The sunflowers were planted with such hope. Children crowded around the small garden bed in the corner of the empty block, carefully lifting each sunflower seedling into its hole, patting the soil down around it and standing back while teenagers brought in the watering cans. A whole congregation of us gathered round and smiled.

These bright flowers were going to be a sign to the community, an unexpected patch of gold in a paddock of dry grass on the edge of the new town centre. ‘What’s that?’ we hoped they’d say, and we could answer, ‘That’s where our new church building is going to be!’

The sunflowers began to grow. In time the flower heads, full of seeds, were turning golden faces to the sun. It was just as we had dreamed.

But… Within a few days in late January, the flowers were gone. Nothing but dead sticks. Flocks of hungry cockatoos had eaten them. A week of extreme dry heat had cooked what was left. This was not what we had planned.

For the followers of Christ, on a hill with grim associations just outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem, things were not working out as they had hoped. After what had been a bright, brief flowering of hope, it all seemed to be over. In place of hope, disappointment. In place of trust, betrayal. In place of honesty, craven lies. Grief, shock and loss were darkened with bitter regrets. If only…

There are some things we can do nothing about. There will be those experiences, good or bad, that were never of our choosing. But there will have been those moments when we have chosen, and not chosen well. We have reached a fork in the way, and have chosen a direction that we later regret. As practical as real estate, as intimate as a relationship, as defining as employment, as life-shaping as faith or absence of faith. Those life choices – where we live, who shares our life, what we do with our days and how we understand our world – do not always work out as we had hoped.

Those of us who have earned a full set of wrinkles find it hard to recognise the withering skin and elderly gait as being ourselves; we had imagined, if we ever thought about it, that we were immortal. (I have been aged twenty six for the past forty five years…) Now an obvious truth becomes clearer. Dying is not optional.

The fragility and uncertainties of life have been in sharp focus in recent days. On an unimaginable scale in Haiti. Heartbreaking accidents, violent ends in war zones, fire, storm and flood, untimely death for the young and vulnerable with life cut short in the blink of an eye. People dear and close to me have been experiencing life threatening illness, the death of those they love, and facing their own mortality.

Those first followers of Christ knew regret and fear, with self-blame in the middle of great grief as they watched the dying of Jesus. To their amazement, they would learn that death was not the end.  Even though they had made serious mistakes, there could be restoration. Forgiveness was possible. They found that even the most damaged relationships can move toward reconciliation and healing. Even though nothing had turned out as they had hoped, other possibilities that they had never imagined began to appear. Writers speak of ‘an examined life’. It is good, at any age, to take time to reflect on those things that are not turning out as we had hoped. What do we need to do before it is too late?

Our bed of sunflowers had a brief but colourful life. They are gone. In their place, at time of writing, is a builder’s shed, a portable toilet and a fence. Less elegant, perhaps, but a wonderful sign of new things to come for our congregation.* And who knows? Perhaps sunflowers will appear again in surprising places one day.

*Gungahlin Uniting Church, ACT

Margaret Reeson, (2010). Insights Reflection March 2010. Insights magazine. Uniting Church NSW & ACT Synod: Sydney.

Remembering our elders: stories of influence, love, faith and challenge.

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

Margaret Reeson, (2008), Insights Reflection October 2008, Insights Magazine: Uniting Church NSW & ACT Synod: Sydney.

Beautiful faces…beautiful eyes

A fragment of conversation was overheard recently in a meeting of many cultures.

‘They have such beautiful faces’.

‘No, but you have beautiful eyes.’

Who do we see when we look at those who are different? Not only those with different national origins but also those with different politics, biblical interpretations or priorities.

We call ourselves a multicultural church, and so we are. But we must ask ourselves: How much have we really changed in attitudes to each other over the past twenty years? Do we see others as beloved by God, precious and deserving of respect? Do they look truly beautiful?

In the era of the ‘White Australia’ policy, one of the forebears of this church who had long association with people from Asia wrote in 1914: ‘To slam and bolt the door because the skin colour and the accent of speech are different from our own is a new thing in our history. How it looks in the eyes of those on the other side of the door is a matter on which we may hear something later…’

All of us still have a lot to learn about living in a multicultural church. We still struggle with difference. We may feel threatened by the other. We may feel that we can’t trust the other or that another culture is inferior to our own. We may want to blame those who are different for things that disappoint or anger us. We may wish everybody could change so that they became ‘just like us’.

We are not all the same, nor can we be. Each of us brings our own distinctive ‘nation, tribe, and language’.  Our ‘nation’ places us in the framework of a particular political and social history. Our ‘tribe’ defines us, with identity, relationships, loyalties and obligations. Our ‘language’ grows out of a distinctive culture, with our own ways of expressing ourselves, and always the potential for not being understood by others. We are not a monochrome church, and how dull it would be if we were. None of us can change our identity, but we can discover some of the beauty of those who are different and see them with the eyes of God. Then we will be able to overcome our fear and distrust. We will lose any sense of superiority. We will no longer want to blame or shame on the grounds of difference.

A teenage boy was taken by relatives to a rugby match one Saturday – Australia v. Fiji. The Fijians were big men, strangers from a distant land, speaking a foreign language and a bit intimidating. The next day the boy went to church with his relatives. The entire Fijian Rugby team was there as a choir, singing praise to God. He realized that these impressive and powerful men were also men of faith. Could he imagine their homeland? No. Could he understand their language? Not a word. Did he share anything of their history and culture? No. Yet he realized that these sportsmen were part of his extended family of faith and fifty years later has never forgotten it.

One of my favourite passages of Scripture is the poetic vision in the book of Revelation where the writer tries to describe the living God enthroned at the heart of a rainbow. He attempts to say what cannot be said with human language, painting a word picture of colour and light, sounds and perfumes, mysterious creatures and angels, music and worship. In awe before God, creatures sing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”

In that astonishing and glorious place, suddenly, there we are. All of us! ‘I looked,’ says the writer, ‘and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb… And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God…’

Margaret Reeson

Margaret Reeson, (2005), Insights Reflection July 2005, Insights Magazine: Uniting Church NSW & ACT Synod: Sydney.

The beginning of things

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

Margaret Reeson, (2004). Insights Reflection July 2004. Insights magazine. Uniting Church NSW & ACT Synod: Sydney.

‘No notice shall be taken of Christmas Day’

You find some curious things when you read documents from an earlier era.

‘25 December 1861. I wish all our friends a merrier Christmas than I am spending… the powers that be have ordained that no notice shall be taken of Christmas Day – no services held, why, we would not know that it is Christmas except the Almanack reminded us.’ This was a journal entry of a disgruntled missionary in the Pacific. (His Protestant missionary organization had a high view of the Incarnation of Christ, but suspected any emphasis on Christmas Day as tending to popish practice.) His entries for 25 December over the next few years did not even mention Christmas, just work as usual, until the year when Christmas Day fell on a Sunday.

Not all societies start a build-up toward a particular date in December, driven by the retail industry, with constant reminders of ‘so many days until…’.  I recall, in our years in Papua New Guinea, the woman who came to my door one day, trying to sell me a cabbage or some beans. It was unreasonable for me to be irritated.

‘But it is Christmas Day, not market day!’ I said.  The woman looked puzzled. Dates and calendars had no meaning for her.

Not everyone divides life into tidy segments of twenty four hours in sets of seven days – 24/7 as they say – or months with names or years by numbers. Life is also marked by wider seasons; the Wet and the Dry, the time for harvest of wheat or rice, cotton or canola, the season when whales move along our coast, the time for lambing or shearing, the snow season, the bushfire season, flowers in their time, the time to pick ripe fruit.

These seasons cannot be pinned down to begin or conclude on a pre-ordained date. We watch and wait, looking for the signs. We believe that their right time will come but we cannot control it. We anticipate the work, perhaps the anxiety, the fulfilment and the beauty of each season.  But natural seasons are not like setting a date for a meeting, the sporting carnival, or the church anniversary.

We read in Scripture ‘When the time was right, God sent his Son, and a woman gave birth to him.’  (Galatians 4:4 CEV)  God’s time, not a date in a calendar devised by human thought.

If we are to take seriously the idea of a ‘space for God’ maybe we could revisit that 19th century notion of taking no notice of 25 December. Maybe we could ban most of December and all its works. Christmas can serve as simply a deadline; tasks to be completed, hard decisions to be made ‘by Christmas’, so that the date becomes a threat. Christmas Day itself can come with a sense of anticlimax, as most festivities are already over.

What it would be like if we stripped back the accretions that have grown around ‘The Festive Season’? What if we had nothing more than that profound statement , ‘When the time was right, God sent his Son, and a woman gave birth to him.’

What are the signs of the coming of Christ among us? How can we tell that the season of Advent, of the Coming, is near and here? Are some among us being transformed? Are we discovering that we are indeed the children of God? Is peace and reconciliation our experience? Are we in awe at the extraordinary grace of God to a wounded creation? Are we shaken from our complacency by the signs of the coming of the Son of God, who at the right time was sent and came, to be both welcomed and rejected? Do we meditate on the role of a woman, who knew scandal, pain and deep, deep questions because of her obedience to God? Are we like the first witnesses to this divine drama, awestruck and curious but confused?

 To simply sit quietly with that single sentence this Christmas season could be enough.

Margaret Reeson

Margaret Reeson, (2003), Insights Reflection December 2003, Insights Magazine: Uniting Church NSW & ACT Synod: Sydney.