The Rocky road to redemption
By Shaun Curran
At 69 years old, Sylvester Stallone has enjoyed a remarkable 40-year career at the top as Hollywood’s iconic all-action leading man. But behind the violent on-screen fights, explosions and machismo is a religious family man. Sorted takes a look at how Stallone’s Catholic background influenced Rocky, the film that propelled him to stardom, and helped him navigate Hollywood’s temptations.
It is impossible to imagine modern popular culture without the influence of Sylvester Stallone. As one of Hollywood’s most inimitable leading men for 40 years, Stallone has helped create, define and then thrust into public consciousness the type of testosterone-fuelled, high-octane blockbuster action films that have become Hollywood’s default setting. With a muscular personality, boisterous style and a twinkle in his eye, Stallone has become the on-screen embodiment of all the contradictory aspects of masculine character traits – the vulnerable fighter, the lonely hero, the misunderstood and the underestimated.
Critics, particularly latterly, have attempted to paint him as a relic, a cartoon caricature of his former self, but the statistics tell a different story. Sly has fronted three of the biggest film franchises of all time: the recent The Expendables trilogy (a $600m and counting success) has joined a fabled canon which includes Rambo and, most famously Rocky, the underdog tale of boxer Rocky Balboa that first introduced Stallone’s talents to an unsuspecting film industry. In total, his 50+ films, eight of which he has penned himself, have grossed in excess of $4bn.
The story of Rocky itself – the rags-to-riches little-guy-does-good tale – is a well-worn one, but less known is the story behind its gestation and the religious inspiration Stallone mined not only for its story, but for the writing too.
Born in New York to an Italian immigrant father, Frank Stallone Snr, a professional polo player, and astrologer mother Jackie, Stallone’s suffered ill health in his early months due to a complicated birth, resulting in the slightly slurred speech that has long been a Stallone trademark, spawning a million impersonations. He was baptised a Catholic, living in New York and then Washington as his parents divorced.
His years spent as a budding actor were characterised by struggle: before his big break, he claims he “mastered the art of poverty”, living in New York in 1972. “I used to make $39 a week. That’s not much – so you really learn OK, I can afford some cottage cheese and a loaf of rye, and you learn to get along like that.” For a month-long period, he slept rough at a bus stop. “I had one coat, which actually I’m selling because I can’t stand it anymore because it’s such a bad memory. I had this one coat, and that coat literally was my house and I would sleep in the Port Authority bus station or outside the post office, and I would sleep in that coat and that coat saved my life, an old sheepskin coat from Afghanistan.”
A decent thespian career, never mind a dramatic rise to the top of Hollywood, looked like an unachievable daydream, a lost cause. It is why Stallone describes what happened next, without hyperbole, as “a miracle”. With an acting career that amounted to little more than several minor roles, everything changed on 4 March 1975: after watching a world title boxing fight between Muhammed Ali and Chuck Wepner, Stallone went home and wrote the first Rocky film in just three days, stimulated by Wepner’s resilience in going 15 rounds with the sport’s greatest figure. Sat on a script that would propel him to stardom, Stallone turned down offers of $250,000 from studios keen for the story, but not so enamoured with the prospect of Stallone playing the main protagonist. “I think to make it in this business you have to have a certain thing called the stubborn gene and when you don’t adhere to that, or you give in, you’re going to regret it and there’s about five times in your life you’re going to hit a major crossroads … which can determine your future for the rest of your life, it could be a marriage or a business decision. I’m 96% wrong but that 4%. And in this instance, I thought, $250 grand, that’s nice but it will go away but will the scar and the self-loathing and everything else watching Ryan O’Neal play Rocky? It was daunting.”
Nerve held, Stallone eventually got his wish. Overnight, he became a star. Rocky was nominated for a swathe of Oscars, eventually becoming one of the most beloved film characters of all time. But Stallone has identified his belief that divine intervention played its part in its success.
“I was never a writer,” he told CBN, “I was never an exemplary student, yet all of a sudden one day I started writing Rocky. I wrote [it] in three days, and it wins the Oscar. I cannot assume that I did that all on my own. I really do not believe that for a second.”
Modest? Disingenuous? Truthful? Exactly how much help from God he received, there is no doubt that Stallone took just as much inspiration from his own life story and his religious upbringing.
“The journey of Rocky was kind of like mine,” he explained. “I was raised in a Catholic home, a Christian home, and I went to Catholic schools. I was taught the faith and went as far as I could with it until one day I got out into the so-called real world. I was presented with temptation and I lost my way and made a lot of bad choices. I felt the character of Rocky sort of did that too. He just didn’t have the right guidance. And then he was given an opportunity in the movie – like he was being chosen. Jesus was over him and he was going to be the fella that would live through the example of Christ. He’s very forgiving – there’s no bitterness in him. He always turns the other cheek. It’s like his whole life was about service. And I said, ‘Man, if I could take my story, my feelings, and put it into the body of a boxer – because no one cares about an actor so much – the boxing is symbolism of the constant fight, and the example of Christ,’ I thought, this would be really interesting and that’s exactly what happened. It was like an unexpected gift, really.”
On record as stating he doesn’t see the art of boxing as unChristian – “there is one thing about speaking the word but eventually you do need a crusader, someone that has to go out there and defend it and face evil one-on-one and that’s pretty much what Rocky is” – Stallone says the spirit of Christ infused the first Rocky film from the very outset.
“What people don’t realise is the first thing you see is a shot of Christ, which then comes down to the beams of the church and says ‘resurrection’, and then it goes to Rocky being humbled,” he continued. “What I was trying to say was this was a man that had been chosen for a journey. He was at the lowest rung of society and we are going to watch him eventually find Christian ideals – he finds love, he brings people together, all these things. What I would call society’s outcasts all come together for one unified family spirit. That’s how they triumph. Alone, they are not very strong, together, they are invincible.”
The religious message continued throughout the sequels, with Stallone specifying that the sixth film, 2006’s comeback movie Rocky Balboa, 30 years after the original – “I was a national laughing stock when I announced it” – sees the boxer take solace in faith after the death of his wife.
“The last one, after he has all these family core values, his wife has died. The rug has been pulled from under him, he’s at his lowest depths asking, how can this be? And the film was about pulling yourself up from the doldrums of depression and crawling your way back up, finding the light, finding the spirit, moving on. He finds himself with old friends, even ex-fighters that read scripture, and then when he goes into the ring he goes in almost like he is doing God’s work. He really is on a mission.”
By his own confession, however, Stallone has not always practised that which he preached through his work. While Rocky was impelled by Catholic beliefs, Stallone, now a devout family man to wife Jennifer Flavin and daughters Sistine, Sophia and Scarlet, says that his own faith lapsed as his fame increased.
“There was a time there when I was a very strict Catholic,” he told CBN, “and then all of a sudden you make it in Hollywood and then you are given the keys to the candy store and temptation abounds and I started to believe my own publicity. There’s no question – I admit it. I lost my way. But every time I came back to Rocky I was given a new shot in the arm, a new reawakening. But then I would abuse it again. But eventually it led to about a 12-year period where I was just spiralling down and I eventually said – I have to stop. I have to get back to basics. So I decided to take things out of my own hands and put them in God’s hands because I always felt that I was chosen to do something. And I feel the same thing with the last film. There was a calling, I wanted to do it and for some reason I think right now it is a perfect message for what is going on. The world is in upheaval, we don’t have certain individuals in the world we can look up to and Rocky is a humble man who really believes in sacrificing himself for the good of others.”
Stallone is adamant that remains the case as he basks in the critical and commercial success of 2015’s Creed, the seventh edition of the Rocky Bilbao story. It is, Stallone says, proof that the morals of Rocky have found a new audience, remaining as relevant as ever.
“That’s why I think it’s so phenomenal – the generation that wasn’t even around when we did the third one, forget the first one, that they would embrace this and take it to a new level. I am stunned that, here we are on the seventh one, but actually we’re in Creed One. The Rocky story is done but this is now hopefully the beginning of a whole new series. It just continues to go on and what these guys can do that I can’t do anymore is that they’re living in the here and now, and I pretty much live in the past because that[’s] where I acquired all my knowledge – I didn’t acquire it from the future, I acquired it from the past. But they are acquiring their lives so their stories will be very applicable and very now, as opposed to retro.
“But what people need to realise is it is dealing with some deep core values. I really believe that life does repeat itself. By the grace of God, I’m here again.”
This sporting life
By Ollie Baines
You’ve gone from Blue Peter to Sky Sports. Why the change?
Well, first and foremost, children’s television and, in particular, Blue Peter is a young person’s game. When I watched it as a kid, presenters like the legendary John Noakes presented the programme into his 40s. Now it’s a very different world, and I knew right from the day I got the job that this was no job for life and that it might only last five or six years. But I also knew when I got the job what I wanted to do next. I love sport, and I wanted to do something I cared about, and sport was one of those areas. So while I was having the most unforgettable time on Blue Peter, I was also pushing to do more sports films on the show as well as starting to do some bits and bobs for BBC Sport, like reporting on events such as the London Marathon. What it meant was that when, sadly, the time came to say goodbye to Blue Peter, I was clear as to what I wanted to do next. I never wanted to suddenly get to the end of my time on the show and think, what now? In the end BBC Sport weren’t prepared to take a gamble on a former kids’ presenter; thankfully Sky were a bit more open-minded.
How did you get into presenting?
Well, basically, I caught the bug when I was at university. I thought about it before a few years before, but it had never been much more than just a thought. A few years before I went to uni I volunteered for a charity project called Radio Cracker. It was a project run by the Oasis Trust, and it was essentially a load of local radio stations being set up for one month, in the run-up to Christmas, to raise money for the projects Oasis was involved in. I ended up doing a weekly show at our local church in the early 1990s with a guy called Tim Vine who some of you will know has gone on to become a very successful comedian. This was the moment I got my first taste of presenting.
Then, I went to [the] University in Birmingham and got involved in something called Guild TV which was essentially a TV station with all the proper equipment, a multicamera studio and gallery. I used to do a show on a Friday lunchtime called The Lunchbox. Although pretty much no one watched it, it was a great thing to do as it taught me the raw elements of what it takes to be a television presenter, working with an ear piece, learning to listen to a director and a producer and all [the] while talking to a camera. At that stage, I thought there wasn’t a huge amount of merit in this, but it was a great thing to do, and I caught the bug and thought ‘this is what I want to do’. I gave myself three years to get into TV, and Blue Peter was the gig I wanted. To cut a long story short, it took me three and a half years to get it. I came out of university and ended up writing about 200 letters to various TV and radio stations and production companies just to see if someone would give me some work experience. I moved down to London and ended up selling suits in Selfridges on Oxford Street to pay the bills while getting runners’ jobs at CBBC and LBC Radio on my days and evenings off. During this time, I applied for Blue Peter twice and didn’t get anywhere, but I finally got my dream job on my third attempt. It was certainly worth the wait.
What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in television?
Start now. The opportunities now are vast to get yourself doing stuff. For instance, a young guy called Jack I know through the club I support, Norwich City, has started up his own Norwich City YouTube channel, and he’s someone who is grasping the new opportunities that particularly the internet offer. So I always tell people, just start now. Write blogs, write match reports if sport is your thing, start a channel. Your YouTube channel might not get many viewers, your blogs might not get masses of readers, but you’re doing something; you’re getting experience; you’re honing your skills, and that’s the key thing. Don’t wait until you finish school or get out of university, start now and then one day, if you see that all-important job you want, you’ll have all you’re going to need in terms of experience to be in the best position to go for it.
What’s it like broadcasting and presenting live on Sky Sports?
There’s nothing like live TV and covering live football, because you never really know what’s going to happen. You can put a running order together, write a script for the build-up, but once the match starts, you don’t know the outcome, and that’s part of the fun of it. I love live TV, and it’s funny sometimes, because after the live show we often have to record a highlights package, so you’re off-air, but for some reason when you stop doing live TV, it suddenly becomes more difficult. I think that’s because when it’s live, there’s a switch in your head that says “you’ve only got one chance” – if you mess up, everyone is going to see it. There’s no second chance. Wherever you do live TV, it’s so immediate, and I love the adrenaline rush of it.
What was it like being at the play-off final last season as a Norwich City fan, but also presenting the programme at the same time?
A big, big challenge. I did the League One play-off final the day before, which Preston won. As I headed back to my hotel on the Sunday night, I could see one or two Norwich fans arriving at the Wembley hotels, and on some of the stalls around the stadium, Norwich and Middlesbrough flags were starting to go up and I remember thinking “flipping heck, I’ve got to present this thing tomorrow”. I just felt under huge scrutiny because I had to sum it up well for the Norwich fans, but also, I had to equally sum it up for the Middlesbrough fans too. I remember it really hitting me about ten minutes before going live on-air. We were initially told our pitchside ‘studio’ would be in front of the Middlesbrough end, but one of our regular pundits, Peter Beagrie, used to play for Middlesbrough, and some of the Boro fans haven’t really ever forgiven him for leaving the club, and so he wasn’t too keen to be positioned there and neither was I, so thankfully we were allowed to present the game from the green and yellow end of Wembley.
I remember shortly before going on-air, looking up from our studio position and seeing the banks of yellow and green, and there a few rows up from where we stood was my sister, my brother-in-law and their three kids. I was standing there and for a moment just felt very emotional, but then I had to take the emotions out of it because all of a sudden we were about a minute away from going on-air. Fortunately, the professional switch that presenters have, worked, and I was able to do the job I’m paid to do. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to be invited to the celebrations after the game at the hotel, so it was a surreal day but utterly amazing.
Favourite Norwich City player of all-time and why?
I think Darren Huckerby has got to be up there, but I’m going to go for Iwan Roberts. Not because I know him now, but when he first arrived at the club, he found it really difficult to settle, and he was really under the pump, as it were, but after that initial period, he answered his critics emphatically and became a Carrow Road legend. He epitomised a proper Norwich player, and who can ever forget that toothless grin as he wheeled away in goal-scoring celebration?
Best interview you’ve even been involved in?
It would probably be an interview with Floyd Mayweather Jr a few years ago on Sky Sports News. It was after his Ricky Hatton fight, and he was set to come to the Sky Sports studios for an interview. So we had a live camera ready in the car park awaiting his arrival, so we could get a shot of him coming in. He arrived in this endless fleet of Mercedes cars, and he was in the back of one of them, fast asleep. He kept Georgie Thompson and myself back in the studio waiting for ages, and so by the time he arrived on set we were dreading it as he just didn’t look up for any conversation, let alone an interview. But to our surprise, it turned into a really fascinating, interesting and engaging interview. He was self-deprecating, which I didn’t expect, there were certain things I did expect, but he was just fascinating. For me he has been one of the best pound for pound boxers out there for many years, and somewhere deep among his brash nature, there was a really interesting character.
Moving towards the faith side of things, can you tell us how you became a Christian?
Well, I grew up in a Christian household, and my dad’s a vicar. So Christianity was always part of my life growing up. God was just a natural part of family life, and in my younger years, I never had any real reason to doubt it. But I had an amazing moment when I was seven years old, where I was nearly killed by a lightning strike in Norfolk. It was a defining moment for me for a number of reasons. We had gone out for a family walk near where we lived in west Norfolk. Like most young boys, as soon as I found the first climbable tree I was up it. To cut a long story short, it started to rain while I was up the tree, and while myself and the rest of the family were … getting shelter from the tree, my mum wanted us to move. Three times she asked, and so eventually we did what she asked. About 30 seconds after moving, there was a sound like a tornado jet coming through the forest, followed by a huge bang and a loud thud. The tree I had been sat in seconds before had been blown in two by a lightning strike.
We were not surprisingly very shaken up by this, and so later that evening some close friends of ours came round to see how we were doing, and they asked my mum why she felt so strongly we had had to move away from that tree. Her reply was this: “I heard a voice that said ‘move and move now’ and I believe it was God.” That to me was the moment that God and my faith became very real. Some people no doubt will read this story and think it was nothing more than an amazing slice of luck, but for me it was nothing of the sort. There have been many times down the years when life has been tough, and I’ve found it hard, but I’ve never walked away from my faith and have often come back to that moment all those years ago when God became very real. You can run as far away as you like, you can mess up many times (which I have), but God will never leave you.
Is it difficult to be a Christian in your industry?
I found it easier on Blue Peter because it was a very different kind of television show to what I do now. It was a show that allowed me to do some stuff that related to my faith. It’s been harder in some ways in the football world, because sometimes it’s difficult to relate my faith to football. I’ll be honest enough to admit that sometimes when we’re sat there in the studio debating a big penalty decision in a game, I come away from work afterwards and think, does it matter? Of course, it matters to the teams, to those watching at home and to me as a football presenter, but in the grand scheme of things does it matter, where does what I do fit in to what my life is all about? I tend to think we are all where we are for a reason, but for the time I am working as a sports broadcaster; it’s about being a light in that place, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I see my faith being of use in the way I view the game; in a world driven by money and fame, I try and be a godly person in that environment. I often don’t get it right at all, but I try.
Recently I went away to a Christian event called Focus, and it was a great time, and I left feeling much better about my faith after a difficult couple of years, and it got me thinking, a lot of people probably don’t even know I’m a Christian. So I decided to put it on my Twitter profile. It doesn’t sound like anything particularly major, but it had occurred to me that in my profile, where I say who I am, I hadn’t mentioned the most important part of my life. Was it because I was ashamed? No, I’m not. Was it because I was worried what people might think? Actually, yeah, it probably has been in the past. But I thought, I don’t care anymore, that’s who I am, so I’m going to do it. I’m a husband. I’m a dad. I’m a Sky Sports presenter. I’m a Norwich City fan, but I’m also a Christian.
We saw on Twitter you were at Focus this year. What did you make of the Christian festival?
It was amazing. We went with some friends, and I was a bit unsure about going, if I’m honest, but another part of me knew I needed to go. All the teaching was what I needed to hear. I sat there thinking “this person and, more importantly, God knows what my needs are right now”. There’s a woman, Jo Saxton, who was amazing, and she spoke so well, and it was just what I needed. I would describe the week as “a small taste of heaven”.
And finally, do you have a favourite Bible verse?
I do. I like Isaiah 40. I sometimes think in life we lose sight of the size and awesomeness of God. The amazing thing about our faith and Jesus becoming [a] man is it means we can have that intimate relationship with him, and it is an amazing truth. There’s that verse, Isaiah 40:18, and it just reminds me of the awesomeness of God, and I find it reassuring. We visited this animal park the other day, and we were inches away from all these different animals of all sizes, shapes and colours, and I looked at my wife and said, “How can people think this was made up of some cosmic explosion?” Seeing what we did that day was another reminder of God the creator and this passage in Isaiah is a great reminder of the majesty of God.
You won’t like me when I’m angry
Patrick Regan OBE (Founder and CEO of XLP)
About seven years ago it seemed a lot of things in my life started to go wrong. My daughter Keziah got very ill with HSP (Henoch-Schönlein purpura), my son broke his leg and my youngest daughter, Abigail was diagnosed with a permanent eyesight condition called Nystagmus. Soon after this my dad had cancer and my wife, Diane, and I lost a baby. Work was very busy and I began to experience early signs of burnout. During this period I was diagnosed with a degenerative knee problem that required major limb reconstruction surgery on both legs. Operating on one leg at a time this involves breaking my leg just above the ankle and below the knee and attaching an external circular frame for a considerable length of time (minimum six months). The road to recovery once the process started would take about two years.
If you know me at all or have read any of my books, you will know I am a very active person. I used to love football, climbing and running, all of which used to act as a stress relief to a very busy and demanding job. I had to stop all of these things.
My faith has been shaken, not just by the state of my knees but other events in the last couple of years. As news of my condition got out, all my Christian friends wanted to pray for me to get healed. Being fairly well known in the Christian world, lots of people wanted to pray. To be honest, I got to the point where I wanted to pretend I had been healed as I started feeling sorry for the people praying for me. When things don’t happen, you ask yourself the normal questions. What did I do wrong? Is there some big sin in my life which I haven’t repented of? How will we cope? How will the children handle it?
I am currently waiting for my second operation; one of the emotions that I struggle with during this time is anger. It’s a hard emotion to deal with as most of our associations with it are negative and it’s rarely talked about either inside or outside of the Church. To me it felt a bit like worry; I thought the good Christian thing to do was push it aside as soon as it reared its head. Yet I was angry that I couldn’t play competitive football anymore. I was angry that my family has had to deal with a disproportionately high number of health challenges in the last few years. I was angry that my life was being dominated by pain and completely disrupted by medical procedures. As I didn’t know how to express that anger in a healthy way, I tried to absorb it. I did my best to squash it down but, as you’ll know if you’ve ever tried it, that rarely ends well. I spent many days after the first operation sitting on the sofa looking at the red wall of my living room (perhaps not the most helpful colour), feeling so furious that I didn’t know what to do with myself. I would imagine picking up objects and hurling them at the wall, but then I would immediately feel guilty for thinking such things. When I first tried to shower without help after the operation I completely lost it. I was struggling to balance on my crutches, put too much weight on my broken leg, which was excruciating, and to top it off I managed to trap my fingers in the shower door. My anger built and built until I exploded and headbutted the shower door. Clearly trying to ignore it wasn’t helping.
We know from the fact that God talks about being angry a number of times in the Bible that anger itself isn’t a sin. It’s doesn’t have to be a negative emotion. When you think about some of the things that make you angry I wonder how many of them relate to a form of injustice. Anger can be a positive emotion, showing us that something is wrong; it highlights our fundamental longing for justice, fairness, rightness and equality. This is something that is grasped even in small children; they have a keen sense from a young age of what is and isn’t fair. Anger at injustice isn’t wrong, but the expression of it can certainly be. Unchecked it can be dangerous for us and for those around us.
All evidence suggests that suppressed anger can lead to depression, anxiety, violence and self-harm. Anger is a normal part of the grieving process, and life has many griefs, whether that’s the death of someone we love, the loss of a community we’ve been a part of, the end of a dream we’d cherished, or the grief of life not turning out the way we hoped it would.
We’re seeing more and more young people dealing with issues of anger from the frustrations and difficulties in their lives. Many are dealing with intense poverty, feel like they have no hope of getting a job, and have witnessed their parents’ relationships fall apart. Some have been abused, or seen more violence at home than we could ever stand to watch in a film; many witness their friends being killed through drug, knife and gun crime. There are few healthy outlets for the anger at these injustices, and so the young people burn with rage, some turning it in on themselves and self-harming as a twisted means of escape, others taking it out on anyone who gives them a look they don’t like, perpetuating the injustice in the world.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, in his book Falling Upward (SPCK, 2012) talks about how hard it is for men particularly to express their grief, and comments, “In our work with men, we have found that in many men this inability or refusal to feel their deep sadness takes the form of aimless anger, the only way to get to the bottom of their anger is to face the ocean of sadness underneath it. Men are not free to cry, so they transmute their tears into anger, and sometimes it pools up their soul in the form of depression.”
We have to find a safe place for the anger to be released without damaging anyone. The apostle Paul says, “‘In your anger do not sin’: do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Ephesians 4:26-27). In other words, he’s saying the anger isn’t a sin but hanging on to it is. Solomon said, “anger resides in the lap of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9) – the word ‘resides’ indicates he means letting it become a resident rather than a visitor. As a Christian there can be the additional complication to anger: what do you do when you feel angry at God?
Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we can’t seem to help saying: “God, why did you let this happen?” Maybe we can see our pain is a result of someone else’s choices and we can direct our anger at them, but sometimes we feel so angry with God for the things that hurt us. We wrestle with whether he caused them to happen, whether he’s in control, and whether it’s ever OK to be angry with God. Thankfully, God himself gave us some direction within the Bible to allow us to understand what to do with our anger, and the Psalms are a great place to start. There we see that David (a man after God’s heart – 1 Samuel 13:14) had no problems letting rip before God in his anger. He didn’t hold back with 40% of the Psalms being songs of lament that expressed sorrow, confusion and questions. People have suggested to me in the past that I try writing my own psalm of lament. When I look back on them now I realise I didn’t fully give myself permission to be honest. I tried to tone down my emotions, fearing I would offend God by saying what I really thought. Before we can really express our anger, we need to know whether it’s really OK to be angry with God.
Pastor and author Dr Ed Stetzer tells of the agony of seeing his sister, Betty, die at the age of 21. Betty was diagnosed with cancer as a young girl and, as a new believer, he prayed diligently that God would heal her. Betty got better for nine years before the cancer came back and took her life. Unable to comprehend why God would allow her to die so young, his mum walked away from the church, her Christian friends, and her relationship with God. Ed, on the other hand, demanded answers from God. He drove to the beach, where he could yell and use language you wouldn’t normally associate with prayer. He says, “The answers my soul craved never came. God rejected my wisdom in favour of his own. He did not give me the answers I wanted, but he gave me something better. He gave me himself instead.”
Most of us would acknowledge that when someone has hurt us, we have to forgive them to be able to find freedom and healing. But how do we deal with it when we feel hurt by God? We know he has done nothing wrong, yet we can be tormented by the fact he didn’t intervene and stop terrible things from happening to us. Dr R.T. Kendall was the minister at Westminster Chapel in London for 25 years and has written many best-selling books, notably Totally Forgiving Ourselves and Total Forgiveness. A couple of years after the latter was published, a friend suggested he should write a follow-up book called Totally Forgiving God (Hodder & Stoughton, 2012). R.T. gulped, knowing that would be easily open to misinterpretation while also knowing his friend was right. He wrote the book and explains there that God doesn’t need to be forgiven as he is only wants the best for his people and hasn’t done anything wrong. Yet we live in a broken world where suffering is a reality for so many people, which can leave us feeling betrayed by God. He says, “Total Forgiveness means letting everyone off the hook who has hurt us in any way. This includes God if we feel he has hurt us by allowing what he did.”
In my most honest moments I knew that I felt betrayed by God, and that it was something I had to deal with if I was going to be able to continue in relationship with him. It didn’t help that people would say, “God won’t give you more than you can bear.” This is a frequently quoted Christian phrase and one that can cause great heartache to those who are suffering. When you’ve reached the point where you don’t feel like you can take any more and someone tells you God wouldn’t give the burden to if you couldn’t handle it, it doesn’t make you feel loved. Quite the opposite; it leads to further anger, as you can feel like God clearly doesn’t know you all that well as you already feel beyond your breaking point. It implies he’s doling out the pain but will stop when things get too much.
The phrase is actually a misquotation of Scripture; what the Bible says is that God won’t allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13). Paul was trying to show the Corinthians that God was with them when they were tempted, and would help them find a way to resist. We need to let go of this strange image of God measuring out how much pain we can deal with that only confuses our understanding of who he is and how he relates to us in our suffering.
When we go through hard times we need each other. That’s why on the back of my book When Faith Gets Shaken (Monarch, 2015) we have produced a DVD for small groups and individuals alike with some very honest reflections on how we can focus on God and keep going when our faith gets shaken.
To order your copy, visit whenfaithgetsshaken.com
From pop star to pig farmer
As a youngster, Jonathan Benjamin Gill – best known as J.B. – was torn between becoming a musician and a rugby player. Little did he know that he would eventually become a farmer and a father, with a deep passion for both roles.
By Joy Tibbs
It was playing the recorder at primary school that first sparked J.B.’s interest in music. “I loved it,” he recalls. “I used to play with my brother and I used to race through all the books.” He learned to play the flute and piano, and sang in the school choir, and by the time he left primary school he was a fully fledged music fanatic.
J.B. attended the Centre for Young Musicians for around two years, but his love of rugby threatened to end his musical ambitions. “I loved going there, but to be honest even at 11 I didn’t really see how I’d be able to make a living out of playing in an orchestra, so I took the naïve view that this wasn’t going to be the future,” he explains.
“The school had a rule that if you were selected for a team to play on a Saturday, you had to play. So that kind of messed up my training at the Centre for Young Musicians, because obviously that was done on a Saturday. Being a boy and loving my sport, I just kind of took it with two hands and had the perfect excuse not to go.”
Falling into place
However, an injury brought J.B. to the realisation that he was unlikely to end up as a professional rugby player and he turned his attention back to music. The vocal coach he had while he was at university put him in touch with Oritsé Williams, who was putting together a band. Oritsé had already signed up Marvin Humes and Aston Merrygold, but he was looking for a fourth member.
“I met him and sang for him,’ says J.B.. ‘He said he liked me but he wanted me to meet the other boys. I said pretty much the same because I was at university, still, at the time. I still hadn’t finished my exams for that year. Once I’d met the boys something just clicked, I guess, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
The JLS boys spent hours practising and attended every gig and competition opportunity that came their way, but it felt as though they had hit a brick wall. It was at this point that they decided to enter The X Factor.
“To us, at the time anyway, The X Factor was a bit of a last resort,’” J.B. admits. ‘”But I guess we swallowed our pride a little bit because the traditional way to make it in the industry is to get signed and then make it work organically. But as The X Factor’s proven time and time again, it’s just as successful a route into the industry as anything else. Everyone’s route is different.
“At the time we entered we were one of the few groups that were already put together, and because we’d been working together for a year and a half we had a great chance of going all the way, which we pretty much did.”
Life under the lens
When it came to facing the judges, the JLS boys experienced what J.B. describes as “good nerves”. He says: “We knew that we had talent, and for us it was a case of making sure we showed everything we were capable of. We were so prepared it was almost virtually impossible for something to go wrong, but the last thing we wanted was to be told no and we hadn’t given our best. So there was always that apprehension beforehand.
“We made sure that we coordinated our outfits and were as prepared as we possibly could be. And it was fine. The judges were nice, or nice enough. They gave us great comments as well, which always helps. We delivered to the best of our ability, and obviously we got through that audition. It was kind of surreal, I guess, meeting the judges for the first time, but we were looking forward to it and hoping it would be good news.”
The first week of The X Factor – Michael Jackson week – still stands out in J.B.’s mind. “It’s not like performing in front of an audience, because obviously you’re looking at cameras and making sure that you engage with the audience as well as the people at home,” he explains. “So it was a bit hit and miss, in my opinion, for the first week.”
Disappointment and success
The band gradually got used to the cameras and started to enjoy the experience, but it wasn’t until the semi-finals that they really started to believe they had a chance of winning. But despite finishing in second place, there was disappointment ahead.
“We finished the show and Simon [Cowell] turned round in his dressing room after the final, and said: ‘Sorry, guys, but I’m only going to sign the winner this year.’
“We were heartbroken at the time because we were like, ‘Well, what does that mean? Does that mean we’re not going to get signed? We’ve done all this stuff, we’ve performed in front of all these people, this is what we’ve been looking for and now it’s not even going to happen.’”
However, hard work and perseverance saw JLS land a contract with Epic. Their first single reached number one and since then the band has sold more than ten million records worldwide. “I always knew that if we had the opportunity we would make the most of [it], but as with everything you can’t call it,’ says J.B. ‘You never know when it’s going to happen or how it’s going to happen, but you have to have that belief in yourself that it will happen.”
Keeping in touch
When JLS decided to call it a day in 2013 it was tough on their fans, but it was also an emotional decision for the band members. They had become so close over the years it felt like a family was being torn apart, but as they began to start families of their own, they knew it was time to take a step back.
However, the JLS boys still make time to hang out together. “Not long ago we all went away for a weekend together in Wales, which was nice,” says J.B. “We often see each other out and about and I see different boys at different times, but it’s so rare that we get a chance to hang out with the whole family … We try our best to maintain that contact because we spent a lot of time together over the years and it’s important to try and continue that relationship.”
Pushing the boundaries
Since the band’s break-up, J.B. has appeared on various reality shows including MasterChef, The Jump and Strictly Come Dancing. While the latter two were fun and challenging in equal measure, it was MasterChef that really tested the pop star.
“I love cooking and I had a great time doing it, but it was probably the furthest out of my comfort zone compared to any other shows I might have done,” he shares. “And it was hard at the time as well because I was trying to organise my wedding, so trying to juggle life and also prepare and keep myself focused for the show was not easy, and wrecking the kitchen in the meantime was a little bit hard to handle.”
This turned out to be excellent training for J.B.’s current roles of farmer and father, both of which involve a good deal of juggling. J.B. originally bought his ten-acre property to provide a peaceful haven away from London where he could rest on rare days off, but before long he decided to make the most of it.
“Land is a valuable commodity so I didn’t see the point in having it and not using it,” he says. “A few people mentioned getting into deer farming and I had wild deer here on the land anyway, and I thought it was a great idea. I just began to investigate it, really, and the more I investigated I guess the more the desire and the passion grew.
“I started off with one pig, funnily enough, and now I’ve about 50 pigs and 170 turkeys. I’ve still got the wild deer and I’d still love to have a venison farm but I haven’t quite got enough space, even though ten acres seems like a lot of land. It’s just grown organically, if you’ll excuse the pun, and as it’s developed I guess my passion has increased with it.”
Fortunately, J.B. is used to working hard, as running a farm is no easy task: “I always like to remind people that it’s every single day of the year, so I actually don’t get a day off, which is a bit hard to take.”
However, as well as bringing in an income, the musician believes the farm has given him an important opportunity. “For me, food and the origins of our food and how we understand our food from the field basically to the fork or to the plate is really, really important,” he asserts. “When you’ve got kids who don’t really understand where their chicken comes from and think fish comes from the supermarket we’ve really got a lot of work to do to re-educate our children, who are going to be the future of our food industry in years to come.
“Without wanting to be holier than thou or anything like that, I have a voice and I’m a spokesperson just based on being in JLS and my history and my past, and I think that it should be used for good. Aside from the fact that I love my food and [knowing] the provenance of my food, it also gives a good example to kids and to younger people to also take an interest in their food.”
The best part of the job is that J.B. can be home at a reasonable hour to spend time with his wife, Chloe, and their son, Ace. “When you have young kids they change so much so quickly,” he explains. “Honestly, in hindsight, if I’d been doing JLS and I had a young family I probably would have hated every minute. Not because of the experience, because the experience is brilliant, but to me being at home, being able to see my family, my son, being able to spend time with him and teach him and experience him is much more important.
“Even if I’m busy every day, it’s nice to be able to finish at five or six and still have time to be able to put him down or bathe him or read him a story, or have dinner with him, even. It’s crazy, it’s nuts. So much changes. It’s hard to explain, and until you go through it I don’t think you’ll ever fully grasp it.
“But it’s incredible. I love every single minute. He actually has been a dream, so I count my blessings every day. He sleeps very well, he eats absolutely everything. He doesn’t complain or moan too much and he’s very, very intelligent; very astute. So it’s such a joy to be around him and to experience him.”
J.B.’s life has changed completely since he became a father. “I’ve re-evaluated what’s important in life,” he shares. “Obviously you still have to go out and work, you still have to keep busy. You can’t just stay at home all day, or I can’t. But at the same time you reprioritise everything.
“I make sure that I have time with him and I do things by myself with him as well. It’s easy to do it as a family, but for me there’s a very special bond between a father and a child; just as important as the child and the mother’s relationship is. It’s a different relationship so you have to cultivate both. It’s changed my perspective, which I’m sure it does for most people.”
Keeping the faith
Having decided to fully commit himself while he was in the band, J.B.’s Christian faith also plays a major part in his life. “[My faith] is encompassed in everything that I do, so I always think about that first before I commit to an event or commit to a job, maybe, or commit my time elsewhere,” he says.
“Time is a very valuable commodity. It’s one of the things you can’t get back, no matter how hard you try. So [it’s important] to use my time profitably for myself, for my family. At the end of the day I can work until I’m blue in the face, but often with children and often with your relationships they’re less interested in the things that you have and the things that you do than they are with the time you can give to them.
“Obviously there’s a balance that needs to be struck, but at the same time, for me now a lot of the decisions I make in my life, and family decisions as well, will be based around my faith rather than the other way round.”
If you’d like to sample one of J.B.’s delicious turkeys, which he may or may not have personally serenaded, visit kellybronzefarmers.com
Climbing the highest peak in Europe
From the Scottish Monros to the icy slopes of Russia’s Mt Ebrus, Jamie Annetts talks about his enduring love of mountains.
One of the many types of rain in Scotland keeps pouring down on us, obscuring the view. It has been creeping up the arms of my waterproof, which I haven’t reproofed for ages. A few metres away, a guy in a kilt unwaveringly plays a Scottish tune on his bagpipes, while another cracks open a bottle of bubbly. We’re on top of my friend’s last Munro. Celebrations like this may be a familiar sight in the Scottish Highlands where keen Munro-baggers collect all peaks over 3,000ft.
Today, there is an unfaltering fascination with mountains and adventure – from watching Scott Fisher’s battle with Everest on-screen, to flocking to some of the numerous Mountain Festivals, people are caught with the idea of challenge and extreme conditions. The idea of collecting mountains has inspired generations of climbers – experienced and novice alike. Mountain ‘tick lists’ include summits
in many countries and across continents, among those the six great North Faces of the Alps, the Alpine 4,000m peaks, the Three Poles and, as probably the most renowned, the Seven Summits. The Seven Summits, the highest points of each continent, have drawn many with the prospect of travel around the world, and true challenge in reaching the summit.
The accounts and photographs of those brave enough to venture out there to face extreme weather, and standing with their ice axes raised to say, “We’ve done it”, inspire others to get out there and do exciting things themselves. But where to start?
Sitting across the table from the enthusiastic owner of Exped Adventure in their small office in Staveley, I’m captivated by his passion for big mountains and remote adventures. Driven by a love for the outdoors and desire to take others out there, he has built up his own trekking and adventure company. Jamie talks about the struggle in the adventure industry. “Asserting yourself in a market dominated by big players isn’t easy, but being a small company has its advantages. We know all our clients personally and really want them to feel well looked after.”
So where to start, if you want to go big, but not too big? Chatting to Jamie in his Exped Adventure jacket, Elbrus, in Russia, looks like a promising answer.
Of the great Seven, Mt Elbrus could be one of the first steps on the ladder to Everest. Among the mountains of the Caucasus Range, Elbrus is distinctive as a twin-summited peak, covered in thick ice. An icy col known as Sedlowina Saddle connects the east and the west summit.
While the angle of the slope and the lack of crevasses on the South Route offer a safe opportunity for getting a true big mountain experience, altitude and high winds may still defeat summit attempts. The mountain becomes treacherous in the winter, when the wind blows loose snow off the higher slopes and exposes large areas of ice.
Elbrus joined the list of the Seven as a latecomer, after its rank had been challenged by Mont Blanc for several years during the initial race for the first ascent of the highest points in each continent. Hidden away behind the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union, Elbrus was only acknowledged as the highest peak of Europe after Reinhold Messner climbed it in 1983. At 5,642m, Elbrus beats Mont Blanc by 800m, and is in good company of 14 other giants in the Caucasus Range, which are all higher than Mont Blanc.
In his freshly branded-up softshell, Jamie seems eager to get back ‘out there’. “Catching the first proper views of what it will be like on the ridge, and looking across … to Elbrus on the first day, gives a sense of what you’ll be doing over the week. There’s unspoken excitement that we’ll be standing on top of the biggest thing in the area, described as ‘resembling a thousand mountains’.” Elbrus has also been called ‘Little Antarctica’ due to its large glaciers, which cover the mountain with 145 square km of ice. “From setting foot out of the cabin in the mornings, you’re met with the glare of the snow and expanse of the glacier.”
Small companies specialising in adventure, trekking and unusual destinations are on the rise. Exped Adventure has been going for four years now, grown from the enthusiasm of its founders, and backed by a trusted team of guides.
“Over the course of the week you get a true sense of the rawness of Russia. It is rundown and harsh in places, with refuges of barrel huts and chairlifts scattered across the snow slopes. The burnt-out skeleton of the Priut 11 hut still stands near the new Diesel Hut, which provides a base for several acclimatisation days before the summit push.”
Jamie gets excited when talking about the precarious journey on 65-year-old ski lifts which take people a long way up the mountain. “The crossovers from the chairlifts require some skill to catch a massive duffel bag and then a load of eggs and bacon before the next person arrives on the platform.” From there, it is still a long way of walking with crampon and ice axe, up to the summit – seven to nine hours from the huts to the saddle and a further one to two to the summit.
From humble beginnings on the rounded backs of Scottish mountains to the glaciers of Elbrus, the fascination with mountains is a strong one. Exped Adventure has been running trips to Elbrus for several years. With years of mountaineering and guiding experience, and true passion for the mountains, Exped is a go-to contact if you’re keen for a challenge. They will help you define your challenge, from Elbrus to an array of mountaineering experiences across the globe, and tailor it to fit your ability and ambition. Book onto the next Elbrus trip of 2016 by contacting Jamie on firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information visit expedadventure.com
Beware the three Gs
A pastor friend called Jamie once said to me that as a man becomes more successful, he must always watch out for the danger of the three Gs. I was intrigued.
He said that the higher we climb, the further there is to fall and that these three Gs have shown themselves to be successful people’s undoing time and time again.
I wanted to know what these Gs were. He smiled and said: “They are glory, girls and gold. Look at the wealthy man who loses his family through an affair, or who loses all sense of self through the empty pursuit of more money or greater status.”
As you grow in your success, it is worth keeping an eye on what these three Gs stand for to avoid them ever becoming stumbling blocks. Now, don’t get me wrong – those three Gs are not all bad! I mean, I am married to an amazing girl, we have earned some money, and along the way have received a bit of glory in terms of the occasional award or accolade. But it is when you get too greedy, too needy, or too unfulfilled without more G – that’s where the danger looms.
The pastor’s warning was that status, adoration and/or financial success don’t guarantee personal success; those three Gs – girls, gold and glory – are fickle masters. But how many of us as young men aspired to all three of those Gs when we started out on life? We are human, aren’t we? We hope and are led to believe (you have to thank the newspapers and glossy mags for this) that girls, glory and gold will all make us feel brilliant. And they will, maybe, for a fleeting moment or two.
But in the long term, I promise you, none of them helps to fill that aching hole inside. Open up any newspaper and you’ll find the story of a life gone wrong in the sole pursuit of one of the Gs or, in the case of some high-profile footballers, sometimes all three.
But we also learn. And a wise man learns from other people’s mistakes. That was all the pastor was pointing out. Learn from others, never get complacent and know where the classic old dangers come from.
By Matt Fisher
If you sign up for just one big physical challenge this year, then why not make it Walking With The Wounded’s fun and testing Cumbrian Challenge on 13–14 May? Test your team against the charity’s beneficiaries and expedition team members on the stunning fells of the Lake District. Each team of four which takes part supports another wounded veteran back into employment, and last year the event raised more than £170,000 for vulnerable veterans.
Matt Fisher, 30, is a single-leg amputee who completed the Cumbrian Challenge in 2015 as part of his training for Walking With The Wounded’s Walk of Britain expedition across the UK.
The Cumbrian Challenge was the first bit of hillwalking I had done since electing to have my leg amputated below the knee in 2011 as a result of a gunshot wound sustained serving in Afghanistan just over a year before.
Last spring I was one of the newly selected Walk Of Britain team, soon to launch a 1,000-mile expedition throughout mainland UK, who arrived in the Lake District to ‘warm up’ with the Cumbrian Challenge. The event is Walking With The Wounded’s main annual fundraiser that takes place in the beautiful Cumbrian village of Grasmere, at the foot of the mighty Fairfield, the highest of a group of hills in the Eastern Fells, standing to the south of the Helvellyn range.
For us it was an opportunity to train, to get to know each other properly and to get some mileage done over hills to see how we would fare on the various hills we would take on during the Walk Of Britain, which would include Britain’s three highest peaks. The weekend consisted of Friday night registration and the chance to mingle and share banter with all the competition teams who had travelled from all over the country to take part, followed by the challenge itself on the Saturday, a celebratory drink or two afterwards, departing on the Sunday.
There were two routes: The ‘Tough’ and the ‘Tougher’, 20km and 29km over the various fells around Grasmere, starting and finishing at the sports ground in the middle of the village. The terrain up there is classic Lake District fells, rocky scrambles, grassy slopes, ditches and streams and good old scree slopes that can be particularly challenging underfoot. I didn’t think the distances sounded too difficult, and 20 or so kilometres on flat ground isn’t that much – but the type and variety of terrain up there makes it far more difficult and there were plenty of red faces on the trail.
The ‘Tough’ route started fairly steadily, as do many hill walks, but quickly got quite steep – it’s the Lake District. The angle of my prosthetic foot is set and does not adjust for different slopes and gradients, so hills were always going to be a struggle for me.
I soon started to realise that walking poles would have been helpful. I recall on the downhill of one of the first fells there was a considerably steep, wet, grassy slope that was the cause of much laughter. There were people slipping and sliding all over the place and at one point I suddenly became aware of a girl in my peripheral vision sliding almost the whole way down on her backside, having slipped over backwards, laughing the whole way down.
Just when I thought I was holding it together quite well, I slipped in the same way and decided that maybe the best way down the valley was to slide; it certainly saved a bit of energy. We managed to get back to the marquee on the sports field for a well-earned beer – cheered into the finish by the team of volunteers and staff from the charity. If nothing else, I had learned that the best way for me to stay standing and actually power up the hills and work my way steadily down would be with the aid of walking poles rather than hanging on to another human – but the event brought us closer together as a team as a result, as we had to work together to complete it.
The vibe on the Cumbrian Challenge is very jovial and although some of the faster teams take the challenge itself seriously, the atmosphere is filled with friendly, competitive banter and everyone takes it in the spirit you would expect from a fundraising event.
One of the prizes given at the after-party on the Saturday night is for ‘Best Fancy Dress’, and there were some hilarious costumes out on the hills that day; some were laughably impractical, including the winners’, who were dressed as cowboys on horseback.
The teams themselves come from all walks of life, different ages, different backgrounds and varying levels of experience in this type of activity. As a predominantly corporate event there were teams from various different businesses, teams from the army, the University Officers’ Training Corps, sponsors, trainee nurses, and beneficiaries of the charity and past expedition team members.
It was a great chance to meet some of the beneficiaries who have been through, or are going through, programmes funded by Walking With The Wounded and to hear their stories about how they have benefited from the charity. It really puts the event into context, because that is where the money raised is going.
The party on the Saturday night was a fun way to round off a tough day’s walk, and after a free massage from some volunteer sports massage students to iron out some of the aches and pains, we all went into the marquee where there was food, drink and live music and the much anticipated prize-giving.
The CEO, Ed Parker said a few words and announced the winners. Unsurprisingly, the winners of the ‘Tougher’ route were an army team who were a great bunch. The Cumbrian Challenge is a great way to spend a weekend, have a laugh and get some exercise in undoubtedly one of the country’s most scenic places. This year it’s the same weekend as Eurovision, so expect the party afterwards to have a suitably Swedish twist.
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