On Friday evening we arrived at the Nelson’s delightful house tired and sodden. The rain that fell relentlessly managed to leak into every cranny. It’s amazing what a hot bath and a good meal can do and I have to say we were shown great hospitality.
On Saturday we walked across the River Ribble on a glorious day that was so sparkling even the outskirts of Blackburn look quite civilised.
We ended up lost, charging through the lush vast gardens of an Indian magnate who owns Blackburn Plumbing and numerous other businesses besides. We were met by various daughters and other ladies who looked rather distraught when we suddenly arose from their herbaceous borders. When I explained who we were they relaxed and kept their huge dog tethered which, by the look of it, was just as well. The trouble is that we look like derelicts. Dinah our fool of a dog has eaten, with ferocious efficiency all the straps that hold our equipment on to our backs. General Jane has improvised “Heath Robinson” substitutes from bits of string which she keeps for a rainy day. This works well enough but makes us look like walking cat’s cradles and decidedly eccentric. Jane’s aunt collected string and when she died we found a box of bits of string labelled “too small to use” so perhaps Jane gets her string talents from her.
My right knee is giving me trouble. I strained it slightly at the outset of the walk and it has never really recovered. It is said that is you wake up over the age of sixty-five and you’re not hurting it means you are dead! But old age is creeping up inexorably and the best is not yet to come! The constant limitations and physical drawbacks of ageing are like being constantly punished for a series of crimes I have not committed.
It’s not often you hear people saying “sorry” I recall a film “Love Story” with sumptuous Ali MacGraw years ago which said drivellingly that “being in love means never having to say you’re sorry”. It sounded great in that soppy film but, on reflection, what sort of bunkum is that? Being in love may mean never having to say sorry but being married means never saying anything else!
But when mistakes are made by people in business, hearing someone admit they “have cocked it up” and saying “sorry” is as rare as hen’s teeth.
It’s maddening! It’s not that I want to humiliate people; it’s just that, unless they say “sorry”, what guarantee is there that they have learned a lesson and won’t do it again?
I think they believe that if they publicly admit error and say “sorry” that deep down inside, fundamentally they are somehow diminished as a person. Perhaps pride is the problem? It usually is. The reality is that saying “sorry” is a strong and confident thing to do. Refusing to do so is weak.
We walk through Blackburn. I had no idea that it makes hilly San Francisco seem as flat as a billiard table. We wheezed up and down the streets like a couple of ancient cart horses.
An entire section of the city is apparently Muslim. I wonder if politicians intended that or whether it has occurred in a fit of an absence of mind? For the last thirty years few observers dared comment about the ability of communities to absorb the substantial numbers of new immigrants or question what was happening for fear of being labelled “raaacist!” Or a “Powelite.” Sir Andrew Green, past U.K. ambassador to Syria and in his retirement founder of the excellent “Migration Watch”, was routinely and disgracefully criticised whenever he pointed out the accurate immigration numbers and pinpointed where the new people were collecting. Let me be clear. Over the years immigration has been an excellent benefit for the U.K. Many of the Ugandan Asians for example have created fortunes to the benefit of the U.K. But the last Labour government simply lost control of the numbers of immigrants and so it now appears that there is confusion as to how many people came in and when. No one really knows. There is a vast statue of the great and one time M.P. Gladstone in the city centre. I wonder what he would say if he could see the city today?
An Englishman Abroad
Richard Ekins will be joining us for a day’s walking and that’s great news. He is a lecturer in law at St John’s College, Oxford and by his early thirties had written a number of learned books. Richard and his wife, Rebecca – just as bright as he is – wear their intellect lightly and are delightful company.
When I was a young man, I thought that only weak and stupid people were Christians. Then in time, I was privileged to befriend Michael Green (double first from Oxford), Alastair McGrath (double first in mathematics from Oxford), Donald Hay (Oxford Fellow and Tutor in economics) and Richard Ekins. I realised I had to review my prejudices. I am friends with four brilliant men who do not think that faith is something rather nice in a wishy-washy sort of way, but that it is the truth at the very core of their lives.
I was the odd man out. I spent well over half my life as a non-believer. For a long time, I was lost without knowing it. Of course, I thought I was free. Why would I adopt a set of rules that I thought would inhibit my life and limit my fun? I wanted a life that allowed fornication as a weekend recreation, so why would I voluntarily adopt rules that regard casual sex as a sin? As a non-believer, I rejoiced that I faced no questions of conscience: no rules, except the constraints of custom, convention and the law. And I knew that for most purposes, these could be bent sufficiently to allow me ample leeway.
It was not until much later that fear began to shred what was left of my conscience. I knew I was free but I found that this freedom was causing me to walk in circles in an arid land from which there was no escape but inward – and this path led inexorably to a void in my heart. There were no foundations in my life, nothing but shifting sands: a nothing based on nothing. What was I? An accident of disorder, a walking plumbing machine ever going round and round…
How does one find belief? I knew no one who could tell me the secret. I asked several vicars with increasing desperation for the key; a number regarded me blankly and one foolishly chattered about the social Gospel. I grew ever more frantic. Was I lost? Had God forsaken me? Would he do so forever? Did he love me? This is the real terror. It’s terrible to be lost, finally abandoned.
A Curious Tale
My salvation came in the form of Kwaku Boateng, one-time Home Office Minister in Ghana. He was the father of Paul Boateng, a senior minister in the Blair Government, now Lord Boateng and once the UK’s High Commissioner to South Africa. Kwaku was then living in England and I met him on a flight to Washington D.C. In our stratified and class-ridden society, it had to be an uninhibited foreigner who had the perception to see my need, the courage to roundly humiliate me, and then the raw nerve to savagely kick-start me into belief. No Englishman could have done this. We are just too polite, too deferential, too nice and constrained by manners and overwhelmed by inhibition.
We should remember that Jesus never said “Blessed be the nice”, and Kwaku was anything but nice. He screamed at me relentlessly about sin and salvation. I was astonished and embarrassed but then I knew instinctively the man was right – it was as if the bits of a jigsaw were falling into place. He stuck his face into mine, and made me repent and make a commitment. He refused to let me rest until I had grovelled to his satisfaction. In fact, I think that at the time I said what he wanted just to shut him up. I didn’t realise that his ministry would have the most profound effect on me. It may sound very strange (it is strange), but Kawaku proved to be the catalyst that radically changed my life and the life of my family.
A few years ago, I was on a business trip to Ghana and was asked to preach in the cathedral in Accra. During my talk, I mentioned the role Kwaku had played in my life, though I had not seen him for 20 years. After the service, a young man told me he knew where Kwaku lived and would I like to see him again? I was led to the far reaches of Accra’s back streets and a scruffy men’s lodging house. When Kwaku saw me, a vast smile crossed his face. I thanked him profoundly and we prayed. It became clear he was ill and I heard soon after my visit that he had died. His son Paul later told me that each time he gave his father money, Kwaku simply gave it away. He may not have been the best family man in the world but he performed a remarkable service for me.
It’s a curious and very un-English story! But it’s one that happens to be true…