I was born in 1951 into a working class family in Small Heath, Birmingham. My childhood was unremarkable, except for the shameful fact that by the age of seven I was a persistent truant from school.
There had been no noticeable Christian influence in my life. As was the practice of most working class families, we took in Sunday newspapers. After breakfast, my second action on a Sunday morning would be to seek out the salacious contents of the more sensational rags. As the 1960s wore on, I was increasingly aware of the hippy movement in America and its use of drugs. I remember watching their torchlight march by night across the hills of San Francisco, on a 10 inch television set. This was the life I wanted! These years saw me continuing to escape school discipline, and in my 15th year I had my first personal encounter with sex and drugs. The pull of money and possessions had little power over me; my energies were spent in the pursuit of those other two pleasures. By the time I was 18, all my friends could be found in the drug-taking community. It satisfied every craving in my flesh.
This state of affairs continued until I became a Christian in 1984. Drug culture Surprisingly, I maintained a tenuous belief in God and the deity of Jesus Christ. Even in my teens I remember standing one evening at a bus stop and praying, ‘When you are ready, call me and I will come. But, until then, I am just going to carry on as I am’. And this I did to the utmost! I took drugs in an ever-increasing amount over a 15-year period, cannabis being my favoured choice. But something seemed to keep me back from the more dangerous drugs. Most of my friends died from assorted drug cocktails or their longterm physical effects.
I met my future wife, Liz, when 28, both of us being part of the drug culture. I had known her for about two years. We got married, but it didn’t slow up our drug consumption one bit. To support our habit, I decided the only answer was for me to become a small-time dealer. I was never good at it and any profits made were soon consumed. For nearly three years I continued, until one day a knock came on the door and the drug squad came pouring into my house. The game was up! In January 1984 I found myself in the Magistrates’ Court. However, the offence was deemed too serious to be heard there, and my case was transferred to the Crown Court. By March, I would be in the dock before a judge and jury.
As the day of that court appearance drew nearer, a number of things happened which would change our lives for ever. A friend with previous experience of the court system came to visit me. He told me that my case might be helped if I wrote a letter to the judge, but I took little notice at the time.
The evening before I was due in court, I let my wife go to bed and sat up for a while thinking about the next day. I was expecting the worst and was terrified by what lay before me. I knew I deserved jail, and that this would be the most likely result. What happened next remains an awesome mystery to me. Without warning, I was headlong on the floor crying to a God I hardly knew, and certainly had excluded from my everyday life. I cried, ‘I do not know who you are, or if you really exist, but if you deliver me from this mess, I will serve you for the rest of my life!’
I have no excuse for the bargaining and unbiblical nature of that prayer. But it was prayer, and God was undoubtedly dealing with me. As I stood up, I remembered the words of my friend. I sat down and wrote that letter to the judge, and took it with me next day to court. My case had been moved to the County Court, and Mr Justice Potter who sat there was known for two things, his severity in sentencing and his hatred of drugs. Entering court I asked my solicitor what my chances were. ‘If you get less than a year you will be doing well’, he replied. The trial was unremarkable until the end. Little evidence was presented, I was, after all, pleading guilty. The judge began with the words, ‘Of course, if a man is found guilty of dealing in drugs, a prison sentence is the obvious penalty…’ Any last glimmer of hope faded, and I sat there waiting to hear how long my sentence would be. Then came his summing up.
‘Mr Bickley,’ he said, ‘I do not normally take any notice of letters sent to me. I find them irrelevant and simpering. But this one is different. For the first time, someone has told me why they have done what they have done instead of seeking an escape. You have simply told me why’. After my prayer the previous evening, I had written the truth in my letter: that I was guilty; and that I was doing what I did because it was the best way I could find to get through life; the people I sold to were friends and users; I did not deal to strangers or children; I bought in bulk for practical and not profiteering reasons. I am still baffled, however, by the effect my letter had upon him. I was guilty as charged, but it was as if the whole atmosphere in court changed. Justice Potter looked at me and said, ‘Mr Bickley, I am not going to send you to jail, nor am I going to give you a suspended sentence. ‘I cannot discharge you; this is far too serious for that. I will give you two years probation, and, if after twelve months your probation officer is satisfied, I will discharge you then’.
I was free to go! As I left the courtroom, it was like walking on air. But then, as I sat in the bus, the weight of it all came home — a much higher judge must be at work. Indeed, when my probation officer went to obtain my discharge twelve months later, Justice Potter said to him, ‘I will never know why I let this man go, but as I promised so shall I do’.
Many things happened between March and July that year. Then, one Sunday morning in the summer, I awoke with the intention of going to church. When my wife asked why, I replied that I just didn’t know, but felt I ought to.
I went to what turned out to be a high Church of England, not knowing the difference between any of the churches. I found myself in a room full of people who simply ignored me, and I was no further on. But profound things were happening inside me which I just couldn’t understand, though my feelings were strong. I ended up praying, ‘I don’t know what to say or how to do this, but I know that something is happening in my life, and if it happens to me and not to my wife, then there will be a problem. Can you bring Liz too?’
That week I began to watch a moving presentation of the life of Jesus on television, and though I now have misgivings about men playing the part of Jesus, the experience was a revelation, not only to me but to my wife, who wept as she sat with me. Liz came to me and said, ‘A strange thing has happened to me. I have begun to pray!’ After this, we sought to find out more about Jesus, by praying and reading the Gospels. But all our attempts to find a suitable church ended in failure, until the evangelist Billy Graham came to Birmingham later that summer and preached the gospel. Under the sound of that Word, as man and wife we made our confession of sin together and our commitment to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour.
Institutional churches had failed us, but God in his sovereign purpose was determined to hone his truth into our hearts. His hand was upon my life, delivering me from sin, death and hell; and now, in fulfilment of my first faltering promise, I wanted to serve him for the rest of my life. I was once a man you may well have crossed the road to avoid, a drug-dealing lout who had no interest in the things of God. I was a lost sinner, in need of God’s grace, but that grace he sent to me in his dear eternal Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.