Signs for Le Grand Depart were everywhere in Leeds. Buntings and gold-coloured bikes adorned homes. Even the Black Prince, on horseback in the central city square, was wearing a yellow jersey.
While I was late for one Le Grand Depart, I was so pleased that I made it in time for another. Fifteen years ago, as a young principal making a crucial early appointment to the faculty of the college I served, I travelled from Auckland (NZ) to Edinburgh (Scotland) for a twenty-four hour visit (and interview) with one George Wieland. I still remember George explaining the Synoptic Problem to me on the couch in his living room. George & Jo - together with Lindsey, Joanne and Jonathan - crossed the world in obedience. With my own Mum's words ringing in my ears - 'the hardest thing about taking you kids to live in India was taking you away from your grandparents' - I've had a heart for George's parents (George's children, too) and their counting of the cost. Joseph and Mary. ('When your parents are Joseph and Mary, there is some burden of expectation' - George).
The funerals of the godly stir me into life. After a few tears, I emerge with heart softened and resolve refreshed to give my life to Jesus. A means of grace. A sacrament. This one was no exception - even though I was (probably) the only one who never knew Joe. We met in the church with which Joseph and Mary were associated for 45 years, 21 as pastor. Hunslet Baptist Church, formerly 'Tabernacle' - and still resembling a glorious tabernacle, although in quaintly miniature form.
A Yorkshireman called Higginbottam, on that call committee 45 years ago, stood up and gave a five minute eloquence-charged tribute. We sang one of those hymns I wish would never end - Teach Me Thy Way, O Lord - and then George climbed the steps to the elevated pulpit to give a tribute to his Dad. In the church where he was baptised. In the church where he was married. In the church where he was commissioned for mission service. George was at his compelling best as we wandered over hill and dale, stopping at humorous rest areas to savour the view, on a journey through his father's life. Joseph was no scholar. Getting educated was hard work. Learning Greek was almost one step too far, until Mary learned Greek just so that she could be Joseph's personal tutor. Joseph could be one of those irritants who hold up the class with an ever-present question. A little ditty emerged from the region of the principal's pen: 'I'd gladly pay the fare to New Zealand to get rid of Joseph Wieland'.
Thanks to the Carswell Clan I had some time for other Yorkshire exploits. There was a visit to Headingley to which I will return one day to watch a cricket game.
And what about the visit to the birthplace of Samuel Marsden, who was the first person to preach the gospel in New Zealand 199 years and 6 months ago? On my 50th birthday me and my mates took a pilgrimage to Marsden's Cross in the Bay of Islands (read about it here). On that day, guess who I had asked to 'bring a word' as we gathered around the cross? Ben Carswell - not knowing that he was from the same little area of Yorkshire as Marsden.
It was Ben's dad (Roger) who showed me around Leeds and then drove me across to Penrith for my meetings, skirting those Yorkshire dales looking like waves of the Great Southern Ocean painted lush green in some of God's finest work. Roger is a well-known evangelist in the UK (http://www.theevangelist.org.uk/). Kinda like a winsome whirlwind. Our tour of Leeds was unique. We saw the places were open air meetings and tent crusades had been held and tracts delivered. We passed old Anglican churches that have become nightclubs, with the coal mixed into the stone now adding a bleakness of function to the blackness of form. He spoke of a local high school with 2000 students for whom there is not one single Christian teacher. You are more likely to find an evangelical on the streets of Japan than on many of the streets of north-east Yorkshire. There are entire communities, with tens of thousands of people, for whom there is no evangelical witness at all. It was sobering stuff.
As a teenager I had a teacher from Yorkshire (F. Sharp) who taught me both piano and cricket. With that name, you'd think the piano would win. It lost. I learned more about Boycott than Tchaikovsky, and played more with statistics than with scales. My heart will return to Yorkshire again and again, but now with new names. Pastor Joseph and Mary laboured there for decades. Evangelist Roger and Dot continue to do so. And now there will be a prevailing prayer that a generation of Samuel Marsdens will return the favour and flow this way for Le Grand Arrive.