MEMORIES OF 30 YEARS MINISTRY IN MILES AND TAMWORTH
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!
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:
Five Important facts: (with verse references)
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!
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.
It was a little brown cottage almost fronting the mountain road. Our driver and guide slowed the car to a halt and told us that a man had died and his body was laid out in his open coffin in the front room of the house. Several men were sitting on the steps and leaning on the fence. They were quietly meditating, and in doing so, paying respect to their friend who was dead. People would come, stay a while and go again through the day and night until the service and burial. It seemed a strange custom to us, but this is all part of a Christian funeral in the Indian state of Mizoram.
Recently, we lost a dear friend and relative by marriage in Northern Ireland. She died at home. Her body was taken to the funeral parlour and arranged in her coffin. She was then returned to her home where relatives and friends paid their last respects as she lay in her lovely front room until she was lovingly carried on the shoulders of her sons and nephews to her final resting place. This is the custom in many cool-climate communities. The early settlers in Australia had to revise these customs where hot sunny weather rules.
In Australia, our customs are different. We keep bodies in cold storage and perhaps have a private viewing for close family members. I have only once known of a select viewing in the church before the service. We pay our respect to the dead by spending time with the living during and after the service. That is why we sometimes attend the funeral service of someone we hardly knew. We know someone in the family and want to comfort them.
Early in our ministry in Tamworth, a friend told me. “I always go to funerals!”
“Why?” I asked.
“For the family,” she said simply.
Then she told me about members of her congregation who had a death in the family and no one from the church came to the funeral. This couple had thrown themselves into the life of the church and thought it was their friendship base. When no one came to their loved one’s funeral, they felt even more grief stricken and found another church to attend.
In my youth and years of strength, funerals seemed incompatible with life and I tried to avoid them as much as possible. Death is a mystery: the tragic end of life here on earth: our inheritance from the sin of Adam and Eve. The Sage tells us that it is better to go to the house of mourning than the house of feasting because that is where we will think about the meaning of death.
The mystery of Life, the mystery
Of Death, I see
Darkly as in a glass;
Their shadows pass,
And talk with me… [Christiana G Rossetti]
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
We are so much more blessed than those who first read these words hundreds of years before Christ. Jesus has come and offered us life beyond death. His life gives meaning beyond my death! The inheritance we receive from the second Adam is resurrection life. A Christian funeral should be a proclamation of LIFE. Stuart always preaches resurrection at a funeral and I, for one, rejoice to hear this message of hope proclaimed. I now agree with the Sage that it is better to go to the place of mourning because I hear once again the message of resurrection, a message I can never hear too often.
Every death is an aberration, something that ought not to be. We were made for LIFE. And yet every minister has to be involved in some funerals that are more tragic than others. The death of the young, death through accident, murder or suicide are all part of the experience of life-long ministry.
And then there are the funerals of fellow-servants of Christ who have worked alongside the minister, some dying before their three score years and ten. These are people you miss because they have been so helpful and supportive in building the kingdom of God. The pain of their loss goes on and on. It’s hard to refrain from saying, “This would not happen if ‘John’ were still with us.” Or “How we miss ‘Mary’ at times like this.” Sometimes God takes the people you love and need most. And yet, He knows what He is doing. To be with Christ is far better for them, and their absence gives opportunity for others to step up and develop skills for Gospel work.
Since the year 2001, when Stuart had two heart attacks and triple by-pass surgery, we have made Thursday our day off. I have become something of a dragon-lady about this, and resist other commitments on Thursday, except, of course, funerals. Every now and then, Stuart feels he must attend a church or pre-school function on Thursday but I do my best to keep this day as a time to “come apart and rest awhile” as Jesus invited his disciples to do. Our loving Heavenly Father has facilitated this with the provision of a pretty little river cottage in the mountains where we often spend time on Thursday. We have special prayer in times of need, potter around the garden, and and go for a walk. This is where I first started my research into my parents’ China story, and became fascinated by the writings of their Mission Director, Bishop Frank Houghton.
Quite often, however, we stay at home on Thursday and enjoy all those house and garden jobs that need to be done. We are always thankful for a day without the pressure of being at different places on time all dressed up, a day to relax and take our time.
Auntie Ruth’s call
CHAPTER 6 – FRIDAY
“What’s a heart murmur?” I asked my mother, my source of all medical knowledge. This was the first indication I gave Mum that there was someone special in my life. I had to tell her about this friend who missed a whole year of primary school because of rheumatic fever, took a penicillin tablet every day and had to have an annual check-up for his heart murmur. Many years later, with the progression of technology, a cardiologist in Tamworth diagnosed Stuart with a congenital mitral valve prolapse. The murmur wasn’t from rheumatic fever: he was born with it! We knew that heart trauma was always a possibility.
It was Friday morning, 23rd March 2001. Stuart woke early with chest pain and knew it was a heart attack. I got dressed quickly and went to get the car keys.
“No!” Stuart said urgently, “Call the ambulance.”
We are in the habit of walking together in the cool of the evening. Earlier that week, Stuart became very breathless walking up the hill in Mathews Street. I left him sitting at the home of friends and got the car to bring him home. The next day, he went to the doctor. All the symptoms pointed to a flu virus. And so he tried to take it easy while fitting in the necessary commitments of those weekdays.
I have fed the family with as healthy a diet as I know how all our years together. We seldom have packaged meals or fast food; and I take pride in making meals with a healthy balance of meat and vegetables, followed by fresh fruit. Puddings are served when visitors come and on Sunday. I don’t know if one fatty meal can trigger a heart attack, but that is how it felt that Friday morning. It had been a stressful week and we decided to spoil ourselves with some fried chicken for Thursday night dinner. Guilt overwhelmed me when I thought of it in the whirlwind of new experiences in the days to come.
So I called ‘Triple O’ and within a few minutes the ambulance arrived and a paramedic was inserting a cannula into Stuart’s wrist as he sat in a lounge chair. Stuart was worried because at 7.00am he was to take part in a phone conference between several members of New England Presbytery. He was the first number the telephone exchange would ring. I went and woke our school-girl boarder, Melanie, and asked her to answer the phone when it rang and to pass on the message that Mr A had been taken to hospital. In another five minutes, Stuart was being admitted to Tamworth Base Hospital. I thank the Lord that we lived so close to the Ambulance and the Hospital. We had been given a mobile phone recently, such wonderful new technology! I stood outside Emergency to ring our children, Stuart’s mother and my father, who promptly rang other family members. I also rang our Session Clerk, Brian Rixon. Into his hands fell the responsibility of running the church for no-one-knew how long.
A specialist doctor was called and he told me that Stuart’s condition was critical. He said he could not assure me that Stuart would live through this heart attack. Surviving the next 48 hours was crucial. I hardly left his bed for those two days. Family gathered from far and wide. Three-month-old Harry caused a sensation among the nurses with his big wondering eyes. “He’s an old soul!” said one nurse. “He’s been here before,” said another. I wanted to correct their ‘new age’ theology, but it wasn’t the time or the place!
That Friday morning was the beginning of six months of upheaval. Stuart had a second attack during a therapy session at the hospital. We went to St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney for tests and then for surgery.
St Stephen’s was in good hands, by the mercy of God. Our Session Clerk rang about twenty-four retired ministers in New South Wales inviting them to come and take services. His efforts were unsuccessful. God moved two ministers from interstate, Rev Stephen Giles from Victoria and Rev John Campbell from South Australia to offer, and both of these generous men and their wives took turns to care for St Stephen’s during that period.
Twelve years later, on a Friday, Stuart needed a back operation to rescue him from life in a wheelchair. On the operating table he had another “episode”, but Dr Gordon Dandie knew his medical history and was able to bring him through the operation successfully. During those 48 hours in 2001, when I did not know whether he would live or not, I asked the Lord to give him to me until he was 70, twenty more years. That seemed a big ask and an act of faith at the time. God has answered my prayer for fifteen of those 20 years, yet it does not seem long enough as we draw near to our allotted span.
That one Friday morning gave Stuart and me a clearer focus and heightened imperative for our ministry. It also generated a deeper love between us and our people. God does work all things together for good. However, most Friday mornings are routine times of achieving what has to be done for the smooth running of the worship services on Sunday.
Friday morning in the Church Office is stimulating, satisfying and exhausting. You have to have your wits about you and there is no time to daydream. On days when the computer plays up or the photocopier has a temperamental turn, the whole finely balanced clockwork goes to pieces. Thankfully, there is another day before Sunday, for extremities, and you will occasionally find some of us back at the office on Saturday finishing off what didn’t get done on Friday.
Early in our time at Miles, we pushed the boundaries of literature production for our members, fully convinced that Bible Reading and prayer should be prime time for every Christian every day. Our friends in the next Charge, John and Betty Thompson loaned us a spirit duplicator whereby we inserted a typed copy, turned a handle and the printed sheets came out around a roller. With scissors we cut the paper in half and voilá! The print was a purply-blue and it faded in the light. Still, it was better than nothing. We persisted in this arduous way until the Committee of Management bought a photocopier which they installed in the room next to Stuart’s study in the Manse. After that, nothing could stop us in our ministry of the printed word! By this time, we had procured our first computer, thanks to a gift of money. It was unbelievably basic by 21st century standards. Stuart was already computer literate, having worked in James Cook University Library. I set myself to follow the ten easy lessons that came with the computer, and learnt the basics of word processing. We started compiling half A4 sheets to hand out to worshippers on Sunday. They had a simple list of congregational activities on one side and a daily Bible Reading and prayer suggestion on the other.
Rev Arthur Ingram, the minister at St Stephen’s before Stuart, believed categorically that the minister should be the final editor of anything the church published. When we arrived in Tamworth, Mr Ingram had completed five years of nursing the congregation back to health and stitching up wounds after a violent and damaging split. St Stephen’s had still some way to go before it could be regarded as wholly healed and the tumour of bitterness removed. We were thankful for Mr Ingram’s advice and assumed responsibility for the print ministry of St Stephen’s. In this, I am pleased to be Stuart’s helper.
When we started Church Office in the early 1990’s, I had grand ideas of the office being open five mornings a week. Chris volunteered for Monday morning, I chose Tuesday, Julie on Wednesday and Bev on Thursday. In those days, we also had a book-shop, though this never kept us very busy with customers. Then we all came together on Friday morning for prayer first, then morning tea, then the proof-reading, printing and folding of the Church Matters. There were phone calls to make to the Bible Reader and other people on the rosters.
Everything has changed over the years except Friday morning. Chris is no longer with us and we look forward to the occasions when she and Louis visit. The office is not officially open Monday to Thursday, though you will often find someone there busy about one task or another. We have added a Post Box Ministry on Tuesday morning once a quarter and Margaret has taken up this responsibility.
Friday morning in St Stephen’s Church Office is stimulating, satisfying and exhausting. You have to have your wits about you and there is no time to daydream. On days when the computer plays up or the photocopier has a temperamental turn, the whole finely balanced clockwork goes to pieces. Thankfully, there is another day before Sunday, for extremities, and you will occasionally find some of us back at the office on Saturday finishing off what didn’t get done on Friday.
Personal safety is a problem these days and that means the doors will be locked if one of us is there alone. Since the introduction of “Breaking the Silence”, the official Presbyterian Church policy and rules on child protection and sexual conduct, it is not permissible for an unrelated man and woman to be in church buildings alone together. I am glad this has become official policy as there have been occasions down the years when I have known fear to clutch at my heart, being left alone with someone who may not be trusted. This makes it even more desirable to meet in groups as we do on Friday morning.
From our small beginning, other things have started to happen on a Friday morning at St Stephen’s. Julie, Bev and Pam join me for prayer for the congregation and the Sunday services especially. In 2014, Stuart and Dale joined our prayer time. Ian and Glenn arrive from their bus runs. Ian puts the water on to boil while we are finishing our prayer time. In recent years, the office gets quite crowded by quarter to ten. After fellowship over a cuppa, the musicians practise the songs for Sunday. They check that we know the tune, not always successfully because there are tunes we know that are not familiar to the congregation. Thankfully, our congregation has learnt to be patient and adaptable. Pam and Ian and the Choir have taught us many new songs and tunes, so that St Stephen’s has an impressive repertoire of Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to enjoy. Clive comes to look after the garden and pot-plants and blow-clean the courtyard. Stuart, Glenn and Dale meet for a ministry team meeting. Those rostered on church cleaning often choose this time for their work. Elders and other members call in on occasion, and inevitably the technician must come for the photocopier, computer or audio-visual system. We even have children and grandchildren of members during school holidays. Friday is a real community day at the church!
However, in the middle of all this community spirit, I have to collate correctly all the bits and pieces that go together to make our Church Matters: Bible Readings and Sermon Points from Stuart and other preachers; the Prayer Points and What’s On that Julie has compiled earlier in the week as well as the Rosters which Bev has organized. Our Treasurers, Ian and Narelle Irwin provide the Offering statement. Gordon writes a separate inclusion for Moonbi. We access the emails and retrieve Gordon’s sheet for Moonbi, print it and add it to the 16 copies of Church Matters for Moonbi.
Often there are special notices from the small groups within the church and some outside. Session has provided guidelines and we do not include advertisements or insertions from political parties or groups that are not involved in the work of Christ’s kingdom. The voice of the church is to be prophetic, not partisan!
When everything is put in its right place, we print a copy for Bev to proof-read. Bev is our proof-reader-extraordinaire! When Bev is not around, there are sure to be mistakes.
But I’m ahead of myself. Our prayer time is precious, and we would not still be working together in harmony without it. The presence of the Lord gives the best possible start to the day. Using last week’s Church Matters, we read and talk about some verses from the set reading for the day. At times, we repeat a memory verse and get a few laughs when we stumble over the phrases. Then we pray for the members and activities of St Stephen’s listed in the week’s Prayer Points, and any other matters that are on our hearts and minds.
As if on cue, we have not long finished praying when Ian arrives at the door with morning tea on a tray. Our office table and chairs are full for morning tea and we have a good natter, catch up on local news and enjoy fellowship with each other. These days, we often have to pull more chairs up: the more the merrier! Everyone is welcome!
Mocking up the Church Matters and any other printouts in line for the day takes intense concentration. Working at a computer screen for several hours makes my eyes tired. I come home exhausted. Over recent years I have found it necessary to close my eyes after lunch so that they are clear for the afternoon’s computer work. My self-appointed task on Friday afternoon is to put the non-personal information from the Church Matters onto St Stephen’s blog. Only eternity will tell whether this has been of benefit to anyone, but the statistics corner of the blog encourages us that dozens of people all over the world are logging on to our weekly web-site.
On Friday afternoon, I take all the non-personal information from Church Matters: Catechism, Bible readings, Sermon Points and What’s On and put it on St Stephen’s blog: http://ststephenspctamworth.blogspot.com.au/
People from all over the world look at this website and only eternity will tell how God has used it.
When that is done, I reward myself with the next amazing episode of “Pilgrim’s Progress”. During the 1990’s, I filled up the spare half page on Church Matters with small episodes of Pilgrims Progress, lightly modifying the language to make it easier for people to read and understand. Now, I enter a new episode on a “Pilgrim’s Progress” blog each week. Some friends on Facebook tell me how much they like this. (Links to both Church Matters and Pilgrim’s Progress are shared on Facebook.)
Friday morning is a good time to find out about anyone in any kind of need or trouble. Stuart will then make phone calls and/or visits to these people on Friday afternoon or Saturday. Early in our ministry, Stuart asked people to let him know if their or their loved ones or friends were in hospital or house bound. There is no other way for him to find out, especially with current privacy laws governing hospital staff giving out information.
Since February 2014, Friday night has been set aside for FAB-Friday, [FAB = Family and Bible] run by Dale and Trish Martin. Our church facilities have not been available for family or youth work until last year, and we praise God for the opportunity that Friday evening presents. Dale and Trish have honed up extraordinary skills in children’s work over past years in Coonabarabran, and we are delighted that they accepted the offer made by St Stephen’s to come and work in this part of Christ’s harvest field. Dale preached a memorable sermon one Sunday night on ‘praying earnestly that the Lord of the harvest would send us labourers’. Many of us have taken up this challenge, and pray especially for someone to help with a youth programme as an extension of FAB-Friday.
FAB-Friday is open to people of all ages. We encourage parents and grandparents to bring their children. How delightful to see grandparents bringing their grandchildren!
“I can see Granny laughing!” said one small child during a team game.
We now have a team of kitchen workers who take turns to provide a simple and nutritious meal after the games that start the evening.
After the meal, the kitchen helpers wash and tidy up while everyone else goes into the church. There, Dale and Trish present a programme that tells clearly of the grace of God in sending Jesus for us and our salvation. Dale’s drawing skills are second to none, and keep even the most restless child focussed. Trish’s animated signing makes songs and memory verses unforgettable. We arrive home sometime before eight o’clock feeling our evening has been a pleasure and served a purpose.
We finished the Year 2014 rejoicing in what God is doing. The plan for 2015 is to bring FAB-Friday forward to 4.30pm, which will be especially beneficial in winter. We helpers will serve afternoon tea rather than a meal for the children and those who bring them.
We put our feet up on Friday night, weary but satisfied. We have worked hard, had good fellowship and seen God at work at St Stephen’s. We are sure that our labour is not in vain in the Lord.
CHAPTER 7 – SATURDAY
Preparation for the Sabbath
What is Saturday for? “TGIF – Thank God it’s Friday” was a common expletive when I was school teaching. For many Australians it means two days when they can please themselves: sleep in, play sport, garden, do housework, go shopping and even ‘get stoned’. The Christian, too, thanks God as he or she looks forward to meeting with other Believers for worship and fellowship on the Lord’s Day.
Very early in our ministry, we realized the need to make sure things were in order before Sunday actually dawned. Clothes, especially when we had small children; food, when we were expecting guests; house, clean and tidy to receive those guests; and these were only the material considerations. Ministry of Word and Sacrament leaves little room for pleasing oneself on the weekend.
My Grandfather White was a man who took the Bible as his standard for belief and behaviour. Grandfather owned an orchard employing at least four workers, more at harvest. His rule for Saturday was for his family and employees to work hard until the midday meal. At noon, worked ceased until Monday morning. It did not matter that the truck of produce had to leave for the rail-head early Monday morning. He and his family got up even earlier if there were fruit or vegetables still to be loaded.
My grandparents had a tennis court and a well-used set of golf clubs. They encouraged their children to play sport and be the best that they could be. One aunt was a tennis champion and my father was a surf lifesaver and won trophies in wrestling and marksmanship. However, sport was for Saturday afternoon. If you needed to practise, there was time early morning and after work during the week. No sport was played on Sunday. This then was the high standard in which I was raised. “Honour the Sabbath Day to keep it holy…” starts on Saturday.
Stuart and I have never been as committed to competitive sport as some of our forebears: the reasons being Stuart’s heart murmur and my natural dislike of competition, especially if I couldn’t win! Thus we have not joined sporting clubs. We did, however, make it possible for the children to play school team sports on Saturday. I always found it hard to get to the netball field on time with all the other jobs I had to do on Saturday.
Stuart and I had many conversations with a dear neighbour during her 10 year struggle with cancer. Three times she came back from the brink of death because she was not ready to meet God. A nurse at the Palliative Care ward encouraged her to get ready to meet God. Betty was brought up in the church and with her husband was heavily involved in a Young Marrieds Group.
“Why did you stop going to church?” we wondered.
She told us before we asked. “Sunday sport! We stopped going when the children got involved in sport on Sunday, and we never went back.”
When she knew her time was short, told us repeatedly that she hoped our prayers would get her through.
“But Betty, you have to talk to God yourself,” we both told her.
And on Stuart’s last visit she whispered, “I am talking to God myself.” Our prayers and conversations were not in vain.
How many wandering families may still be worshipping God on the His Day, had they not lowered their standards and kept sport for Saturday?
Some people pooh-pooh the notion that a minister needs to stay in on Saturday night in order to be ready for Sunday.
“He’s had all week to prepare,” sneered one youth group leader to me.
That is true. Stuart spends Monday preparing the outlines of two sermons for the next Sunday. He rarely recycles sermons. His messages are part of his walk with God and his daily feeding on the Bread of Life. The spiritual issues he addresses are matters that have affected those around him that week. On Saturday night after dinner, Stuart goes to his study and does not come out until he is satisfied that his message is from God for his people. This is not just a preparation of the head but pre-eminently of the spirit, a time of prayer and meditation, a coming apart with the Lord in order to be ready to lead people in worship. For most of the years of ministry, I found Saturday night a good time to do the ironing. Since I turned 65, I have tried to get all the jobs done during the daylight hours so that I do not have to work after dinner at night.
And so, we rarely accept invitations to go out on Saturday night. I know many people have found this hard to understand. However, God taught Stuart and me when we were quite young, that we are not super-heroes! We are very aware that we cannot do everything. We see our strict routine as a coping mechanism, of disciplining ourselves to fulfil the tasks God has given us. We want to finish the course God has set before us, and that may not happen if we do not pace ourselves according to our strengths and weaknesses. We know there are far more energetic and competent people than ourselves who can work faster and get more done. We have to live within our limitations and apologise to those who may feel hurt that we have not spent more time socially with them.
In books about pioneering days, we read how the whole family followed each other in a tub in front of the fire for their weekly bath on Saturday night. Cleanliness is next to godliness and our Christian forebears made sure they were clean for Sunday. When I was growing up, we washed our hair in the sink on Saturday morning so that it was nice and shiny for Sunday. (Those were the days of dependence on tank water. I was fifteen before we had a bathroom that sported a shower, long considered by Committees of Management as too wasteful of the precious commodities of water and money.) It is no longer necessary to have such strictures. However, we have chosen our own little cleansing rite ahead of Sunday. I have made it my practise to change the bed linen and night clothes on Saturday. What a delightful feeling it is to slip, all fresh and clean, between the crispy sheets and recline our heads on sun-dried pillow cases each Saturday night!
Preparation for the Sabbath! A phrase we read about in connection with the burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus! Without preparation on Saturday, Sunday would not be the precious day it is. At St Stephen’s, as in many churches, faithful women, and men as well, take time on Saturday to prepare the place of worship for Sunday Worship. What a privilege it is to sweep, mop, wash, vacuum, dust and arrange flowers for the Lord’s Day! These are our offerings of time and skill and energy given to Him! Our choir often practises on Saturday in preparation to offer the sacrifice of praise to the Lord.
In the past, the Evil One has put his dirty mark on even these forms of loving service. Very few churches have choirs any more. “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians,” one elder remarked wryly. Even arranging flowers has come under attack. More than twenty years ago, a pleasant, quiet woman offered to take her turn on the flower roster. She came to me at the Manse on Saturday afternoon for advice. She had too many flowers for one large vase and would like to put a small vase on the corner of the pulpit. Another woman had decreed exactly where flowers should be placed, and my visitor was nervous that she would get in trouble. I walked over to the church, said that I would love to see some flowers on the pulpit, and admired her work. Next morning, I arrived for worship. Lo and Behold! The lovely vase of flowers had been taken down and put on the step below. I knew who had done that and I was having none of it. I took a deep breath, marched out in front of the guilty party and those gathered in the pews, and replaced the arrangement where its artist had put it. I was not challenged, then or since. I had taken the higher ground and never since have individuals taken it upon themselves to decree where the flowers should or should not be placed. (The same trouble-maker tried to ban wattle from flower arrangements, saying it brought evil spirits.)
And so the curtain closes on a day well spent. We go to rest knowing that, unless the Lord returns for us in the night, we will wake up to another day in which to glorify Him and enjoy Him, looking forward to worshipping Him in fellowship with others of like minds and hearts. “Six days you shall labour and do all your work,” God told Moses. On Saturday, we have the satisfaction of striving to complete the week’s work in preparation for God’s day of rest.
CHAPTER 8 – THE LORD’S DAY
Sunrise! The back of our house gives a view of the hills that ring the Peel Valley to the south-west. Between us and the hills is a long gently sloping ridge of open farmland. For much of the year, it is golden brown. We see many spectacular sunsets when the hills become deep blue, the ridge a shadow and the heavens declare the glory of God. This Lord’s Day morning, though, it was the sunrise from the east that lit up the view of the west. The whole western aspect was clouded over while the east was clear. The rising sun shone underneath the huge blue-black billows. The fields were cloth of gold edging the blue-black velvet of the sky. The contrast was exceptional. I went inside for a moment and when I came out again, the glory was no more. Clouds hid the sun in the east and the whole sky looked bleak and grey.
The sun rising in all its splendour reminds us of the Sun of Righteousness who shall rise with healing in His wings for the health of the nations. His splendour shines above and beneath the threatening clouds. While His light shines, all is glorious: when He hides His face, life becomes dull and grey.
Grandfather never referred to the day as Sunday: the pre-Christian day to worship the sun. It was always THE LORD’S DAY, the day when Jesus rose from the dead. And being the only day he was free to share breakfast with the family, he read aloud one of the four gospel accounts in rotation at the breakfast table each Lord’s Day. Five of the eight children at this table gave their lives to the service of Christ and His church, four of them starting in overseas missionary work as young people.
I enjoyed working hard on Saturday, especially when we had babies, so that I might relax from physical labour on the Lord’s Day. I rarely even washed nappies on Sunday. Of course, our Lord Jesus set the Christian perspective when he said to the Pharisees “The Sabbath was made for man: not man for the Sabbath.” Accordingly, if I needed to wash on the Sabbath, that was fine, but I preferred not to make a habit of it.
The issue of personal piety arose when I was a child. My father loved nothing better than to take us swimming on hot summer afternoons. Usually it was at the swimming hole near the bridge over the South Pine River at Bald Hills. He was passionate about teaching us to swim. At the same time, he was preaching about sport becoming an idol that took people away from worshipping the One True God. There were still plenty of church people who upheld Sabbath rest in those days, but the decline in numbers of children and young people was an indication of the power of Sunday sport. The discerning understood what a “pied piper” Sunday sport would become.
So even on the hottest mid-summer Sunday afternoons, the seven little Whites did not go swimming. It was mostly an academic issue because Dad was so busy with three or four services in three or four different locations. “But what about holidays?” we asked. Dad and Mum talked it over with us, and decided that in light of Jesus’ admonition to the Pharisees, we could go swimming on Sunday afternoon on holidays. As we always took holidays at the beach we would not likely stumble any “weaker brethren” or upset any members of our congregation. Now-a-days, there are very few Church members left who even remember those rules and so the offering is not likely to drop if the minister’s family kicks a ball around or goes swimming on a Sunday afternoon. Stuart and I still believe that Christians should draw a line across organized sport on the Lord’s Day.
We are considered rather eccentric even wrong to promote such a high view of the Lord’s Day. At Miles, there was a regular Monday cattle sale. Most of our elders were farmers and had to take their cattle to the sale-yard on Sunday afternoon. However, our Session Clerk and his brother worked together and bought a truck suitable to take their cattle to the sale in Oakey on Tuesday. Their commitment to maintain Sunday as a day of rest cost them time and money, but they looked for and received the blessing of the Lord on their business. “Them that honour Me, I will honour!”
When we first came to Tamworth, a Christian from another denomination educated me about the new liberation for Christians. “As long as I go to Bible Study Home Group during the week, I do not have to go to church on Sunday,” she told me. “It is wrong to prohibit sport on Sunday. We have freedom in Christ. We need to be out witnessing to people where they are on the sports field on Sunday.”
As far as I’m concerned, any Christian minister preaching this doctrine is shooting himself in the foot. Christians have six days in the week to labour and witness and only one when we are commanded to meet together to worship and fellowship. Once our Christian activity on other days of the week becomes more important than Sabbath worship and even keeps us from it, the church is in trouble. In lands where the church is under severe persecution, Christians cling to corporate worship on the Lord’s Day as something precious, something to die for.
When Stuart was a student for the ministry, we observed the effect modern ideas of “Doing Church” had on people in the pew. The imbalance distressed us when a report on the current inter-church football competition took 20 minutes and the sermon took ten. This service became more and more a concert to entertain people in the pew during our time there. We could not rely on meeting up with friends because they had been too busy with church meetings through the week. They needed Sunday to relax and catch up. This large vibrant congregation has recently planted a new congregation – one church plant in forty years. St Stephen’s, in all its weakness and struggle, has planted two congregations (Moonbi and TCPC) and re-established another (Manilla) in 20 years.
THE TIME OF OUR DEPARTURE
It is important for people in ministry to take an annual holiday. A proper vacation of at least three weeks, ideally four, away from the pastoral charge helps recharge the batteries for another year of service. It becomes a valuable time for bonding for a father with his children, especially with his sons who may resent the busy lifestyle that always has priority and dominates a father’s time. I know clergymen’s children who have carried resentment through life because they never had a proper holiday: time out with their parents to themselves to go swimming or fishing or bush walking together; time to read and play outdoor and board games together.
It’s not that children can’t play a game of Snap or Monopoly together without adult help. It’s the different authority perspective that comes with parents and children, adult and child, old and young playing together. A parent is the correct court of appeal for conflict. The eldest child or the most arrogant is not able to bully the others when a parent is there. Everyone has fun and no one needs storm off in a bad mood when Dad or Mum adjudicates. Without ever having a parent or adult presence, games may disintegrate and the group falls apart. This carries through to sibling relationships in adult life. The contrast between a family who sat round the table and played games together with their parents and those who didn’t is remarkable when it comes to grown-up relationships. Such a simple and happy experience, yet one family knows how to work out its differences without rancour and the other doesn’t: one family knows how to have a good laugh over who always wins while the other has only bad memories.
Most of our holidays in the 1980’s and early 1990’s were spent with grandparents. We made long treks to Brisbane and Townsville and most of the cost of the holiday went in petrol and caravan parks or motels along the way. Feeling the need of some time closer to home, we bought a large canvas Scout Tent, green roof and white sides with lots of ropes and poles. (In keeping with the budgetary constraints, this tent was ‘on special’ after an International Scouting Jamboree. It endured in good condition until our shed fire in 20014, after which it became a pile of green and white mats with burnt edges.)
A member of the Miles congregation owned land beside the Condamine River that had once been a Cobb and Co staging post. We camped there for a few days. One meal was a Murray cod fish that Stuart James caught. It was delicious. We indulged in a bit of archaeology and picked up pieces of blue and white pottery, glass bottle stoppers and metal buttons. It was a memorable holiday.
Another couple in our congregation bought a singular property with 22 cement bunkers built around its hill-side. The bunkers had been part of the “Brisbane Line” defence system in World War II. They gave us the use of one of these bunkers and we often went out there on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon for “time out”. Stuart built doors and we had beds and a wood stove. After playing hide and seek or Cowboys and Indians among the Cyprus pine trees, we fried bacon and eggs for the family and read aloud “The Hobbit”. This was our Hobbit Hole. It was rough but we loved it. (Possum Park is now run as a motel with first class accommodation in the bunkers.)
Then came ‘The Call’ to Tamworth. We moved early in January 1987. We had decided that, rather than taking annual leave before moving, we would look for a suitable place to camp after moving. Stuart would be inducted as minister of St Stephen’s Tamworth and St Andrews’ Manilla in February. Moving house and home is an expensive business and we had not yet entered the world of credit cards. We searched the tourist information and found a camping site in the mountains near Tamworth. It demanded no fees and even better it was dog friendly: we could take our faithful hound Rastus and new pup Panda with us.
Thus began our association with Sheba Dams. There was everything we could ask for: cray-fishing, trout-fishing, canoeing, swimming, diving off the jetty, swinging into the water by a rope from a gum tree, bush-walking, fruit-picking and prospecting. An added bonus was that the shops were fifteen minutes drive away. It was a great discipline for us and the children to be dependent on our own resources and not be going to the shops all the time. Some afternoons we drove into Nundle for an ice-cream and ice for the ice-chest. On Sunday morning, we drove there to worship in the friendly little Anglican Church.
There is something sad about a derelict house, especially one that sits in an old garden on a farm. What are the stories that such a house might tell? What of marriages, births and deaths? What of conversations around the table, family gatherings, Christmas dinners? Who sat in the shade of the verandah on a hot summer afternoon or knitted in the sunshine on a winter’s day? Was there a matriarch who ruled the family even beyond death? Did this family know how to resolve their differences in a civilized manner? Were the farmers kind to their animals?
At the same time, there was house under construction in Nundle village itself. As we drove past, someone was building it as a weekend project. Little by little, the quaint shell of a two storey Cotswold cottage in red brick walls and green roof rose before our eyes. Then all work stopped. For years, that empty shell stood there, boards over the windows and doors, tall weeds choking the yard. Here was a new house, abandoned before it was finished, just as tragic and alone as that old farmhouse.
Then one day, a young couple decided to do something about both of these houses. They demolished the old farmhouse and used its boards, doors, light shades, bath-tub and even the kitchen cupboards to make the shell house into a home. They made it into the prettiest cottage in Nundle and planted a rose garden in front of it. And so the two lonely houses became one, complementing each other, the one with strength and beauty, the other with charm and originality. They both brought quality to unity of age and youth, old and new.
Barry and Julie Cole asked Stuart and me to be partners with them in buying this cottage when it came on the market in 2007. Although I already loved the place, I never dreamed of owning it. We talked together and prayed and consulted about the idea. Eventually, we got the green light from the bank, and with great joy and excitement became part owners of “The Rose and Willow”, providing holiday bed-and-breakfast accommodation. When there were no tenants, Stuart and I often went to this cottage on a Thursday for our day off.
We told Barry and Julie that we would have to sell our share in order to prepare for retirement. Accordingly, in 2015, the cottage came on the market for sale again. One Thursday morning, we carried a cup of tea down the back. We stood in the sheltered platform looking out over the Peel River in its early stage. Recently, the local Landcare group cleared all the thorn trees and blackberries from under the she-oaks and willows beside the river. Barry keeps this area mowed and it now looks like a park.
That morning early, I could not sleep. The whole problem of where we would retire weighed heavily on our minds. All our research and explorations yielded nothing. Half-asleep, I repeated John 14 “Let not your heart be troubled… I go to prepare a place for you…” and Psalm 23 “He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He restores my soul … He leads me beside quiet waters.”
Standing there beside green pastures and quiet waters, a light shone into my mind. I spoke to Stuart, “Why couldn’t we retire here?”
There were several reasons we had not even thought of retiring to Nundle. Primarily, we wanted to be closer geographically to our children. That is difficult, seeing they are so scattered.
Then it is a long way from a hospital in case of emergency. However, as a friend reminded us, we have the service of a 24-hour emergency helicopter based at Tamworth Airport.
Thirdly, there is no Presbyterian Church. We have been made very welcome for nearly thirty years at the Anglican Church in Nundle and we plan to go across to Nowendoc for the Presbyterian Services there once a month. After a suitable time of rest, Stuart calls it “a Sabbatical”, he hopes to be able to preach in a locum capacity where there is a need. We do intend to stay away from Tamworth Presbyterian churches for some years as we feel this is the ethical thing to do. It will be very hard and we will miss the people we have come to know and love over three decades. “The Lord keep watch between you and us while we are absent one from the other!”
Usually, Stuart takes time to absorb my bright ideas, and does not always see their benefit. However, this time, when I said, “Beside quiet waters! Why couldn’t we retire here?” I saw his eyes light up.
“Our Anshui!” he said. There are times when Stuart says the most remarkably apt things.
Now in the Chinese Bible “Anshui” is the word for “quiet waters” in Psalm 23. My parents named their retirement home “Anshui”. The old sign in English and Chinese is attached it to the wall on our back verandah. Now we plan to make a place for it on the front porch at Nundle. The Rose and Willow becomes Anshui!
The first thing to do was to be sure of Barry and Julie’s agreement with our plan. That’s fine by them! We are grateful for all they have contributed to our comfort. Everything has fitted into place and the burden of where to retire has rolled off our backs. This is the will of the Lord. He has prepared a place for us, a lovely place with green pastures beside still waters. We give Him thanks and praise for all His mercy and goodness.
We look forward to our final service on Sunday 6th December. We rejoice that so many people have accepted invitations to be present and others have sent their love and best wishes. It will be wonderful to have family and friends with us. It will distract somewhat from the trauma of saying goodbye to so many faithful and beloved members of St Stephen’s and Moonbi.
The time of our departure has come. We thank God for his faithfulness! We thank you for your fellowship in the gospel and love for us personally.
God be with you till we meet again!
By His counsel guide, uphold you;
With His sheep securely fold you:
God be with you till we meet again!