Zechariah 2:6-11 KJV, also Isaiah 6:8.

Here is the LORD of hosts sent by the LORD of hosts! Perhaps this is the greatest rebuke which could be given to the Watchtower Society. God sent by God. Imagine that. And therefore we have the Son crucified, buried, and resurrected, now ascended to heaven, only to return to deliver the house of Israel and establish his Kingdom in Jerusalem. Of course, Easter does not mean anything to them. To them, it's a pagan holiday with no bearing on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Really, after Adam and Eve had sinned, God was not obliged to make any move towards redemption. Instead, to satisfy infinite justice, every single person ever born must die and be eternally lost, separated from God forever. It is hard to imagine the likes of Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, along with all the prophets suffering eternally in Hell, along with the apostle Paul, all the other 1st Century disciples, together with us today - eternally separated from God.  But he made the first move towards redemption anyway because of his love and mercy. 

Oh how I am thankful for God's mercies! And that is what Easter is all about. Not about chocolate eggs, bunnies and decorated buns, but about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I guess that was the plan of God all along. To be glorified through redemption. For the whole creation to thunder praises to him for his undeserved mercy and grace, with not a single stroke of work done by anyone, other than by Jesus Christ himself, to earn this salvation. 

The idea that the Lamb's Book of life was composed "before the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8), makes ridiculous any ideas that a true Christian believer could lose his salvation and be lost again. Instead, I can see that the omniscience of God being the proper reason for believing in Eternal Security of the Believer. Once saved always saved. This is not arrogance or self assurance, this is the grace and the power of God, whose foreknowledge cannot be contradicted or able to undo.

But it still remains a mystery. All around me I see people who do not know the Lord. And this is a country which has the Christian Constitution, along with its Defender of the Faith and head of the Anglican Church, with the Archbishop of Canterbury being the top guy of the Christian faith in England. Yet the majority of the population does not know God. Indeed, this is indeed sad, and such observation has made any idea of a heavenly book sealed from before Creation rather unpalatable to believe in, to be labelled a Calvinist, to carry the idea that the reason why these people don't know the Lord is because their names are not in God's unalterable Book of Life, and therefore concluding that God has never called them. These are issues I have grappled with, and I'm still grappling with these issues at present.

Feeling sad for them gives the impression that I do love my fellow countrymen, even if I don't agree with their culture. The culture of social class division and favouritism, at the same time revelling in national pride and optimism through self effort whilst glorifying past imperialistic achievements. Much of all this based on Darwinism, with it's past (and sometimes present) Master Race mentality. Then the British bulldog spirit standing in the way between the average Brit and faith in Jesus Christ. Yet whilst I dwell on these spiritual barriers, I tend to forget that God is not obliged to save anyone. But he saves anyway, lavishing grace and mercy for his own sake.

Maybe that is where my way of thinking is awry. I'm basing my heart on my fellow man's benefit instead of God's glory. The whole purpose of salvation through unmerited grace and mercy is to bring glory to God throughout all creation, and particularly to the angelic host after the heavenly rebellion. Yet the question remains, which I once prayed desperately to God:
Why, O Lord, did you create us in the first place if all that awaits is eternal condemnation? 
Especially concerning Psalm 139, where the author specify how he was "knit together in the womb" by God, as with every pregnancy, only to be born to live a life without ever knowing God, then to suffer eternal separation. Nothing seems to make any sense. I couldn't help but feel a sense of cruelty within this whole shenanigan. Especially when I imagine with horror my nearest and dearest suffering forever in hell, a strong possibility had she been born in a non-Christian country.

However, there are three national holidays we observe here in the United Kingdom: Christmas, Easter and Whitsunday. Christmas is to do with the birth of Jesus, Easter to do with his death, burial and Resurrection, and Whitsunday is to do with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, although it is unlikely that many here in the UK knows what Whitsunday is supposed to be about. Three Christian festivals in a year, in my mind at least, cannot be mere consequential. This seems to tie in well with the original three Hebrew festivals specified in the Old Testament: Pesach (the Passover,) Shavuot (Pentecost, the feast of Weeks), and Sukkot (Tabernacles). Always in threes, which looks to be aligned with the three persons of the Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Through these holidays, is God trying to tell us something?

Contrary to believing in strict Calvinism (chosen by God's sovereignty to be saved rather than by human choice, advocated by John Calvin, a 16th Century French theologian), Scripture does indicate human choice. For example, in Luke 24:47, the resurrected Jesus informs his remaining disciples that "repentance and remission of sins must be preached to all nations everywhere, starting at Jerusalem." Then in Acts 17:30, Paul instructs the population at Athens "that in the past God winked at ignorance, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent." Then there is the testimony of Peter, who writes, "but the Lord is long-suffering to us, not willing that anyone should perish, but all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). Those three verses strongly indicate human choice. And to repent simply means a change of mind about Jesus Christ. 

Back in those days, Jesus was known to many. But the Jews wanted a political deliverer from the burden of the Romans. When he refused to deliver politically, he was seen as an impostor, possibly a madman. For the Jew to repent, he had to change his mind from believing him to be an impostor to believing in him as the risen Christ, God come in the flesh. I as a non-Jew had to change my mind from thinking Jesus as some remote teacher who lived long ago to being the Son of God who died and rose from the dead.

I'll end here with one of the most famous verse in the Bible, which reads:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16.

Wishing you a happy, God-blessed Easter.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

A Pair of Shoes & Divine Certainty

Clothes shopping has always been a dreaded nightmare! Whether if I'm buying clothes for myself or for my wife Alex, it's when we try out the new item and then discover that it doesn't fit properly. Then comes the awful dread; to return the garment to the store where it was bought, complete with the receipt, only to be looked upon with a degree of suspicion. After all, no business wants to refund. They are there to make money by selling its merchandise rather than be the centre of some kind of experimentation.

Maybe that was the reason why most respectable clothing stores have fitting rooms. A splendid idea. Then again, I recall using a fitting room to try out trousers of slightly different sizes - and still get it wrong. How come that the item seems comfortable enough whilst being tried at the store, but trying it on again at home and yep, it has shrunk? Or expanded? Or fail to notice such abundance of material around the hem which will get caught on the bicycle chain whilst out riding? Perhaps I could ask: What sort of metamorphosis does the garment go through whilst sitting in the train or bus heading for home? Coming to think of it, a perfect fit after arriving home can be considered a cause for celebration.

But not this week when it came to a pair of shoes. Not for me, but for my wife. The type of shoe she likes and usually wears was - surprise surprise - out of stock. So after spending what I believe was excess time looking at and trying on several alternatives, we settled on this particular pair of her size. She tried them on. And she smiled broadly, declaring that she felt comfortable in them. Then she paid for them herself, using her own debit card.

After arriving home, she tried on her new shoes again prior to going back out to buy some groceries.
"How do they feel?" I asked.
Yes, they are okay. But...
I felt my skin beginning to crawl.
...But...That dreaded word, But...
I new straightaway that not all was well. And of course, I was right. She eventually asked for them to be returned to the store where she bought them. And so feeling rather sheepish but obliged as a husband should be to the call of duty, I returned the shoes to the same staff members who served us the day before. The assistant was just about to process my debit card when she noticed that my card number did not coincide with the printed receipt. She explained that because she used her card to purchase the shoes, I cannot use my own card for refunding, although she would have done so had I brought her card as well.

The next day, on my way to visit the gym, I tried again, this time with my wife's card. Alas! This time there were different staff members on duty who were unfamiliar with us, and as far as they were concerned, I could have flown straight in from Timbuktu. Because of my wife's absence, this different staff member refused to refund altogether, even if I had her debit card and a joint account. She explained that this would be fraudulent. And here is the twist: Had I brought my wife's card in on the previous day, there would have been no problem. The simple reason was that the staff who initially served us has seen my wife buy the shoes. But this new assistant did not, and therefore "went by the rules". So I walked out feeling very flustered with the shoes still in my backpack together with the gym gear. Indeed, I was tempted to throw the shoes into a rubbish bin and forever forget about them.

Was I trying to commit fraud? Personally, I don't think so. Both our cards have the same surname and the same account number. It was obvious that we have a joint account. The funds in this account has always been available for both of us simultaneously. Yet I do understand the precautions the shop must take in order to avoid involvement in a fraud case. In surprise, I asked how could I possibly steal from my own wife. At the time, the thought that among professionals in particular, each partner having their own separate account did not cross my mind. Instead I walked out feeling humiliated at the thought that I was considered a potential fraudster. Indeed such an accusation did not bring any glory to God, or any feeling of well-being or accomplishment.

It's a case of my word against some smartly-dressed faceless bureaucrat in the head office boardroom without any verification process for refunding put in place. Of course, he was right and I was wrong. But this is the risk with buying clothes, or any other merchandise. It's always their word against mine. But rules must be obeyed. Rules are in place because there must have been cases of genuine fraud in the past, maybe even between married couples, an area where trust between partners should be most essential.

And this is always been an issue of trust, or lack of it. For example, why is it so essential to buy a ticket before boarding a train? Why can't I just pay the fare, board the train, and that's the end of it? Instead, I must hold a ticket for the inspector to check before boarding the train, or in this modern day, activate an electronic barrier gate. And once on board the train, the conductor enters the carriage with his loud order, Tickets please! Just paying the fare and boarding is not enough. Instead, the conductor earns his living this way because, with the absence of both him and the platform ticket inspector, there would be no small numbers of fare-dodgers. And that is where such a small card is always my protection against a curious conductor or other staff member to approach me and ask whether I paid my fare, and if so, having made the correct payment. Holding a ticket is actually for my own protection against accusation of theft.

It all boils down to one little word: Sin.

As I attended a midweek meeting at The Kerith Centre, the talk was about universal sin and how it affects every aspect of our lives. The need to buy a ticket before travel is the consequence of sin. Because without a need for a ticket, not only anyone could board a train without first making the appropriate payment, but there would be a great many who would vie for the chance. Hence such people are enslaved to their sinful nature. Yet if I was to say that attempting to avoid the fare is repugnant, and I would ensure that I always pay what is due, is that arrogant self-righteousness? Or acting like a Pharisee? No, it's neither. Rather it's out of being a slave to righteousness, according to Romans 6:18. Being a slave to righteousness is a wonderful thing, a desire to do the right thing, to make the right choice, even if this entails a degree of loss or suffering. For God has regenerated me and then placed his Holy Spirit within me. As such I recall, for another example, an occasion when I could have easily walked out of the busy Leisure Centre without paying for the gym session, and none would have been the wiser. 

Instead, I got to the back of an ultra-slow-moving queue in order to pay for the gym session. A slave of righteousness indeed, as I felt compelled to join that queue. Generally, I hate queuing up. Especially at a superstore checkout line. Queuing up behind a customer with a stack of redemption vouchers has tested my patience to the limit, but my master has not given me any other option. But the promise is there, life and peace in Jesus Christ, to where such servant-hood will lead.

Oh the wonder of grace! As a sinner, I have no chance of trying to reconcile myself to God on my own efforts. The worst thing about all this is that James had written that if I keep the whole Law yet stumble at just one point, I have broken the whole Law (James 2:10). It becomes obvious. I don't drive, but if I did, and went above the speed limit, I would be stopped if caught by the Police and issued a ticket, later to appear in Court. It doesn't matter how well I have kept the law before then. I'm a lawbreaker and guilty. A penalty must be paid. Unless a good friend or relative comes along and pays the fine on my behalf. Then I would be set free, no longer under condemnation, neither under any form of probation.

As such, reading Paul's letter to the Romans, especially chapters three and four, and find to be terrifically inspiring. Here the apostle takes the account of Adam and Eve as historical, unlike many Christian grads of our day who reduces the historicity to a mere analogy. Just as Adam disobeyed, so we are all sons of disobedience, slaves to sin, and subject to death. So Christ, the second Adam, is obedient, and through his obedience, we are forensically declared righteous in God's sight, the righteousness which comes from Heaven and is imputed into us. A free gift, given for eternity! And because it's a free gift of eternal life with God through faith in Jesus Christ, it cannot be lost or forfeited. Neither it is given on a probational basis.

It is the reality of this free gift that makes me want to love and serve God. The question of Eternal Security of the believer, I think, makes a big impact on how the Christian perceives God. But living in a body of sinful flesh, often doubts of my salvation comes to mind, especially if I have sinned in one way or another or failed to live up to my expectations. These times of doubting might have originated from my Roman Catholic childhood upbringing. And yes I do sin, even if I'm a slave of righteousness. Maybe that is why John the Apostle wrote that if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and call God a liar. It all seems hopeless at first.

But if we confess our sins, then he is ready to forgive us from our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8-10). And it is to Christian believers John is addressing. If this is so, then John is backing what Paul earlier wrote to the church at Corinth that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, nor can corruption inherit incorruption (1 Corinthians 15:50). So our bodies are corrupted by sin, according to the apostle. Maybe that is why when a believer dies, his spirit and soul goes straight to Heaven to be with the Resurrected Jesus, whilst his body goes to the grave, to await the resurrection, to be exactly like the glorified body of Jesus Christ. Isn't that wonderful? 

Therefore, I am more than willing to be a slave of righteousness; to queue up at the Reception rather than walk out without paying. Ditto at the train station. Even if the barriers are open and the premises totally understaffed, I will still pay the fare (there are automatic ticketing machines). Or for that matter, accept the ill-fitting shoes, or take my wife to the shop and she can be refunded at last, or even give the shoes away to charity. That's a lot better than chucking them into the bin, as I nearly did.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

What I Find So Amazing...

I can think of twelve people considered to be the most fortunate in the whole of human history. I even have their names: Peter, James, John, Andrew, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, Philip, Thaddaeus, Simon, James, Judas. To any reader, whether he is a Christian or not, these twelve names should immediately strike a sense of familiarity about them. They were the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ, who had the unique privilege of spending three years of their lives in the presence of the Son of God, the incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. A privilege the rest of mankind had never experienced.

Even among them, Jesus had his three favourites: Peter, James and John. As James and John were brothers, both sons of Zebedee, so Peter and Andrew were also brothers, sons of Jonas. Yet Andrew was the only one of the four brothers who was not selected to ascend the mountain to witness the Transformation. I wonder how Andrew would have felt as what might be taken as excluded from a specific clique, especially involving his own brother Peter. After all, he was just a fisherman too, along with James and John. Nothing special. However, he didn't have long to ponder, because as the remaining nine were milling around at the foot of the hill, along comes this stranger whose son was demon possessed. Having witnessed a number of successful cases of deliverance by Jesus, these nine attempted to give this one a go, but without any success. Stumped, and most likely downcast at the spirit's stubbornness to shift, how fortunate it was for the Lord himself to appear at the right moment with his three friends.

Rivalry between these men was never too far below the surface. On a couple of occasions a quarrel would arise on who was the greatest. The Lord's answer to their dispute was that anyone who wants to be the greatest must be the servant and humble as a young child. Then according to Matthew 20:20-27, the mother of James and John approached Jesus with a request that her two sons would sit on the most privileged thrones in the Kingdom. These two had already witnessed the Transformation, therefore it was no big surprise that the other ten were indignant, including Peter, the only other who was also up on that mountain. Again Jesus rebuked them with the same answer of servitude. I guess that the quest for personal status was not that much different to what it is today. Yet Peter, James and John were fishermen, not unlike any commercial fishermen with us at present. Among the remaining nine who were left behind included a Zealot, a taxman, and also the group's treasurer.

Which surprises me in a way, why Matthew was not the treasurer. After all, as the tax collector, he had quite an experience with handling money. Instead, the role went to Judas Iscariot, whose background I know virtually nothing about, except that he found delight in dipping into the funds for his own pleasure. However, according to some sources, Iscariot might have been a scholar himself, perhaps some form of philosopher. In Franco Zeffirelli's film Jesus of Nazareth, Judas Iscariot presents himself as a scholar to Jesus, not like those scummy fishermen whom the Lord seem to favour. Instead, he encourages Jesus to behold, the scholar. The Lord takes him in, a contrast to being initially called as was the case with the others. And whatever his scholarship might have been, he was entrusted with the funds, rather than Matthew. 

"Behold, the scholar!" Judas in Jesus of Nazareth.

And what a tragic end for the scholar! As a result of the guilt he felt after betraying Jesus to the Sanhedrin, he hanged himself and departed from this planet into a lost eternity, the only one of the Twelve who was shut out from Heaven. I suppose money had everything to do with his downfall. At first he most likely persuaded Jesus to allow himself to take care of the money bag instead of Matthew having to do it, using his scholarship as a vantage point. Then he helped himself whenever no one was looking. Then he bartered with the Sanhedrin and with the Pharisees to hand Jesus to them for thirty pieces of silver. That is a large amount of money, considered to be a nest-egg he can retire upon and live the rest of his life in luxury. 

I suppose that in all cultures, both past and present, there has always been something grand about a scholar. Someone to look up to, an icon for respect, maybe even a god to worship. In ancient Greece, there was a whole pantheon of bickering divinities, whether they stole each other's wives or performed some other unseemly acts, nevertheless a temple was always found in a city which was dedicated to each one of them. Could these divinities stem from some very human heroes or from men of outstanding learning? That said, great scholars such as Solon, Pythagoras, Eratosthenes, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, and many more, none had ever made it into the realm of the pantheon, although their names remain familiar to this day. Therefore I tend to believe that all those within the realm of the ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman pantheons were antediluvian "heroic men of renown" - offspring between fallen angels and pre-Flood human women, according to Genesis 6:1-4, with tremendous mental and intellectual powers and physical prowess.

I am so glad that such sexual intimacy between fallen angels and the daughters of men had ended with the Deluge. I dread what our world would be like if these guys were around at present! Worse than that, chances that if the Flood wasn't sent during Noah's day, such continuous interbreeding would have eventually choked the Messianic Line. With such Nephilim existing within the line of Shem, Abraham and David, the incarnation of the Son of God would never have occurred, due to the impairment of the genome. Instead, according to 2 Peter 2:4, all the angels who had sinned, with the exception of Lucifer, are now confined to Tartarus, a subterranean prison of gloom and darkness, awaiting Judgement, whilst every demon most likely is a Nephilim disembodied by the Flood, and according to Ephesians 6:12, even right up to the present, roaming the air in want of a body, and is fully aware of its own defeat by the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The angelic confinement to Tartarus, I believe, is to prevent the interbreeding between those supernatural beings and human women from reoccurring, therefore preserving the Messianic Line and fulfilling the Promise of Genesis 3:15. One way of putting it, the Flood of Noah was also an act of mercy towards the redemption of mankind as well as a punishment for the wicked and the nonredeemable.

And so as the ancestors deified these Nephilim to divinity and built pagan temples in dedication to them, so it looks to be normal human nature to exalt the great among us to this day. And that includes church life where roving guest speakers are assigned greater honour than the regular preacher or church pastor. The snag with that is heresy can be passed onto his listeners in a very subtle way which seems so orthodox, so Biblical. The worst case scenario is when someone comes along, who claim to be Oxford- or Cambridge-educated, and then publicly preach his denial of Eternal Security of the believer, such content denying the Omniscience of God and weakening the effect of the Atonement. And as I have so recently written already, this has happened. Rather than edify, the sermon caused a near-riot at a theatre where the preaching took place, and counselling sessions were needed afterwards. But after all that, whenever I advocated Eternal Security, someone would look me straight in my eyes and tell me off for daring to cross such a well-educated individual!

With the highly educated held in such reverential respect, I could not help let out a loud groan whilst still in bed. For the morning bulletin on the radio announced the death of one of the nation's top scientists, Professor Stephen Hawking. My heart was sad, very sad for him. This was because Dr. Hawking declared himself to be an atheist. Indeed, my skin always crawl whenever I hear of the death of a known atheist.

Am I being arrogant? After all, who am I to determine the eternal state of someone who has just died? No, in myself I have no right whatsoever to say whether this particular person is now in Hell or not. The case of Ananias and Sapphira is good case point here. Luke does not state their eternal destiny following their deaths as a result of deceitfulness and lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11). This particular couple was seeking glory and honour within the church without deserving it. So they sold a field and gave some of their money to the apostles, but lied when they said that their money was all they had. They kept part of it for themselves and paid the ultimate price. But we are not told where they are spending eternity. And so theologians can be locked in a debate over this issue, without the Bible's blessing.

By contrast, Stephen Hawking had no intention of being deliberately deceitful. He was a man fascinated with science. He admitted his admiration for the Universe, and especially with Black Holes - how were they created, how powerful their energy, and what would be the consequence if our planet was sucked into one, and how long do they last before finally expiring. This with his study of the Universe and how it all began - without acknowledging the Creator. He genuinely believed, without malicious intent, that the complexity of the Universe, our Earth with all its life, and Evolution and the vast time spans needed for such to happen, all ruled out the need of a Creator, who is now confined to ignorance on scientific origins of our Universe. Indeed, according to Hawking, science has replaced for the need to believe in God.

Dr. Hawking was well known for his motor neurone disease which weakened his muscles to the point of paralysis, confining him to a wheelchair. With marvellous technology, he was able to make his thoughts known by a monotone voice emitting from a computer fixed in front of him. Of all the disabled he was one of the more fortunate ones. Up to the age of twenty he was able-bodied, and his brilliant mind and advanced academic progress has already earned him a place at Cambridge. Had he been born already disabled, chances that he would never had become a modern-day Albert Einstein. Instead, his middle-class upbringing gave him such advantage before his health folded in on itself. Indeed, there is that tendency within society to look upon a physically disabled person born that way as if he is also simple-minded as well, and incapable of high-level learning. Dr. Hawking was fortunate indeed.

The late Stephen Hawking.

But what I know of him, little as it might be, I wasn't able to see any misdeed or anything unseemly about him. He was for the well-being of humanity, even if that means remaining in the EU. A complete opposite to the far-right who promotes violence, even murder, towards the ethnically diverse and those who tends to be more internationally minded. Rather like the Britain First leaders and their members who were willing to beat Muslims to bloody pulp in the name of Christianity and patriotism. Dr. Hawking had none of any of that in him.

Hawking loved science, he wanted to do good to the rest of mankind, he wanted to educate, but he was also an atheist. But I still refuse to say where he is now. It is not up to me to judge, for that belongs to God alone. Yet I mourn for him. If only -if only - he knew Jesus Christ as his Saviour. Would knowing Christ impair his knowledge? Rather, his knowledge would have been enriched. He would have still studied the Universe and glory in its complexity, then give thanks to God for his magnificent creation, opening the door for praise and worship whilst wondering in awe and admiration.

Such a brilliant mind. Such a sky-high intelligence quotient. But he never knew God his Creator. 

And that is what I find so amazing.