The first thing I notice is the random cluster of bikes parked outside the café ranging from Japanese street machines to British and American cruisers. I wander inside and get myself a hot mug of tea. There are no formal welcomes, only various bikers in black leathers and motorcycle gear sitting in small groups, talking earnestly or laughing as they chat together. The leader walks in. He has long hair, a wispy beard and piercing blue eyes. This man, Graham, has an unusual warmth in his smile as he glances around, beckoning informally to whoever is interested to join him in the room next door. We get up and slowly wander in across the cold hallway. The seats, like their occupants, are covered in black leather. It’s chilly inside and there’s a single oil-filled heater in the corner.
The conversation starts easily, people speaking in relaxed tones as they talk about the ride in, things that have been happening at work in the past week, ordinary things, everyday things. There is no ecclesiastical language, no religious jargon, no speaking in stuffy tones. It feels natural, real. I wonder what’s going to happen next, curious about this earthy bunch of heaven’s angels. This was my first encounter with a Christian Motorcyclists’ Association (CMA) meeting, a loose organisation of ordinary blokes who share two passions: bikes and Jesus. One person talks about how much he struggles to get his head around anything to do with God at the moment, feels very messed up like everything is going wrong in his life. Others around the room nod and empathise. He looks reassured.
Another talks excitedly about his return to faith after years in the drugs and clubs scene. He is energetic and animated as he speaks and his enthusiasm is infectious. Another looks thoughtful and talks about how, when he’s working on his bike, he gets totally focused on it. He goes on to comment how easy it is to get preoccupied with things, whether good or bad. The conversation, like the bikes outside, feels random but a strange flow emerges. The bloke next to me chips in, ‘If we focus on something long enough, act on it consistently enough, we become defined by it.’ The bloke next to him agrees and says ‘Yes, like anger. If we allow someone to anger us, they control us.’ Another says, ‘Yes, and if you are always angry, it becomes who you are.’ The room falls silent.
One by one, these men start to share stories about when they’ve been angry, when someone has really wound them up, treated them unfairly, different things they’ve tried to deal with it. It gets quite heated at points and Graham chips in with Jesus’ teaching and example of forgiveness, how meaningful it is, how healing it can be. It felt unforced, timely, but I wonder how the others will react. They start mulling over this, how difficult it can be, what it feels like when they manage it even if only for a short time. You can tell these blokes want to get it right, want to follow Jesus’ example, and they’re instinctively determined not to gloss over realities. They close by praying out loud, whoever wants to, speaking on behalf of the group. ‘God, help us because we can’t do this stuff on our own.’
The meeting closes and we stroll back into the café. The whole thing has lasted just 30 mins. I feel immediately inspired and challenged by what I’ve just seen, heard, felt, being part of. I don’t own a bike (although I've owned 21 and crashed 19) but these guys accept me, a stranger. As we chat and laugh over bacon and egg, they are the same in the café as they were in the room. No facades, no pretence. They’re happy to get their hands dirty and their faith is very practical too, looking out for each other, providing pastoral care at biker events, running charitable activities, praying for people who need support. We exit the café, the bikes rumble off with a snarling roar…and I’m left with the distinct impression I’ve been in the presence of Jesus. (www.bike.org.uk/cma)
Touch is so difficult, so awkward, so suspect even, in British culture. We’ve relegated physical contact to analogy, to expressing it in words. ‘I felt touched when you did that’, ‘let’s stay in contact’, ‘that really moved me’. We say to our children, ‘look – but don’t touch’. In fact, even looking is a bit tricky. It’s as if looking, really looking, constitutes an extension of touch, an invasion of space.
When was last time you really looked at someone, gazed at them intently, studied their features, their body, their movement, without you or they feeling acutely embarrassed? ‘Don’t look – it’s rude to stare!’ It’s a cultural thing, we learn from our earliest experiences what is acceptable, what kind of behaviours will bring punishment, awkwardness, surprise, fulfilment or reward.
So it is with touch. We have unwritten rules about what constitutes appropriate touch, exacerbated by a desire to prevent inappropriate contact with children or other vulnerable people. And so we don’t touch. We live lives largely devoid of contact, of the joy, support and healing that can come from a simple touch, a feeling of tangible human contact that bridges the space between us.
I remember visiting my parents a few years ago. In my family, we certainly didn’t touch. It would feel awkward, embarrassing. But I decided to hug each of my parents on arrival. They looked shocked, it felt rigid, stiff, difficult – but they didn’t push away. I persevered each time we met or I left, until the time came when they protested if I left without giving them that now traditional embrace.
And I’m reminded of how often Jesus touched people, often in surprising ways and with unexpected impacts. He didn’t just work miracles through words, connect with people from what we would regard as a safe distance. He touched people physically and, in doing so, touched them at a profound human, deeply spiritual level, resulting in transformational experience and effect.
We have cultural norms and boundaries, often with good reason to safeguard people and relationships. It’s sometimes about protecting ourselves from embarrassment, hurt or rejection. Often it’s a matter of unquestioned reserve, a cultural heritage we inherit as children and perpetuate through our own beliefs and actions. So, reader, what do you think? Let’s keep in touch.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.