Show stopper

Show stopper

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This image is not photoshopped (fiddled with). The Egyptian Crocodile is the second largest crocodile in the world. The bird is the Egyptian Plover. The crocodile swallows it’s food without chewing, relying on the acids in the stomach to break it down. This leaves pieces of meat stuck in and around it’s teeth. The crocodile lies in the sun with it’s mouth open. The plover enters the crocodile’s mouth and picks meat from around the teeth. The crock’s teeth are cleaned, and the little bird gets a significant addition to its diet.

The picture captures us. For a moment we can think of nothing else. It is a show-stopper.

A central part of my professional life has been talking.  I am quite good at it. With jokes, grimaces and asides, I can usually maintain the interest of an audience. I can think of two occasions when I completely failed. Both of these were because of ‘show-stoppers’.

My work as a Christian Education Consultant for the Austraian Council of Christian Education took me across Australia and New Zealand.

My visit to the South Australian town of Burra was unforgettable. There I had two show-stopper moments.

Burra was one of the towns which saved the infant colony of South Australia from being abandoned. Copper ore of a very high quality was discovered in 1845 and once mining was established Burra provided 5% of the world’s copper. These days the copper is gone, and Burra, population 2000, is a quiet rural town which serves a farming community and attracts tourists to the picturesque remnants of its copper heyday.

Nine people gathered in the Uniting Church manse lounge room for my presentation. We were joined by two of the minister’s pets, a huge German shepherd and a budgerigar ( small colourful parrots sometimes called ‘Love Birds’) that fluttered freely in the room.

About fifteen minutes into my presentation the budgie landed on the German Shepherd dog’s’ nose. What followed stopped my clock.

After some excited chirping, the dog opened its cavernous mouth and the bird climbed inside. All we could see of the bird was its tail feathers protruding from the dog’s mouth and waving back and forth. Words failed me. This performance went on for about ten minutes. When the bird finally emerged from the dog’s mouth, it flew to the standard lamp and preened itself. I could not remember where I was up to in my talk. With apologies, I gave out some notes which we discussed over a cup of tea.

The next year I was assigned to rural churches in Victoria. In the Goulburn Valley. I had an evening session in the strikingly modern Katamatite Uniting Church. About 25 or so gathered for my evening presentation. Seated in the centre of the second row were identical triplets, three men, early forties I guess, all dressed in neat and tidy farming gear. The point I want to make here is that they were absolutely identical.

About half way through my presentation the three of them looked rather sleepy and then, despite my best efforts, they all went to open-mouth sleep. This really phased me. I was fixated by these three sleeping men. I could hardly believe my eyes! Was I in some kind of trance? Am I in Alice in Wonderland? Was this the Mad Hatters Tea Party where time stood still? I staggered through the rest of my presentation by trying to not look at the audience. Any time I did, the sleeping three brothers captured me and I lost track of where I was. They stopped my show.

As I alluded to earlier I had two show stopping moments in Burra. This was not related to something visual. It had to do with the commitment of the young minister.

I wish I could remember his name, but it escapes me. He was an academic with a doctorate in Agricultural Science. His aim was to go to Tanzania and work on food production in village settings. He was part way through a theology degree which would take 6 months more to complete. I guessed that life in sleepy Burra must have been a complete contrast to the campus of the University of Adelaide.

I asked him how he enjoyed Burra. “I love it!” he said. Surprised, I asked him what did he like about it. “I love my work” he said. “Do you like preaching or teaching?” I asked. “No” he said, “It’s my other job I love”. The church could only provide a half-time salary. His other job maintenance, cleaning, supervision of the town swimming pool.

I had seen the pool on my way into town. Actually, I heard it before I saw it. It was packed with splashing, shouting children. Surrounded by a chain wire fence it seemed to be a very basic municipal facility.

Surprised I asked, “What do you love about it?” I asked. His answer was brief and direct. “I am working with God. I am doing God’s work”, he said.

For a moment I imagined that he must have been telling Bible stories to the children. But, that was not it. My questioning must have shown on my face.

“This is what I mean.” he said. “I bring order out of chaos. I transform something that is dank and dangerous into something that is pleasant and safe. That is God’s work. He did it in creation – the first chapter of Genesis – and he continues to do it through the ministry of Jesus and his followers. In Burra, that’s me!”

“During the course of every day, the waters get polluted and the chemical balance upset. The rubbish bins overflow and toilets become smelly. Each evening I empty the trash, I clean and sanitize the toilets, I restore the pools chemical balance.

In the morning when I come to the pool the children are waiting at the gates for me to open up. Some are climbing up the chain wire fence. When I let them in, there is such a burst of joy and happiness it thrills me. This is my service to them, but in fact it is my service to God. I am co-operating with God’s creative spirit.”

This was a revelation to me. My whole life was centred on spreading the gospel (the Good News) of Jesus. My teaching and inclination was that this was done by ‘words’, preaching, teaching, witnessing. The idea that it could be done in actions without words or Jesus placards was new to me. It was a show-stopper. It was time for a rethink! I now believe it. When we co-operate with the divine in this way no words are needed.

After every event there are bins to empty, chairs to stack, dishes to wash, carpets to vacuum, toilets to clean. Often, I have been bone-weary and inwardly groaning about doing these jobs. Up until then, I had never thought of them as working alongside God – doing God’s will – bringing order out of chaos. I was fully aware that if these tasks are not done, the next day the facility will be messy and unpleasant. If they are done, the next day the facility will say ‘Welcome’ to the users.

I don’t know if the people of Burra ever knew why their local minister cleaned the pool complex so carefully. The least they would have known would have been that this man really cares for the health of our children.

Maybe that is where an understanding of God’s love begins.

Stan Stewart

January 24 2018

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