Friends

Martin BusseyI’ve just waved goodbye to one of my oldest friends. Martin Bussey arrived at the manse this afternoon with his wife Claudia and his two youngest boys. They were heading from Leicester up to the Lake District for a week’s holiday and stopped here for what turned into a very long lunch. So we’ve spent the afternoon looking at photos and reminiscing about old times.

I first met Martin back in 1978 when I was a second-year student away at college. Martin arrived at college a year after me. I was a classicist, he was a mathematician. He was also, I discovered, a talented footballer and musician – and a magnetic personality.

Martin, like myself, had grown up in a Christian home. His parents joined the Salvation Army the year he was born. It was in the Army’s ‘citadel’ in Leicester that he first heard the gospel preached. Perhaps those who preached it had little theological understanding themselves, but they spoke of sin and salvation. At the age of seven, Martin knew that Jesus who was good, died for him because he was bad. And he went up to the ‘mercy-seat’ to register the fact that he wanted to belong to Jesus.

Yet in the years that followed, there was little sign of living faith. Yes, he was a good boy; kept his vows – never to smoke, never to drink; he was involved in all the activities of the corps: junior choir, junior band (he played the cornet), Saturday evening concerts, open-airs… Everyone assumed that he was a true Christian. But he never read his Bible, his bedtime prayers were short and unfelt; his Christianity hardly touched his daily life. Being a Christian meant little more than attending the Citadel and all its meetings. And there was little in the life of the Army to encourage spiritual growth: no midweek Bible-study, no prayer-meeting, seven or eight minute sermons at the Sunday services; far more time given to concerts and performances than to the means of grace. Martin, like other young people at the Citadel knew nothing of Christian doctrine, little of the Bible.

By the time he was fifteen or sixteen, Martin was aware that there was something vital missing in his spiritual experience. He was beginning to wrestle with big questions: ‘Is there a God at all? Am I a real Christian? If I am, why does it all seem so unreal?’ Few of the people at the Citadel seemed to understand why he should ask such questions. He was regular in attendance, clean-living, an asset to the corps – what more could anyone want? When other young people in the corps became ‘senior soldiers’ at the age of sixteen, they signed a statement of faith, assenting to the doctrines of the Salvation Army. When Martin said that he’d like to work through it with the corps officer before signing it, the officer was bewildered. ‘Just sign it! You don’t need to understand it!’

At eighteen, after A levels, Martin spent a gap year in Norway studying music at a Salvation Army school with ninety or so other Christian youngsters. The setting was idyllic – an island in the middle of a fjord. And it was there for the first time that Martin met young people who were passionate about their Christian faith. Among the students there were maybe a dozen or so who seemed to have the reality which Martin had never known. They loved the Bible, they loved to study it, they prayed earnestly about every situation, they expected God to show his power and grace in their lives day by day. Some of them were ‘charismatics’ and talked of the ‘baptism of the Spirit’ they had received, others made no such claims. But what they had in common was the fact that each of them thought of Christianity as a real moment by moment experience of God.

During that year, Martin’s longing for spiritual reality grew and grew. When the other students left at the end of the year, he stayed behind for another three weeks, earning a bit of money creosoting the school buildings. He spent long hours standing at the top of ladders with no-one to talk to except God. And during those hours God dealt with him. A day came when Martin found himself crying to God to change him, ‘If I’m not a real Christian, please convert me now, make me a real Christian. And if I am, then please don’t leave me in this unreal, empty state – give me strength to live a real Christian life’.

Martin returned to the UK a changed man, determined to get to know his Bible, determined to live for Christ. If someone had asked him, he would have used the same phrases as his charismatic friends and said ‘I’ve been baptised in the Spirit’. Today, looking back, he wonders if the real explanation for what happened in Norway is that it was then that he was truly born again.

Martin arrived back in the UK to discover that his family had left the Salvation Army and were visiting local evangelical churches. He went with them. But Cambridge term started three weeks later and off went Martin to college, still filled with the newly discovered joy of the Lord. He spent his first year as a student worshipping with a charismatic Anglican church. But he also attended Christian Union Bible-teaching meetings. And he found himself mixing with a very varied group of Christian friends in college. Perhaps the strongest personality in that group was a lad called Nick. He was a zealous contender for the reformed faith and a close friend of mine. It was through Nick’s influence that Martin began to wrestle with the great doctrines of the reformed faith. The nature of the gospel, God’s plan of salvation, the work of the Holy Spirit, the right way to handle the Bible… Nick, Martin and the rest of the gang would sit in one another’s rooms late into the night, debating and studying the big issues over endless cups of coffee. And bit by bit, the grandeur and the glory of the reformed faith began to dawn on Martin. He began to see the unity of Scripture – the way that the truths of grace undergird the whole Bible-story. He had discovered real Christian experience during that year in Norway; now he began to understand Christian experience in a framework of true Bible doctrine.

During the three years Martin spent at university so many things fell into place. He left the charismatic Anglican church at the end of his first year and began to worship with a reformed baptist church where there was a strong Bible-teaching ministry. He had realised that for all the talk about being led by the Spirit, the open worship of the charismatics had its own rigid, pre-programmed ritual and he longed for a church where he would hear the whole Bible expounded. He had learned to ‘speak in tongues’ during his year in Norway. Now, he could see no biblical reason to imagine that his ‘tongue’ was anything supernatural at all, and the ‘gift’ which had seemed so exciting once, seemed so unimportant compared with the great truths of the gospel which he was learning. The Salvation Army had never practised baptism or observed the Lord’s Supper; now he began to see how vital a part the sacraments play in New Testament Christianity. And always he was discovering the richness of the Bible. He gave up his maths course and joined the divinity faculty after his first year. There he began to explore the riches of biblical theology – the study of how the Bible fits together from Genesis to Revelation. And the more he discovered, the more excited he became.

Martin’s friendship has never wavered in the twenty-seven years since I left university. Martin spent a year working here in Stockport, with the goal of reaching young people in Edgeley and Cheadle Heath with the gospel. He was baptised here, and I preached at his baptism. We shared a flat and during that year Martin proved how endlessly patient he could be with the most inconsiderate of flat-mates. His friendship stood even that test!

From Stockport Martin went on to work for three years with the UCCF as a travelling secretary, teaching and pastoring students at colleges throughout the north-east. Then came thirteen years in Nigeria, teaching at the Samuel Bill Theological College, training pastors for the Qua Iboe Church. And for the last seven years he’s been in Kenya, working alongside Keith Underhill and Naphtally Ogallo, heading up their theological training programme.

He invited me to preach at his wedding in 1986. I declined but he still agreed to be my best man when I got married five years ago. When I realised at the registry office that I had forgotten my cheque book, it was Martin who pulled his from his pocket and paid for my wedding certificate! And when my car was rendered undrivable by the kind attentions of some over-excited wedding-guests, it was Martin’s car Anne and I drove away in.

I owe so much to Martin’s friendship, his kindness, his loyalty – and above all his example. His life has been a life of simple obedience to Christ. At the commissioning service where he was first set aside as a missionary to Nigeria, he was questioned about his ‘call’ to the mission-field. Some people were evidently puzzled when he said that he had no call to the mission-field. He had simply tried to assess his gifts and then to ask ‘where can my gifts be used most effectively for the cause of Christ’. He didn’t need any special ‘call’ to tell him to go on the mission-field. He simply knew he must go wherever he could be most useful.

If Martin had felt free to choose for himself, I don’t think he would have chosen southern Nigeria. A vile climate, dangerous roads, armed robbers, tropical diseases (apart from the regular misery of malaria, Martin has come close to death from typhoid). But he believed that his gifts were needed in Nigeria, so there he stayed until the door closed and he knew the Lord had given him his quittance.

A dedicated seriousness, a caring spirit, a generous willingness to forgive, an uncompromising integrity. These are the things I’ve witnessed in Martin through the years. And that’s why I’m grateful to God for him.

How important it is to make the right friends when we are young – friends who will spur us on in godliness. And how important it is to keep those friends. Solomon tells us, ‘there are friends who pretend to be friends, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother’ (Prov 18:24). To have such friends is to have a treasure beyond price.

May God help us to find such friends and to be such friends.

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