At first glance, it looks like a colourful paper chain, the sort of thing children make as party decorations.
Look closer. On each strip of bright paper are handwritten names, each in the hand of a different person. Each links to the next in a chain, each a clue to significant relationships. Behind each pair of names are stories of influence, love, faith and challenge.
Earlier this year, my husband Ron and I made one of our periodic visits to the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea where we first worked with United Church of Papua New Guinea forty years ago. We were invited to lead retreats for local pastors and women leaders and it was during these retreats that the participants created the paper chains.
‘Who introduced you to Jesus Christ?’ we asked. ‘Who helped you grow as a disciple of Christ? Who encouraged you to serve God?’
We gave each person a slip of paper and invited them to write their own name and the name of someone who had been their mentor, encourager and friend in Christ. There was a busy silence as each person wrote the names, remembering relatives, pioneer pastors, simple village leaders and mission staff from overseas. The slips of paper were linked into a chain and we prayed prayers of thanksgiving for the people who had meant so much to each of us.
This exercise became more personal for me when I celebrated a Big Birthday during the year. I visited some significant people and places from childhood, and pored over old photos. Here were the people who had played a special part in my own life. Pictured were my extended family, and those who embraced us in Christian community. Here, with images of teenage years, were the adults who had given me and my peers time, energy, love and care. Here were those who urged me to study to be a Lay Preacher, and took the trouble to critique my earliest efforts, those who opened their library, and their wisdom, to me, who trusted me with responsibility and supported me in tasks too big for me. Here too were those who did not dismiss me because I was young, female, often unwise and inexperienced, but who guided and forgave me. Some showed me an honest vision of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Some challenged and unsettled me, but made me think – and act.
If I were to put names to these people, perhaps you would recognize some who have been well-known figures. Most of them have not. They were ordinary Christian men and women who took an interest in younger people and walked beside them in friendship.
Uniting Church in our Synod is very rich in gifted older people, true ‘elders’. Some of us hold the corporate memory of the tribe and offer experience of life and faith to the next generations. Not because we want to control the new leaders, or force them into the patterns of the past, but because we want to cheer them on. We want them to know that they are supported as they discover Christ’s call on their lives in today’s world. As they sometimes surprise us with fresh visions, we want to pray for them.
Some of the former Moderators have indicated that they are available to be mentors to younger leaders. Some of our friends in the Youth Unit have been referring to this, cheekily, as the ‘Mod Squad’. But this can never be limited to former Moderators. Every congregation and every community needs older people who have genuine, honest and warm relationships with younger people.
To the seniors: Who encouraged you in the first half of your life? What did you find valuable in that relationship? Who, of people in your circle who are under forty, are you encouraging today? To younger people in the church: find a new friend who has more wrinkles than you. And walk on together.
Margaret Reeson, (2008), Insights Reflection October 2008, Insights Magazine: Uniting Church NSW & ACT Synod: Sydney.