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On Eagle's Wings: the Story of My Life

by Tim Bulkeley

I never expected to be a refugee. Growing up in southern England in 50s - they called it the New Elizabethan Age at the time - the thought was never part of my world.

We went to Zaire with BMS, and I taught for nine years, at the Protestant Theological College in the capital, Kinshasa. In 1991, however, the poverty and oppression that festered under Mobutu’s reign caused desperate paratroopers and civilians to loot the city.

After three days of shooting all foreigners were evacuated and very reluctantly we missionaries left too. Separated from our African friends by rioting soldiers, we could say no goodbyes. We were taken to the airport, by a French military escort, with one small bag each. On the "refugee flight" to South Africa we cried a bit. From there on to Britain, once the British Consul had arranged a temporary passport for Barbara - hers was lost in Kinshasa.

God had led us to Kinshasa, and now, though we did not know it, he was sending us to NZ.

So let me tell you how he got us to Zaire. I was born in 1948 in Fleet, Hampshire, the oldest of three boys. My parents were Brethren, but they switched to a Baptist church while I was still young. I suppose my Dad (a schoolteacher) is responsible for me being a Bible teacher. His vivid Old Testament bedtime stories always made God's message clear.

I'm one of those people who have been converted two or three times!

I was about ten the first time, but soon entered a rebellious phase. At fifteen I recommitted my life to the Lord and became a Sunday School teacher. This kept me going throughout my second rebellion.

By the end of secondary education, however, my faith was threadbare. Part of the problem was the way people handled the Bible. They made it a law book and a science textbook, rather than showing it to me as the Maker’s Manual for Life. Science tries to tell us how the world came to be. The Bible tells us why - so that we could enjoy God’s love, through forgiveness in Jesus, and lead others to discover the Way to life.

So I went to study psychology at Leicester University intending dropping all connection with church and a faith I could no longer accept. But a chain of events - God's providence - linked me to the Baptist students' group. Always a rebel, I read the "Death of God Theology" popular at that time. It provoked a strong reaction in me. The "God" these authors talked about was not the Lord I knew. I realised, whatever else I might doubt, I still believed in God.

So, oddly enough, it was the most wrong-headed theology this century which drew me back to faith!

Gradually I sensed a call to ministry. The chaplain’s first reaction when I told him was, "You're the last person I expected to see me about that!"

Strangely that encouraged me, I never wanted to be a typical minister.

He suggested I apply for training, the process of selection would clarify whether or not the call was real, like Isaiah saying "Here I am, send me!".

Eventually I reached the Ministerial Recognition Committee who approved all applications. It was a tough, aggressive interview. Twenty old men round a table who seemed to disapprove of me. There was another applicant that day, waiting with me while the committee deliberated.

I said, "I'm sure they're going to turn me down. When they do, I'm going to say 'See you next year!'" For during that interview God convinced me of his call.

To my astonishment I was accepted, and after completing my BSc I went to the Baptist College in Oxford.

I soon regretted my lack of work experience, but when I requested a year off, midway through my training, it was refused. This was the early 1970s, people were leaving the ministry in droves in order to become social workers. They probably feared I’d leave and not return. The College paid for my tuition so I had to accept that, but after completing my training I did take a year out to do some voluntary social work in Belfast before beginning pastoral ministry in Wiltshire.

Barbara and I got married during this period, having met in Northern Ireland. Barbara, a Methodist, had done a psychology degree and trained as a teacher, but to achieve her goal of becoming an educational psychologist she needed to do a masters degree. Unfortunately, from where we were living, that was not possible but one day we spotted an ad in the Baptist Times which described an ancient trust fund for a "Protestant dissenting minister from South Britain" to study for a year in Glasgow. I applied, to work on a masters degree while Barbara earned her qualification.

The bursary came through and we headed north to study again. At the end of that year, though, God provided a job for Barbara in Scotland, but none in England, so she accepted it. My name went round vacant Scottish churches, hoping to return to pastoral ministry. No church called me, but the University agreed to upgrade my studies to a doctorate.

Before I trained as pastor both of us had wondered about the possibility of serving God overseas. I didn't want to be a preacher in another culture though - nationals are best at this. Nor did I want to train pastors, lacking qualifications that are standard at home - mission deserves the best, not the second rate. So, in a way, working on a doctorate from Glasgow University set us free to approach BMS about serving overseas.

They accepted us, designating us for Serampore College, which William Carey founded near Calcutta. For a year we trained for India, but missionary visas were refused, and after a long wait BMS suggested Zaire instead.

Since we had offered to go where we were sent, we decided that must be where God wanted us, though my brother, a medical missionary, had told us about Zaire's dreadful decay. Thus in 1982 we moved to Kinshasa, the capital, where I taught Old Testament at the Protestant Theological College. By this time we had one child, with a second on the way.

Teaching at the college, encouraging Christian Literature programmes and speaking at seminars and retreats for pastors was enormously fulfilling. Despite the terrible corruption and oppression in Zaire then, Africans are generous, friendly people and we soon found Christian friends. Feeling we’d deserted them at a troubled time was the cause of our tears on the plane to Johannesburg. We expected our absence from Zaire to be temporary, and at first planned for our return. As the weeks dragged into months, however, it became clear that BMS would not, in the foreseeable future, send families to Kinshasa.

We began to seek new directions, and noticed an ad in the Baptist Times for an Old Testament lecturer at Carey Baptist College, in faraway New Zealand. It was the first position I applied for, but after being torn apart from colleagues and friends in Zaire we were so shaken, that we were in no state to cope with decisions. We asked our prayer partners to pray that the first post I was offered would be the one God wanted for us.

Carey Baptist College made the offer, and we arrived in New Zealand in January 1993, knowing nobody. We thought we would have a year's stability in a college house before looking for a home to buy. In God's perfect timing we found the right place in May, with just days to spare before the college house was sold.

Today (1997) Barbara enjoys working as family therapist with Baptist Family Services, South Auckland. Our son Richard is now 17, Thomas is almost 15, Nathan is 11 and Sarah is 8. We are all NZ citizens now.

As a family we like tramping. I enjoy messing with computers. I've had great fun creating the website for the College and NZBMS). Though we've 4 children Barbara & I get a kick helping with Dynamite Bay - Christian "teaching" kids enjoy.

My immediate dream is to finish creating the world's first multimedia commentary, on the book of Amos, the prophet. It's all part of opening the Bible to a new generation.

Stories and the prophets' poetry, are my favourite parts of the Bible. My favourite chapter is already Isaiah 40. This powerful declaration of the majesty and love of God is addressed to refugees, but it speaks to all who are weak, tired and dispirited, like the Christian church in Western Countries today - people like you and me:
    "Don't you know? Haven't you heard?
        The LORD is the everlasting God,
            Creator of the ends of the earth.
        He doesn't faint or grow weary;
            his understanding is unsearchable.
        He gives strength to the weary,
            and empowers the powerless."

 

© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2002

All material on these pages is protected by international copyright, however I am very willing to consider requests to use all or part of any piece. The use of small quotations is (of course) fine, just give as reference (at least) my name and the URL (e.g. Tim Bulkeley http://eBibleTools.com/angels/).

The other site Tim runs Postmodern Bible - a hypermedia (hypertext and multimedia) Bible commentary project

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