Knowing and Serving God
A personal testimony.
For over twenty years Neil Richards has had a most blessed ministry in Wheelock Heath Baptist Church in Cheshire. He has finally retired from the pastorate, and this is the letter he wrote to his beloved congregation at the end of July 2001.
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In the Evangelical Magazine of Wales, which I have taken for over 30 years, there is a column headed ‘Personalia’, recording the movements of pastors and missionaries, retirements and deaths. How often I have been amazed to find men retiring whom I thought were in their churches forever! Then suddenly, this month, I saw my name there–so it must be true! What has seemed like a strange dream to me will, next month, become a reality. Someone said to me the other day ‘You retire from the office, but not from the gift.’ Yes, indeed, the gift must be used, but in a different setting. I’m still committed to the gospel and to the church, and hope to bear witness to the one and serve the other to the end of my days.
My journey through life as a Christian began 50 years ago, when I was just 14, largely through the influence of my Sunday School teacher. I had a deep dread of judgement and an awareness of my own lostness from God. I recall lying awake at night with real fear that the Lord might come. So it was that I began to pray. Then one Sunday on the way to the evening service I first felt that I did trust in Christ, and that he was mine and I was his. Later, three years in the RAF were to test that faith and teach me much of my own weakness and the importance of communion with God and Christian fellowship. Next came teaching and a year in a secondary school in Bootle–I had no qualifications but it was a wonderful year. Then two years’ teacher training at Didsbury College. The Principal would not allow the formation of a Christian Union–anything evangelical was anathema to the RE department!–so half a dozen of us met privately for prayer and Bible study. I linked up with the Training Colleges Christian Union and benefited greatly from Swanwick Conferences. Not only was my understanding of the Christian faith deepened but my vision for Christian service was broadened. I met young men and women who were planning to serve the Lord overseas in missionary situations and I felt increasingly that this was to be my calling. One other event occurred at this time–I began to court Nora who became the one love of my life. A year’s teaching in Liverpool followed. I must say, I loved every minute of my somewhat brief teaching career.
Then in 1959 I resigned my teaching post and Nora and I began two years at the South Wales Bible College in Barry. By then we were engaged and then married after the first year. Neither of us had any kind of ‘grant’ and so were, in a new way, cast upon the Lord. Our home church was very good to us and our parents were sympathetic and generous. Soon I was preaching most Sundays with, I confess, a very slender stock of sermons. The best part of the course was, without a doubt, John Waite’s Old Testament lectures–he opened that treasure store to us in a way I shall never forget. Soon the two years were over and we received our Diplomas. I recall that event with some amusement–the man who lectured to us on ‘Modern Heresies’ was a rather generous marker, and so student after student had a ‘distinction’ in Modern Heresies–a rather dubious distinction!
So where next? Nora and I were still thinking about missionary work, but I felt some experience in pastoral work would be helpful–but how and where? The Leicester Ministers’ Conference was held in June that year and I attended–with two significant outcomes. First, I had tea with Dr Lloyd-Jones one afternoon, and a long conversation about my future. Second–and this came a little later–an invitation from Iain Murray to help in the work at Grove Chapel in London. So September 1964 saw us settled in a small flat in East Dulwich–a bed-sitting room, a small kitchen, and a shared bathroom with a hot-water geyser that lit up like a bomb and shook the house! One magazine announced that I had become the assistant editor of the Banner of Truth! The real assistant editor was rather taken aback when the news reached him. They were good years, though not without their trials–we were still uncertain about our future. Did I have a real call from God to preaching and pastoral work? Where should we serve–here or overseas? The Lord taught me patience and to do my present work with all my heart whatever the future held. He used those inward trials and uncertainties to teach me how to trust and pray.
After three years at ‘the Grove’ an invitation came from a small, newly formed church in Neath in South Wales. The induction services were held in the Gwyn Hall and large numbers attended. The occasion attracted widespread interest amongst the Lord’s people because the work was new and outside of the main denominations In fact the 1960s and early 1970s saw the formation of a number of new churches in Wales whose witness the Lord was pleased to bless. There was a deep longing among many Christians and especially among the pastors that the Lord would come to His church in a new way and that a great ingathering would take place. The work in Neath was initially very small. We met in a hall above a shop and had a membership of about 10, with a few more attending. But God was good to us and the work grew–the early years were very fruitful. A week or two after I arrived, two men turned up in the morning service. The wife of one of them was an earnest Christian and her husband had promised he would come to the services once they got a pastor, so he came along with his brother-in-law. Soon they began to bring Bibles with them and to hunt for the passage being read–sometimes it was a long hunt! Both men were wonderfully converted.
We never expected to leave Neath–Katherine had all her education in Welsh-speaking schools and John had his first school term in Ysgol Gynradd Cymraeg, Castellnedd! However, after 13 years it seemed right to move–but to where? An invitation came from Barry Cunningham (Leftwich Evangelical Church)–a former student of the College in Barry–to preach for him at a special weekend in November 1979. Whilst I was there we talked about my future and he offered to give my name to the church at Wheelock Heath, who were without a pastor, and the rest, as they say, is history. Yes, I do know what my text was that first Sunday, January 11th 1980: Philippians 3:13&14 ‘…But this one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.’ In fact I know all my texts over the past 20 years– friend gave me a Welsh Ten Year Preaching Diary (just Sundays) when I left Neath and I have meticulously kept records ever since.
In recent months I have often been asked the question, How do you feel about your coming retirement–are you looking forward to it? To be frank I have mixed feelings. Uppermost is deep sense of thankfulness to God for all his goodness and mercy so richly and freely given. Thankful too for Nora who has loved and supported me through the years, and for our children and their families. Yes, and thankful for you amongst whom I have lived and served. Whatever growth in grace I have known and whatever usefulness, it has been alongside you and with your help as members together of the body of Christ. We have fought the good fight together, shoulder to shoulder. As pilgrims who seek a heavenly city we have travelled together.
‘We are travelling home to God
In the way the fathers trod.’
Let me tell you each one, I’ve been glad of your company on the journey.
So, thankfulness–and regrets? Yes of course there are shadows. Things left undone that I ought to have done, and battles lost or hardly won. Soon I must give an account at that bar where all things are known and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
Thankfulness, regrets, and lessons too. It was Calvin who said ‘True wisdom consists in two things: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.’ True self-knowledge has come slowly and painfully, and has been harder to attain than I ever thought when I was a young man. To know myself as God knows me, to face my frailty, the modesty of my gifts.
Indwelling sin is stronger than I ever thought and is not subdued without much hard fighting and tears–and wondrous supplies of the Spirit’s power. I thank God that early in my Christian life I read some extensive notes on Dr Lloyd-Jones’s sermons on Romans 6. That teaching brought me great liberty. I know that by my union with Christ I have been set free, once and for all, from the slavery of sin and have become the bond slave of righteousness. I owe sin and Satan not one jot of allegiance.
I have come to see that relationships between believers in the church are vitally important–and so often the area of Satan’s attacks. I have learned that lesson painfully. The command to love one another has to be worked out with patience, gentleness and forbearance towards one another. All bitterness and resentment and jealousy must be mortified. These things can so easily become Satan’s beachhead for a sustained and deadly attack on the church.
I have learned the value of personal communion with God through his Word and prayer. The temptation for pastors is to read the Word for sermons rather than for the good of their own souls, and yet I know too well that the neglect of secret prayer and communion with God saps our strength and erodes our usefulness and witness. I dread to be like Samson who ‘did not know that the Lord had left him.’ Oh to have Enoch’s epitaph: ‘He walked with God.’
And then there are hopes. I hope by God’s grace to walk in the paths of righteousness all my days. I am poor and weak and sinful, but I believe that he who began a good work in me will complete it. I trust at the end of my days to be able to say with Paul ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’
But the Lord knows there is one thing more that I hope for, and that is to have you with me on that Great Day, and to see you all there around the Throne, washed in the blood of the Lamb. Samuel Rutherford said
‘Oh! if one soul from Anworth
Meet me at God’s right hand,
My Heaven will be two Heavens,
In Immanuel’s Land.’
I hope and pray for future grace and blessing to be given to the Lord’s people here at Wheelock Heath. ‘One sows, another reaps, but God gives the harvest.’ I pray that my successor Daniel Foulkes will reap much in months and years to come. I look forward to hearing reports of all that the Lord is doing amongst you.
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