In the aftermath of the 1981 riots in Handsworth and Brixton, Norman Tebbit (Employment Secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s Government at the time) responded to a suggestion by a Young Conservative that ‘rioting was the natural reaction to unemployment’ by saying, ‘I grew up in the 1930s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it!’ This exchange is supposedly the origin of the slogan, ‘On yer bike!’ Tebbit is often misquoted as saying directly to the unemployed ‘get on your bike and look for work!’ Although this is not what Tebbit actually said, it is arguably what he was implying.
Back in the 1960s – 20 years before Tebbit’s advice – I recall an incident when someone literally did ‘get back on his bike’ … not to seek employment, but in the service of God. I was around 17 or 18 years of age and had only been a Christian for a year or two. Some weekends I would travel across London on the Central Line from my home in Greenford, Middlesex to Chigwell, Essex to help out with the work of Operation Mobilisation, an evangelistic outreach dedicated to distributing Christian literature across Europe and around the world. OM (as it was known for short) was in it’s infancy in those days in the UK and there were only a handful of people involved then. George Verwer (the founder of OM) was largely unknown at the time. We largely spent our time in Chigwell, packing books, doing ‘door-to-door’ visitation, and praying for the nations. I recall George telling us one day of a man he knew who was a ‘Colporteur’ – a peddler of Bibles and Christian tracts and books. Apparently this man had spent most of his working life cycling round Mexico distributing Christian literature in the various villages and towns. At the age of 90 he had finally been persuaded to retire. After just three months of ‘retirement’ however, he had become so frustrated with the decadence of the Church in the West, and so burdened for the people of Mexico, that he gave up on being ‘retired’ and returned to Mexico and ‘got back on his bone-shaker of a bicycle’ and carried on where he had left off – distributing Christian literature around the various villages and towns, and sharing the Gospel with anyone who would ‘lend him an ear’. As far as I know he probably ‘died in the saddle’ doing the work he loved, and felt called to by God!
Another prominent Christian who ‘got on his bike’ – both literally and spiritually – was Charles Thomas Studd (1860-1931), affectionately known as C T Studd, the famous English cricketer turned pioneer missionary. Studd’s story is too long to tell here, but is well worth a read. You can find various versions of his story on the internet. Studd was one of my ‘heroes’ as a teenager, recently come to faith in Jesus Christ, perhaps because he was a cricketer as well as a Christian. He came from a privileged background, was educated at Eton and Cambridge University, played for England in the famous ‘Ashes’ match against Australia, went to China as one of the ‘Cambridge Seven’ pioneer missionaries, gave away a financial fortune, overcame various illnesses to also serve God in India and Africa, rode through cannibal territory in the Congo on a bicycle to take the Gospel to the local tribes, came out of retirement twice to continue his missionary work, became the founder of WEC International, and finally died in Africa in his 70s, still dynamically involved in the work of God!
‘Where is this all leading?’ you may ask. Well, I too am 70 years of age, and my wife Julia, who is considerably younger than me, being a mere 56 years of age, is in the process of returning to the Baptist Ministry. As an ordained and accredited Baptist Minister, Julia was forced to take a period of ‘time out’ from the ministry because of ill health. Now fully recovered, she is back in what is called the ‘Settlement Process’ and has been approached by a number of vacant churches in recent days. She is actually ‘preaching with a squint’ at a Baptist Church in Cambridge in a couple of week’s time. Whether we end up in Cambridge or not is yet to be decided … but without any shadow of doubt, Julia will be returning to the ministry somewhere or other shortly. With Julia’s imminent return to ministry in mind, therefore, I have been wondering where I fit in, in the ‘equation’? We have always operated as a team in the past, and even though things have obviously changed in as much as Julia will be the ‘Minister’ in any new situation, we are both wondering where I will fit in, in the future? Will I be ‘recognised’ as an ‘Associate Minister’ by the church in question, perhaps? I certainly don’t want to ‘get in Julia’s way’ – she is only half way through her ministry, whilst mine is coming to it’s end – but on the other hand I think she would like to have me there in some ‘official’ capacity as a support, and ‘backup’ even, as she returns to ministry. ‘It’s a no-brainer!’ someone said to me recently, ‘You are a BOGOF (Buy One, Get One Free)! Any church would be daft not to have you as well!’ Personally, I am not so sure!? Some churches we have talked to really like the idea of having me ‘on board’ as well. Other churches seem not so sure? I just want to do the right thing, God’s thing, hence my dilemma.
Praying about this over the last few months, I have had a growing sense that God hasn’t finished with me yet! The last three years ‘retirement’ for me has been good in a number of ways, not least the opportunity it has provided for us to travel – extended visits to France over the summers, and a month-long ‘sabbatical’ in Israel, for example. But in other ways I have found ‘retirement’ rather boring, and long to be back in the ‘thick of things’ again, as far as sharing the Good News of the Gospel with others goes. I know that there are other Baptist Ministers for whom retirement cannot come quickly enough. Some, I know, cannot wait to ‘escape from the church’ and it’s responsibilities. I am not like that. All I can see is the great need that exists in the country and in the Church. I still feel as passionately as ever about the Gospel and my call to ministry. As Paul tells us in his Letter to the Romans, ‘God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable!’ (Romans 11:29)! I am constantly encouraged by the fact that whenever I do get the opportunity to preach, or am consulted pastorally, people continually affirm me in the most effusive terms!
Of course, these feelings could all be ‘simply me’ – just another ‘old codger’ who thinks he could ‘do it better’ than most of those filling our pulpits today?! Feelings alone can never be enough in discerning the will, plan and purpose of God? Neither, can the ‘opinions’ of others. For every person who has told me that I ought to continue in ministry, there have been others who are adamant that I ought to ‘retire’ properly, and even some who would like me to ‘roll up in a corner somewhere or other, and die’ preferably?! Having prayed a lot about this, God led me to two passages of Scripture recently. Both passages refer to God’s dealings with Abraham.
The Writer to the Hebrews tells us that, ‘By faith Abraham, even though he was past age – and Sarah herself was barren – was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore’ (Hebrews 11:11,12).
And the Apostle Paul, writing on the same subject, tells us that, ‘Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping – believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead – and so was Sarah’s womb. Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God’ (Romans 4:18-25).
There are so many parallels here for me. Abraham was 30 years older than me at the time, and it was only when he was 100 that his life’s major work in many ways commenced. Abraham was ‘as good as dead’ Paul tells us, but that did not stop him from becoming ‘the father of many nations’. So here I am at 70 years of age, about to go into hospital to have a triple heart bypass operation, still believing that God wants to use me for something dynamic in terms of the kingdom of God!? My doctors assure me that, following the operation, I will be fitter and more full of energy than I have been for many a year. So I am believing God for a further 10 years at least of dynamic, effective ministry! How this will all ‘pan out’ I don’t know – continuing to work alongside Julia as her Associate Minister, or branching out in a completely new direction, or doing something that I haven’t perceived thus far … who knows? God knows, of that I am sure, and he will make it abundantly clear in due course! And of course, if we do end up in Cambridge … I will definitely need a bicycle! Although, I will probably buy an electric one!?
‘Some want to live
within the sound
of church or chapel bell;
I want to run
a rescue shop
within a yard of hell’
~ C T Studd (1860-1931)