Motorcycles & Misfits
By Sean Stillman
I’m lying on my back on a freezing cold concrete garage floor, my breath cursing the cold as I twist my body to get at the bolts that need releasing, skimming my knuckles in the process. I’m underneath the back of my old Harley, sorting out some awkward routine maintenance and on a tight deadline to get the job done. It’s late in the evening, and I’ve got to be on the road first thing in the morning to conduct a funeral several hours away.
These days, I try not to ride sub-zero unless I really have to. The knees and back can’t take it any more. I guess riding somewhere in the region of approaching 500,000 miles, in all weathers, has caught up. The bike is carrying a few scars as well. It’s been a solid workhorse and never really let me down, apart from the time the stator packed up on my way back from Poland which became a bit of an adventure. It’s survived a few scrapes and there’s definitely more corrosion than chrome these days. But I look at this old bike and it’s like a favourite pair of boots, it fits just right. I’ve got it the way I want, comfortable, handles well and just keeps going. I know at some point it will wear out and need replacing, but if it could talk, it would have a heap of stories to tell from the roads it has been down.
As my bike and my body have begun to creak after three decades in Christian work, I’ve found myself asking, ‘Has it been worth it?’ On occasions, there’s been a heavy price to pay, especially as I have sought to do so amid a community that doesn’t pull its punches. Motorcycle clubs tell it straight. If they don’t like you, they tell you. If they don’t like who you represent, they tell you. If they for one moment think you are a fake, a wannabe, a hypocrite, you’ll find out in no uncertain terms. If, however, you prove to be the real deal, have some balls to stand your ground, give practising what you preach a right good go, you’ll find a welcome – eventually.
It’s been on this road, with all the pitfalls, surprises, catastrophes, and sometimes moments of elation, that my character and faith have been shaped and formed over time. There are always reasons to give up. Getting beaten up, mocked and humiliated don’t go down as milestones I have enjoyed, I can assure you of that. Betrayals of trust, my own stupid mistakes and personal dysfunction are littered along the roadside, as much as they are anyone else’s. But, as I have looked back, I have discovered that it has been precisely at the points where you think the wheels are falling off, you discover a reason to go on.
I have wrestled not only with what it is to be a Christian leader, in a sometimes confrontational environment, but also with what it means just to be a bloke – to be a husband, a dad, a son and a mate. I want to get it right, but so often get it wrong. Others may see one thing, but I know what really goes on inside my head. Learning to live in my own skin has proved to be the most challenging journey of all.
This old Harley of mine has seen better days, but has served me well and still runs as smooth as many years ago. For some of my mates, their bike is all about the chrome and the bling – it might look good, but runs as rough as guts and won’t go around corners very well. In a society that seems to be placing more and more value in what we look like at first glance (and feel free to add a filter if it helps) I worry that we neglect what’s going on inside. I worry that we present ourselves as doing OK and have got it all together, when in reality we know we’re a walking bag of inconsistencies and contradictions.
I have sat alongside a lot of people over the years and listened to their stories – not just biker mates, but many artists, musicians, entrepreneurs and other soul-searching wanderers trying to make sense of this road we travel. I’ve watched too many friends trying to find themselves in lines of coke, only to see them grow old way too young. I’ve seen the hedonistic lifestyle advocated as true freedom only to see too many friends caught in a trap. I have seen the unspeakable damage one human being can do to another and I have seen the price paid in pursuit of numbing the pain that will not go away.
Eventually we all get tired. Even the strongest of us peak and we are no longer as strong as we thought we were. After a lifetime of hanging out listening to people’s stories, I too got tired. The sponge was full and needed to be wrung out. I retreated on a regular basis to a cabin at the foot of the Brecon Beacons and started to write. In doing so, I became friends with my fears, doubts and failures. I saw there’s a fine line between reckless faith and what might appear to be insanity. The place I visited was my Gethsemane, my place of deciding what was worth hanging on to and what was worth letting go. As I wrote, I stripped everything back and I became comfortable with having questions once again.
But here’s a thing – in the absence of an easy answer, I discovered this whole experience is not about putting on some flawless performance, it is about finding beauty in broken places. My faith remains raw and covered in blemishes. Much like my motorcycle and my body – it’s far from perfect. But my journey continues with hope and a fire in the core of my soul, because like firing up a rusty old Harley, that looks like it’s well past its best, there’s something deeply satisfying about knowing what’s going on, on the inside, is far more important than any first impression – and it’s that, that keeps me heading in the right direction.