marionandrews

The path of the just is like the light of dawn which shines brighter and brighter until full day.

LIFE WORK

INTRODUCTION
MEMORIES OF 30 YEARS MINISTRY IN MILES AND TAMWORTH

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INTRODUCTION
ACCOUNT AND REVIEW OF 30 YEARS MINISTRY IN MILES AND TAMWORTH

What makes someone suitable for ministry? Some among God’s people are tall, strong and handsome; some have bright and piercing eyes; some exude intelligence; some have golden tongues and gifts of oratory; some are great singers. The Prophet, Samuel, thought Eliab was surely God’s chosen. ‘But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”’ 1 Samuel 16:7 (ESV) It took Samuel eight tries, seeking God’s guidance, to settle on the shepherd David as the leader of His people.

Most men are reluctant to put themselves forward for the ministry of Word and Sacrament. It doesn’t take much discernment to know it is not an easy job. It certainly isn’t a good career move in a worldly sense. In Jane Austin’s world, “The Church” was one of the desirable estates in which parents placed their younger sons: but no more! Stuart himself was not inclined to pursue a career in the church. It took a jolt at a pivotal point of his life to make him consider ministry seriously.

It was July 1974. Stuart and I had been friends for a couple of years. We had smiled at each other across Wulguru church for a year before we got round to talking to each other. Six months ago, on a youth group outing, Stuart had taken my hand to help me across the rocks on Mount Stuart lookout. Then he asked if I minded if he kept holding my hand! Did I mind? I’d been longing for the touch of his hand for ever, it seemed. So now we were holding hands, and occasionally rubbing noses. He had not yet kissed me.

So I went home to the Manse at Windsor for the mid-year holidays. Perhaps distance made the heart grow fonder and a few days before I was due to return to Townsville, my lover arrived. His mother had loaned him the money to fly to Brisbane. His father couldn’t understand why he had not yet asked me to marry him. “What’s wrong with the boy?” he asked. Now, I could only hope, the much anticipated moment had come.

We were sitting on the front steps of the church at Windsor. We could not see my Dad, but we could hear him with his hedge clippers pruning the shrubs first on one side of us and then on the other. He had to go a long way round both church and hall to get from one side to the other, but he kept moving. We could hear him: hopefully, he could not hear us! He too was anxious that something momentous was about to happen.

All in good time, Stuart got on his knees, there on the steps of that pretty Tudor-style church. “Marion, will you marry me?” When we got back to Townsville, we had to endure the jokes of our Sunday School children: “Stuart’s marryin’ Mari’n.” The little boys seemed to love the assonance and repeated it ad nauseum. One little boy even started calling Stuart, ‘Mr White’:
“Who?” people asked.
“You know the Mr Andrews who’s marrying Miss White.” (There were four ‘Mr Andrews’s’.)
Next morning in the kitchen of Windsor Manse, Mum set the teapot under its knitted cosy, cups and saucers along with milk and biscuits decorating the bright seersucker tablecloth. She had to look in the back of the cupboard for the sugar bowl and break up the lumps for Stuart, as we Whites had stopped having sugar in our tea.

My father knew how to cause a sensation.

“Mr and Mrs White, I would like your permission to marry Marion.”

The words were hardly out of Stuart’s mouth when Dad, totally ignoring the subject in hand, said, “Stuart, have you thought of the ministry?”

Mum and I were astounded. I did not know Stuart as well then as I do now, or I would have known he could handle it.

Mum said in a flustered tone, “Not now, Frank, not now!”

Stuart was not fazed. He took the question at face value and gave Dad a good account of his plans for the future, including ministry or missionary work, if God should so lead. We understood that Dad and Mum were happy enough about our engagement, and started making plans for our wedding.

We had been married for about 10 months when decision time came about future employment. Stuart was reluctant to put himself forward and neither of us was sure that we were the right people to spend the rest of our lives in ministry. I had picked out the sort of house I would like with a view of mighty Mount Stuart above Townsville. Until now, I had thrown myself into my teaching career. My four years in Townsville were singular in that I was not the minister’s eldest daughter and therefore no more was expected of me than of anyone else in the church. How refreshing! I enjoyed a sense of freedom hitherto unknown. As a teenager and young adult, I had expended myself in church work and other Christian service out of school hours. Now, at 27, I dreamt of having a ministry at home to my husband and children, leaving the work of church ministry to others. Some of my dreams would be realized, and some not!

The water of life runs through the life of a Christian like the water of the Peel River runs through Tamworth. Sometimes, it overflows its banks and brings fertile silt to the whole flood plain, the swift-flowing water cleaning rubbish in its path. Locals know to treat this water with respect. This is what the Bible has been in our lives. This water of Life flows through our being day by day. It refreshes and cleanses us. Once a week we immerse ourselves in it spending the Lord’s Day under the sound of the Word and meeting with God’s people in public worship. There are times, usually unpredictable, when the water floods our souls in a way that is awesome, even life-changing. This has been the pattern of the flowing Word of Life for Stuart and me.

We both had settled the habit of daily Bible Reading before we met. As a teenager, I found myself tired of the Bible Reading scheme I was using as it missed out large parts of the Bible. I told my grandmother of my discontent. She said she read the whole Bible in a year by dividing the number of pages in her Bible by the days in the year. In my Bible it worked out at about 4 pages a day and someone who could read a novel in a day could surely make time for that. At Grandma’s suggestion, I refined it by starting at Genesis, the Psalms and Matthew, reading a little more than a page a day. Thus I read through the whole Bible in a year. I used to get up a half-an-hour earlier to achieve this before leaving for school, and included a time of prayer for family and friends and missionaries.

When Stuart and I became friends, we naturally discussed our Bible reading habits. Not being a morning person, Stuart didn’t always have his Quiet Time first thing like I did. But he had a better system of reading the whole Bible which included making a short note on each passage; something to remember, some wisdom, direction, admonishment or prayer, something to put into practice. I believe it is called journaling now. I eagerly adopted this practice, recognizing straight away its benefits. I bought twelve notebooks, one for each month of the year, and day by day entered up the passage set by the calendar promoted by Navigators, a student group Stuart esteemed.

God spoke to Stuart one day, very clearly, through his regular Bible reading in Ezekiel. We were praying about three possibilities: two years Home Missions service, translation work with Wycliffe Bible Translators or the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. This is what he read from Ezekiel that day:

Then He said to me: “Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with My words to them.  For you are not sent to a people of unfamiliar speech and of hard language, but to the house of Israel, not to many people of unfamiliar speech and of hard language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely, had I sent you to them, they would have listened to you.  But the house of Israel will not listen to you, because they will not listen to Me; for all the house of Israel are impudent and hard-hearted.  Behold, I have made your face strong against their faces, and your forehead strong against their foreheads.  Like adamant stone, harder than flint, I have made your forehead; do not be afraid of them, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they are a rebellious house.”
Moreover He said to me: “Son of man, receive into your heart all My words that I speak to you, and hear with your ears. And go, get to the captives, to the children of your people, and speak to them and tell them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD,’ whether they hear, or whether they refuse.” [Ezekiel 3:4-11 NKJV]

And so the water of life swirled round and flooded his soul. When Stuart read this, he knew that he would not become an overseas missionary translator. “You are not sent to a people of unfamiliar speech and of hard language…” The question still remained, would he be a Home Missionary for a while to test his call. Neither of us felt particularly confident of our ability to lead in church ministry. The mailman came that very day and delivered a letter from the Church Office in Brisbane. In it, the Principal of the new post-Union Presbyterian College, Dr Harold Whitney offered Stuart a place in the next intake of students to train for the ministry.

And so we spent the next four years in Brisbane. Stuart graduated top of his Greek class. He went into the Theological Hall with a Science Degree and supplemented this with degrees in Arts and Theology.

It is now my purpose to account for and review our 34 years in ministry since we went to Miles in December 1979 until the present time. We have served in two pastoral charges based at Miles, Qld (seven years) and Tamworth, NSW. My review is organized in seven chapters around the days of the week, starting with Sunday, and giving an eighth chapter to a second account of this best of all days, the day on which God raised Jesus from the dead, the day of promise that He will raise us to eternal life.

Chapter 1 – HONOUR THE SABBATH DAY!

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Ecclesiastes 5:1

I think of this verse when I see children climbing on the rock wall on their way up King’s Hill to St Stephen’s. I think of these words when I see someone with reduced mobility slowly climbing the steep hill path. Our King’s Hill was named after a man, Gidley King, not the King of kings. Yet all of Scripture sings of going up the hill of the Lord, glorious Mount Zion, city of the great King, to worship Him. We are more privileged than many Christians, even in Tamworth, to have our church building sitting on the top of a hill, especially a hill that bears a name like King’s Hill.

And yet if you go over the river and up to Oxley Lookout, King’s Hill hardly stands out. In the bigger picture its steep roads and paths hardly count. They look quite flat. Flagstaff Mountain is the king of mountains surrounding the Peel Valley. And so, perspective helps to keep us humble and reminds me that today’s steep climb will be of no consequence when we reach the city of the great King.

For Stuart and me, Sunday is the Flagstaff Mountain-top of the week. Every other day leads up to it, and those following are a descent from the summit. The Lord’s Day is a full day in a clergy household, the most exhausting and at times the most stressful. Very early in our ministry Stuart and I realized that as Sunday is so demanding, we needed Saturday to be our ‘preparation for the Sabbath’. We needed to prepare the way. This meant sacrificing many weekend pleasures that others enjoy.

Some people like to joke that ministers work only on Sundays. Think again! A minister is on-call any time of the day or night, any day of the week, besides having a programme that often fills up 60 or more hours a week. Only this week, Stuart was called to the hospital in the middle of the night. After his heart attack in 2001, Stuart tried, with limited success, to cut back to the proverbial 40 hours a week. In the service of our great King, we count all the hours as a joy and a privilege. It is only when the body starts to wear out that time seems to matter.

There’s no sleeping-in on Sunday morning. Quiet Time, breakfast and family prayers all have to run like clockwork. Most mornings there is time to listen to the headlines just in case there is any earth-shattering news. Since modern technology, one has simply to tap the screen and up come the news headlines at any time. It is a bit disconcerting when a person has worked their whole morning routine around the 7.45 news for decades! And yet, tapping the iPad comes as a relief, not having to listen to the cynicism and atheistic bias of the secular media on the Lord’s Day.

In recent years we have taken to cleaning our spectacles in the hot washing-up suds on Sunday morning. One morning, we arrived at St Stephen’s and everything seemed blurred. Stuart started the service and discovered that he couldn’t read clearly. Then we realized simultaneously: he had my glasses on and I had his. They had been mixed up in the washing. Since then I have procured a pink pair that are not so easy to confuse. Glitches like this, rather than drawing criticism from our congregation as once I feared, now elicit smiles or chuckles.

In our early years when we had babies and young children, Sunday mornings before church were particularly rushed. One little daughter liked to make an issue of what she wore to church. In particular she did not want to wear a matching outfit with her sister. There was one Sunday morning run-in when I was away having a new baby. Stuart’s parents were holding the fort and Nanna remembered that battle of the wills for a long time.

One advantage of living near the church was getting to church on time. We never had a big problem with this though I know some ministry families do. I guess both Stuart and I were raised by returned World War II veterans who required punctuality of their families, and this flowed through to our own habits.

We time things so that Stuart has half an hour alone with the Lord before we leave for the service. I have a mental check-list before I step out the front door. Beside the children’s notebooks, pencils and gold coin in previous years, I still check off a handkerchief, offering, biro and keys.

In the 1970’s, I read the books of Edith Schaeffer from ‘L’Abri’ in Switzerland. She wrote about taking children to worship and showed examples of some of the notes and stick figure drawings she did to help her children and then her grandchildren follow a sermon. I pursued this practice with my pre-school children. Once they were at school, I encouraged them to make their own notes.

Before the children went to school, we taught them short memory verses. While they sat waiting for the service to begin, I showed them where these verses were in the Bible, and encouraged them to pick out the words. What better way to learn to read than by reading the Scripture! One memorable verse was “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The sense of achievement of a four-year-old when he realized he had just read a long word like ‘beginning’ is palpable.

Of course, those days were not all good days. By the time I had four children, one a baby and one a very active five-year-old with two in between, our pew was a busy place. Occasionally a toddler would break free and run up to join her father in the pulpit. I was mortified and ashamed with my lack of control, especially as Grandma Gilmour and Auntie Sidney sat right behind us. I felt the weight of criticism of the whole congregation on my shoulders. I needn’t have worried. I know now that they were on my side. Then one Sunday, little Duncan fell through the back of the pew and hit his head. Everyone heard the rumpus and people came from all over to help. The two Gilmour ladies offered to have Stuart James sit between them. From then on, SJ sat with young Reg between Reg’s grandmother and auntie. That was mutually agreeable to all parties and certainly gave me a break.

There was the occasion when stronger measures were needed. Elder Ted Little told me that most children, especially little boys (he had five), need one good spanking on the bottom for misbehaviour in church. His advice was that that encounter set them up for the rest of their lives. As the nurture and admonition fell on my shoulders on a Sunday morning, I took his advice. Both little boys, before they went to school, were taken outside once and received their measure of discipline. Ted’s advice was good and his prediction held true. (I wonder if those who plan to outlaw spanking will make their legislation retrospective! A lot of us may be in trouble.)

Where should the minister’s family sit in church? At Ashfield in Sydney there is faded gold lettering on the back right-hand seat designated “Manse Pew”. (A friend told me the back pew was called ‘sinner’s row’ at her home church in Scotland. Perhaps a true word spoken in jest. ) I preferred to sit in the second front pew right hand side when I had children with me. There they could see all that was happening and they knew their father could see them. Although they were fully exposed to the view of the congregation and any critical eyes in it, I believe they were less aware of this sort of thing than when we sat further back, making worship a positive experience for our children.

These days, I usually sit up the back. Until recently I worked the overhead projection. As well, I have a roll of regular worshippers that I mark off – “Marion’s Little White Book”. I started marking my roll so that people wouldn’t get forgotten. We have had people away sick and no one has realized. From the back corner I can check names so that we know who has not been for a while, and find out if they are in need of a visit.

For many years, I invited people home for lunch in an effort to get to know the members as well as to welcome visitors. This did not satisfy me, though, as I realized there were many people who never received an invitation. So we devised a scheme that meant everyone on the roll at St Stephen’s did have an opportunity to come to our place.

On nine Sundays in 2008, we served High Tea at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Our Elders have a certain number of people under their care, usually ten or twelve people. So we invited each Elder and his people as a group. Each Elder spoke at the beginning of the programme, telling something of Christ, something of his personal experience with God. (In 2014, we are doing this again during the winter months, introducing our new pastoral assistants and their wives.)

I researched what a traditional High Tea consisted of, and served something hot and savoury along with cakes and slices, not forgetting cucumber sandwiches. The bone china cups, saucers and apostle spoons Stuart’s mother gave me sit waiting for tea to be poured from a china teapot. Sometimes there are children present, and not a thing is broken, even though the china is quite old. I have found that children live up to the standard you set on such special occasions.

In 2008, those Sundays were a rush and Stuart had to be well prepared beforehand for his evening service. In 2014, other preachers are taking care of the evening services so that Stuart can give his full attention to his guests (and help me get ready!).

Many churches in Tamworth no longer have an evening service and we often welcome travellers wanting to worship God in the evening. I’m glad we have an evening service, though I’m not sure why more of our congregation don’t make a priority of it. It is a wonderful personal discipline for keeping the whole Sabbath Day holy: it is a more intimate experience of worship and fellowship and St Stephen’s building has a beauty at night that it lacks during the day. If you stand in the car park you see the changing moods of the mountains all around; you see the twinkling of the City of Lights; turning around you see it all reflected in the large panes of glass along the front of both buildings. At twilight, the resident gum trees frame the picture and look more splendid than ever in the reflection.

I did not take my small children to 7.30pm evening service as they had to be in bed and get a good sleep for school the next day. Once they reached double figures they were keen to go with Daddy at night, especially when we changed the service time to 6.30pm. As teenagers, they enjoyed helping with the music, learning lessons for life in being useful in the service of God.

On Sunday, as on no other day, we are dealing with spiritual realities. It is hardly surprising then that this is a day when we are often under attack from the evil one. He finds the chinks in our armour, sloth, unbelief, impatience, anger, jealousy to name a few. How often have I dragged my feet up King’s Hill, just not wanting to be there, after bitter encounters, irate phone calls or critical letters! How often has anger welled up inside me at a fellow worshipper who has crossed or annoyed me! How often, after severe disappointment, have I questioned God’s sovereignty in placing us on this little hill of all the many hills and valleys and plains needing ministers!

And yet, this is the hill where Christ has required Stuart and me to stand firm. We come up this hill eagerly now, knowing that we will meet others who are joyful in worship and fellowship, others who are glad that we are there.  We have learned to take Jesus’ advice and leap for joy as we climb the steep hills and stumble through the dark valleys of our ministry. After all, they are all the King’s hills and valleys.

Chapter 2 – MONDAY IN THE MANSE

The Sunday morning service was in progress. I was minding someone’s baby when a strange man came and squeezed into the end of the pew beside me where there was no room. The data projector was playing up, with rogue slides popping up. There were several visitors and a couple of them got up to leave 10 minutes into the service. I raced out to see if I could persuade them to stay. Everything was in technicolour and all that had ever gone wrong over the decades was going wrong layer upon layer.

Of course it was a dream. But this is what Monday morning can feel like when a minister and his wife review Sunday, even subconsciously. Occasionally, Monday is the day we take our sandwiches and flask of tea to Oxley Lookout and spend time in prayer. Sitting on our folding chairs in the shade of the old gum tree, we look out towards Moore Creek or Calala. We take a walk to the lookout and see the whole city of Tamworth spread before us with Duri Peak and its range walling us in. This is the best way I know of driving away the nightmare goblins of doubt and fear that Satan sends to wound us on a Monday morning. We see the big picture more clearly, and the handi-work of God assures us of His good purposes.

Monday never worked as the minister’s day off for us. There was always follow up from Sunday to do. There are towns where the minister’s day off is so entrenched that it is difficult to arrange a funeral on Monday. When Stuart graduated from Theological College, the congregation he served as student-assistant gave him a large hot-water flask for his Monday fishing trips. The flask has long gone, and the fishing trips never happened.

Monday is the most popular day for people to ring up and request baptism for their babies. Usually, these Monday requests come from people who are not attached to the church. This may be because a couple with a new child has been to see grand-parents on Sunday, and pressure has been applied by the older generations. I have learned to hand these requests over to Stuart as I do not have the necessary tact, nor is it my responsibility to deal with them. On occasions, God uses baptismal interviews to bring people to Christ, but rarely in our experience. Stuart has used “Christianity Explained” and other Bible courses to seek to win people at this important juncture of their lives. He has spent countless evenings seeking to persuade young parents to come to Christ in order to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord and the ways of the Church of God. On the whole, the seed seems to have fallen on poor soil, with some exceptions to rejoice our hearts.

Monday, for Stuart, is the day he prepares the outlines of his sermons for the next Sunday. Unusual among his peers, Stuart prepares two new sermons every week. Starting early in the week, he avoids a last minute rush. The rest of the week can be as busy as it can get, but he knows that something is ready for Sunday. He takes his morning sermon from the “Bible Guideposts” printed in “Church Matters”, our weekly notice sheet. He preaches systematically through books of the Bible in the evening. On Monday morning, he chooses Bible Readings and Hymns and types them with his sermon points in the file for next Sunday’s Church Matters. Computers make this easy.

We are blessed with godly instrumentalists and Stuart and his musicians work well together. Time is spent on the phone or in meetings to review the listed hymns on a six-monthly plan. They consider the capacity of the congregation to sing each song with heart and voice. They find known tunes or change the song if it is not suitable. Not every musician has chosen to work with Stuart.

A few weeks into our ministry, the regular organist rang up on Saturday evening to say she would no longer be coming to the Presbyterian Church because Stuart was not ‘charismatic’. What were we to do? Who would play the next morning? Before the service began, Stuart stood up and announced that there was no organist. It was the middle Sunday in January before school began and there were several new families in the pews. Stuart asked if any of our visitors could help. It turned out that the new High School Principal’s wife and a young farmer both had “Letters” in music, and from then on we had first class music played agreeably in the right spirit. It was a lesson for us that “The Lord will provide”! (There are musicians who enjoy transmitting their moods through their music. If they happen to be in a bad mood they can thoroughly spoil a worship service. The best musician plays above the mood of the moment.)

For me, Monday morning is Family Letter morning. During the week, I jot down news from our four children, Stuart’s mother and my aunt, type it up over the weekend and add photos. On Monday, I print out one copy first. Often, the colours are faded or striped and printer needs re-inking. This would be a continuation of the Monday morning nightmare for me, were it not that Stuart comes to the rescue. I am always grateful that Stuart is willing and able to help me with technical problems. He also proof-reads my letter, and then it is ready to print out – six copies. I used to print out envelopes in colour, until my aunt did not receive hers till weeks later because rain had washed away the house number and it was delivered to a neighbour. Since then, we have a plain black and white envelope from Stuart’s laser printer which uses permanent ink.

Is letter writing a waste of time and postage? Why not just phone or send an email? Weekly letters are a strong tradition in our family, scattered around the world for three generations. Letter writing was the ‘work of mercy and necessity’ we were encouraged to do on Sunday as children. In the last decade, we have realized how much Mum Andrews and Auntie Ruth White enjoy getting this weekly missal. Even the children, though they rarely say so, look forward to the regular ‘snail mail’ letter. It is ‘hard copy’ that the grandchildren can pick up and look at. Stuart’s mother keeps her letters beside her armchair, reads them often and prays for us. Auntie Ruth rings late afternoon after receiving and reading her copy, usually on Thursday. Her alert and cheerful voice tells me how much she enjoys reading about us and our young ones, and she prays every day for each one by name. It is interesting to observe the efficiency of Australia Post and the Royal Mail. Posted on Monday, one letter arrives at Redland Bay, Queensland on Thursday, another at Broughshane in Northern Ireland on Saturday and yet another in Townsville, Queensland the next Tuesday. How it can take three days less to get to the other side of the world is beyond my comprehension!

My secondary job on Monday is to make sure the Catechism, Bible Guideposts and Who’s Who have been added to the Church Matters file for printing on Friday, along with a suitable picture for the front cover. Members of the congregation have contributed files of photos from time to time, and more are welcome.

Stuart has avoided regular meetings on Monday so that he can be fully prepared for the days ahead. Often there are pastoral visits to be made at the hospital, aged care facility or homes. Sometimes there are funerals. However, just this year one important meeting has been squeezed in – a lunch time get-together with Glenn and Dale, our new Pastoral Assistants. They sit in our downstairs parlour, eat their sandwiches and talk and pray about the exciting prospects for ministry in Tamworth through St Stephen’s and St Mark’s. May the Lord bless them and their efforts!

Like a dream that is past, or the discarded suds of an old-fashioned Monday wash, the memories of Sunday failures disperse into thin air. We come to the end of a productive day and go for a walk together with the Lord in the cool of the evening. It’s a good day, Monday!

CHAPTER 3
TUESDAY OUT AND ABOUT

Farmer Brown was busy down at the big shed getting his machinery ready for harvest. Everything had to be checked. There is nothing worse than having to stop the harvest because the tractor or harvester breaks down. A couple of hundred metres away, near the house, he saw a strange car draw up. He could see a man get out of the car and call out to his wife who was hanging washing on the line. ‘The wife’ put her pegs down, gave him a wave and led the stranger in by the back door.
“She must know him,” thought the farmer. “Oh well, it’s time for a cuppa. I’ll go and see who it is. Perhaps it’s the new stock and station agent.”
Farmer Brown was a sceptic, though his wife went to church when he let her. It is easy enough to make it difficult for ‘the wife’ when you are on an isolated property with a black soil road between your place and the church. Any cloud in the distance or rattle of an engine was a good enough excuse to persuade her to stay at home. “Religion is OK in its place for the women and children,” the farmer was wont to say.
The ‘young fella’ introduced himself by name while the wife bustled round cheerfully getting a cuppa and biscuits. The farmer wondered why she seemed so happy to see the visitor, but then they hadn’t had any visitors lately. “She’s glad of the company,” he thought, “and he’s nice enough, easy going.”
They discussed the drought and the cattle prices and how much grain to the acre was likely this harvest. The young man turned out to be a good listener. Brown liked that. An agent who listened to the farmer is a good agent.
“It’s been good to meet you, Mr Brown,” said the young man. “Would you like me to read a Psalm and pray before I go?”
Brown’s jaw hung open, he spluttered and getting hold of himself, grunted “OK”.
It suddenly hit him that this must be the new minister in town. His wife gave him a certain look. He dropped his eyes and let all the confusing thoughts race round in his head while the minister read and prayed. He thanked his lucky stars he wasn’t like Old Macdonald down Goondiwindi way, who was up in the ceiling fixing something when the minister called. Macdonald decided to stay quiet in the roof cavity until he left. Mrs Macdonald kept saying she was sure her good man would be in soon, and kept pouring more cups of tea. By the time the minister went, Macdonald was prostrate with heat exhaustion and dehydration!
Stuart called on the Browns regularly after that initial episode. In retirement, living in town, Farmer Brown became quite dependant on these visits, especially when his wife died. No longer a sceptic, he looked forward to Stuart’s Psalm and Prayer and told him all about the Christian upbringing he had left behind for so long.
Often on a Tuesday Stuart visits members of the church. This has been a rewarding and refreshing aspect of his work, and many who have now gone to glory will welcome him with open arms when he arrives in the Eternal City. Of course, there have been those who have not welcomed him, but that is to be expected, and all part of a pastoral ministry.
One group within the church a minister must not visit alone in their homes are younger women. When a younger woman wants counselling or just a chat, she is invited to our home and I sit in on the interview. The Apostle Paul advised Titus that the older women should visit the younger in their homes. This is easier said than done, I have found. Elders’ wives or female deacons may have more success than I in following this admonition. At Miles, the extended family was still a very strong network and most local young women were well cared for.

At St Stephen’s, the Presbyterian Women’s Association meets on the first Tuesday of the month here. I attended PWA for many years, both at Miles, Dulacca, Condamine and Tamworth and took my turn as President both at Miles and Tamworth. After Stuart’s heart attack it became evident that my vision for the PWA and that of the most vocal members was at odds. At a time when I felt rejected I was given the opportunity to help start a new home-based women’s Bible Study group. This has been a blessing to me over the last 10 years. Unfortunately, it suited all the other women to meet at the same time as PWA, so I am rarely able to attend PWA meetings now. Stuart attends PWA regularly. He gives a devotional message and answers questions at each monthly meeting. I maintain my financial membership and a subscription to the magazine, SPAN. I must say that I have a loving relationship with the present members of the PWA. I think and hope they understand my absence from Tuesday meetings.

On the other weeks of the month, Stuart starts Tuesday with a Bible Study group at the church. All those involved look forward to this. As well as sometimes buying study books, Stuart also uses the inductive method of systematic Bible Study which is suitable for most passages. Those present read the chosen passage and fill in a sheet under the following headings:
DATE        PASSAGE
SUBJECT
Key Verse
Key Person
Five Important facts: (with verse references)
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
The main lesson for me today:

After working through successive passages, participants begin to sense the strength of this form of Bible Study. The main lesson at the end surprises people with its originality, simplicity and depth, and often becomes the substance of personal prayer.
Recently, the group decided to study the book of Revelation. The inductive form has proved unsuitable for studying this great revelation, and Stuart is working through the chapters little by little, reading, explaining, clarifying and answering questions.

On the home front, members of both our charges have been very generous in sharing their good things with us: fresh bread three mornings a week and eggs every Tuesday morning for a decade or more; milk and butter when a cow was milking, meat when a beast was slaughtered; fruit and vegetables fresh picked that morning. Individual people have been very kind, especially during the years when our home was full of children. At Miles, the kitchen oven was not working properly. Elder Ron Dunn sowed a paddock of birdseed especially to buy a new stove for the Manse. The Murilla Shire centred on Miles was marginal farming country: five of the seven years we spent there were drought years. We do appreciate the sacrifice that provided our salary all that time. Some may have thought we were over paid, but neither Stuart nor I went into ministry to receive a big pay packet. We were both on higher wages in the secular work-force.
Some rural congregations expect that a minister will stay for three years and then move on. They look forward to a year or so of vacancy when the lay-preachers and interim moderator work overtime, in order to save up for another three year ministry. This is not a good practice. In the 1970’s the elders and managers at Miles decided to give the equivalent of the minister’s salary to missions during any vacancy and thus maintain their sacrificial giving. God has blessed them with a viable church when many other rural congregations in bigger towns than Miles have had to close their doors.
One of the crueller things an elder or manager can do to a minister is to arrive on his doorstep and say that the church can no longer pay him. This does happen! The person who does this sort of thing usually does it on his or her own initiative and the rest of the Session or Committee is not involved. Thankfully, Stuart is impervious to this manipulative ploy. He knows that the congregation took a vow before God to meet his salary as part of The Call. One year, when chatter about inability to meet the salary went on like a dripping tap, Stuart gathered financial data and made a table of all the giving for the last decade. He proved by means of a graph that the giving then always went down in July and always recovered by the end of the year. Since then, we have had no more trouble of that kind.
We have been blessed with excellent treasurers who regard the money offered as the Lord’s and not as their own. Such treasurers are to be prized by both minister and congregation.

Our Master warned us that God’s servants should expect to be treated as He was by some in the church, with hatred, sidelining and slander.  It still comes as a shock when it happens. We have had nasty phone calls and horrible letters, some of them anonymous. We have entertained confronting visitors, people with a ministry of correction or those who demand to know when we plan to move on. We have had to remind people that we are God’s servants, not theirs. Worse than all this was the persecution of our children! Our sons were threatened with homelessness and beaten up by other children associated with the church on several occasions, just because they belonged to us. That’s why we changed their school. Thankfully, our sons seem to have come through all the stronger. Their nick-names at school were ‘Moses’ and ‘Jesus’. What did God teach us in all of this?
Stuart and I have made practical use of our Lord Jesus’ advice in Luke 6:22 and 23 (ESV):
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.”
When we feel sore or sorry for ourselves, or even when we are simply exhausted, we hold hands and “JUMP FOR JOY”. It is quite therapeutic! We know we look ridiculous and end up laughing at ourselves. Regaining our composure, we feel energised to get on with the job.

After lunch on Tuesday, Stuart goes to St Mark’s Pre-School and Long Day Care Centre. He spends time with the staff and sees to the welfare of the Centre. St Mark’s has prospered in recent years so that now it can help fund our new evangelistic ministry to families at St Stephen’s and St Mark’s. We see the hand of God in this and praise Him.

Tuesday used to be a Scripture in Schools day. At Miles, Stuart would sometimes take our four-year-old with him out to Drillham and Dulacca or Condamine. The children loved hearing the next exciting adventure of Alchemus The Dragon and his redemption. We lived on the corner of two highways, one going north and the other going west, with the best part of an acre of bitumen paving the junction. The road was very wide. One morning, two-year-old Duncan decided he should go to school with Daddy. He persuaded three-year-old Laura to take him. They held hands and somehow made their way across this wide stretch of road. I didn’t realize they’d gone until the phone rang. A kind business lady brought them back to the yard, went back to her shop and rang me to let me know of their adventure. It only took a few minutes!
Stuart enjoyed teaching in the state primary and high schools for over 20 years. Only eternity will tell what fruit this bore for the Kingdom of God. He had to give up something after his heart attack and this was it. St Stephen’s sends individual volunteer teachers into schools, buys lesson materials and contributes funds for School Chaplains.
Once our children were all attending school, I felt free to take up Scripture teaching myself. While I was school teaching in Brisbane in the 1960’s and 70’s, there was never a day I did not feel fulfilled. In 1970 I was asked by the Department of Education to go to Townsville as a “Teacher–in-charge”. Most of my peers had no University qualifications as we all trained at Teachers’ College. I did uni subjects at night, and ended up being one of the highest paid female teachers in the department.  I say this not to boast, but to show how the mighty have fallen! Scripture teaching was the pits for me. In some schools, Scripture teachers are treated like scum by permanent staff and pupils alike. My experience included half-metre metal rulers hitting other boys’ legs under the tables, loud questions about whether I was pregnant, and general boorish behaviour. I decided not to waste my time on boys who were past masters in disrupting classes. I taught Scripture to Year 9 for two terms but realized very quickly that I did not have the temperament or the gifts of the Spirit to handle those boys. I was punching above my weight. That’s quite a confession from a once-confident school teacher!

Why did I never go back school teaching? God knows: I don’t. My life has been fulfilled at home, caring for my husband and children, as well as the seven young people who boarded with us. I love gardening, cooking, sewing and all the home crafts. I learnt to make ends meet, and the Lord provided, not everything I wanted but everything we needed. It was not easy, financially. I knew however that if I gave my energy teaching other people’s children all day, I would have no strength left for my own family at the end of the day. (In those days it was all or nothing. You could not choose to teach a couple of days a week.) My husband never pressured me to work outside the home and I had the support of my mother-in-law as a ‘stay at home’ wife and mother.
Making home-life my career and calling has paid off, especially with Stuart’s health challenges. I am able to keep things running fairly smoothly at home so that he is free to do his work of ministry. It is of secondary importance for me to attend every function. The main thing is that he is able to be where and when he should be, without fuss and bother.

The other morning a spectacular sunrise greeted me between the curtains as I opened my eyes. I hurried out to take a photo. The whole sky was flooded with red-gold light glowing on the clouds in the west, while the rising sun exploded light on the billows over the eastern mountains. A rainbow was forming within the thin clouds in the north-west.
As I watched, the hand of God sketched and filled in a complete arc across the hills and plains. My heart welled up with wonder. The afternoon rainbows in Tamworth come toward the east. I’ve never seen one in the west before, nor in the morning. How the Lord keeps surprising us with splendid new treasures! The Lord has promised good to us. Every rainbow reminds us of this. And His mercies are new every morning! Great is His faithfulness!

CHAPTER 4
WEDNESDAY

Wednesday’s child is full of woe.

Yesterday, we had steady, soaking rain all morning, the first good rain for many months. How we rejoice to see our newly planted winter veges holding up their fragile drooping heads! How we rejoice to see the garden clear shining after rain! But this is nothing to the relief of those whose livelihoods depend on getting some grass in the paddocks before winter. This rain may be too late, or it may produce some winter feed for the flocks and herds. We shall have to wait and see whether the weather stays warm enough for the pastures to grow.

Why bother with the chances of the farming and grazing life? A few weeks before he died in 2001, my father was in a lot of pain with arthritis. Even so, he kept digging and planting his vege patch. He was about to turn 90.

“Dad,” I said, “why don’t you sit in your chair and rest? Surely you’ve earned it.”

The pain was so severe that sometimes he found it hard to get up from his kneeling position by the garden bed. Then he would call his companion dog, the old grey Irish wolfhound, Go Go. She would stand beside him and allow him to climb up using her height and strength as leverage.

“Well,” he said to me in the firm gentle voice he once used to persuade me to eat my porridge, “I like seeing things grow.”

I stopped urging him to take it easy. And so it was in his garden, a fortnight after he turned ninety that the final pain of kidney failure struck him down. Right to the end, he loved watching things grow! Though Go Go helped him get upstairs to his chair and the phone, she never again walked by his side down to the garden he loved.

I think it is something like that for the people we know on the land, people who have stayed on their farms through thick and thin, some never really getting ahead. Some of them prosper during good seasons and hold on during the bad. They love to see things grow and thrive. They love caring for animals and watching the green pick come through the soil after rain. They have their own props and levers to help them get up again, just as my father had Go Go. Those who have heeded Jesus’ words, “Take my yoke upon you …” know how to borrow the spiritual strength that makes them want to get up and go again after hard times.

And this is also a picture of enduring ministry. Wednesday is a day to get up and go again! Blessed are those in ministry who have yoke-fellows in the Gospel to help them do this. For many years now, Stuart has met for prayer on Wednesday morning with other Presbyterian ministers in the area. They encourage one another and lend each other strength. When two or three pray together … Well, what a privilege! The Owner of The Property and of the cattle on a thousand hills turns up for the meeting; the Sustainer of all life, our Lord Jesus is there too.

Every second month, this local prayer time is put aside for a larger gathering. The New England Presbytery meets on Wednesday six times a year. This means an early start as the meeting is usually held in Armidale, earlier still if it is at Tenterfield. When we lived at Miles, in the Darling Downs Presbytery, a visit to Charleville might mean an overnight stay, though some hardy souls drove through the dark hours there and back. We were all a lot younger then. I remember the men from Bell arriving on our doorstep at 6.00am, having already been on the road for a couple of hours. Roo bars or bull bars on the front of the car were a ‘must’ for those trips.

Presbytery is the next ruling court of the Presbyterian Church above the local Session. It is made up of equal numbers of ministers and lay elders. The New England Presbytery stretches up the NE Highway from Tamworth to Tenterfield, and includes the off-highway Manilla and Walcha Charges. Darling Downs Presbytery included all of southern Queensland west from Toowoomba. (Presbyterians have Charges where Anglicans have Parishes. A Charge may have more than one preaching place.)

At Presbytery, delegates have fellowship around God’s Word and through Prayer. They report to each other on what is happening in their respective Charges. They take pastoral oversight of each other. It is interesting to see the men of our Presbytery taking pastoral care of each other on Facebook! Sometimes the whole Presbytery will decide to meet at a different church, especially if there is a new minister to be inducted. In the Darling Downs Presbytery, the December meeting had to be held in Toowoomba so that wives and families could come and do their Christmas shopping.

On rotation, a committee will be formed to visit each Charge and inspect the buildings and grounds. Presbytery has limited authority to make recommendations to local churches about maintenance and upkeep. I used to rub my hands together and think I could tell the delegates all that was wrong with the Manse so that action would follow. I soon learnt that unless I could convince the local Committee of Management that something had to be done, there was little use whinging to people from afar. More about that later.

In our experience, wherever the Presbytery meets in New England or the Darling Downs, the local ladies provide excellent food and welcome drinks for their visitors. I believe this is one excellent tradition that the country has over the city. On one such visit to Miles, I helped the other ladies set up tables and feed the men. The tables were all clean and neat but I wanted some flowers to decorate. There was nothing in the garden except some blue borage bells. I thought they were pretty little items with their yellow throats, and I was ‘into’ herb gardens then. I asked one of the elders if he liked the flowers.

“Looks like your need some Round-Up weedkiller!” was the cryptic reply with a grin.

Of course, some introduced garden plants have become weeds on a massive scale, spreading through farming land like a plague. Perhaps there is a parable here. Beware what you bring from the city to the country, young ministers! A behaviour or worship practice that seems attractive in one place may become a pest in another.

Another function of Presbytery is to interview new candidates for the ministry, test their suitability for a life of ordained service and recommend them for training if found suitable. Stuart has a unique screening process for these unfortunates. Perhaps it is a bit unfair to give them a test they have not prepared for. His test of their understanding starts with John Bunyan’s Questions:
Who saves you?
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
How does God the Father save you?
By His grace.
How does God the Son save you?
By His righteousness, death and blood and life.
How does God the Holy Spirit save you?
By His illumination, by His renovation, and by His preservation.

Stuart finds that people have never thought clearly about how we are saved by the Triune God, and especially how does God the Father save us. We limit our understanding to “Jesus saves!” Hopefully, the experience of trying to answer these questions helps them think a bit more clearly and logically about such fundamental theology.

Back at local level, Stuart has often engaged in ‘one-to-one’ ministry with men. This is a fruitful aspect of his work. For various reasons, there are people who are not suited to group Bible Study. They may find it distracting or disturbing, or perhaps they have literacy challenges. Such people are better served individually, or sometimes with one other person. Watching individual men grow in the knowledge and love of the God who saves them is a great reward. The Gospels of John and Mark are favourites with Stuart and his readers.

Committee of Management is held on Wednesday in Tamworth. The committee is responsible for the material and financial matters of the church, the buildings and grounds and the stipends of those the church employs. Friction between those in ministry and members of the committee is not unheard-of. It often depends on the spiritual health of a congregation. Where there is mutual love and affection, there is always a way forward. Thankfully, we now have Managers who love Christ and His church and care about the well-being of the minister.

Stuart and I have always tithed. It seemed the logical, least complicated thing to do. Many Christians have rejected tithing as legalistic but to us it is simply an expression of our commitment. The idea of the minister coming around to help a parishioner calculate their tithe is abhorrent and absurd, though it did happen to Stuart’s mother in another denomination. The Scripture requires that God’s people put aside ‘as God has prospers them’ for the work of the Gospel. In our churches, a large part of the offering goes towards the minister’s salary. The maths are not difficult. It only takes ten workers tithing to pay a minister’s stipend plus other expenses. Twenty pensioners tithing can meet a church’s budget. The sacrificial giving of God’s people to His service is so much healthier for the life of a congregation than the pressure of fund-raising, especially when the church cannot use the lucrative means the world uses that involve gambling.

I admit to being fussy about Manses, having lived in six of them during 37 years; fifteen years and five manses with my parents: twenty-two years and two manses with my husband. How much painting, carpeting, window-dressing, gardening, plumbing and electricity should the incumbent be financially responsible for? If, like us, the minister and his wife are living on the one income and raising a family, there is almost no money left over for maintenance and decoration. And there’s the rub! The problems are the same for those who rent. How much do you do to make yourself comfortable? One elderly handyman minister decided to make things better for the next young minister. The only trouble was, the next young minister didn’t think what he did improved the place at all!

Of course, if the minister’s wife goes back to work, so they can afford to do all that needs to be done, she probably doesn’t have time or energy to think about these things and enjoy them. And so, life in an old Manse at the turn of the 21st century was not easy. The Lord God solved this problem for me in 2002.

The year before, 2001, Stuart had a heart attack. After triple bi-pass surgery in Sydney, the hospital staff told us to move away from the church. They take in a disproportionate number of Protestant clergy, Roman Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis needing heart surgery at age 50 – the same age as Stuart. The medical experts calculate that it is lifestyle and work practices that exacerbate this life-threatening condition for those in ministry. The stress of the work is not the primary cause but it predisposes some to heart attack. When a minister lives near the church buildings, he becomes, by default, the janitor, groundsman, gardener and ‘sitting-duck’ for beggars. We are thankful that, since we moved away, the church has not had any more security problems than it ever had while we were living there.

Six months after Stuart’s heart attack, my father died. His estate provided us with enough money for a deposit on a home of our own and the congregation voted us a Manse Allowance. We are ‘at home’ now in a way we never could be in the Manse, and we love it!

Stuart and I have always given food but avoided giving money to those who come asking. At Miles, Stuart would get a man to sand down or paint a church door, or do some other odd job in return for a meal or some petrol. One family came asking for money for petrol. Seeing the garage was just across the road, Stuart walked across and asked the proprietor to fill the tank for this family. Only trouble was, they’d just been there and the petrol tank was already full!

The stories people tell never cease to amaze us! They tell stories of sick grandparents far away, of funerals, of job interviews, and things that my imagination would never dream up. Nowadays, Stuart asks for the name of their case-worker in the Social Security system. Of course, we will give anyone a sandwich and hot drink, and many’s the meal we have served on the front porch of the Miles and Tamworth Manses. One man started coming every morning for his breakfast. Our son Stu was home from university and took the opportunity to share the gospel with him. Stu thought he was getting somewhere with him spiritually. However, after Stu returned to Sydney, we realized that this particular man was saving his breakfast money to spend on alcohol, and we had to refuse him any more free meals. One of our regulars won several thousand dollars in a jackpot. It only took him a few months for his ‘friends’ to help him spend it, and then he came back to us, friendless and penniless.

The other difficult and recurring scenario is the destitute parent with children to feed. For some unknown reason, these people always seem to come on weekends when there are no government or charity services open. We have handed out countless bags of groceries from our own pantry to feed these families. Any who keep coming back have to be referred to the relevant social service authorities. The saddest case I remember was a very cold sleety evening about 5.00pm. Stuart was not home. It was getting dark when a very thin young woman in a flimsy dress brought her sick crying baby to the door. She wanted money. I offered her food, but she didn’t want it. She became angry that I would not give her money and stomped out to the battered kombi van where an equally thin, poorly clad man was waiting. There was nothing I could do, no matter how they tugged at my heart strings.

One thing we know is that by the time they get to us, they have probably been to several other churches. One young mother wanted money to buy milk formula. I told her to come back in half an hour. I went round to the nearest chemist. Evidently, I was the latest on a long line of people trying to help her. She did not need any more formula. She was re-selling it on the side!

Giving in kind can only go so far. One Monday early in our time at Tamworth, a new 8-seater people mover parked in front of the Manse. This family needed petrol to go to a funeral four hours away. Accordingly, Stuart rang our garage down the hill and arranged for petrol to be given on the church account. This started a cascade of similar requests day after day. The new minister on the hill was a soft touch, and we knew we had to say no.

Twice, at least, I have feared for my physical safety. Once was with a regular visitor who refused the usual snack and tried to force his way past me into the house. Thankfully, at that very moment, our stiff old Alsatian-cross Rastus came stalking around the corner of the house. The man beat a retreat. On another occasion, a very drunk man came to the back door at about 8 o’clock at night. It was hot, the door was open and there were no security doors. The children were doing their homework. Trembling, I pushed the man out by shutting the door. I sent one of the boys out the front door to the church where a Session meeting was in progress. In no time at all, Stuart and Elder Richard Bowd came down and dealt with the poor man. They assured me he was in no state do hurt anyone, and would have fallen over had I pushed a bit harder. I’m afraid that was little comfort to me. The next day, security doors were fitted front and back!

The fourth Wednesday of the month is set aside for Session and Ladies Evening Fellowship. The two meetings are held at the same time so that some of the ladies can get a lift with their husbands and the men can enjoy the splendid supper afterwards. The ladies’ meeting is an easy-going time for friendship, sharing, craft and once a year, cleaning curtains, cupboards, cushions and so forth.

Session is the first court in our Westminster system of church government. Elders are elected by the congregation and at St Stephen’s each has the spiritual oversight of a group of members and adherents.  Decisions are made by majority agreement, with the Minister having only a casting vote. He is a chairman, not a chief. Stuart’s policy is that all business must be in the hand of the Session Clerk by Sunday morning when the elders meet for prayer before the service. Everyone has a few days to prepare their thoughts for discussion and decision-making. This avoids the potential for late, late meetings when everyone is tired because issues that may be contentious are being raised without notice late at night. Men who have been on their tractor or harvester all day don’t need that sort of meeting, especially if they have to drive for an hour on dirt roads to get home. In Tamworth, most of the elders live in town, but even so some start their jobs very early in the morning.

The policy of giving prior notice of matters of business also applies to congregational meetings. Everyone should be given reasonable time to prepare for open discussion. No one has the right to hoist verbal hand grenades into a meeting, demanding that an issue be discussed that they have given a lot of thought to, while most other people have had no time to consider it at all. Maintaining this policy has meant that congregational meetings are far more peaceful and loving than they once were, to the Glory of God.

“Wednesday’s child is full of woe!” says the old rhyme. Yes, there are lots of things about Wednesday that need tenacity and forbearance, patience and long-suffering. It is the day of small things, after the seed has been planted and before the crop is ready for harvest. It’s a day to keep on keeping on, making sure the machinery is in good order so that when God sends the rain and eventually the crop does ripen, everything is ready and in place for harvest.

LENT

This year, as never in the last thirty years, Protestant Christians have been promoting Lent. Why? Do we no longer believe that Jesus Christ made the One Sacrifice that renders all others obsolete?

Why we have not practised Lent:

1. It is not Biblical. Jesus did not command it and the Apostles did not commend it.

2. When we become Christians, only what is commanded becomes our obligation. Whatever is not commanded in Scripture has no hold on us.

3. We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ every Lord’s Day and make every Saturday a Day of Preparation, spiritually as well as physically.

4. Lent has been a breeding ground for hypocrisy and has brought ridicule on the church.

5. Special prayer and fasting is to be done in secret – Matthew 6:16-18. There is nothing secret about Lent. There is great temptation for people to boast and feel spiritually smug about themselves.

6. It is a religion of good works. The true parameters of Christianity are Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone. (Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fides) Matthew records many times when Jesus challenged the religious leaders about their religion of good deeds and loading God’s people with burdens too heavy to bear.
Why I would never practise Lent:

1. Jesus made the One Sacrifice that makes all others obsolete. It is wrong for me to think I can add anything that will enhance either my salvation or my sanctification.

2. My time and effort is fully taken up obeying the Great Commandments of Jesus: Matthew 22:37-40. I will not add my own from some pick-a-box of options, whether it be no meat on Friday or no social media for a few weeks.

3. All bases are covered by way of preparation for Easter because we prepare for the Lord’s Day every week. ‘A humble and a contrite spirit’ is to be our every-day attitude in approach to God.

4. All my years at school, most of my class mates were either, in 1950′s parlance, CofE (Anglican) or RC (Roman Catholic). My memory of Lent each year was a time when my classmates ridiculed the hypocrisy of their elders. It was a joke: no icing on a birthday cake, no meat but everyone rushed to the fish and chips shop on Friday night, and so on. Is it any wonder so few nominally Christian Baby Boomers followed Christ into adult-hood? Is it any wonder so many became agnostic or atheist?

5. Jesus commands that I fast and pray in secret. (Matthew 6:16-18) Lent is very public.

6. “Nothing in my hand I bring…” I can add nothing that is any good in making right what I have done wrong. My righteousness comes solely and completely from Christ. My motivation to keep Christ’s commandments comes from gratitude.

[This is my own personal expression. I want to put the other side of the question as to why evangelical Christians have not practised Lent. I wish those better equipped than me were doing so, and if they are I would like to know about it.  I still love my friends and relatives who have recently adopted this practice and do not stand in judgment on them personally. Rather, I am concerned that this may be a by-path leading away from the straight road to heaven. ]

SEEING THINGS GROW

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Yesterday, we had steady, soaking rain all morning, the first good rain for many months. How we rejoice to see our newly planted winter veges holding up their fragile drooping heads! How we rejoice to see the garden clear shining after rain!

But this is nothing to the relief of those whose livelihoods depend on getting some grass in the paddocks before winter. This rain may be too late, or it may produce some winter feed for the flocks and herds. We shall have to wait and see whether the weather stays warm enough for the pastures to grow.

Why bother with the chances of the farming and grazing life? A few weeks before he died in 2001, my father was in a lot of pain with arthritis. Even so, he kept digging and planting his vege patch. He was about to turn 90.

“Dad,” I said, “why don’t you sit in your chair and rest? Surely you’ve earned it.”

The pain was so severe that sometimes he found it hard to get up from his kneeling position by the garden bed. Then he would call his companion dog, the old grey Irish Wolfhound, Go Go. She would stand beside him and allow him to climb up using her height and strength as leverage.

“Well,” he said to me in the firm gentle voice he once used to persuade me to eat my porridge, “I like seeing things grow.”

Right to the end, he loved watching things grow! I stopped urging him to take it easy. And so it was in his garden, a fortnight after he turned ninety, that the final pain of kidney failure struck him down. Though Go Go helped him get upstairs to his chair and the phone, she never walked by his side down to the garden again.

I think it is something like that for the people we know on the land, people who have stayed on their farms through thick and thin, some never really getting ahead. Some of them prosper during good seasons and hold on during the bad. They love to see things grow and thrive. They love caring for animals and watching the green pick come through the soil after rain. They have their own props and levers to help them get up again, just as my father had Go Go.

Those who have heeded Jesus’ words, “Take my yoke upon you …” know how to borrow the soul strength that makes them get up and go again after hard times. If a large shaggy dog can act as a yoke to help an old man get up and go, how much more can our Lord Jesus help us up and on our way, whether we see things grow or not.

‘And may the grass grow green and tall in pathways of the drover!’

 

THE GENEVA GOWN

 

ImageThe Geneva gown is a simple yet curious garment. It is a plain outer gown, modelled on the undergraduate student gown of the Reformation era. [1517-1648] Since then it has been worn by ordained ministers in the Christian churches that arose out of the Protestant Reformation.

The simple yet dignified gown is meant to convey the authority and solemn duty of the ordained ministry. Those who wear it are to be those called by God to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus and preach the biblical Word of God. The bearer is to be a learned minister of the Word and teaching elder (presbyter) over faithful members of the Church.

Worn over street clothes, this gown avoids ostentation, obscuring individual grooming and concealing fashion preferences. Instead it draws attention to the wearer’s office and not the person.

In being an undergraduate gown, it signifies that the wearer is a student of the Word, no matter how senior or qualified he is in the church. There is no graduation day, no colourful silk hood to put over it this side of eternity. John Calvin and other reformers wore this style of gown. For many of them it was their warmest coat and a blanket at night. There’s a story of an old Scottish minister who sewed layers of newspaper inside his for extra warmth in winter.

Stuart wears his gown on Communion Sundays. People often ask him to wear a gown for funerals and he respects their wishes. His Geneva gown was professionally crafted as a gift for him by Mrs Narelle Irwin, wife of Elder Ian Irwin. It is made of heavy woollen material. If he needs to wear a gown in the heat of summer, Stuart has a cotton undergraduate gown that belonged to his father-in-law, Rev FWF White.

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These photos were taken at Walcha cemetery 13th March 2014.

WARRIOR WOMEN OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

The twentieth century was the most bloody this world has experienced. The atheistic regimes of the twentieth century killed more people than all the wars of human history. Is it any wonder we who were born in the middle of it styled ourselves as warrior women? We gathered during school lunch break, called ourselves Crusaders and sang energetically:
The Lord hath need of me
His soldier I will be
He gave Himself my life to win
And so I mean to follow Him
And serve Him faithfully.
So though the fight be fierce and long
I’ll carry on, He makes me strong
And then one day His face I’ll see
And oh the joy when He says to me
‘Well done’, my brave Crusader.

Fifty years ago, Crusaders was what schools now call ISCF. There is still a Crusader Movement in some schools. My son rejoices that Crusaders is now flourishing at his old school, where 20 years ago the few members felt alone and lonely. He tells of the shining witness of the Principal and one of the Head Boys, and how Christian boys now lead Chapel Services.

In the 1960’s, I dreamt of the Crusader King, Richard the Lion-Heart. I followed him to Palestine and back again! And if, because I was a girl, I couldn’t do that, I would be waiting to give him a right-royal welcome on his return. He might even choose me as his Queen. This was the King Richard of ‘Ivanhoe’, far more romantic that the historical man, no doubt.

As a young Christian, the words, “though the fight be fierce and long …” held no fear for this warrior woman! I fully believed I could carry on in the strength of the Lord, fitted out in His armour. I’m glad I had such confidence then, as there have been times since when my courage has been tested to the limit.

Later, as young adults, some of us rejected the opening line: “The Lord hath need of me!” as poor theology. Our Creator God made the universe and everything in it. What need does He have of mere human flesh and blood? Doesn’t Jesus say that He could have called twelve legions of angels? That’s more than 60,000 angels, on the spot, immediately! The Warrior King David left us many Psalms. The tenor of them is how much he needs God. He never wrote that God needed him.

So where did the idea of “the Lord hath need of me” come from? Think of the wartime recruitment posters that shouted: “Your king needs you!” “Your country needs you!” That, it would seem, is the context in which this chorus was written. Jesus calls us to be Soldiers of the Cross in the spiritual war waged by our great enemies, sin, the devil and death. This epic war lasts until the trumpet of God announces the day of resurrection and judgment. Whether we think we are needed or not, every Christian is CALLED to “put on the whole armour of God,” and to “fight the good fight of faith!” Knowing you are called is compelling and energizing!

As for being needed; feeling ‘needed’ is warm and fuzzy and comfortable and perhaps God knows we ‘need’ that too! On the sole occasion Jesus announced that He needed one of His creatures, He was referring to a donkey! Perhaps, if I keep that in mind, I can once again sing this 20th century battle song with gusto and a grin.

TO HATE AND TO LOVE AN ADVENT ANTHEM

HILLS OF THE NORTH REJOICE

HILLS OF THE NORTH REJOICE

It has taken 50 years for hate to turn to love! In 1962, our Wavell High School Choir Mistress chose “Hills of the North Rejoice” to sing at the schools eisteddfod in the Hymn Section. I hated it! I hated it along with almost everything else about Year Nine. I hated Mothercraft Classes. Caring for babies was part of life to me, the eldest of seven, not something to study for an exam. I hated “Wind in the Willows”. How dare they demand I waste my time reading an infantile story! I hated the boys, but I loved beating them at arm wrestling! That was about the only thing I loved about Year Nine, being the unofficial arm wrestling champion of the class. That was fun!

Now our Choir Mistress knew my parents. She knew that my mother could hold a strong alto harmony, and she thought I would too. Sadly, I did not inherit her ability. I was happy enough to be in the choir and sing soprano, but our Choir Mistress insisted I join the altos. Hence, I hated choir too, as only a crossed fourteen year old can do! I was even suspicious of the words. They were probably some unbelieving nonsense. They didn’t have the theological import of “Holy, Holy, Holy” or “Immortal Invisible”, nor the rattling good tunes of “To God Be The Glory” or “Tell Me The Old Old Story”. I slipped into the mode of singing words in tune without meaning. I didn’t even try to follow the sense or thought pattern through the verses, hardly remembering anything except the name from then on.

Now on Friday mornings at St Stephen’s, the Office Staff and Musicians get together to check that we know the tunes of the chosen hymns. My husband, our minister chooses hymns for their words and meaning and it is up to us to make sure the congregation can sing them. Mostly, we get it right. Some weeks ago, another hymn was set to the tune “Little Cornard (66 66 88)”.  Suddenly, the floodgates of memory opened and I remembered “Hills Of The North Rejoice”.

Later I went home and found the hymn in the old blue hymnbook. I studied the verses and fell in love with this anthem of vast missionary vision –
Lo, from the North we come,
From East, and West, and South…

Spanning the Day of the Lord, that Age between the first and second advents of Christ, it is a prophetic Christmas anthem.

Then I researched the writer, Charles Edward Oakley. This young Welsh clergyman was loved and admired for his ‘noble and gentle nature’ as well as ‘mental powers of the highest order’ and ‘brilliant and impressive eloquence’. After two years as Rector of St Paul’s Covent Garden he died aged but 33.

And so, whether they liked it or not, our Choir sang “Hills of the North Rejoice” as the doxology for our carol service last Sunday. I hope they liked it, or will come to at some time in the future. Its incubation of half a century has been worth it for me!

Hills of the North, rejoice;
River and mountain spring,
Hark to the advent voice;
Valley and lowland, sing;
Though absent long, your Lord is nigh;
He judgment brings and victory.

Isles of the southern seas,
Deep in your coral caves
Pent be each warring breeze,
Lulled be your restless waves:
He comes to reign with boundless sway,
And makes your wastes His great highway.

Lands of the East, awake,
Soon shall your sons be free;
The sleep of ages break,
And rise to liberty.
On your far hills, long cold and gray,
Has dawned the everlasting day.

Shores of the utmost West,
Ye that have waited long,
Unvisited, unblest,
Break forth to swelling song;
High raise the note, that Jesus died,
Yet lives and reigns, the Crucified.

Shout, while ye journey home;
Songs be in every mouth;
Lo, from the North we come,
From East, and West, and South.
City of God, the bond are free,
We come to live and reign in thee!

FOUR MINISTER’S MESSAGES FOR 2013

March 2013
FORWARD MARCH

We’ve been searching for someone to come to St Stephen’s to make connections with and minister to younger folk for over a year now – and no show as yet. How should we feel? It has become obvious that one difficulty before us is asking someone to come and start virtually by themselves. We need some creative way forward – one that we can’t quite see yet, but which the Lord will bring us to in His good timing.

I’ve been challenged myself as I’ve been reading through Exodus. In the book of Exodus, God’s people believed His promises and had the encouragement of His provision at the Red Sea. As the days went on though, they faced such difficulties and disappointments that their faith often was tested and sometimes failed. God did not fail them however.

Now God has brought us to the point of utilising our resources to begin a further ministry into the younger demographic of Tamworth. God has moved us in a wonderful way – a way I’d been praying over for many years. We don’t need any outside finance as we once did when we started TCPC with a Ministry & Mission subsidy. This is extraordinary! This is a very great blessing and encouragement! May we be confident that having begun this God will finish it in His own best time!

We have need of patience and perseverance, that, after having done the will of God, we might receive the promise!  This is the good advice of Hebrews 10:36!

On another front, Presbyterian Aged Care (PAC) is interested in looking at Tamworth as a possible town within which to develop their ministry to the aged. I have been talking with Paul Sadler (Chief Executive officer of PAC) for Session (both St Stephen’s and Scots Moonbi) and have some suggestions from him to place before both sessions. We would value your prayers and interest.

Your thankful minister,
Stuart

June 2013
FORWARD MARCH

This June Communion Service will be our first Sunday without TCPC using our facilities. They have been with us for several years now. The last visit of Jeoff Falls in November 2011 marked a watershed for us all. Up to that point we had been in limbo regarding vision and planning for the future. Until we knew what TCPC’s plans and desires were for their future, we could not go forward. The last eighteen months has seen us develop our strategic plan and look at ways forward. We have the necessary resources to go forward and God has given us the will.

I believe that we need to be optimistic realists as Christians. I know I have said this many times, but it is good to be reminded again. Our congregation’s age and stage and limited future are one side of that coin – the realistic side. While we must be realistic about ourselves, we must also be optimistic about God. He is Someone who keeps His Word. What He begins, he finishes. As Hudson Taylor (the famous China Inland Mission first director in the 19th Century) said: “God’s work done in God’s way will not lack God’s supply!”

Firstly, we need to be confident in God. Secondly, we need to be doers of his Word.

One doing that the Presbytery recommended to us during their visitation to the St Stephen’s & Scots Churches, is hospitality. Hospitality is a wonderful way of showing care and friendship towards each other and to newcomers. Age and infirmity has placed many amongst us unable to take part in such a ministry. Please pray that the Lord will call enough of us to this ministry of hospitality, especially when new people turn up at worship.

The key principle to successful hospitality is the KISS Principle: KEEP IT SIMPLE STU…!

Hospitality is the offering of ordinary good food, simply prepared and served with love and friendship. It is a sharing of sandwiches or whatever you would normally be having for a meal with others. Hospitality is not costly, nor does it take a lot of energy.

May God make us fruitful in small ways to the praise of His glory and the future growth of the Gospel in Tamworth and the well-being of St Stephen’s.
Your thankful minister,
Stuart

September 2013
FINDING OUR WAY FORWARD

One of our members, Glenn Mercer, will be starting soon as Chaplain to two BUPA aged care services – at Tamworth and Armidale. Please pray for Glenn as he starts this ministry within these BUPA centres.

As most of you know, I have struggled with severe back pain since June. I have had an MRI scan of my pinched nerve Wednesday August 7th. The main result of the MRI is that I will most likely have to have surgery on my back. A central disc bulge between my Lumbar L4/5 vertebrae combined with a ligament inflammation has caused the spinal canal to narrow and pinch the spinal cord. I will see spine specialist Dr Gordon Dandie on September 2nd. After September 2nd, session will be able to arrange things for supply while I’m away for that surgery. I’m also taking a fortnight’s annual leave to go and see my mother. Mum is not doing too well at present. While I’m away, St Stephen’s is employing Glenn Mercer to preach at both services each Sunday and to do one day a week pastoral visiting for me. I’ve been getting way behind in that. It is wonderful that the Lord has dovetailed things together so that Glenn is available at just this time. This is one answer to our prayers of the past year. I am also proposing that Glenn be contracted to continue some pastoral work after he starts at BUPA.

Hopefully too we’ll have the new data projector up and running for our September communion service. This will make a big difference. Glenda Mercer has been a big help in this with her expertise in using all this new technology as a high school teacher.

Paul Sadler, the CEO of Presbyterian Aged Care NSW, spoke to us on Thursday 8th August regarding Presbyterian aged care possibilities for Tamworth. What is very possible is the option of PAC applying for government funding to establish a community aged care service in Tamworth.  This would not require substantial property holdings, but could be based in an office linked to the church.  It would work in with PAC’s existing community care service in Walcha.  This could be a useful first step for future long-term developments.

Community aged care is funded and regulated by the Australian Department of Health & Ageing (DoHA), with the Department of Veterans Affairs directly funding some programs for veterans.  There are three main funding programs in community aged care:
•    Home Care Packages – Support services in the home equivalent to low or high residential aged care. New home care packages are distributed via annual Aged Care Approvals Rounds.  In late 2012, DoHA advertised 108 new packages in the New England region.
•    Home and Community Care – Provides range of low level home support services such as meals on wheels, domestic assistance, home nursing, day-care.  Annual competitive funding rounds for new services need to be applied for, and PAC deals with this.
•    National Respite for Carers Program – Provides services which give a break from caring for the family carers of older people. [This programme funds Walcha Day Respite Centre at Riverview.]

Please also be in prayer for me as I talk with some other young ministers about ministry here at St Stephen’s. When I’m in Sydney for the General Assembly of Australia in September 9th-13th 2013 I hope to discuss this with one of those I am approaching.

Your thankful minister,
Stuart

December 2013
MOVEMENT AT THE STATION

No younger ministers have yet been willing to look at a position here. However, the Lord has provided two older men who are willing to do ministry here within St Stephen’s – Dale Martin as Chaplain at St Mark’s and Family ministry Worker here at St Stephen’s, and Glenn Mercer as Pastoral Assistant responsible for ministry to older Members. Session is processing these possible ministries and will come to the congregation when we have something definite in the way of contracts and of how to finance these ministries. Hopefully this congregational meeting will be in early December.

After almost two years of searching for an assistant, I have come to the opinion that the time for the congregations of St Stephen’s and Scots Moonbi to call a younger minister will be when I retire. Having an existing ministry team will most certainly be very attractive for any prospective minister. The stumbling block before has been the weight of the task of rebuilding a younger part of our congregation. It is too great a weight for one person to bear.

It is fairly impossible for one minister to minister to an older congregation and, at the same time, to rebuild younger age-groups in the congregation. The hard reality is that the necessary time needed for rebuilding leaves very little time for ministry to older members. I have certainly found it outside my capabilities. We need a team to cover both. With Glenn and Dale we will have such a team for any minister to work with in providing ministry to these two necessary and vital groups within our membership.

Let us go forward with joy and hope into the new year. Christmas reminds us of that incredible gift of the Lord Jesus. In Him and with Him, we have all that the Church needs to grow and go forward. May this coming year be one that gladdens all our hearts in Him!

Your thankful minister,
Stuart

[Published in St Stephen's Church News for March, June, September and December 2013]

BRUSHFIRES AND BOILING WATER

IMG_1472

It was an obscure sort of question on Isaiah 63: “Are there two sides to God’s character, to either of which we may be arbitrarily subject?”

When our leader asked the question, I jumped in feet first. “No! No! A thousand times ‘No’!” I cried. But that was not obvious to our leader, nor everyone else in the group. After all, we were studying God’s compassion and his severity side by side. Surely these are two sides to his character! He loves and cares for His people on the one hand and yet chastises them with the other. Some in the group took the point that this lined up with the tough love of a good father and the study went on to point out the repeated reference to God as Father in Isaiah 63 and 64.

Wasn’t this the big question of “Who is God?” I accessed the Shorter Catechism in an attempt to shed light on the nature and character of God. “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth,” did not immediately clear up the confusion around the room. Those splendid words needed more than a few minutes to digest and apply. Each adjective and noun is a study in itself.

So then we looked up the meaning of the word ‘character’: the set of qualities that make somebody or something distinctive; the combination of qualities or features that distinguishes one person, group, or thing from another. Ah… Light dawned. A combination of qualities distinguish God’s character. No, there are not two sides to God’s character. Among human beings it is considered very serious for a person to have two sides to their character. Many with this problem end up being locked away.

The passage itself gave us a clue. “…as when the fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.” Our God is a consuming fire, a fire among the dry undergrowth on a hot windy day. This destructive flame burning against those who reject Him, especially among his blood-bought children, is a theme of Scripture. But God is also a fire that warms and nourishes. The same pillar of fire that warned off Pharaoh’s army provided comfort to God’s people in the desert. The fire that lighted on the heads of the first Christians and burns in the hearts of His children ever since, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit is God’s presence for our well-being.

And yet the fire is one! Are there two sides to God’s character? No, never! There are not two sides to God’s character! The fire that boils the billy burns the brushwood!

A PARABLE IN A POT

Spring cleaning is a time to be ruthless and throw things away. The other day I surprised myself by throwing out a lot of pot-plants, plants I have kept alive for years. It has been a dry season, without the prospect of much rain and the plants all looked half-dead. A begonia rex that thrived at Jean’s place in Toowoomba has never looked well in the constant dryness of Tamworth. The elephant ears that flamboyantly decorated Alison’s courtyard at Newtown die right off for more than half the year here. Even the zygo-cactus plants Jenny gave me in Miles never thrive. I did not reason much about these problems of gardening west of the range. I was in a de-cluttering mood, and I emptied them all into the green bin.

But there is one old cactus, the ugliest plant of all, that I will not throw out. It is a parable in itself. It is a great lump of a thing that survives neglect on the western balcony. It has no form nor comeliness. I am reminded of the classic Victorian children’s story, ‘The Crown of Success’. In it lame Nelly perseveres with her tasks while her clever brother and beautiful sister find more ‘fun’ things to do. The fruit in Nelly’s garden were plain to look at, yet they proved to be packed full of the most beautiful gifts.

So it is with my plain old cactus. Periodically it transforms itself into thing of beauty. It shoots forth stunning white blossoms, as delicate and crisp as the finest silk. The flowers last but a day. By next morning they have folded in on themselves and hang limp. Another day or so and the stems fall off. The plant resumes its disguise of ugliness.

This parable speaks to me at different levels. There are the days when I realize what a wrinkled old lump I am becoming. God’s word comforts me by telling me
‘Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.’ [Proverbs 31:30]

It reminds me to let my adorning be ‘the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.’ [1 Peter 3:4]

Beyond myself, the Scripture takes me to the One who
‘had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.’
Like my cactus, He
‘grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground’
[Isaiah 53:2]

Every time I pull back the curtains and see this ugly old cactus in flower, I am surprised by the joy of the vision. I think of my King in His beauty, and His land that is afar off, brought near by this parable in a pot. [Isaiah 33:17]

ONE MELBOURNE CUP

Art Class 1How much use is a dumb witness? Not much, if you want to find out the truth. And yet, every road sign is a silent yet useful direction finder. Try going somewhere unknown only to discover that the street sign you need is missing, or worse still, turned the wrong way.

How do you point people to Jesus in Australia on the first Tuesday afternoon in November? Do you arrange to go and do some open-air preaching at Flemington Racecourse? Two young men from Melbourne Bible Institute did that in 1938; permission given as long as they were quiet during the big race!

It was another Melbourne Cup Day thirty years later. I was at Teachers’ College. I sat at a desk by a window working at an assignment. For some reason that everyone but me seemed to understand, the lecturer had not arrived for the 2 pm lecture. Everyone else was huddled around transistor radios. I was quite ignorant and did not have a clue what a ‘sweep’ was. All I knew was that horse races were something to do with gambling and gambling was wrong. Besides that, the sweep involved money, and I had none to spare.

So I got on with my work. I certainly did not feel like a bright Christian that afternoon. There was nothing I could say to anyone to persuade them of the error of their ways because I did not understand what it was all about. I was negative and dumb.

However, I wasn’t left alone for long. Someone came and sat beside me. I looked up and it was Katy. What a pleasant surprise! Here was this clever, confident, good-looking girl choosing to spend time with me. She was everything I was not, and she was rich too! Why, her father had given her a new car for her 17th birthday! Other girls lined up for a ride.

We didn’t talk about horse-racing or gambling. I think our conversation turned to China. Being born in China was how people remembered me. It meant I had to explain about my parents being missionaries and that I didn’t remember anything because we had to get out when I was a baby. It always seemed such a hollow story to me. Yet Katy was interested. That Sunday, she started coming to church. A year later, when we were both school-teaching a thousand miles from each other, she wrote and told me she had become a Christian.

That Melbourne Cup Day I felt like a dumb beast, or even less. A horse on a racetrack had more purpose than a bystander like me. Yet my silent witness was noticed by one person. I was nothing more than a street sign, positioned on a corner identifying the way. Yet God used even a suppressed onlooker like me. You too can be a direction-finder for someone who is a seeker after the Way, the Truth and the Life, without a word!

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