The joy of a first Parish
"Helensburgh! There's nothing at Helensburgh, just an Ampol service station on the highway". My protest had little effect. The Bishop said it was quite a large mining town and I was to go there whether I liked it or not. So on the Monday we packed a picnic lunch and headed off to see whether there was something more than a service station in the place.
Of course, it all started to come back to me. I began to remember all those years before when I would go with my father and his mates to Sussex Inlet, 2 hours South of Sydney. Helensburgh was one of the watering holes. There was quiet a few actually. Helensburgh, Fig Tree, Kiama and Nowra. Dad's mate Les, would always claim that nature demanded a visit to the Pub's facilities and of course, once there, it would be improper not to contribute toward the provision of such a fine convenience. At least I got a glass of lemonade at each of the stops. When we reached Sussex Inlet I was the only sober member of the team. So it was all coming back to me. There was something more than a service station at Helensburgh.
Just past Heathcote I got a flat tire. I was sure it was a sign from God. Doors closing and all that, you know. Like in "The Life of Brian", when Brian lost his sandal. "A sign, a sign," cried the crowd. Like ants aren't we?
Turn left past the Ampol service station. Those were the instructions, and we dutifully obeyed them. And so we saw before us the panorama of "the Burgh" (pronounced Berg). Little miners cottages, unmade curbing, lots of overgrown spare land. A "Hole" as outsiders described it, and to this load of urban dwellers, a hole it seemed. It must have been terribly dry at the time because everything seemed brown and parched. I remember well, dead grass and withered gardens. The sense that we had definitely received a sign earlier was being steadily reinforced.
The old Rectory was a run down fibro cottage that had been built up from an Igloo. The Igloos were a Helensburgh phenomenon - demountable Army housing now banned by the Council. I'm not sure why the Council condemned them, but then I'm not sure why Councils do anything that they do. It was a handyman job, you know the type of thing. Bits and pieces here and there. The good lady, that's the lady that lives with the minister, "me trouble and strife", burst into tears at the sight and so confirmed the sign once and for all. I mean, God would not send us to a place like this. He gives all good things to those who love him - blessings and all that, health, wealth and happiness. I thought, "this must be Satanic interference, or a gross lack of faith by the church authorities." I mean, Jesus had a full dose of the good life when he visited us down here. Nice house, plenty of good food and clothing, new chariot. His life was free from trouble. Well! Kind of free, I think......
One of my colleagues had said to me that the best view of Helensburgh is seen in the rear vision mirror as you drive out of the place for the last time. As we drove from the town that day I tended to agree, but then you see, we were purely urban dwellers clinging to the hustle and the bustle of greater Sydney. We were in the mind warp of the glitter of the big city and couldn't see past our noses. The smog had blinded us. Had I not always believed that humanity is blinded by the surge of life. The hand of the Creator can be seen in the expanse of the creation and yet few see. He can be easily found, and yet few seek. The endless flow of events blind us to truth, till in the end we ask, "What is truth?" So, bush and simple little houses were somehow unacceptable to this compromised man.
It's strange how God sometimes gets it wrong. It was obvious to me that it was not in his plan for me to serve in Helensburgh. I even had signs to that effect, but the Bishop, .... Well, I mean, what can you say. So here we were. I was always taught that God had a wonderful plan for my life. It was all mapped out. All I had to do was work out the map, follow the computer print-out you might say. The last thing I would dare consider was that I might not actually be a robot, but a decision maker for the King of Kings. So He didn't manage it too well, or someone didn't manage it too well.
The cleaning of windows is usually a task undertaken by the male of the species, but on this occasion it was being performed by a fifty year old lady. One of the "Gentle Folk", as they were later to be called, younger members of the congregation. As we swung into the drive of the Rectory, there she was clinging to a ladder cleaning the bathroom window. Quite a sight actually. The other girls were inside dusting, polishing and cleaning with loving care. Human hospitality - Ah! Now there's something to be desired. Even tea was laid on. By the way, have you ever tried to move from a big house into a small house? God had definitely got it wrong.
I was warned that the people of Helensburgh were very friendly and accepting as long as you didn't think yourself a cut above them. "It's a mining town", said the Bishop, "And that's a tough way to survive. They will accept you if you don't put on airs." I think that meant stir up the bull dust. Well, here I was and I would be careful. No way was I going to put my foot in it.
On the Sunday I fronted up first to the Burgh church. You couldn't miss it. Its liver-red bricks stood out like a sore thumb. Inside it was designed like a bus. I had the drivers seat and the congregation sat in neat rows while I took them where I willed. I had decided that what they needed was a regurgitation of my four years of theological training. I would give that in a series of four sermons and then work through the rest of the Bible in a year. You know, I was enthusiastic and mad. I got through the Prayer Book service as quickly as possible. I mean, that was just the preliminaries for the star attraction. Everyone had obviously come to hear me - the whole ten of them and the dog. Out came the blackboard and up went the diagrams. "This will have them in raptures," I thought to myself.
"Nice service Rector." Said the gentleman who handed out the books.
"Not a strong response," I thought, but then I have the Stanwell Park service to go and I will really lay them in the aisles down there.
The Stanwell Park church was a little weatherboard building next to the School. Actually, once it was the School. The congregation seemed lager than that of the Burgh, but then the building was smaller and so it's easy for the memory to play tricks. They were very enthusiastic in singing the hymns and even the service. Still, the best was yet to come. Out came the blackboard again and into the intricacies of theology. Expecting an overwhelming response of applause I was totally unprepared for the roasting I was about to receive. Did I cop it for bringing a blackboard into church? Actually, the blackboard was but a vehicle for the real complaint - a long haired bag of wind had invaded the congregation and it was shape up or ship out.
Dejected, even rejected, I returned to the Rectory in Walker St. God had definitely got it all wrong.
The teaching of Scripture in Public School is one of those institutions that continue in Australia despite the inabilities of those who teach and the defiance of those who learn. On the Tuesday I dutifully presented myself at the local schools. The Helensburgh senior class had, I am sure, read something of the Roman circus and of the Christians thrown to the lions. There was a sense of glee in the class, a twinkle in the eye, and a determination to eat me up and spit me out. But, I had my magic box. That got them in - for a time anyway. At Stanwell Park I was to take the junior class. No problem there I thought. Little was I aware of the horrors to come. At the end of each term the teacher of the class would resign from ill health, or mental stress, or anything. If the full time teacher couldn't hack it what hope did I have? For the first time ever my magic box didn't work. Dancing feet, waging tongues, flying missiles, were the order of the day.
Dejected I returned. Mind you, the Rectory had nice neighbours.
Parish visiting. I had been given a list of those to visit. The first house had a notice on the door, "Minor asleep." So I knocked quietly so as not to wake up the tiny tot. The only problem was that the minor was fairly big and was not at all happy that I had woken him. "You blind are you". I wish I had been. Only a fool wakes a shift worker up in the middle of the day. Moving to the next house while trying to regain my composure, I met their car backing out of the drive.
"Yes, what are you selling?"
"Christianity," I announced.
I think he said, "I'm not interested", as he sped past, although I can't be too sure. I was too busy trying to jump out of the way so as not to get run over.
Definitely closed doors, and definitely God's got it all wrong. "What am I doing here," I thought. What indeed.
It's funny how we change. How easily dislikes become likes. I was six months into my ministry, sitting in my office in the old Rectory and looking out on the Burgh. All the early fears and uneasiness of a new ministry had passed and now I was part of the place. You couldn't have shifted me with a bulldozer. This was home. Leighton Ford, the American evangelist, had visited the Wollongong area, and he had driven through the Park, Otford valley and the Burgh. He said something to the effect that he felt that God had his hand over the area. I know God's love washes over every community, yet as I looked out the window it was as if I could see it. The Park with that expanse of sea before it. The Otford valley shrouded in mist. The Tops and the Burgh touched by the rolling clouds of a southerly. The Forest and its trees. This place was special. The Lord wanted to touch the hard coal of their lives and bring warmth - a burning fire. As I sat there that day I decided I wanted to be part of that fire. To know the presence of the living God in my own life, to see his presence touch his church and break into the lives of those who lived there, that's what I wanted.
Closed doors are sometimes open doors, aren't they? Now who actually got it wrong?