Several of my life experiences have caused me to recall lines from the Gershwin musical, ‘Porgy and Bess’. They go, “It aint necessarily so, the things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, aint necessarily so.”
My second student pastorate was with the Williamstown Baptist Church. Williamstown juts out into Hobson’s Bay near the mouth of the Yarra River. It is a delightful suburb full of history, leafy streets and old houses. In early Melbourne, it was an important sea-port and later became the site of the Australian Naval Dockyards.
As an aside, I believe that if war ever broke out between Australia and NZ, the Williamstown dockyards would be a first target for New Zealand. Not only did they have a key role in the building of our frigates but they have the specs of the various super-secret upgrades that have since been installed. I can fully believe that as I write, a Kiwi drone, (‘Mutton Bird One’?) is high in the sky circling the dockyard just in case tensions boil over.
In the Williamstown congregation was another theological student, a good friend of mine, Ken. I had the privilege of baptising his fianccé by full immersion in a very moving service. She looked beautiful in a white gown with a red rose pinned near her collar. What no one had thought of was that roses are not made for full immersion. As she arose from the water, the red rose had been transformed into a soggy mess. Before the ceremony the rose seemed like the ultimate designer touch – but it wasn’t fit for the purpose.
Ken’s Dad, Charlie was the treasurer of the parish. Charlie a man of few words, but he often had a twinkle in his eye. Being short of hearing he had a hearing-aid which he kept in his top shirt pocket. To this the earpiece was connected by two, white twisted wires.
During my summer at Williamstown, Charlie seemed to get quite excited about my preaching. From time to time during the sermon, he would clap. On other occasions, he would call out ‘Wonderful’. I was impressed. The fact that my preaching could stir this rather taciturn older man must mean that I was I was another Billy Graham in the making.
At the after-church morning tea that was put on for my farewell. Charlie indicated he would like to speak. “You may have noticed that I have been getting quite excited during Stan’s sermons this summer!”. “Yes” everyone had noticed. “I will tell you a little secret”, he said. “See this!” He displayed a small battery radio. It also had an earpiece connected by long twisted wires. “Well as we all know the test matches over summer have been rather tense. What I have done, is during the sermon, I simply replaced my hearing aid earpiece with the wireless earpiece and listened to the cricket. And what could I do when we hit a six – I clapped. I’ll never forget when we bowled out that big hitter for three runs. I had to say something!” “Yes”, I thought, “Wonderful comes to mind”. Everyone was laughing but I wasn’t. My self-image as an outstanding preacher was deflated – It aint necessarily so.
In my years in theological college, there were three students, (Ken was one of these) who were preparing to go to overseas missions – Papua New Guinea (PNG) being the Victorian Baptist’s field of service. Now at that time there was a hierarchy of spirituality amongst students training for service in the church. The home ministry (in Australia) was acknowledged as a ‘holy’ calling but the highest calling was to serve as a missionary beyond our shores. According to this rating, I was in the second rank of holiness.
The overseas missionary students only trained for two years as against four years for home ministry. So, the missionary boys left and returned after a two year stint in PNG, (each in a different PNG location) while I was still in college. Much to the amazement of all the students who knew them, on returning home the three missionaries promptly resigned from the mission and as I remember it, from the Baptist church.
Some background information will help. At the time, Papua New Guinea was fast becoming the most Christian country in the world. There were more people going to church every Sunday in PNG than any other nation on earth – 90% of the population. At the time the USA was under 70%. The Christian press were proclaiming what was happening in PNG as ‘revival’. One after the other, entire villages were coming to Christ, and in huge ceremonies hundreds were baptised by full immersion. This was being interpreted as a sure sign of the imminent return of Jesus.
In fact, my three friends did not say much about their decision to leave the mission field and the church. What they did refer to differences between the missionaries. There were normally several missionaries in each location. My friends being exit students would have been the most junior of the mission team on their stations. But one thing I did learn was their disliked of the way the senior missionaries ran the villages.
Once a whole village became Christian, the prior ‘heathen’ hierarchy of chiefly leaders and elders was handed over to God’s servants, the missionaries. In fact, the missionaries ran village life in much the same way as Calvin attempted to organise Geneva in the first flush of the Reformation (1550’s). One description that sticks with me has to do with the church bell. Each morning the missionary would ring the bell to signal it was time to get up. Then the bell would be rung calling all the people to come and the morning prayer meeting. Then the bell was rung to signal breakfast time and so on all through the day until the evening bell that called people for evening devotions.
I visited PNG in my work for the Australian Council of Christian Education in 1982. By then the whole country had changed. From being the most Christian country in the world, they had become according to some assessments, the most lawless. My friends living in the capital, Port Moresby had to protect themselves from marauding bands of men and youths – ‘rascal’ they called them. Their house was surrounded by 7 foot chain-wire fence with razor wire on the top. Their yard was patrolled by large German shepherd dogs. Inside their fortress like house, their bedroom door was a steel fabrication.
What had happened? Well it seems that many who converted to Christianity were under the impression that the Christian God was going to bring them the possessions of the missionaries, watches and radios and aeroplanes – cargo cult. When these things did not materialise they were disillusioned and they grew tired of lives organised by the missionary’s bell. By condemning and devaluing traditional culture and completely replacing it with their version of Bible-based community the missionaries had left these people without leaders or traditions. The PNG people were left in a void of meaning and without leadership. Looking back to the revival days of the missionaries the literal way these heroic missionaries interpreted the Bible was simplistic. It (the message of the New testament) was not necessarily so.
Recently I have been learning about David Livingstone the missionary explorer. He was the most famous missionary of his day and the poster boy for the London Missionary Society (LMS). His exploits brought huge income to the LMS. They wrote up some of his exploits in vivid detail with illustrations, for instance, when he fought with a lion. They never told the whole story. In his entire life as a missionary, Livingstone only converted one man to Christianity and he reverted to his tribal religion after 10 years as a Christian.
What has been dawning on me over the years, is just because a person quotes the Bible to prove that this or that must be God’s way or God’s will, it is not necessarily so.
Years ago when we were often in America we would frequently see Jimmy and Tammy Faye Bakker on their Christian television show. Everything they did was supported by the prayers of tens of thousands and the show’s income averaged a million dollars a week. Their opinions and predictions were surrounded with copious scripture references. I remember Jimmy saying, “We live by the Bible, and we understand prophecy. Trust us and we will guide you into the future”. In 1988 as the result of a sex scandal he was dismissed as an Assembly of God minister and shortly after imprisoned for massive fraud.
Two weeks ago, to my surprise I saw him on TV with a new show. (He still owes the IRS millions). He was telling his audience that Donald Trump was God’s anointed servant. He supported this contention with Bible verses. Hmm! It aint necessarily so!
On a closing note, a few words about baptism by immersion. Occasionally we do have a service of baptism by immersion in St Heliers Bay. If you are considering taking this moving and meaningful step a small item of advice. If you pin a bouquet or a flower on your shirt or blouse, make sure it is plastic.