26 December 2009 (118)

Remembering Ron Ham

This past week at Collins Street, we said a final farewell to our dear friend Ron Ham. The funeral service was a celebration of his life and ministry. There are many people who have requested the reflection on his life that my colleague Carolyn Francis and I offered. It is here for those interested.


Ronald Norman Ham was born the 20th April 1929 in the Melbourne suburb of Balwyn and spent his early years in neighbouring Surrey Hills. He was the second of five children born to his parents Norman and Lila. Ron’s sister Hazel is with us today while his older brother Jack and younger sister Margaret are now gone. Another brother, Keith, died just after his third birthday.

Ron was born in the first year of the Great Depression. Though his father was employed at minimum wage, there were years when he was forced to take a week’s leave without pay each month. Money was desperately tight, as this is the way it would be in Ham household for many years. To assist, Ron and Jack would routinely load up their billy carts with newspapers and take them to the local butcher’s shop to trade for a single shilling.

The children attended the Chatham State School and on Sundays were regular Sunday School attenders at the Balwyn Baptist Church. Ron’s parents had married in the church, though they were not regular attenders themselves. His father was a committed member of the Independent Order of Rechabites, a friendly society that provided his parents a strong sense of community through to their later years. His father was promoted to become the State High Chief Ruler of the Rechabite Lodge.

In 1941 Ron began his secondary education at Box Hill Boy’s High School, but at fifteen his schooling came to an abrupt end when his parents could simply no longer afford to support any further education. At the end of year 9, Ron took up a position as an office boy for the Royal Insurance Company here on Collins Street. His successful completion of the Public Service Examination allowed him to move to permanent employment as a telegram boy. Within weeks he was promoted to office assistant for the Postmaster General, Senator Donald Cameron who was in the cabinet of the Chifley Labour Government. It was during these years that he learned a great deal about politics and was swept up in the euphoria of the war’s end.

During these years Ron continued to attend the Balwyn Baptist Church and was an active member of its youth fellowship. It was here he began to sense God’s calling upon his life. He was deeply impacted by the preaching of ministers Gordon Carr and EC Watson who, he often said, though fundamentalist in their theology, opened up to Bible to him in life changing ways. He also read avidly, biographies of great missionaries like Hudson Taylor and William Carey. Their stories inspired a deep commitment to the mission of the Church. When he shared this growing commitment with his parents, his mother was unimpressed, horrified that he would give up a secure position in the public service for some sort of religious calling. His father, on the other hand, confided in him privately that he had his full support. He resigned from the public service. His first task was to complete his matriculation. He did this at night school while working by day as a clerk with a local transport company.

Ron’s application to join the Australian Baptist Missionary Society was stalled due to his family history of tuberculosis. He was redirected into ordination for the Baptist ministry. With his application for theological studies lodged, the 21-year-old Ron was required to serve as pastor of a small country church, in his case the Black Hill Baptist Church in Ballarat. The presumption was, Ron said, that if both he and the church survived, he might just have what it takes to become a Baptist minister. It turned out, as we all know, that he did. A year later he was admitted to the Baptist Theological College of Victoria in Errol Street, North Melbourne.

It was 1953 and Ron was one of just three students in his year. His friend David Griffiths was one of them. Alex Kenworthy and Peter Stockman were just ahead of him. This foursome became a sustaining support in all the years of Ron’s ministry. Until Alex’s death in 1994, these friends had lunch together every month. The remaining three have continued the tradition ever since. He would later write of these times, ‘There is a wonderful liberty in our meetings because we trust each other and keep each other sharp on matters theological and ecclesiastical, as well as on current affairs.’ It was during his studies that Ron served student pastorates at the Aberfeldie, Oak Park and Abbottsford churches.

In 1955 Ron finished completed his Licentiate in Theology and immediately began a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne. It was in his first year of this degree that he met an American Fullbright Scholar in residence at Janet Clark Hall. She was a Baptist from Missouri and inspired him with stories of the Baptist Student Union there. Upon her return to the US she arranged for a scholarship for an Australian student to spend a year with the BSU in Warrensburg, Missouri. Ron applied. Meanwhile, in 1957, he was ordained to the Baptist ministry here at Collins Street, and moved immediately to take his first formal pastoral appointment to the Kyabram Baptist Church. It was while he was at Kyabram that he was awarded the Clifford Scholarship. After one year at Kyabram he set sail for the US.

A year later, back in Australia, Ron took up his second pastorate at Aberfeldie. It was 1959. Many good things happened at Aberfeldie. Most importantly, it was here he met Janice Pumpa, a girl from Portland who was in Melbourne to study education. He fell in love. It was a tortuous process for Ron, struggling to understand the will of God for his life. Jan was good humoured enough to let him struggle. It was in 1962 that Ron finally found the courage to propose. The complicating factor was Ron has already committed to returning to the United States to continue his studies. What’s more, in order to fulfill her obligations to the education department, Jan had a year of teaching to do in rural Edenhope. Though technically, they married the day Ron set sail for the US, it was year later their married life began when Jan joined her husband in Los Angeles.

Transferring his academic credits from Melbourne, Ron completed his BA with a further two years of study at William Jewell College at the edge of Kansas City. From there Ron and Jan moved to New York where Ron continued with his Masters degree at the prestigious Union Theological Seminary. Their time in New York was deeply formative. The Vietnam War was in full swing, Americans were still reeling from the assassination of Kennedy and the fight against in apartheid in South Africa was building internationally. Before this time Ron had already developed a deep and considered theology of pastoral leadership. His commitments to preaching, thoughtful liturgy and prayer, and the pastoral care of God’s people were commitments that would all colour his work. But it was in New York that he began to have a stronger sense of the political implications of the Gospel. Profoundly challenged by the role he saw Christian leaders play in the civil rights movement, and the campaign to end apartheid, Ron began to broaden his understanding of the vocation of pastoral leadership. The seeds sown during this extraordinary period in his life, and the world, would alter the future contributions he would make.

By the time he returned to Melbourne to take up the pastorate of the Ashburton church in 1966, he had a much stronger sense of the prophetic role of the minister. Ron and Jan were at Ashburton for six and a half years. And they were good years: some of the best he would later say. It was here that Lisa was born in January of 1967 and Anthony in 1970. ‘Jan still reminds me,’ he would later write in regard to Lisa’s birth, ‘that on the evening on which she had her labour pains, as we were about to leave for the hospital at 10pm, I put on a tie before driving off!’ It was during these years that Ron served as Secretary of the Baptist Minister’s Fraternal and was a member of the Executives of the Baptist Union of Victoria and of the Baptist Missionary Society. He taught both New Testament Greek and New Testament Backgrounds at the Theological College. The present Principal Frank Rees recalls these classes warmly as among his first. Ron was also an active leader in the Ecumenical Council of the churches.

In 1973 Ron accepted a call to Central Baptist Church in Sydney. It was a difficult decision, and one he sometimes reflected upon with uncertainty. What would his family life have been like, he wondered, had he chosen to stay on at Ashburton? Regardless, he was there until 1976 when he accepted an appointment to the faculty of the Theological College of NSW as Lecturer in Systematic Theology. The current Principal of what we know today as Morling College, Ross Clifford, did his first classes in theology with Ron and recalls a gracious man of God. Of course, these were tumultuous days in theological education, especially among the Baptists. Arguments raged over orthodoxy and the inerrancy of Scripture. Jan recalls attending a state Baptist assembly at which the most atrocious accusations were made against the teaching faculty, her husband included. It was the last assembly she would ever attend.

In 1981, Ron accepted a call to return to Melbourne as the first Australian born minister of the Collins Street Baptist Church, the oldest continuing Baptist Church in the nation. He was here for 13 years. They were challenging days, but under his sensitive and courageous leadership, represented a very significant shift in the life of the church. It was Ron’s vision for the city and concerns for its most marginalized citizens that saw the beginnings of the Urban Mission Unit, later to become what we know as Urban Seed. It was not only his vision that impacted this church, but his deep pastoral concern. In the words of Peter Hearne, a long-time member of Collins Street, if previous pastors had been remote, Ron was imminent. No one who came into his presence left feeling anything but valued. It was also during this time that Ron served as President of the Whitley College Council, the college where his own theological formation had begun all those years before. He offered supervision to candidates for ordination and provided lecturers on preaching, literature and theology. In 1995, at 66 years of age and facing the first signs of the cancer that would eventually lead to his death some twenty years later, Ron retired.

Of course, full retirement was not really Ron’s style, despite his health issues. He took up subsequent ministries with the Footscray and Ashburton churches, providing care and wisdom to these congregations and their leadership through challenging periods of their own. It was in 2010 that Ron finally did retire, returning to worship here at Collins Street for the last five years of his life. It will not surprise you to hear that Ron was quick and generous with his encouragement and affirmation of those of us leading and preaching in this church. After each sermon I preached Ron would, without exception, present himself to me to offer his thanks and insights. This was no simple “well done.” His words of gratitude always gave way quickly to the discussion he really wanted to have. Ron wanted to discuss the scriptures, which he loved, and the craft and vocation of preaching, which he believed in and revered more than anyone else I have known. Ron believed preaching could, and should, change people’s hearts and minds. Indeed, Ron believed preaching could, and should, transform the world. He believed that the gospel was genuinely good news, and that the scriptures ought to be proclaimed with passion and intelligence and insight. He did this for many years as a preacher himself, and he was delighted when others did it also.

It is an extraordinary life that Ron has lived, but throughout it all he has consistently pointed us not to himself but to the God and the faith that so shaped him. As he said to me one day, sitting in his living room, ‘It’s not all about us, is it Simon?’ What is this God like to whom Ron so unfailingly deferred? The God Ron pointed us toward is a God of presence, with us deeply and profoundly in Jesus Christ. Ron’s ability to be with us in our deepest pain and dark nights was a reflection of the God he believed in. This God is a God of embrace and inclusion. We were never judged in Ron’s presence, yet prodded gently to be better people. His passionate belief in the wideness of God’s mercy and the radical inclusion of God’s grace got him into trouble with some who labeled him a liberal. But this commitment to inclusion and justice for all arose out of his own encounter with truth and his belief in the endless love of God. Just days before he died, Ron had requested that I bring communion. He could barely lift his head and had trouble swallowing, but this was important to him so we persisted. His voice had been reduced to a whisper. After sharing with him the elements of bread and wine I read to him Psalm 16, the psalm he had read to me just two weeks before. As I came to the final verse, he whispered along with me: ‘You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.’ Indeed, may Ron now experience that joy in all its beauty, for we have known it in him. Amen.



‘Where shall I look for Enlightenment?’ the disciple asked.
‘Here,’ the elder said.
‘When will it happen?’ the disciple asked.
‘It is happening right now,’ the elder answered.
‘Then why don’t I experience it?’ the disciple persisted.
‘Because you do not look,’ the elder said.
‘But what should I look for?’ the disciple continued.
‘Nothing. Just look,’ the elder said.
‘But at what?’ the disciple asked again.
‘At anything your eyes alight upon,’ the elder answered.
‘But must I look in a special kind of way?’ the disciple went on.
‘No. The ordinary way will do,’ the elder said.
‘But don’t I always look the ordinary way?’ the disciple said.
‘No, you don’t,’ the elder said.
‘But why ever not?’ the disciple asked.
‘Because to look you must be here. You’re mostly somewhere else,’ the elder said.

61AXC0291ZL._SX359_BO1,204,203,200_Joan Chittister, There is a Season, Orbis Books, 1995.

Image: 5 o’clock rush by Dave Carswell, Melbourne Street Photography



Last week I sat with a friend whose sadness was deep, overwhelming. It was grief so tangible, impossible to avoid. And yet I came away with hope. Why? There was something in my friend’s capacity to bear such grief, honestly yet resolutely, that was itself a light. It reminded me of these words from the poet Mary Oliver.


That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer
and I did not die.
Surely God
had His hand in this,

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it —
books, bricks, grief —
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled —
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply?

UnknownMary Oliver, Thirst, Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, 53-54.


A call to grace

Grace: it’s never far away.
Hold out your hands now.
Open your heart
and receive its gift.
For the undeserving and the spent,
for the wounded and the weary,
the discarded and the grieving —
grace is here.
Grace is ours.

Grace is not over there and out of reach.
There is no striving
that will claw it closer than it is.
Grace is not later or yesterday;
it’s not ‘if’ and ‘when’.
Grace is now.
Grace is ours.

Grace is not reward for the righteous.
It’s no gold star for the best and brightest.
Grace is gift freely given.
It’s lavish and deep,
today and always.
Grace is yours.
Grace is ours.

So come now.
Lay aside your reservations
and your tiredness.
Turn away from voices
that condemn and ostracise.
Let it go, all of it,
and know again this boundless gift of God.
Feel again the balm of God’s forgiving love.
Hear again God’s persistent call upon your life.

Come now,
for grace is here.
Grace is now.


‘Restorative Christ’ by Geoff Broughton

There’s an awkward divide in the Church between the thinkers and the doers. Thinkers theorise while doers act. Trouble is, too many doers act with scant regard for thinking of any depth. In ministry, the art of genuine theological reflection is an endangered one and, frankly, it shows. The thinkers, on the other hand, can be so removed from sustained practice and talk so cryptically among themselves they have little clue as to what life is like at the coal face. They can even speak condescendingly of those who try. Consequently, their theories may be beautifully typeset but their words flat.

In light of this, a book like Geoff Broughton’s Restorative Christ: Jesus, Justice and Discipleship is a breath of fresh air. Geoff is a thinker of depth, but he’s also a doer with an extraordinary track record in boots-an’-all ministry, and often in challenging places. He currently balances two roles: Lecturer in Practical Theology at St Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra and Rector of St George’s Anglican Church in Paddington (Sydney). To use old fashioned terminology, he’s a scholar-pastor — a rare breed. It’s this that makes his book a challenging read.

Restorative Christ articulate’s Geoff’s conviction that the story of Jesus has a decisive bearing on the church’s vision for justice. Ours is the work of reconciliation embodied in the restorative Christ: the one full of compassion, practicing non-violence, living for others, and embracing the enemy. But this Christ-centred vision goes so much further than the romantic lyrics of the latest worship song. It’s evidenced in the hands-on work of ministry essential to the church’s identity and mission. Its application is to be lived on the streets, in broken homes and families, and in the fraught world of Australia’s relationship with its Indigenous peoples. For those of us who claim to follow Jesus, it’s an incredibly demanding task.

To unpack this ministry, Geoff draws on some of the significant thinkers in restorative justice — Christopher Marshall, John Howard Yoder, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Miroslav Volf. What’s more, he engages with specific texts in Luke / Acts and with a keen exegetical eye. Be clear though: this is not theology and bible dumbed down. It’s a demanding read complete with copious treatments of the Greek in the New Testament. However, the writer brings both bible and theology home by engaging them in conversation with the practicalities of ministry on the inner city streets of Kings Cross and Glebe, the writer’s prior neighbourhoods. Geoff’s stories are disarmingly honest, self implicating and often moving. It’s clear these stories are not just interesting illustrations but essential to the author’s work of theology. They certainly push the reader to keep reading. Clearly, this work of reconciliation is more than a theory of sound theology.

Geoff Broughton is a friend, but I am glad to say I could endorse his work even if he wasn’t. I would go so far as to say this is an important book, for doers and thinkers both. Indeed, it’s an example of why doing and thinking are so very much enriched when they are held together. If only there were more like it.

PICKWICK_TemplateGeoff Broughton, Restorative Christ: Jesus, Justice and Discipleship, Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2014.



The cold wind cuts like a scythe
through the folds.
Alone at the tram stop I brace.
My coat pulled tight around my chest
I turn my head to the side
as though the blade slices in just one direction.
It doesn’t.

My ribs are cold,
my feet are cold.
My nose is wet and my ears numb.
It’s not the cold of ice and snow.
It’s damp and drippy cold,
the cold without reward:
no white Christmas,
no toboggans and twinkly lights.
It’s the cold of a Melbourne July.
June was long and
August snickers around the corner.
Damn, it’s cold.

But it’s warm too —
a warm that only winter tells.
It’s the warm of home once I arrive;
discarded coat and scarf and shoes.
It’s the enveloping warm as the door shuts behind.
Home is embraces, throws and quilts.
It’s fires burning and big pots of soup that simmer.
It’s stews that stew with the saucepan lid slightly ajar.
It’s red bean chilis with cornbread,
and warm winter puddings
with custard and cream.
And cheese.
And bread.
And earthy red wines.

The cold is still there,
just beyond the doorframe.
It laps at the porch steps
like an encroaching tide.
But now I eye its menace
through the window and smile.
Cocooned inside,
I am reassured.
I have no cause to venture out again.
Not tonight, because it’s cold.

[image from Melbourne Street Photography]


A prayer for today

God … are you there?
I’ve been taught,
and told I ought
to pray.
But the doubt won’t go away;
yet neither
will my longing to be heard.
My soul sighs
too deep for words.
Do you hear me?
God … are you there?

Are you where love is?
I don’t love well,
or often,
or anyone.
But, when I do,
when I take the risk,
there’s a sudden awareness
of all I’ve missed;
and it’s good,
it’s singing good.
For a moment
life seems as it should.
But, I forget, so busy soon,
that it was,
or what
or whom.

Help me!
God … are you there?

51h4cyW5xxL._SX491_BO1,204,203,200_Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace, Augsburg Books, 1981.


City church

Not long ago, I agreed to meet a church leader with a vision. Her passion was a new church plant here in the city centre. As an established pastor in the neighbourhood, and with a community that’s been around since 1843, I was clearly a person of interest.

I have to confess, I’ve come to approach conversations like this with a dose of skepticism. Though a naturally trusting soul, I’ve learned caution these past few years. The fact is, calls from large church franchises are reasonably common — those who want to use our sanctuary as their newest place to meet. It’s understandable: venues in the city centre are rare and the challenge for newcomers daunting. What troubles me, though, is that these enterprising leaders never want to talk.

Whether on the phone or in person, the standard approach of prospective ‘tenants’ is to sell me on their ‘kingdom vision’ and the numerical growth of their movement. But so rarely do they want to know about us: who we are, what we do or what we’ve learned. It’s as though they have the formula for church success, and all that’s required is an empty space to make it happen. The underlying message is barely veiled — If only you old, irrelevant city churches with property would get out of the way and let us at it, we’ll show you how it’s done.

Honestly, it feels like terra nullius all over again. There is scant regard for what’s already here and for the rich story of faith and struggle that fills this place. Even worse, it’s as though our neighbourhood is nothing more than a cool new venue for the latest brand of hipster church. Cue pictures of graffitied laneways, apartment towers and sidewalk cafes. The slick invitation is to come into the city and do church like you do a shopping mall or a Saturday night bar. Then afterwards you can head back to your suburbs, until next time.

Frankly, the city doesn’t need any more big-box franchises that drag people in for worship and fair-trade coffee only to see them leave again. If there’s no real investment in this city as a flesh-and-blood neighbourhood, then what’s the point? The challenges of the CBD are complex and layered. Inner-city clichés abound, but the reality is so much more demanding.

No doubt, old city churches like mine come with baggage galore. Believe me, we know that. Our history and property are tremendous gifts. And at the same time they are weights that hang around our necks. But take time to look beyond our organs and stained glass windows, and you’ll see faith communities with a longstanding commitment to this city and its people. And with some rungs on the board too. If you judge us only by what you see in a Sunday service, you’ll likely miss the bulk of what we do and who we are and how we struggle. But press in and you could be surprised.

This plea is not about protecting territory. I am delighted when new churches flourish in our patch. I really am. Our neighbourhood is growing and changing like you wouldn’t believe and the possibilities for new initiatives are extraordinary. As it happens, the pastor I met with this time around was really interested in us and in what’s already happening in the city centre. Her vision is for a model of church that is genuinely organic in form and focus. I left the conversation deeply encouraged, affirmed in my own ministry, and ready to cheer this pastor on as a potential colleague in the gospel. My concern here is only that we all do a better job — those who are here already and those who want to join us — at real engagement with the neighbourhood God has called us to.

Anything less is ecclesial froth without substance.


Not at home

Why aren’t you at home?
Why aren’t you there when I come by?
You don’t answer when I call
or play your scrabble move once I’ve played mine.
You’re not there to smile when I walk in the door
— as though just by being me I made your day.
‘Simon Carey’, you would always say.
But not now.
Now the chair is empty
and you’re not there.

I shouldn’t need you.
‘Need’ is a gratuitous word.
I’ve had my share.
I have enough —
a home of my own and a family too.
With hair that’s thin and joints that ache,
I’m long past needs
under warranty.
Your job is done.
My cup is full.
But I still look for you.

I want you to call, you see.
I need you to answer.
I need to drop in and have you hold my hand,
to ask about my beloved ones
and take me on the family tour.
And those questions I always tried to avoid —
I want you to ask them again
so I can deftly weave around them
as I always did.
But you can’t,
so neither can I.

You’re not at home anymore.


Preaching from the heart

Most Sundays I stand in a pulpit. It’s an imposing old thing, central to the internal architecture of its 19th century home. Though I can’t say I relish the sermon, I understand it as a valued part of my tradition. In fact, for Baptists like me preaching is central to the worship event. Really, I have no choice but to give it my best.

That said, doing so is fraught. There are at least two dangers for the regular preacher – dangers that sit at either end of a spectrum. At one end, there’s the preacher who chooses ‘professional distance’ from the subjects she speaks on, ensuring nothing of herself is ever a part of what she says. From this perspective, the preacher’s task is to get out of the way and let the Word speak for itself. At the other end, there’s the preacher who makes his own experience central to every sermon he preaches. At worst, his sermon becomes a weekly act of self-indulgence: ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ I have long understood these two dangers as equally hazardous.

Frankly, I’m in danger of the second more than the first. Professional distance has never been my thing. At my best, I like to imagine it as a choice for vulnerability. I have always believed that if the preacher is not prepared to be fully present in her preaching, then she has no right to stand in a pulpit. Where there is no honesty, the possibility of truth that transforms is minimal. What’s more, my experience tells me that when a preacher leaves his own experience out of the sermon, it is almost guaranteed that his listeners will do the same. Still, the hazards are real.

First, we have to be honest enough to say that while personal engagement and self-indulgence are two different things, they lie perilously close to each other. Tread carefully! Second, it’s a rare preacher whose own life and experience is so interesting as to be an riviting source of weekly inspiration. A broader canvas please! Third, the practice of constantly giving oneself away in the sermon can take an emotional toll on the most resourceful preacher. Go gently!

One of the most important things I have learned in preaching is that bringing oneself to the task, fully and honestly, does not equate with every sermon being confessional. Sometimes it is more about the vulnerability of one’s spirit than it is about what one reveals in detail. In recent weeks I have lost my mother. She died just short of her 82nd birthday. The sadness I have felt since her death has been like a grey cloud hovering overhead, or a heavy rock in the heart that simply wont budge. The feelings of loss and disorientation are constant and disarming. Honestly, I would rather do anything than stand in a pulpit. What’s more, to name those feelings in the context of preaching is more than I can do.

This morning I sat alone in a café contemplating the day of sermon writing that lay ahead. In between the feelings of ‘overwhelmed’, it was as though God said, gently and graciously, ‘Be present to the task, Simon. That’s all of you that I require today.’