A few blocks from our place on the northern edge of Canberra, all manner of earthmoving equipment is at work, turning a dusty paddock into blocks patterned with trenches and marking out streets for invisible houses and gardens. Soon people will live there. One day old people will attend some sort of anniversary of the area and will tell the very young ‘I remember, way back in 2004, when we bought a block and built here. All this was new then…’
I have always been interested in the beginnings of things. This, for me, is the fascination of history. It is not that a town, a building, an organization or a ministry is old. I want to know about when things were young. Or when something significant happened that changed the shape of things. Why is that town where it is? Who had the vision for planning that building, and why? What were their hopes? What motivated someone to begin that organization, or that ministry? Who were they? What is the story of God’s call to them, and how did God speak? What obstacles did they face as they began something new? Who encouraged them?
Despite the impression that one gets from looking at mottled old photos of solemn gents with lots of whiskers, most of the initiators of things that have lasted were young when they began.
The first Christian ministers in NSW, from among the ancestors of Uniting Church in Australia, were in their twenties. The earliest Congregationalists were getting on a bit, already married with families and just turning thirty, while the first Presbyterian minister and the first two Methodists were in their mid-twenties.
A young missionary in the Pacific saw a vision of needy people in places where the words of gospel hope had never been heard. He was nearly forty before the dream came true, but the conviction and urgency about it had pursued him through his twenties and thirties.
A young woman in her twenties, working as a deaconess in an inner-city congregation that had almost dwindled to nothing, stood in the empty church one day and asked, ‘Jesus, if you had my job, what would you do?’ The answer to her prayer was the beginning of a ministry to the homeless that still continues, forty years later.
The compulsion to attempt something new came to each person, not as a desire for novelty but in recognition of a need. They heard a clear call from God, even though they recognised their own inexperience and inadequacy.
Why do I talk of young people with vision and energy in our church? Many of you may say, ‘There is no one under forty (or fifty… or sixty…) in our congregation, so what has this to do with us?’ The alarming truth is that fifty per cent of Uniting Church people are over sixty.
And that gives us a rich resource of grandparents and mentors for the younger people of vision among us. Even if they are not in your congregation, they are alive and well in many other places. What can we, the sensational over-sixties and over-seventies of UCA, offer those attempting something new for God?
We can open doors, instead of slamming them shut. We can listen and encourage with our serious interest and our prayers. Impossible God-breathed dreams can be made possible by our loving stewardship of resources. We can release younger people to make their own mistakes – just as we did, and still do. We can pass on the baton of leadership at the proper time, and actually let it go!
We love taking our grandchildren to the playground to watch them learning, daring, imagining, experimenting, and even taking risks. We stay near enough to be friendly, to comfort when things go wrong, to warn of (and snatch away from) real danger, to provide a safe environment where new challenges can be explored. And of course, we assure them, ‘Fantastic! Well done! Yes, we are watching.’
Margaret Reeson, (2004). Insights Reflection July 2004. Insights magazine. Uniting Church NSW & ACT Synod: Sydney.