When I was a child, this was often said to us: ‘Respect your elders’. I think it meant not to speak when they were in the room, always to defer to them, and probably not to ‘give cheek’, as I am sure I often did. But I don’t think we knew what it really meant to respect those who have lived longer and who have something of life’s wisdom and value to show to us.
This week I have been thinking of this a lot. At College we begin every formal occasion with an acknowledgement of country. This means we recognize the indigenous people of our area, the traditional custodians of the land on which we are meeting. We say, in this acknowledgement, that we pay respect to their elders past and present. Really to respect them, I suggest, is more than making a solemn statement. It has to include a willingness to learn from them. It’s about acknowledgement that this is their country, and they know about it and how to live with it in a way we do not.
In this same week, we have acknowledged the death of a truly great leader of the Baptist community in Victoria and indeed on a much wider scale. Rev Dr Geoff Blackburn died last weekend, aged 99 years and 8 months. He was the oldest alumnus of Whitley College, and is honoured by the naming of our library, the Geoffrey Blackburn library. I wrote this to our college community:
We give heartfelt thanks to God for his magnificent life of ministry and his wonderful example to us all, a man whose scholarship and pastoral heart walked hand in hand all the way.
Thinking about Geoff Blackburn has led me also to think of those other ‘elders’ who have had a profound influence on my life and I would like to name several of them, with deep gratitude. These few comments about these few people are just a snippet of what they mean to me, and they are of course not the only people I could mention.
Rev Mervyn Himbury, first Principal of Whitley College, will forever be a guiding force in my life. He cared about his students, including me, in ways other people did not know about and did not give him credit for. When I graduated with my first degree in theology, having achieved high honours, and was about to commence my first full time pastorate, he wrote this to me in a card—quoting words from Jesus: ‘Of those to whom much is given, much will be required’ (Luke 12. 48). That could be taken as a harsh statement, if you did not know the love that was expressed in it. He really cared about what I would do with my life and my gifts. He challenged me to make the most of all I had been given. When he conducted our wedding, he said to us: ‘Don’t go and get lost somewhere in the suburbs.’ He challenged us to think on a world scale about where we were needed and what we could contribute. I knew him well, and knew that he was both a big thinker and a man who knew self-doubts. He was a visionary and remains an inspiration and challenge to me. I count it an awesome privilege and responsibility to follow in the role of Principal and, some years back now, to have conducted his funeral in the College chapel.
Another of my early teachers in theology was Professor Jock Watson. He too challenged me at crucial moments in my life. When I was a young lad wondering whether or not to pursue a pathway into theological training, he said to me: ‘But Frank, there really is only one question: Is God calling you to the ministry?’ Jock, as we all called him, suggested that sometimes the question can get too complicated. Here was a Yes/No question which I just had to go away and eventually find an answer to. That has helped me, in so many ways, over and over, through many years. Another time, in what was in fact to be my final conversation with him, he too said to me:’You know, Frank, you have potential to go on and do higher studies and you must do it.’ Because he had been such a kind, pastoral and encouraging friend, through some of the most difficult days of my life, I took notice of him. I respected him and from that day I began planning my pathway to a doctorate.
Much later in my life I knew Professor Phillip Hughes, a wonderful leader in many areas of education around Australia and the world. He was a Deacon in the Baptist church in Hobart when I was pastor there and remained a good friend long after. There were many things I learned from Phil’s urbane approach to life and people. Phil passionately believed in education for everyone, and worked well into his ‘retirement’ to provide for better eschool systems for girls and boys all round the world. What I think I value most is something he said by way of commendation, when I was seeking a teaching position at Whitley. He wrote that I am at my best when I am showing people how the insights of Christian scholarship connect with their everyday lives as disciples of Jesus. Wow! That truly is what I hope to do—as Geoffrey Blackburn did, to combine my scholarship with a pastoral heart.
These few comments reflect something of what I respect in these, some of my elders. One final thing I want to say is this: these wonderful men—there have also been some very significant women elders in my life, but that is for another time—demonstrate the significance of character. None of them had an easy life or cushy upbringing. They had to work for what they achieved. Life dealt them some very bitter blows. But they remained true to themselves, their faith and their callings. They were men of character. I respect that, too, very deeply.
(This post was first written in July 2014)