Tag Archives: grace

I Am Not Charlie

Like modern art, sarcasm and the opposition party, satire has its place in our society. All these have a role in questioning established ideas, in challenging the status quo.

Satire demands that we consider a different perspective. That we think for ourselves rather than succumb to didactic propaganda or quasi-dictatorial spin. At its best, it may promote independent thinking, even inquisitiveness. For that reason I like satire.

But I’m not a huge fan. I enjoy Have I Got News For You, but I’m more entertained by Paul Merton’s random humour than the acerbic political wit of Hislop and others.

Satire is useful in exposing the Government’s injustices and betrayals, but I’m offended when satire extends to downright mocking or insulting political or other leaders, or people of other faiths, or….anyone.

I believe in showing respect to all people – yes, even MPs and Prime Ministers! They’re people too. Really.

After starting to write this blog post, I came across John Bird’s piece in The Big Issue, titled “Satire should reform and inform… not rile”. Trust good old Mr Bird to beat me to it (to the same point I’m making), and of course to write an article 10 times better than I ever could. But still, my viewpoint veers off in a slightly different direction, writing as I do as a Christian, so here goes….

Before entering a journey of faith in Jesus, my speech was often facetious, laced with self-centred sarcasm. To be fair, some of that can be put down to youth, but a life turned around and inside-out changed my inner heart and conscience, and made me into someone who finds mockery distasteful, and who experiences a sensitivity to the feelings of those at the brunt of it.

Put more positively, it’s changed me into someone who sees every human being as a valuable entity, reflecting the divine. The book of Proverbs in the Bible says that whoever mocks the poor mocks their Maker, and you can take that further to mean mocking of anyone – it’s just that “the poor” are the ones who are most vulnerable to being mistreated.

I love free speech, and I honour those who died in France in defence of the freedom of the press. In democracies such as ours, we (normally) enjoy huge liberties.

For myself, the rise in internet dialogue on matters of faith, my own participation in debate of what some might see as religious ‘orthodoxy’, the opportunity to air and discuss questions which I and many others previously kept internalised, has been immensely helpful in developing my own faith into something more robust, honest and reliable – and hopefully into something that others without faith might look at and in some way relate to, and think “Maybe I could consider this faith after all”.

I think Jesus would have loved online discussion! The people of his time and culture loved to debate and Jesus was no exception. He’d often answer a question with a question, stimulating his followers to think and pray for themselves, to be curious, to search out understanding and intimacy with God.

Baptist minister Shaun Lambert, in his highly recommended book on Christian mindfulness, comments about the church that “We have too often been controlling. Too often we have told people what to think…. Sadly, in the eyes of the world, we have seemed to be inquisitor rather than inquisitive.

(A Book of Sparks)

In contrast, Jesus would undoubtedly be a fan of free speech and of learning through questioning.

Being able to blog like this – or to produce a satirical magazine – is an amazing privilege, not to be taken lightly. Or as my son, in a recent conversation at home about the Charlie Ebdo killings, quoted from Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben in Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility”!

With free speech comes the responsibility to use it wisely, to uphold ethical values like respect, honour, kindness, fairness and justice. These principles can hardly be legislated or enforced (at least in a democracy), only promoted. Those who hold such values can inspire and motivate others to follow.

There will always be mockery, dishonour, disrespect. We cannot uphold the liberty of democracy and free speech without accepting the inevitability of negative ethics and at times their tragic consequences, as we’ve unfortunately seen in France.

As for me, well, I’ve felt the sting of those offended by my exercise of free speech. Thankfully, nothing as dramatic as the murders in Paris, but painful to myself and others close to me, all the same.

And I have learned some things along the way.

Again, I love what the Bible has to say – encouraging followers of Jesus to always ‘season’ our speech with grace, i.e. generosity of heart, no matter what, always aiming to build others up, not put them down.

I won’t tell anyone else what to say or think, but my aim is renewed from here on to use this opportunity for free speech to inspire you, dear reader, to love-filled faith and noble aspirations, to thoughts and actions and of course words motivated by respect and appreciation for all.

———————-

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Good job!

Hancock

Was a time I was acutely driven by the potential accolade: “Well done, good and faithful servant”, from the Parable of the Talents.

After a dramatic turn-around from a hedonistic, messed-up and somewhat criminal life to faith in Jesus, I became zealous for church, for prayer and especially for evangelism. My motivation wasn’t all wrong by any means (I’d been genuinely ‘born again’ on the inside, loved God and had a complete change of heart towards the world around me), but partly I was driven subconsciously by a need to try and prove myself to God, to make up for the years I’d lived defiantly and definitely contrary to his ways.

Although I knew I was saved entirely by grace, in response I was keen to run the race well and to hear him say at the end, “Well done, good and faithful servant”.

There were times I felt burnt out and knew that all was not well within me. In 1995, during the time of the controversial ‘Toronto Blessing’, I received some healing & restoration by way of new revelation of the Father’s heart. I understood in a new, deeper way, that when I pass from this life, the Father would embrace me with wide open arms. He would be ecstatic to see me. Not because of any efforts of mine – just because of his irrepressible, ardent love for his children.

And that this was not just about some future hope but how he feels about me now. As the Christian Aid slogan goes, “We believe in life before death”. He embraces me now.

This was a lasting change that stayed with me. I remain conscious of the security I have, of being held in my Father’s arms.

So those words – “Well done, good and faithful servant” – what of them now? Well, I’ve started to look at them in a fresh way…

In the parable in question (in Matthew 25), both the servant who invested and multiplied two talents (i.e. a certain sum of money), and the one who multiplied five talents, were commended by their boss with these affirming words. The only servant who wasn’t praised was the one who did nothing.

Father God is far more open-hearted than we humans often give him credit for. Human love and praise and affirmation are a pale reflection of Father’s heart. He is infinitely more generous than we are*.

His “Well done” isn’t just for the spiritual high-flyers, the religious achievers, the most zealous followers, or even the most caring and loving.

His “Well done” is for all his children imperfectly trying to live out their faith in him, with our feeble attempts at prayer and flawed efforts at spreading his good news, falteringly demonstrating divine love for our neighbours, stumblingly striving to walk a pure walk in step with the Spirit, and in human weakness attempting to imitate God’s creativity.

Some of us were bombarded by our teachers and parents with the words “Could do better”, and have grown into adults projecting that image on to our idea of God. But Father God is not like that.

Father God is not trying to trip us up, catch us out or write negative reports on our progress. Grace sees the best in people.

And his ‘Well done’ is not just for the next life but for the present. Can you hear him whispering ‘Well done’ through the scriptures and into your heart?

Listen to the Spirit’s whisper:

You may feel bad about yourself. God says you are good.

You may feel less than faithful; you may feel faithless. God says you are faithful.

You may think you’re not doing too well at following him. He sees your efforts and says, “Well done, good and faithful servant”!

One more thing……

Father God’s gracious, affirming “Well done” is a pattern for us to follow.

Like Will Smith in the eponymous superhero in the wonderful film Hancock, I’m learning to see the good in others and to praise them.

I love the way Hancock’s initial attempts at building positive relationships, at building people up with praise, are wooden and poorly timed, but with practice he eventually gets the hang of it and means it. I’m still a bit like that.

At home I sometimes imitate the way Hancock says, “Good job!”, but in an exaggerated American accent. My 2-year-old daughter hilariously copies me: “Good jaaaab”!

Finding fault and criticising others is so easy. I don’t need any practice at that! But I’m learning to catch people doing the right thing, doing something well, and to tell them so. Kind words are like a kiss.

Take this mouth

So quick to criticise

Take this mouth

Give it a kiss”

(From Yahweh by U2)

Can you hear the Spirit’s whisper from the Father’s heart? Hope so. In which case, please pass it on.

 

* For Biblical examples, see e.g. Psalm 103:8-14; Isaiah 55:7-9; Luke 11:13.

 

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MISNOMERS

Misnomer. Great word, that. Sounds like a silly pseudonym, as in the author of that well-known book Inaccurate names for things by Miss Nomer.

It’s strange, but the book was about something completely different….

And here’s a misnomer: I remember the first time I came across a sign in Ikea stating ‘This is a self-clear restaurant’. I was gutted that my plates and cutlery and mess didn’t clear themselves away automatically. I was expected to do that! So much for ‘self-clear’.

And on the motorway the other day, I saw one of those ‘Self Drive Hire’ vans, but it clearly wasn’t driving itself. If it had been, it probably would have been driven better and not have been overtaking me on the inside lane….

Misnomers…they just don’t do what they say on the tin, do they?

Talking of self-things, what about self-help? A friend of mine recently told me he was lapping up self-help books. But do they help? Do they help people to help themselves?

Can we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps? Can we lift ourselves out of depression? Can we heal ourselves from our afflictions?

Or is self-help a misnomer? Or at least an illusion?

Were U2 perhaps right in suggesting that ‘Sometimes you can’t make it on your own’?

Perhaps there are some things we can do to alter our thinking and habits, to alleviate symptoms. I’m sure that being self-aware and applying psychology to ourselves has some value, but I believe our best efforts at healing ourselves are like putting sticking plasters on our cuts. Superficial and symptomatic.

Can we actually change our inner self? Can we heal ourselves? Can we remove the cause? Can we save ourselves? Can we cleanse our souls and make ourselves new?

I believe in the first steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and all the other Anonymous programmes, that acknowledge that we are powerless over….alcohol / cocaine / etc….and that we need help from a “higher power”.

I believe in grace. In fact, if you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know that you can’t get me off the subject!

But what does grace have to do with this question of self-help? I’m so glad you asked me…

Grace is God’s way of dealing with the root cause of our angst, our guilt, our identity crisis. So many of us struggle to know who we really are, who we’re meant to be, or how to find inner peace.

For some, those problems may have been exacerbated or even caused by a strict, religious upbringing. I’ve heard and read countless stories of Muslims, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hindus (and even some Christians) trapped in guilt-ridden thought processes that perpetuate stress and depression, until Someone sets them free…

For example, I have a friend who used to be a Muslim, wracked with guilt and anxiety. Now she follows Jesus, and knows God as a compassionate Father. She always has a smile and has learned not to worry. Christ has set her free1.

For Jesus freaks like her and me, grace obliterates the pervasive sickness of soul the Bible calls ‘sin’2.

This is not just the things we do wrong, although that’s part of it. Sin is at the heart of all that’s broken about the human condition, and it stands between us and our healing Father. It’s described, amongst other ways in the Bible, as a disease that needs radical treatment.

Grace, through Jesus’ death on the cross, tells us we’re accepted. Grace says we’re forgiven. Grace declares us “NOT GUILTY” and tells us we’re safe – in good hands.

Both free and secure.

For us Jesus freaks, who have accepted this as a free gift, this is not just theology or theory. This is experience. You can read my own experience of grace in My Life’s Soundtrack.

As I was writing this, Barbra Streisand’s soulful voice on the radio echoed my thoughts:

And we got nothing to be guilty of / Our love will climb any mountain near or far… Our love is one in a million.

Grace pulls us out of a hole, sets us on high and gives us lofty ideas of spreading the love we’ve received with our neighbour. Grace cleanses us.

Grace does what we cannot do for ourselves.

We cannot perform surgery on ourselves. Grace gets to the root and surgically removes the disease, deep inside.

We cannot lift ourselves up. Grace does.

Rob Bell puts it far better than I can in his ground-breaking book What We Talk About When We Talk About God, where he compares this idea to learning to water-ski. Apparently beginners are repeatedly told: “Let the boat pull you up!”

Bell continues:

Lean back – to go forward?

Stay down – to get up?

As a result of this confusion, many people, on their first attempt, get pulled forward out over the front of their skis; they ignore the advice from the boat and follow their natural inclination, which is to try to get themselves up onto the surface of the water.

Which doesn’t work, because you can’t get yourself on your own up onto the surface of the water.

It’s impossible.

Learning to water-ski requires a person to make the counterintuitive leap from trying to do what seems natural, which is to get yourself up onto the surface of the water, to trusting that the boat will do that work for you3.

Like learning to water-ski, resting on the good news that Jesus came to announce, is counterintuitive.

The good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf is, as Bell puts it, “an unexpected foreign notion, a strange idea that cuts across many of the dominant ways we’ve all come to believe are how the world works”.

This good news often goes against the grain of our society, but I’m not ashamed of the one I love, the one who’s loved me. I’m not ashamed to say: this good news works!

Self-help? Try it if you really think there is such a thing. If it’s not a misnomer or an illusion.

But maybe also consider the alternative.

In fact, you could think about it over a meal in the restaurant of a Swedish furniture store, but remember to clear your table afterwards, and on your way there, steer clear of those dodgy van drivers…

  1. The New Testament is full of images of being set free from the power of sin. Romans 6:7 is one of many examples of this.
  2. The prophet Isaiah was incredible in the way he foretold the coming of Jesus, and how Jesus would take our place, bearing all the weight of our sin, which is compared here to a sickness (Isaiah 53:5).
  3. P. 132-133. Rob Bell is an amazing communicator and one of my literary heroes. Even his end-notes and references are interesting and fun to read. Wish I could write end-notes that well!
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Going Deeper

How’s this for an amazing photo?

IMG_0754

What do you mean, it’s just a rubbish picture of a river, with a fish vaguely visible under the surface? This is an action shot! This is a photo of a huge fish just after it dived down at the sight of me raising my camera.

This is a picture of a disappearing act.

On one of our recent record-breakingly hot days, I had the rare pleasure of a long, leisurely walk along a rural canal, enjoying the tranquillity of some time alone, to ponder, pray and photograph.

Fish were rising to the surface of the Basingstoke Canal, but as soon as this one saw me prepare to take the photo, it quickly submerged.

It sparked a thought. At the slightest perceived threat, the fish went deeper.

And for people who know and love God, there’s always an innate, but sometimes latent, desire to go deeper with him – to know him better, to grow closer.

When we feel under threat – is that when we especially choose to go deeper? Do we retreat into prayer? Do we submerge into his arms? Do we dive into his presence?

I was reminded that when things get tough, when life throws its stresses and challenges at me, as it often does, I need to go deeper into him. To be like the fish, and do a disappearing act.

And that when life gets too busy and we’ve taken on too much, we need to stop, take time out. Not only to rest, but to dive into him, retreat into prayer.

Into that place where we let God reveal to us our motivation for such frenetic activity, where he grants us permission to rest.

Where we discover what his priorities are for our lives.

In that place we find refreshment. We find protection.

Strength to face real or perceived threats.

And power to do just what he wants us to do. No more, no less.

Jesus often withdrew from the crowds. He realised his need to retreat into his Father’s arms, to find strength and guidance for whatever was next.

In order to do effectively just the things he was meant to be doing, rather than trying well-meaningly to be everything to everybody, he needed those times alone with his Father. There lay all the resources he needed.

I know all this (and you probably do, too). But I for one am still a bit of a ‘Martha’*, someone who doesn’t easily stop and just ‘be’. I tend to be always on the go. Always something else that needs to be done. Lists to check off.

I also love to retreat, especially into places of nature, to reflect, pray and refresh. I often need the reminder, though, of just how much I need to submerge into my Father’s depths, into Jesus’ love. To spend time with him, to become more of the person he wants me to be.

Those wonderful individuals I know who exude God’s love and grace aren’t necessarily people who have read lots of books on the subject or can write clever stuff in blogs, but are those who have spent time talking, listening, and being, with their Father. I know – more than I know anything – that there are no short-cuts to being filled with God’s presence and shining out his love to the world.

No short-cuts.

I’m grateful to the fish for this reminder.

So if I disappear from Facebook for a while or don’t write a new blog post for some time, or you don’t see me frantically serving in church, it may be for a number of reasons, but let’s hope that it’s because I’ve listened to my own message – that I’m going deeper with my Father.

And I hope you too are inspired, not so much by my thoughts here, but by your own knowledge and experience of the Father’s grace, to submerge again into him.

Happy diving!

IMG_0751a

I took this photo the same day, along the canal. It’s quite clichéd and has nothing to do with the blog, but it’s a better picture than the one of the fish!

*As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”

But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42

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MY LIFE’S SOUNDTRACK (PARTS 1-6)

Ever had moments in your life when a particular song has powerfully, poignantly, reflected your life experience at that time?

Music, like storylines on TV or in books, has a way of vicariously expressing our emotions and experiences in a way that transcends our own ability to do so, providing therapeutic benefit – an affirmation, even, of what we’re going through.

My Life’s Soundtrack takes some of the songs that have been pertinent to me, to provide a musical tour through certain periods of my life. An autobiographical soundtrack, which I hope will provide some inspiration, some faith and hope to those who read it.

I originally posted these in a series of 6 parts. Below are those parts in one place, after a little bit of fresh editing.

PART ONE: SPREAD YOUR WINGS

The first record I ever bought was Spread Your Wings, one of Queen’s less famous singles – only reaching No.34 in the charts – but a superb, moving song all the same, finishing with a wonderful, plaintive guitar solo (and the fabulous, fast & furious Sheer Heart Attack on the B-side).

At the tender age of 12, with precious little money for records, and music so much dearer in real terms back then in 1978, my first venture into purchasing records was to buy ex-chart singles at reduced prices from our local record shop. Spread Your Wings was the first of these.

Sammy was low
Just watching the show
Over and over again
Knew it was time
He’d made up his mind
To leave his dead life behind

Throughout my teen years, the lyrics seemed to confirm a sense of my life being futile, and my longing to leave it all behind. I didn’t consider suicide – except once, a couple of years later: neither an expression of depression nor a cry for help, but a cold, calculated plan to end it all simply because life was meaningless and why bother to go through all the hassle of a life fraught with challenges and difficulties? That was how I saw things. My suicide plan was thwarted by hearing that a girl I fancied also fancied me! A temporary reason for living, at least. Would I have really gone through with the plan otherwise? I don’t know – I suspect not – I don’t think I’d have had the bottle. And what I really wanted was to escape.

Spread your wings and fly away
Fly away far away
Spread your little wings and fly away
Fly away far away

The words of the song’s chorus echoed my longing to simply escape – to travel. Escape from the rat race, responsibilities, worries, and to just ‘bum around the world’ with my only few possessions on my back.

Why such disillusioned thoughts and feelings at such a young age? Teenage angst? Disenchantment with the Thatcherite society in the grip of recession and high unemployment? I’m not sure how aware I was of the country’s socio-economic climate at the time, although I did grow to hate England and wanted to be anywhere and everywhere else, and I’m sure adolescent changes also played a part.

But other factors in my life were far more significant.

No doubt the constant acrimony in my family scarred me heavily. I’ve heard it said that boys tend to be more deeply affected by divorce than girls. However true this theory is (and it probably was, in the case of me and my sister), my parents ‘stayed together for the sake of the kids’ for many years, unwittingly inflicting avoidable damage on the two of us till they finally separated and divorced about the time I left school, well after the damage had been done.

Years of bitterness and stress in the family home meant that home was not ‘home’. It was not where I wanted to be. I grew into a very insecure and immature young man with poor social skills and low motivation. Generally messed-up.

He spends his evenings alone in his hotel room
Keeping his thoughts to himself he’d be leaving soon
Wishing he was miles and miles away
Nothing in this world nothing would make him stay

At the same time, I baulked at the ‘rat race’ (a term used less these days), as I witnessed the apparent pointlessness of modern life’s treadmill and the unhappiness of materialism, at least in my own close-at-hand, family experience. In my late teens, The Specials put it across well for me:

Working for the rat race
You know you’re wasting your time
Working for the rat race
You’re no friend of mine

Education and exams held no appeal and by the time I reached sixth-form, which offered some of the freedom I’d longed for, I’d virtually given up bothering and I flunked my A-levels.

But back to the Queen song:

Since he was small
Had no luck at all
Nothing came easy to him
Now it was time
He’d made up his mind
‘This could be my last chance’

Some things came easy to me, others seemed really hard. I was assessed as having a high IQ at an early age and excelled at some subjects, but was also labelled ‘naughty’ at an even younger age. With what we know now, I’m pretty certain I had Dyspraxia – a term known as Clumsy Child Syndrome years ago, and today often used interchangeably with Developmental Coordination Disorder.

Signs in my case (mostly ‘grown out of’ now) were general clumsiness, poor fine motor skills – particularly affecting handwriting (my work colleagues would probably say this is one aspect I’ve yet to ‘grow out of’!), inconsistency over which hand I’d write with (not the same as being ambidextrous), and – the one that instigated the ‘naughty’ label from teachers (and today could be mistaken for ADHD in some children) – restlessness. Classroom disruption was, perhaps understandably, construed as deliberate naughtiness.

And of course, as children, we start to believe our labels.

From this combination of childhood experiences emerged a pattern of disruptive, disturbed and difficult behaviour throughout my early years and teens.

My first opportunity to run away came when I’d been caught shoplifting for the umpteenth time. The shop owners were going to tell my parents, and I couldn’t face the shame again. I was now 16, in my first year of a comprehensive sixth-form.

Before this, I’d spent 2 years at a public school, from which I was suspended for a time after selling goods I’d stolen to fellow pupils. I’d received a Junior Criminal Record for this, bringing shame to my father – a lawyer working for the magistrates’ courts. And I was shamed in front of the whole school as someone awarded a place on a scholarship and expected to be one of their higher achieving pupils.

(Fortunately, the discipline of this school, combined with my own abilities, was sufficient to scrape me through enough O-levels for my entry into nursing years later).

Now here I was, unable to face my parents again. The perfect reason to run away.

Now it was time
He’d made up his mind
‘This could be my last chance’

I started to hitch-hike from the small Sussex town where I’d been caught, to London, with no possessions and just a few coins in my pocket. It was getting dark, and hitch-hiking became impossible. I sneaked into a private garden and tried to sleep in a greenhouse. It was a cold night, I had no warm coat, let alone a sleeping-bag, and I froze. Sleep eluded, and I resumed hitch-hiking about 4am, and although still dark, I got a lift and made it to London early morning.

Not knowing my way round London, I soon felt hopelessly lost, hungry and tired. I stole a pint of milk off a doorstep and bought a cold meat pie. Before long I’d formed a better plan – head for Brighton, which I knew relatively well, and sleep on the streets there. But pick up a few things from home on the way.

I managed to hitch home. Luckily for me, no one was there and I started to gather a few things into a bag. Now of course, the previous evening my parents had reported me missing to the police and were worried. While I was there at the house that afternoon, the police arrived, hoping to ask my parents some more questions, but instead found me there!

Suffice to say that my escape this time round from home, the rat-race and everything, was short-lived, at a mere 24 hours. The next one is another story…….

But here’s a wonderful thing:

Some 5 years later, in 1987, when I made my first stumbling prayer to God while travelling, and Jesus began to transform and heal me, one of the very first changes that happened immediately in my heart was a real sense that God was calling me back to England: to come ‘home’, to use the intelligence, energy, good health (and now faith) that I’d been given to help others – not only practically, but spiritually too. That sense of vocation has never left me to this day, and is the basis for the work that I do now, more than 25 years later, and the reason for writing this blog.

The restlessness, the dissatisfaction, the need to be on the move, disappeared immediately. Even now, when people speak of wanting to visit this country or that country, to travel more, I have no huge hankering, and wonder what the fuss is all about. I’m OK where I am.

Here’s another wonderful thing:

In the good book, God is described with maternal as well as paternal qualities, and is sometimes likened to an eagle or hen longing to cover her chicks with her wings to protect and nurture them (e.g. Psalm 91:4 and Luke 13:34). He ‘spreads his wings’ over us, covering us with his love, and enables us to ‘fly’, free from the spiritual, psychological and emotional chains that once held us back. That’s been my incredible experience.

How amazing is the grace of God.

 

PART TWO: EASY LOVER

CAUTION AHEAD! STOP! WRONG WAY! DEAD END!

Bruce is oblivious to the road signs flashing in front of his eyes, as he careers distractedly down the highway, pleading desperately with God for a sign, a signal, guidance, a miracle, anything…

He crashes the car. Of course he blames it on God. Eventually, though, Bruce (Jim Carrey) kneels on the highway in surrender to God, and in so doing is hit by a truck and killed! As you do…

God (played by the magnificent Morgan Freeman) sees the bigger picture and uses all Bruce’s circumstances for the greater good. Bruce is defibrillated back to life – to start living again with a new purpose.

But how did Bruce fail to see the signs?

And does God speak to people who are angry with him? Or even to atheists?

Does God believe in people who don’t believe in him?!

Could it be that there are non-religious, non-faith people everywhere, missing signs that God is giving them?

And how does the film Bruce Almighty manage to address so many profound questions so brilliantly???!

Back in 1985, Easy Lover by Philip Bailey and Phil Collins was in the charts:

She’s the kind of girl you dream of
Dream of keeping hold of
You’d better forget it
You’ll never get it
She will play around and leave you
Leave you and deceive you
Better forget it
Oh you’ll regret it

She’s an easy lover
She’ll get a hold on you believe it
Like no other
Before you know it you’ll be on your knees
She’s an easy lover
She’ll take your heart but you won’t feel it
She’s like no other
And I’m just trying to make you see

I had a job at the time at Martin’s which, for a newsagent, sold all sorts of strange things, like chart records, and Easy Lover, a No. 1 hit, seemed always to be on. I was never a fan of Phil Collins or this record, but as I heard it, the song struck a chord somewhere in my subconscious.

I’d been swept up in a whirlwind romance with a girl called Sue. It was a mutual falling-in-love. We were both a bit lost – I more so. Both of us were looking for adventure.

I was looking for more than adventure – I needed to escape. I was now 19, had left school 18 months earlier, with my A-levels flunked, and was living with my Dad after my parents’ divorce.

My Dad and I didn’t get on. My job at Martin’s, as far as I was concerned, was a dead-end. My friends had gone to university or moved away. I had nothing to live for, aim for, strive for, and still had this unfulfilled yearning to escape. It was all I could see myself doing.

Then along came Sue. She was living in France on a 1-year placement as part of her degree in French and philosophy. I’d met her while I was visiting my sister who was also in France for her degree.

A short while after this, Sue came over to England to see me and we were going to camp together somewhere for the weekend. But within 24 hours we’d concocted a mad plan to ‘elope’ to America. We worked out what we’d need to do: withdraw the few hundred quid my parents had saved in a building society account for me since I was little and had just recently released into my name; pick up my passport, rucksack and other bits & bobs from home; hitch-hike up to London to obtain visas from the American Embassy; then hitch to Gatwick to catch the cheapest single flight to New York.

To be honest, it started as a joke, a hypothetical strategy: what would we need to do if we eloped to America?

But, with nothing to lose (at least in my case), we impetuously started acting out the reckless plan, and within 3 or 4 days of meeting back up in England, we were sitting on a plane to the USA. Astounded at our own audacity, we laughingly asked each other, “What the **** are we doing?!” It was a wild, impulsive, romantic adventure.

We planned to spend a few years travelling the States (in the end we were there just 6 months, hitch-hiking, getting stoned, weaving our way through some crazy adventures. The early return was precipitated by Sue’s decision to return to university to finish her degree – a decision which I encouraged).

On our way to Gatwick, we’d stopped at my friend Dave Bridger’s place and told him what we were doing. We told no one else: my Dad, my Mum, my other friends, Martin’s, no one. Once again I was reported by my Dad to the police as a missing person.

Just days earlier I had been working in Martin’s, bored witless, being subjected to some dire chart records, and yet somehow bothered by that song Easy Lover.

I wasn’t religious, I wasn’t even superstitious, and I certainly wasn’t in any way spiritual. I was a diehard atheist, an immature, messed-up, selfish 19-year-old, with no life philosophy other than ‘sex & drugs & rock ‘n’ roll’, and ‘I’ll try anything once, except heroin’!

So why did this song bother me?

No you’ll never change her, so leave it, leave it
Get out quick cos seeing is believing
It’s the only way
You’ll ever know

Easy lover
She’ll get a hold on you believe it
Like no other
Before you know it you’ll be on your knees
She’s an easy lover
She’ll take your heart but you won’t feel it
She’s like no other
And I’m just trying to make you see

You’re the one that wants to hold her
Hold her and control her
You’d better forget it
You’ll never get it
For she’ll say there’s no other
Till she finds another
Better forget it
Oh you’ll regret it

Somewhere deep inside (I didn’t really, consciously, register it) the song seemed to be a warning about this relationship.

In hindsight, if something – or God – was warning me about what I was getting myself into, I certainly wasn’t ready to hear it. But if it was God warning me, he was of course right!

One year later, 6 months after returning to the UK from America, in the Spring of 1986, the inevitable break-up occurred, involving Sue’s unfaithfulness, me being threatened with a gun by the new boyfriend, followed by being physically thrown out of his house on to the ground outside by him and his mate.

Sue had been my infatuation, my world. Now my world came crashing down around me, leaving me bereft, bereaved and humiliated.

Does God speak to atheists? Had God been speaking to me through that song? And if he was, would he have expected that immature atheist teenager to listen and respond?

I’ll let you decide the answers to those questions.

But like in Bruce Almighty, although there was no way at that time I could have heeded any sort of warning from anybody, it seems an ‘unseen hand’ was behind the whole chain of events – from meeting Sue, to embarking on those wild times in the States, to being cast aside and crushed like refuse – bringing everything together in a bigger plan to a greater conclusion.

You may interpret events differently, but I look back and see how the One I’d never believed in oversaw and utilised all those circumstances, to bring me eventually (not till October 1987) to the ultimate Healer, and to the start of a whole new adventure – one of following Jesus.

Being able to look back and understand the way he worked in my life throughout those times, I’m grateful now for everything that happened. Because the end result has been amazing!

Without my pride being broken in 1986, I would perhaps never have been able to start to search for meaning and truth. Maybe my mind would never have been opened to spiritual things, and I’d never have found this incredible new life.

My story of love found, love betrayed and lost, is by no means unusual.

I’m also not the only one who’s found the ultimate antidote!

The Father is a love divine, a faithful friend, a firm foundation, to millions. His love heals the pain of our rejections and betrayals, and gives us capacity to forgive and to give, as we share in the love and power of the crucified, death-conquering, persecutor-forgiving Saviour’s love.

Years later this love led me to Janine, whose unswerving, devoted love has been a source of immense healing. God’s love is demonstrated through human beings. This love, this Saviour, has been and still is the most solid foundation for our relationship.

His love led me from chaotic, selfish relationships, to successful, steadfast, happy marriage.

Have you read – or missed – any signs lately?

 

PART THREE: HERE I GO AGAIN

Untold adventures reeled out mysteriously before me into the endless American landscape, as I stood apprehensively at the side of the freeway, thumb outstretched, recalling the Whitesnake song:

Here I go again on my own
Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known,
Like a drifter I was born to walk alone
An’ I’ve made up my mind,
I ain’t wasting no more time

…’Cos I know what it means
To walk along the lonely street of dreams

The words described my life to a T. Here I go again, hitching round the States. The lonely, insecure drifter, born to walk alone, to ‘bum around the world’, to travel free….free from possessions, responsibilities, relationships.

This time, solo. Freedom to change plans without discussion, be totally impulsive, go anywhere any time. Here I go again, this time on my own.

I’d built up to this for the last eighteen months. Ever since the first trip round America was curtailed by Sue’s return to University in October ‘85 and our subsequent split in ’86, all I’d wanted was to return to the States, visit all the places I hadn’t got round to the first time, then continue on to India and the rest of the world.

There were similarities and differences between the first trip and this one.

Once again I planned to stay in the States for several years, and once again I only stayed 6 months. Although my plans didn’t extend to taking 50 years to see America (a year for each state) as some travellers I’d met suggested, I did intend to take my time immersing myself in cultures across the country, taking in states I hadn’t ventured into in ’85.

I worked out later that I hitch-hiked roughly 15,000 miles this time round – about 5,000 more than on the first trip. 15,000 miles between:

playing poker over a bottle of whisky in Pensacola, Florida…

being threatened with a blunt kitchen fork by a guy high on alcohol and cocaine, if I didn’t take my trousers off…

painting & decorating, and snorting crystal meth, in Portland, Oregon…

enjoying a charity Mexican breakfast in East LA (complete with eggs and chillies)…

running as fast as I could from a supermarket in Mississippi before the cops arrived, after being caught shoplifting two packs of 200 cigarettes, to sell to truck drivers…

and sleeping under the stars at the base of the Grand Canyon.

And much more in between.

This time the travels came to an end after 6 months, not because I needed to come back, but because I no longer needed to travel. The restlessness of my heart had been cured. But more on that in Part Four.

This trip wasn’t spontaneous, unlike the first. I’d saved my money, working at a timber yard near Lewes, and by buying and selling small amounts of cannabis – keeping myself supplied with my own ‘needs’ in the process. I’d saved up the cash for my flight and enough to live on for a couple of months or so, until I could find work over there.

I closed my bank account, handed in my notice at the timber yard, sold or gave away all my possessions except those I needed in my rucksack, and ended my relationship with my then girlfriend. Although I’d been with her for a few months, I had no great emotional attachment, though I’m not sure she felt the same way. Looking back, I was quite ruthless, determined to pursue my aim.

On this second trip to the USA, I entered via the Canadian border at Windsor / Detroit. I figured that if they didn’t let me in, I could at least explore Canada instead. On my first visit, with Sue, we’d been foolish enough to buy single flights and therefore encountered a lot of questions at Immigration at Newark airport, with our measly few hundred dollars and big rucksacks. They finally let us in for 2 weeks and we stayed 6 months, working when we could (illegally) and living frugally.

This time I was fully prepared, with an address I was supposedly going to be staying at and a return flight that I wouldn’t be using. Even so, sweat poured off me at Immigration, as I anxiously expected them to produce some record of my previous over-stay and to turn me away. Instead, there was no problem and I was free to enter the Land of the Free!

Here I go again, doing what I knew. A seasoned hitch-hiker, with expertise in all the tricks of the trade. Feeling slightly hesitant, but only because it was so long since I’d been on the road, and because in all my worries about whether they’d let me into the country, I’d actually made no plans as to where I was going to head for first!

There was one crucially significant difference this time, though. As I started out on this new expedition, I had an inherent sense that everything was going to be all right. At the time I called it a ‘positive attitude’, but it wasn’t a deliberate decision to keep an optimistic outlook. For no rational reason, I was firmly convinced that even if I got attacked, robbed – whatever happened – everything would be OK in the end. I was still an atheist, but a couple of years later, as I reflected on this time, I understood.

For some strange reason, in 1986, about a year before returning to America, I’d started to read the Bible! I’d always claimed that this ancient book, or collection or books, was full of contradictions and myths. Of course, this was just what I’d heard from other people – I’d never actually read the thing! Inexplicably, I suddenly decided it would be a good idea to read it and make up my own mind.

I bought a little, old, second-hand, King James Bible (the one with all the ‘Thee’s and ‘Thou’s) for 10p from a charity shop in Dundee (where I was living at the time), and proceeded to read the New Testament from beginning to end, followed by the Old. At the end of which I’d be able to give an informed opinion.

So my reading began with Matthew…

I made it through a few chapters of this Gospel, then forgot all about it, and the Bible was abandoned.

I barely started the New, let alone the longer, harder, Old Testament. But, as I know now, the Bible is a rather special book….

As I absorbed the teachings of Jesus in that first section of Matthew (known as the Sermon on the Mount), I was gobsmacked.

Love your enemies, not just your friends. Forgive them, love them. Pray blessings on your persecutors. Wow! If the whole world did this, I reckoned, there’d be no more war.

Even at the time, this had such a profound impact on me, that when Sue’s new boyfriend threatened me with a gun and physically chucked me out of his house on to the ground – after my initial, instinctive thought of chucking a brick through his car windscreen, I opted instead to write him a letter of apology for having burst into his house! Never mind the fact that he’d nicked my girlfriend, stolen my reason for living, assaulted and humiliated me! I was apologising to him. I also forgave Sue.

Love your enemies. Be reconciled to them, if at all possible. Who knows, they may change in response to your actions. And even if they don’t, at least you’ve done your part in ending this world’s pandemic of war and conflict.

Even now, 27 years later, this teaching, with its ultra-revolutionary potential – and the possibility of God enabling us to live it – fills me with excitement and passion. My heroes these days are people like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, who themselves, having been inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, have applied these earth-shaking principles in real, international conflicts and in personal, individual struggles, before a global audience. It blew my mind then and does now.

How is it possible that this then-atheist was willing and able to live out this teaching? Who knows? But I believe now that God is not limited. The Holy Spirit is able to influence the hearts and minds of humans of all persuasions. And, as I stated earlier, the Bible is a rather special book.

It claims that faith comes to people through hearing (or reading) its words.

As well as the radical teaching on forgiveness, I was stunned by Jesus’ words about how God clothes the fields with wild flowers and feeds the sparrows, so why should we worry about tomorrow, about what we’ll eat or drink? Will not God take care of us? Somehow, something about this idea resonated in the heart of this young man who didn’t even believe in God!

A year later, standing by the American freeway, intuitively knowing that everything was going to be OK and there was nothing to worry about – I didn’t realise then, but later on I came to understand that faith had started to bud in my heart through reading those words of Jesus.

Conscious awareness and acknowledgment of God came months later, after I’d seen first-hand evidence for this rebuttal of worry, in the form of food, money and shelter being provided at just the right time, over and over again, during my travels.

Only this week, having googled the lyrics for Here I Go Again for this blog, did I discover that the song contains these words:

Though I keep searching for an answer
I never seem to find what I’m looking for
Oh Lord, I pray you give me strength to carry on
‘Cause I know what it means to walk along the lonely street of dreams.

I had no idea previously that this song made any mention of faith and prayer. How strangely prophetic was Whitesnake about my life!

But for now, in May 1987, here I was… on the freeway, poised to venture down ‘the lonely street of dreams’ for what was to be the very last time.

 

PART FOUR: LIKE A ROLLING STONE

I only ever took acid once. Not for lack of wanting to – just that it seldom came my way. Magic mushrooms, on the other hand, were a staple part of my diet. OK, I exaggerate slightly, but I did have numerous – mainly bad – trips on fungi which failed to make me a fun guy (excuse the bad pun)!

This is now Sept or Oct ’87, in Portland, Oregon, out partying with friends. That is, Leon & Gary, and their friends:  I’d met these teenage brothers 2 years earlier after Doug, their truck driver Dad, had given me and Sue a lift for several hundred miles. We had then stayed with Doug and his family at his house in Portland.

Unfortunately, by the time I returned to the States in ’87, Doug and his wife Lyn had separated, but Lyn very kindly resumed the hospitality. She also found me work with painter/decorator Ray Galloway, who was a key player in my journey to new life, and I remain incredibly grateful to both Lyn and Ray.

This night in ‘87, much weed had been smoked, and a fair amount of crank snorted (not crack, but crank, which in more recent years hit the UK press as ‘crystal meth’ or methamphetamine), before a single acid (LSD) tab was ingested by each of the group. It seemed to take several hours for us to ‘come up’ on the acid – then in the early hours Leon invited me for a drive down the freeway. He liked to night-drive whilst tripping.

Remember the racing car game, Pole Position? I used to play it in the Brighton arcades, and now with the all the lights and coloured cat’s eyes, the road before us had become an animated arcade screen, like Pole Position. Only even more vibrant. As we drove in spaced silence, I assumed that Leon was sharing the same experience.

Band on the Run by Wings played in magical, crystal clear quality in my head, and I assumed this was running through Leon’s brain too, as he drove quietly and confidently down the night-time Oregon highway.

Later, though, when real music played on the radio, Bob Dylan came on, interrogating me with incisive questions about my itinerant life:

…When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

I was abruptly confronted with my loneliness. The song pointedly proclaimed my inner aloneness…rootlessness…aimlessness…homelessness…friendlessness….invisibility. At this time, I had no passport or ID after everything had been stolen (details later), compounding my anonymity.

I had nothing to lose and no one. Perhaps I had chosen that path, or perhaps I’d been steered, destined by childhood conditioning, down the lonely road. Either way, it was no longer something desirable.

Taking hallucinogenics may heighten or release existing emotions, and this moment, this encounter with Dylan’s words, confirmed semi-suppressed feelings already emerging in my soul.

Don’t get me wrong. This LSD trip was not a religious revelation. I don’t subscribe to George Harrison’s description of his first acid trip, as the late Beatle recounted:

“The first time I took it, it just blew everything away. I had such an incredible feeling of well-being, that there was a God and I could see Him in every blade of grass”.

Many ancient cultures and religions see the use of hallucinogenics as a pathway to some kind of divine consciousness.

In my experience since that time, God the Father, who is love, does not readily share space with our addictions and our chemical-induced mind-messing. After coming to a simple faith in Jesus a short time after this night in ‘87, the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit eluded me until I desired him more than drugs, music or anything else.

When I finally reached that moment in 1989, the sense of being infused with his love and forgiveness left me with no desire to get stoned or drunk ever again. Satisfaction comes in the shape of sacrificial love.

Hallucinogenics and the true God, in my view, do not easily mix. He wants the very best for us and that best is himself living in us.

But prior to this night trip through Oregon, a variety of (non-drug-related) experiences had been gradually shaking my atheism.

The origins of the universe, the purpose of existence, and the strange world of the microcosmos – questions that haunted and taunted me – now all seemed to point to something or someone greater than the human mind can comprehend. The fact that existence existed blew my mind.

Simultaneous to an evolving conviction that ‘God’ was the only logical explanation for the existence of anything, emerged a pattern of experiences on the road, of either coincidental good luck or provision by a higher power.

On one occasion, with no prospect of earning any money, and just $28 to my name, I lost a $20 bill.

I had jumped an open freight train and enjoyed the unique experience of journeying 1700 miles of wild western landscapes, over about 36 hours, through several states, from Boise, Idaho, to Chicago.

I was meeting with my sister, who was on holiday visiting a friend. We hitched together for a couple of days from Chicago to Detroit, and caught a ride with a father and son who were on their way to a Pentecostal conference. Ruth and I sat in the back, as the middle-aged son drove. During the journey, the elderly Dad in the front passenger seat turned to us, and without asking our permission, took our hands and prayed! It was a long, fervent, heartfelt prayer. I’ve never remembered what he prayed, even at the time, let alone now, but I’ve never forgotten the effect: I felt uplifted, upbeat, like nothing could go wrong.*

This godly father and son, as they dropped us off in Detroit, not knowing about my $20 loss, gave us $40, which Ruth left with me, as I had the greater need. It seemed like God or Something had doubly covered my loss.

Another time, after spending the night in a homeless hostel, I stepped out onto the city streets that were beginning to simmer under the Kansas sunrise, with no money, no food, and one cigarette to my name. I’d just walked out the door when I was approached by a stranger asking for a cigarette. “Why not!” I thought, and gave him my last smoke.

kc-skyline

Kansas City

Later that day, a driver I’d hitched a lift with offered me a cigarette, which I accepted. As we continued along the road, he told me that when he’d bought his usual pack of cigarettes that morning, he’d discovered they were Buy One Get One Free, so he gave me one of the two packs, not knowing about my gift to a stranger that morning. God or Something (?) had given me 20 times return on my giving. (I quit smoking tobacco just a few months after that).

Coincidence? Maybe.

At least once, I looked up to the sky and suggested jokingly, “Someone up there likes me”!

After a few more such ‘coincidences’, I began to wonder seriously, “Maybe someone up there really does like me”!

As I began to think maybe there could be a God helping me, and as I also met travellers who carried virtually nothing, I started to wish I wasn’t ‘burdened’ by my big rucksack with sleeping-bag, tent and clothes and could have the opportunity to see whether ‘God’, if he was there, would provide if I had literally nothing!

One time, I ended up travelling with a gay guy called Richard, who was in effect moving house and had all his valuables with him, including a ton of bling! As two males hitch-hiking together, it’s pretty difficult to catch rides, and we found ourselves stuck going nowhere on the freeway.

In hindsight, what happened next was an incredibly stupid thing to do, but chaotic, messed-up people don’t always make the wisest decisions. We hid our rucksacks in some bushes a short way from the freeway and walked to the nearby town where we’d heard there was some kind of hostel. The next morning we returned to our rucksacks, to find a few of our possessions strewn around the ground and the rest gone! All Richard’s gold jewellery. My passport, credit card (which I never used but kept as a back-up), tent, sleeping-bag etc. All gone.

Richard was understandably furious. I didn’t like to admit it to him, but I felt relieved to be travelling really light and strangely happy with anticipation at a new opportunity!

The next few days were difficult, as we ended up in some bad company, so as soon as I could I slipped away on my own again, eager to see whether God would provide. Very soon, I was taken into the home of a wonderful couple, who gave me everything I needed for now.

Some drivers who gave me lifts were Christians, who took the opportunity to tell me about how their lives had been changed by Jesus. Their faces seemed to glow with genuine passion and their eyes seemed to shine with joy. Jesus said the eyes are the window to the soul.

Amongst people of all sorts of faiths and denominations, I remember catching a ride with one particular young Mormon man, who was out to spread his message. But the message and the messenger were dry – there was no glow, no vibrancy, about this man. No hint of transformation, of Holy Spirit power. Unlike the Christians.

I argued with these drivers. I disagreed with preachers at nightshelters and hostels run by Christian missions and the Sally Army. Some of them made you sit through a talk before being given a meal. Although I wonder about the ethics of this now, I guess it worked for me!

Then I worked with Ray, the painter, in Portland. He’d been a Christian for 3½ years. He told me how his life had been turned around, and his lifestyle confirmed his words.

As we worked together, I told him what I thought about Christianity, how I believed in some Buddhist ideas and how the Universe was probably just a dream of itself (figure that one out?!). Over about 6 weeks of working and debating with Ray, my initial arguments turned to questions, and my protestations turned to serious consideration of the claims of Christianity.

It was during this period, that Bob Dylan, via Leon’s car radio, questioned my free, solitary lifestyle and demanded my honesty to myself:

How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

Interesting that just a few weeks later, some time around my 22nd birthday in October 1987, after deciding that I actually believed this Christianity stuff and genuinely prayed for the first time in my life – that England, became my ‘direction home’.

As Jesus came into my life, I sensed an irresistible call back to my home country, to do something with my life. This land that I’d wanted nothing to do with, now had a pull on my life, not because it had something to give me, but because I felt I had something to give to it.

Amazing how I came to find dignity, value and identity as a child of God. No longer a complete unknown, but fully known. Known to the Father, and beginning to know myself.

Astounding that since that first moment of faith in Jesus, I never, ever felt lonely or alone again. Ever.

How does it feel now? Pretty darn good!

 

*After the father and son had dropped us off, I left my sister in Detroit city centre, where she was catching a bus into Canada.

I felt completely fearless – even more so than at the start of this trip, as described in Part Three. In fact, looking back, this was an extension of that initial trust that everything was going to be OK – trust that had been sown deep in my heart, first through those words of Jesus in Matthew, now strengthened through this old man’s prayer.

Detroit was a big city and I knew I’d have to walk several miles to reach the start of a freeway to begin hitch-hiking. Having worked out which direction I needed to go, I just walked.

The city had a reputation for some pretty dangerous areas – I had no idea where these were or what they were called, but I wasn’t concerned.

I walked mile after mile through street after straight residential street. After a few miles, I became aware that I hadn’t seen a white face for a long time, not that I was in any way concerned by this observation.

Despite my obvious conspicuousness – a white stranger with a big red rucksack – I felt far from threatened. People sitting on the steps of their homes waved cheery ‘hello’s to me as I strode through their neighbourhood. It felt like community.

I’d walked about 8 miles, when a white couple suddenly pulled up in their flashy car, wound down the window and with a sense of urgency, warned me: “What are you doing here? This is a dangerous place. Let’s give you a lift outta here!”

I tried to protest, “No, this a great area, people are really friendly”, but at the same time wanted the lift, to get moving on.

It seemed that my fearlessness after the old man’s prayer was founded. From somewhere deep in my memory, I vaguely recalled the words of the Psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil”.

Perhaps Detroit’s crime statistics confirmed people’s fears of this area, but my experience at the time felt like a lesson in white people’s prejudice and racism. As a white stranger in a black area, I was out-of-place, but had been warmly accepted.

 

PART FIVE: CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’

New Jersey, new direction, new beginnings.

Dying autumn leaves dallied to the ground, making way for fresh growth on the New England trees. I knew that my old existence too had died, making way for brand new Life.

Walking through a New Jersey park under November blue skies, in 1987, at the end of a 3,000-mile hitch-hike from California…

Along the way I’d slept under the stars at the base of the Grand Canyon and trekked the 8 miles back up the following day. This was probably the last (and one of the more touristy) of many rich experiences of magical, wild America.

Almost at my destination: Newark Airport, to return to the UK, for the start of a new life.

I watched the trees succumbing to fall’s firework colours. My life too was turning from shades of grey to… who knew what new colours. All I knew was that nothing was going to be the same again.

Casting my mind back to events of recent weeks, the words of The Mamas and The Papas’ California Dreamin’ sprang to mind.

 All the leaves are brown
And the sky is gray.
I’ve been for a walk
On a winter’s day.
I’d be safe and warm
if I was in LA
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.

Several of the song’s themes had converged on my life:

–          The autumn / winter background (although the skies weren’t grey or even the US ‘gray’!).

–          Nostalgic thoughts of Los Angeles – which would always hold a special place in my heart.

–          The reference to church and prayer…

After that initial first-ever-prayer-in-my-life in Portland, Oregon (see Part Five), I knew it was time to move on, to follow the call back to England. But first I was to stop again at my friend Nancy’s house in East LA.

For one thing, I needed to apply to the British Consulate in Los Angeles for a temporary passport, since my full passport had been stolen – a fact that the Consulate seemed to disbelieve. Perhaps they were too used to British travellers selling their passports for a meal or a bag of weed. I was guilty of many crimes and misdemeanours, but not this one! However, they reluctantly agreed to issue me with the temporary passport, so I could travel back to the UK.

Nancy was living with her Aunt Eva, Uncle Danny and cousins Tony, Alfred and Terry. This welcoming Mexican-American family, for the second time on my travels round the States, embraced me as one of their own. In fact, I’d been treated to the family’s hospitality on both sides of the Atlantic: in my teenage years, when my home was not a home, and Nancy was living in Lewes, her house would often be a haven (so I didn’t have to cycle the 11 miles back to Buxted at the end of a beery night out), I’d play Manic Miner and Monopoly with her brother David in the morning, and her mother Martha would feed me. My first taste of chilli con carne was at this amazing house – I’ve been hooked ever since!

Nancy, left, with me and Janine, in Oct 2011

Nancy, left, with me and Janine, in Oct 2011

I’m forever indebted to Nancy’s family, who showed me such kindness, showed me what real family is.

I don’t know a great deal about Mexican-American East LA, but in a recent interview with The Big Issue, singer/artist Will I Am described his upbringing in “the ghettos of East LA, where young lives are ruined, still, by drugs, gangs and jail”.

My impression, from my limited experience of the neighbourhood, was that of a safe, gracious, close-knit community, woven together by tangible love and genuine faith.

I tasted the delights of the local Catholic community, in the form of a Mexican charity breakfast that included a combination of eggs, chillies and rice – beats a full English any day, in my book!

So central was the local Catholic church, Saint Alphonsus, to this neighbourhood, that it held 5 services each Sunday, some in English, some in Spanish, to accommodate all its congregants. Here was a spiritual community, it seemed, with faith at its heart.

Although I’d taken my initial step into faith in Oregon, when I told God, “I think I believe in you and I’m going to give this Christianity a try!”, I’d taken the step alone – I hadn’t gone to church. In fact, I had never once willingly gone to church in my entire life.

But during the week or two that I stayed in East LA, I attended this Catholic church because I wanted to. The service was modern, upbeat, with guitars and gusto. I’d never experienced church like this before.

In the New Jersey park a few weeks later I reminisced on my time in LA, already with fondness, recalling what I thought were the words from California Dreamin’:

Stopped in to a church I passed along the way.
Well I got down on my knees
And I began to pray.

The verse mirrored my actions in the LA church, where at the end of the service, I knelt in the pew and prayed at length, in silence. A sincere, more definite act of handing over my life to Jesus than the previous, vague prayer in Portland, Oregon. Another quiet but momentous spiritual milestone. It felt goodvery good.

Was this, rather than that moment in Oregon, when I really gave my life to Jesus? Or was it eighteen months later, when I was baptised at Clarendon Church in Hove, and made a definite act of leaving behind some of my old ways? Or two years later when I was tangibly filled with the Holy Spirit’s love and joy?

The truth is, our devotion to God – giving our lives to Jesus – tends to happen in stages. Being born again, like any labour, may happen in an instant or gradually, but all children grow in spurts. And whatever steps we think we take are initiated by our loving Father, who causes the growth.

Every step I’ve taken towards God has been because of his moving within me.

It’s only while preparing this blog, that I discovered that that line in California Dreamin’ is not in fact:

And I began to pray

but:

And I pretend to pray

The real words are a million miles from the authenticity of my act of faith in the LA church. There was no pretence.

Even as an atheist I was genuine – I never pretended to pray. When, in my teens, I refused to participate in saying grace at my grandmother’s house in Holland, she was somewhat shocked.

(Later, my grandmother was one of the first people I told about having come to faith. I received a beautiful, emotional letter in response about how she’d prayed for me with tears. I’ve treasured that letter to this day).

At primary school, when reciting the Lord’s Prayer in assembly, I confess I did acquiesce, even though the words meant nothing to me. One morning, though, my friend Justin and I decided to make it more interesting. When we got to “Give us this day our daily bread”, we continued “…and butter and Marmite and jam and cheese spread…etc”!

A snotty prefect noticed us ‘talking’ during the Lord’s Prayer and we were sent to the headmaster’s office, where we were reprimanded. It wasn’t treated as a caneable offence, but I reckon it was one of those childhood incidents that helped to put me off ‘religion’, and even now I recoil against reciting the Lord’s Prayer by rote (although I’ve come to love using it as a set of themes, a basis for bringing real, personal requests to my Father).

I recount that episode, partly to illustrate my genuineness as an atheist prior to believing, but also to observe the irony: although Justin and I made this amendment to the Lord’s Prayer in fun, to liven up a boring assembly – this ‘prayer’ that got us into trouble, if genuine, would have been a perfectly commendable prayer to the Father who loves to hear our requests and thanks for the everyday things of life!

But back to the New Jersey park, reminiscing over California:

I’d be safe and warm
if I was in LA

To stay in the USA, perhaps California, would in many ways have been the safe option, my comfort zone. In ensuing years, people would sometimes ask me whether I would like to return to live in the States. But I was convinced of God’s calling back to my home country.

Although I had no idea what the future held, I had a new-found, irresistible urge to put the things I’d been given to good use. The first two years back in England were somewhat rocky in places, as I worked out how to live my life as this new person. Some old habits died hard. But die they did and the course of my life was soon set on training to be a nurse. I also never lost sight of my roots or my affinity with the marginalised and downtrodden: it wasn’t long before I found myself volunteering with homeless people in Eastbourne, while doing my nurse training. The call to homeless people continues to this day.

The initial return to England, to Lewes, and letting people know of my new faith, was interesting! I soon found out who my real friends were, as some seemed to distance themselves from me. But there was a funny and poignant comment that sticks in my mind. After word had got round that “Roger had got religious”, my friend Scoby joked with me that he’d expected to see me with a shaven head and orange robe!

Eastern ideas had appealed along the way, but if I’d been searching for anything, I’d searched for truth and Jesus is what I’d found. Nothing else added up.

You don’t have to agree with this, but I believe that people who search for healing or peace may embrace any number of religions or philosophies that provide merely superficial psychological balm. But that those who seek truth will find the one thing, the one person, who will transform them on the inside, bringing outward change like ever-expanding ripples. It’s an inside out job.

Let me balance that bold statement by confessing that I’m not immune to doubts and struggles, and my healing after 25 years with Jesus has not finished.

And yet, in a sense, I’ve already arrived. He cried out on the cross – and in his grace he announces over me – “It is finished”. In his perspective, it’s a done deal. Job done.

Hence, in Jesus, we are set free from the endless striving for self-vindication demanded by the cruel taskmasters of karma and religion.

Do I still dream of California? Well, no – but East LA, Saint Alphonsus Church and the Tellez family forever live in my heart. And who knows, maybe I’ll return for a visit one day, to this incredible community that supported my first faltering steps into my new spiritual family as a child of the Father. And maybe I’ll stop into that church again and once again begin to pray…

 

PART SIX: LET’S FACE THE MUSIC AND DANCE

Fast-forward with me to Spring 2011.

A few years ago there was an Allied Dunbar advert on telly, featuring Nat King Cole’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance (written by Irving Berlin). This post is as much about the advert as the song. If you don’t remember the ad – and even if you do – I recommend watching it (again):

If you haven’t clicked on the video above, the ad shows a middle-aged dad confronting his two teenage daughters after discovering a pregnancy test in the family bathroom. “Whose is that?! What do you think you’re playing at? I thought we told you to be careful!” His challenge is met by protests of innocence from the girls.

“John, I think we’re the ones who should have been careful”, explains his wife tenderly.

John turns to the camera in a moment of Morecambe-esque surprise, breaking into song:

There may be trouble ahead
But while there’s music and moonlight and love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance

And the whole advert transforms into a musical comedy, reminiscent of Morecambe & Wise on several levels, and yet simultaneously somehow touching…

I remember, at the time the ad was on telly, thinking: “This is one of the GREATEST adverts EVER!” Both funny and moving. Little did I know how a few years later I would SO relate to this scenario!

We don’t have teenage daughters, but we do have two older children. In April 2011, when we discovered Janine was expecting Hannah, our boys were 13 and 9. When we ventured out into married life some 14 years earlier, we both thought 3 kids would be good, but after having Jono then Greg, we put off and put off and put off, till we thought, “No, no more. Our two boys are enough.”

Now here we were, in our 40s, with our older boys, having ‘done’ the baby years and happily left them behind. Been there, done that, got the bags under the eyes… Now suddenly expecting another little addition to the family! Truth is, we’d semi-jokingly toyed with the idea of another baby in recent times, so this wasn’t a complete surprise!

Anyway, here we were, and the first thing I thought of, when we first realised our situation, was this advert! Watching it now fills my eyes with tears of emotion, while at the same time making me laugh. Mixed emotions at the advert – and mixed emotions at our initial realisation that we were expecting Hannah.

I’m glad that the greatest of comedians

Can bring me to the verge of despair,

And that a quadriplegic

Who paints with his teeth

And taps out prose

One letter at a time

Can remind me

Of the richness of comedy.

(From Gerard Kelly’s poem Glad)

Children are of course a blessing. Always.

Children are a gift from the Lord (Psalm 127), i.e. although we make our plans to have – or avoid having – a baby, it’s ultimately God who gives the gift of a child. Things don’t always go to plan.

Some say children are ‘on loan’ to us parents.

Hannah is certainly a blessing. In lots of ways. Of course, just being herself as part of our family, is a blessing in its own right. A family sharing its lives together is how it’s meant to be. Perhaps not the only way, but an important, tried and tested way for people to learn from each other, to grow together, to become secure, stable people. To demonstrate love to each other, to enjoy each other’s company, reflecting the communal heart of the triune God.

That’s not always how it works out, but that’s my prayer for our 3 children, in spite of us parents’ faults and weaknesses.

But also, the softening effect Hannah’s had on our boys has been tremendous. Hannah’s been good for them. Jono and Greg dote on their little sister, exercising great patience and compassion, when she pulls their hair or wrecks whatever they were doing. And I think they’re better with each other as a result as well.

We have every reason to dance. We love all our 3 children. They bring us joy. Let’s face the music and dance.

Hannah was meant to be. In God’s eyes, she was always meant to be. Despite our (Janine’s and my) delaying her arrival, she was always meant to be. Can we delay God’s purposes? I think so.

More than one person has said to me, “Now your family is complete”. Did they mean that a family is only complete with 3 children? Probably not – they probably meant that in our case this is how we were meant to be. And they were right.

Of course, at the same time as the joy and blessing of an anticipated new arrival…having done and left behind the baby years, the idea of facing the sleepless nights again, the endless nappy changes again, the continual chase to move dangers and ornaments out of a growing toddler’s reach again…was daunting, to say the least. There will be challenges, perhaps even trouble, ahead. Mixed emotions.

What can you do but dance? What can you do but laugh and rejoice? And go with the flow. This is something God has done. This is something – someone – good that God has given!

Hannah has brought enormous joy and laughter into this family.

Children, of course, are the best dancers. Unhindered by inhibition. We’ve had some lovely times in our kitchen, when we’ve put on some music, and I’ve danced with Hannah. She stomps her feet and bends her knees – naturally, instinctively, always smiling. We’ve faced the music and danced together.

No wonder Jesus calls us to be like little children.

In true dance there’s a letting go, a reckless abandon, a cry of “freedom!”, and emergence of the true self.

In the film Billy Elliott, Billy tries to explain what it feels like when he’s dancing:

Once I get going, then I forget everything. And I sort of disappear. Like I feel a change in me whole body. Like there’s fire in me body. I’m just there, flying. Like a bird. Like electricity.

Wow, wouldn’t it be great to dance like that? Better still, to live like that!

Snoopy blissfully declared: “To dance is to live and to live is to dance” (Peanuts).

Dance may represent a wild, unbridled (but not blind) trust in God. Trust that he will give us all the grace we need in the years to come, as he has done till now.

Jesus announced to his followers that they would be able to ‘trample on snakes and scorpions’ (Luke 10). I’m sure he meant that they would have authority to defeat evil spirits and evil in general. But please indulge me while I stretch the meaning a little…

Suppose we lived as he meant us to, with reckless joy and child-like trust. Suppose we ‘danced’ through life? We would trample on troubles, stamp out stresses, dance over disaster…

To live is to dance.

There may be teardrops to shed
But while there’s music and moonlight and love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance
Let’s face the music and dance…

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The liberty of atheism?

“I find being an atheist liberating”, a work colleague recently declared to me. We didn’t get round to finishing the conversation and I was left wondering, “liberating from what?”.
Had he previously believed in God and found religion restrictive?
Or perhaps he had seen others enslaved by the guilt and shame associated with some expressions of a belief in God.
Or maybe, like the people described in the Bible who hate the rule of “God and his messiah”, crying “Let us break their chains and free ourselves from slavery to God” (Psalm 2), he is opposed to the idea of an ultimate authority to answer to.
Before exploring whether atheism or faith in God is liberating or restrictive, my first question would be: “What is true?”.
I first came to faith in Jesus because I discovered it was probably true. A combination of personal experiences and conversations had shaken my atheist worldview and birthed a growing conviction that there was a God, taking care of me, and that Christianity made best sense of the universe. The evidence seemed to stack up.
I wasn’t looking for a higher power to heal me from my dysfunctionality, brokenness and addictions. I wasn’t expecting anything or anyone to change my life.
So when I came to faith in Jesus, all I said – and this was the first genuine prayer I had ever prayed in my entire life – was: “Well, God, I think you’re there. I’m going to give this Christianity thing a try for a year or two and see what happens”!
Not “Lord, I give my life to you, I commit everything I am to you”, as we encourage new Christians to do.
Or even “Lord, please heal me and change me”, as those looking for God’s transformative power might legitimately do.
I hadn’t hit rock bottom. I wasn’t desperate. I wasn’t looking for religion. I wasn’t looking for change. I simply believed that this thing was true. I also had an overwhelming sense that God was not only true but was calling me to follow him.
This ‘thing’ was excitingly irresistible – not in the sense of not having a choice – the decision was mine – but it (he) was overwhelmingly attractive. Like the thrill of having found ‘THE ONE’ person meant for you.
Little did I know what I was letting myself in for! The good book says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good”. And God often takes us at our word. So the next 2 years were spent half-heartedly living as a Christian, but tasting God’s goodness and slowly being changed by his involvement in my life. Exactly 2 years after that first prayer, I experienced the most wonderful, more dramatic transformation, when my addictions were replaced by an inner love from and for God. I’d given it a try, or God had given me a try, and now it was all for real. Filled wonderfully with liquid love! No going back!
What I hadn’t originally been looking for, I’d found. Healing from my dysfunctionality, brokenness and addictions – a process that continues to this day!
What I’d come to believe was probably true, God had now shown me experientially beyond reasonable doubt through his actions in my life.
The most important question surely has to be “What is true?”. But after that, a valid question is: “What works?”. Surely, if Christianity is true, then it will work. It claims to emancipate, not to enslave. As Jesus famously said, “The truth will set you free”.
So why would anyone find religion enslaving or restrictive? Why would Karl Marx describe religion as “the opium of the masses”?
Because it is! Man-made religion – in which man is striving to please a god or gods who are never satisfied with our efforts – will always leave the religious person unsatisfied and a slave to guilt, fear and shame. Always enslaved to rules no one can keep.
This kind of religion is as much an addiction as alcoholism or heroin addiction.
Many have had this experience with Islam, Hinduism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and of course various expressions of so-called Christianity. Millions have been chained to the shackles of man-made religion. It divides, suppresses, pits man against man, nation against nation, as each declares its own set of rules.
Genuine faith in Jesus is not like that. Grace is not ‘religion’, in that sense.
Grace (the free mercy and love of God) tells us everything has been done for us at the cross. As soon as we come to God with our simple faith, all our sin, shame, guilt, is taken away.
Grace comes to us and sets us free from the power of addiction, because addiction’s psychological power lies in the shame associated with it.
Grace sets us free from the need to please others, and the never-ending quest to please God, because we are already acceptable to him.
Yes, I aim to please God, but only as an expression of loving thanks. Not to prove myself.
Grace sets us free from bitterness and resentment, so we are at peace with ourselves and others.
The truth of grace sets us free. Not only free from….but free to…….
Free to be ourselves. The more I immerse myself in God’s love and truth, the more I am able to be fully ‘me’. He makes me complete.
Free to forgive and love ourselves and others. So that we’re not trapped in a prison of bitterness and guilt.
Am I more or less free now than when I was an atheist?
Before, I was free from anyone else’s morality. In my hedonistic mindset, I could do practically whatever I wanted and enjoyed. Yes, a kind of freedom.
Today’s motto seems to be ‘whatever makes you happy is ok’. Sounds like an attractive philosophy.
But this kind of freedom tends to brings with it an enslavement to addictions, anger, bitterness and other patterns of behaviour that hurt others and ourselves. It’s not hard to see the hatred and bitterness in the books and TV produced by certain prominent atheists of our day.
In giving myself to God, I am freed from countless emotional and behavioural prisons. I am a willing servant of God, free to love and be loved, not shackled by rules or guilt.
I hope to resume that conversation with my colleague some time, but I think I know the answer to this question:
Who is liberated – the atheist or the man/woman under grace?

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Why a blog? Why ‘A Child of Grace’?

In these days of social networking and blogs, everyone feels they have something to say. I’m no exception. In my arrogance (perhaps) I’ve often felt I have a view worth expressing. As a young atheist in 6th form, I wrote an article for the school magazine on why there was no purpose to life, why belief in God was just ‘a crutch for religious nutters’ and why Sid Vicious was my hero! I was disappointed that the article wasn’t published.

Some 18 years later, I had a featured letter published in a national newspaper about how God, the Holy Spirit, had set me free overnight from cannabis dependency and given me purpose in life. Don’t you love God’s irony!

In 2009 I had an article published in Nursing Times, centring on a case study from my work as a nurse with homeless people, highlighting how a therapeutic relationship, empathy and rapport with a client promotes concordance, reduces the client’s stress and aids healing. The subject of the case study had a massive, deep, drug-related wound but had stopped attending his GP surgery for treatment. As a result of a therapeutic relationship of mutual respect, empathy and understanding, within an accessible service, the client did not miss a single appointment at our clinics, he was a pleasure to work with, and his wound healed with incredible swiftness. It was one of many beautiful encounters in my work and inspired me to write the article. I felt I had something to say to the clinical world. The article can be found at:

http://www.nursingtimes.net/nursing-practice/clinical-zones/wound-care/holistic-care-of-a-drug-related-wound-a-case-study-from-a-clinic-for-homeless-people/5003854.article

Of personal sadness to me, since the article was published, the client (who was the same age as me) died very suddenly.

I’ve had letters printed in local papers and national magazines. Nothing amazingly significant about that perhaps, but the articles and letters reflect more than a desire to ‘spout my views’ – they reflect a love of writing. I cannot draw, paint or play a musical instrument. But I can write and enjoy writing. I don’t express myself particularly clearly or confidently in speech, but I enjoy conveying my thoughts and feelings in print.

Why a blog? Because I think I have something to say? Undoubtedly. But equally, to fulfil who I am. A creative outlet. The enjoyment of crafting words and ideas together, to create something that is a reflection of ‘me’.

Which brings me to the other reason for a blog: Being a ‘child of grace’ (a phrase taken from the U2 song All Because of You). If I were simply aiming to express my own creativity as a kind of self-fulfilment, it would be nothing more than self-indulgence and serve no real purpose outside of myself. But there is a higher purpose: I am a child of grace!

Grace in the theological sense.

Not grace as in beautiful, as in a ‘graceful swan’, although this grace is the most beautiful thing on earth.

Not grace as in saying thanks before a meal, although this grace is the biggest thing ever to give thanks for.

Not grace as in ‘your grace’ as if I’m something important! Although because of this grace I know that I am important and special to my heavenly Father.

Grace is mercy. I’m forgiven. I’ve had wonderful spiritual experiences of being forgiven and of forgiving others. To forgive and to be forgiven is true freedom and joy – at least one of these spiritual experiences involved spontaneous laughter at the wonder of being forgiven!

Of course, forgiveness, whether you’re giving or receiving it, is never deserved. Otherwise it wouldn’t be forgiveness. Which is why it’s so liberating, so joy-inducing, either to give or receive.

But grace is more than mercy. More than forgiveness. Grace goes further. Grace means not only that the bad stuff is taken away, but that good stuff takes its place.

In my case, this included meaning and purpose, the desire, passion and ability to give my life to a caring career, the ability to be a husband and father, the gift of family, and so much more.

It may sound corny, but I was given peace. The homeless, hedonistic, haphazard, freedom-of-the-road traveller, who wanted no possessions or responsibilities, who’d been drastically damaged by a dysfunctional childhood and wanted nothing more than to get away from England and himself and to travel the world, had now not only found Jesus (or been found by him), but had found peace.

Now born (again) of grace, I had no more desire to travel but to return to England and use the gifts and talents I’d been given to care for others. A remarkable transformation of grace.

A family member told me later ‘You found yourself’. I glibly replied, ‘No, I found Jesus’! I realised later we were both right. As a result of finding Jesus, I’d found myself.

Grace means being overwhelmed by love. It means I can never turn back. I’ve tasted something real, something sweet, and nothing else now will do.

Being a child of grace means that I know my faults, my shortcomings, my failures, and yet – it’s OK! God loves me anyway. Better than that, he accepts me as I am. Even better still….he LIKES me!!! I have value, dignity, self-worth, self-respect – not because I’m anything, but because to God I’m something.

And………..this is the best part……..I see others that way too. Maybe that’s why I see so much beauty in the faces of the broken, hurting, vulnerable and homeless people I work with.

This is not religion. This is not a system of rules or rituals to earn brownie points with God. It is not even a way of life (although that naturally follows). This is simply a free gift, received with open hands and open heart.

Being a child of grace means living under the shadow of the cross. Grace flows from the cross of Jesus Christ – all that he did, all that he is, all that he gives, is centred on the cross.

All that I am, all that I have, is because of the cross. Much as Jesus’ crucifixion was a dark day, a day of death and seeming defeat, his act of self-sacrifice was in fact victory in disguise, revealed on Easter Sunday – light and life for the world, the greatest gift to mankind – to all who are humble enough to stop trying to prove themselves and to come like beggars receiving charity.

My goal – in life and blog – is not simply to reveal who I am, but to point to who he is. Like a star with no light of its own, but reflecting the sun’s light, to reflect the light of Jesus in some small way. In particular, for the shadow of the cross – the light of the cross – to fall on all that I convey in my life and online. For my views and opinions to be tinted with the radiant grace of the cross.

I write this with a belly full of pancakes! Tomorrow is the start of Lent – not something I’ve ever taken much notice of – but this year I aim to reflect and re-focus on my Friend and Saviour. Maybe you will find or re-find him too?

As a child of grace, I try to avoid being ‘religious’ but aim to live in the reality and fullness that God intended. God forbid that I should become too religious! Which means that, although my adulation may have shifted from Sid Vicious to Jesus, I still like to listen to the Sex Pistols, and songs like Pretty Vacant and God Save the Queen are still great tunes!

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