From Parlour To Pub

A Parable of Hope

Saint Egbert’s church was a fine building, standing proudly on the edge of the garden square, in the very centre of town. The parishioners were justly proud of it and tended it carefully. The paintwork was bright and fresh; the shrubs along the driveway were neatly trimmed; the furnishings were dusted and polished.
But one day the unthinkable happened: St Egbert’s was burned to the ground. The people were devastated. Instead of their fine, imposing building, all that remained was a charred and blackened heap of large stones, burned timbers and ebony coals.
But the work had to go on. It was already Tuesday and arrangements had to be made for the next Sunday’s services. Reverend Dusty Ash searched for an alternative venue. There was one other meeting hall in town but it was not available. The small country school had no assembly room. The other churches, of course, would all be in use. Desperately, Reverend Ash searched far and wide, pleading for help. The only response was from the funeral director. ‘We don’t usually do business on Sundays,’ he said. ‘So you’re welcome to use our chapel if you like.’
Having no other choice, Mr Ash accepted the invitation and the next Sunday, the morning service was conducted in the funeral parlour chapel.
When the people entered the building, there was a tangible feeling of uncertainty. Some clearly thought it was a grave mistake to use such a place. Others believed it was a very down-to-earth solution to their problem and were prepared to dig in to make it a success.
Given the circumstances, Rev Ash only had time to prepare a skeleton outline for his message. After the people sang the second hymn (‘Up from the grave he arose’), he began to speak. ‘Dearly beloved,’ he said, ‘this morning, I want to get to the bare bones of the matter. Today we are doing something really innovative. In the past, some people have accused our church of being dead. Now they will probably feel vindicated!’
There was a polite murmur at this weak attempt at humour. ‘But we are called to be a living body,’ he continued, ‘and I challenge you all to bring life to this place where we are meeting. So let’s celebrate the hope we have in Christ.’ And with that, he raised his right arm and shouted, ‘Jesus Christ is alive today!’
Just then, not knowing a service was in progress, Dave, a somewhat inebriated middle-aged local resident, clad only in a grubby tee shirt, old shorts and brown, scuffed working boots, appeared at the door. A friend of his named Gustav Stanislau Grice, commonly known as ‘old G.S.’, had died just two days previously and he was hoping he might be able to pay his last respects. As he swayed uncertainly at the door, his eyes lit up and a great smile burst over his mottled face. Excited, he stumbled outside, shuffled back to the local pub and as soon as he entered, called out over the loud buzz of conversation to his drinking mate Andy, ‘Hey, Andy! Old G.S. isn’t dead after all!’
‘Don’t be a mug,’ said Andy. ‘Everyone knows he’s been gone for days.’
‘That’s not what the Reverend says,’ Dave replied. ‘I heard him say so meself—as plain as day—G. S. is still alive.’
‘Come on, Dave,’ Andy answered, trying to be heard over the many voices around him. ‘Try pullin’ the other leg.’
‘I’m not pullin’ anyone’s leg,’ Dave replied, deeply offended, as he negotiated his way to the bar. ‘That’s what the Reverend said and he don’t tell no lies.’
It was then that it dawned on Andy what had probably happened. ‘You’ve got it wrong, mate,’ he said, laughing. ‘I’ll bet you anything you like Dusty Ash didn’t say “G.S.Grice.” What I reckon he said was “Jesus Christ.”’
‘Eh?’ asked Dave. ‘Speak up. I can’t hear you with all this noise.’
‘What I’m trying to explain to you, mate,’ said his friend, ‘is that the preacher wasn’t talkin’ about old G.S. at all. What he probably said was’—and to make sure the befuddled inebriate could not get it wrong, he cried out at the top of his voice—‘Jesus Christ is alive!’
Surprised by the sudden shout, the whole drinking crowd stopped talking at once. And the echo of Andy’s words hung briefly in the air before dying wistfully away.
And so it came to pass that day that the gospel was preached not only in the local funeral parlour but also in the local pub.

Copyright © Barry Chant, 2004

The Cell Group Invitation

A parable of what might have been

Once upon a time Neoh Cheng Hean and his wife Boon Nee had just moved into a small apartment on the fourteenth floor of an ageing residential building. The old-fashioned timber floor creaked and the ceiling sagged, but it had been freshly painted, the curtains were bright and the décor colourful. There was one comfortable bedroom, one cold bathroom, one cosy study, one cramped kitchen, one crowded dining area and one colossal lounge room. So—except for the cramped kitchen—it was ideally suited for a cell group meeting.
Cheng Hean and Boon Nee had been married for thirty two years and the last of their children had just left home. They decided to make the most of their new-found freedom and approached one of the pastors at their church to see if they could arrange a cell meeting in their colossal lounge room. Permission was soon given and before long there were four couples gathering with them each Friday night.
They were very pleased with the way things went. All ten were believers and they sang lustily, prayed fervently, read the Scriptures eagerly, talked ebulliently and ate their supper enthusiastically.
But Cheng Hean and Boon Nee were still not satisfied. They longed for their neighbours in the apartment building to know the Lord as well.
‘I wish we could reach the couple on the floor above,’ Boon Nee said wistfully one day.
They were sitting at the meal table in their crowded dining area. Cheng Hean was reading the paper.
‘Mm,’ he said obligingly.
‘I’ve tried talking to them, but I don’t get very far.’
‘Mm,’ said Cheng Hean.
‘Do you think I should try a new approach?’ asked Boon Nee.
‘Mm,’ replied Cheng Hean.
‘I wonder if I should give them a New Testament?”
‘Mm,’ murmured Cheng Hean.
‘Or maybe that would be too obvious.’
‘Mm,’ observed Cheng Hean.
‘Perhaps I should just ask them to drop in for coffee?’
‘Mm,’ said Cheng Hean.
‘Yes, I think that’s what I’ll do,’ said Boon Nee brightly. ‘What do you think?’
‘Mm,’ Cheng Hean replied.
‘Good,’ said Boon Nee. ‘Then that’s what I’ll do.’
She prised her way through the crowded dining area into the cramped kitchen humming to herself.
‘Mm,’ said Cheng Hean.
The next day, Boon Nee climbed the stairs to the fifteenth floor and knocked on the door of #15A. A young woman opened the door a short distance, its safety chain still attached. She looked somewhat worried but it was hard to tell because of the shadow cast by the door.
‘Good morning,’ said Boon Nee brightly. ‘I’m Neoh Boon Nee and I live in #14A.’
‘What do you want?’ asked the troubled young woman suspiciously.
‘Well, I was wondering if you would like to drop into our place one evening and have some supper with us. We have a cramped kitchen and a crowded dining room, but a colossal lounge room. We’d love to have you visit us.’
‘I’ll have to ask Joshua,’ the woman replied. ‘He doesn’t like to socialise much.’
‘Well, what about Wednesday night?’ Boon Nee responded brightly. ‘Eight o’clock?’
‘We’ll think about it.’
‘Okay. By the way, what should I call you?’
‘I’m Elizabeth,’ the woman answered from the shadows. Then she added grumpily, ‘And don’t call me Liz!’ With that, she shut the door.
The next morning, Cheng Hean was again reading his newspaper. There was a small rustling sound and a note appeared under the door which read, ‘Thanks for the invitation but we can’t come. Elizabeth.’
‘That’s a bit terse,’ Boon Nee commented. ‘Well, at least I tried. Do you think I should try again?’
‘Mm,’ said Cheng Hean.
‘All right, I will,’ replied Boon Nee, encouraged by Cheng Hean’s response.
A couple of days later, Boon Nee met Elizabeth in the lift. ‘We’re really sorry you couldn’t make it on Wednesday,’ she said brightly, her dark eyes shining. ‘We’d still love you to drop in some time.’
Elizabeth looked uncomfortable. She would not look Boon Nee in the eye, but lowered her gaze to the floor. Her long brown hair needed brushing, but could have been striking if she had given it a little more attention. She was wearing a faded track suit which disguised what was probably a trim figure, but she did not look well. ‘Maybe one day,’ she murmured.
Over the next few weeks they hardly saw each other. Meanwhile the cell group meetings continued with their lusty singing, fervent prayer, eager Scripture reading, ebullient talk and enthusiastic suppers.
One day the two women met again in the lift.
‘Good morning, Elizabeth,’ said Boon Nee brightly. ‘Lovely to see you.’
‘Morning,’ mumbled Elizabeth sullenly.
‘On Friday night, we are having a few friends over. Would you be able to drop in, too? We’d love to have you!’
‘We’re busy on Friday,’ Elizabeth responded.
‘What about the following Friday?’ Boon Nee persisted.
‘Busy then, too,’ said Elizabeth.
‘Well, if you change your mind, just come. You’ll be welcome,’ said Boon Nee as cheerfully as she could, trying to hide her disappointment.
It was two weeks before the met again. This time Elizabeth looked so sad, Boon Nee asked, ‘Are you all right, Elizabeth?’
‘I’m OK,’ she replied. ‘And anyway, it’s nothing to do with you. It’s not your problem, is it?’
‘Well, maybe it is,’ said Boon Nee. ‘Is there something I can do for you?’
‘No, thankyou,’ replied Elizabeth firmly. ‘Just leave me alone.’
‘Well, all right. But don’t forget, any time you want to drop in, you’re welcome.’
The following Friday, Bon Nee told the rest of the group about Elizabeth and Joshua and how hard it had been to win their confidence. They decided to pray about it right then and there. Just as they began, without warning, there was a strange creaking noise above them. Even though they were praying, they could not help but look up to see what was happening. Suddenly a cloud of dust and flakes of paint fell from the ceiling right over their heads. There was coughing and spluttering and much brushing of dust from hair and clothes. Then the shower gradually stopped.
‘We’re terribly sorry about this,’ said Boon Nee with some embarrassment. ‘We’ll have to get the ceiling looked at as soon as we can.’
‘Mm,’ agreed Cheng Hean.
The dust settled and the prayers continued.
They finished praying and while they were quietly listening to a reading from the Bible, there was a loud scraping noise above as if from a heavy piece of furniture being moved. A couple of people looked up but nothing further happened and the meeting proceeded.
‘We have to do something about that ceiling first thing in the morning,’ Boon Nee whispered to Cheng Hean.
‘Mm,’ he replied.
Matthew, the song-leader, had begun strumming his guitar, and they were just about to sing when there was a splintering sound overhead and the whole ceiling burst open like an exploding firework. To their complete astonishment, a lounge chair dropped right through the ceiling and landed with a shuddering, shaking thud in the middle of the floor in the colossal lounge room. Sitting in the chair was Elizabeth!
The dust hovered in the air, the floor quivered, the people were open-mouthed with shock and Elizabeth, pale as a ghost, was trembling violently and gripping the sides of the chair until her knuckles were white.
There was a great gaping hole in the ceiling. Termite-eroded timbers were leaking brown dust. Fragmented plaster hung down like ripped paper. One piece of flooring dangled precariously, swaying too and fro as if trying to decide where to drop. Another jutted out on an angle like a great spear ready to thrust itself into the room below.
Soon everyone recovered from the shock. They variously jumped to their feet, pointed, shook themselves, brushed dust away, grabbed the person next to them, sprang towards Elizabeth, bumped into one another and all began to talk all at once.
‘What in the world…’
‘What’s happening?’
‘Will you look at that!’
‘Gracious me, whatever next!’
‘Golly, what a mess.’
‘I thought the world was coming to an end.’
Boon Nee was quick off the mark. She sprang to the lounge chair, leaned over and grabbed Elizabeth in her arms. ‘You poor dear,’ she said. ‘You must be terrified! Are you all right? Are you hurt? Have you broken anything?’
Elizabeth was too stunned to reply. Her face was ashen; her eyes were wide; her jaw had dropped; her body was stiff; her fingers were locked to the chair; her feet were flat to the floor. She sat there, motionless, stunned and dazed.
Suddenly there was a wild pounding at the door. Joshua burst in, his face red with exertion from racing down the stairs in panic to see what had happened to his wife.
But apart from being rather shaken, she was not injured. The chair was old and well padded and it had broken her fall.
‘Hey, everyone,’ said Boon Nee. ‘This is Elizabeth and Joshua. They live in the apartment above. We invited them to come to the meeting tonight!’
Later, when they had cleaned up the mess, they settled down for supper, an enormous amount of which somehow emerged from the cramped kitchen through the crowded dining room into the colossal lounge room.
‘Well,’ said Boon Nee eventually, ‘I know I asked you to drop in, Elizabeth, but I didn’t expect you to take me literally!’
For the first time since they had met, Elizabeth smiled.
Next morning, at breakfast, Boon Nee said wistfully, ‘Well, it looks as though God has answered our prayers after all. But I certainly didn’t think it would happen like this,’
‘Mm,’ said Cheng Hean.
But Boon Nee did not hear him. She was already wondering how she might reach the people in #14B. Whatever happened, she definitely wouldn’t ask them to drop in. They were both overweight and, to be honest, somewhat rotund in shape. Then she began to chuckle to herself.
‘What if I were to ask the people in #14B to roll up to our next meeting?’ she wondered aloud.
‘Mm,’ said Cheng Hean and went on reading his paper.

With God As My GPS

For my birthday last year, my family gave me a Global Positioning System receiver – otherwise known as a GPS.
A few days later, I needed to drive right across Sydney. It was the ideal opportunity to try it out. It was not an auspicious start. In fact, I think I nearly gave the young woman who operates it a heart attack.
I wondered what her name was. GPS… Gloria Priscilla Sharon? No, too flowery. Gertrude Prudence Sophia? Nup. Too old-fashioned. Genevieve Panchalea Savannah? Mm, that was more like it. Daring, oriental, wild. Genevieve had a motoring tradition about it. The middle name had a hint of panache. It had once been the name of an Indian princess. But Savannah was the one I liked – with its echoes of fresh air and blue skies and sweeping grasslands. I could picture her dancing and skipping through the open spaces, laughing and singing with joie de vivre, her flared skirt swirling around her – an image, alas, that was not particularly consistent with being trapped inside a small black box affixed to the windscreen of a car.
Geneva Prudence Selena? Mm, possibly. Serious, efficient, with echoes of law-making, sagacity and caution. And appropriate for a progressive young woman executive who might well enjoy directing traffic and telling people where to go. So Geneva it was.
I had a general idea of my destination. So when Geneva spoke to me the first time, I guessed which route she had in mind – and it would involve the M5 motorway. But it was Friday evening and if I ventured on to the M5 I knew there was every possibility I would finish up sitting stationary for a long time in a huge traffic jam, while the snarling, panting vehicles banked up for their usual weekend unhappy hour. So I chose another longer but quicker route for the first part of the journey.
Geneva was not happy.
‘Turn left at Sylvania Road,’ she ordered, adopting a royal tone that didn’t suit her. I ignored her. She was obviously a bit taken aback by my apparent inability to understand a simple instruction. So she became more specific. ‘In 150 metres, turn left,’ she commanded me. Again I ignored her.
‘Turn left, turn left!’ she cried, now growing increasingly annoyed.
I disregarded her again and entered the Prince’s Highway. She was now noticeably disturbed.
I continued to disobey and she became confused. ‘Turn right at Acacia Road,’ she demanded. Now I knew she was panicking. You could only turn left at Acacia Road. The right turn had been blocked off for years. I drove smugly past. ‘Sorry, sweetheart,’ I said, apologetically. ‘Can’t be done.’
She began to sulk. I don’t think she was impressed with being called ‘sweetheart’ by someone she had only met for the first time that day. Especially someone who couldn’t comprehend simple directions in plain English. But she guided me carefully past Bangor and Menai until I reached Heathcote Road, although she was obviously doing it grudgingly.
‘Stay on this road for ten kilometres,’ she remarked coldly. It was almost a threat. I imagined that if I could see her eyes they would be either black or steel-blue, the kind that a ruthless princess might have, the kind that showed little mercy for disloyal subjects. But maybe underneath that apparent officiousness, there was a soft heart. I tried to picture her with warm green eyes, tinged with pity for one so wilful as I. Maybe there was even a touch of fear that I might do myself serious harm if I wasn’t more observant.
But after she refused to speak to me for the next quarter of an hour I knew I was right the first time. Definitely black or steel-blue.
I turned on to the Hume Highway and then to the M7. I could almost hear Geneva’s sigh of relief. I still wasn’t following the original route but she could now see that if I listened to her carefully there was a remote chance I would still finish up at the right place. She waited in silence, without a word. But I knew she was watching me closely every metre of the way. She didn’t trust me now and still suspected I might do something else unpredictable.
‘Stay on this route for the next 30 kilometres,’ she said slowly, so that I couldn’t possibly misunderstand. At the same time, the GPS screen seemed brighter. She obviously wanted to show me where I was as well. I imagined her operating some kind of hidden control panel to achieve this helpful outcome. Or was it just the fading sunlight that made the screen easier to read?
I drove on happily for nearly half an hour and began to wonder if Geneva wasn’t a bit like God. When we need directions he’s right there to give them. If we take a wrong turn, he tells us how to get back on track. And I wondered if I was not rather too much like me. So confident in my own ability and too ready to treat God like a lowly assistant to be called on for help only if needed.
By the time I’d sorted out the theological implications of all this, the Richmond Road exit came into view and I slowed down. Geneva became alarmed, evidently fearful that I was about to leave the Motorway too soon. I knew she had her hand over her eyes and I could picture her shoulders slumped in despair at my incompetence. There were signs of an ominous ‘oh no!’ in her tone as she warned me to keep going. To her obvious surprise, I obeyed her. I could almost see the look of relief in those steel-blue eyes.
‘Had you worried that time, Ginny,’ I said, half to myself. But she heard me. ‘Ginny?’ I fancied her muttering with annoyance. ‘Ginny? Who said you could call me Ginny?’ She directed me stiffly to take the next exit. I was sure she was wrong but decided to do so anyway, just in case. After a short distance I mumbled to myself, ‘Mm, Ginny was right after all.’ I’m sure I heard her whisper, ‘I told you so.’
‘Take the second exit from the roundabout,’ she instructed. I counted carefully and took the third. I pictured her shaking her head and sighing with resignation. I am sure the GPS, stuck firmly as it was to the windscreen, moved marginally and mournfully from side to side.
‘Peerform a U-turn as soon as possible,’ she cried with a note of impatience in her voice. And in case I missed the message, she said it again.
‘Don’t worry, Geneva,’ I told her. ‘I’ll turn at the roundabout. Keep your socks on.’
I swept around the traffic island and headed back in the right direction. She seemed gratified and patiently explained which corner to take next. I obeyed without protest, as I did humbly at the next two intersections as well.
With all this last-minute meekness and docility, I thought I had won her heart, but when I arrived at my destination, she flatly refused to speak to me any more.
I didn’t need her help to get home and left her packed away safely out of the sight of vandals.
I still didn’t know if we were on speaking terms or not. But my wife Vanessa took her out and they seemed to get on all right.
I decided that the following day I would try again. Maybe if I smiled nicely when I set her up she would be more amiable. All I had to do then was turn her on.
And meanwhile, I’ll still keep working on that crucial question. If God is my GPS, how much do I listen? Hopefully, at the end of the journey, with all my wrong turns and false exits, I will still find myself arriving safely at those long-awaited Golden Gates.

Learning a Lesson From Lenses

It was February 2008 and time for me to give the annual Vision Sunday message at our church. My job was to inspire the congregation to join in faith for a great year with greater growth, flourishing finance, expanding evangelism, deepening discipleship and more missionaries.
I would remind them of our Mission Statement and our Vision Statement and show them what we had achieved and what still needed to be done.
Vision Sunday was always an exciting and challenging time – and it was important to give the right message. The one thing we wanted was for everyone to have a clear picture of where we were headed.
I enjoy a weekly game of tennis with a few friends. That week, for the first time, Gonzalo and Dennis, two long-standing members of the congregation turned up for a game.
‘Barry’s not wearing his glasses,’ Gonzalo commented to no one in particular and everyone in general. Gonzalo is an optometrist.
‘I can’t wear them when I play tennis,’ I responded. ‘The frequent change of focal length makes me feel dizzy and nauseous. It’s better without them.’
‘You should get single-distance lenses,’ Gonzalo continued.
‘Tell me more,’ I said.
‘Well, if you had glasses with just long-distance lenses, you would see the ball a lot better. You would see it sooner and you could follow it right on to your racket. They say you should be able to read the writing on the ball as you make contact. You certainly can’t do that now. The right glasses might improve your game.’
Well, anything that would improve my game is welcome. And I must confess it is difficult when you see two or three balls coming at you over the net to know which one to hit, let alone to see the writing on it.
Of course, as I explained to my wife later that night after yet another defeat, it really doesn’t matter if I do miss-hit the odd ball or serve the occasional double fault. We just play for the fun of it. Winning is not important. ‘So why do you look so miserable?’ she asked.
A couple of days later, after an evening shopping jaunt to the supermarket, as I was unloading the car I accidentally knocked my glasses and they fell between me and the car. In the darkness I couldn’t see them anywhere. I decided it would be wiser and safer to go inside and grab a torch.
It was obvious they had fallen in front of me, so I stepped backwards carefully to avoid treading on them. As I did so, I felt something crumpling beneath my shoe. I lifted my foot gingerly to see what it was. In the darkness I couldn’t make out anything. I crouched down and explored the grass with my hand. As I groped in the gloom, my fingers felt the touch of a piece of fine metal.
With a sinking feeling, I realized that in my effort to avoid treading on my glasses that was exactly what I had done. There on the lawn they lay, wounded and bruised, like some large, spindly insect with huge eyes. I picked them up. One of the arms stretched at a sickening angle, as if it had a dislocated shoulder.
I walked inside where I gave the injured arm some amateur physiotherapy and managed to straighten it. I put the glasses on and found it very hard to see. I squinted and glowered and furrowed my eyebrows as I struggled with difficulty to read news print. The lenses were damp and stained. And right in the middle of one lens was a deep scratch. I washed and dried them but to my dismay the scratch was there to stay. My vision was seriously impaired.
We had already had to buy a new tyre for the car that day and now here was another unplanned-for expense. I was not happy.
Next morning as I prayed I realized that this was actually great inspiration for my Vision Sunday sermon. Just as I needed clear vision to lift my game, so did we as a congregation if we were to fulfill our purpose! If we couldn’t see clearly what God was showing us, we could not accomplish it successfully. As the Proverb writer puts it – ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’
It cost me new glasses but it was a great introduction to my message.

The Day Lockett Broke The Record

Sunday 6th June 1999 was the day that Tony Lockett was expected to kick the three goals that would make him the highest-scoring Australian footballer of all time. The strange thing is that when it was all over, I wondered what all the fuss had been about. Let me tell you what happened.
I had accepted an invitation to speak that morning at the Wesley International Congregation in Sydney – a great congregation of hundreds of enthusiastic people from many nations. The senior pastor, Rev Dr Tony Chi, was an awe-inspiring preacher whose authoritative presentation of Scripture rarely failed to stir the heart. He did not often share his pulpit, but this day he did – and I was appreciative of the honour.
That afternoon, I had planned to go to the footy to see Lockett break the record. Would I still make it? No problem. By the time the service finished, I would have plenty of time.
But just before we began, Tony said, ‘By the way, Barry, I wonder if you could help us with a ministry issue. There is a young woman here who seems to be in need of deliverance. Would you be able to pray with her after church?’
I had long since resolved I would never allow football to come before the Lord’s work. So I agreed immediately. But confess I did experience a few qualms. What if we finished up praying for an excessively long time? What if I missed seeing the great man break the record? I dismissed the thought and concentrated on my first priority – preaching the Word of God.
It was a marvellous service. The singing was uplifting. There was a palpable sense of God’s presence. People were deeply moved, many with tears running down their cheeks. Some responded to the invitation to go deeper with God and came to the front of the theatre so we could pray with them. It was a sacred time.
Afterwards, Tony led me to a small room to meet the young woman. ‘Barry, this is Vera,’ he said, indicating an attractive Pacific Island woman of about 20 years of age.
‘Nice to meet you, Vera,’ I responded. ‘I’m Barry.’
But Vera was not alone. There seated around a long table were Pat and Ruth, two women from the church, together with Vera’s parents, her brother, and about three other family friends. Some of these were not even believers in Christ.
Unwittingly, I found myself humming the old song –
She brings her father, her mother, her sister and her brother.
Oh, I never see Maggie alone.
She brings her uncles and cousins, she’s got ’em by the dozens.
I never see Maggie alone.
With resolution, I dismissed this as unworthy of the moment and concentrated on the issue at hand.
With his usual charm and authority, Tony introduced everyone. Then he disappeared. He simply walked off and left me! I did not see him again that day. I guess he had other pressing tasks to pursue. I began to talk to Vera. It was not easy because I was not used to counselling someone with an audience present, especially when some of them had little idea of what we were actually trying to do.
Vera told me that in an Alpha course, she had been praying to be baptized in the Holy Spirit when it seemed like evil spirits were rising up within her. She thought some had been driven out but she did not feel really free. There was still fear and trauma and self-hatred and she would hear tormenting voices in her head.
‘Vera,’ I said, ‘the best way to get rid of darkness is to turn on the light. And that is what we are going to do now. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the authority of God’s word.’ I asked her what Bible verses she knew and she was able to quote a couple.
I took her hands in mine across the table and we started to pray. Almost immediately she began to groan and babble nonsense. Her body stiffened. I told her to sit back and relax. For a moment she seemed unwilling to cooperate, but then she did.
As we persevered, she continued to groan and mutter. She dry-retched as if trying to get rid of something unwanted. Then there were strange voices. In a high-pitched tone she snarled, ‘She’s mine! She’s mine!’ And then, ‘No Holy Spirit! No Holy Spirit!’ She writhed and twisted and suddenly, with a clamorous thud, threw her body across the table.
I was watching her closely and I could sense the wide-eyed wonder of the family and friends around the table as they observed this bizarre behaviour. Some were staring unblinking, shocked – puzzled – bewildered by what was happening. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one woman sitting bolt upright and clinging tightly to the arms of her chair as if she was ready to flee at any moment. Ruth and Pat were praying earnestly.
I calmed Vera and managed to get her to sit back again. I told her I was not interested in debating with demons and would not do it. ‘I don’t want to hear that voice,’ I said. ‘I want to hear you.’ Immediately she reverted to her normal tones. But again she writhed and groaned and threw herself about. And again I calmed her. This continued for a long while.
After 45 minutes, I reminded Vera how she had been able to regain control of herself when I asked her to do so. I said, ‘Vera, you have shown me, and shown yourself, that you can control what is happening in your body. You don’t have to give in to these demonic powers and influences. You can use the Scriptures to take a stand.’
She nodded quietly.
I continued, ‘The battle is not over yet, but you need to realise that God has promised you victory over all the powers of the devil and there is only one acceptable outcome for you, and that is one hundred per cent freedom.’
She smiled slightly. There was a tiny spark of hope in her eyes.
On the other hand, I could see that she was looking weary and drained. I wondered if we had done enough for one day. Or was this just an excuse for me to get away to the footy? I did a quick audit of my conscience. There didn’t seem to be any black marks there.
‘I think we have gone about as far as we can go today,’ I said. ‘Vera looks exhausted.’
To my relief, everyone readily agreed. After the Alpha meeting, she had needed to rest and to take a day off work. They did not want her to be so drained again. They felt she had had enough. I had a suspicion that it had also been enough for some of them, too!
I urged Vera to continue seeking God and I arranged to see her the following Tuesday. I closed the gathering and we all shook hands as they departed one by one. Slowly and in dignified fashion I gathered up my Bible and brief case. With measured tread, I walked sedately through the foyer, up the long flight of stairs to Pitt Street and along the footpath until I was a respectable distance from Wesley Mission. Then I ran as fast as I could to the nearest taxi stand.
‘Sydney Cricket Ground!’ I blurted out breathlessly to the driver.
He sensed my urgency and cut into the traffic with expedition and skill. But the roads were crowded and progress was slow. The game had now started and we were still crawling. The driver was experienced and used every manoeuvre he knew but it was impossible to beat the meandering Sunday traffic.
The minutes ticked by. I was going to be at least ten minutes late. I pictured Tony Lockett at the goal front. He was a big man with thighs like tree trunks. He had hands that could grip a football like tiger’s claws. I had seen a photo of him soaring into the air to take a mark with his knees resting on his opponent’s shoulders and I imagined him doing it now, grabbing the oval ball and kicking the record goal. And I would be stuck in a taxi on Oxford Street missing it all. But even Lockett probably wouldn’t kick three goals in ten minutes. At least, I hoped not.
The road was still clogged. Maybe, we would arrive within fifteen minutes. I watched the traffic, my teeth gritted, as if that would somehow help. We were not going to be there in fifteen minutes either. Twenty perhaps? I drummed my fingers on my briefcase. Would we ever arrive? Finally, the taxi pulled in at the stadium entrance. I paid the driver, scampered to the gate, inserted my pass in the ticket machine, dodged past officials and stragglers, eventually found my seat and plonked myself down, struggling to regain my breath. Had I arrived too late?
‘You’re just in time,’ said my friend Mal. ‘He’s kicked two already.’
I heaved a sigh of relief. So Tony Lockett now had 1299 goals to his credit, an equal record. One more and he would be the first player in history to have kicked 1300 goals.
I sat back in relief. It was a bright, sunny June day. The Sydney Swans were playing Collingwood. Their bright red and white guernseys stood out in brilliant contrast to the green of the oval and the blue of the sky – and also to the joyless black and white of the opposition.
It was a classic play. Sydney’s captain, Paul Kelly, took the ball from the centre bounce. Lockett led strongly and Kelly passed it brilliantly right on to his chest. The crowd was hushed as they waited in heart-stopping expectation. Lockett lined up the goals, ran in slowly and dropped the ball on to his foot with practised precision.
We were sitting in a direct line behind him. It was an almost perfect view. We watched as the ball flew from his boot, turning over and over through the air. It was a great drop punt. To use a biblical expression, it turned neither to the right nor to the left. It rose higher and further until I lost it against the backdrop of the crowded grandstand. Then there it was again, revolving smoothly towards the goal. A murmur began to rise from the crowd. The ball was not deviating from its course. It was on track. Surely it could not miss. The murmur became a rumbling cry and the cry became a triumphant shout as the football levelled out, arced down again and rocketed with uncanny accuracy right through the centre of the goal.
People shouted and clapped and embraced and jumped up and down and slapped each other on the back. There had been earlier announcements that the public were forbidden to enter the arena but hundreds of fans jumped the fence regardless and ran to where Lockett stood. They would have smothered him with hugs and shakes had not other players surrounded him to protect him. After a while order was restored, people drifted back to their seats and the game resumed.
And I sat there thinking to myself, ‘So, it is done. A man has kicked a ball between two posts. What now?’
And I thought back over the morning service and the life-changing moments we had experienced there. I recalled one of the songs and how a sense of emotion had welled up within me as people sang to the Lord with faith and fervour, and a couple of tears had escaped from my eyes and shyly found their way down my cheeks. I remembered the feeling of joy I had experienced as people had responded to the challenge of God’s Word and reached out to him in faith. I thought of the satisfaction I had known in seeing God’s power enabling people to face life without fear and to serve him with love and goodness. I remembered how we had encountered the living God in a fresh and vital way. How we had learned a little more about loving one another and demonstrating the love of Christ to the world. How we had left feeling uplifted and encouraged.
I thought of Vera and the prayers we had offered for her. No shouting crowds, no wildly cheering fans, no television coverage. Yet at the end of the day, perhaps an action of even greater significance than breaking a sixty-year-old goal-kicking record.
Of course I enjoyed the experience of seeing Tony Lockett kick that magical 1300th goal. And I am glad I made it. But if I hadn’t?
Ask Vera.
By the way, we did meet again, Ruth, Pat, Vanessa, Vera and I. Again there was snarling and dry-retching and voices shouting at me, ‘I don’t like you!’ and ‘I don’t want to leave!’ Again, I refused to deal with them and talked only to Vera. Again we declared the authority of the Word of God and the name of Jesus Christ.
And as we talked and prayed, I realised there was something going on behind the scenes that needed to be brought out into the light. I urged Vera to pray and confess any sins that should be dealt with. And out it all came – failure to respect her parents, hatred, unforgiveness and – finally – two abortions.
And so, eventually, through repentance and prayer and faith in the power of almighty God through the name of Jesus, Vera was set free. The last I knew she was faithfully attending a local church and peacefully enjoying life.
Not a world record perhaps. But it did have eternal implications.

Hanging On Regardless

Hanging On Regardless

I have an aversion to just standing on an escalator. I can’t simply step onto it and wait for it to carry me upwards like a departing soul to heaven. I have to be active, to stretch the leg muscles and the lungs, to prove my fitness, to make the most of every minute, to redeem the time because the days are evil.
If I’m ascending, I climb up the steps. If I’m descending, I climb down the steps. I can’t just stand there.
The other day I was shopping in the city mall and found myself having to take a series of escalators to the fifth floor. There was a lift, but lifts (up the fifth floor, anyway) are to be avoided if one is to live a hale and hearty life.
I negotiated the first two floors successfully, although not uneventfully. I had to interpose myself between a young man and a young woman eating ice creams without either spoiling my shirt, destroying their snacks or distracting them from their preoccupation with each other. In reality, I doubt if they even noticed me.
Then there was a man with two bulging plastic bags. He was enormous, potentially threatening, with swarthy skin and powerful muscles. But he proved to be surprisingly gentle when I invited him to let me pass, leaning like the tower of Pisa to the left so I could lever myself safely through on the right.
Finally there was a stooping, elderly lady, whose shaking fingers with their delicate rice-paper skin gripped the moving rail tightly to ensure that she kept her feet. I managed to step nimbly around her without threatening her balance.
Then came the third level. I was just about to go higher when a young mother with a baby in a pusher and a pre-school daughter with a ponytail slipped in front of me. I thought about pushing past but hesitated, not wanting to cause the little one to stumble.
Nevertheless, still itching to climb higher, I considered possible manoeuvres. Maybe when we reached the next floor I could circumnavigate this tiny fleet and sail on more quickly. My strategy was simple. While the mother steered her course safely through the hazards of this new shore, I would leap like Solomon’s stag to the next escalator and skip ahead.
We reached the fourth floor. The mother deftly swung the pusher around in front of me and the little girl followed. She had hold of her mother’s blouse with a vice-like grip. Her little fingers were clenched tight and it was obvious she had no intention of letting go. My strategy proved useless.
I stood patiently behind them all the way to the fifth floor. The toddler did not relax her grip for one second. I watched her tiny hand closely. She was hanging on so tightly only an earthquake could have prised her loose. She was relaxed. She chatted brightly to her Mum. She wasn’t afraid of the escalator or the people or the noise around her. She was confident and courageous. And she held on regardless.
She knew she was on to a good thing and she wasn’t going to give it up for anyone. Her mother did not need to hold her or warn her. Those tiny fingers gripped that blouse with a life-saving intensity and trust that were unflinching.
They walked on—both mother and daughter oblivious to my staring—and went their way. But I was left thinking about the strength and reassurance that little girl gained from her mother.
These are qualities we need, too. In the bustling and hustling of life, it is good to know that we have Someone much stronger than ourselves, someone who, like that mother, knows where he is going and can safely take us with him. When we are faced with trauma or grief or pain or disappointment, he is there. I remembered how Jesus said we should become like little children (Matthew 18:3; 19:14). All we have to do is to trust him—to hang on regardless.
When I was a boy we used to sing,
He loves, he saves, he keeps, he satisfies
This longing heart of mine,
He fills my life to overflowing
With his joy and peace divine;
He guides, he guards, he watches over me,
He slumbers not nor sleeps,
For he is my glorious Saviour,
And he loves, he saves, he keeps.
(William M. Runyan)
I thought then that this song contained pretty good theology and I still think so now. And that little girl was a pretty good theologian too, although she didn’t know it. I hope she never forgets to keep her fingers gripped tightly to the source of her salvation.

The Greatest Story Never Told

The Greatest Story Never Told

Just before Christmas, I noticed a sales desk in the Piccadilly Arcade off Sydney’s bustling Pitt Street. The attendants were promoting a telephone system and handing out free festive sweets.
I picked up a candy cane. ‘Do you know what this represents?’ I asked the young woman sitting there. She looked at me blankly and shook her head.
‘Let me tell you,’ I suggested. ‘The candy cane is shaped like a J which is the first letter of the name of Jesus. It is also like a crook which tells how Jesus is the Good Shepherd who rescues lost sheep. The red stripe reminds us that He gave his blood to save us from sin. The white shows that we are made clean through His sacrifice. And the green represents new life.’
She looked up at me and asked, ‘Are you interested in a better deal on your phone system, sir?’
At that point, another young lady approached. She was tall, bright-eyed and confident—clearly the person in charge. I asked her the same question and gave her the same explanation.
‘Well,’ she replied, ‘You learn something new every day.’
As I left I was angry with myself for not telling the story of the cross in more detail. I had assumed it was a tale they already knew—but was it? How much did they really understand? Were they aware of what happened at Calvary? Did they even know that Jesus was the Son of God? That he had been rejected, scorned and vilified? That he had been crucified? That he had been buried and then rose again?
A few weeks later a Welfare Agency for children had a table in the same place as the phone people. I began to chat with the young Asian man in charge. He was smartly dressed in a dark suit, a cheerful, willing soul who would, I think, have recruited many donors. ‘Can I ask you a question?’ I said.
‘Sure,’ he replied genially.
‘What are you doing to meed the greatest need of these children?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, I really admire what your organisation accomplishes. It is a wonderful work. But everyone has a fundamental need which underlies all the others. How are you meeting it with these kids?’
‘I’m not sure what are you referring to,’ he said hesitantly, increasingly unsure of what I meant.
I noticed he was wearing a chain with a crucifix. ‘I’m referring to what’s hanging around your neck,’ I replied.
He fingered the chain, evidently having forgotten what was on it. ‘Oh, you mean religion,’ he said.
‘Not religion—faith. Without faith people have no sense of dignity and without dignity they have no hope,’ I continued, quoting something I had once heard Mother Teresa say.
‘Even rich people need faith,’ I explained. ‘They may have everything they need in a physical sense. But they may also be deeply unhappy or lonely or depressed. They may be materially rich but spiritually bankrupt.’
This registered with him. ‘Spiritually bankrupt, that’s a good phrase,’ he commented.
As I went my way, I hoped it would stay with him.
Later I recalled an occasion when I had taken one of my grand children to a show on the Sunday afternoon before Easter. About thirty of us sat in rows waiting for the program to begin. A bright young tour guide with a cheery smile and a dinkum Aussie accent welcomed us all by saying, ‘It’s great to have you all here today on this – this –
‘Palm Sunday,’ I suggested from the second row, trying to be helpful.
‘What?’ he asked in a puzzled tone.
‘Palm Sunday,’ I repeated.
‘Oh, well, whatever,’ he replied and continued with his spiel.
Evidently, he knew little of the story of Jesus. It used to be called the greatest story ever told. Has it now become, at least for some people, the greatest story never told?
In 1866, during a time of sickness, Katherine (‘Kate’) Hankey, the thirty-two year old daughter of a member of the renowned Clapham Sect, wrote a poem of one hundred stanzas about the life of Jesus. Some of those lines were later set to music and are still sung around the world today. They include—
Tell me the story softly with earnest tones and grave;
Remember I’m the sinner, whom Jesus came to save.
Tell me the story always, if you would really be,
In any time of trouble a comforter to me.
Tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story,
Of Jesus and His love.
The poignancy of her request has not diminished with the passing of the years. But how can people long to hear this story when they don’t know what it is?
It’s a good question.

Pathways To The Power Of God

To meet Peter Igarobae today, you would never imagine the dramatic events that revolutionised his life just over 20 years ago. He is a gentle, gracious and quietly spoken Papua New Guinean in his late forties. There is a twinkle in his eyes and a permanent smile on his lips. That he was once a rebel against both deity and humanity now seems impossible to believe.
When he was in his late teens, Peter had the terrible experience of seeing his eight year-old sister die through sorcery. He was determined that such a thing would never happen to any other member of his family and decided to do something about it.
But he knew that if he engaged in sorcery himself, there would be a huge price to pay—almost certainly physical deformity and premature death. It is common knowledge in Papua New Guinea that those who are involved in witchcraft are usually disfigured in some way—they have a facial tic, a blind eye, a twisted limb or something similar. They usually live short lives. They love to exercise their power, but it comes at a cost.
Sometimes, they defy the power and presence of God—for example, by attending a Christian meeting or standing in a prayer line and trying to obstruct divine healing. On more than one occasion, the reverse has occurred. Their power has been frustrated and they have been converted! When this happens, their ailments are usually healed overnight. One man said he felt as if ants were crawling all over him and then out of his body as he was set free. Another who was covered with scales saw his skin made clean once again.
At other times, they simply retreat. One day in a village, Australian CRC missionary Barry Silverback saw in a vision the face of a man who was involved in sorcery. Later he saw this same man enter the meeting place. He challenged him about his witchcraft but he denied it. However, some of the young people had seen him stuffing his charms and other tools of trade under his arm before he came in. When Silverback confronted him again, he became frightened and left!
A ‘COSMIC FORCE’
Peter Igarobae was an Anglican but did not know the Lord. He used to dress in a leather jacket and jeans and had grown his hair long. He smoked and drank. Meanwhile, he was studying geology at university and was later to become the first PNG graduate in that field.
In his quest for some answer to his little sister’s death, he began to research para psychology and sorcery. He interviewed witches and observed their practices. Ultimately, he came to believe there was a ‘cosmic force’ that was higher and greater than the power of sorcery but without the negative effects.
One day, he and Barry Silverback were discussing religion. Silverback said, ‘About this “cosmic force.” I know Him. Would you like to meet Him?’ He began to share the gospel with Peter but at that point they were interrupted and the moment passed.
But Peter and a friend went to a meeting at Bethel Centre, Port Moresby, where David Cartledge, a visiting Australian pastor, was preaching. He remembers being amazed at the way Cartledge ran up and down the platform and was concerned that if he didn’t stop for a drink he would collapse from exhaustion! Then Cartledge began to walk down the aisle and touch people and they fell to the floor. When that happened, Peter and his friend decided it was time to leave. But Cartledge followed them and chased them down the street! He called, ‘You can run away from me but you can’t run away from God.’ Peter wouldn’t go back to the church again.
UNNERVED
However, on 22 February 1976, when he was 24 years old, Peter’s ‘sister in law’ (his cousin’s wife) invited him to another meeting at Bethel. Culturally he could not refuse this invitation and was obliged to go. When Barry Silverback preached, Peter was unnerved. He was sure he was talking specifically about him.
Towards the end of the message, a strange thing happened. Because of his background, Peter was sensitive to movements and actions around him, even if he couldn’t see them. Now he felt someone behind him pointing a finger at him. He turned but there was no one. He was convinced he had not been mistaken. He decided that if it happened again, he would turn so quickly he would catch the person.
Again, he felt the finger pointing at him, this time at the back of his head. He swung around sharply but there was still no one there. Shaken, he decided it was time to leave. Somehow he became disorientated and found himself walking towards the platform at the front instead of the door at the back! He finished up in a line of people who were waiting for laying on of hands.
Silverback was praying for another person but saw Peter and, while he was still praying, put his hand on his head. (‘I wanted to make sure he didn’t leave!’ said Silverback later.) Then with his hand still there, he prayed with the person on the other side of Peter. Finally he prayed for Peter. The effect was astonishing. The Spirit of God fell on him. Within moments he was speaking in tongues.
Some of the church staff took him to the back room and he prayed and poured out his heart to God. Two hours later, he left there a changed man. But he had no counselling so he didn’t know what had really happened to him. No one actually told him he’d been born again and filled with the Holy Spirit.
Over the next few days, he was ill at ease about that meeting. He finally came to the conclusion his cousin’s wife had told Silverback all about him. So he was angry and didn’t go back for eight weeks. But as a result of what had happened he began to change. His girl friends left him because he was different. He also found himself doing unexpected things. He cut his hair, for example, but didn’t know why.
HOSPITAL EMPTIED
At this point, his Anglican priest asked him to go to Oro province to visit some people in Popondetta and pray with them. When he arrived, he visited a relative who was in the local hospital. In the same ward, was a patient who was desperately sick. He had undergone surgery and there were tubes protruding from his body. His wife who was with him was in great distress, weeping continuously.
Peter’s heart went out to them both. He walked over to the bed and asked the woman, ‘Can I pray for your husband?’
‘Are you a priest?’ she replied.
‘No,’ he answered.
‘Are you a theological student?’
‘No.’
She looked at him uncertainly and then said, ‘Well, anyway, please pray.’
So he knelt, made the sign of the cross and then realised he didn’t know what to do next. So he said, ‘Let’s try again.’ This time he made the sign of the cross and put his hand on the man’s head. The patient grabbed it and guided it to different parts of his body. Peter’s mind objected to what was happening but the man kept on moving his hand over his skin, especially on the affected parts. The result was dramatic: the man was healed.
Excited and encouraged by this, and still filled with a sense of astonishment, Peter went to seven other wards and prayed for all the patients. By the time he had finished, he had lost his voice. The hospital was virtually emptied. Silverback later commented, ‘I’ve seen hospitals emptied several times by PNG people.’
In the village, as the priest had requested, Peter prayed with an Anglican believer. He, too, was healed. This man gave him a New Testament and told him he should read the passages about Jesus healing before he prayed for more people. All this was completely new to him.
Word got out about what had happened and people began to bring all their sick. One woman was in a desperate condition. She was dishevelled and dirty and so mentally disturbed she crawled around under the village huts with the dogs and pigs, eating scraps and even animal dung.
Again, Peter made the sign of the cross, knelt, put his hand on her head and just kept saying the name of Jesus. The woman’s face changed dramatically. Suddenly, two village dogs which were snuffling around them yelped, leaped into the air, whirled around several times and took off for the bush. Peter knew nothing about deliverance from demons but the lady was set free. In fact, Peter still didn’t even know he was born again. After that, the woman lived a normal life for nearly twenty years until her death from old age.
MINISTER OF THE GOSPEL
One day Australian missionary Merrilyn Teague met Peter at the university. ‘We have really missed you,’ she said. Peter didn’t know who she was but she knew him, having seen him at the meeting at Bethel.
‘Why haven’t you come back again?’ she asked.
‘My sister-in-law didn’t invite me,’ he replied.
Then Peter began to tell Merrilyn what had happened at Oro Province, expecting her to be amazed. But as he related the events, she just kept on smiling as if she knew exactly what he was talking about. She showed him from the Book of Acts how such things occurred in the early Church.
When Peter heard this, he began to remember Sunday School lessons he had attended at the Salvation Army when he was a child. As Merrilyn explained, he couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘No.’ She said. ‘Yes!’ Suddenly, it all seemed to add up. Then and there in the University campus he began to jump and dance and shout, ‘Hallelujah!’
Since that time, Peter has grown as a Christian and a minister of the gospel. Ultimately he was to become national chairman of the CRC churches in Papua New Guinea.

A Childhood Christmas

During what we came to call the ‘War years’, my Mum and Dad, my brother Ken, my sister Coralie and I all lived in a modest house in Woodville, a pleasant Adelaide suburb, in the dry and sunny State of South Australia, half way between the city and the sea. I was fortunate to have both a brother and a sister – it was the best of both worlds.
Christmas was a relatively simple time for us. There wasn’t much money around and in any case, Dad wasn’t one to go in for things like fancy decorations. And as for a Christmas tree – few people had one in those days. We certainly didn’t. And I’m not sure where we would have put it, anyway, as there was little space for such luxuries in our home.
Life took place very much in the kitchen. It was dining room, living room and bake-house all in one. A wood- or coke-burning stove dominated the room. It provided glowing warmth in winter time and served as a useful bench in summer, when if I remember rightly, it was covered with thin blue patterned linoleum. During the warm weather, Mum used an ancient gas stove located, of all places, in our laundry. It was only years later that Dad had a new, more streamlined and efficient stove installed in the kitchen, all gleaming with green and cream enamel, except for the black iron racks, stark and unfeeling, that covered the gas jets.
There was a formal dining room at the front of the house with a polished wood dining suite and matching dresser. There was also a dark-coloured bookshelf. Here, like a row of palace guards, uniformed in deep blue and gold, stood a ten-volume set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia and another eight tall volumes of Cassell’s Book of Knowledge. In pride of place was, not a television set as would be the case today, but a black cast-iron fire grate, polished and clean and never used, at least, not in my childhood and certainly not at Christmas time when Adelaide’s natural heat was more than enough. It was a special room, rarely occupied. I can’t recall us ever having a meal there. We children were usually forbidden to enter it without permission.
Just inside the door, on the left, was the upright piano that Mum used to play from time to time, while I stood alongside, my eyes level with the keyboard, watching and listening. I was reprimanded once for stridently thumping the lower keys with my hands spread wide before tinkling the upper notes more delicately with my child’s fingers. I protested that I was just making the sounds of bombs dropping on a house while someone inside was playing the piano.

The War was never far from our thoughts, even in remote South Australia. We had to install blackout covers of heavy waxed paper over the windows every evening, including Christmas Eve. Dad was an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) Warden, and used to go out at night with a steel helmet, a gas mask and a whistle, to watch for enemy aircraft. He had a small white oval badge with a gold crown at the top that said, ‘Civil S.A. Defence’ and an ARP armband. After the War he received a Certificate of Recognition that we hung on the dining room wall.
We also had a bomb shelter in the back yard – a deep pit that Dad dug with room enough to accommodate us all. Over the top were sheets of corrugated iron and a huge mound of dirt. He fashioned earth steps down into it and benches along each side with a couple of small alcoves for candles. The earth had a fair percentage of clay in it, and it was impossible to enter the dugout without becoming soiled. Even so, after the War, the kid next door and I loved to play in it until Dad filled it in again.
Dad and Mum never attended church, but they did send us to the local Baptist Sunday School where I think Mother sometimes played the piano and may have taught some classes. Here the Nativity story was faithfully presented every year. So although there was never any overt mention of the biblical story of the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day in our home, we children must have known something of the holy wonder of Christmas. I do know that before I went to sleep at night, Mum always sat with me while I prayed to Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild to ‘look upon a little child’ and asked Him to bless Mummy and Daddy and Ken and Coralie and a few other relatives and friends.
I don’t know if the church had a Christmas Day service or not, but a few years later, when I was about fourteen, the church young people did go carol-singing on Christmas Eve. We all clambered on to the back of a truck that someone unearthed for the occasion. At the time, it seemed like a crowd although there can’t have been more than a dozen of us. We drove around the area, stopping outside the homes of various church families and singing – with more happiness than harmony – ‘Silent Night’ or ‘O Come all ye Faithful’ or ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’. I took my piano accordion with me and tried to play the songs. I shudder to think what it all must have sounded like, but we were enthused and excited to do it. But I am jumping ahead.

Several things stand out in my childhood memory. I remember sitting on the floor one Christmas looking at a small pile of Christmas cards with winter snow scenes and pictures of a jolly Father Christmas. For me, as a child, these were objects of wonder and delight.
On the first Saturday morning in November, we used to join the tens of thousands who thronged the city streets to watch the Christmas Pageant. This was an annual parade commenced in 1933 by John Martin’s, or ‘Johnnies’, as it was popularly known, Adelaide’s home-grown and well-loved department store – a parade that was to grace the city for decades. There were several bands, hundreds of dancers and clowns and dozens of marvelous moving floats depicting nursery rhyme and story book scenes. Every participant was an employee of the store. There was mounting expectancy as we waited for the floats that would signal the climax of the parade, where two pretty little girls specially chosen from staff families each year for the task, would appear high above us, waving their magic wands, as they sat astride the rocking ponies Nipper and Nimble – ponies that every child could later ride in the store’s Magic Cave if they were prepared to queue up long enough. Then came the person we were all waiting for – Father Christmas himself. There he was, atop his reindeer-driven sleigh, standing in the November sun in his hot red suit, waving and smiling as he drove past.
Coralie was the creative one. At home, under her direction, we used to take large rolls of coloured crepe paper and cut them into long strips. These we stretched across the window frame or to the four corners of the room from the single, plain kitchen light, suspended on hanging flex that was twisted and tightly cocooned in brown woven cloth. Sometimes we made paper chains by looping short pieces of crepe together and gluing them in place. Of course, we had no self-sticking tape in those days. We used to mix flour and water to make a serviceable glue. It was a messy and tedious process, applying it, smoothing out the lumps and wrinkles, wiping away the spilt blobs and waiting for it to dry. But we did have a sense of pride and satisfaction when the job was done. We did something similar at school, too, but there the teacher allowed us to use silver paint and gold tinsel as well. Even today, gold and silver evoke nostalgic memories of the magic of childhood.
But the thing that stood out above all was the muscle-tensing, breathless anticipation of receiving Christmas presents. We always went to bed at the usual time, but the combination of the hope of brand-new gifts and the effect of another of those bright Adelaide summer mornings when the large sleep-out windows shone like arc lights under the flaring rising sun, made it impossible to sleep in.

Gifts were usually left on the floor at the foot of the bed. We could hardly wait to open them. Perhaps I should say that I could hardly wait. By the time I can remember, my brother and sister were hitting their teenage years and if they had known the expression they would have thought themselves too ‘cool’ to show much excitement. But Ken admits there had been a couple of occasions when he had forced himself to stay awake till Dad came in with the presents. It seems that by threats and cajoling, Dad convinced him that he really was Father Christmas and that if he didn’t believe it there would be no gifts in the morning!
I remember one sultry, overcast Christmas Day when I received a small Hornby clockwork red British mail van. Along with my modest collection of Dinky Toys, I played with it for hours on the cool, cement floor of our front verandah.
Prior to her marriage, Mum used to work for a publishing company, as her sister still did, and so we usually received comics or books of some kind. And then there were the Ezybilt sets – wonderful metal building toys that Ken and I played with for hour upon hour. Ezybilt was a local version of the more expensive English Meccano set. With its centimetre-wide thin green and red painted steel strips punched with small holes, its steel plates, similarly perforated, and its various wheels and numerous child-size nuts and bolts, it was possible to construct models of all shapes and sizes of anything from a house to a train. I can still recall the unique metallic smell of those fascinating pieces.
Once, Mum invited Ken to select a set of his choice which she later laid by for Christmas. Impatient curiosity got the better of him and one day, he sneaked into her bedroom and searched high up in the dark double-doored wardrobe to peek at the parcel. To his dismay, it was not the set he had chosen, but a cheaper one. It was still probably more than Mum and Dad could afford, but Ken says he never got over the disappointment. Now, in his seventies, he is building Meccano models himself and his childhood dream is finally being realized!
There were also lead soldiers with whom many a battle was won or lost on the bedroom floor or on the carpet runner in the long passage that split the centre of the house. Ken was always more mechanically minded than I. He used to melt lead and cast his own toy soldiers in a bed of sand set in a flat biscuit tin. He tells me that on one occasion, I asked him if the container of melted lead was hot. Under the spell of big-brother wickedness, he told me to touch it and find out. I don’t recall the incident, but he does – no doubt because of the thrashing he got afterwards with Dad’s wide, leather razor strap.

Christmas dinner was special in our home. Mum used to sweat over the gas stove, sometimes in near-century heat (around 40 degrees Celsius), to prepare a traditional roast dinner. She always made a Christmas pudding in which she hid silver coins – mainly threepences and a few sixpences. Shillings were too valuable even for such a time-honoured Christmas tradition. Eating the pudding was an exercise in suspense to see who would find the most. We would examine each mouthful before consuming it, looking for a faint gleam of silver or a distinctive shape. We had to chew carefully, lest we chip a tooth or even worse, swallow some money! And we would watch each other’s side plates eagerly to see who had the largest pile of brown-stained coins, some with pieces of pudding still stuck to them. They would be washed later when the meal was over.
Then on Christmas night, we would all go to Grandma Penno’s place for a family gathering. This required a twenty-minute trip by tram, but as the tram lines ran right past her house, it was easy enough. And anyway, as we had no car, we were used to it: we did it all the time.
I can’t remember ever seeing Grandma anywhere other than in her own home. I suppose she must have gone out sometimes, but I can only ever picture her sitting in her kitchen. She had a dumpy figure, a perpetual smile, white hair, round glasses and a kindly manner. Knowing nothing of family politics or any of the affairs that are so important to grown-ups, I just liked her and the way she was always nice to me. Her daughter Gwen, Mum’s younger sister, and her husband Jimmy, lived with her and looked after the place.
At Grandma’s, my mother’s three sisters and her brother and their families would also assemble. It was fun to catch up with our cousins and to play in the huge back yard with its sprawling open concrete and lawn areas and huge shed, originally built to accommodate Grandpa Penno’s trucks and hay wagons. The boys had fun clambering over and delving into Grandpa’s treasures – saddlery, an old cart, tools, timber. But Grandpa and Grandma had long been separated and his name was rarely mentioned in her house.
After tea we would all crowd into her living room where we crammed on to the couch and lounge chairs and extra seats were brought in. Normally this was a dark room, rarely used, with mystical amber glass panels in the hallway that glowed like deep, dying suns, when the light was right. Auntie Ol would sit at the pianola while Uncle Doug, her husband, entertained us with old Scottish songs. Ol was a talented pianist and she played with energy and verve. She was wiry, with shining eyes, and although Uncle Doug was a big man with a red face and a bulbous nose, in her presence he was as meek as a kitten. He sang the same pieces every year but we never tired of hearing them. One of his songs complained kindly about female perversity and another said how nice it was ‘to have your breakfast in your bed on Sunday morning’ – a sentiment I have never been able to echo as nearly all my Sundays ever since have involved rising early to go to church. As it happens, I don’t like eating in bed anyway.
Then with our Boomerang Song Books in hand, we would all join in with other well-known pieces but not, if I recall correctly, Christmas carols, although I may be wrong about that.
In between times there were snacks and Woodroofe’s lemonade. I can still recall the pleasure of the tanging taste of that delightful drink – a beverage we could rarely afford at other times – and the mischief of the tiny bursting bubbles that danced so tantalizingly up your nose.
Earlier in the day, we kids would also sit at the pianola and make music. We had no musical skill, but who needed it when all you had to do was insert a music roll and pedal away with your feet while the piano keys did the rest?

But Christmas 1948, sixty years ago this year, was different. We still did some of the same things – hung the streamers, opened our presents, went to Grandma’s. But for the first time, Mother was not there to enjoy the season with us. For on 1 November 1948, at the young age of 40, after only fifteen years of marriage, having endured many months of struggle and torturous pain, she died from cancer.
Some time just before Christmas, my Aunty Pops took me to town for the day. At the time, I couldn’t see any special reason for this. When you are a child, adults do things and you just go along with them. Looking back now, I realize she was trying to give me a treat because of Mum’s death.
I suppose the aunties did something for the others as well, although I don’t remember what. Certainly, my sister Coralie found that first Christmas without Mother the most difficult.
Anyway, I dressed in my best Sunday short-trousered suit and Aunty Pops took me to see Father Christmas at the Magic Cave. I didn’t want to. I was ten years old now and had learned that Santa Claus was a fake. I thought seeing him was childish. But reluctantly I went and reluctantly I stood at his side and reluctantly I answered his questions. In all the years since that time, I haven’t changed. I still don’t like being manipulated into situations not of my own choosing.
Aunty Pops must have filled me with sweets and cakes that day because I remember being delivered home feeling decidedly queasy. She also bought me a couple of toys, including a light-blue metal water pistol which leaked profusely and had to be re-filled after every shot, usually from the front garden tap. This was guarded by a rose bush whose sharp thorns were dangerous, but not fearsome enough to save the surrounding shrubs from my marauding boy’s feet.
There was no Christmas pudding that year and no coins to be discovered. And although we would continue to celebrate Christmas, there never would be again.

As for Vanessa, in War-torn Britain, she was consigned to a boarding school at the age of three and has virtually no childhood memories of Christmas at all. Of the twelve yuletide seasons she lived through as a child, only one stands out. It was a visit to Brighton where her mother had some important function to attend. There are memories of a large ball-room, of chandeliers and glittering costumes, of music and dancing and of her as a little girl, gazing at it all with wonder, a small, silent spectator in a fairyland world that she would always remember but never join.
It was an emotional experience for her when in 1991, on a visit to England for a conference, we discovered that same ball room in a large sea-side hotel. But the other eleven Christmases lie absorbed into the grey years of her school days when all occasions now seem to blend into one shapeless, anonymous fog.
She has tried to make up for it ever since by ensuring that her children – and her grand-children – have such joyful Christmases that they will never even come close to experiencing such bleak, empty memories as hers.

The Sergeant Saw Me Pray

I was not a happy young man. It was January, 1958—on a hot summer’s day in South Australia, the driest State in the driest continent on earth. Together with many of my mates, I had been lined up in the fierce heat waiting to be loaded on a bus that would take us away from home for three months of National Service training—or ‘Nasho’, as we called it.
Uniformed military men were hovering around, trying to get us into some kind of order, shouting and swearing, calling us names we had never heard in all our lives before, and doing their best us to destroy any lingering, futile dregs of hope that we might still enjoy our summer holiday break.
Eventually, we were herded onto a bus, driven for a couple of hours through the Adelaide hills and finally off-loaded at Woodside Army camp. Here, again we were made to stand in line for long periods in the baking sun until eventually we were issued with uniforms and equipment and ushered to the hut that would be our home for weeks to come.
Two rows of ten beds and lockers, with two small rooms at the end for the non-commissioned officers, stood silently before us. The beds were uncomfortable and the lockers miniscule. But this was now home and they were going to have to do.
Our sergeant was a small, wiry Englishman named Croft, although he didn’t look English, with his swarthy skin and his shiny, black hair. Wherever he went, he marched, with quick purposeful steps, as if always on a mission. He made it clear to us in no uncertain terms that his word was law and we would disobey it at our peril.
Eventually we struggled into our new uniforms and, carrying our thick, regulation bakelite plates and cups, straggled dolefully to the mess hall for the evening meal. Here we lined up to be fed and then sat at long tables in groups of eight to ten while we ate.
There was plenty of grumbling and groaning that night as we prepared for bed. ‘Man, I’ve had enough of this already,’ moaned Jack.
‘Stop whingeing,’ said Nigel. ‘It could be worse. You could be in prison.’
‘So this is better than prison?’ Jack responded as if in pain.
‘Well, it can’t get any worse,’ Simon interjected.
‘Faint hope,’ said Jack. ‘I think this is the good bit.’
Around ten o’clock, Sergeant Croft marched into the room, his boots sharp on the wooden floor. ‘Listen up, you lily-livered, baby-faced civilians,’ he barked, his language decorated with numerous additional unsavoury adjectives. ‘Tomorrow we have work to do. So tonight you will need your beauty sleep even more than usual. There will be no fooling around, okay? Lights out and eyes shut. Now!’
He flicked the switch and left the hut, slamming the door behind him.
For a minute or two a kind of suppressed silence hung in the air.
Then, out of the darkness a pillow landed with a whump on Jack’s head. ‘What the…!’ he cried, grabbing the pillow and sending it back to its owner with interest.
‘Hey! Watch it!’ shouted Dave as another pillow landed on him and then tumbled to the floor.
‘You watch it, mate!’ Spence yelled, and proceeded to strip Dave’s blanket from him.
Soon, there was bedding and clothing flying in all directions. Shadowy figures could be seen moving between the beds. Occasionally the yellow glow from an outside light would trap them like spectres as it filtered through the windows only to lose them again as they disappeared into the darkness. There was a cry of pain as a flying object found its mark and a heavy dumping noise, and another loud exclamation, as somebody landed heavily on the wooden floor.
Now I had been advised by a friend who had ‘done Nasho’ the year before to let it be known right from the outset that I was a Christian. ‘If you don’t make a stand at the beginning,’ he said, ‘you never will.’
So as soon as the lights were off, I had knelt by my bed in my pyjamas to pray. This, I admit, was hard to do in the midst of all the racket. But I was still there when without warning the lights came on again and the room was instantly ablaze with brightness. Some of the lads were out of bed; others were trying to find missing pillows and blankets; others were arguing. They all stopped as if frozen in time, like wax figures. I looked up squinting and blinking in the unexpected glare to see Sergeant Croft standing in the centre aisle, glowering fiercely at us all. He stormed up and down, calling us all the unsavoury names at his disposal—of which there was a considerable number.
‘I don’t want to hear another squeak from you horrible little children until roll call next morning,’ he shouted. ‘If there is so much as a murmur, so much as the sound of a feather hitting the floor, so much as the echo of a wrinkle forming on a sheet, someone will be on a charge. And I can assure you, it will cost you more than you want to pay. Is that understood!’
‘Yes, sir!’ we all responded quickly.
He fumed up and down the centre of the hut, his black eyebrows and dark skin adding a menacing quality to his words. As he passed me, still on my knees, he paused, looked down at me with a frown, and then moved on.
The next morning, after breakfast, at our first parade, he ordered me to report to him as soon as we were dismissed. Clearly he was going to reprimand me for not standing when he had entered the hut the night before. I was filled with apprehension. We were not actually at war. There was no serious enemy. We were only a couple of hours’ drive from the city. The worse that would happen was… well, I wasn’t really sure. Maybe I would be consigned to washing dishes or polishing buckles or swabbing floors or standing to attention all night long in the parade ground. None of which seemed particularly inviting. And then there was the fear of the unknown. Could there be something worse? Something I hadn’t thought of? I really knew nothing of army life. I approached him with trepidation.
‘Private,’ he said, without obvious anger. ‘I noticed you were on your knees last night.’
‘Yes, sergeant,’ I mumbled, apprehensively. ‘I was.’
‘Has any of the lads tried to make it hard for you because you pray?’
‘No, sergeant. Not yet, anyway.’
‘Well, if they do, you just let me know and I’ll sort them out.’
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I wasn’t in trouble after all.
‘Thankyou, sergeant,’ I responded, both surprised and relieved.
Of course, I knew I would never report to him if there was a problem. It would be a fight I would need to handle myself. But I was encouraged, nevertheless.
And night after night, week after week, during the long summer months of our training, I knelt by my bed, just as I had that first night, when the sergeant saw me pray.